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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

I've made the mistakes so you don't have to.

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

The author on Colorado's 14,017-foot Wilson Peak (Photo by Will Rietveld)
The author on Colorado's 14,017-foot Wilson Peak (Photo by Will Rietveld)


A soaking rain almost ruined my first backpacking trip as a kid. Almost. Because as soon as the deluge began, my father covered our packs with giant orange plastic trash bags, transforming my family into a billowing parade of candy-colored—but dry—hikers. “Remember the trash bag trip?” is how we recall this soggy but special weekend. My point isn’t that my family is weird (that’s a given), but that unlucky events—like a drenching downpour—can create better camping memories than a weekend of perfect but boring weather. Since Murphy’s Law is always in effect on the trail, here’s how to adapt to four adverse circumstances.

1. Don’t stop believing
Hitting the wall—when you can’t hike another step—makes you wonder why you left the couch. This fatigue has two sources: physical and mental. Prevent the physical exhaustion by fueling your muscles every 15 to 30 minutes with infusions of trail mix, energy bars, and water. Sugary snacks like dried fruit and candy will give you a quick energy rush, but watch out for the inevitable crash.

Other techniques to maintain your momentum include engaging in conversation, taking frequent, shorter breaks rather than fewer, longer ones, and resting at the top of a hill rather than at the bottom. The mental aspect of fatigue sometimes seems physical, but it’s not. I learned that lesson this summer while climbing Wilson Peak in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Exhausted by the time I reached the summit pyramid, I eyed the remaining 100 feet of rocky scrambling and told the guide I couldn’t make it. “Why don’t you sit down for a second, put on a layer, drink some water, and we’ll see,” he told me. Sure enough, after five minutes of rest, I felt much better and summitted the peak with a smile on my face. Recognizing that my physical exhaustion wasn’t real, the guide persuaded my confidence to catch up to my legs.

2. Raindrops keep falling on my head
Since the only surefire way to avoid rain is to stay home (which Prof. Hike grades as an “F”), getting drenched is only a matter of time. In your gear closet should be four items that will boost your spirits (and your warmth) on a rainy day: A broad-brimmed hat, waterproof boots, a waterproof jacket, and a plastic pack cover (or a garbage bag).

Considering rain pants? In my experience, hiking in rain pants (even the breathable kind) in any temperature above 60°F—and during any storm less than torrential—quickly soaks my legs with sweat. So for three-season hiking in light- and medium-rains, I prefer quick-drying nylon pants and shorts. However, if you hike in the chilly, wet Northwest, you might invest in rain pants, as well as low gaiters (ankle-height) to cover your socks and boots. Other rainy-day saviors include simple freeze-dried dinners, highly absorbent microfiber pack towels, and a reliable firestarter like wax-covered dryer-lint stuffed in an old pill bottle.

3. Blister in the sun
The only 100 percent reliable method to prevent a hot spot from becoming a blister—stop walking—is never practical for hikers. Making protective donuts of moleskin and duct tape might buy you time, but if you have miles to hike, you’re going to develop a blister. Applying bandages, antibiotic cream, and duct tape will save skin and limit infections, but unless you’re packing lidocaine (a topical anesthetic), prepare yourself for pain.

The good news is that blister pain is manageable. Sure, it’s rotten for the first 20 minutes after you start hiking, but it soon subsides to a dull ache. Plus, the more you distract yourself with good conversations, guessing games, and amazing views, the less your feet will hurt. Wrapping the affected skin with duct tape will secure bandages for many miles, and when applied preemptively to notorious trouble spots like heels and toes, it can create a friction-free surface to discourage blister formation.

4. Don’t stand so close to me
You can’t choose family, but what about hiking partners? Camping with someone you detest can transform a weekend getaway into a private hell. Common friction points include hiking too fast or too slow, widely disparate pack weights, overly frequent (or infrequent) rest breaks, and inequitable assigning of campsite chores. Protecting yourself requires screening out bad partners such as lone wolfs, summit seekers, constant complainers, and chore shirkers.

If you’re a beginner, don’t hike with experts unless they promise to travel at your pace and experience level. And if you’re leading a trip, communicate realistic expectations about the trip mileage, elevation gains and losses, and obstacles like exposed scrambling before you assemble at the trailhead. Hiking with your spouse or significant other can be a wonderful experience. But to make sure the honeymoon lasts beyond the first mile, both hikers should bring the proper equipment (especially shoes), agree on the total mileage, and recognize that some moves—like rock-hopping across a stream—might be easy for one person and challenging for the other.

—Jason Stevenson

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READERS COMMENTS

ethiopiaboy
Feb 18, 2011

I always used to get blister when i played soccer. Until i found out that baby powder prevented them! Now I always cover my feet with baby powder and even pour some into my shoes. Never have any more blisters!

BrazosSticks
Feb 18, 2011

Yes, in the rain. One trip near Mt. St. Helens, it first started raining, then sleet, then snow & we weren't prepared, thinking we'd go really "light". We didn't even bring stoves or enough food, just our fishing rods. We found the lake was frozen over. A fellow hiker saved the day by sharing his stove after getting the tents set up. We enjoyed the snow the next day & vowed never to be caught again. We re-outfitted for whatever situation, learned to pack the weight & hiked in all weather. Great times!

Hornet22
Oct 20, 2010

I don't think he means to burn the pill bottle, that's just to transport the wax covered lint in your pack. Burning egg cartons could be a good light-weight way too. I've used plain dryer lint and it sparks right up without the wax!

sarahashley
Oct 20, 2010

wax covered lint in a pill bottle- try wax covered lint in one "cup" of an egg carton. Not only is it better for the environment than burning a plastic pill bottle (yea i know its small, but its still plastic) but the egg carton absorbs the wax so it really lights up! one egg cup last 15-20 min.

Dave J
Oct 15, 2010

I find no matter the situation a good time can be had if you keep the right frame of mind. Rounding the edges with your hints only makes it better.

Davis
Oct 15, 2010

This is by far one of the best articles I've read on your site. No offense to the many other great articles, but this one stood out. It was short, but a lot of good info could be taken away from it. I know the feel of constant rain. I know the feel of hiking in the clouds for days when it isn't technically raining, but it might as well be. I know the feeling of "one more step, one more step, one more step." Moreover, the part about blisters...very true. One important thing is how key it is to take preventative measures. If you know where you typically get blisters, tape or bandage up those spots before you begin. It makes a world of difference.

Ellen
Oct 15, 2010

#1, Don't Stop Believing. That's so important, as much as resting and refueling. What a remarkable guide on that trip to recognize how to turn an anxious moment into a successful trip. Those guides are rare, from my experience.

helen
Oct 13, 2010

I laughed at the rain story. i was in Alaska this spring with my dad and 14 yr old niece. 2 standout memories are rain related. one day we spent 8 hours trapped in our tent (in the backcountry) during a never ending storm playing gin rummey. later, as we hiked out of the backcountry portion of our trip, we got caught in a miserably, cold rain storm. after getting to the main road at polychrome pass (to wait for the bus), i noticed a wood box (about 3 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 2 feet deep) that had a wheelchair sign. since noone was around, i decided we should take shelter. LOL..15 minutes later a full guided tour bus pulled up and OMG we were the star attraction. (no animals were out in the rain and the mountain views were limited) The tourists were literally shoving each other aside to take pictures of us crammed in this box. the bus driver told us that in 15 years, he had never seen anyone use the box for shelter... i was glad that I was wearing a balacava. my niece quickly got over the immediate embarrasement and was waving and smiling. (3 more buses came by with the same result.)

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