Backpacking Basics

Part I:A Preparation


Enjoyable hiking directly corresponds to the weight of your pack and the quality of your equipment. Selecting optimal equipment, clothing, and food for your expedition, therefore, is the challenge of taking as little as possible while taking enough to be relatively comfortable and, most importantly, safe.

Generally, the novice hiker falls into two categories: either taking too little (which can make their hike dangerous in the case of inclement weather, food shortages, etc.) or too much causing physical exhaustion and over-exertion.A Fortunately both of these problems can be overcome. It is the challenge of the hiker to carry what is appropriate, reliable, and in fact needed.  In general, lighter is better!


Contrary to popular belief, hikers who engage in extended hiking expeditions are not forced to subside on nuts and berries. Most grocery stores offer a wide range of lightweight, nonperishable foods while most outdoor retailers offer specialized trail foods. Both are usually are within reasonable distances from most hiking trails which can be gotten to with proper trip preparation and the use of up-to-date guide books. Therefore, unless you are seeking to polish your outdoor survival skills, food that can be purchased at most grocery stores or outdoor retailers will be appropriate for you.

Two important considerations in purchasing food for hiking are:  1) food weight and 2) calories per food item.  Of these two points, the weight of the food is of main importance.  Caring dehydrated foods that are high in calories is recommended.  Things such as Lipton noodles, ramen, and spaghetti are extremely popular among hikers because of their light weight and relatively high caloric content.  If you can afford it, freeze-dried foods are one of the greatest things on the market.  Typical hiking food could consists of the following items: (quantities depend on the individual hiker and the number of days hiking)


  • A dehydrated milk – not so tasty if drunk by itself but not bad if included in cereal or other dishes
  • A cereal – any kind that has a high calorie to weight ratio
  • A oatmeal
  • A breakfast bar
  • A toaster pastries (e.g. Pop Tarts)


  • A sandwich – it is not recommended that you pre-make the sandwich, doing so causes the bread to become saturated.
  • A lunch meat – surprisingly, many kinds of lunch meat will not spoil for several days even in hot weather
  • A bread / bagel / English muffin ( preferably high in nutrients–i.e. not white)
  • A toaster pastries
  • A peanut butter or other nut butters
  • A candy bars
  • A high calorie energy bars
  • A cheeses (harder cheeses last longer)


  • ALipton noodles
  • ramen-style noodles
  • Amacaroni and cheese
  • dehydrated trail food
  • spaghetti
  • dehydrated refried beans
  • personally dehydrated food (easy to do and offers a wide variety)
  • garlic or other spices

The kind of food you select depends a lot upon personal preference. Generally, a hiker will eat in the following pattern throughout the day:

  • ABreakfast – snack – lunch – snack – dinner

Prepare enough supplies for 3 meals and 2 snacks throughout the day. If the hike is more than a day or two the amount of calories you consume becomes very important. Eating gorp, a combination of nuts, raisins, chocolate, dates, etc., may be the only way to satisfy your energy requirements. An energy bar of some sort is typically consumed four times a day. (two for snacks and one at lunch and dinner). Plan accordingly.

All food should be contained in individual zip-lock bags. Cardboard boxes occupy space and serve no purpose except to advertise the product contained within. Plastic bags prevent moisture from entering your food and reduce the amount of space needed.All food is then placed in a waterproof food bag which will be suspended using a nylon cord from a tree approximately 20 feet high. This theoretically, will prevent various animals from eating your food. Nevertheless, the number one critter that you need to be concerned with is not large carnivores, rather, it is the pesky mouse that will cause you the most concern. While larger animals such as bears and raccoons are problematic in certain parts of the US, in general, you will be more advised to mouse proof your food at night rather than be overly concerned with the threat of larger animals.

