Shall I walk,or shall I ride?
“Ride,” Pleasure said.
“Walk,” Joy replied.
I’ve been backpacking for most of my life. I started with my family when I was 8, and I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to do things.
The purpose of this document is to be a collection of everything I think it is useful to know when you are backpacking. You do not need to know all of this. However, the suggestions in here will allow you to be safer, more comfortable, and hopefully to have more fun. If this is your first time backpacking and all this information is intimidating, stick to the one-line summaries, the gear list, and the things in bold. Most mistakes are more likely to build a little character than to put you in real danger. You’ll be fine. 🙂
I’ve tried in this guide to provide low cost options throughout. Backpacking doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be an expensive hobby. Once you have the essential gear, backpacking is the cheapest way of vacationing that I’m aware of.
Over the years I’ve found that backpacking is one of the most enjoyable things that I do. I count several of my backpacking trips among the best experiences of my life. When you go backpacking you’ll get a lot of exercise, see some amazing things, share a lot of great experiences, and make a lot of memories. I hope this document will help people to learn to love it as much as I do.
What to Wear
One line summary: Don’t wear cotton if you can help it. Get good boots that fit well and break them in. Wear wool socks and polypropylene liners. For warmth, dress in layers. Bring a knit or fleece hat and something that will keep you dry.
When allocating your backpacking budget, boots should be your first priority. A good pair of boots is expensive, but there are a few reasons that I advise spending money on them. First off, a good pair of boots is usable in many situations other than backpacking. If you decide at some point that backpacking isn’t for you, you can still use them for tramping through snow to work or school, yard work, wood working, construction, camping, hiking, or any time your feet need protecting. A good pair of boots allows you to do a wide range of things safely, and it’s good to have one around. Secondly, if you take care of them and don’t lose them, a good pair of boots will last you 10+ years. The pair of boots I bought when I was 13 lasted me through my first year of college (when I lost them.) Thirdly, no matter where or under what conditions you are hiking, the quality of your boots will have a big impact on how much you enjoy yourself. If your boots don’t work well for you, you’re likely to be wincing along with blistered heels, soggy feet, and in danger of spraining your ankles. If your feet are still growing I’d recommend borrowing a pair, or buying them off someone who has grown out of them. There are other things where it is worth it to spend money, but boots are the least borrowable.
Everyone has their own personal taste in boots, but I’ll tell you the essential baseline of things to look for and then my own preferences. The most important quality of a backpacking boot is that it fit well. When walking downhill your feet shouldn’t slide forward much. If they do, the tips of your toes are going to be hurting from banging into the front of your boots. When walking uphill, your heels shouldn’t slide up much. If they do, you are likely to end up with blistered heels from the rubbing back and forth. Secondly, the boots should cover your ankles with stiff material. You should still be able to make circles with your foot, but it should be nearly impossible for you to roll your ankles. Some people prefer a lower top boot, but unless you are also investing in trekking poles I don’t think this is safe. Thirdly, the boot should have a thick sole that will keep you from feeling bumps underneath it and will grip rocks. Some of these recommendations are controversial, particularly among a movement known as ultralight backpacking. Briefly, the central idea of the movement is that if you are rigorous about minimizing pack weight, you can get by with much lighter shoes, even tennis shoes or sandals. I’ve chosen not to cover that in this document because I think it is very difficult for a beginner to do inexpensively and safely. It is also not my preferred way of backpacking because you end up sacrificing a lot of comfort and convenience in order to reduce the weight of your pack. However, some people find that it makes their experience a lot more enjoyable, and it is worth learning about once you have been on a few trips. Eric’s Ultralight Backpacking Page is a good resource on the subject.
These days when I look for boots, the primary thing I look for is a boot with very few seams. This is for two reasons, waterproofing and durability. Treated leather repels water well on its own, but more seams make more opportunities for water to get in, and make it more difficult to waterproof the boot. You’ll inevitably slip into a stream at some point, and a well waxed boot with a high top will minimize the amount of water sloshing around your feet for the rest of the day. The two things that wear out first on a boot are the seams and the soles. Boots can be resoled, and seams can be glued, but the boot will last longer if there are fewer seams to begin with. Leather can take a lot more abuse than whatever they sew it up with. There are a lot of boots out there that are made porous fabrics, and advertise all sorts of features. These are expensive, and frankly I don’t think they last. Your boots are going to get scraped across rocks, soaked in water, caked with dust and mud, pummeled, squished, frozen, and potentially even eaten by wild animals (no joke.) Fabric that advertises being “breathable” just isn’t going to cut it long term, and won’t buy you much comfort after its first few days on the trail. So, get the sturdiest stuff available. Gore-tex can help on the inside, but make sure the outside is leather. I wear a pair of Lowa Banffs that I bought a few years ago after losing my previous pair. My mom wears a pair of Gore-tex lined Vasque Skywalker leather boots that are over ten years old (similar to these .)
