33 Top Tips From Trail Pros

Here's how Aron Ralston, Ed Viesturs, Les Stroud, and others get out and back again–and how you can, too.
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Here's how Aron Ralston, Ed Viesturs, Les Stroud, and others get out and back again–and how you can, too.

On every trip, I bring a journal—and write in it each night. I always include a gear note at the end: This worked, that didn’t. When I get home, I refine my list. If I packed three pairs of underwear and only wore two, then I make a note. The next time I pack my duffel bags, I spread everything out and check off one piece at a time. And that includes my stainless steel, insulated plunger pot—I love fresh ground coffee at basecamp. Even on summit day, I brew up those little instant bags: you warm up, you’re stimulated, and off you go.” —Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without oxygen

I always carry a tattered copy of the I Ching–it provides wisdom when I need it. And I never leave without my Leatherman Wave I've done everything with it from open open bottles of wine to carve sea urchin spines out of my heel to bend little fork art pieces out of boredom...everything short of sawing off my own arm. I even gave one away to help bribe a Malian checkpoint guard to let us pass. He refused to take anything but money–until he saw my knife.

Jimmy Chin, adventure sports photographer.

"Learning resourcefulness is key for what I do. In Quebec, I once used Luekotape to protect my shins while bushwhacking through raspberry thickets. It was like wrapping my legs in duct tape to create makeshift gaiters–perfect, until I had to remove them. I also carry a 1.7-ounce digital voice recorder so I can walk and talk instead of writing in a journal. And I wear running shorts with a built-in liner–learning to pee while walking does take some practice, but I figured it saved me about six hours during my last seven-month trip."

–Andrew Skurka, the first hiker to finish the 6,875-mile Great Western Loop

"All Viking men have nicknames for their cutting edges. I call mine 'Baby.' And I've used it to process road kill, pick my toenails, carve gourd canteens, make a splint out of a tree branch for someone's fractured tib-fib, skin pack rats, and split kindling. The most important quality I look for in a knife is simplicity of design: The more specialized a knife is, the more useless it becomes for general survival purposes."

–Cody Lundin, founder and director of the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott, AZ

"I've tested countless amounts of gear in my 15 years with BACKPACKER, and there's one thing I bought 16 years ago that I still use on every trip: the Therm-a-Rest pocket pillow. I can't sleep without a pillow, and a wadded-up jacket slips around too much. I stuff some clothes inside the soft, flannely case–and I'm zonked out."

–Kristin Hostetter, gear editor

Today's version of Kristin's pocket pillow is the Trekker Pillow Case; 2 oz., $11; thermarest.com

"At 25,000 feet on the north side of Everest, my friend and I couldn't get the stove to light. I had an idea: Get our oxygen masks out and crank them up on both sides of the stove. Poof!–the stove was going and we were happy. A few minutes later, though, we smelled burning rubber and found my mask was on fire. It turned into a useless mass of melted goo. This reminds me of how useful an inflatable kayak pump can be for fanning stove or campfire flames–just don't get it too close."

–Michael Brown, founder of Serac Adventure Films

"Most polar expeditions take gear which is remarkably similar; rarely are odd gizmos brought along, since they often fail in extreme cold. But I still use a Ventile hooded jacket that goes down to the knees for manhaul-sledging with 300-pound loads. The body sweats even in polar conditions, and this densely woven cotton is the only material that's 100 percent breathable."

–Sir Ranulph Fiennes, first to cross the Antarctic by foot

"Let's face it–seven ounces of Kentucky's finest bourbon in a sturdy, stainless steel flask comes in handy during good and bad times. And I bring an iPod loaded with a broad spin: Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, The Who, Snoop Dogg, AC/DC, Fela Kuti, Peter Tosh, Tupac"

–Mike Gauthier, Mt. Rainier head climbing ranger

"For sheer warmth and protection, nothing surpasses an old-fashioned wool stocking cap that can be pulled down over the ears."

