The Backpacker’s Field Manual, A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills is still the most complete and readable handbook of backpacking instruction available today. Written by Rick Curtis, Director of Princeton University’s Famous Outdoor Recreation Program, it provides a gear-agnostic approach to the skills and techniques required for enjoyable and safe backcountry hiking.
First published in 1998, and updated and revised in 2005, the techniques and skills detailed in the Backpacker’s Field Manual have been applied, tested, and refined by the experiences of thousands of college students. This has benefited the explanation of the techniques covered in the book which are clearly described, richly illustrated, and easy to apply to your own adventures, regardless if you’re a beginner backpacker or an old dog.
But a book last updated 2005? Trust me. Everything in this book is still as relevant as ever. Backpacking techniques, trip planning, decision making, wilderness travel techniques and equipment haven’t changed that much in the past decade (or two) and this book has sections on ultralight backpacking, different stove types including alcohol stoves, GPS use, personal locator beacons, etc. The only thing that’s a bit dated would be the lack of coverage on lighterweight footwear such as trailrunners instead of hiking boots, which I consider a minor omission, because most backpackers who are not hiking triple crown trails still use boots.
With a clear emphasis on developing outdoor leadership skills, The Backpacker’s Field Manual begins with an in-depth explanation of trip planning, which is the most important skill for any backpacker to master. Trip preparation checklists, participant fitness and skills assessment, route planning and travel time estimates, campsite planning, and resupply issues are all addressed, in a manner which is appropriate for any hike ranging from a weekend ramble to a long distance trail.
Similarly in-depth chapters follow about:
- Equipment selection: Layering and thermoregulation, footwear, backpacks and packing, sleeping bags/pads, shelters, and cooking equipment.
- Cooking and nutrition: Caloric requirements, fluid intake, menu planning and sample recipes.
- Hygiene and water purification: Keeping clean on the trail, washing dishes, water purification, and cold weather tips.
- Leave no trace hiking and camping: Review of the 7 LNT principles, along with scenarios for their practical application in different climates.
- Wilderness travel skills: Maps and map reading, using a map together with a compass, off trail hiking, stream crossings, hiking on ice and snow, how to travel and camp in bear country.
- Weather and nature: Climates, wind, clouds, fronts, thunderstorms, weather prediction, trees, plants, and wildlife.
- Safety and emergency procedures: Accident management, evacuation, how to find a lost hiker, forest fires, and survival skills.
- First aid and emergency care: A complete 120 page Wilderness First Aid curriculum – including patient assessment, accident scene safety, treatment and documentation, good samaritan laws, musculoskeletal injuries, fractures, dislocations, spinal injuries, burns, soft tissues injuries, eye injuries, heat and cold injuries, etc…very comprehensive.
- Outdoor leadership: group management and decision-making.
Do you really need all of this knowledge to be a competent solo backpacker. I think so. Backpacking is as much a vocation as a hobby and it can take you years to develop the skills and experience to hike solo in demanding and remote terrain. While you can learn on the job, I’ve always been a big fan of knowing what I don’t know, so I can direct my self-education and skill acquisition efforts in a systematic way.
While relevant for all hikers, The Backpacker’s Field Manual is especially useful if you even want to lead trips, formally for an outdoor organization, or informally with friends, family, and as a solo hiker, where you are the defacto leader of yourself.
Is The Backpacker’s Field Manual a good book for a prospective thru-hiker to read? I think it really depends on the trail. Thru-hiking on well-marked and heavily travelled trails is a very specialized form of backpacking that doesn’t require as much backcountry skill and gear preparation as free-range backcountry backpacking, since you have a richer network of other hikers, trail angels, and townspeople to fall back on and educate you.
In that sense, The Backpacker’s Field Manual is perhaps more relevant for backpackers who need an introduction to backpacking and want to build their skills to the point where they can define their own backcountry routes and where self-reliance is a necessity.
While no book about backpacking or backpacking gear is enough to make you a good backpacker (that requires training and experience), The Backpacker’s Field Manual provides an excellent and comprehensive roadmap of the skills required by aspiring hikers. This book is a must-have for your hiking bookshelf and will remain an active reference for years to come.
Disclosure: The author owns a dog-eared copy of this book and purchased it using his own funds.
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