ultralight backpacking gear list

5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List

Looking to reduce backpack weight to the absolute minimum? Then you’ve come to the right place. This ultralight backpacking gear list has the lightest possible gear that still makes practical sense.

Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – a how to guide for getting started

Desert canyons are some of the most stunning places on earth. And contrary to the hype of high adventure and disaster in technical slot canyons, with flash floods & amputating arms—many beautiful canyons are low risk and perfect for backpacking and hiking. No rock climbing or rope needed. As such, you should seriously consider non-technical canyon backpacking in Utah.

Canyon travel or canyoneering is mountain climbing in reverse. Rather than striving for the highest point to look down, you are in the bottom of a canyon with the world above you. It is a more intimate and enfolding way of viewing your surroundings.

Utah Canyons offer some of the best hiking & backpacking in the world

These canyons are stunningly beautiful and except for a few, lightly traveled. I can think of few places that offer as much solitude. Alison and I find the sparse beauty and solitude of desert canyons a deeply spiritual place. One that draws us back year after year for their peace and serenity.

Gems like Paria Canyon, Buckskin Gulch, the Zion Narrows, Coyote Gulch or Grand Gulch are just few of the big name canyons that are easily accessible to anyone with basic hiking skills. But the list of equally superb but lesser known canyons that await you in the Southwest US goes on and on. The Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument may alone have a lifetime’s worth of superb canyons and side-canyons to explore. Many may have only a few visitors every 10 years.

Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

High above the Escalante River: Dawn reflection in a slickrock pool in a remote side canyon. This canyon sees fewer than 10 people per year.

Tips for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

The good news is that many of your backpacking skills will work for canyoneering. But there are some things that will be new and different. Here are a few to consider:

  1. Canyon travel can be technical and non-technicalThis article is only about “Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah.” This non-technical canyon travel, or what I call “canyon backpacking” is low risk and similar in difficulty to regular backpacking. You don’t need a climbing rope. In some canyons you might need to do occasional calf-deep wading, a fun but safe scramble, or some bushwhacking. But nothing to get excited about. Technical canyoneering with ropes and rock climbing will not be discussed in this article.But at the end of this post I have included a section on tips for the more adventurous canyon traveler.

    What this guide is NOT ABOUT. Many, many specatcular canyons in Uhah are walk in and walk out. No climbing or ropes needed!

    What this guide is NOT ABOUT. There’s no need to do this to see many spectacular canyons!

  2. When to go – Most of the year it is too cold or too hot to backpack in the canyons. Most canyons in Utah have a short season, the middle of spring (mid-March to mid-May) and middle of fall (October-November).
  3. Gear for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – Having the right gear makes canyon travel easier and more fun. Here’s a link to the Gear List that we use. It’s excellent for non-technical Canyon Backpacking or hiking in Utah.

    A section dedicated to clothing is below.


    Paria Canyon

  4. Don’t stress too much about drinking water – Water, or lack of it, is not the big a deal most “knowledgeable professionals” make it out to be. See: “The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty.” Many of the better known canyons have well documented water sources so you’ll know how far it will be to your next good water. As such, you won’t be humping a ton of water or in dire risk of dehydration. My wife and I over the last 15 years have routinely carried far, far less than the recommended gallon of water. We have yet to go dry or thirsty. Note: Most canyon river/stream water, if it’s running at all, is too silty and hard with minerals to make good drinking. You’ll get most of your water from springs and from the few clear-drinkable sources of canyon river/streams. For treatment, I prefer the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System.


    Neon Canyon, Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument

  5. There is a low risk of flash floods in most “backpacking” canyons – most of the better known “backpacking” canyons are not slot canyons. As such, they are less prone (but not immune) to sudden and devastating flash floods. A slight risk of a flash flood (or far more likely, just high water) still exists in almost any canyon. So you still need to be aware of the weather. During the rare big storm, water levels may rise considerably but not so fast or so high that you won’t have time to find suitable high ground. They will also recede quickly. (Buckskin Gulch is the exception big name canyon with a significant flash flood risk, but the Ranger’s won’t give you a permit for Buckskin if there is the slightest chance of a flash flood. And many hundreds of people hike it safely every year.)
  6. Start small and build – Take some canyon day-trips and expand your skills—locating canyon entrances and exits, finding and managing drinking water, walking through sand, river wading, bushwhacking—generally learning how to make intelligent and efficient progress in a desert environment. Even two or three canyon day-trips will give you great insight to prepare for and execute your first multi-day canyoneering trip. Oh, and day-tripping in canyons is great fun!

    Grand Gulch, an open air cultural museum of Anasazi pictographs/petroglyphs and ancient dwellings. Note: If you find any artifacts; pottery fragments, arrowheads, etc. please leave them where you find them. The same goes with structures and dwellings. Do not enter them, walk on walls, etc. General rule is don’t touch, don’t move. Leave it as you found it.


  7. Guidebooks to get you startedSteve Allen has the best and most respected series of guidebooks on canyoneering in Utah. While some of his trips are technical, there are plenty of non-technical trips. And his general advice about canyoneering is among the best for both the non-technical and technical traveler. I have used the Falcon Guide “Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante & the Glen Canyon Region” for canyons that Steve Allen doesn’t cover like Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon, and Grand Gulch. The guide’s specific information on the canyons is adequate but I would defer to Allen for general information on Utah and canyoneering.


    Hiking in shorts, short sleeves and hatless is a terrible idea! Complete clothing coverage is better.