Mice will eat holes in your tent, or even in your sleeping bag as you sleep, in pursuit of the scent of a crumb. They will climb nylon rope with the greatest of ease performing feats that you never thought possible. They are very pesky little critters. To this day the only semi-effective method of preventing their easy access to your food is to puncture a hole in the middle of a tuna can and thread your rope through the hole in the can. The can then acts as a slippery barrier that theoretically will prevent the mouse from having a feast on your food. If there is any consolation to their gorging themselves on camp food, generally mice are not able to eat all of your food in one night. However, they often leave you a nice pile of mouse turds and urine on much of the food that was not consumed.


Selecting clothing is a combination of planning to take enough to provide warmth in order to prevent hypothermia yet light enough to not load down your backpack with too much weight.  Take what is needed and nothing more.  The following are considerations in purchasing various clothing items:

1)selecting footwear–

For many ultralight hikers, trail running shoes will be the shoe of choice,. However, keep in mind that muddy conditions are very common in the outdoors and simply because the ground at home seems fine, when you start hiking in the woods a form of waterproof sneaker may be advisable. A firm enough sole in combination with traction that prevents slipping is the safest way to hike. Wearing a running shoe will allow you to hike fast, use less energy and attain more mileage per day. However, for extended hiking trips, in which the weather is less predictable, a certain amount of consideration should be given to the kinds of situations one might encounter. There are two theories related to the kind of footwear to use:

The first theory reasons that by wearing a lightweight sneaker you are able to avoid the major concern of blisters and are able to cover more mileage per day. Covering more mileage allows you to carry less food due to the greater accessibility to food stores and the decreased time between store visits. Obviously, the more access to food you have the less food you need to carry, thereby making your pack lighter and in turn your hike more enjoyable. This theory is the basis of the concept of ultralight hiking and should be considered in selecting hiking shoes or boots.

The second theory is to purchase footwear that provides total support and durability.  Those who subscribe to this theory believe that, while it is important to maintain a lightweight backpack, safety and comfort are issues that make hiking more enjoyable, which is the purpose of hiking after all.  Carrying the absolute minimum, according to this theory, invites trouble and simply makes the hike dangerous due to unforeseeable circumstances and meaningless since those covering so many miles are not spending any time to “smell the roses.”  Hiking to these ‘traditional’ hikers is not governed by spending less time in the woods due to increased hiking mileage, but rather the spiritual and mental benefits of being in the outdoors.

There is much to be said for both theories.   For the beginning hiker it is recommended that you consider your style of hiking to be somewhere in the middle.  The middle path is the one that may lead to enlightenment.  Don’t allow yourself to carry so little that you are putting yourself at risk.  On the other hand, know what you really do need and what you can do without.  For most, you can go without much more than you think and still be safe.

At any rate, hiking footwear is a reflection of the theory to which you subscribe.  In general, a heavy hiking boot will most likely lead to blisters and make your hiking pace much slower, while a hiking sneaker will not provide the support you may need and may easily wear and become prematurely useless.

Lastly, in selecting a hiking shoe, it is recommended that there is as little stitching as possible.  The more external stitching the shoe contains the more likely that these stitches will fail and/or let water seep in.  Select a shoe that is made of one-piece material with significant ankle support.


There is a significant decrease in the likelihood of developing blisters if you wear two pair of hiking socks when hiking: one liner sock in combination with a thick hiking sock.  The liner socks act as a buffer between the constant rubbing of the outer sock and the foot.  Silk, or nylon, is slippery allowing the outer sock to rub the foot without constantly rubbing the skin which causes blisters.

The kind of hiking sock you select has much to do with your personal preference.  It would seem that most hikers are devoted to a particular manufacturer.  Most modern socks that are specifically designed for hiking are of extremely high quality and durability.  Choose the one that meets your personal preference.


