12 Ways to Improve Your Next Backpacking Trip

12 Ways to Improve Your Next Backpacking Trip

With the hiking season in full swing despite a worldwide pandemic, more people than ever are taking advantage of the great outdoors and natural resources available in their back yards. Stringbean himself has maximized this opportunity to get out by thru-hiking the John Muir Trail with his wife, where they had an incredible 16-day trip through some of the most picturesque landscapes the United States has to offer.

During this oddly normal-paced hike, he considered some of the ways in which we all can improve our next multi-day adventures. From hard-won gear-related advice to purely strategic and mentally beneficial tips, this list has something for everyone.


1. Foot Care is Key

Macerated feet and calluses galore on Brandon’s feet during his A.T. thru-hike. Time for some Aquaphor!

 

Nothing puts a damper on (or ends) a trip like foot problems. The most common issues hikers and runners have with their feet are blisters, which are generally caused by inadequate toenail and skin care. Instead of reacting to foot problems when they arise, the best solution is to be proactive and prevent them from happening in the first place.

  • Correct shoe fit is critical. Feet swell while exercising, so it’s smart to get 1/2 size up your running shoe size.
  • Break in a new pair of shoes with a test-hike. Wear pack weight, as it will affect how your foot interacts with the ground and shoe when walking.
  • Prevent toe blisters and scrapes by trimming and filing your toenails. Don’t leave it to the day before you hit trail or you will likely expose fresh skin to irritation that can also lead to blisters.
  • Manage calluses and macerated (wet) feet with a product like Aquaphor to minimize pain and promote fast recovery.

For more information on how to care for your feet, read John Vonoff’s Fixing Your Feet. Take care of your feet, and they will take care of you.


2. Trailrunners over Boots

Time to ditch the boots

Although technically this is an element of foot care, it deserves its own callout. Long gone are the days of heavy, bulky, leather boots being the top choice of footwear on most trails. For good reason, trailrunners are becoming more prevalent with each season. If you haven’t yet switched over, now is the time.

Although boots can serve a purpose in extreme conditions, they are largely overkill for three-season hiking, even on highly technical trails. The adage, “a pound on your feet is like five on your back” applies here – trailrunners are significantly lighter and can reduce the strain on your body caused by wearing the equivalent of bricks on your feet. What’s more, they dry faster, fit better, and usually don’t need to be broken in as much so you can practically hit the trail right out of the box.

All that being said, trailrunners are not as durable as boots and will need to be replaced more often but the cost is worth the relief. Some of the top trailrunning shoe manufacturers are Topo, Altra, Columbia, La Sportiva, and Salomon – all of which have a slightly different fit and their own advantages and disadvantages depending on your needs and desires. I’ve linked the most popular hiking shoe developed by that brand.


3. Count Calories, make Calories Count

A good nutrition plan is the key to a successful backpacking trip.

 

Backpacking isn’t a weight-loss regimen, nor is it a continual all-you-can-eat buffet. To minimize the weight on your back without going hungry, you’ll need to carefully consider what you bring for food. When possible, your food should consist of highly nutritious, fat-dense items. This strategy will offer the highest number of calories and nutrients for the lowest weight (at least 100 calories per ounce is ideal).

Many hikers over-pack for fear they will run out of food and end up with lots leftover at the end of their trip, meaning they needlessly carried extra weight. To prevent this you must plan your food strategy by considering factors such as your height and weight, gender, the length of your trip (or duration between resupplies), miles per day you intend to hike and the type of terrain/elevation, and the number of people in your party. Then, you can calculate your needs and fill them with calorically-dense food that will help save both weight and space while keeping you satiated. On the JMT, Joe averaged 3,500 calories per day while Katie averaged 2,100 calories per day. Check out this article by Andrew Skurka for a complete and thorough method of food planning for multi-day trips.

As a side note, there are better options than freeze dried food. For example, Joe and Katie saw many hikers with this Mountain House Beef Stew, which retails at $13 for 400 calories. We created our own Chili Rice and Beans at under $5 for 1,500 calories. We bought a bunch of dehydrated food off of Mother Earth Products (use the code ‘Stringbean’ for 10% off at check out!).  Also check out the Backpacking Chef for a deep-dive into delicious and hearty trail food.


4. Cooking Cleanup Made Easy

Cleanup is a necessary chore, but it can be done quickly and efficiently.

 

Even with a fully equipped kitchen, cleaning pots after dinner is not fun. And at the end of a long day of backpacking, cleanup isn’t any more glorious. Many hikers resort to messy freezer bag cooking or even no-stove backpacking. However, there are ways to make it simpler:

  • Teabags are your friend. Boil hot water prior to dinner  and cozy up with a warm cup of tea. Save the tea bag – I often hang it from the nearest tree branch – and eat. Afterwards, use the tea bag as a scrubber, it is particularly effective at soaking up oil, the most frustrating post-meal remnant.
  • Immediately soak your bowl post meal. This will drastically reduce how much food sticks to your pan, and will do a lot of the work for you.
  • Use dirt and pine needles for hard to clean dishes. Natural materials soak up oils and are rough enough to clean surfaces without
  • Want extra Leave No Trace brownie points? Drink the greywater. Assuming you haven’t used soap and didn’t throw a few pine needles in the mix, the water is safe to drink! Think of it as a post-dinner trail smoothie 😉
  • I do not recommend using soap to clean up on personal backpacking trips, although it is necessary if you are cooking for a group #COVID. For personal use, soap is unnecessary because you can do the job adequately without it and soaps can be harmful for the environment.

