100 Essential Skills Every Backpacker Should Know

Backpacking really isn’t that complicated. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Bad weather. A heavy pack. Blisters. Bears. Hazards big and small can sabotage any trip. Avoid common mistakes with these 100 tips and tricks for planning, hiking, and camping, and make your first—or next—trek problem-free.
By Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan ,

Before the Trip

Make a firestarter

Peter Sucheski

Easy Dryer lint and candle wax in a cardboard egg carton compartment (poke a bit of lint out of the wax for a wick). Easier Cotton balls coated in petroleum jelly Easiest A fat birthday candle

Score last-minute permits

Feeling spontaneous? Just a procrastinator? Either way, you’re in luck: A percentage of permits are reserved for walk-ins at every national park.

Show up early. Some parks issue day-of permits, but others, like Grand Canyon and Glacier, offer them a day in advance. Line up at the backcountry office an hour or two before it opens.

Be flexible. Keep an open mind, chat up rangers, and prepare to explore the park’s lesser-known areas. You might not get a coveted itinerary, but you’ll likely benefit from insider knowledge.

Target the right office. Yosemite gives permit priority to the backcountry office closest to a particular trailhead. Ranger stations in more remote areas will have shorter lines.

Pack the right amount of food

Hikers, especially beginners, worry so much about packing enough to eat that they often overdo it. Lay out separate rations—all meals and snacks—for each day to visualize what you’ll actually eat. On NOLS expeditions, guides plan for about 1.5 pounds of food (uncooked) and roughly 3,000 calories per person per day. Add extra if your trip is strenuous or in cold weather.

Fly with gear

Check your pack in a duffel, along with sharp stuff like ice axes and crampons, and your (clean) stove.

Carry on boots, electronics, lithium batteries, and anything fragile.

Leave behind stove fuel and bear spray—buy when you arrive. 

Fix a leaky tent seam

Clean the area around the leak and use the right sealant—either for polyurethane-coated fabrics or silicone-treated fabrics (Seam Grip or Silnet; $7.50 each; gearaid.com). In a well-ventilated area, apply a thin coating to the inside of the seam and let cure overnight. Plan B: Duct tape.  

Waterproof your map. 

Pack it in a quart-size zip-top bag.

Load your backpack

A well-organized pack is worth being smug about. Make yours more stable with these tips from Deputy Editor Casey Lyons.

Extend the life of trail food

Peter Sucheski

Keep cheese bricks (hard cheeses last longest) in their original packaging, cutting or grating (or biting from the block; we won’t judge) as needed. Pack in a zip-top bag after opening.

Pack fruits and veggies whole and slice before cooking. Choose puncture-proof produce and pick small ones so you can finish them in a single meal. Cut off stems before packing.

The best thing since sliced bread? Tortillas. Choose white flour varieties (sturdier than whole wheat) and store them flat at the bottom of your food bag or canister to avoid tearing or folding.  

Divvy up group gear

Don’t be a hero; no one should carry more than 30 percent of his or her body weight. Give the tent body and stakes to one person and fly and poles to another. Cookware, food, and fuel are also easy to distribute to give each hiker an appropriate load.

Get out the door faster

Restock essentials like stove fuel, dehydrated food, and first-aid supplies after each trip and store them together so all you need to do is stuff your sleeping bag, grab, and go. Use labeled bins to keep your gear organized.  

Acclimate better

Acute mountain sickness can ruin a trip fast. Know the symptoms—dizziness, nausea, fatigue—and how to prevent them.

Spend a day or two adjusting before you start (like a layover in Denver or a night at a 7,000-foot trailhead before tackling a Colorado Fourteener).

On the trail, aim to gain no more than 2,000 feet per day (net), and always try to sleep lower than the day’s highest point.

Snack and hydrate often (your pee should be pale); it helps your body ramp up the red blood cell production it needs to adjust to reduced oxygen levels.

Prep the perfect spice kit

Dupe your friends into thinking you’re a good cook with these flavors.