If you can’t afford expensive boots, don’t sweat it. If your boots fit well you’ll be fine.
When you buy a new pair of boots, don’t immediately take them out on the trail. The boots will take some time to conform to your feet even if they fit well, so break them in ahead of time. Wear them instead of your normal shoes for the week prior to the trip. If you are going on a long trip with them, take them out for a weekend trip beforehand. This helps to prevent blisters and can also catch any manufacturing flaws early. Six months before my first 10 day backpacking trip I bought a really nice pair of boots, and went on a weekend hike to prepare for the trip. After a few miles of hiking one of the grommets tore out of the leather. I got through the weekend ok, but it would have been much harder to deal with it for 9 days of hiking. (My friends got a hearty laugh out of this, because I was actually bragging about how awesome my new boots were when they broke and sent me flying flat on my face.)
To care for your boots, wipe the dirt off with a wet towel and oil them with a product such as Nikwax .
Wear a pair of wool socks over a pair of polypropylene liner socks. Don’t wear cotton. The wool and polypropylene will keep your feet dry and cushioned. The liners will absorb most of the friction of your foot moving around and help prevent blisters. You’ll need 2 pairs each of these for a weekend, 3-4 for a longer trip. If you want to spend money get SmartWools . Otherwise you can find wool socks that aren’t as comfy but also aren’t as expensive. If you hike a day in cotton socks they’ll end up as a moist, pulpy, off-white, smelly mass, and you’ll probably have blisters.
Dress for the season here, but don’t wear cotton if you can help it. The evenings always get much colder in the countryside than in the cities, and much colder than that when you are up in the mountains. As such, it’s good to have a pair of long pants with you even in the middle of summer if you are going to be at any elevation. If you want to spend money, I recommend getting a pair of quick-drying zip-off nylon pants from REI or similar. Otherwise, you can often find pants that are part polyester at cheap clothings stores such as Walmart or Value City. It is convenient that polyester is considered a “lesser” material to make things out of, because it makes durable faster-drying pants cheap to buy. Unfortunately it seems that polyester is now too cheap even for Walmart, and it’s been harder to find them. If this happens to you, try a thrift store. Polyester dress pants work better than you would expect. For shorts, a pair of mesh running shorts will do. Shorts are there mostly to provide a little bit of sun protection. Don’t bring jeans. They are heavy, bulky, and they will never dry.
Dress for the season, but remember that no matter where you are, it will probably be colder at night than you expect. Bring at least a long-sleeved shirt. Avoid cotton. It dries slowly, and is useless for warmth when it is wet. Fleece, wool, polypropylene, or any synthetic fabric work great. To find non-cotton you can buy expensive stuff at REI or Patagonia, or cheap stuff at Value City or Walmart. For colder weather, the key for warmth is to dress in layers. This allows you to regulate your temperature over the course of the day. The clothes that make you comfortable when you are standing still will be too warm when you are walking. The clothes that keep you comfortable at camp in the afternoon will be too cold once the sun goes down. When I’m backpacking in the winter, I wear a polypropylene T-shirt, a long-sleeved acrylic shirt that I bought at Value City, a fleece vest, a thin fleece coat, and a nylon windbreaker/rain jacket. I usually end up taking off the windbreaker and outer later of fleece just before I start hiking, and the vest later on.
The most economical option here is a nylon poncho. They are effective, lightweight, and very cheap. For summer backpacking, I wouldn’t use anything else. They are less useful in wind, so find one with snaps along the side. For winter backpacking you’re better off with a raincoat and rainpants. With a poncho your arms and calves will get wet, and this is more of an issue in the winter.
What to Pack
Packs are expensive. For your first few trips, borrow one from a friend, and have them help you adjust it for your body. If you are looking to buy one I can’t give much advice, because I’ve been using the same dilapidated pack for 11 years now.
