Backpacking really isn’t that complicated. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Hazards big and small can sabotage any trip. Here’s what you can do before even leaving your house to make sure your next trip is problem-free.
1. Make a firestarter
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. Also, Frito’s corn chips or any type of oily chips (they burn slow and evenly).
Easiest: A fat birthday candle. Also, a trick birthday candle—the kind you can’t blow out. You don’t want a wind gust to spoil your wish.
2. Score last-minute permits
Feeling spontaneous? Just a procrastinator? Either way, you’re in luck: There’s a percentage of permits reserved for walk-ins at every national park. Here’s how to get one:
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.
3. 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.
Tip: Keep your gear closet stocked up with freeze-dried meals and you’ll be ready to head out on last-minute trips on a moment’s notice. Check out our favorites in our monthly taste-test column, Pouch Wars.
4. 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. TSA won’t let you past security with them, anyway. Here’s our breakdown of what gear can and can’t go on the plane, according to TSA’s guidelines.
5. 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). In a well-ventilated area, apply a thin coating to the inside of the seam and let it cure overnight. Plan B: Duct tape. It’s the “slap a band-aid on it for now” equivalent, but it’ll do.
5. Waterproof your map.
Pack it in a quart-size zip-top bag. Now, you can navigate your way through any rainstorm or freak downpour.
6. Load your backpack
A well-organized pack is worth being smug about. Make yours more stable with these tips from former Backpacker editor Casey Lyons.
7. Extend the life of trail food
Keep cheese bricks (hard cheeses last the 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. That keeps them fresher longer. Choose puncture-proof produce (apples over berries, carrots over tomatoes) and pack enough that you can realistically finish in a single meal. Cut off stems before packing.
The best thing since sliced bread? Tortillas. Choose white flour varieties (sturdier and more flexible than whole wheat) and store them flat at the bottom of your food bag or bear canister to avoid tearing or folding.
8. Divvy up group gear
Don’t martyr yourself; no one should carry more than 30 percent of their 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 and give each hiker an appropriate load.
If you’re carrying more than 30 percent of your body weight after dividing up shared gear, it’s time to examine what you’ve packed. Remember, you should only bring one small luxury item. Do you really need all those books and pillows for an overnighter?
9. 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. No more night-before frantic REI trips. Use labeled bins to keep your gear organized at home.
10. Learn from our mistakes
Over thousands of nights in the backcountry, Backpacker’s staff and team of contributors have learned a few things from hard experience. Be prepared to deal with rain, cold, and varmints by reading these three stories of when we weren’t.
11. 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 and frequent); it helps your body produce more red blood cells to adjust to reduced oxygen levels.
12. 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 a deeper flavor to any bland 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 with these earthy flavors.
Salt & pepper: Season just about anything. Boom, instant flavor.
13. Beat the crowds
Plan A: Skip marquee national parks and wilderness areas for BLM land or lesser-known national forests.
Plan B: If you have the navigation and wilderness safety chops, go off-trail where permitted.
Go when others don’t. Check with the National Park Service to find monthly public use statistics for any national park.
14. Estimate hiking time
Leave bravado out of the calculation. A fit person carrying a pack will average around 2 mph on-trail and 1 mph off-trail. Add an additional hour to your journey if your day involves a lot of climbing (ditto for shutterbugs).
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 thru-hikers of New Zealand’s 1,864-mile Te Araroa
Katie Yakubowski, instructor and guide for the Appalachian Mountain Club in Maine