Garlic or onion powder Upgrade rice and veggies or instant mashed potatoes.

Oregano or Italian seasoning Add to pasta or soups.

Curry powder Lend flavor to any starch.

Chili powder or cayenne Turn up the heat on quinoa or beans.

Cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger Perk up coffee, hot chocolate, oatmeal, and pancakes.

Salt & pepper Season just about anything.

Beat the crowds

Off-the-map
Plan A Skip marquee national parks and wilderness areas for BLM land or lesser-known national forests.
Plan B If you have the navigation chops, go off-trail where permitted.

Off-season
Go when others don’t. Check with the National Park Service to find recreation visits by month for any national park.

Estimate hiking time

Leave bravado out of the calculation. A fit person carrying a pack will average 2 mph on-trail and 1 mph off-trail. Add an additional hour if your day involves a lot of climbing (ditto for shutterbugs).

Do a gear shakedown

I wanted to immerse myself in the Great Outdoors. But as I huddled under a space blanket and watched rain stream down the inner walls of my tent, I thought not literally.

I had just wrapped up a semester abroad in Argentina and decided to decompress with a hike. I settled on a three-day trip up 9,461-foot Cerro Champaquí, the tallest mountain in the country’s central province of Córdoba.

One problem: I didn’t have a tent. After some searching, I found a bright-orange, two-person, discount shelter in a big-box store. Score! I packed my bag and jumped on a bus for the 12-hour ride to the trailhead.

When I set out along the path, the sun was shining and I felt energized by the fresh air and distance from the bustling city. After a few miles, I reached a ranch where most hikers lodged, but I still felt strong and kept going.

A thick mist settled over the mountains, and, in the low visibility, I soon wandered off the main track. I tried to retrace my steps, but the drizzle grew into a downpour. Time to make camp.

Pitching my tent for the first time, I noticed my shelter sported a foot-wide mesh vent at the peak. Rummaging through the stuffsack, I found a scrap of nylon about the size of a bandana. It took me a moment to realize I was holding the rainfly.

Meanwhile, the weather had turned into a sideways thunderstorm that bent my tent’s pencil-thin poles like wet spaghetti. A steady trickle of water seeped in; soon, my quilt and clothes were soaked.

In the middle of the night, the wind worked the bandana-fly loose, and I opened my eyes to rain pouring directly in. I spent most of the night with my shell on, crouched under my mylar emergency blanket like a kid afraid of the dark.

When dawn finally broke, I was already shouldering my pack and hoofing it back to the ranch and its lodge. If another storm came through, I promised myself I’d watch it through a window.

–Adam Roy

Pitch your tent. Light your new stove. Use your water filter. If possible, go on a trial run in fair weather

On the Trail

Put on a heavy pack

Peter Sucheski

Day one weight is no joke. 1) Extend one leg in front of you and bend your knee (envision a lazy man’s lunge). 2) Use the haul loop to lift the pack to your knee. 3) Put one arm through the shoulder strap and swing the pack around to your back.

Prevent bonking

Eat at least 1,000 calories at each meal and snack every hour on long days. And keep an emergency Snickers on hand—easy-to-digest sugars give you a quick reboot, and the fat and protein in peanuts provide slow-burn energy for later.

Hike stronger at altitude

Use pressure breathing on the move (it sounds hokey, but it works): Take a deep belly breath, then exhale forcefully, like you’re blowing out a candle. This purges carbon dioxide and floods muscles with oxygen, boosting efficiency.

Hike smart on scree

Feel like you’re walking on ball bearings? Tighten all pack straps to secure your load for better balance. Kick steps into the rocks to make a platform for your boot when hiking uphill; when descending, plunge step by leading with your heel, toes up, in a controlled slide (like you would on snow).

Make your pack feel better

Sore shoulders You only want your shoulders to take about 30 percent of the weight (more than that and you’ll feel pinching or cramping). To get there, loosen the shoulder straps until you feel the weight settle on your hips; keep the load-lifters taut but not too tight.

