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Bears, Ultralight Disasters, and Backcountry Myth-Busting: Backpacker’s Most-Read Stories of 2021

Our top stories of the year covered how much hiking has changed—and how much it hasn't.

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Hiking may be humankind’s original sport, but it’s changing all the time. The gear gets lighter, new long trails sprout up, and technology, for better or for worse, finds new ways to encroach on the outdoors. Some things about hiking, however, never change.

Our most-read stories of the year covered both the new and the timeless parts of getting into the woods. Readers came to hear about the internet’s worst survival advice, people who cozied up to a bear for a selfie, and how science is changing how we think about thru-hiking. They also read about classic topics like pooping outdoors, dealing with bad partners, and the tricky question of how to stay safe in the woods. Here, in no particular order, are our 10 most-viewed articles of 2021.

A Friendly Reminder: Wild Animals Will Still Mess You Up

Grizzly
A grizzly in Yellowstone. (Photo: National Park Service)

It might seem like common sense that grizzlies, bison, and other large animals are dangerous. But judging by the number of people who suffer close calls or worse with America’s most iconic megafauna while in pursuit of the perfect selfie, it might not be. The latest high-profile example occurred in May, when a visitor got bluff-charged by a feeding griz after getting too close. Senior Digital Editor Adam Roy offered a friendly reminder: provoke it, and wildlife can wreck you. Read the article

The Right Way to Poop in the Backcountry

Pooping in the woods is serious business. (Photo: Illustration by Brett Affrunti)

It may be taboo in everyday life, but the mechanics of pooping in the wilderness are a topic that every hiker has to deal with one way or another. Knowing how and where (and where not) to do it can be the difference between a satisfying go and an, er, uncomfortable day out. Senior Skills Editor Zoe Gates answers all the questions you were too afraid to ask. Read the article (Outside+)

7 Ultralighters Share Their Worst Gear Decisions

tarp
A tarp set up with trekking poles (Photo: Joseph)

Cutting your pack weight can help you move faster, preserve energy, and generally have more capacity to enjoy the wilderness without feeling weighed down. But like many things in life, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, and it’s always easier to learn from other people’s mistakes than your own. Columnist Chris Meehan interviewed ultralighters about their misadventures with Tyvek, tarps, and using their potty trowels as a spoon (seriously). Read the article

Lost in the Wilderness? Don’t Change Your Voicemail.

stranded hiker looks for cell service on phone
Lost in the woods? Don’t follow this suspect advice. (Photo: TRAVELARIUM via Getty)

Maybe you saw a meme with a piece of unusual advice going around a few months ago: If you’re lost in the wilderness, change your voicemail so people calling you will know that you’re in trouble. Like a lot of unsourced advice on the internet, however, it was bad—maybe dangerously so. Assistant Skills Editor Emma Veidt broke down why with the help of search and rescue experts. Read the article

Could Thru-Hiking Be Bad For Your Health? A New Study Makes a Troubling Find.

hiker on the pacific crest trail
A hiker traverses the PCT’s Kendall Katwalk near Seattle. (Photo: Kelly Bork)

If exercise is good for your health, then walking 2,650 miles in one go should be great for you, right? As two scientists from University of Colorado Boulder reported in a case study published this year, it doesn’t always work out that way. Adam Roy spoke to the researchers about their unorthodox experiment, and what it could mean for aspiring thru-hikers. Read the article

A 153-Person Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim Group Hike Ignored Park Rules, Common Sense

Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon (Photo: Quinn Nietfeld)

With Covid-19 closing indoor venues and forcing event cancellations, national park attendance has boomed. According to the National Park Service, one man took group hikes to a new level when he organized an illegal 153-person hike through the Grand Canyon, shattering size limits and drawing one of the highest-profile misdemeanor charges we’ve ever seen. Adam Roy dove into court documents to break down an unusual (and still ongoing) case. Read the article

My Worst Hike: My Boyfriend Left Me Injured on the Trail

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Photo: Cavan Images/Cavan via Getty Images)

Sometimes, hiking with a romantic partner brings you closer together. Sometimes, however, it exposes some serious red flags. When writer Meg Atteberry headed into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado with her then-beau more than a decade ago, she didn’t expect that a normal hike would turn into ordeal thanks to one minor injury and one major asshole. Read the article (Outside+)

Ask a Thru-Hiker: Should I Carry a Gun on the Trail?

concealed carry pistol
Carrying a gun on the trail. (Photo: Ron Bailey/iStock via Getty)

The most common question that thru-hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas gets when she speaks to audiences isn’t about her packing strategy, her daily mileage, or her stretching routine: It’s about packing heat. Many aspiring thru-hikers wonder if they should bring a gun on the trail. Snorkel took a thorough, balanced answer to a controversial question in this column. Read the article (Outside+)

Why You Should Use Trekking Poles

hikers use trekking poles while crossing a bridge
Hikers cross a bridge using trekking poles. (Photo: Seiya Kawamoto via Getty Images)

You can’t grow two more legs like a mountain goat—but getting a solid pair of trekking poles is the next best thing. By always giving you two points of contact with the ground and taking weight off of your knees, trekking pole use is proven to reduce fatigue and ward off injuries. Emma Veidt breaks down how to pick the right pair of poles and use them in this back-to-basics primer. Read the article

How a Plus-Size Hiker Found Her Footing

hiker walking up a rock face
Mama Kubwa on the trail. (Photo: Allie Gaddy)

Even after two ascents of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Richardson—trail name “Mama Kubwa”—still dealt with patronizing and occasionally overtly rude comments regularly. As a larger hiker, she said, she got accustomed to people looking at her as if she didn’t belong. “I was sick of that ‘attagirl’ look, as if I had only taken on adventures for weight loss,” she wrote in this essay on hiking the Long Trail. Instead, on the trail, she found something deeper. Read the article (Outside+)