The Wilderness Handbook, Paul Petzoldt

"Dark-colored underwear absorbs more heat–keeping you warmer–and dries more quickly in sunlight."

Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, The Mountaineers

"A large cotton bandana is your wardrobe's maid-of-all-work. It performs as a potholder, napkin, dish cloth, washcloth, towel, emergency headgear, Lawrence-of-Arabia neck protector, snooze mask, and even fig leaf."

–The Complete Walker, Colin Fletcher and Chip Rawlins

"Crampons are a great tool on firm snow, but quickly become a hazard as the snow warms. Knowing when to use them and when to remove them, and then stopping at the appropriate interval to make the change–can prevent accidents. Novice climbers often mistakenly assume that they must wear crampons whenever on snow."

–Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2006

"On a cold night, turn your sleeping bag stuff sack inside out and put your boots inside. Sleep with the stuff sack in between your legs. The coated nylon of the stuff sack will keep the wet boots from soaking your sleeping bag, and your body heat will keep the boots warm and dry them out."

The Backpacker's Field Manual, Rick Curtis

"A whistle, though limited in its scope, is probably the most reliable signaling device you can carry. ...It greatly exceeds the range of your voice and can serve as a crude means of communication where shouts for help cannot be heard."

Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills

"Drop a balaclava over your pot to keep it warm [after cooking a meal], or use sand and leaves–around the pot, not in it."

The Complete Walker

"Some things you should be able to do in your camp shoes: fetch water, go on a 5-mile dayhike, climb boulders, fish, and, of course, pad around camp."

–The National Outdoor Leadership School's Wilderness Guide, Mark Harvey

"If you have pots without a nonstick finish, try notching the inside walls at intervals such as 1-cup, 2-cup, 3-cup, and so on–or paint a line on the outside of your pot. This will help you measure the correct amount of water for rice or other meals that can be ruined by approximation."

Backpacking: Essential Skills to Advanced Techniques, Victoria Steele Logue

"In freezing temperatures, sleep with your water filter (sealed in a plastic bag) to prevent moisture from icing inside. Though freezing does not hurt your filter, ice crystals will slow down its operation considerably."

The Essential Outdoor Gear Manual, Annie Getchell

"It's certainly worth knowing that in most modern tents the fly provides much of the strength. In hoops and domes, the fly can account for 85 to 90 percent. So in high winds, whether or not you need a fly for protection, rig it. Firmly." –The Complete Walker

By the Book

Save your butt–or just dinner–with 16 more timeless tips.

"If you're going to light campfires or handle hot cooking pots, avoid synthetic gloves because they can melt and leave nasty burns on your hands. Instead, use gloves made of cotton, wool, or silk."

–Encyclopedia of Outdoor and Wilderness Skills, Chris Townsend and Annie Aggens

"U.S. Army combat pants are ideal desert pants: They are 100-percent cotton and have a dense weave to make them windproof. They're baggy, have numerous sealed pockets, and have an ankle drawstring to tighten around boots." –

Camping and Wilderness Survival: The Ultimate Outdoors Book, Paul Tawrell

"Even if you have gone to extraordinary efforts to save weight in your clothing system, you will be wasting a lot of energy if you can't move because of a restrictive cut. Climbing is hard enough that you don't need to be fighting your clothes as well as gravity. Beware of combining too many stretch garments–the overall effect can actually be confining."

Gear: Equipment for the Vertical World, Clyde Soles

"Another way to increase the life of your sleeping bag is to wash up each night before crawling into it. The dirt and oil on your clothes and body will find its way into your bag's fill and inhibit its ability to insulate."

–Backpacking: Essential Skills to Advanced Techniques

"[When you're looking at tents], bring money. It's a worthwhile trade. 'Well, it weighs 5 pounds more, but it saved me 80 dollars' is small consolation halfway up Blister Butte in a rainstorm. And I don't care how neat-looking it is–if you wouldn't want to set it up in a hard rain, don't get the tent."

–Basic Essentials Backpacking, Harry Roberts