How to Become a Better Backpacker

How to Become a Better Backpacker

Backpacking requires a high degree of self-reliance and mental agility since nothing ever goes quite the way you expect it to on a backpacking trip! That said, there are a set of fundamental skills that you can learn and master that will help you cope with the unexpected and turn adversity into a rewarding adventure. These skills can be acquired and practiced in between your trips on day hikes or researched in your spare time. Whether you’re a thru-hiker candidate or you prefer backcountry trips where few have traveled before, self-reliance is your ticket to the beyond.

Here are the 10 skills that I think are essential to becoming a better backpacker. Feel free to suggest others if I’ve missed something you feel is important. I’ve selected some articles we’ve written about each in the past to get you started.

  1. Trip planning
  2. Gear and clothing selection
  3. Thermoregulation
  4. Campsite selection
  5. Nutrition and food selection
  6. Weather and environmental awareness
  7. On-trail and Off-trail navigation
  8. Survival skills and wilderness first aid
  9. Gear maintenance and repair
  10. Self-care/health maintenance

1. Trip Planning

Hiking Trip Plan Checklist

Detailed trip planning is a key skill that backpackers should cultivate. Planning a trip requires a lot more than just deciding where to go and when. It usually requires researching seasonal weather conditions, planning a route, estimating travel times, addressing logistic issues such as transportation and resupply points, determining water availability, identifying hazardous plants or wildlife, learning new skills you will need, an assessment of your physical fitness relative to your goals, group management or solo hiking considerations, contingency planning, and risk management.

See also:

2. Gear and Clothing Selection

Once you’ve planned the route and environmental requirements of your journey, you can select the clothing and equipment required. For example, what is the right shelter for your destination: a tent, tarp, or hammock? How much insect protection or insulation will you need at night? What clothing is required? If the gear you own doesn’t satisfy your trip requirements, you may have to buy more appropriate clothing and equipment, learn new skills, or change your route to lower your level of risk.

3. Thermoregulation

Thermoregulation or the ability to stay warm and cool in different weather conditions is an essential skill when you carry less clothes. The best way to stay warm is often to keep moving, layer up, eat fatty food, and stay well hydrated, or to pitch your shelter and crawl into a sleeping bag/quilt until you warm up again.

In order to plan the right clothing for a trip, you need to understand how your body reacts to the temperatures and weather you are likely to encounter, and how your metabolism, clothing selection, and activity level can be used to regulate your body temperature. Called thermoregulation, it takes practice to understand how to regulate your metabolism and dress to prevent hypothermia or heat-related illness. For example, the best way to stay warm is often to keep moving, layer up, eat fatty food, and stay well hydrated, or to pitch your shelter and crawl into a sleeping bag/quilt until you warm up again.

See also:

4. Campsite Selection

Good tentsite selection is an art form

Good campsite selection skills can identify campsites that are better protected from the wind, cold air pockets, groundwater, or tent condensation while minimizing your impact on plant life and animals. In many circumstances, the choice of the right shelter (tarp, tent, or hammock) can also make a big difference in the ease of finding a good campsite.

5. Nutrition and Food Preparation

High calorie food and removal of excess packaging can significantly reduce the weight of the food you need to carry.

The heaviest item in a backpacker’s pack is likely to be food. Eliminating excess packaging and knowing how to select foods high in calories and nutritional value can lower the weight of your food bag significantly. Then again, you need to keep your food “interesting” so you’re motivated to eat it.

See also:

6. Weather and Environmental Awareness

Changes in cloud formations or a shift in wind direction often indicate changes in the weather pattern, for good or ill.

It’s important to develop an awareness of changing weather conditions and take mitigating actions. Seeking shelter, forest cover, or changing your route can reduce exposure to high winds, hail, heavy rain, high water levels, or other environmental factors such as flash floods or forest fires. For example, changes in cloud formations or a shift in wind direction often indicate changes in the weather, for good or ill.

See Also:

7. On-Trail and Off-Trail Navigation

When backpacking in wilderness areas, you need to be able to choose a path that conserves your energy, while avoiding natural hazards. This is especially critical if you are traveling solo.

It’s one thing to follow a route or GPS track that someone else has defined, but it requires much more navigational skill to create your own trip plans and research the pros and cons of different routes, particularly if you venture off blazed and well-marked trails.

8. Survival Skills and Wilderness First Aid

Survival skills, such as knowing how to start a campfire, can save your bacon when weather conditions turn for the worst and exceed the temperature rating of your sleep system

Solid survival skills and wilderness first aid enable you to use natural features and resources to compensate for the lack of gear in survival situations. While these skills are taught for use in emergencies, they can also be used to increase your comfort when the weather or conditions exceed the capabilities of the ultralight gear you’ve decided to bring on your trip.