  8. Clothing for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – The desert can be a hot, scratchy, prickly place with intense sun. Wear long desert/travel pants like these , long-sleeve desert/travel shirts like these or a Rail Riders Adventure (or EccoMesh) Top, and a hat with complete sun coverage including neck and ears (e.g. Outdoor Research Sun Runner Hat). Light smooth fabrics (like thin nylon) slide easily through brush, absorb little sweat/water and dry quickly. Apply strong sunscreen to unprotected areas like hands or wear sun gloves like these OR ones. For more info See a detailed list of clothing we normally wear.
    Footwear – Boots are not needed or even desirable. Take light trail running shoe like Altra Lone Peaks or Altra Superiors. Fine mesh outer fabric is best (our favorite shoes are the Altra Superior Trail Running Shoes which have a very fine mesh that slows sand entry but lets water drain quickly after wading. And beware, the large-weave mesh popular on many trail runners lets too much sand in. Gore-Tex shoes do poorly. They are too hot, do not breathe well and don’t drain water after wading. (But they do have the advantage of being sand-proof!)
  9. Navigation in Canyons is different than other backpacking areas
    Navigating Canyon Bottoms takes a bit of getting used to. (Don’t worry, you’ll get better at it over time.) There are no signs, no blazes and almost no trails. One might think it’s simply a matter of following the canyon bottom like a train on its tracks. But for those new to it, walking in the bottom of a many branched canyon system can seem more like navigating a hedge maze. At the bottom of a canyon you have limited visibility and to the uninitiated the main canyon can be almost indistinguishable from its many side canyons. It’s much easier than you think to walk by and completely miss your exit ramp or exit side canyon. Over time you’ll get more observant, and pay better attention to small details. Travel in many canyon bottoms is a combination of river walking/wading, bushwhacking through willows (easier) and tamarisk (harder), and sandy bench walking. There is no “right” route: you just figure out what works for you.Navigating Benches Above the Canyon should likely wait until you are a more seasoned canyon traveler. It is usually more challenging than traveling the canyon bottom—with more difficult route-finding, hard to find entrances and exits, potentially technical sections and a likelihood of impassible side canyons and slots blocking forward travel.Note: Contrary to common belief GPS can work in canyons! So with some caveats, the section below explains how to best use your GPS in many canyons — just don’t rely on it!!

    Paria Canyon

    Paria Canyon

  10. Emergency contact. Much of Utah is remote like few other place in the lower 48. Hikers are hard to see or locate in the canyons, and there may be few or no other hikers to happen by if you are in trouble. Make sure you have your trip itinerary filed with an emergency contact monitoring your trip. I strongly recommend you consider a device like a Garmin inReach (preferred) or a SPOT Satellite Messenger. And here’s a link to a good template for your “Trip Plan” (a trip-tracking/emergency info document). It’s a great idea to have some version of one, even for a day hike!

Tips for those feeling more adventurous

Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

Author on a dawn climb out of the Escalante Canyon. Andrew Skurka waits to go next. photo: Don Wilson

  • Proceed with caution! Make sure you can reverse your route. Even small, seemingly insignificant up-climbs or down-climbs of just 8-10 feet might be irreversible, forcing you to move on without a retreat.
  • If you do decide to do more adventurous scrambling, a 40-50’, 6-7 mm rope can be a huge help to raise or lower backpacks. Without a backpack on, members of your party can more easily balance and safely climb short sections that would be otherwise impassible. This can greatly expand where you can go in canyons. [Again, use caution and always err on the side of safety when “climbing” in the canyons.]

    Tarps are perfect for the desert with its low chance of rain. They are a great way to save weight. I only set mine up when there is a chance of rain, otherwise it stays in my pack. See: Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

  • Flash Flood risk for less well traveled canyons: some moderately narrow “backpacking” canyons off the beaten path, may be more at risk for serious flash floods. These are not usually the big name canyons with lots of travelers. Choprock Canyon in the Escalante Grand Staircase is an example of moderately narrow “backpacking” canyon more at risk for flash floods.
  • GPS use – See: How to use the iPhone as the Best Backpacking GPS. Contrary to the common statement “GPS doesn’t work in canyons,” I’ve had good success using my iPhone as a GPS when canyoneering. Obviously the deeper and narrower the canyon, the harder it is to get a position fix. But with a little smarts one can use it with reasonable success by opportunistically getting fixes in wider canyon sections or other areas with a better sky view. [And, do not rely on your GPS to navigate the canyons. It’s a convenience, not a substitute for navigation by map an compass and/or a crutch for poor navigation skills. This may be truer in canyons (with their iffy GPS reception) than almost anywhere.]
  • Be safe out there!

Parting Photos

Perfect light: Brilliant oranges and reds from sunlight filtering into a slot canyon. For narrow slot canyons the “magic hour” for photography is not early morning or late evening. Usually it’s close to high noon with the sun directly over the canyon. Only then does the light penetrate, causing the sandstone to come alive and glow.

Perfect light: Brilliant oranges and reds from sunlight filtering into a canyon. For narrower canyons the “magic hour” for photography is not early morning or late evening. Usually it’s close to high noon with the sun directly over the canyon. Only then does the light penetrate, causing the sandstone to come alive and glow.

Buckskin Gulch. One of the longest, deepest and most spectacular slot canyons in the world. Many hundreds of hikers and backpacker safely walk through this canyon every year.

Buckskin Gulch. One of the longest, deepest and most spectacular slot canyons in the world. Hundreds of backpackers safely hike through this canyon every year.

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This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. For product reviews: unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

tips for your first backpacking trip

12 tips for your first backpacking trip of the year

When you haven’t backpacked in months & months, getting your systems dialed back in can be overwhelming and challenging. Between gear, food and logistics, it’s easy to lose track of things. But with these 12 tips for your first backpacking trip of the year you’ll quickly find your stride and confidence. A successful first trip of the season awaits you!

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12 tips for your first backpacking trip of the year – make it easy – have fun!

Getting ready for a backpacking trip is not rocket science or brain surgery. Use the following tips to make it a lot easier to pack and get out on that first backpacking trip of the year. And this is supposed to be fun — even the pre-trip preparation!

1. Pack to a Gear List!

There are any number of good checklists for bringing the right gear. Print one out and use a pencil to check off each item. If you have a spare room (or even the living room) lay things out clearly in groups; sleeping gear (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad) in one area, clothing in another, cooking gear in another, etc. When it’s laid out like this I find it substantially easier to make sure I have exactly what I need.

