How to Backpack Like You Mean It

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10 tips to make your next trip not miserable

Writing and Photography by Jesse Weber

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That fateful first backpacking trip

My first backpacking trip was a disaster. It was three of us setting out on our own into the woods, in the summer, during a drought, with no idea what we were doing. I had a beat up old pack, second-hand hiking boots, and 16 ounces of water. On that trip, I got severely dehydrated; I got blisters; I got tired and angry and defeated. My friend sliced himself with his own pocketknife. We spent forever trying to start fire. We ate crappy food. We were almost killed by a rolling boulder that spontaneously detached from a cliff. We did everything the wrong way but learned from our mistakes.

Since then, I’ve hiked many more miles and spent many more nights in the woods. I have picked up on lots of tricks to make backpacking a more comfortable and enjoyable experience. Venturing into the wilderness can turn into an arduous suffer-fest if you aren’t prepared, so follow these uncommon tips to make a great experience out of your next trip in the outdoors.

1. Leave Boy Scout fires to the Boy Scouts

Don’t waste everybody’s time with that flint and steel tinder teepee crap. Real men use fire starter and lighter fluid.

2. Dig your hole BEFORE you have to poop

In many environments, proper etiquette is to bury your business at least 6 inches in dark, moist soil. But nothing is worse than the torture of squeezing and squatting, clenching and trenching, feeling the hurt while frantically slinging dirt. To save yourself this trauma, find a suitable spot when you first arrive at camp and dig a proper hole. Remember where it is for later, so you can do your business peacefully—the way nature intended.

3. Laws of Gravity in the Mountains

Physics work differently up here
Physics work differently up here

These are the mathematically proven, universally applicable laws that describe the physics of trails in mountain environments:

-What goes down, must go up.

-What goes up, must go up further.

-What remains flat, must go up eventually.

Remember these 3 simple truths, and false hope of easy hiking will never disappoint you again.

4. Water RESISTANT does not mean water PROOF

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Rain can ruin a trip if you’re not prepared

This key distinction seems to be lost on many unwary backpackers—until it’s too late. If you skimp on cost and go for lower quality rain jacket, pants, or boots, you will regret this decision the first time you hike through an all-day rain shower. If you shelter beneath water resistant clothing rather than water proof, the wet will eventually get through, and then take a really long time to dry out.

5. Dry socks are Man’s best friend

Wet socks lead to wet feet, which lead to: blisters, odor, soreness, broken skin, fungal infections, hypothermia, complaining, and general misery… Notice that not one thing on this list is a positive. For your own sake—and for everyone else’s—keep your socks dry, and bring extra pairs.

6. Chafeage.

Knock it out before it knocks you out. Guys and gals, (but especially guys) take this one seriously. Nothing will make your day miserable faster than that burn between the thighs. Some strategically placed baby powder is the best way to fight off the fire down below, and stay as dry as possible while hiking. Also, no matter how liberating it may feel at first, going commando is never a good idea in the long run.

7. There is more to trail food than Ramen noodles and Beanie Weanies

And, for the record, overpriced freeze-dried meals are not the way to go either. Believe it or not, there are plenty of ways to eat real food on the trail that won’t break your back or your bank. Here are some quick suggestions:

Cured, packaged meats are good to go in the backcountry, especially in re-sealable bags. You have so many more options besides beef jerky.

Quick meal packages from the grocery store pasta isle are oh so convenient, and tasty. Directions usually call for a bit of butter or milk, but you can add just water and will barely notice the difference.

Eggs will keep for days if you crack them into a wide-mouth bottle, fill the rest with water, and seal the top with no air space left over.

Instant pancake batter is miraculous. Just add water and shake. Instead of bringing the bulky box or bottle that it’s sold in, transfer it to a large plastic bag. After mixing, cut one corner of the bag to squeeze batter into your pan. To save some for later, reseal with duct tape and cut the opposite corner next time. Use the same trick with a different bag to pack your maple syrup.

 8. Water is important

Of course we all know this, but it needs to be emphasized. Dehydration is real. If you find yourself with inexplicable fatigue, soreness, headache, stomachache, or cramps while backpacking, chances are you’re dehydrated. Dark yellow urine is a sign of dehydration as well. Drink up until that stream runs clear. It’s always worth the extra weight to pack enough water on the trail.

9. When it gets cold, things freeze

Ice is not nice
Ice is not nice

 

Speaking of water, never forget that it can become ice. Duh, sure. But it’s amazing how easily the cold can catch you off guard. Wet clothes, even those just damp with sweat, can freeze overnight and cause cursing in the morning, then keep you cold by taking a while to dry out. Water in bottles will freeze too. Keep your water bladder mouthpieces and filter pumps close to your body to prevent freezing, because these will ice up quicker than anything else. At night, keep liquids liquid by putting them in the foot of your sleeping bag. This is a tradeoff because it might make your toes colder, so remember those dry socks.

10. Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will.

Keep this in mind at all times. That water source that always has water this time of year? Surely it won’t rain tonight, right? That campsite that is never full? That tree looks dead but definitely won’t fall! Of course we can make it there before dark, I think? Murphy is a crafty fellow and he hides everywhere, ready to spring on you when you least expect it. You have to fight back with proper preparation and a solid plan B.

 

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Basically, just don’t be this kid (me on my first backpacking trip)

There are many more tricks to be learned about backpacking like a champ, but these 10 are what I’ve found to be the most useful advice that might not always be so intuitive. I’ve discovered these by trial and error over the years (mostly error), so I hope that I can bestow upon you some hard-earned wisdom before you have to learn the hard way. Get out there and enjoy. Remember, backpacking is FUN, so do yourself a favor and keep it that way.

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