When the pack has a load in it, nearly all of the weight should be on your hips and sacrum. The shoulder straps are mostly there to keep the pack vertical and close to you. If the pack doesn’t need anything moved around to accommodate you, you can fit it pretty well by just tightening the straps in the right order. Start by putting some weight in the pack and tighten down the pack around the load so that it isn’t moving around. There are three main points of adjustment, hip belt, shoulder straps, and load lifters. The load lifters are the two straps that run from the shoulders up to the top of the pack. Loosen up all of these straps so that the pack hangs limply from your shoulders. Lift your shoulders so that the hip belt is at the level of your hips, fasten it, and tighten it around your hip bones. Next, tighten the shoulder straps so that they touch your shoulders solidly around all sides. Your shoulders shouldn’t be carrying any of the weight. Finally, tighten down the load lifters until the pack presses up against your back.
For anything other than middle of summer camping at low elevation, buy or borrow a down-filled mummy bag. It should be rated for at least 30°F. Mummy bags have a hood that extends up over your head and allow you to close off the bag such that nothing but your nose and mouth is exposed. Synthetic fillers work fine but I’ve found them to deteriorate over time much more than down does. If the night time temperature will be warmer than 60°F you can bring just sheets or a blanket. The tent will keep you pretty warm on its own. When you are packing your sleeping bag, line your stuff sack with a garbage bag. Stuff in your sleeping bag and then fold over the garbage bag before you tighten down the drawstring. This is very important for keeping your sleeping bag dry.
A sleeping pad will keep you from feeling the rocks underneath your tent, and will insulate you from the cold ground. It is essential if it will be chilly at night. Your sleeping bag’s filler will be compacted under your weight so it will only protect the top of you. If you have the money to spare, therm-a-rest self inflating pads are great. If you want something cheaper but not as comfortable, ridge rests aren’t bad. You can also just try to find a piece of soft eggshell foam from a packing crate and use that.
Tents are also expensive, but very borrowable. Make sure you’ve got a rain fly and a ground cloth. Generally you want something small and lightweight. You don’t need more floor space than your bodies will take up for sleeping since you’ll keep your pack outside. If you are going somewhere rocky try to bring a tent that stands up on its own when it isn’t staked in. It will often be hard to find good places to put stakes, and you don’t want to have to rely on them if you can help it. I’ve been using the Half Dome 2 HC tent from REI for the last two years, and found it to work really well. Eventually you can get more adventurous .
There are a few things that you should have with you every time you are miles out in the woods, whether you are backpacking or not.
- Water. Be able to carry at least 3 quarts, and more in some collapsible container if you’ll be without water at night. If you are on a budget you can use empty coke bottles, but carry an extra one or two if you are out for more than a weekend because they are likely to break. Otherwise, Nalgenes are the standard because they’re nearly indestructible.
- Food. See the next section.
- Whistle. Yelling is difficult when you are injured or panicked. A whistle is small, lightweight, and can save your life. If you get lost or need help, stop, take a deep breath, and blow your whistle.
- Map. A topographical map is ideal, but you should at least be able to see all of the trails you’ll be on, water you’ll cross, distances, and roughly where the hills are. You can download topographic maps from the USGS , or order them if you’d like them printed nicely. Bring one for every 4 people.
- Compass. This will make your map a lot more useful. I’ll teach you a little of how to use it in a later section. Bring one for every 4 people
- Watch. Knowing how much daylight you have left is essential for safe planning, and in inclement weather you can’t always tell from the sun. There’s nothing worse than being stuck inside of a tent in a storm and having no idea whether you can wait it out, or whether you need to leave to make it to your next camp before dark.
- Knife. Essential in a survival situation and otherwise more useful than you would think. Bring one for every 3 people.
- Matches or Lighter. If using matches, “strike anywhere” matches are best. I’ve never found waterproof (wax-coated) matches to work at all. When I pack my matches I carry two sets of them, put them in separate ziplock bags, and then put both of those in a third ziplock bag.
- Rain Gear. A nylon poncho is cheap and works well in anything but high wind. Even in high wind it works ok if you tuck it under your backpack straps. If you need to, you can improvise a shelter from a poncho and some sticks.
- Stocking Cap. The single best thing to do to warm yourself up is to put on a hat. That’s where you lose most of your body heat.
- Bandana. Bandanas are some of the most deceptively useful things you can have on a trail. You can use them to keep the sun off your neck, keep dust out of your nose and mouth, keep sweat out of your eyes, make a sling for an injured arm, make a brace for a twisted ankle, look stylish, keep your head cool with cold lake water, give yourself a bath, wipe grit off of your hands, clean your glasses, blow your nose, make droopy origami swans, and much more.