Hiking shorts must have two very important qualities; they must dry very rapidly and have a liner.  Swimming trunks are actually a very good substitute for hiking shorts as the material dries extremely fast and does not absorb water.  The absolute worst material you can wear hiking is cotton or denim (i.e. blue jeans)  Once jeans become wet they become extremely heavy and cold and require a minimum of two days to become dry.  Many people make the mistake in thinking that jeans are good for hiking because they are durable.  This idea is simply a mistake as other materials are even more durable and do not retain water. Shorts that have a string to secure their position sometimes cause a certain amount of rubbing due to the backpacks hip belt.  Hiking shorts using a flat strap in place of a string have been found to be very comfortable.

Rain gear:

The purpose of rain gear is not just to keep you dry.  The other purpose of rain gear is to regulate your body temperature.  There really is no such thing as staying dry while hiking in the rain.  This is not necessarily due to a flaw in material, rather it is due to the fact that the body perspires while hiking.  If the rain does not find its way in through the exposed areas of the jacket, such as the collar or sleeves, perspiration surely will saturate your clothing so that you may in fact be wetter inside the jacket than if you wore nothing at all.  Therefore, the most important aspects in selecting a rain jacket or rain poncho are its weight and its ability to block wind and keep you warm in a heavy rain.  In general, selecting the lightest rain jacket available will suffice in keeping you warm under normal conditions.


Always remember that you need to have at least one set of dry clothing in your backpack or on your body.  This may involve waking up in the morning after a night of rain, taking off your dry clothes, going outside and putting on clothing that was hung outside on a branch and may be cold and soaking wet.  Never give in to the temptation of wearing your set of dry clothing in the morning unless you know the weather is going to be nice and sunny.  Having two sets of wet clothing is a sure way to develop serious problems.

Your jacket should always be kept dry.  Never double your insulated jacket with your rain gear in wet weather.  If you become cold while hiking with only your rain jacket on then there is nothing you can do except hiker faster and attempt to build your internal body temperature.   Your jacket should at all cost be kept dry to provide insulation in cold weather.

In selecting your jacket, you are looking for the best possible combination of light weight and insulating properties.  Fleece is an excellent choice as it maintains a high level of warmth in relation to weight.  Furthermore, fleece does not retain water in the unfortunate event that it becomes wet.  A light down jacket or a hooded down jacket however, will provide the greatest warmth to weight ratio.  A jacket with a hood also is an excellent choice as it provides more insulation for the head, the area of greatest heat loss, (the hood is not a significant weight addition to your pack).

Packing your Backpack:

There is not one set order in which you should pack your backpack.  However, there are some general principles that you should adhere to.  In general, heavy items should be packed towards the top and close to your back.  Putting heavy things towards the bottom of the pack causes an imbalance and puts too much strain on the hips.

The heaviest item you carry will be your food bag or bear canister.  In the beginning of a hiking excursion it is advisable to pack the food towards the top of the pack.  This has two benefits: one, it disperses the weight efficiently, and two, it allows easy access to food.  Several days into the hike you will notice that the pack becomes unbalanced due to the decreasing weight of food.  When this begins to happen it may be a good idea to rearrange your pack so that food is placed more towards the bottom and heavier items (such as the tent, stove, water, etc) are then stored in the previous location of the food.  As mentioned, the arrangement of items in your backpack will change as the weight of food, fuel, and water increase or decrease.  The general arrangement is heavier items toward the top and close to the body.  Experiment and see what works best for any given load.


Keep in mind that it is very difficult to keep things dry in extended trips in wet weather.  Your best friend is the plastic bag.  As mentioned before, all food should be separately placed in zip-lock bags.  Similarly, a plastic garbage bags should also be used as added protection for your sleeping bag.  Nothing is more important than keeping your sleeping bag dry.  A wet bag on a cold night is a sure method of inducing hypothermia.  Therefore, the sleeping bad must be stored in a plastic bag which is used to line the stuff sack.

While many backpacks may claim to be waterproof, little evidence by experienced hikers would confirm these claims.  Always use a pack cover to guarantee the waterproofness of your pack and, more importantly, the items in your pack.

