Backpacking Tips and Tricks

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Backpacking in the wilderness can be some of the most exhilarating and satisfying experiences of your life. A sense of wonder and curiosity, combined with heightened senses and just a hint of danger make it a habit worth getting addicted to. Nothing can replicate the satisfaction of being in the wilderness over an extended period of time, leaving the trappings of civilization behind.

There are many factors that can determine whether the trip will be memorable or miserable. Planning is essential. I have been backpacking for over 36 years, rarely going to the same destination twice, and have learned a few valuable tips and tricks to help make your trip a positive one. 

Step 1: Awareness of Hazards

Read all signs at trailheads to learn about fire, lightning, bear activity, etc. Understand the distances you are covering and become familiar with your map. At all junctions, read the signs carefully and make sure everyone is together making the correct turns.

Step 2: Socks

Using two layers of socks can substantially reduce your chances of getting blisters. A thin polypropylene underlayer, with a wool blend on top will be very comfortable. If you sense a "hot spot" of rubbing after a while, immediately put a piece of moleskin over the spot to absorb the rubbing and keep your feet happy.

Step 3: Boots

Clean, condition, and waterproof your boots.  This will help them last longer and keep your feet dry.  You can clean dust off your boots with a damp rag.

Step 4: Warm Your Clothes at Night

Many mountain mornings can be cool, even in the summer. Consider putting your next day's clothes in the bottom of your sleeping bag at night so they will be toasty warm when you put them on in the morning.

Step 5: Camp Footwear

It's great to get out of you heavy hiking boots once you get to your camp spot. You will also want to spend time there and not always be on the go. An old pair of sandals or Teva's are great to wear around camp for swimming and lounging. Your feet will love you!

Step 6: Mosquito Net

In the Sierras, mid to late August is a time when mosquitoes have mostly faded away, and your life will be immeasurably better for it. Try to do your backpacking trip during this time. However, if you must go earlier, or if it has been a wet year, a mosquito net will keep you from going insane. They tend to be mostly active at dawn and dusk, so if you had to wear one, it would probably just be during those times. This is my all-time most important piece of equipment!

Step 7: Mountain Pillow

Use your sleeping bag stuff sack to create a comfortable pillow. Put a down jacket or other soft clothing items in your stuff sack. put everything inside of a t-shirt for softness against your face.

Step 8: Shade

Pitch your tents in the trees to provide shade from the morning or afternoon sun, whichever you prefer. Or both!

Step 9: Water

For unlimited and clean tasting water, bring a legitimate water filter. It's a bit of work each time, but you don't want to risk getting parasites or have to taste the iodine from tablets. Use two people so you don't accidentally drop the spout into the lake and contaminate it.

Step 10: Food Storage

Some wilderness areas require you to store food in portable bear canisters or "vaults." They fit into your backpack, and you should include your toothpaste, sunscreen, lip balm, and anything with a scent besides your food when you close it at night.  They are kind of expensive, but you can rent them cheaply at ranger stations if you don't want to buy them.  They also make great seats!

Step 11: Reading

Some folks enjoy sitting in the shade by a lake by a towering mountain and reading a good book. Consider bringing a kindle or lightweight paperback for you down time (my daughter brings massive "Game of Thrones" volumes, but what can you do?). Besides, it could rain all afternoon, so it's nice to have something to do for that possibility.

Step 12: End of the Trip, Part 1

Have some clean clothes waiting for you in the car when you get back to the trailhead. What a luxury!

Step 13: End of the Trip, Part 2

Have a nice snack waiting for you when you get back. If you are in a heavily impacted area, you might be required to store your food in a bear-proof locker.

Step 14: End of the Trip, Part 3

Waste no time in finding a nearby river or lake to rinse off the trail grime. It's the best, most satisfying feeling in the world!

I hope these tips help your trip be a magnificent one!

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35 Discussions

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Danger_Dolan

1 year ago

I am a Boy Scout and have been for three years now. Me and my troop are going bAackpacking at red river gorge on November tenth. Could I get any advice for people who have hiked that trail? If you would be so kind, that is. I have hiked that trail many times before, but you all seem so experienced and the more you know, right? That would be great, thanks guys.

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BoliviaBill

2 years ago

Good tips. I'd also plan ahead so my waste generation is minimal. Don't bring along anything in its original plastic wrapping, if you're not going to haul all empty packaging out for proper disposal.

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IngenuityAtWork

2 years ago

Also, I love using my hammock, an ENO DoubleNest I think, when a tent isn't completely necessary. I made a waterproof roof from canvas and a waterproofing mixture of naptha (ie, Zippo fluid) and granulated paraffin wax. I leave my foam ground pad and sleeping bag in the hammock, and the roof doubles as a pack roll for it all. So I can set up and take down all of it in a few minutes, and don't have to worry about wet ground. Believe it or not, it's as warm as my tent.
Also purified natural water is the best I've ever had, no chemicals needed with my SweetWater filter that I've had for over a decade. Well worth the cost and I've replaced the element one time.

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IngenuityAtWork

2 years ago

Nice tips Ben!
A couple things I've found useful too: I swap my stock shoelaces for paracord, and keep a small container of small essentials-- compass, paracord, knife, flashlight, lighter, candle, meds, etc.-- on you at all times, wearing it as though it was a piece of your usual vlothing. It comes in handy when you want I venture out a little farther (and farther) from camp as dusk approaches, and provides some extra security in case you're separated from the bulk of your gear by choice or circumstances. I find that a surplus M16 mag pouch worn on my belt works well and I don't even notice that it's there. Also since most of my adventuring is done via kayak, it's very practical to have that one small piece of gear that can get my by, to focus on grabbing if I ever sink my boat or get dumped in current.