- First Aid Kit. Your personal first aid kit should contain moleskin (for blisters), band-aids, antibiotic, pain reliever of choice, antacid, antidiarrheal, and any personal medication.
- Flashlight. A flashlight is essential for backpacking, but take them on day hikes too. Even with the best planning, you can end up hiking in the dark if you lose your way or take longer than expected. Any flashlight will do, but try to bring a lightweight one, and bring extra batteries. If you want to spend money get an LED headlamp. I use a Petzl Tikka, but there are probably spiffier ones now than when I bought mine. LED headlamps use so little power that you don’t need to bring extra batteries for a short trip.
In addition to the outdoor essentials above, you’ll need some additional items.
- Clothing. See previous section.
- Pack Cover. You’ll need something to cover your pack when it rains. You’ll leave it leaned up against a tree outside overnight, and you may end up hiking in the rain.
- Spoon or Fork. I’m not sure if they still do this, but McFlurries used to be made with a sturdy plastic spoon that they would attach as the blender head. You’d eat it with the same spoon, so that saved them from having to wipe off the blender. I’ve been using a spoon from a McFlurry for the last 6 years.
- Cup and Bowl. Anything lightweight will do, but I’ve found Orikaso stuff to be awesome. They are just flat sheets of plastic that fold into a cup and bowl. They are cheap, compact, lightweight, and so far durable. A margarine tub can work for a lightweight bowl if you are doing this on the cheap.
- Extra Zip-Lock Bags. You’ll need these for trash and other odds and ends
- Extra Garbage Bags. You can pack your sleeping back and clothes in these to keep them dry. You can keep your boots out of the muck using these as a doormat. If your rain fly starts to leak you can drape one of these over the offending area to keep most of the drips out of the inside of your tent. If your boots freeze you can line them with garbage bags to keep your feet warm.
- Tooth brush, travel tube of toothpaste, and any other personal toiletries
- Pen and paper
- Book. Don’t bother with this for a weekend trip.If you are bringing a paperback, you can save weight by tearing off the part you’ve already read and leaving it at home. I recommend bringing an Audobon Society Fieldguide for your area regardless of how long you are out.
- Water Purification. Use Polar Pure for summer, Water filter for winter. Don’t take chances with this, and be meticulous about treating your water. The consequence of not doing this is frothy, burning, green, uncontrollable, explosive diarrhea for 3 months . Bring 1 for every 4 people. When cooking you can boil the water instead of treating or filtering it, but this is inconvenient for drinking water, and fuel is heavy.
- Toilet Paper and Trowel
- Pots. Bring 1 for every 4 people.
- Stoves. Bring 1 for every 4 people. Bring more fuel than you need and a windscreen.
- Tarp with Stakes and Rope. It’s nice to have a shelter to cook under if there’s any chance of rain, but these are heavy, so don’t bother if you have fewer than four people in your group. Your rope and poncho can make something usable in that case.
- Bear Keg, or Burlap Bags and Rope. Some areas legally require this, but it’s a good idea in general. Chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, bears, marmots, et al. would all love to gorge themselves on your food, and will tear open your pack to get it. This also applies to toothpaste, bugspray, sunscreen, and anything else with a scent to it. If hanging a burlap bearbag, pack your food in ziplock bags to keep it dry.
- Camp Suds, Scrub Pad, and Strainer. If you are backpacking for more than a weekend you’ll need to thoroughly clean your dishes to avoid getting sick. There are particular ways of doing this to minimize your impact on the wilderness that you can read about in the “How to Camp” section.
- Bug Spray
- Deck of Card
How to Pack
Pack your clothes inside of a garbage bag with the top folded over. Put the heaviest items closer to the small of your back. Keep your rain gear, snacks, and whistle easily available. Use ziplocks and stuff sacks liberally. Keep all of your smellable things in a small number of places so you don’t miss any when it’s time to pack up things in the bear keg/bag.
Once all of this gear is in your pack, and you’ve filled up your water bottles, it should definitely weigh less than 1/3 of your body weight, and hopefully less than 1/4.
What to Eat
Calories calories calories! The general principle here is that you want the most calories per pound spread through a variety of food groups. Calories per unit volume is also a concern. Eat a lot of protein and carbohydrates, and make sure that something you are eating regularly has salt in it. You’ll sweat a lot of it out. Most food packaging is bulkier than it needs to be, and less waterproof than you want it to be. Before you go, divide up your food and repackage it into zip-lock bags.