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tips for your first backpacking trip

Make it fast and easy to pack all the right stuff and forget nothing: Use a gear checklist and lay things out clearly in groups in a room dedicated to the task. I usually leave stuff laid out until I leave for my trip.

2. Don’t go crazy spending money on a bunch of new Gear

I suggest that you only buy a new piece of gear if you really need it and know exactly what you want. Otherwise, borrow from friends or rent gear until you have enough information to make a good decision. Early season trips are a great way to gather information about what gear works best for you — and what doesn’t work and needs to be replaced. That being said, if you know what you want, early season sales are a great place to look for stuff on closeout or steep discount. For instance:

3. Keep Your Food Simple

Almost all the food you need for a backpacking trip is at your local supermarket or in your kitchen cabinets at home. Nuts, PB&Js, Chocolate, Dried Fruit, Energy bars etc. And for a three day trip you don’t need to vary food all that much. Alison and I usually eat most of the same food each day for short trips which keeps things easy and simple. Again packing to a Food List helps. Many meals can be made at home with commonplace ingredients. We have a number of simple and easy to make meal recipes here. For those who don’t want to make their own meals, there are some simple and healthy freeze dried meals that work great like this Black Beans & Rice. We doctor it up into one of our favorite dinners by adding grated cheddar cheese, corn chips and possibly some hot sauce. The recipe is here.

Bonus tip: As a reality check, weigh all your food before the trip. It should add up to 1.5 to around 1.8 pounds/person/day. If it’s outside these limits, something is likely wrong.

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A simple and quickly assembled set of food for a 6 to 7 day trip. Aligning food in rows per/day helps to organize and provides a useful check that you’ve packed correctly. Almost all the food was purchased at Whole Foods and our Local Supermarket.

4. Don’t wait until the last minute to assemble gear and food!

Have all your gear sorted at least three days before your trip start. That way if you can’t find an important item you’ll still have time to go to a local store or order it from Amazon Prime. (It’s always something small and essential you can’t find like a headlamp, compass, pot, or fuel bottle…) And this will also allow you to make sure everything fits in your pack. Note: If you might order gear from cottage manufacture’s (I do), you’ll need to order 6 -8 weeks in advance.

5. Do some pre-tip hikes | Use the socks and shoes you intend to wear on the trip

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If you buy new shoes and socks do it weeks before your trip so you can have some time to use them—at least walking around the neighborhood. This is the #1 way to prevent blisters! Note: Get trail runners! They’re light, easy on you feet and will make your trip a more fun. Don’t forget to use your trekking poles on your hikes. Our favorite trekking poles are the $40 Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Trekking Poles. They are as good but 1/3 the price of the best trekking poles.

tips for your first backpacking trip

Altra Lone Peak shoes

Altra Lone Peak Trail Shoes, M’s & W’s @REI: These are Alison’s and my favorite backpacking and hiking shoes. These are the most comfortable shoe after a 30+ mile day on the trail. One key is the massive toe room that is so kind to trail-swollen feet at the end of the day. They are light and have a zero drop heel for a more natural stride. These come in both Men’s and Women’s models. Some of our favorite socks are  SmartWool PhD Light Mini, Darn Tough 1/4 UL w cushion or DeFeet Wolleators.

6. Get a Weather Report

This will give you some peace of mind that you will be warm safe and dry. That is, the weather report will let you pack a tent, clothing, and sleeping bag, etc. appropriate for actual weather conditions. (Note: For most trips of 3 days or less, this weather report should be fairly accurate. But, If you are going to the mountains make sure you get a mountain forecast as mountains tend to be cooler and wetter than lower areas.)

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7. Bring  a book, some tunes (with earbuds!), podcasts or other nighttime diversions

It’s human nature not to sleep the best your first night out and early season nights can be long . Having something to entertain, distract and relax you can be a big help to getting to sleep early.

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Fun fact: when sleeping in a new place the human brain alternately sleeps one side of the brain less than the other. This keeps you more alert while you sleep—presumably to keep you safer in a strange place. But this makes it harder to get to sleep and a lighter sleep once you are asleep.

Always Bring a Backup Battery!

tips for your first backpacking trip

With its built-in cables the Jackery Bolt can charge a lightening device and micro-USB device at the same time.

Yeah, it seems like just about everything needs some juice these days. And many people are using their smartphones as their primary navigation device. As such, it’s a huge bummer if you drain the battery all the way down. (always bring a set of paper maps and real compass tho!) My three favorite lightweight and high capacity USB backup batteries are:

  1. Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery (pictured right)- With two built in cables (lightening & micro-USB) it will charge just about any backcountry electronics. It has a faster charging rate than the EasyAcc below but has slightly less overall capacity.
  2. EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery This has slightly more capacity (tested) than the Jackery battery but has a slower charging rate & only a built micro-USB cable (altho you can attach your own lightening cable to charge an iPhone). It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 about 1.4x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 2.3x.
  3. Anker PowerCore 10000 (only 6.4 oz) this is the lightest option if you need to recharge your electronics a lot.  It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 ~2.5x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 ~3.5x. Its limitation is that it only has one USB port for a cable.
  4. And of course for a SPOT messenger and many headlamps a spare set of lithium AAA batteries.

8. Evaluate the following before your trip

  • Prior to the trip, setup your tent*, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad in the backyard or a local park. Preferably with your hiking partner. This makes sure you have all the parts and pieces and everybody knows what they are supposed to do. Inspect the tent, rain fly and floor for any damage. Get into the tent and lie down side by side and make sure everything is copacetic, air pads don’t leak etc. Do you feel comfortable enough to get a good night’s sleep? Is the tent too small and claustrophobic? Early season has longer nights and the possibility of spring rains so you might be in the tent for a while. As such it’s nice to have enough room. [*Note: it really helps to have the tent setup instructions. If you don’t have them you can usually download them online for your tent or one close to it.]
  • Fire up your backpacking stove and heat some water. Make sure your fuel canister is full.
  • Check that your water filter pumps water easily and/or that your water treatment chemicals are in date.
  • Try on your clothing and make sure it still fits, doesn’t have rips and tears and doesn’t smell funny. [yeah, occasionally I put away unwashed clothing!]