Numb fingers Excessive pressure on your shoulders can hinder blood flow to your hands, leading to the tingles. Again, loosen your shoulder straps, then tighten your sternum strap to reduce the backward pulling.

Achy lower back Make sure your hipbelt is snug and riding properly: The middle of the belt should be even with your iliac crest (the boniest part of your hips).

Smell OK on a long trip

Easy Take a dip in a creek. Scrub with a pack towel (skip the soap). Easier Rinse your shirt; lay it in the sun to dry. Easiest Baby wipes (pack them out). 

Tape a sprained ankle

Peter Sucheski

The doctor’s in. And guess what? It’s you. 

1) Position the foot at a 90-degree angle with the leg.

2) Wrap tape around the calf, about 2 inches above the ankle.

3) Loop three U-shaped stirrups around the heel and up both sides of the ankle. Wrap another stretch of tape around the calf to stabilize the stirrups.

4) Starting from the uninjured side, wrap tape down the ankle, under the arch, and across the top of the foot. Repeat twice.

5) Make figure eights by taping down the side of the ankle, across the top of the foot, across the Achilles heel and the other side of the ankle, and back to the arch. Repeat twice. 

Save your knees

Peter Sucheski

Hiking with poles reduces compression on the knees by up to 25 percent on descents, and poles cut down on muscle strain and the risk of ankle injury. On flat ground, adjust height so your elbows are bent at a 90-degree angle. Shorten poles on uphills and lengthen on the downs.

Remove a tick

Don’t mess with folk remedies; as soon as you notice the tick, grasp it by its head with tweezers and slowly pull it upward from your skin. It should release cleanly. Disinfect the bite site and watch for a rash, fever, chills, and body aches. Symptoms? Get to a doc and tell her you were bitten.

Drain a blister

Trust us—it’s better than letting it pop on its own in your sweaty sock. Clean with an alcohol wipe, puncture with a sterilized knife or pin, apply antibiotic ointment, and bandage.

Beat the bugs

DEET + ball cap + headnet + raingear + loose-fitting pants 

Cross an unexpected snowfield. 

Winter sometimes overstays its welcome in the high mountains.

First, assess the runout. Rocks or cliff below? Don’t cross.

Look for snow soft enough to kick steps into: Swing your foot and dig the toe or side of your boot into the snow several times, packing down a level platform. If it’s too hard or icy to kick steps, don’t cross.

If you do fall and start sliding, self-arrest: Twist your body so you’re facing the slope, feet downhill, and dig your toes and elbows into the snow with all your strength.

Survive a lightning storm

Know where to go. Descend from peaks, passes, tundra, and open terrain. Stands of uniform trees offer the best cover. Second best: The low point in a gully or ravine. Avoid single trees, open water,and rock overhangs, where your body gives electricity a shortcut to bridge the gap.

Assume the position. Crouch on your toes on a sleeping pad or pack, feet together, to minimize exposure to electricity traveling along the ground. Groups should spread out so one strike won’t zap everyone.

Stay put. Your pool lifeguard isn’t just messing with you—wait 30 minutes after thunder or lightning before emerging from cover.

Use bear spray

If a bear charges, wait until it’s 30 feet away. Aim the spray at its head and discharge in a series of short blasts to create a cloud between you and the bear.

Stay dry in rain

Avoid overheating. Wear just your baselayer under your shell (unless it’s below freezing). Open pit zips and mesh-backed pockets. Moderate your pace.

Protect your extremities. Wear gaiters under your rainpants (unless using crampons) so drips don’t seep into your socks; tuck baselayer sleeves under shell cuffs to keep water from wicking up your arms.

Preserve visibility. Cinch your hood over a ball cap for better peripheral vision.

Layer smart

By the time I got invited on my first winter camping trip, I’d learned two things about backpacking: The secret to staying warm is layering, and a minimalist approach suited my minimalist budget.

I was in college in North Carolina, and I’d planned an overnight to the top of 6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell with two friends, Michelle and Alexander. I enthusiastically put my thrifty outfitting strategy to work.