5. Start Early

Early mornings on the JMT.

 

Hiking legend Baltimore Jack once said, “Get up early, and you own the day. Get up late, and the day owns you”. What this means is that when you start each day early, you have more options and control which translates to a less stressful experience and higher likelihood you will continually reach your mileage goals. You’ll have extra time to jump in watering holes, take breaks or crush miles – the only catch is that you have to get out of bed.

On the other hand, if you get on the trail late the pressure is on. Not only do you have fewer hours of daylight to hike, but if a storm rolls through or you find a great spot to have lunch you have less flexibility in how you can respond. What’s more, you’ll likely have to do more night hiking which can be both slower and more dangerous.

What tips can help you get up easier?

  • To combat cold morning temps, warm your clothes by sleeping with them inside your sleeping bag.
  • Hike a few miles before starting breakfast.
  • Set a goal like “10×10” (ten miles by 10am) or “20×2” to help motivate you to stay on track.
  • If you need caffeine, prepare it the night before.
  • Dial your system – the more nights you spend in the backcountry, the quicker you will get at taking down camp and hitting the road. Aim to be walking within 30 minutes of waking up.

6. Easy-Access Hydration is Essential

Easy-access hydration was key on Joe’s Appalachian Trail speed record.

 

One of the most time consuming chores in hiking is fetching and filtering water. Save tons of time by utilizing the convenient threading on a Sawyer Squeeze filter and attach it directly to your water bottles. Then, simply drink directly from the filter whenever you want instead of filtering it into another bottle for storage. Keep in mind, you lose the flexibility to create drink mixes or coffee by drinking directly from a filter.

The most convenient and fastest-flowing micro filter is the Katadyn BeFree, it may take only a few minutes to “camel up” before you’re back to hiking. However, if you add in the time to take off your pack, fetch your filter, fill a Sawyer bag with water, screw on your filter, and squeeze it into a Smart water bottle before you can consume, it can take much longer. This time can really add up throughout the day when you’re stopping multiple times, especially if you’re on a longer hike and your filter starts to clog which drastically reduces its flow rate.

Additionally, find a pack with water bottle storage capacity on the chest straps. You can easily access water with out stopping, leaving you with no excuses not to stay hydrated. If the pockets aren’t large enough to hold .5L bottles, make sure they are easily accessible from pockets on the side of the pack (or find a pack where they are).

In Joe’s kit, he typically has 1-1.5L of water carrying capacity with a Saywer Squeeze filter, and a 2L hydration bladder to use during dry sections of trail or in camp.

 


7. Hiker Showers Work

Wash up when you can!

 

After a day (or four) of sweating on the trail, things start to get funky. Taking a “hiker shower”, e.g. using wet wipes or bathing in a clean pond or lake can help you not only feel refreshed and clean, but also lead to fewer incidents of chaffing and reduced risk of contracting some kind of infection. Don’t shy away from physically scrubbing all the problem areas!

If a natural water source is not available, wet wipes work great. If you want to cut weight to the absolute minimum, dry the wipes before your trip and reconstitute with a few drops of water as needed.

There isn’t much you can do to effectively launder your clothing each day unless you have access to a washing machine, so even if you freshen up each night you’re still going to stink. Don’t bother packing deodorant as it won’t help much and the weight isn’t worth it. Instead, embrace your hiker stench but at least mop the nasty bits to keep things in check. Rinsing clothes in a lake or river on a longer trip is also a great idea.


8. Make a Friend

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash.

 

Backpackers are a contradictory lot; we seek the wilderness for the solitude, but love to share special moments with new friends. All it takes is a friendly smile or a kind gesture to meet a new trail buddy. On the John Muir Trail, Joe and Katie met a lot of fellow hikers. They jumped in alpine lakes, shared mountain views, and logged miles together. Here are a few tips on building friendships on trail:

  • Make a good first impression. Ask a real question: I like your pack, what brand is that? Do you have any intel on water sources coming up? Skip the I’m fine, how are you? pleasantries and go straight for the good stuff. A first impression goes along way.
  • Trail karma is real. Backcountry friends can get you out of a jam; a hiker gave Joe and Katie extra fuel when they were running low with only a few days left on the trip.
  • Be prepared to go with the flow. If you decide to let someone into your trail family, be willing and flexible to adjust your schedule to their needs.
  • Giving away extra food is a great way to make someone like you!