Guide books:

Preparing for your hike is critical in ensuring you are not unexpectedly without food, water, or a flat place to set-up your tent.  Food, water, and shelter are really the biggest concerns the hiker faces.  The clutter of the modern world is not present in the outdoors.  Basic survival instantaneously becomes of greatest concern.  Without proper preparation of where you can locate food, water, or shelter, hikers may unexpectedly confront a potentially dangerous situation.  Up-to-date guide books are the only reliable source to plan for a hike.  Serious preparation is necessary for any hike of two days or more.

In planning a long distance hike you must determine the amount of distance between water sources, and camping areas.  If you are going on an extensive hike, you will need to determine the distance between food stores.  The most important aspect in determining when to find water is to first determine the number of miles you intend to hiker per day.  An average hiking day will cover approximately 10-20 miles depending on a number of factors (terrain, hiker condition, weather, etc.).  In the beginning most novice hikers will attempt longer days and will generally succeed.  However, because they are over-pacing themselves the novice will often develop blisters or other physical problems.  Therefore, the number of miles you planed to hike 3 to 4 days into the hike may no longer be attainable.  Knowing and planning for problems is an extremely important aspect of developing a hiking plan.

Anything could happen while you are outdoors so plan for all possibilities.  Know where your water is and the distance between camping locations.  Try to always camp next to a stream or spring so that you will have enough water for the preparation of meals and to hydrate your body sufficiently.


In the event that a food store is not within a reasonable distance to your trail, mail-drops may be a useful alternative.  A mail-drop consists of sending yourself supplies at points along any given trail where there is no access to a food store.  Mail-drops are packages that are sent to a local post office with the instructions to “hold for hiker.”  The hiker would then obtain their food supplies by retrieving food that had been previously sent.  There would, of course, have to be a post office within reasonable distance from the trail for this system to work and which allows mail-drops.

There are benefits and problems associated to using mail-drops:


  • post offices are only open on weekdays and half a day on Saturday. If you happen to arrive at the post office Saturday afternoon or Sunday you will have to wait until the post office opens in order to retrieve your food.
  • drops require much preparation.
  • hikers often find that they no longer desire the food they sent, in other words, they become sick of the food that was prepared.
  • quantities are often wrong. Usually too much or too little will be sent.
  • access to food or supplies which are difficult to obtain (such as dehydrated milk, or medicine etc.)
  • in some situations they may be located closer to the trail than grocery stores.
  • if you dehydrate food in advance this will allow you to send food that is most likely healthier and certainly lighter than what you can obtain in a typical grocery store.

If you are planning to use a mail-drop, it is recommended that you contact the appropriate post office and ask if they would be willing to hold your package for you. Generally, the post office will only store your package for a limited time so it is best to inquire before any package is sent.


In normal life most people often get by without doing any kind of stretching or warm-up exercises.  Hiking, however, is extremely brutal on your body and will quickly lead to aches and pains.  Climbing up and down mountains with 25-35 lbs. on your back is not a natural thing and your body will scream at you for attempting feats it was obviously not designed to do.  Stretching is one of the few things the hiker can do to help alleviate many of the problems that will inevitably arise.  Twice a day is recommended, once in the morning and once in the evening.  Surprisingly, your body will respond to stretching much more significantly than you would typically expect.

Part II: Know your equipment

Sleeping bag:

The two most important considerations in selecting a sleeping bag are choosing a bag that is warm enough for the season during which you intend to hike and, secondly, the kind of material with which the bag is made.  Under normal three-season conditions a standard +30 F bag will be sufficient for most occasions.  If you are certain that temperatures will be even higher, such as mid-summer, and if you can afford buying multiple bags, an even higher rated bag is possible.  Obviously, the purpose of buying a summer bag or fleece sleeping bag is to reduce weight of the bag.  If your summer bag is heavier than your three season bag then you have missed the point.

