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Secrets of the Guides

Camp like a pro with 83 field-tested tips and techniques from experts who earn their paychecks in the backcountry.

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What do you get when you fork over big bucks to hike with a guide? Someone who knows more than you do and loves to share the details. But maybe you don’t have a free week for field training this summer? If you don’t, read on, because we asked 27 professional guides to divulge their favorite tips – the little things that separate lay hikers from master bushwhackers, campsite architects, expert navigators, gourmet backcountry chefs, emergency medics, and survival specialists. Here’s their advice on pitching a tent in a storm, baking perfect pizza, drying wet clothes, and much, much more.


Pitch a tent in a downpour

Bring a lightweight tarp. If it’s raining hard when you get to camp, quickly set up the tarp, then pitch your tent underneath. Now you’ll also have a place to sit and eat.

Howie Wolke, Big Wild Adventures

Pitch a tent in the wind

Anchor the tent before the poles go up. Next, clip one half of the rainfly to the tent’s windward side, bunching it up on the ground. Then pull it over the body and attach the other side. Also, remember to stuff the fly into the stuff sack first and the body second, so you can remove the body without the fly taking off in the wind.

Mark Postle, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides

Sleep in the woods

If you have a choice between camping in the trees or in a meadow, choose the trees. Meadows are colder and dewier in the morning, and they are also damaged more easily by frequent use.

Howie Wolke

Prevent frozen water in winter

Fill a pot three-quarters full of water. Put the covered pot in a cubbyhole you’ve carved into a snow wall. Seal in the pot with snow. In the morning, the water will still be liquid.

Kurt Wedberg, Sierra

Mountaineering International

Keep the water flowing

Vary the way you purify backcountry water, depending on the situation. For instant thirst-quenching, use a water filter as you’re hiking. When you’re sitting in camp, use chemical treatments to get several potable liters without all the pumping.

Julia Cozby, Escalante Outback Adventures

I never leave home without…A multiuse pad

I carry a 1’x2′ section of cheap Ensolite pad with one side covered in duct tape. It serves a variety of purposes: a small sit pad to keep my butt (and therefore the rest of my body) warm; an insulated surface on which to put a pot that’s just come off the stove (duct-taped side up); and an instant supply of really thick mole foam for blisters and other problems. Rather than stack multiple strips of moleskin, I just cut a small section off my sit pad to treat the injury.

Molly Loomis, Alpine Ascents International

Dig for water

In spring, set up camp near a stream and dig down through the ice to running water. The quick excavation beats melting snow.

Conan Bliss, Alpine Ascents International

Insulate your water against cold

You know to fill a Lexan bottle with boiling water. Now slip a sock over it for perfect warmth, not scalding heat. Stow the hot-water bottle in your sleeping bag and you’ll have nonfrozen water in the morning.

Kathryn Hess, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides

Keep your dry socks dry

If your boots are wet when you get to camp, put on dry socks and then slip your feet into plastic bags before putting your wet boots back on. Your socks stay dry, and if you’re out of the rain, the heat from your feet will actually start to dry your boots. If the rain persists, put the wet pair back on in the morning to preserve the dry ones.

– Andy Bartleet, Outward Bound

Get a close shave
Not only can aloe vera soothe sunburn, but it also works well for shaving. A small amount of aloe vera lotion will cover a large area, and there’s no need for aftershave.

Craig Van Hoy, Go Trek & Expeditions

Make a warmer fire

To get more heat from your fire without using more wood, hang a space blanket a few feet behind the blaze, either from a tree or using trekking poles. This will reflect the heat back at you.

Tammi Hinkle, Adventures Through Kayaking

Dry drenched fleece
Vigorously swing wet fleece in circles overhead. The water will fly right off.

Gail Green, Living Adventure

Warm numb digits fast

Quickly swing your arms in a circle and kick your feet back and forth. Don’t stop until you feel your fingers or toes throbbing.