Note: COVID presents unique challenges in the backcountry. There are few reports of COVID spreading through backpacking activities. Andrew Skurka has a great write up on navigating COVID in the backcountry. Practice common sense, like wearing a mask, bringing hand sanitizer, socially distancing and following the guidance of experts.


9. Have a Hobby

Photo by Edward Virvel on Unsplash

 

Are you more focused on crushing miles or enjoying the next alpine lake? Whether you are more hiking or camping focused depends on personal preference. Regardless, backpacking always leaves time leftover for personal pursuits, and different hobbies lend themselves better to each style.

For camping-centric trips, it’s less important to count every ounce and instead you should consider packing more significant items like a DSLR camera, a fishing rod or a 13 oz ukulele is a great option for guitarists. Having a hobby that you can bring on trail can help pass the time, think differently, and maybe even make a new friend. The weight is well worth it.

Many fastpacking and ultralight backpacking trips are focused on mileage and time spent moving with little room for downtime. Even if you spend 12 hours hiking a day, you still have time in camp or on the trail for hobbies. Pack a lower profile digital camera like the Sony RX100V for professional looking shots, or the GoPro 8 for action or water shots. At 6.6oz, the Kindle Oasis is the lightest-weight Kindle on the market, although it is a little pricier. Even a deck of cards can go a long way in entertaining yourself and others.


10. Sleep Well

Do whatever it takes to get a good night’s sleep.

 

One of the absolute most important things on trail is getting a good night’s sleep. Not only does it make you feel better and have more energy, but it’s crucial for recovery and longevity on the trail. Even if you’re not getting many winks each night in pursuit of a speed record, being comfortable for what sleep you can get is essential.

While some ultralight hikers sacrifice lots of comfort to save weight, you should carefully consider and test your sleep system before heading out to ensure what you’re taking works for your personal needs. Some can manage with a closed-cell foam pad while others need something a bit more plush, although most of us can get by with something in the middle.

Another big decision that hikers must make is whether or not to bring a pillow. Most of us sleep with one at home and benefit from having that same comfort on-trail. While great, lightweight options exist, you may be perfectly comfortable resting your head on your pack or a stuff sack of extra clothes. No matter your preference, try various options and don’t wring your hands about a few extra ounces a pillow may add to your pack if it ensures you’ll rest easy.

 


11. Optimize Your Packing

Pack for efficiency and effectiveness.

 

As easy as it can be to just toss all your gear in your pack haphazardly when you set off in the morning, it can make for uneven distribution of weight which can lead to discomfort and injury on prolonged trips. Instead, pack thoughtfully by keeping your least-needed items on the bottom, your most-needed on the top, and your heaviest items (like food) in the middle. This will ensure the majority of your kit’s weight is at or near your center of mass which helps with stability and comfort.

Items such as rain gear, toilet paper, water, snacks, and insect repellent should be kept in external pockets for easy access without having to take your pack off and rummage through it. Make sure these items are evenly distributed so that one side isn’t significantly heavier than the other. Also, don’t keep anything on the outside of your pack that you can’t get wet (such as electronics).

Don’t forget to pack for the specific day ahead of you. If you are worried about a forecast of rain, pack your rain jacket on the outside of your pocket. If you are planning to do a resupply, leave your money or wallet in an accessible location the night before.


12. Continually tweak your kit, think about what you can improve

Brandon’s gear-splosion on the Appalachian Trail. Most of this kit has since been changed out for more optimal and in some cases, heavier) alternatives.

 

Many businesses in Japan utilize the concept of “Kaizen” in their practices, which means “continuous improvement”. By constantly analyzing their processes and making adjustments that help achieve goals, they seek to increase their efficiency, profitability, and employee satisfaction. The same approach can, and should, be taken toward hobbies such as backpacking.

Although it can be difficult to stay abreast of every new product brought to market, you should always be thinking about your kit and what improvements you can make to increase your overall satisfaction outdoors. That doesn’t always mean buying the newest and lightest gear (although reducing your pack weight is immensely helpful), rather it asks you to analyze and test your options in order to optimize future choices. This may take the form of leaving behind the third fleece pullover you always bring “just in case” but never use, and instead taking an inflatable pillow and a Kindle to be more comfortable at night.

The only way to really dial in your kit, which will be different from one trail and climate to another, is to  consider the opportunities available, research the viable options that fit your constraints, implement what you can, study the results, and start the process over. In other words: to constantly improve.

Backpacking is a learning process. Despite reading hundreds of clickbait backpacking articles like “12 Ways to Improve your Backpacking Experience,” nothing better prepares you how to spend nights in the backcountry like spending nights in the backcountry.


Takeaways

Many of these tips may seem like common knowledge, but for those without many trips under their belt a simple reminder of the high-level concepts can be useful. While there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for the best backpacking adventure, you can set yourself up for success by adopting a few of these strategies and continually optimizing your kit.

 

Tell us, what changes have you made to your backpacking style this year?

 


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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. dad

    Great summary!

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