Backpacking is incredible exercise and an incredible way to connect with nature. But, backpacking isn’t exactly easy, at least not without a little bit of physical training and mental prep. The mental prep is what this article is all about – what you need to know, or know how to do, before you go on a backpacking trip.
This list of backpacking skills is long, but not completely exhaustive. That said, the following skills are pretty much everything you need to know to enjoy your first backpacking trip!
Table of Contents
The importance of staying hydrated can be summed up this way: do it or you’ll die. Some tips for keeping yourself hydrated and full of electrolytes:
- Drink at least double what you normally do, because you’re going to be thirstier than you realize.
- Bring salt sticks or electrolyte tablets, because you need more than just pure water to stay hydrated
- Bring a water filtration kit so you don’t have to lug all that water at once.
- Learn where the most accessible water sources are before you start hiking.
Trail etiquette and passing rules
Being a kind person on the trail goes a long way. You don’t want to be that person, making what should be a great day for everyone a bad day for everyone but you. Passing people on the trail, or crossing paths with people headed the other direction, are important moments for knowing what to do. Here are a few tips for proper trail etiquette:
- While you technically have the right-of-way with mountain bikes, it’s usually easier for you to just move aside; in practice, most hikers do step aside every time.
- Horses get right-of-way every time
- When you cross paths with other hikers, whoever’s going uphill has the right-of-way.
- It’s nice to say hello or nod your head, but this isn’t required and it’s not usually rude if you don’t say hello.
- Don’t play music from your phone or a speaker; nobody on the trail will be excited to hear your Spotify playlist on their vacation.
- Unless you know you’re pretty far from others, shouting and loud singing can be considered rude; talking/singing at an appropriately loud volume is just fine, though. It’s more about being aware of your surroundings than it is a certain decibel level.
Taking safe steps on rough terrain
The number one hiking injury is the dreaded twisted/sprained/broken ankle. If you’ve had these injuries in the past, you know the pain and frustration all too well. Keeping your eyes on the trail, taking sure steps, and keeping an eye out for slippery terrain can all prevent these injuries, though.
The best way to train your legs for hiking is to go on a very easy hike a few times, then slowly increase the difficulty.
Treating injuries and blisters
No matter how careful you are, it’s impossible to completely avoid injuries; blisters are extremely common, too. Having a first aid kit and blister tape goes a long, long way toward either finishing your hike with a mild injury or being able to safely get home with a more serious injury.
Not being prepared makes mild injuries bad, and bad injuries potentially life-threatening. A few first-aid skills you should know:
- How to wrap an ankle, knee, and elbow
- How to make a splint for fingers, or arms/legs if you’re unlucky
- How to recognize signs of heatstroke, dehydration, and concussions.
- How to treat cuts and bug bites on the trail
Avoiding poison ivy
This is the last thing you want to take home with you. Knowing how to spot poison ivy is important, but most encounters with the stuff can be mitigated with long socks and pants. Nobody wants to mess around with poison ivy, so you should either know how to spot it instantly or keep your legs and ankles covered.
Trip Planning and Packing
How to pack a backpack
Properly loading up your backpacking pack is easier said than done. If you don’t compress your gear enough, you’ll have an infuriating time trying to pack. If you don’t know the right order for packing your pack, you won’t balance your pack weight correctly and will be very uncomfortable while hiking.
We’re working on a step-by-step guide, but for now, here’s a great video:
How to put on a backpack
Once your bag is packed, it’s time to learn how to put it on and secure it. You should have already learned about proper bag fit when you purchased your pack, and the proper way of putting it on goes as follows:
How to choose a backpacking trail
If you’re going on your first backpacking trip, you should leave Mount Whitney and other difficult trails alone, at least at the beginning. Even if you’re in great physical shape, the mental challenges of backpacking – and that giant backpack – are reason enough to take it easy the first time around.
Look for a trail that you can hike in 5-7 hours per day; there might be 12+ hours of sunlight, but there is a limit to how many miles you can hike in a day, and you definitely don’t want to be hiking a full 12 hours. 5-7 hours of hiking gives you plenty of time to hike, rest, eat, set up camp, and enjoy yourself.
