How to Backpack Like You Mean It

10 uncommon tips to make your next backpacking trip not miserable

I’ll admit, my first-ever 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 pocket knife. 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 a whole lot from our mistakes.

That fateful first backpacking trip

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 sufferfest if you aren’t prepared, but if you follow these uncommon tips of mine, you can make a great experience out of your next trip in the outdoors.

1. Learn the Law of Gravity in the Mountains

Physics work differently in the mountains than what you might be used to. The following are the mathematically proven, universally applicable laws that describe the physics of trails in mountain environments:

  1. What goes down, must go up.
  2. What goes up, must go up farther.
  3. What remains flat, must go up eventually.

1. Leave Boy Scout fires the Boy Scouts

Don’t waste everybody’s time with that flint and steel tinder teepee crap. A bit of lighter fluid doesn’t weigh much, just sayin’.

2. Dig your hole BEFORE you have to poop

In most environments, proper etiquette is to bury your business at least 6 inches deep in dark, moist soil. But nothing is worse than the torture of: squeezing and squatting, clenching and trenching, or feeling the hurt while slinging the 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.

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

Water RESISTANT does not mean water PROOF

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 a lower quality rain jacket, pants, or boots, you will regret that decision the first time you hike through an all-day rain shower. If you shelter beneath water-resistant clothing rather than waterproof, the wet will get through, and then it will take a really long time to dry out, and you will not have a good time.

Dry socks are a hiker’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.

Chafeage.

Knock it out before it knocks you out. Guys and gals, (but especially guys) take this one seriously. Nothing will ruin your day faster than that burn between the thighs. Some strategically placed baby powder is the best way to fight off the fire, 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.

Eat good food

There is more to trail food than Ramen noodles and Beanie Weenies.
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 aisle are oh-so convenient, and tasty! Directions usually call for some butter or milk, but you can add just water and you’ll 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!

Water is a big deal

Of course we all know this, yet it still needs emphasis. 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.

When it gets cold, things freeze

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 mouthpiece and filter pump close if the night will be freezing, because these will ice up quicker than anything else. You can keep other liquids in a liquid state 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!

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

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

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 be intuitive to the first-time backpacker. I’ve discovered these by trial and error over the years (mostly error), so I hope I can bestow some hard-earned wisdom before you have to learn the hard way. Get out there and enjoy. Remember, backpacking is supposed to be FUN, so do yourself a favor and keep it that way!

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