CleverHiker Preview of The 20 Most Essential Trail Skills by Dave Collins

Dave Collins of CleverHiker

Dave Collins of CleverHiker

A few months ago, I was trying to determine a focus for the next CleverHiker video series. For our second season, I wanted get away from gear and focus on teaching skills. The idea came about to make a 10-episode series on the most critical trail skills and I started to scribble down ideas.

It didn’t take long to realize that there were far too many critical skills to cram into a single series. So, instead of filming one full series, I decided to film two. I’m calling the two-part series Essential Trail Skills I & II and I’m excited to hear your thoughts. The series will be 20 HD instructional videos to teach the most important trail skills for backpackers of all levels and it’s set to launch in early 2014.

I researched extensively to choose the most useful and sought-after skills for the videos. Beginner and intermediate backpackers will probably get the most out of the videos, but I’ve seen plenty of experienced backpackers that are rusty with a map & compass, don’t know how to properly hang a bear bag, and couldn’t begin to tie some of the most basic backpacking knots.

I fully realize that “most important skills” is a subjective statement, and that’s why I’m excited to hear your input. I’m really excited to continue my mission of building entertaining and engaging videos to help promote backpacking all over the world. Thanks so much for all of your support, –  Dave Collins

Filming The Clever Hiker Video Series

Filming The Clever Hiker Video Series

CleverHiker Essential Trail Skills I & II

Below you’ll find the full episode list for Essential Trail Skills I & II with a brief synopsis of each video. How do you think I did? What did I miss? And what should I make sure not to leave out?

1. A Backpacker’s Oath – Leave No Trace

Practicing Leave No Trace ethics is just about as fundamental as trail skills get, but many backpackers still don’t really know (or choose not to follow) the rules. What should be done with soiled TP? Can bio soap be used in a lake? When and where are campfires allowed? We cover it all in this episode as we break down the seven principles of LNT backpacking at length.

2. Planning Awesome Adventures

Having a fantastic backpacking trip in the wilderness starts at home with proper planning. Once you’ve planned a few trips, it gets easier. But if you’re a novice, trip planning can be very daunting, often to the point where you might scrap the excursion before it even starts. This episode lays out all the critical planning points and makes the entire process easier.

3. Buying & Fitting The Right Pack

If your backpack is uncomfortable, you’re going to have a miserable trip. It’s just that simple. In this episode we cover how to avoid common pitfalls of choosing a new backpack and how to fit your pack properly to your body.

4. Packing A Lightweight Backpack

Learning to pack a backpack efficiently comes with experience. But you’ll probably pour out the contents of your bag more than a few times before you develop a solid packing system. This episode focuses on tips and tricks to packing an efficient backpack, so you’ll always know where everything is and you’ll never waste a minute.

5. Choosing Great Campsites

Choosing great campsites will lead to memorable trips. But it’s not as simple as throwing a tent down on a flat piece of dirt. If you choose your campsite poorly, you could damage wilderness areas, expose yourself to wind and cold temperatures, or even wake up with a few inches of standing water in your shelter. This episode addresses all things campsites. Locating them on the map, stealth sites, dry sites, water drainage, and a whole lot more.

6. Navigation 1 – Staying Found

Trail navigation seems very simple, but even experienced backpackers can get turned around in the wilderness. Learning to make smart decisions and keep from getting lost is just about the most important skill any backpacker can master. This episode will teach you how to keep from getting lost and tell you exactly what to do if you do get lost.

7. Navigation 2 – Map, Compass, & GPS
Knowing how to read a topographical map is critical for all backcountry travelers. And knowing how to use a compass in the wilderness could easily save your life. That’s why it’s shocking to see how few backpackers actually know their way around a map and compass. This episode teaches the map, compass, and GPS skills that all backpackers should master.

8. Protect Your Food – Keep Wildlife Wild

Keeping wild animals out of your food is for their protection as much as it is for you. Every backpacker knows that food protection is important, but few actually practice it properly. This episode covers several different styles of effective food storage that will keep wildlife wild and keep your food where it should be, in your belly.

9. Learn To Love Backpacking In The Rain

Being good at backpacking in the rain is a skill that takes years of practice, and most backpackers aren’t exactly looking for that type of experience. But backpacking in the rain can actually be a lot of fun. You’ll avoid the crowds, see more wildlife, and experience wilderness areas in a completely different way. This episode covers tips and tricks for having great excursions, even when the weather sucks.