The other question is how many total miles to do, and how many per day. Once you become a thru-hiker, you’ll be able to cover 25+ miles in a day, but beginner backpackers should look to do 5-12 miles per day, depending on their physical fitness and the difficulty of the trail. On a 3-night trip, that equates to 15-36 miles, again depending on the person/trip.
How to get a backpacking permit
Don’t go backpacking without first checking whether or not you need a permit, and obtaining one If it is required. Backpackers who don’t have permits are (to put it lightly) douchebags. It’s not just rude to the people you might be stealing a backcountry campsite from, it can also be harmful to the environment to have too many people using it at once.
Even when the land isn’t threatened by too much human activity, and there are plenty of campsites to go around, it’s unsafe to go backpacking without a permit. Permits let rangers know where you are; if you go missing, the permit is the first thing they’ll look for as rescue operations begin. If you don’t have a permit that says your entry/exit dates and the trail you’re supposed to be on, you are much harder to find.
How to cook on the trail
I keep it simple and either eat raw/pre-cooked food or boil water for dehydrated food pouches in my Jetboil Flash. Other people go fully raw/pre-cooked. Some people go the other way, bringing gourmet backcountry meals and skillets with them.
One thing to remember as you plan your meals: many national parks and forests don’t allow fires in the backcountry, so you won’t be roasting marshmallows or making grilled cheeses like they do in stock photos!
How to keep yourself clean
Clean hands, clean mouth, clean down there. Those are the three most important places to be clean, because bacteria in the backcountry is no joke. If you aren’t prepared and vigilant about keeping clean, you can come home with a bacterial infection that will ruin a lot of things for you, including your toilet at home if you pick up dysentery.
Your first aid kit will come in handy over and over again if you run into things like poison Ivy, rolled ankles, bug bites, or allergic reactions. A few other things you should know that fall into the cleanliness/health category:
- How to treat a posion ivy rash on the trail.
- How to treat cuts and bruises
- What to do with bathroom trash like used toilet paper (sometimes, you’ll need to “pack it out”)
- Optional: how to detect edible plants on the trail and avoid eating the wrong berries and dying
How to handle bears and other wild animals
Bear spray should be part of your packing list, not because you’ll need it all the time, but because it’s the only thing that can save your life in the one-in-20-million chance a bear does charge at you. Bear spray can also be used to get out of sticky situations with moose and mountain lions, so it’s just good to have.
You should also know how to deal with bear encounters so that you’ll never even get to the point of needing bear spray. Also, an air horn can alert bears and other animals to your presence long before they’re within eyesight. I brought a bear horn on my last backpacking trip, and it helped soothe my irrational fears.
How to set up camp
It’s important to know not only how, but where to set up your tent. Many backpacking trails have designated campsites scattered along them so that backpackers can safely make camp without damaging the environment. Most of these campsites have tent pads – sections of prepared dirt – that are the only place you’re allowed to pitch your tent.
You should also know where to keep your food and scented items (hint: not inside your tent, unless you want to really freak out an innocent, curious bear). Bear hangs are common in some areas and with thru-hikers, but the use of a bear canister is more effective and often required in most areas. Put all your food and scented items in the bear canister, put it at least 200 feet away from your tent, and you’re good to go.
How to pack up your campsite in the morning
Packing up a campsite isn’t technically a “skill”, but you’d be surprised how much harder it is to fill your pack if your tent wasn’t properly folded. This isn’t really something to learn as much as it is something to keep in mind – there is a right and wrong way to pack a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tent footprint.
If you’re in an area that allows for campfires in the backcountry, the spirit of Smokey the Bear should be with you at all times. Keep your fire from getting too large, know how to choose firewood, and don’t chop any trees down unless you know for a fact that it’s allowed (in many places, it isn’t).
Make sure the fire is out before you go to bed, even if you feel like it isn’t necessary. All it takes is a gust of wind and some dry grass to start a forest fire from a nearly-dead campfire. And, keep in mind that people who start fires, even by accident, can be held liable.
Backpacking Ethics and Leave No Trace
Backpacking skills don’t just include knowing how to use tools and gear; you also need to know how to be responsible for yourself, your hiking partner(s), and the environment you’re in. Most of these skills can be summed up by the 7 principles of Leave No Trace (often abbreviated to LNT).