9. Keep your Trip Short

A 2 to 3 day weekend trip is likely the best option for your first trip of the season. And don’t overreach on distance. Most of us haven’t reached our peak conditioning early season. Keeping the miles reasonably short will make walking fun and prevent temper flare-ups from exhausted trip members. In addition, since it’s the first trip for the year — you’ll want to be in camp with plenty of time to set up the tent, collect water, cook dinner. An added benefit of the shorter hiking days is that you’ll likely have time to savor a sunset over a cup of hot chocolate.

10. Keep your trip local

There are far less logistic issues with arranging a local trip. And shorter travel time to and from trip trailheads leaves you more time to enjoy the backcountry. Also, it’s likely a local area you are familiar with, making many things easier. And while early season has fewer backpackers, you may still have other campers at the most desirable campsites. My suggestion is to embrace the company and make friends with your fellow outdoor enthusiasts — enjoy the evening. [There will be plenty of time for longer more aggressive trips later in the year where you can have your solitude.]

tips for your first backpacking trip

There are many local options for lovely areas to backpack and camp. This beautiful waterfall in Dolly Sods is by an extremely popular backcountry campsite easily accessable to people from the Washington DC Area. Even in early spring, you may have company. My suggestion is to embrace the company and make friends with your fellow, like minded outdoor enthusiasts.

11. Don’t Worry So Much About Wet and Cold

If you have the right gear (see gear list below) you’ll do fine. And a local trip in a more controlled area is the perfect place to practice and get good experience in these conditions. Finally, if for some reason things do get intolerable, it’s likely not all that far to hike out to the car.

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12. Take notes on what worked and what didn’t work

After the trip, change out gear and modify your technique as required. If you do need new gear, don’t wait until the last minute to buy it before your next trip. Clean and wash your gear after the trip and then properly store it in a dry area.

Closing Thought – Embrace Your Mistakes!

One of the main purposes of an early season trip is to shake-out your gear and technique. As such, it’s OK, even desirable to make mistakes. Better to make your small blunders in a safe, controlled local place than on your big destination trip of the year. That way you can start that trip on the John Muir Trail ready to roll, with your kit and technique dialed in.

Bonus Tip – Keep your Trip Fun

The overarching principle for this post is to keep your trip and trip planning as enjoyable as possible. Alison and I have one rule for every trip: If either of us is NOT having fun it’s time to stop and make a NEW plan. That is, a plan that puts FUN back into the trip.

Wishing you a great start to the backpacking season, -Adventure Alan


This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a small portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. For product reviews: unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

Adventure Alan - Lightweight & Ultralight, Backpacking & Hiking - Alan Godafoss

Best Backpacking Cameras 2018

This post takes the BS & mystery out of finding the right camera. A camera that meets YOUR needs & YOUR budget. And you don’t need an expensive camera to take superb backpacking photos. Some of the best lightweight backpacking cameras cost far less than you think. You might already own one!

The best backpacking camera is the one you have with you

Or put another way, the best camera is the camera you can quickly pull out and shoot. Many superb photos have been taken on iPhones. Being in a beautiful area and taking a photo in the right place at the right time matters far more than the camera.

That being said, if you are in the right place at the right time, some cameras take better photos than others. This post will help you 1) find your “best” camera and 2) give you techniques to get the most out of it when hiking or backpacking.

This photo was shot with a sub $500, semi-pro camera. The Sony a6000 with stock 16-50mm kit lens 

2018 Highlights

NEW Post March 2018 – 2018 Professional Quality Cameras for Hiking and Ultralight Backpacking
The Sony a7R III and a7R II are the perfect, full-on professional cameras for hiking and ultralight backpacking. They give you full-frame pro quality photos but without the weight. Contains a list of the best and lightest, professional full-frame camera bodies and lenses. [Note: This gear is heavier and more expensive than what’s listed in this post.]


Short on Time?  Skip to One of These

In addition to “The Two Cameras I Take on Almost Every Trip” (below), you can jump to:

best backpacking cameras

Cameras I take backpacking: L to R, iPhone, Sony RX100 and Sony a6000 or a6500. There is no right choice! Each camera has its strengths and weakness. BUT the Sony a6500 on the right has almost 3x the resolution of the other two – 15 pMP vs 5-6 pMP.

The Best Backpacking Cameras

I take the following two cameras on almost every trip:

  1. My Smartphone, iPhone X (but it could be an 8 or 8 plus, or a Google Pixel…)
  2. My $498 semi-pro Sony a6000 camera. With its light weight and great image quality challenging far heavier cameras that cost 2-3 times or more, it’s not surprising it’s the best selling camera in its class!

While my iPhone takes great pictures, at some point there is no substitute for a “true camera” like the Sony a6000 with a good lens. This is especially true if getting top notch photos is a serious trip objective. The table below shows why this is so.

* n/a values for iPhone(s) are unknown. But given their image sensor is 6.5x smaller than the RX100’s you can assume that Dynamic Range (ability to capture light and dark), High ISO (low light) performance, and Color Depth are all lower. BUT! here’s the huge caveat that closes the gap between smartphones and traditional cameras. The new iPhones (and other high end smartphones like the Google Pixel) are intensely applying sophisticated “computational photography” (software image processing) to significantly improve dynamic range, color, contrast, texture, etc. of their photos. See more on how to utilize this power below.

Perceptual Megapixels

Perceptual megapixels” (pMP) is a measure of the “sharpness,” the actual detail resolved in the final image.  pMP is the resolution of the combination of a particular lens and camera—not simply the native resolution of the camera sensor! As an example, for most 24 MP, APS-C (crop sensor cameras like the Sony a6000, Nikon D7200 or Canon EOS 80D) the perceptual megapixel resolution final image maxes out at around 17 MP or around 70% of the native 24 MP sensor resolution—even with the best and most expensive prime lenses. Zoom lenses typically resolve less, especially inexpensive ones. See more about perceptual megapixels here.

best backpacking cameras

I have a 20×30 print of this on the wall in my bedroom: I used a semi-pro camera with a sharp lens to capture fine detail and handle the huge dynamic range between the afternoon shadows and the bright snow and glaciers of the Andes in full sunlight.