Four-season sleeping bag? I’ll borrow a liner. Gaiters? I’ll wear my rainpants. Cold-weather clothes? Five baselayers and four pairs of leggings should do it. As I packed my bag, I was feeling pretty resourceful.

It was still dark when we arrived at the trailhead that morning. Icicles longer than I was tall dripped from a lip of rock. I broke one off and wielded it like a sword. You can’t intimidate me, winter.

We cruised upward. My shell pants deflected the snow, but pretty soon I was overheating. Since my next four layers were skintight and made with a cotton-spandex blend, ditching the rainpants was out of the question. Besides, I figured sweating was better than being cold.

A mile from the top, we made camp. I got the shivers as I helped pitch the tent. When the sun winked out over the ridge, I started shuddering violently.

I sat down to rummage through my bag, but after a minute, I noticed myself staring dumbly at my shaking hands. What was I looking for again? I was so cold, I couldn’t think. When Alexander asked if I was feeling OK, my answer was slurred and incoherent.

Rightly suspecting hypothermia, Alexander fed me Reese’s peanut butter cups and Michelle got a fire going. I removed my rainpants and crouched by the flames. Pretty soon, my quadruple-layer leggings were billowing steam. A couple of hours and quite a few peanut butter cups later, I was cured of my hypothermia and—at least as it related to backpacking—my cheapskate tendencies. 

–Corey Buhay

Choose synthetic and wool fabrics, and manage layers preemptively. Shed clothes before you start sweating, and don a puffy or shell as soon as you stop, before you get chilled.

In Camp

Fix a tent pole

Peter Sucheski

They don’t snap often, but when they do—whooee, that can ruin a trip. To get through the night, find the tube-shaped splint that probably came with your tent (you packed it, right?), slide it over the break, and duct-tape it like mad. No splint? Duct-tape a tent stake to the break, behind the most likely stress point.

Do your business

Find a spot (bonus points if it’s scenic; you’ll be spending some time there) at least 200 feet from water, trails, and camp. Dig a hole in the soil at least 6 inches deep and 4 inches wide. (Snow? Find the ground first.) Do your thing, fill in the hole, and cover it with branches or rocks. Pack out TP (double-bagged) or use natural stuff.

We asked: What’s the best natural TP? You said:

  • Leaves: 60%
  • Snow: 25%
  • Smooth Rocks: 13%
  • Sticks: 2%

Set up your kitchen

Find a flat spot 200 feet from your tent and clear away any dry grass or leaves. Place cookware, dishes, and utensils to one side and ingredients to the other, all within arm’s reach. The idea is to stay put once you start cooking, to reduce the risk of knocking over the stove or kicking dirt into your dinner.

Wash dishes the easy way

Easy Boil water in your pot, scrub your spork with pine needles or sand, then fling the bilge in a wide arc, 200 feet from water sources. (LNT overachiever? Mmm, grey­water—drink up.) Easier Rehydrate in a disposable bag, then eat out of it.

Choose a campsite

Peter Sucheski

  • Flat, tent-size platform
  • Durable surface
  • High ground (cold air collects in valley bottoms, and small rises drain well in case of rain)
  • At least 200 feet from water and trails
  • Sheltered from wind
  • No standing dead trees around
  • Instagrammable tent-door views (optional)

Learn from the pros

Whether you’re just starting out or want to perfect your technique, it pays to learn from the experts. We partnered with the Colorado Outward Bound School to create an online course packed with essential tips, including gear selection, trip planning, packing , navigation, cooking, camping, first aid, and more.

Start a fire

Check local regulations first. Good to go? Build a teepee of finger-width sticks around a triangular frame, then light a small pile of tinder within. Blow lightly to keep oxygen flowing, and add thicker sticks when the little guys ignite. (Get more tips with our guide to fire.)

Sleep warmer

Cold Stoke your own fire by having a high-calorie bedtime snack and doing jumping jacks or sit-ups. Colder Layer up. Then fill a water bottle with boiling water, wrap it in an insulating layer, and snuggle with it. Or spoon your hiking partner.

