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Beginner Skills

Course Correction: Backpacker Owns Up to Our Worst Advice

Some advice doesn’t age well. It’s time for an upgrade.

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Over the past 50 years, Backpacker has been your trusted source for all sorts of camping and trail advice, from knot-tying to nutrition to wildlife safety. We’re proud to be the authority on all things hiking—but even the experts slip up sometimes. We are big enough to admit that some of the advice we offered over the decades is now outdated, or, at the time, was just plain misguided. Like any good outdoorspeople, we’re always learning, and five decades later, we’re here to set the record straight. 

On Fueling Up

“Rusk was first used by the Roman legions as rations while on the march. When the Roman Empire spread, so did the consumption of rusk. A simple rusk can be made by mixing 1 cup of flour and ½ cup of honey. Spread the batter into thin biscuits on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350°F until dark brown (about 15 minutes). When you taste it, you’ll understand how the Roman Empire was built.” —Backpacker 1975

Correction: Sure, the Romans were pioneers of all sorts of technological and cultural advancements. But that doesn’t mean we should emulate everything they did today. This recipe got plenty of heat in reader letters soon after it was published; the rusk was likened to “paving stones,” “weapons,” and one reader even used it to fill a bird feeder (“poor birds”). We’ll stick with Clif bars.

On Foraging Wild Carrot

“There is no possible way for this plant to be confused with any other related plants, some of which are poisonous.” —Backpacker 1974

Correction: This edible plant, also called Queen Anne’s lace, does in fact have a few poisonous look-alikes. The most threatening of these are poison hemlock and water hemlock, which share wild carrot’s signature white flower and flower shape, but can cause convulsions, vomiting, and even death. Want to avoid Socratesing yourself? Tell the toxic plants from the edible ones by their stems: Hemlock’s are smooth with purple splotches, while wild carrot’s are hairy and green.

On Hunting Escargot 

“Brown snails are easy to find and prepare. They can be eaten raw, boiled, or roasted. In fact, snails are excellent survival food, as they can go for weeks without food and still stay alive. Carry them in your pack for a continuous supply of fresh food.” —Backpacker 1981

Correction: They may be a French delicacy, but raw snails could put you at risk for infections including rat lungworm, says Dr. Benjamin Chapman, a food safety expert at NC State University. This parasite is passed through rodent feces; snails and slugs get infected when they eat the larvae. Consuming raw infected snails can cause headaches, vomiting, muscle aches, and fever. And that’s not all. “There has also been some recent research finding pathogenic bacteria in snails including Campylobacter, Yersinia, Salmonella, Listeria, and Shiga toxin-producing E. coli,” says food safety expert Dr. Ellen Shumaker.

On Finding Safe Drinking Water

“Moving water stirs up bacteria and disease-causing protozoa, increasing the chance they’ll be swallowed by a thirsty hiker.
If you can’t disinfect your water, try to take it from a still spot.”
—Backpacker 1991

Correction: We’re really not sure where this one came from, since hiker wisdom has told us for years to avoid drinking straight from stagnant water. And if we’re talking about different spots from the same water source, it doesn’t really matter: “As long as you are collecting water from a relatively clean stream, the speed of the water is largely irrelevant,” says Barrett Wood, wilderness medicine and survival instructor for SOLO Southeast. “If your water is truly sitting still, then it is a much more inviting space for microbes and small invertebrates to grow and multiply.”

 Treat your water when you can, and avoid stagnant puddles and turbid, algae-filled, or contaminated sources. And remember: Water-borne illnesses take a few weeks to hit. If you’re dehydrated and in danger, drink whatever water you can find and worry about the consequences later. 

On Keeping Your Extremities Toasty 

“Keep your hands and feet warm by sprinkling a little cayenne pepper in your socks and glove liners. It may temporarily stain your fingers and toes red, but the warmth is worth it.” —Reader tip, Backpacker 1994 

Correction:  Here’s a scenario for you: You’re happily snowshoeing along when a gusty breeze rolls through, causing you to tear up. You pull a hand out of your chili-filled mitts to wipe your eyes and—AHH! Trip ruined. There’s no science to support this tip, says Dr. Luanne Freer, emergency medicine doctor and founder of Everest ER, though it may help trick some people into thinking they’re warmer: “If I were going to try to use something to prevent cold injury, I’d concentrate on dry layers and either electrical or chemical warmers—those definitely and reliably work.”

On Gourmet Camp Cooking

“If I were to go camping … I think I’d bring a little bottle of dry vermouth—perfect for marinating a possum, in case you shoot one.” —Julia Child, Backpacker 1987

Correction: Having never sampled marinated possum, we can’t actually comment on whether this is bad advice, but it’s certainly not practical advice. While we’re impressed that our predecessors got Julia Child to contribute a quote to Backpacker, she wouldn’t be our go-to for camp cooking advice. We don’t know many hikers out there bagging possums nowadays, but if you manage to try this one out, please let us know how it goes. 

On Staying Hydrated

“Start drinking before you feel thirsty and keep drinking after you feel satisfied.” —Backpacker 1991

Correction: One thing we didn’t know as much about 30 years ago? Hyponatremia, a condition that occurs when there’s not enough sodium in the bloodstream. There is such a thing as overdrinking, and replenishing electrolytes is just as important as hydrating. For the most part, you can prevent hyponatremia by consuming salty snacks, but “rehydration during exercise is not a straightforward ‘one size fits all’ concept,” says Dr. Brad Bennett, former president of the Wilderness Medical Society. The current advice, according to the experts? Drink to satisfy thirst.

On Dead Cheap Gear

“It may sound morbid, but I bought an unused body bag at an Army/Navy surplus store for $20, and it makes a great bivy sack. It’s waterproof, durable, and can be used as a stretcher in case of an emergency.” —Reader tip, Backpacker 1994

Correction: Much like what they’re designed to hold, body bags don’t breathe. Waking up clammy isn’t worth the cost savings to us, but go ahead and use it, if you want. It’s your funeral. 


From 2022