Camera 1: A Smartphone – BUT Intelligently Used

What’s Good About Smartphone Cameras for Backpacking

  • Under the right conditions, and with the right technique they take some stunning photos!
  • “Zero cost” — You likely own a smartphone with a good camera, so zero additional cost
  • “Zero weight” — You’re likely  bringing your smartphone anyway, so no additional weight
  • Easy and fast to use (and you are likely proficient with it)
  • They do double duty as the best hiking or backpacking GPS

And the Newest Smartphone Cameras Kick Ass!

The new iPhones (and other high-end smartphones like the Google Pixel) are intensely applying  “computational photography” (sophisticated software image processing) to significantly improve photos. This includes dynamic range (ability to handle large differences from the lightest to darkest parts of the photo), color, contrast, texture, and even focus to their photos. The improvements can be dramatic. So much so, that many times the photos from the new smartphones often look better than photos from much larger “traditional” DSLR cameras. It may take a lot of editing of photos from a traditional camera to clearly see the benefits of a larger sensor.  That being said,  read my article:

10 hacks and accessories for better smartphone hiking photography

It will help you get the very best out your already great smartphone camera.

smartphone hiking photographyBasic Smartphone Photography Accessories L to R: [Joby GripTight Tripod at (REI) or new JOBY GripTight ONE GP Stand] both better for larger phones & are more adjustable), iPhone X on a JOBY GripTight ONE Micro Stand (smaller & lighter), Apple headset used as a remote shutter release, a Bluetooth Smartphone Camera Remote Shutter (Joby), Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery (keeps phone charged for days of use),  Black Diamond Headlamp (gets you safely to and from the magic light of dawn & dusk for superior photos).

Camera 2: Sony a6x00 – when high quality photos are a major objective

best backpacking cameras

The full Sony a6000/a6500 kit: Peak Designs CapturePRO (mounts to backpack shoulder strap), Peak Designs Micro Plate (mounts to camera bottom), Pedco ultra-pod II (small tripod), Sony NP-FW50 Battery, and Newer® Fish Bone quick release for tripod head.

For me, the Sony a6000 is a clear choice for serious backpacking photos. It’s an incredible value at less than $500 for a semi-pro camera! With the right lens it has superb image quality challenging heavier cameras that cost far more. It’s light, and is easily carried on the shoulder strap of my backpack. I have the option of a number of great lenses, many of them inexpensive. And perhaps most important, it is super fast to use with an excellent electronic viewfinder (EVF). In summary, it’s the perfect complement to my iPhone.

And here is how I use that system backpacking, so I have immediate access to my camera at all times. The camera is surprisingly light and non-intrusive while I hike.

For me the maximum weight of a camera is determind by what I an comfortably carry on the shoulder strap of my pack.

For me the maximum weight of a camera is determined by what I can comfortably carry all day on the shoulder strap of my pack. Pictured is a Sony a6000 camera with the stellar Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens (22 oz total wt). They are mounted to a Peak Designs CapturePRO on the shoulder strap of my pack. View a 15 second video below to see this fast system in action.

My Sony a600x System

Camera APS-C
crop format
Sony a6000 w kit 16-50mm lens*
new model: Sony a6500
16.0Among lightest 24mp APS-C cameras. With the right lens, it has image quality equal to much heavier cameras camera’s costing far more.
Sony a600 or a6500 – How To Choose?  See more below
Battery spareSony NP-FW50 Battery (1.5)Alt less $: Wasabi Power Battery (2-Pack) & Charger
MountPeak Designs CapturePRO 110g3.8Take more photos! Fast access to camera!
Attaches to backpack shoulder strap
MountPeak Designs Micro Plate 25g0.8Needed to clear a6000’s hinged LCD screen
Mini TripodPedco utra-pod II 114g, 4.0 ozFor small mirrorless SLR cameras
Tripod mountNewer® Fish Bone quick release for tripod head 51g, 1.8 ozFor quick attachment of camera with Peak Designs Micro Plate
 Full tripodFor serious photos (only 920g)Sirui T-024X Carbon Fiber Tripod w C-10S Ball Head one of the lightest and best. It’s the tripod I’m holding in the lead photo of this article.
Remote shutterWireless remote controlJJC Remote Control for Sony A6000 – reduce camera shake on tripod.
ProtectionGallon Freezer ZipLocTo protect camera gear from rain

Photo: Dolly Sods Wildness with the 16 oz Sony a6000  with stock zoom lens (in table above). I needed a small tripod, because 1) it was in the magic light of evening, and 2) I wanted  a slow shutter speed (~1-2 seconds) to get a slight blur of the water.

Sony a600 or a6500 – How To Choose?

I’m guessing many of you are confused as to which of these great cameras to get. To help you to decide on the right camera for you, I’ll try to summarize the key pro’s and cons:

Sony a6000: The a6000 has the same 24 MP resolution but is a few oz lighter than the a6500. It has a huge advantage in price. Currently it’s $448 vs. $1198 for the a6500. With that extra $750 you can buy some nice lenses and still come out ahead. E.g. the Sony 18-105mm F4 G OSS and/or the new Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN Prime Lens (24mm to equiv. for great landscape shots). The a6000 with both lenses will significantly outperform the more expensive Sony a6500 with the kit 16-50mm lens. The a6000 doesn’t have in-body image stabilization but if you stick to the image stabilized Sony lenses (OSS) this no big deal. On the other hand, if you are shooting with a non-stabilized lens like theSigma 16mm f/1.4, you’ll end up on a tripod sooner in low light to get sharp photos.