- Oatmeal. Oatmeal is the perfect backpacking breakfast: warm, tasty, and minimal cleanup. You can eat it without dirtying a bowl! Take an instant oatmeal packet and tear the top 80% of the way off. Fold the strip you’ve just created diagonally down to give yourself a handle at the top, and pour your boiling water right into the bag. When it cools down a little bit you can warm your hands on the bag and you don’t have to get a dish dirty. When you are done, lick your spoon thoroughly, dip it in boiling water to sterilize it, and you are good to go.
- Granola Bars
- Dried Fruit
- Tea/Hot Chocolate/Instant Coffee
- Bagels. Dense, tasty, full of calories.
- Cheese. Cheeses are incredibly calorie dense, and last longer than you would expect without refrigeration. A one pound block of swiss has 1200 calories. Wax-coated gouda, swiss, and any hard cheese will easily last for a full week. Mozzarella (string cheese) also lasts although it can sometimes get a little tarter by the end of the week. Cheddar works great in cooler weather, but in hot weather it often gets oily and annoying to deal with after a day or two.
- Crackers. These are difficult to pack without getting crushed, but they are great with cheese or sausage and supply much needed salt. Triscuits, club crackers, or Ritzes are our standards.
- Peanut Butter. This works great on crackers or bagels. Also, I once found myself so hungry and exhausted that dipping my fingers into a tub and eating it straight was the most natural and delicious thing in the world. It got me through the day.
- Summer Sausage. This works great on crackers or bagels.
- Apples. They have a lot of water weight, but they are delicious and sturdy.
- GORP. No one is quite sure what the acronym stands for (good old raisins and peanuts? granola oats raisins and peanuts?) but it’s a backpacking staple regardless. My recipe calls for equal parts broken stick pretzels, dark chocolate M&Ms, raisins, and peanuts. The objective here is to have foods that give you energy at many different speeds all mixed together. I typically bring twice as much gorp as I think I’ll need. I usually end up eating most of it anyways, and if I’m ever lost in the woods it will keep me alive. When you are tired, a handful of gorp works wonders. When in bear country, consider leaving out the chocolate.
- Hard Candies
- Power Bars. These taste much better on the trail than they do elsewhere.
- Jerkey. This can also be torn up and added to your dinner.
It’s nice to cook group meals for dinner because it means fewer dishes to do and generally less weight to carry. My general strategy for good food on the trail is to have the bulk of the meal be lightweight and calorie dense, then have some heavier but fresher ingredient to add. All of the “one big pot” meals can be improved by adding a can of chicken, tuna, or corn. Also consider adding sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, etc. Most dishes require you to heat up a big pot of water, so this is a good opportunity to boil untreated water to sterilize it rather than filtering it. Bring it to a rolling boil for 1 minute. 
- Macaroni & Cheese
- Instant Black Beans and Rice
- Instant Soup
- Expensive Dehydrated Stuff. This is sold at places like REI, and is tasty, but isn’t the cheapest way to backpack. You can often find instant stuff at the grocery that tastes similar, especially if you throw in a can of chicken or corn.
- Cookies. Lemon cream cookies were a Troop 6 tradition.
How to Hike
Never step on anything you can step over. Never step over anything you can step around.
When crossing a stream, unfasten your hip belt. If you fall in, you don’t want your pack to drag you downstream.
If you’ve got a heavy pair of backpacking boots, you don’t need to worry about your ankles. The thick pieces of leather on either side of them will keep them from rolling, so you can mistreat them without maiming yourself. This allows you to walk in different and more efficient ways than you otherwise would, particularly when going downhill. You can effectively just let yourself fall forward and catch yourself with a bouncy step. It’s hard on your knees, but very fast, and very energy efficient. If you want to avoid joint trouble or feel off balance with 40 pounds on your back, buy a trekking pole (expensive) or find a sturdy stick in the woods (cheap) and take the downhills slower.
I’ve found that 1 mile per hour is a consistently good estimate of how long it takes to get somewhere with a group of mixed experience, including breaks and meals. If there are first-time backpackers in your group, don’t count on going faster.
When you get tired, eat and drink.
