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Guide to Backpacking 101

Vivian hiking on the trail to Kearsarge Pass

Backpacking in the wilderness is one of the best ways to see the hidden treasures of Mother Nature. You are able to get away from the crowds and fully immerse yourself in the trees, mountains, rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. However, backpacking can be quite daunting– yet still exciting! — because you are literally carrying your life on your back for a couple of days, weeks, or even months. Many beginner backpackers struggle with what to bring and what to leave at home. With the help of our friend and long-time backpacker, Tamara Yerkes, here is what we have learned to survive our first backpacking trip.

Guide to Backpacking 101

Every Ounce Matters. The longer you hike the heavier your pack will feel. You’ll quickly learn that you won’t need your stick of deodorant (embrace your natural scent). It’s okay to re-wear your hiking shirt/pant even if it’s a bit dirty. And maybe, it’s not all that weird to saw off the handle of your toothbrush to save weight and space. Bring what you need to survive, nothing more. 

Weigh Your Pack Before Setting Off. With all the tools you’ll need for a good night’s sleep and possibly even survival, your pack should be about 25% of your weight (33% at most). Try not to go over this number. You can risk doing some serious body damage.

Learn the A, B, C, D of Packing. Packing your backpack properly is an art form. It is amazing how much you can squeeze into your overnight pack with the correct technique. We recommend a visit to REI to ask a staff member for tips on how to pack a backpack correctly. Even so, here’s our ABCD’s secret to packing:

  • A=Accessibility: It is a pain to have to go through your pack just to get one item out of it. Place the items that you will most frequently use at the top/brain compartment and the less frequent ones at the bottom. Our recommendation: pack your sleeping bag in the most bottom compartment, sleeping pad, and tent first. Your cooking materials go next. Then your clothes. And lastly, your food and hydration pack.

  • B=Balance: It’s important that your backpack is balanced on both sides to avoid pain and injuries. You don’t want to waddle like a penguin during your hike or increase your chances of falling off the mountain. In addition, a well-balanced pack makes for a less sore back. Tip: keep the heaviest items along the back of the pack to maintain balance and control.

  • C=Compression: One of the best ways to make room? Squeeze! Don’t be afraid to push down on your clothes and other flexible items; you want to utilize every air bubble in your pack. If you are bringing containers, utilize the space in them to conserve room. We threw a bunch of little items into our empty bear canister. Tighten your pack by using the compression straps they come with. They’re there for a reason!

  • D=Dangle: You want to put as many things into the backpack as possible. Avoid dangling items outside your pack; you can lose the item, create an imbalance to the backpack, or hit people and plants.

Buy a Compact Water Filter. Even if the water looks clean, do not (we repeat — DO NOT) drink out of the raw lakes and streams. Animals are carriers of Giardia which can give you severe diarrhea – yikes! It’s extremely important to keep your water supply abundant and clean with a portable water filter. You can go 3 weeks without food, but you definitely cannot survive more than 3 days without water.

Carry a Bear-Proof Canister. If you backpack in bear country, make sure to bring bear-proof canisters for your scented/food items. More importantly, make sure all scented items can fit in the canister, too. This keeps bears out of our human things, which helps keep them wild (and alive). Also keep the bear canister at least 100 to 200 feet away from your campsite and cooking area. The last thing you want is to be eaten by a bear as you’re enjoying the beautiful scenery.

*Some places allow you to hang your scented items/ food such as Yellowstone National Park. Do your research and learn how to store your scented items in the bear country.

Keep Food Easy. Bring along foods that are easy to make, easy to clean up, and easy to store. We recommend dehydrated foods and liquids (yay), granola, pasta, bagels, wraps, and peanut butter. Trail mix and Clif bars are a great source of energy too.

Set Your Campsite Up in a Triangle. Think triangle. Choose a flat, leveled spot for your tent and use this as one of your three points. Then, if you have a bear canister, place it in a 45-degree angle, 100ft away from your tent. Finally, select a spot for your “cooking area.” This also needs to be at a 45-degree angle and 100ft away from your tent and bear canister to complete your triangular set-up.

Cook Responsibly. As noted above, cook your meals at least 100ft away from your campsite in case you drop any food scraps or create any scents that may attract animals to your tent.

Scatter Your Dishwashing Water. Only clean your dishes with water — no soap or scrubs! You can use rocks or pebbles to “scrub” your dishes if needed. Once done, rather than centralize your dirty water, scatter it into the wilderness. Doing this will help keep large animals away.

Accept the Fact that Nature is Your Bathroom for the Weekend. Need to pee? Simply pick a spot in the wilderness that is 100ft away (~45 adult steps) from waterways, trails, and campsites. Do your business and go on with your life. Make sure to do a Number One on a rock as to not ruin the vegetation around you. A Number Two is a bit tricker. First, find a place that is at least 200ft away (~70 adult steps) from waterways, trails, and campsites. Then, gather smooth sticks, rocks, or leaves to use as your “toilet paper”. We don’t recommend using actual toilet paper because it is messy, unsanitary, and must be packed out after. (You can also use a handkerchief to wipe, just make sure to rinse it off after you’re done and have no one else touch it but you). With a small shovel or trowel, dig a 6-8in hole and do your business. Once you’re done, cover the hole as if you were never there.

* If you can imagine, human poo is actually ruining our national parks. Read more about it here. One way to help is to use a WAG bag and pack it out. Some places have even required hikers to only use WAG bags to help preserve that natural area such as Mt. Whitney. 

Buy Topography Maps. A topography (topo) map contours the landscape and provides elevation references. Bring a detailed topo map of the area that you plan to hike in to ensure that you will not get lost on the trail. Your topo map will become your best friend, hold it dear to your heart.

Prepare for High Altitudes. If you plan to be in higher altitudes, bring electrolyte pills or drinks with electrolytes (e.g. Gatorade) to help with altitude sickness. Staying hydrated will help too. The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to acclimate slowly by hiking up to a moderate level of elevation, then staying for a night or two, and repeat. Know the signs of altitude sickness (e.g. a headache, shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue, swelling). Once you feel this, the only cure is to go back down in elevation.

Follow the ‘Leave No Trace’ Rule. Pack out what you take in and take nothing that is not essential to survival. Leave nature better than when you saw it so that other hikers may enjoy its beauty too. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a great resource to learn more about Leave No Trace principles and how to respectfully enjoy the outdoors.  

Pack the 10 Essentials. Need a quick checklist on what to bring? The 10 Essentials list from REI is a great place to start. Every hiker and backpacker should familiarize themselves with them and get in a good habit of packing them.

Flower Lake along Kearsarge Pass
Exploring around Kearsarge Pass
Overlooking lakes in Sequoia National Park on Kearsarge Pass
Overlooking lakes in Sequoia National Park on Kearsarge Pass
Tamara, Vivian, and Jennifer smiling happily after a great backpacking trip

Backpacking is an experience unlike any other. Not only are you isolated in nature, but you also get to meet some of the kindest, smartest, and most hardcore people on Earth (we even made a couple of cool new friends on the trip!). The experience is definitely liberating. You are disconnected from the outside world without all the extra materials that car camping or ‘glamping’ ensures- it’s just you, your pack, and the wilderness.

Jennifer and Vivian

Photo Credit: Tamara Yerkes

*This article was updated on January 30, 2019.


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