Tie a bowline knot

It’s self-tightening, and it creates a stable loop at the end of a rope, perfect for tying bear bags and lowering packs. It’s also a good way to impress your friends. 

Pack a tent

Roll it or stuff it—it doesn’t matter. But always let it hang to dry when you get home.

Sleep under the stars

Avoid low spots where condensation collects. And pitch your shelter just in case; you’ll be glad it’s there if the weather turns or you get cold.

Make 5-minute pizza

Lay pieces of overlapping pepperoni to cover the bottom of a nonstick frying pan. Top with shredded cheese and rehydrated veggies. Cook until cheese melts, then flip the whole thing and brown a few minutes. Place on top of a warmed individual pita (or tortilla). Eat with two hands. 

Make next-level s’mores

There’s more to life than simple graham crackers and Hershey’s. Mix and match from the following ingredients to level up your campfire dessert game.

Base: honey, cinnamon, or chocolate graham crackers; shortbread cookies; Girl Scout Thin Mints; waffle cookies; chocolate-chip cookies; Peanut Butter Pop Tarts (don’t knock it before you try it).

Chocolate: dark chocolate; white chocolate; Reese’s peanut butter cups; mint chocolate; Nutella; fun-size Snickers (cut in half lengthwise for easier melting).

Extras: plain or flavored marshmallows; peanut butter & jelly; fresh banana slices; dulce de leche; toasted coconut flakes; cinnamon; potato chips.

Pitch a tent in any weather

Rainy Keep the tent body as dry as possible by throwing the fly over it before pitching. If it’s a freestanding tent, set up in a sheltered area (under a tarp, in thick trees), then move it to your campsite.

Windy Orient the tent so the narrowest and/or lowest end faces into the wind. Stake down the corners first to keep the tent from blowing away while you add the poles; pile your packs inside to weigh it down while you fine-tune the pitch. Use all guylines for stability.

Snowy Stamp out a platform with skis or snowshoes, then let it sinter (30 minutes, or until hard) before pitching your tent. Make deadmen anchors by tying guylines to skis, poles, sticks, or snow-filled stuffsacks, then burying. Pro tip: Tie a slip-knot around a rock and bury it. Now you can pull the cord without digging out the rock.

Protect your food

They waited for the cover of darkness.

It was a nasty night at Los Cuernos camp in Chile’s Torres del Paine Circuit—cold, lashing rain and wind bent the tent walls to my face. Surely the mice won’t be out on a night like this, I thought as I drifted off. My food will be just fine in the vestibule.

In the morning, I awoke to the carnage. While I had tossed and turned inches away, the marauders had chewed a hole in my pack’s toplid and nosed into the main compartment. Nuts had been nibbled. A pasta packet had been shredded. And the final indignity: They’d ripped into my Snickers. My very last Snickers.

That morning over breakfast in the shelter, I learned I’d actually been lucky. That hole could’ve been in my tent. Or worse: A friend camping nearby had woken to wet rodent feet stamping across her face. Of the dozen campers at the table, pretty much everyone was visited by mice in the wee hours—everyone who hadn’t secured his or her food, that is.

I make sure to safeguard my food properly now—it’s better for my gear and the wildlife—no matter how tired I am or how hard the wind is blowing.

And hey, mice? You’ll never want that Snickers more than I do. You’ve been warned.

–Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

When hanging is not an option and bears are not a threat, use a rodent-resistant bag, such as the stainless steel Outsak ($33 to $37).

Meet the Experts

Sarah Ebright, operations manager and guide for St. Elias Alpine Guides in Alaska

Marco Johnson, senior faculty with the National Outdoor Leadership School, based in Wyoming

Patrice and Justin La Vigne, gear testers and recent thru-hikers of New Zealand’s 1,864-mile Te Araroa

Katie Yakubowski, instructor and guide for the Appalachian Mountain Club in Maine

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