Sony a6500: The a6500 has the same 24 MP resolution but but has 1/2 stop more dynamic range than the a6000. This the maximum range of light to dark it can capture and still retain detail in the photo. But the most important upgrade to the a6500 is image stabilization built-in to the camera body. This means that you can shoot hand-held far longer in low light with non-image stabilized Sony lenses like the super sharp  Sigma 16mm f/1.4.  This is a pretty big deal for hikers and backpackers. Finally the a6500 has a touchscreen display. The best part of this is just touching the screen where you want focus. I find this especially useful to get super accurate focus when shooting on a tripod.

a6x00 lens upgrades

As noted in the table at the beginning of the article, you can get almost 3x better resolution with higher quality, but heavier and more expensive lenses. They are especially helpful if you think you might want to make large prints from your photos. My favorite lens for most trips, despite its weight and moderate cost, is the Sony 18-105mm G Series Zoom (far left in the photo below) and the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 Prime Lens.


If good photos are a serious objective for your trip, here are some lens upgrades I frequently use: On camera is the Sony 10-18mm F4 G OSS zoom (15mm to 27mm equiv.); center is the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (normal lens); and far left the Sony 18-105mm F4 G OSS lens (27-160mm equiv.) Not pictured the game-changing landscape lens: the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN Prime Lens (24mm to equiv.)

Additional High Quality Zoom Lenses
Allpurpose ZoomSony 18-105mm F4 G OSS15.0Personal favorite (27mm to 160mm equiv.) Carries nicely on pack shoulder strap. Sharp, reasonably light. Good price. Image stabilized.
Wide Zoom Sony 10-18mm F4 G OSS  8.1Very wide angle (15mm to 27mm equiv.) Great for landscape/dramatic perspective. Image stabilized.
Additional High Quality Prime (fixed focal length) Lenses
Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN Prime Lens 14.3Game-changing lens for backpacking landscape photographers. Fast, superb resolution, 24mm equivalent. Use dawn & dusk. And low cost! Great w image stabilized a6500 for handheld use.
Normal HQ Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens 9.5Highest resolution lens for camera. Wide aperture for low light. Great w image stabilized a6500 for handheld use. Or a tripod w a6000
Normal HQSony 35mm f/1.8 Prime Fixed Lens 6.2Fast, superb resolution, normal lens. Use dawn & dusk. It has image stabilization, so perfect with the non-image stabilized a6000
Budget Lenses (but good!)
LandscapeSigma 19mm f2.8 DN, w hood 6.1For landscape. Light, inexpensive. 2x sharper at 19mm than the a6000 16-50mm kit lens
Normal budgetSigma 30mm f2.8 DN, w hood5.7Low cost good resolution for only $199! Light.
Mild-teleSigma 60mm F2.8 EX DN Art 6.7Mild-telephoto/portrait lens. Super high res! Only $240!
Astrophotography Lense(s)
Astro lensRokinon 12mm f/2.0 Wide Angle8.6Lens of choice for APS-C astrophotography. Inexpensive given its wide angle and speed!

Killer sub-$1,000 setup that can take down far heavier cameras costing 3x more:  Pictured the game-changing, super sharp landscape lens, the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN Prime Lens (24mm to equiv.) with the Sony a6000 camera mounted on a Mini Tripod Pedco utra-pod II.

A Point and Shoot Camera that Can Run with the Big Dogs – My Third Camera

The very light and compact Sony RX-100  crushes smartphone cameras. It has image quality approaching the Sony a6000 with kit lens. This is in part because it has an image sensor 6.5x larger than the best smartphone sensors. It also has a high-quality Zeiss zoom lens. As such, the Rx100 occupies a valid but narrow niche between smartphone cameras and mirrorless cameras like the a6000.

But note that the RX100 has its limitations:  It is just a bit too large and heavy to be truly “pocketable.” Its image quality is not quite as good as the lower priced Sony a6000. And finally, its single lens while similar in performance to the a6000 kit lens, is not interchangeable.  Thus, the RX100 cannot match the 3x better resolution of interchangeable camera lenses for the a6000, like the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Contemporary lens. Finally, it’s a bit delicate and needs to be treated with care.



The Sony RX100 Kit

point & shoot
Sony RX100 (280g)10.0Highest image quality for a P/S camera. But pricy!
Large sensor, good in low light, has EVF
Older versions of Sony RX100 If you don’t need the latest/greatest you can save $
And these are still great cameras!
Battery spareSony NP-BX1 (24 g, 0.8 oz)Alt: (2) BM NP-BX1 Batteries & Charger
Tripod P/SJOBY GorillaPod (44g)1.5For smaller P/S cameras. Also Pedco UltraPod

Hacks to Get Good Photos Handheld – No Tripod Needed

Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

Handheld photo with a mirrorless camera similar to the Sony a6000. The low light of the deep shade of the canyon late in the day was a challenge. A fast(er) lens, moderate 1S0 increase, and image stabilization all helped to keep the photo sharp with good color and low noise — without resorting to a tripod.

One of the major tenets of serious outdoor photography is that you need a tripod to get good results. But this not necessary true. There are some good options to steady your camera for reasonably-sharp photos before you need to resort to using a tripod. These also have the advantage of being a lot faster to use vs. setting up a tripod. And of course you don’t have the extra weight of carrying a tripod.

The following hacks, when combined, can gain you 6 to 8 stops (camera shutter speeds). This means that a photo goes from a completely unmanageable 1/2 of a second shutter shutter speed (super blurred when handheld) to a very manageable 1/120 of a second shutter speed which should give you a nice sharp photo!