Kathryn Hess

Dedicate a pair of socks

Keep a pair of socks in the bottom of your sleeping bag so your feet spend at least 8 hours a day in a dry environment. Wet skin is blister-prone skin.

Caroline Blair-Smith, Outward Bound

Match your batteries

Try to purchase an MP3, flashlight, and GPS that use the same battery type. This makes it easier to pack spares.

Kathryn Hess

Give a hot rock massage

Look for several smooth, small rocks – orange- to grapefruit-size with flat sides are ideal. Place them in the coals of your fire to heat them, then roll them out with a stick. When they’re cool enough to handle, place them on your fellow camper’s back to soothe sore muscles. Caution: Stand away from the rocks as they heat up in the coals. Moisture inside can make them crack open.

– Gail Green


Build better balance

In uneven terrain, don’t try to match each step with a pole plant. Use poles only when necessary, and you’ll develop better agility.

– Molly Loomis, Alpine Ascents International

Take more steps, use less energy

On steep slopes, hike in a zigzag pattern. By going back and forth you’ll shift the greater burden from leg to leg, giving each a periodic rest. And learn to pick the easiest off-trail terrain. Going uphill, choose big, stable rocks to walk on; you won’t lose power pushing off. Going down, look for small, fine scree, which absorbs impact.

– Peter Amann, IFMGA Mountain Guide

Prevent blisters

Get boots that fit a half size looser than your street shoes, and don’t lace them tightly. They should almost come off in mud. Giving your foot more space and the ability to bend naturally will eliminate friction.

– Kathryn Hess

Hike and gather

When it’s raining, collect kindling while on the trail and carry it in a small stuff bag so you’ll have dry wood in camp.

Howie Wolke

Silence the bear bells

Making incessant noise in grizzly country prevents you from seeing other wildlife and may incur the wrath of other hikers. Use sound judgment. If you’re hiking into a headwind and/or visibility is poor, it’s time to sing out, “Hey bear!”

Howie Wolke

Do a system check

Whenever I start hiking, whether it’s from camp or just a short rest stop, I look up (at the terrain, the weather) and I look down (at my boots, to see if they’re tied securely, and at the trail, to check the footing). After I take five steps out, I look back. Someone has usually left something behind – trash, a glove, a bag of gorp, sunglasses.

Skip Horner, Skip Horner International

See more wildlife

Sit in front of a tree, rock, or bush. This helps disguise the outline of your body, making it less likely that animals will spot you.

– Howie Wolke

Exploit your rainfly

Use your tent fly as a waterproof liner inside your pack. Stuff the fly in first, creating a big pouch with the remaining material flowing out the top. Pack everything in, then fold the remaining fly material back into the bag.
Molly Loomis

I never leave home without…


Sure, cotton kills – when you’re up at 14,000 feet and it’s hailing. But when you’re lower, and you’re parched and hot, you want a cotton T-shirt. By retaining moisture, it aids cooling. At any elevation I always bring a pair of cotton boxers to sleep in. That way I have something fresh to change into, so I don’t have to stay in the manky long johns I’ve been wearing all day.

Conan Bliss, Alpine Ascents International

Stay hydrated, carry less water

For summer days on glaciers or snowfields, I carry only a liter bottle filled with lukewarm water. Whenever I take a drink, I add a bit of snow. This way my bottle stays mostly full all day. When adding snow, look for the wet or granular type. Scrape away the surface to find denser snow, which has higher water content. Do this from the start – not when you’re down to an inch of liquid. It’ll save you 2 or even 4 pounds of water weight.

Peter Amann

Lose a pole

When you’re scrambling on steep terrain, use only one trekking pole. Hold it in the uphill hand, which keeps your balance close to the slope. Adjust the pole length so you can grip the handle comfortably.

Peter Amann

Warm your hands, Part I

Store chemical handwarmers in a hard plastic container. If you pack them loosely, they might rub against something and accidentally activate, which means they won’t do their job when your hands are cold – and you really need them.

Joe Lentini, EMS Climbing School

Warm your hands, Part II

An hour before arriving in camp, put handwarmers in your gloves. They’ll help dry out sweaty gloves, and make setting up camp much more pleasant if you need bare hands for a few moments.

