Friends sometimes ask me to share backpacking advice, so this is an attempt to put together some of what I’ve learned over several thousand miles of backpacking.
These are not rules. A big part of the fun in backpacking is the freedom to make your own choices without the pressure, spoken and unspoken, of the expectations of others. John Muir often went into the backcountry with only a blanket and a loaf of bread. If you want to be an ascetic, go for it. If you want to carry 80 lbs with you, go for it. I’ve met both types, and they both seemed to be having fun. Figuring out your own style and pushing the edges is another part of the fun of backpacking.
- Spend top dollar from a cottage shop to go light on the big items: backpack, sleeping bag, tent, puffy coat. Spend big on those 4 and it will save you money over the long run.
- Test gear before you go: rain gear, tent, drybags, inflatables*, headlamp*, stove*, lighter*
*test these before every trip
- Your feet will get wet, either from stream crossings or from sweat. Waterproof keeps the water in, not out.
- I prefer trail runners (Altra Lone Peak). My ankles are stronger and more flexible, I’m more nimble and quicker on the trail, the softer materials cause fewer blisters, and my feet dry out faster.
- You probably don’t need camp shoes or water shoes. I usually don’t take off my trail runners for water crossings. If my feet are still wet when I get to camp and the weather is cold enough for that to be uncomfortable, I’m usually in my dry sleep socks and in my sleeping bag right after dinner.
- The R-rating on your pad is at least as important as the rating of your sleeping bag. If you tend to get cold easily or plan to go in colder seasons/places, look for an R-value of 3+
- Rather than a colder-rated sleeping bag, buy a liner. It will protect your bag from dirt and sweat and add 5-10 degrees to the rating of your bag.
- Don’t wait until you’re exhausted or about to run out of daylight. That leads to bad decisions.
- Try to choose wind-protected sites, even when there’s no wind. There may be later.
- If you’re in a river valley, try to stay out of the basin—cold air and condensation pool and flow through the low point, and you’ll be warmer a little higher.
- Look where nighttime rain is likely to move and pool. You may end up sleeping in a puddle or a stream.
- Look out for dead trees. They do fall over and kill people, and it’s become a greater danger in recent years as our forests die off. I’ve been woken up by falling trees in the night twice (luckily they were both more than a hundred yards away)
- Heavy stuff near the middle or bottom of your pack, soft stuff against your back.
- Rain gear easily accessible.
- If your hips bruise, you’re probably carrying too much weight.
- 90% hips, 10% shoulders—with a straight back (no hunching)
- You probably don’t need extra shirts/pants. They will be sweaty within ten minutes anyways.
- Sunscreen offers minimal protection, needs to be replaced regularly, and you’ll still end up with a sunburn at the end of a long day. Button-down long-sleeve shirts, a good sun hat, and quick-dry pants offer better sun protection. Use sunscreen in addition to these things.
- 3 pairs of socks—2 for hiking and one for sleeping. Keep your sleep socks dry no matter what. You can safety pin one pair of hiking socks to the outside of your pack to dry while you wear the other.
- High-calorie, low weight: Fritos, Snickers bars
- Real food when you can (cheese, avocados, chips). The weight is worth it and there are no rules about what you can and can’t carry.
- Bring a couple extra ziploc bags
- In bear country, remember you don’t have to canister the food you’re eating on the first day.
- Starbucks Via + Carnation Instant breakfast = trail mocha with vitamins
- Sawyer Squeeze filter (not the mini)—best filter out there, imo
- Smartwater bottles fit the Sawyer squeeze filter, so if your dirty bag breaks, you have a backup (some people use it instead of a dirty bag)
- Chug a bunch of water when you refill so you don’t have to carry as much
- Mio for flavor (some have electrolytes, too)
- Hot climates/low water: water does more good in your body than in your bottles—don’t conserve foolishly.
If you don’t know how to use something in your first aid kit, you might as well be carrying an equivalent weight in rocks. Learn how to use it!
- Deet makes many hikers sluggish. I only realized it because someone pointed it out. Before then, I had assumed it was just altitude or a hard day’s hiking, but once I was looking for it, it was like clockwork: thirty minutes to an hour after applying Deet, I became a slug. Natrapel seems to be just as effective without that side effect.
- Mosquitoes are at their worst in the hour after sundown. When cowboy/tarp camping, you can usually take your headnet off after that. If tent camping, you might consider doing dinner before sundown (and then hike some more if you want) to avoid being dinner yourself.
- Deuce of Spades—good lightweight trowel
- Wet wipe packets can help you avoid chafing. Pack them out.