The lightest material available for lightweight sleeping bags is goose down.  Unfortunately, goose down is also the most expensive bags you can purchase.  Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that the insulating properties of goose down are significantly reduced if the bag becomes wet.  If you are confident that you are able to keep your bag dry and you have the money, then a goose down bag is the way to go.  However, if you are like most, a goose down bag may be out of your price range.

Synthetic bags, on the other hand, will often maintain their insulating properties even when wet.  For the inexperienced hiker it is greatly recommended that a synthetic bag be used in the case of unexpected saturation.

Mummy bags, while they do not offer much freedom of movement, do however satisfy the purpose of sleeping bags, (i.e. to keep you warm at night).  Mummy bags also, by reducing area, are generally lighter than their rectangular counterpart.


The most important purpose of a tent / bivy sack is to keep you dry.  In selecting a tent you should ask the question, “Will this system keep me dry in various weather conditions?”  The shelter must also be the best combination of durability and low weight. Imagine the kind of conditions you could encounter and visualize the likelihood the shelter you intend to use will withstand the weather.

A bivy sack alone generally will not keep you entirely dry in a heavy rain.  However, if you cover your bivy sack with some kind of waterproof tarp this will greatly improve your chances of staying dry.  It would seem that no matter how water proof the material is, if the outside material touches your sleeping bag somehow water will find its way inside.

A tent with a vestibule is greatly advantageous in that it gives you a place to store your boots, socks, water bottles overnight and offer easy access.  If your tent does not have a vestibule then you will need to bring a garbage bag in which to store your boots overnight so they do not get wet.

A lightweight ground sheet should always be used for two purposes:  first, to prevent premature wear on your tent floor; second, the ground sheet acts as a barrier from the flow of water under your tent.  As a barrier, the ground sheet should be smaller than the actual size of the tent floor.  Another good idea is to fold the end of the ground sheet upward so that water is more likely to flow under the sheet and not above it between the sheet and the tent floor.



Deciding whether to purchase an internal or external pack is your first choice.  Both have their benefits.  The benefits of the external pack are:

  • they allow easy access
  • they may be better ventilated than internal packs, (but not necessarily)

The benefits of the internal pack are:

  • they distribute weight better than external packs
  • because they ride closer to the body, they are more maneuverable than an external pack
  • because they are ergonomically designed they are more comfortable than external packs

Today, almost all manufacturers have been focused on improving the internal frame backpack which has allowed them to become superior in many ways.

It is important not to select a backpack that is too big or too small. Of the two, a pack that is too big is most problematic in that it will not allow you to carry the load properly. If a pack is too small, external sacks can generally be attached to the bag in order to increase its carrying capacity. Be sure not to overload your pack, doing so will place too much strain on the pack causing equipment malfunction.


There are a variety of hiking stoves which makes the selection somewhat difficult.  In selecting a stove you must consider the way in which you intend to hike.  If you plan to hike for only a few days (i.e. a weekend hiker) then a gas stove is extremely lightweight and generally will burn very efficiently.  For the weekender the weight of the stove is easily kept to a minimum due to the fact that you do not need to concern yourself with where you will purchase fuel.  People engaging in long-distance hiking, however, will need to consider the problem of buying appropriate fuel.  For long-distance hiking, gas stoves are not as practical as multiple-fuel stoves.  Multi-fuel stoves decrease the likelihood of not being able to purchase useable fuel.  The lightest and one of the most popular stoves for AT thru-hikers is an alcohol stove, of which VARGO manufacturers several styles.

Water Purification:

There are three main kinds of water purification methods.  The first is to physically filter out harmful bacteria, the second is to physically or chemically destroy harmful bacteria and viruses, and the third is to use a combination of the above two methods.

If the water you intend to drink is visually dirty it may be advisable to use a water filter that will physically remove the contaminates.  Water filters are capable of filtering most bacteria, however, they do not protect against most viruses, due to viruses’ smaller size.