10. Fire Building in Harsh Conditions

Having a campfire while backpacking can be a lot of fun, but it can also be the type of skill that can safe your life in an emergency, especially in harsh conditions. Knowing how to start a fire in harsh conditions is tough, but with the right tools and skills anyone can do it. This episode covers fire skills, from basic to demanding.

11. Wilderness Emergency First Aid

You’ll hopefully never have to use them, but wilderness first aid skills can literally safe your life. Even though first aid skills are obviously critical, many backpackers venture into the wild without even the slightest level of understanding of what to do in an emergency. This episode addresses some key wilderness first aid scenarios that every backcountry traveler should know by heart: CPR, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, cuts, burns, heavy bleeding, broken bones, sprains, and shock.

12. Lightning Danger & High Elevation Hiking

Hiking in beautiful locations can often come with unavoidable tradeoffs. For example, backpacking above tree line will give you fantastic sweeping views, but you’ll also be much more exposed. Lightning safety and high elevation hiking safety are two key skills that often go hand in hand. This episode teaches the warning signs and proper reactions to dangerous situations.

13. Bear Encounters – Truth & Myth

Bears are the animals that we want to see the most in the wild, but they’re also the animals that we’re most afraid of. Many hikers don’t really know how much danger bears pose and how to protect themselves. This episode covers all things bear, including what to do if you do see a bear in the wild and how to avoid close encounters.

14. Snakes & Cougars – Truth & Myth

Knowing how to treat a snakebite in the wilderness is a critical skill. But there’s so much misinformation out there about snake bites that most hikers just get confused and panic. Cougars are another popular source of uncertainty and panic for hikers. This episode lays out everything you need to know about snakes and cougars.

15. Fording Rivers Safely

If you spend enough time in the backcountry, sooner or later you’ll need to ford a river. And knowing how to cross safely will be incredibly important. Drowning in the backcountry is a real danger, so river crossings should not be taken lightly. This episode will teach you how to plan a proper crossing and make it to the other side safely.

16. Snow Crossing – Ice Axe Self-Arrest

Even if you’re not planning a winter backcountry trip, you may still have to deal with crossing snow fields on the trail. Knowing how to cross them safely will be the difference between having a successful adventure, turning around to head home early, or risking a treacherous fall. This episode covers general snow tips, useful gear, and demonstrates how to self-arrest with an ice axe in several different positions.

17. Essential Knots – Because Granny Won’t Cut It

Knowing how to tie the right knot for a specific job is a very useful skill, one that most backpackers gloss over quickly and easily forget. Knots don’t have to be hard to learn though. In this episode we focus on the five most important and useful knots for backcountry trips.

18. Backpacking Blades – Knife Tips for the Trail

In the wilderness, a good knife is a very important tool and knowing how to use one properly could save your life. On the other hand, not knowing how to use a knife properly can put you in serious danger. This episode covers knife safety, knife sharpening, and addresses how to choose the right blade for your hiking style.

19. Insect Protection & Poisonous Plants

Fewer things can ruin a backpacking trip quicker than nasty bug bites or an itchy allergic reaction. But with insects and poisonous plants, a little knowledge and preparation will go a long way. This episode covers insect and plant protection so that bite and itch free trips will easily be the new normal.

20. Wilderness Hygiene Tips

No matter what you do, staying clean on the trail will always be a tough task. But keeping good hygiene is an important part of staying healthy and feeling good while you backpack. It also doesn’t have to be that hard. This episode discusses all things hygiene and addresses how to minimize odors, chaffing and rashes.

Well, what do you think? Did I highlight the 20 most important skills or did I leave some out?

Get involved in the conversation through the comment form below.

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26 Responses to CleverHiker Preview of The 20 Most Essential Trail Skills by Dave Collins

  1. Yonah Ruttenberg November 12, 2013 at 2:10 am #

    Looking forward to the videos!

  2. Tom November 12, 2013 at 2:13 am #

    Excellent list!!! I think you hit all of the major points for backpacking! A couple items you might consider for upcoming lessons is being a leader to others, whether a group of youngsters or newbies and shelter, whether it’s a tent or bivie or just a tarp – the advantages and disadvantages of each. Thank you for covering these topics, I can’t wait to see them!