Orienting Your Map
Having a map and compass won’t do you much good unless you know how to use them. Your compass should have three parts. A rectangular base, a turnable circular plastic housing, and a magnetic needle inside the plastic housing. The rectangular base should have an arrow on it in the center of one edge that is parallel to the sides. The circular housing should be marked with degrees. I’ll give you a quick run through of how to orient your map.
First, learn the magnetic declination for your region of the country. True north differs from magnetic north, so to compensate for this you have to offset your compass by a certain number of degrees. To do this, take the circular plastic housing and rotate it so that the arrow on the rectangular base lines up with your magnetic declination. I’m in the bay area in California at the moment, so when I want to compensate for the declination, I rotate the housing so that the arrow on the base lines up with 344° (360° – 16°). When I’m in Cincinnati, Ohio I rotate it so that the arrow lines up with the 3° mark.
On the circular plastic housing you should see a hollow arrow that often looks like a house. Now that the declination is set, hold your compass level, and rotate it in your hand until the red part of the needle floats inside of that house. The arrow on the rectangular base is now pointing north. Use this to orient your map. Figure out which direction on the map is north, (usually up) and line that up with the arrow on the base of your compass keeping the needle inside of the house. Look at the features on the map and line them up with the features you can see around you to figure out where you are and where you need to go.
How to Camp
Set up your tent at least 15 feet from the campfire, and 100 feet from water and the trail. Find a level spot and look at the dirt to make sure it isn’t a place where water pools or flows through when it rains. Areas of open ground surrounded by deposits of buoyant leaves and bark are a tell-tale sign. (I’ve woken up in a pool of water before, and it isn’t fun.)
Make absolutely sure that your ground-cloth is covered by your tent and no part of it is sticking out from under it.This is a very common mistake. If rain hits your ground-cloth it will pool under your tent.
Staying warm at night is a fine art with some counter-intuitive properties, even with a good sleeping bag. The key thing to understand is this: the best insulator is dry, immobilized air. Your sleeping bag will only insulate you in the places where it is fluffy because the stationary air inside of the filler is what is doing the work. To use it most effectively, try to lie as straight and pencil-thin as you can and let it fluff up around you. If part of you is pressing up against the side of the bag, it will compact the filler in that spot leaving just the two thin layers of nylon, and the heat will leak out. It may feel warmest at first to curl up in a ball, but you’ll end up colder in the middle of the night than if you’d laid out flat and suffered through the cold for the first few minutes. The increased fluffiness of your bag will make up for your increased surface area. Equally counter-intuitive is the effect of wearing clothes to bed. You’ll feel like bundling up in your thickest coat, but if you have a good sleeping bag you’ll find that you are warmest wearing a hat, socks, and as little else as is appropriate. The cause of this is dampness. You’ll sweat throughout the night, and your sleeping bag breathes better than your clothes, letting it evaporate. Trust your sleeping-bag and you’ll wake up dry, warm, and comfortable instead of damp, cold, and sticky.
Building a Fire
Find wood of all different sizes, from stuff the size of matchsticks to stuff the size of your arms. Generally the driest wood will be up off of the ground. If it is down amongst the leaves it is likely to be rotting and soggy. Look for dead branches of trees or fallen trees that have branches still sticking up in the air. Large pieces of wetter wood are ok, but it is essential that the small stuff be as dry as you can find. The big pieces can dry out on the fire once you are confident that it won’t go out. Also, you’ll need something to start your fire with. The most reliable thing I’ve found for this is dry grass. It lights immediately, and burns just long enough to get your matchstick sized pieces of wood lit.
Build fires only in existing fire rings if you can find one. A fire kills the soil underneath so that nothing can grow there. Outside of a fire ring, a fire can smoulder underground when you think you have put it out, and become a potential forest fire in dry weather. Pay attention to posted guidelines about what kind of fires are allowed during the summer. In many areas, only campstove fires are permitted.
I’m going to tell you how to build a “lean-to” style of fire here, because I’ve found those to be the most reliable. Find a dry log 2-4 inches in diameter and lay this in your fire ring. Take your dry grass and crush it into a loose ball about the size of your fist or a little smaller. Place the ball of dry grass next to the log. Now take a few of your driest and thinnest pieces of wood and lean them up against your log with the grass underneath. Make sure there is plenty of room for air to flow through, and for you to fit your match in. Have many more pieces of dry thin wood available because you will need to throw them on quickly.