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A.A2

2 years ago

Game of Thrones tomes: cut the book in half; tape a piece of good cardstock onto newly exposed side of each half--clear packing tape is super good for this; and voi-la! your tome is now a convenient two-volume read :) or three-volume, if you're crazy.

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ben maisel

2 years ago

Thanks for all the comments. I Appreciate the community of backpackers. Just had another great trip, this time to Lyons lake in desolation wilderness in California. Got a few new ideas to share. First, a friend of mine brought a platypus gravity filter, and I am a new convert. Just scoop up the water, hang it from a tree, release the valve and fill your bottle. No more pumping! Also, I have found myself bringing my cell phone and a small power bank or solar charger. I use my phone as a camera and download some books for reading during quiet times around the camp or in my sleeping bag just before I fall asleep. Keeping it in airplane mode usually allows it to last the whole time. Finally, I have made special efforts to find a creek or lake nearby the trailhead so we can all have a lovely rinse after hiking the dusty trail back to the car.

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RaúlT5

2 years ago

I love it. We'd love have those kind of tourist here.

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bonmom

2 years ago

Always a good idea to check in with your local forestry station (close to most national forests, but can be found near other parks and areas). You can ask them about current conditions (fires, floods, animal issues, vagrants, campsites, trails) and any rules of the area (fire permits, camping only in certain spots, bear cans or stringing up food required, etc.). For example, Lost Coast requires knowledge of the tides as there is a 4 mile stretch than can leave you stranded or washed away if not timed right. They will also have maps if needed.

Take a compass and know how to use it.

Wear underwear that can be used to swim in and that dries quickly. My pack always looks like a laundromat as I walk along with yesterday's washed underwear in the breeze.

Have a list of things to bring and share with those in your group. Why would you need six stoves, 6 pots, and 6 first aid kits? Consolidating and sharing lightens everyone's load. I have a 2 person tent that I always offer to save someone else bring a tent as well. Otherwise my dog comes along.

Make sure at least 2 other people know where you are going, itinerary, and when you plan to be back. It is the buddy system that will alert help if you are not accounted for. I also leave a note in my car with my itinerary and timing.

And about the car - empty the dashboard and leave it open, and remove all other valuables from the car before you leave home. Leaves it less interesting for local crime. Forget the critters; they are just hungry! Keep a small stash of cash, car key, and credit card in small pocket in pants or backpack.

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TysonT3

2 years ago

I agree with all of this except the boots. Lots of long distance hikers use trail shoes or sneakers if they aren't prone to twisting their ankles. They're lighter, more comfortable, dry more quickly, and you won't get blisters. A pair of poles are good too to prevent T-Rex syndrome and help with balance too.

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stumpster

2 years ago

I've been a backpacker for 53 years, and I still think this was a very good instructable! I especially like the idea of having a fresh change of clothes, and a snack that you might not find practical to stow in a back pack! Such an often overlooked, and very nice thing to come back to! I've never had a problem going out, or staying out, but always wonder, just why am I coming back?

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cbowers18CrayfishYAY

Reply 2 years ago

Thru-hiking in 1972, I holed up in a lean-to for 36 hours (2 nights) while Hurricane Agnes blew through. Nice to have a book to read while the rain poured down. Also in the evenings after dinner, unless all you're going to do is hike and sleep. And a spiral notebok and pencil (large notebook, 2 pencils) to record thoughts, write poetry, save names/addresses of people you befriend along your way.

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jan.a.neroneCrayfishYAY

Reply 2 years ago

Use a pack rain cover plus a large, heavy duty trash bag inside your pack (should fill the entire pack cavity, put everything inside). Put your most important items in dry bags as well. Staying dry is super important on the AT!

The other important things to know for the AT are not to pack too much food, as there are so many towns along the way, plus hiker hostels and other such places where people often leave food behind. Stay flexible and go with the flow. Take the time to talk to people - community is a really fun aspect of that trail.

-Philosopher, AT class of 2010

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jvaupel

2 years ago

So many good ideas--even for experienced camping enthusiasts! Thanks for sharing :D

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GregS124

2 years ago

As a beginner, I made this mistake...Study where you are going, don't forget the distance, temperature and altitude...spend some time getting into shape, hiking at 11000 ft will take your breath away in more than 1 way!

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AlessandraS6

2 years ago

Just one thought, be careful when you camp among/under big trees. Look for dead/dying/going-to-fall branches. Not a great way to be woken up at best, could kill you at worst.

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thepantheonzaibatsu

2 years ago

This is a great instructable! Thanks!!

I am an avid camper and I still learned some stuff (putting tomorrow's clothes in the sleeping bag! Genius!!)

Just one word of caution, 2 years ago in Ontario's Algonquin Park, I had a tin of homemade cookies waiting for me in my car for the drive home... When I finally made it to the car, i found that some vermin (chipmunks, I suspect), had found their way into the car and nibbled on EVERY SINGLE COOKIE! haha! These guys know where people park and have become fearless! :)

Happy trails!

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wobbler

2 years ago

I tend to suffer from blisters when I go on long hikes, but I found it helps by using rubbing alcohol applied liberally to the feet starting about a week before a couple of times a day. It also helps to harden off any blisters, although it stings like heck on broken skin.

I also found a pair of lightweight modern hiking poles to be incredibly useful and they really take a load off the legs and also help a lot when going downhill or uphill. I also double-up by using the poles with a tarp for creating a tent/rain shelter.

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ooohlaa

2 years ago

Excellent, thoughtful, teaches kindness to oneself as backpacker. Love the subtlety of your caring for self as camper during what can sometimes be very unexpected challenges.