See Also:

9. Gear Maintenance and Repair

Ultralight backpacking gear is far less durable than heavier clothing and equipment and often requires some element of repair on strenuous trips.

Backpacking gear can be quite fragile and must be treated with care to make it last. This can include field repairs such as fixing a broken zipper or sewing torn fabric, which can put gear or clothing out of action, unless you can patch it up on the spot.

See also:

10. Self Care/Health Maintenance

Campsuds

When backpacking, you need to know how to take care of your person to stay healthy and safe. From water filtration or purification to bathing, stream crossings, insect protection, and avoiding hazardous wildlife, you have to have the knowledge to keep harm from crossing your path.

See Also:

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19 comments

  1. I’d say: know yourself. Be confident that you will be able to be reasonable about solving glitches. If you have all the objective skills and supplies, there would be no reason why you could not get yourself out of a “sticky wicket.” Others do, so reassure yourself that there is every reason that you also can best the predicament. We humans have innate ingenuity and boldness. We just need to remember that.

    PS I often tell my newbie friends, “We’re not lost; we’re right here!”

  2. “I’m not lost, I’m exploring!”

  3. Thank you for the info, Do you sell camping gear?

  4. One thing I think is very helpful for anyone, beginner or experienced, is a list of absolutely everything you are taking with you. That includes gear, clothing and food, and in my case camera gear. Such a list can help ensure you don’t leave behind necessary items, but perhaps more importantly, it can help you stop taking unnecessary things. I keep two lists, one for overnights or a couple of nights, and one for 5-7 days. I also weigh everything, and doing that has helped me pare down. I’m not an ultralighter, but I know my physical limitations at age 65, and less weight carried means a happier body and more distance traveled. For a 5-7 day trip, I keep total weight, including water, below 35 pounds, including 7-10 pounds of camera gear. I couldn’t do it without those lists.

  5. Gustav Khambatta

    A good list. Another thing I’d had or be sure to include in trip planning in case it’s not discussed on your planning links is ensuring you’ve told someone your trip plan and timing. Also good to include a copy with start and projected end time on the dashboard of your car.

    • Putting your trip plan on your dashboard is a good way to get your car broken into. We prefer leaving a detailed plan with a trusted friend or relative with a time to start calling emergency services including phone numbers if you are overdue in returning.

  6. Christine Benton

    I have found that unexpected things happen (don’t they always!), and these have contributed to my gear sundries list. Examples:

    I was camping with my LightHeart Gear tent and was using the awning, which is a feature that I like because you don’t have to close the tent up if it’s raining (even if it’s raining really hard). The awning has a zipper to aid in getting in and out of the tent. On this particular occasion, the zipper got stuck, and I couldn’t get it unstuck, and it was raining. Fortunately, the zipper was stuck about 9 inches from the top of the awning so I was still afforded some rain protection.

    On returning home I still couldn’t unsnag the zipper and was contemplating having to send it to LH Gear. then I did some googling and was advised to try using Windex or something similar. I rubbed some Windex over the area of the stuck zipper and, lo and behold, was able to work it free! Now a small container of Windex is always in my gear bag. This would have helped on another occasion when I had a stuck zipper on my sleeping bag on a cold night (fortunately near the top of the bag, so I was able to stay warm and also able to get out to pee!)

    Glue? Last February, I was backpacking on a section of the Florida trail when the heel section of one boot came apart. It was near the end of my trip, and I coped using duct tape, but it really didn’t hold very well. Now a small tube of glue is in my gear sundries pack.

    Bottom line, even if you think you have everything you might need, you don’t!!

  7. I was wrestling with how to carry my leukotape when I read your article. My cheap generic tape separated on the West Coast Trail last week!
    Should I wrap my new leuko around a trekking pole repair sleeve? A pencil/pen? A dog poo bag core?
    You suggested strips on backing paper! A lot easier to manage for a gram or two. Yes! I had some old sheets of CD labels. That would do.
    Thanks a ton.
    Jackie

  8. Hello Philip,

    Just a comment to thank you for the huge amount of collected expertise and wisdom on this and the See Also: linked pages here at sectionhiker.

    My outdoor trips will be limited to Scotland as my retirement looms, but your advice and experience is transferable from the US, as well as the direct relevance of your Cape Wrath Trail and TGO accounts. I’ve learned much here and am better prepared as a result, so thank you for what you’ve shared here. Sites like these don’t write themselves and I appreciate the huge amount of work you put into the site. Thank you again.

  9. This is great, not just the article but also the helpful links… thanks Phil!

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