  1. Image Stabilization, +2-3 stops: Check to see if your smartphone, true camera and/or lens has image stabilization (most do). Built-in image stabilization (IS, VR or OSS) gains you about 2 to 3 stops (shutter speeds) when handheld. This goes a long way to increasing the number of shots that you can take without a tripod.
  2. High ISO, +2-3 stops: There have been dramatic improvements in ISO performance (low light). For true cameras Sony probably leads the sensor technology here. Both the RX100 and a6000 have sensors with low light performance challenging that of much larger sensors. This gains you 2 to 3 stops. The RX100 (“working” high ISO ~600, about 2 stops) and a6000 (“working” high ISO ~1400, about 3 stops). For a smartphones like my iPhone 6+ its base ISO goes from around 32 to a working high ISO of around 125, so around 2 stops. [But note this is still far less than the ISO 600 to 800 of the Sony cameras. This an inherent downside of the smartphone’s sensor being 6x smaller than the RX100’s sensor.]
  3. Fast Lens, +2 stops: For true cameras, purchasing a f1.4 to f2 lens will give you about 2 stops over a basic f3.5 to f4.0 of point and shoot lenses and many DSLR kit lenses. If you aren’t striving for depth of field, a faster lens will increase the number of shots you can take hand-held.

Hack – Improvise a “Tripod” to Stabilize your Camera

You can get much of the benefit of a tripod to stabilize your camera by improvising a “tripod.” You can brace your camera up against a rock, tree, or even your trekking pole. Remember to squeeze off that shutter gently! Better yet, you can use folded garment (or other prop) on top of a rock, or fallen tree to make a an  improvised tripod/camera rest. Now that you are not holding the camera, remember to put the shutter release on a 2-second delay for sharpest results, or use a remote (see gear lists above).

For the Sharpest and Highest Quality Photos – Use a Tripod

But even with all the hacks above, if you want the very sharpest photos, ones that will enlarge to 20×30″ and hang on your wall, you will likely need a tripod of some sort. This especially true during the low light, “magic hours” of dawn and dusk. In those instances you want low ISO (~100 true cameras, ~32-50 smartphones) and and aperture of f/4 or more. This leads to shutter speeds in the range of 1/2 of a second or longer, not remotely doable handheld. The good news is that for just a few ounces you can get a perfectly serviceable mini tripod.

5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera

Sometimes to get the highest image quality (e.g. 20×30″ prints to go on your wall), you need a sharp prime and a small tripod. In this case the Sony a6000 camera with the super sharp Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens  (50mm equiv. – normal lens) or Sigma 16mm f/1.4 Lens (24mm equiv. -landscape lens). At only 22 oz, this camera/lens combo has image quality equal to or exceeding the very best, and much heavier & costlier APS-C camera systems.

Mini Tripods

Any serious backcountry photographer should consider taking a small ultralight camera tripod like a Gorillapod or UltraPod. Compared to the techniques mentioned earlier, they provide better camera positioning and stability at a fraction of the weight of a full-sized, conventional tripod. These mini-pods are far from perfect. At some point, when conditions get difficult enough, there is no way around a “real tripod.”

  • JOBY GorillaPod. My choice for point & shoot cameras like the Sony RX100.
  • Pedco ultra-pod II 114g, 4.0 oz. This is my first choice for a smaller mid-sized cameras like the Sony a6000. Just put the shutter release on a 2-second delay and you will get sharp results even in low light.

A Light and Compact Full Sized Tripod

Finally, you may need (or want) a full sized tripod. This is especially true if photography is your main trip objective. One of the lightest, “full-sized” tripods with true stability for a camera like the Sony a6000, is the 2 pound Sirui T-024X Traveler Light Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10S Ball Head. While heavier compared to the Gorilla-pod or UltraPod, it is far more stable and provides better camera positioning. And it extends all the way up to 58 inches, for a convenient non-stooping work height. Finally, the Sirui packs down to only 16″  so it easily fits in your pack.

And remember to use remote shutter release like this JJC Remote Control for Sony A6000 to reduce camera shake on the tripod. Or set the camera’s shutter to a 2 second delay.

How I Carry my Backpacking Camera – or how to get more photos

For me, it’s all about the speed and ease of taking a photo. Since I changed to using the Peak Designs CapturePRO mounting system on the shoulder strap of my pack, I get 2 to 3 x more photos per trip. More than I ever got with a point and shoot camera in my pocket!

Note in the video how quickly and easily I put my pack on with the camera already attached to my shoulder strap. No camera spinning around and twisting up the shoulder strap.


Lead photo above: Author working in Iceland with light but serious photo gear. [Photo credit – Peyton Hale]



This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. For product reviews: unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

13 Essentials for the Modern Hiker – A Realistic “10 Essentials”

This article proposes a more realistic 13 Essentials that will better keep the modern hiker safe. This is because the Classic 10 Essentials (first proposed in the 1930’s) need an update for the 21st Century given the realities of a modern day hiker.

  • First, a major conceptual trap of the traditional 10 Essentials is that they are all gear. I would counter that the two most important “essentials” are actually skill and knowledge items: 1) good trip planning and 2) the skill of staying found.
  • Second, why should there be only 10?
  • Third, why do none of the 10 Essentials take advantage of 21st century technology?
  • And finally, some 10 Essentials are a bit arcane & don’t match the skills & habits of the modern hiker.

Lead photo: A “freak” summer blizzard in the Wind River Range. I was super grateful to have all my warm clothing, a bivy sack and 1/2 lb tarp. And even more appreciative I had the skills and knowledge to use them.

The 13 Essentials for the Modern Hiker

My revised “essentials” are to help people be prepared for emergency situations outdoors. As such, it’s a good idea to bring them whenever you are in the backcountry—whether it’s just a long day hike, or a multi-day off-trail backpacking trip.

The following 13 Essentials favors a pragmatic approach to bringing the right gear. First and foremost, it relies on your best piece of gear, what’s between your ears.