- Every time I poop on trail, I always feel so much better. Why did I wait and hold it for so long?
- Cloth bucket—My Sea to Summit bucket has been invaluable. It allows me to quickly grab water from mosquito-infested rivers and lakes and go elsewhere to filter it, and if I need to bathe or wash clothes, I keep my body oils and sunscreen out of the water (where it wreaks havoc on the ecosystem).
- Ziplocs—I usually take 2-3 extras, and almost always use at least one for something unexpected
- Safety pins (attach wet socks to the outside of your pack to let them dry)
- Pack covers are expensive and heavy. A trash compactor bag on the inside of your water-resistant pack works better.
- Backpacking is a great time to read that classic book you’ve always wanted to read. Low distraction, plenty of time to dig in.
Suggestions from friends:
Borrow gear in the beginning until you know what works for you. And go with someone experienced. There is no one way of doing things. And don’t buy cheap gear.
- Don’t buy a whistle, your backpack usually has one on the shoulder harness
- Clip toe nails and finger nails beforehand to prevent blisters
- Don’t eat an extra hearty or oily meal before to celebrate as your last “real meal”, because if your body is not used to it, it won’t do well on the first day of your hike
- If you’re going to bring a knife, bring the smallest one possible, you’ll hardly use it. The only thing you usually on a knife is the scissors for first aid, so if anything get some nice sharp scissors instead.
- Duct Tape or other strong adhesive tape: Great for repairs on the fly (broken plastic bottles or bags, charred down sleeping bags / jackets, backpack repair, fixing up rain fly) and for blisters
- If you don’t want to be sore after the first day, hike with your weight up a hill so you can wake up your muscles. Even the strongest fit people will get sore after the first day because it’s just a different set of muscles (NB: And you’re using them for much longer than usual. I often find that weight training makes long hikes harder, not easier. This is just my experience, and I have a theory as to why, but I’d be curious if anyone has definitive knowledge or similar experience)
- Test your water filter and stove before going, especially if they’re brand new or haven’t been used in awhile
- Test your offline mode map if you’re doing that by putting your phone in airplane mode and restarting your phone. Sucks to think you have a map but you realize when you’re out there it’s not there (NB: I second this. Made that mistake more than once.)
- Bring a super tiny compass for emergencies only if you’re going to be off trailing (NB: I recommend that you always have a compass unless it’s a short hike in an area that you know well and visit often.)
Know your role on a group trip.
If you’re organizing:
- be on top of all the necessary stuff: itinerary, maps/beta/gps tracks, campsites, water sources, permits, fees, regulations (bear canister, stoves, fires, dispersed camping), hours and restrictions, weather forecasts, driving logistics, and contingency plans.
- Communicate expectations and important details, and make sure participants know what to prepare for.
- If it’s important, either sort it yourself or delegate it to someone; don’t leave things to chance.
- Stick together, or split & regroup as agreed. Do not simply abandon people if/when things get hairy. Many SAR stories start that way.
If you’re going along on someone else’s trip:
- be responsible for your own personal food and gear as if you were hiking solo, unless you have made explicit agreement to share an item. Come prepared and informed, and don’t depend on others to bring what you forgot.
- Be in sufficient physical shape with the requisite skills (eg, navigating winter conditions, mountaineering, micro-routefinding ability on xc hikes) to accomplish the trip objectives without becoming an undue burden.
- Make sure that the vast majority of your questions help avert or solve headaches rather than create them: ie, do your homework first.
- Don’t usurp the organizer’s role by commandeering the itinerary or other major aspects of a trip you didn’t plan. Changes should arise from mutual enthusiastic agreement or necessity.
- Be proactive about ponying up for gas, permits, and other shared expenses.
- Try not to be a last-minute flake! (NB: As an organizer, there’s nothing more frustrating than spending all that time organizing logistics only to have people bail. It’s disrespectful, and I usually only give people one more chance before I stop inviting them.)
If you’re all comfortable being flexible and haring off into the wild with only a vague notion of direction, a canteen, and a fishing pole, then you can be as spontaneous as you like, of course. But these are some of the issues I’ve seen come up on more conventional trips.
Train for ascents and descents so you have more fun.
Leave nature as you found it, so others can enjoy it’s unbroken beauty. Take only pictures and try not to leave any footprints! Follow the principals of Leave No Trace (LNT)!
Then, when you’re certain you are in the middle of pure nature… with nobody around for days… be sure to take some time to hike naked as the day you were born!
Got something to add? Throw it in the comments!