Now you are ready to light your fire. Light your match and cup your other hand around it to protect it from the wind. Hold it slightly vertically for a second or two so the flame can travel up the matchstick. Don’t move the match until at least a quarter inch of the matchstick is on fire. Bring the match down to your ball of dry grass, and slide it underneath. The grass should light immediately, and you’ll need to act quickly now to take advantage of it. Throw small pieces of dry wood on the areas with the most flame, being careful not to smother the fire. Once your wood has reliably caught fire, put on progressively larger pieces. You’ll get an intuitive sense for the rate to do this pretty quickly. Pretty soon you’ll have a roaring little fire, and you can start being more careless with what you put on it.
Before you go to bed make sure that your fire is completely out. Pour water on it, and stir the wet coals. Turn off your flashlights to look for coals that are still burning.
Respecting the Area
“Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.”
When you use the bathroom, do it 100 feet from your campsite, and 100 feet from water. Dig a hole at least six inches deep to poop in and bury it when you are done. Pack out any trash or extra food, even biodegradable things like apple cores or banana peels. These things attract animals, and you don’t want them around your campsite.
If you are camping for more than a weekend, you’ll need to thoroughly clean your dishes to avoid getting sick. Start by licking them as clean as you possibly can. Next, pour water in your bowl, and swirl it around to pick up as much of the remaining food as possible, then drink the water. (This is kinda disgusting to do, so lick your dishes well. It’s only really necessary in high traffic areas, but is a good thing to know how to do regardless.) Heat up a pot of water with a few drops of Camp Suds in it and scrub your dishes with the slightly soapy water. Pour the waste water through a strainer 100 feet away from the campsite. You’ll be packing out whatever is left in the strainer inside of ziplock bags. Finally, dip your dishes in boiling water to sterilize them and remove the soap residue.
Before you leave your campsite in the morning, line up and walk from one end of the campsite to the other looking for trash or any forgotten gear.
You can happily camp without knowing any knots, but they are an essential skill for pitching a tarp, wind-proofing a tent, hanging bearbags, or setting up clotheslines.
If you are going to learn one knot, learn the taut-line hitch. This knot is good for anytime you need an adjustable loop. You can slide this knot to increase the size of the loop, but it will hold under tension. This is a great knot to tie at the end of any rope you are putting a stake through. You can put the stake in the ground wherever you can find a soft spot, and then slide this knot up the rope towards your tent to tighten it against the stake.
Photograph courtesy of David J. Fred
If you are going to learn two knots, also learn the bowline. This is used for putting a fixed loop at the end of a line. To make this knot, create a small loop in the rope. Take the free end of the rope and thread it through the hole. Wrap it around the fixed bit of rope, and put it back through the hole. To remember it think of this, “The rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back into the hole.”
If you are going to learn 3 knots, learn the clove hitch. A clove hitch is great anytime you need a fast knot to secure a rope to a post or larger rounded object. You can use this to tie the top of a bearbag shut, and to tie the other end of the rope off to a tree.
If you’re interested in the subject, and would like to learn more knots, here’s a great resource on essential knots .
How to Be Safe
One line summary: Leave notice. Stick together. Pay attention to your body. Don’t get in over your head.
Make sure friends who aren’t with you know where you are going and when they can expect you back. Leave a note on your car at the trailhead that contains emergency contact information and the date you expect to return. Get any backcountry permits you need from the local ranger station and let them know when you’ll be back and where you’ll be going.
At the very least, stay within earshot of the person before and behind you, and always stop at every intersection no matter how obvious it is which way to go. If someone gets hurt, you want to be able to come to their aid quickly, and it is surprisingly easy to get lost in your thoughts and walk off down the wrong trail without noticing it.
If you are separating from the group to go explore, try to stay in a group of four people or more. If something happens to one of you, this leaves one person to stay with the injured person and two people to go for help.
In hot dry weather, try to drink a quart of water an hour. This may seem excessive, and it probably is, but it ensures that you will never get dehydrated. If you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. If your urine is yellow and not clear, you are already dehydrated. “Yellow and stinky, take a drinky.” No, I did not come up with that, and yes, it makes me cringe too. If the air is dry you won’t notice how much you are sweating, so it’s especially important to drink a lot of water.
Stay dry and warm.
Pack your clothes and your sleeping bag inside of garbage bags. If you get wet, find shelter and change into dry clothes. Wear a hat.
Beware of the sun.