    • Dave Collins November 12, 2013 at 3:32 am #

      Thanks Tom! Great suggestion about being a leader and giving back to the community. That’s how I learned to backpack and that’s definitely something I’m striving to do with CleverHiker. Also, I like your shelter idea so much I already made a video series about it! :) The first series that I produced is all about lightweight gear pros and cons. It’s ten HD videos and an ebook dedicated to demystifying the many choices between lightweight shelters, backpacks, sleeping bags, stoves, clothing, and a whole lot more. Check it out at the CH site and let me know if you have any questions.


  3. Blitzo November 12, 2013 at 6:31 am #

    Water purification is a pretty key topic. And as basic as it sounds, wise food/cooking choices is an area newbies struggle with. AKA don’t bring a load of canned beans.

  4. Philip Werner November 12, 2013 at 8:32 am #

    Dave – great list.

    I think you should include a discussion of Lyme disease, it’s prevalence, and ways to prevent it in the video on insect protection. It’s a far more serious concern than mosquitoes IMHO.

    I am encouraged that you include a whole episode on LNT. Thanks.

    • Dave Collins November 12, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

      On it for sure Philip. Good suggestion. We cover ticks and lyme disease in the insects & poisonous plants video.

  5. Jen English November 12, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    I’m really looking forward to these!

  6. Yonah Ruttenberg November 12, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    I think you should disclose here that these videos are/will be for sale, not free. Nothing wrong with that, but there are so many free videos available on YouTube, it may be natural to assume that they would be freely available, since you didn’t mention it.

    • Dave Collins November 12, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

      Good point Yonah. A lot of the SectionHiker readers already know about CleverHiker so I kinda just assumed.

  7. cody bartz November 12, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    Solid list of trail skills, go for it!

  8. TinCanFury (@TinCanFury) November 12, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    I’ve “taught” a hand full of friends most of these skills in the past few years in introducing them to backpacking. Food selection and cooking is always a big topic. It’s easy to show and teach a lot of the other skills, but what to eat, how to bring it, how to cook it, making sure your nutrients and ratios are correct, etc. Always seem to confuse people the most. Going to REI and buying the backpackers food is fine, but there are so many foods you can buy at your local market that can make for cheap delicious foods on the trail. Things also change when going for a long day hike to an overnighter, and from summer to winter (hot chocolate from frozen butter? who’d have thunk, but it’s a great way to end a hike and provide calories to keep warm at night) From there, how to cook, where to cook, various stove options, etc. It’s very overwhelming for new hikers.

    Water Treatment
    The other issue of major concern, especially for overnight hikes. Various methods and issues depending on where you are hiking.

    After food, this is the one that is most difficult for many to grasp. From bug protection in the summer to keeping warm in the winter. Head nets to VBL to perspiration control and laying. How many socks to bring? How to prevent interior condensation while wearing waterproof jackets/pants in the rain. etc. etc.

    • Dave Collins November 12, 2013 at 12:57 pm #


      These are all great suggestions and we’ve already covered all of them in CleverHiker season one. I really should have made it more clear about our current 10-episode series and all that is covered. Here is the list of our current series and what we teach:

      Lightweight Foundations

      1) Lightweight Basics – An overview of how to go light and why
      2) Ultralight Shelters – Pros and cons of different shelter options
      3) Ultralight Backpacks – Breakiing down ultralight backpacks and what to expect
      4) Sleeping Systems – Pads, pillows, and sleeping bags
      5) Essentials & First Aid – What to always bring and your first aid kit
      6) Ultralight Cooking – introduction to different stove types + pros and cons of each
      7) Trail Food – Common cost-effective food choices for backpackers
      8) Footwear & Trekking Poles – lightweight footwear + trekking pole pros and cons
      9) Clothing & Raingear – clothing, layering, and raingear explinations
      10) Water purification – Basics + pros and cons of different options

      ebook – My personal recommendations on the best lightweight gear with 3-5 choices for each gear category (shelters, sleeping bags, pads, stoves, etc.). It covers pretty much everything.

      I’m selling the package for $24.95 from my website with a 110% money back guarantee. It sucks to charge money for this type of info but video production and website development are expensive.

  9. Walter Underwood November 12, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    Clothing is a big one, Skurka’s book spends a lot of time on that.

    Team dynamics and leadership are huge issues for safety in the wilderness.

    Does planning include risk assessment and management?