Chemical destruction of contaminates is a good alternative however, they often leave a slight taste and do nothing to filter the water itself.  In effect you will be drinking all of the contaminates and chemicals you added to the water.  Nevertheless, the contaminates are destroyed.  A filter using a chemical and filter combination may be very effective in protecting against both bacteria and viruses.

A water filter is a precautionary measure.  The question you have to answer is how comfortable you feel with using any of the above water filtering methods.  It is recommended that at least some form of purification be used, even in the clearest of springs and streams.  Don’t risk it.


It is recommended that only one pot be carried for each hiker.  If however, you are hiking with a partner then one person should be designated to carry a large pot and the other person a small pot.  Of course we are partial to our line of titanium pots and titanium mugs for their lightweight and durability.   Do not use a sponge or cloth to clean your cookware.  Once dirty, a sponge is very difficult to clean.  The same is true with some kind of a dish cloth.  A plastic pot scrubber is the best device to clean a pot in the outdoors.  They weigh practically nothing, dry instantly, and are able to be easily cleaned.

Other items:

Items such as a can opener, water bag, toothbrush, knife, etc. should be selected using the following criteria:

  • is it the lightest item available?
  • will it perform over an extended period of time or is it likely to break?
  • does it perform all of the functions I need?
  • are there components that I don’t really need?

Remember if you don’t use every item in your backpack everyday you probably don’t need to carry them (with a few exceptions such as rain gear, jacket, first aid kit etc.).

Weather tips:

The following points should be considered in dealing with the weather:

1)  Stay warm not necessarily dry

No matter how hard you attempt to stay dry in wet conditions you will not succeed.  Materials that are waterproof yet breath are appropriate but given enough time water will gradually and unceasingly enter.  If water is not able to find its way in through the extremities such as the collar or the sleeve, your body will produce enough sweat to make you wetter inside than it may be outside.  Keep your body moving and active to keep from getting cold.

2)  Dry clothing

You must always have at least one set of dry clothes.  If you carry only two sets then one set is dry and one set is wet.  Never carry two sets of wet clothing.  This means waking up on a rainy day, taking off your dry clothes that you slept in, going outside, wringing out your wet T-shirt (not that it will do any good) put it on and begin to hike.  This is surely one of the most mentally difficult situations you will be confronted with.

3)  If you are cold at night, put on your dry rain gear and jacket and sleep with your clothing on.  This will increase your comfort level significantly.

4)  Select clothing material that is durable, warm, and does not become easily saturated.

5)  Light colors are better when hiking in the hot sun.

6)  If hiking in the desert or a semiarid area, it is essential that you wear a hat and use sun block.

7)  Avoid overexposure in hot weather.

8)  In hot weather you will need more water than usual.  When your body tells you to drink, listen to it.  It is easy to become quickly dehydrated when hiking.

9)  Keep moving if you are cold.

10)  Cold weather hiking takes careful preparation.  Do not attempt cold weather hiking unless you are properly equipped and an experienced hiker.


The best way to avoid blisters is prevention.  You can attempt to avoid blisters by following these recommendations.

  • break in boots properly before using them to hike.
  • when any area of your foot begins to feel hot immediately stop and cover that area with mole skin or some sort of blister prevention.
  • wear two pairs of socks (one liner and one outer hiking sock.)
  • purchase boots that fit properly for hiking. This is generally a half-size larger than your normal shoe size.
  • purchase boots that fit properly for hiking. This is generally a half-size larger than your normal shoe size.
  • if you have problems with blisters, it may be advisable to use a boot that is made of more flexible material. A sneaker boot is less likely to cause a blister than an a sturdy leather boot.

Lastly, do not try to overdo it. Most people attempting a long distance hike do so with entirely too much ambition in the beginning. It is important to recognize the fact that most people try to hike too many miles in the beginning. The classic tale of The Tortoise and the Hare is a tale that hikers need to re-read before hiking. Notice the subtleties of your environment and most importantly, have fun!