Maury McKinney, International Mountain Climbing School


Wear biking gloves

On a long kayaking trip, they’ll keep your hands from getting sore, but because they don’t have fingers, you’ll still stay cool.
Wade Watson, Voyageurs Adventures

Fix a small leak

Stick a Q-tip in the hole and hold it in place with duct tape.
Sam Raymond, Keweenaw Adventure Company

Pack small

Use many small dry bags to load a kayak; they’re easy to fit in the compartments.
Gail Green

Make your paddles visible

Place strips of reflective tape on the back side of the paddle blade. In low light, other boaters will be able to see you better.

Wade Watson

Read the seaweed

Watch the kelp – it flows in the direction of the surface current. It can also help you land safely in a break zone, because kelp won’t grow in large surf.

Tammi Hinkle

Make a butt cushion

Lay your sleeping pad in the cockpit of your kayak. The padding makes paddling more comfortable, and sitting on it leaves you more space in the bulkheads.

Wade Watson

Find your grip

Mark the spot on your kayak paddle’s shaft where you put your lead hand, making a little ridge with waterproof tape. When you’re upside down underwater, you’ll be able to quickly put your hand in the right place and roll up.

Conan Bliss


Conserve batteries

If your group has more than one cellular or satellite phone available during an emergency situation, turn all of them but one off. A search-and-rescue team may need to call several times before finding you.
Tammi Hinkle

Start a fire with pitch

Add a teaspoon of this sticky substance – found on pines and other evergreens – to kindling. Your fire will start right up.
Kathryn Hess

Aim your signal mirror

Line up your hand with the helicopter or person you want to signal. Reflect the signal mirror off your hand to check alignment. Then beam the light into the sky.

Tommy Longfellow, Outward Bound

Predict a storm

In the North Temperate Zone, southerly and easterly winds frequently foretell oncoming frontal systems. But don’t pay attention to surface winds – there are too many anomalies in the mountains. Instead, observe which direction the clouds are moving.
Howie Wolke

Collect water anywhere

Dig a pit in the ground and spread your tarp over it. Weigh down the middle of the tarp with a rock and make a small puncture underneath. Place a bowl underneath this. Moisture will condense from the ground, bead on your tarp, and flow into the bowl.

Tammi Hinkle

I never leave home without…


Lots of them. I always keep three or four stashes of matches in waterproof containers in different parts of my backpack to insure against loss and wetness. Put some in your pockets, too.

Howie Wolke, Big Wild Adventures

Make sparks

Touch steel wool to the end of a 9-volt battery, and you’ll have an instant spark with which to start a fire.
Tammi Hinkle

Start a fire with your camera

The lens on your camera can work like a magnifying glass to start a fire. Remove the lens (or open the camera back and shutter) and zoom in on the kindling. Now be patient, and let the sun do its work.
Brad Thompson, Adventures Through Kayaking


Make better pizza

Before removing your pepperoni pie from a Dutch oven, add a teaspoon of water to the very edge of the pan – enough to vaporize the water but not enough to get the crust soggy. What you get: melted cheese in less than a minute.

Ashley Woods, The Women’s Wilderness Institute

Fry a fish at the right temperature

Throw a wooden match into an oiled skillet that has been heating for about 10 minutes. If the match spontaneously ignites, it means the oil is between 375° and 400°F – perfect for cooking a fish crisp on the outside, tender on the inside.

Wade Watson

Make no-mess hummus

Mix dried hummus right in the bag. Use a strong freezer zipper-lock, add water, and then mash the bag with your fingers.

Laura Tyson, The Women’s Wilderness Institute

Make a Whisperlite stove simmer

Using paper clips, wrap your windscreen in a tight circle, so it fits just over the stove (becoming the pot support). Roll down small sections of the screen every few inches, creating airflow. With the pot resting on the windscreen, the extra height above the flame lowers the cooking temperature.