    Snakes & cougars? Really? I see a snake maybe once a year. I’ve never seen a cougar or a mountain lion. I felt very lucky to see a bobcat once.

    Does Essential Knots include tying your shoes so they stay tied? That is by far the most essential knot and most people choose a poor one and tie it poorly. I’ve been using the knot called a “surgeon’s shoelace knot” for decades. Not much harder than a standard bow knot and it stays put.

    • Dave Collins November 12, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

      Hey Walter,

      The planning episode (and first aid emergencies episode) does talk about risk assessment and emergency preparedness. Good point.

      The snake and cougar episode is mostly about debunking myths and talking about what to do if bitten by a snake etc. I agree that it’s not nearly as critical as some of the other stuff, but cougars and snakes are animals that a lot of backpackers worry about – even though they pose relatively little danger.

      The essential knots episode doesn’t talk about shoe tying. I’m expecting that most people have that one down by now :). But I like the suggestion and there’s always room for improvement in our routines.

      • Walter Underwood November 12, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

        People are really terrible at tying shoes. Most kids leave them tied loosely and slip them on and off. Very few people hold the laces in a way that maintains tension while the knot is being tied. “Bunny ears” do not cut it.

        The most dangerous animal in the wilderness is probably the tick. After that, maybe raccoons (rabies carriers) and deer. Despite all the bears in Yosemite, only one person has been killed by a wild animal there, and they were kicked in the chest by a deer. Do not fuck with the wildlife.

  10. John November 12, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    It looks pretty good! Perhaps the subject of learning and knowing your limits can fit in somewhere. For example not overextending yourself or members of your group with overly ambitious mileage, elevation gain etc.

    • Dave Collins November 12, 2013 at 11:02 pm #

      I fully agree John. That concept is covered in the trip planning episode, the LNT episode, and the high elevation hiking episode. In trip planning, I talk about planning your trip around the fitness and experience level of your novice group members. In the LNT episode, I talk about how planning a trip that is too difficult can cause unplanned camping locations, which can damage the environment. And in the high elevation hiking episode, I talk about how critical it is to know your safety limits and turn around when things get questionable. In all cases, not knowing your limits and executing proper trip planning will lead to unenjoyable excursions and dangerous situations.

  11. Mazzachusetts November 12, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

    Solid list. Living in the Northeast I would never waste my time watching the Snakes & Cougars as the content isn’t relevant to me personally. If I was going somewhere specific outside of this area to backpack I would do regional research on the snake situation. I realize its important elsewhere but just some honest feedback from a Masshole.
    My top trail skill = Learning From mistakes. When I’m lucky, I get to learn from my friends’ mistakes except when it involves forgetting the whiskey.
    Have fun filming this man! Also nice website.

  12. Rocky November 13, 2013 at 1:08 am #

    Very interested in #15 “Fording Rivers Safely”. So much bad advice for backpackers out there. Swiftwater Rescue classes in USA, and special river crossing classes in New Zealand do a much better job teaching this skill than anything I’ve seen in backpacking books and blogs.

  13. RenegadePilgrim November 14, 2013 at 6:43 am #

    When discussing hygiene, you might want to find a lady to come and chat about issues specific to the ladies, if you know what I mean. :) There are some things women should know about. I know I have those kinds of discussions with my meetup group that happens to be all women.

    • Dave Collins November 14, 2013 at 11:45 am #

      That’s a really fantastic idea. I’ve been looking for ways to better incorporate content specific to women in my videos and that’s certainly a very important spot to do it. Very useful suggestion! Thanks.

      • renegadepilgrim November 19, 2013 at 2:48 am #

        No problem! I’m reminded I need to blog about this subject now… :) I’ve learned so much in the past few years, and changed my habits as a result of the research I have done. It’s also great to have a group of ladies who share the same philosophy.

  14. Doyg January 22, 2014 at 9:49 am #

    I can learn all this on – for free!

    • Philip Werner January 22, 2014 at 10:14 am #

      You can try. Backpacker mag turned to shit over five years ago. It’s all advertising.

  15. puzso23 March 31, 2014 at 6:08 am #

    My biggest sin is not complying to number 4. I always find it hard to leave out gadgets that are not essential, and they can’t even save my life in any situations. I just bought them for no reason at one point, and I feel that I must pack them if I wasted a few bucks on them.

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