The sun is your enemy, especially if you are melanin-challenged like me. Put on sunscreen every day, and again at lunch if necessary. Wear a sun hat if you don’t want to put it on your face. When you are up high there’s less air between you and the sun. Sunburn sucks, and with dehydration can lead to heat exhaustion.
Learn basic first aid.
Or travel with someone who does. You should know how to treat hypothermia and heat exhaustion, how to treat cuts blisters and burns, how to stop bleeding, how to make a splint or a sling, and how to treat for shock.
When doing risky things, set up rules ahead of time and stick to them. When you are cold, tired, and at high elevation, you won’t make good decisions. At the top of Mount Everest you have the mental capacity of an 8 year old, but you don’t have to be nearly that high to notice the effects of low oxygen. Take some time while you are warm, safe, and well-rested to make some rules about when to turn back, when to find a campsite, or whatever it is that will keep you safe. I’ll give you two examples from my trip to Hawaii that illustrate this.
In the middle of our trip, Rolli and I decided to try to hike up to the top of Mauna Loa. We slept at sea level that morning in a hostel, and by noon we had driven up 11,000 feet to the trail head. I was already feeling the effects of the altitude when we arrived. I wasn’t very well prepared for the hike either. All I was wearing were shorts, a long-sleeved acrylic shirt, and a poncho. Within a half hour of hiking, it started to snow. We made two rules about what we were going to do, one when we started the hike, and one when we saw the first snow start to fall. First off, we agreed that no matter how far we’d gotten, we’d turn back at 2:00. This would give us enough time to get back to the car well before nightfall, even if we took longer on the return trip. When it started to snow we quickly saw that visibility would be an issue. The top of Mauna Loa is miles and miles of lava fields with few distinguishing features. The trail is marked only with big stacks of rocks called cairns . We agreed that if at any point we couldn’t see the next 3 cairns we’d head back. We didn’t end up getting to the summit, but we got to the edge of the caldera when the first rule kicked in and we turned around.
Later on in the trip, we had a 3 day hike planned to and from Waimanu valley . We’d obtained a permit to go into the valley, but the permit was canceled due to danger of flash flooding. The campsites in Waimanu valley are on a sandbar that separates a swamp from the ocean, and this is one of the rainiest places on earth. It hadn’t rained in two days when we arrived to the area however, and the park service wouldn’t make it out to the valley to test the ground water until after we’d be back on the plane to Pittsburgh. We checked the stream in nearby Waipi’o Valley, and found it fordable, so we decided to go for it. We agreed beforehand that if we saw any precipitation at all, we’d each sleep half the night while the other watched for rain or rising water, and head to higher ground if necessary. It turned out that our fears were unfounded. We passed a bunch of local people on the hike in who I’m sure never bother to get permits, and there wasn’t a drop of rain while we were there. Still, deciding ahead of time what to do kept us from having to quickly make the right decision in a dangerous situation.
Know your limits.
If there’s something that you can’t do or aren’t comfortable doing, let people know. Don’t suffer in silence, and don’t worry about holding people back. Safety is more important.
How to Enjoy It
See previous section.
This is the Boy Scout motto for a reason. Know where you are going, what the weather will be like, where you can find water, and approximately where you will be camping. Double check all of your essential gear. Break in your boots ahead of time.
You’ve got wet boots, blistered feet, a sunburned face, achy joints, cold fingers, a headache, your lungs feel like they’re 2 sizes too small, and you’re the last person up every hill. Still, keep your head up. Your fellow hikers will admire you for your attitude more than anything else.
Take it easy.
If you are hoofing it all day and getting into camp just before dark you won’t be having a lot of fun. There will be magical moments . Take the time to enjoy them. Bring a sketchpad. Keep a journal. Bask in the sun. Plan your trip so that you have time to do these things. If there are people new to backpacking in your group, don’t count on going faster than 1 mile per hour. If you are going for a week, pick your favorite campsite and plan a layover day. Leave your troubles at the trailhead and live by the sun.
Learn about the things you are seeing.
You will remember things better if you have names for them. Learn the names of the peaks and the names of the animals and plants. Bring an Audobon Society Fieldguide. The extra weight will be well worth it.
Hoot and Holler! Do a victory dance. Take pictures of your own grinning face in front of the vista you’ve just reached. Take off your sweaty shirt and swing it over your head. Go skinny dipping. Sunbathe (briefly.) Test for echoes off of cliffs. Slide down snow patches on your butt. Climb stuff. Explore. Or, if it’s more your style, sit quietly and soak in the marvel of what’s around you.