Molly Loomis

Eat your greens

Prewash vegetables and store them in a plastic container. In cool weather, even lettuce will keep for up to 3 days.
Conan Bliss

Bring a dishwasher

A Tupperware bowl with a lid can hold leftovers and also makes cleaning easy: Fill with hot water, put the lid on, and shake.
Molly Loomis

Jump-start your stove

A cold canister stove can be sluggish when first lit. Before lighting it, use a candle to warm the gas cartridge. Hold the flame directly underneath the canister.

Joe Lentini

Use fail-safe storage bags

Zipper-locks are great for pasta and rice, but flour and powdered milk will gum up the seal. Pack these and similar foods in sturdy plastic bags tied with a knot.

Dave Anderson

I never leave home without…

Vegetable bouillon cubes

They’re lightweight, make a savory hot drink, and add welcome flavor to dishes like rice and instant mashed potatoes. Chicken or beef bouillon cubes work too, if you like a stronger flavor.

– Caroline Blair-Smith, Outward Bound

Add cream

Individual cream cheese packets add a nice texture and taste to sauces, soups, and other meals. In warm weather, the sealed single servings don’t spoil as quickly as the bigger packages do.

Molly Loomis

Protect eggs

Put a cardboard egg container in a plastic bag and close with a rubber band. Then wrap a piece of cardboard (cut to the length of the container) around the package and close with tape. Even if some eggs break, the mess stays in the bag. Unlike plastic containers, the cardboard can be used to start fires, so you don’t have to carry it the rest of the trip.

– Lynn O’Kane, Voyageur North Outfitters

Eat fat

Winter is no time to diet if you’re traveling in the backcountry. You need extra calories to stay warm and maintain energy. Try this fat-filled dish: Melt slices of processed cheese in instant mashed potatoes made with powdered milk. Add bacon.

Peter Amann

Add too much water

Prepare freeze-dried meals with extra water. If you drink the gravy like soup, it helps you stay hydrated while minimizing potential stomach trouble caused by eating under-hydrated foods. While you’re setting up camp, you can also presoak the meals to save on fuel and cooking time.

Lynn O’Kane


Keep your first-aid kit close

Medical supplies such as inhalers, epinephrine, insulin, and contact-lens solution need to stay warm. Place them in an inside pocket or on a string around your neck, under your layers.

Caroline Blair-Smith

Improvise a sling

Slip on another layer (sweater or jacket), but rather than putting your arm into the sleeve, insert the point of your elbow. Bring the remaining section of sleeve across your body and tie off using the other sleeve.

Molly Loomis

Apply nose balm

The bottom of your nose will burn easily from reflected light when you’re hiking on snow, but it’s hard to get sunscreen to stick there, because your nose is often wet. Instead, apply lip balm regularly.

– Kathryn Hess

Hike like you’re retired

Older people often acclimatize to altitude better because they tend to walk slower. If you want to reach a high peak without getting sick, try keeping pace with the slower people in your group.

Craig Van Hoy

I never leave home without…

Rubber bands

Unlike mosquitoes, black flies can’t bite through most fabrics, but they can – and will – crawl up pant legs and shirtsleeves, so I bring a few large rubber bands to seal them out.

– Dave Anderson, NOLS

Make moleskin stick

Trim square moleskin bandages to make them round. They won’t peel off as easily.
Kathryn Hess

Stop a nosebleed

Have the person sit down and lean back. Take off their shoes and socks. Massage under the arch and tap

Peter Amann

Recycle your water bottle

Make a first-aid kit out of an old widemouthed Lexan bottle. It makes a perfect waterproof safe for matches and lighters, bandages, repair material, and other supplies.

– Julia Cozby


Keep your map handy

Each morning, I fold my map so the area I’ll be traveling through will fit on one side of a zipper-lock bag. I carry the map in my hand or around my neck, rain or shine. In tricky terrain, I hold the map with my thumb firmly on the last known point, allowing me to quickly update my position as I travel.