LNT is essentially just a set of principles that guide appropriate and responsible behavior on a hike or backpacking trip. Following the 7 principles ensures that you’re going about your trip in a way that isn’t going to harm other people, animals, or the landscape.
Up first, though, are a couple of things to remember:
Don’t solo hike without telling someone
Solo hiking and backpacking is a lot of fun, and it’s usually safe. That said, it can be very dangerous if one thing is forgotten: sharing your itinerary with someone back home. This should be something you do on any backpacking trip, no matter whether or not you’re alone. But, if you are going solo, it’s much, much more important.
Don’t leave your hiking partner behind
Some people hike faster than others; some people need more rest than others. Sometimes, the person you’re backpacking with will be either way faster or way slower than you, but it’s important to stay together. It can be tempting to hike ahead and get camp set up early, but it’s not worth it to leave someone behind, or be left behind yourself!
The 7 Rules to Leave No Trace
Now it’s time for the 7 LNT principles:
1. Plan ahead and prepare
We’ve covered this pretty extensively already, so we’ll just sum it up here: the less prepared you are, the worse your backpacking trip will be, for you and others. Backpacking trip planning doesn’t require a ton of learning or even that much work; all you really need is a commitment to being ready. Backpacking is safe, but only with proper planning and prep.
You should know, at a minimum:
- Where you’re going
- Where you’re sleeping each night
- How far you’re hiking each day
- How much food you need
- Where the water sources are
- What the weather is going to be like
- If your backpacking gear setup is appropriate for the trip in mind
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Not every part of a national park is suitable for people to be walking on or pitching tents on. In fact, most of the time, you really shouldn’t be deviating from the trail too much. Even the environments that look tough can be very sensitive, and the animals that live in these areas depend on things not being trampled or crushed.
Hike where you’re supposed to hike, camp where you’re supposed to camp, and be careful with each step when you go off-trail. Going off-trail isn’t bad in itself, but it’s still a good idea to stay on the trail the majority of the time.
If you’re going hammock camping on your trip rather than using a tent, you’ll also want to be very careful about the trees you choose to hang your hammock on. There are even some places where hammocks are banned because users have caused too much damage to the trees!
3. Dispose of waste properly
When in doubt, pack it out. That’s about all you need to know for this one.
In many areas, you’ll be required to pack out all your trash, including used toilet paper. Since there’s no place to dispose of that stuff on the trail, the only way to respect the environment is to take it with you. Is that a little gross? Yeah, but it’s very sanitary if you come prepared with bags to keep trash separate from everything else.
Another option is digging a “cat hole“, essentially a spot where you can use the restroom and bury whatever’s there. Some backpacking trails also have pit toilets where you can safely do your business and not worry so much about packing out.
Finally, backpacking bidets are very useful in areas where toilet paper isn’t able to be flushed or discarded of. I know many Americans aren’t used to bidets, but there’s a reason they are so common in other parts of the world: they are awesome.
4. Leave what you find
Backpacking is not a scavenger hunt, and the only souvenirs you bring home should be purchased at the gift shop. It’s not just about avoiding curses like the one that is purported to follow people who take home petrified wood from the Petrified Forest. It’s also about respecting the environment, the animals that live there, and the people who will be using the trail after you.
5. Minimize campfire impacts
Fires are amazing and sometimes necessary for survival, but we all know the potential harm an uncontrolled fire can do. Pay attention to the rules on campfires, follow them, and keep any fires you’re allowed to have small, manageable, and short.
6. Respect wildlife
Animals are best appreciated quietly and from a distance. Just like humans hate it when door-to-door salespeople and evangelists knock on their doors, wild animals are not there to hang out with backpackers.
7. Be considerate of others
No matter how alone we think we are on a backpacking trail, we’re never too far out that we can stop being considerate of others. That means following the rules of the park, keeping noise at an appropriate level, and simply remembering that nature is a shared experience.
Note: All of the images in this article were created using DALL-E 2, a new program from Open.AI. I think it’s a lot better than stock photos, at least some of the time – let me know what you think!