– Dave Anderson

Play leapfrog

When you’re off-trail and visibility is low, stand in one spot with a compass while your partner follows your bearing, correcting course as she goes. Before she’s out of visual range, catch up with her and repeat.

– Kathryn Hess

Judge slope angle

Slope angle can be tricky to judge with the human eye, especially if the hill is covered in snow. Tilt your head 90 degrees to the side, and you’ll be able to visualize it better.

Molly Loomis

I never leave home without…

A digital camera

You can use it for more than hero shots. Document your route with a digital camera. These pictures are great for future reference and help reveal some of the terrain’s secrets. If you’re retracing your route, you can consult the camera’s LED display for visual cues. When you get home, paste the pictures on the opposite side of your map and then laminate.

Peter Amann, IFMGA Mountain Guide

Leave breadcrumbs

When traveling a new off-trail route, mark your way with temporary rock cairns at key turns. Be sure to knock them over as you return so other hikers don’t accidentally follow your path. (Obviously, this doesn’t work for loop hikes.)

Paul Knight, Wild Horizons


Improve any water

In the desert, you drink what you find. If the water is full of gunk, strain particles with a handkerchief. Mix with a sports drink, tea, or soup mix.

Liz Tuohy, NOLS

Drink in the evening

If water is limited, drink more in the evening than during the day. This allows your cells to absorb the water while you rest in the cool of the evening instead of sweating it out immediately in the heat of the day.

– Tammi Hinkle

Top off

When water is plentiful, drink up. Staying hydrated regularly will help your body weather the stress of a day without water.

Scott Christy, NOLS

I never leave home without…


They’re not just for rain. Low gaiters will keep your ankles and socks free of painful cactus spines and sharp grass seeds.

Liz Tuohy, NOLS

Wear lightweight shoes

Heavy leather boots are hot and cumbersome in canyon and desert terrain. Use approach shoes instead. They improve ankle mobility on uneven rock surfaces, helping create a better sense of balance.

Julia Cozby

Sleep on foam

Seems obvious, but hikers often forget: Self-inflating mattresses puncture easily in the desert. Pack indestructible closed-cell foam.

Liz Tuohy

Stay dry at night

Often, the flattest places in slickrock country are slight depressions where water tends to pool. Look instead for campsites that don’t collect water, like the top of a gentle dome.

Scott Christy

Stay warm at night

In a canyon, sleep on a ledge 6 feet above the bottom. It will be warmer because you will be out of the nightly cold-air sink.

– Liz Tuohy

Fix blisters

Smear a thick glob of petroleum jelly on the outside of your sock, right over the sore spot. You’ll get relief from the rubbing.

– Molly Loomis, Alpine Ascents International

Burn Potato Chips

Put a flame to these greasy snacks, and you’ll get an instantaneous and hot fire.

For 20 years, Craig Van Hoy has led expeditions to such peaks as Aconcagua, Vinson, and Everest. He guided Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to summit the world’s highest peak. But Van Hoy says his most satisfying work isn’t on mountaintops. For 3 months out of each of the last 5 years, he’s taken a break from Go Trek & Expeditions to teach fifth graders in Washington state’s Evergreen School District how to tie knots, paddle canoes, and otherwise fend for themselves in the outdoors.

Laura Tyson says she’s spent more than 1,000 nights in the backcountry during her guiding career. She put in 15 years leading Outward Bound courses in Colorado, then established The Women’s Wilderness Institute. Through this Boulder-based nonprofit, Tyson guides all-female backpacking, rafting, climbing, and mountain biking trips throughout the West. “For many years, the wilderness was really a man’s domain,” she says. “But women are really catching up and realizing that it’s ours, too.”

Whether scaling the cliffs of Mali’s Bandiagara or bouldering in New York’s Central Park, Joe Lentini has been climbing nonstop since overcoming his fear of heights more than 30 years ago. He’s taught thousands of beginners how to belay, and as director of the EMS Climbing School for the last 28 years, Joe is EMS’s longest-serving employee. “If you had my job,” he says, “you’d be here for a long time, too.”

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