  1. Trip Plan
  2. Staying Found
  3. Navigation Tools (not always paper map & compass)
  4. Sun and Bug/Disease Protection
  5. Insulation (extra clothing)
  6. Headlamp
  7. Emergency Shelter
  8. First Aid Kit
  9. Hydration (extra water)
  10. SOS Device (satellite based, like inReach or SPOT)
  11. Nutrition
  12. Repair Kit and Tools
  13. Fire Starter


1 Trip Plan

Use what’s between your ears. More problems arise from poor planning and lack of information about a hike than from not bringing the right gear. So, whether you’re day-hiking or backpacking you should:

  1. Do your research on hiking distances, trail conditions, campsites and water ability. Good examples of this type of research are: Map kiosks/Information Centers at major trailheads or park publications like the excellent Zion Park Map and Guide, or guide books. Much of this info is now online.
  2. Then make an honest/realistic estimate of how far you’ll hike each day. Be conservative. You don’t want to end up stranded somewhere because you only hiked ¾ of the distance you expected. And in case you end up short, have a backup camp area with a water source.
  3. Get a weather report for your trip and then plan and pack gear for those conditions! Since 90% of hikers or backpackers take 90% their trips for 3 days or or less, this weather report should be quite accurate. My favorite weather app for both smartphone and desktop is Weather Underground.
  4. And once on your trip, you also need to watch the weather and be prepared to deal with “freak” weather. This is especially true in high western mountains where a summer blizzard is always possible. Even the lower elevation Appalachian Mountains can have some cold and severe weather in the warmer months. Usually park info sites will let you know what sorts of extreme weather might be possible. [Note: This does not necessarily mean going overboard with gear—just taking the right gear.]
  5. Leave a copy of your trip intineary with someone. See: How to make and use a Trip Itinerary.

2 Staying Found

Staying Found is the key navigation skill that experienced navigators always use but never mention.

The highly effective, “Staying Found” approach to navigation is within the capability of all hikers.

Good navigators rarely get lost because they have a good idea (Trip Plan) in their head of where they are going and what to expect. That is, they are vigilant and observant while they hike—always comparing what they see on the trail against the plan in their head. They continually monitor their progress and check for upcoming trail junctions, lakes, stream crossings, a steep climb, a section of bog & other features to confirm that they are on the right track. If they stray, they quickly identify & correct it. You should do likewise. It’s your first and best navigation “tool.”

3 Navigation Tools (not always paper map and compass)

10 Essentials

(left) 21st century navigation tool: Gaia GPS App running on an iPhone. (right) Traditional nav tools: A fully featured compass with declination adjustment and paper USGS topographic map underneath. Both have pros and cons.

Important Note: I respectfully suggest that people read the Navigation Tools & Electronics Appendix carefully before commenting on this important topic. In particular, it covers the strengths and weaknesses of navigational tools, their proper use and the ways they can fail (yes, map & compass can “fail” too).

For Navigation – Take the tools you can actually use!

The first question that requires an honest answer is, “what navigational tools can I actually use?” Like having a bicycle but not knowing how to ride it, navigational tools (like a compass or USGS topographic map) without the knowledge to use them properly are not tremendously useful. It might even be dangerous if your are relying on them to navigate and keep you safe, but under false assumptions about your skills.

Topographic Map and Compass

If you are skilled with a map and compass, then take them. They are reliable, light, effective, inexpensive and don’t require batteries, or cell phone signal [I bring them on every trip.]

Alternatives to Topographic Map and Compass

But if you aren’t confident using a topographic map and compass there are alternatives. You might consider using tools that you are more familiar with and easier to operate— ones that you can reliably use in the field. Two options are:

  • A Simple Hiking Map like the Zion Park Map and Guide and using Staying Found Navigation as described above. This is your first and best strategy even when you bring other navigational tools!
  • A Smartphone GPS App with dowloaded, Off-line Maps that does not need cell signal! (A quick test with your phone in airplane mode can determine if your App & maps work offline.)

A Smartphone GPS App Might be a Better Navigation Tool for Some Modern Hikers

Many traditionalists insist that a paper topographic map & compass are mandatory. But frankly, many modern recreational hikers may not have the map and compass skills to be able to rescue themselves using them. But they do have a lot of practice and skill navigating with their smartphones. And practice and familiarity are the key for successful use of a navigational tool!

Therefore, properly used* a Smartphone GPS App might be a better option for some.  [*Please see: Navigation Tools & Electronics Appendix for a caution and advice about using electronics in the backcountry, especially battery life management, backup batteries, and not relying on cell coverage.]


10 Essentials

Start of the JMT in Yosemite. Screen shot of NG Trails Illustrated Map using Gaia GPS on an iPhone. The beauty of a smartphone GPS App like Gaia GPS is that you have many map sources at your finger tips at no additional cost and weight. E.g. NG Trials Illustrated, full USGS 7.5′ TOPO maps, Satellite Imagery, and other specialized maps. [click to enlarge and see full map detail]

4 – Protection from Sun and Bug Transmitted Diseases, Like Lyme

10 Essentials

Full-coverage clothing is best for both sun and bug/disease prevention.

In addition to sun protection, I am adding bug protection to your basic trail needs. 2017 is forecast to be the worst year for tick/Lyme disease, and it’s only going to get worse in other parts of the US. Other diseases like Zika are also on the rise.

Your first and best option for sun and bug protection is appropriate full-coverage clothing like this. While chemical/skin applied sunscreen and bug repellants work (Picaradin Lotion is the most effective and long lasting without the problems associated with DEET) they are not nearly as long lasting or effective as sun & insect protective clothing and a good sunhat. And yes, wear those sunglasses. For more reading, see my piece on the Best Clothing & Repellants to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika.

5 – Insulation (extra clothing)


My warm clothing gets used on almost every trip. A good Down Jacket has saved my ass on numerous occasions such as a freak snowstorm on a summit, where I needed to stay warm enough to hike down to shelter and warmth. It’s also essential to keep an injured person warm until help arrives. Other invaluable pieces of warm clothing are a light rain jacket, warm hat and gloves like these.

While backup clothing is good, it’s usually best to first make the most of the clothes you are actually wearing. Towards that end, here’s a good piece on how best to use the clothes you are wearing: Top Mistakes Using the Layering System – How to Stay Warmer and Drier.

6 – Headlamp – A Good One!

10 Essentials

You need a seriously bright and long lasting headlamp to make an emergency retreat or exit. An example of a good one is the Black Diamond Spot Headlamp (right). The Black Diamond Ion (center) is marginally OK but would be better for following behind someone with a brighter light. On the left, the Petzl e+LITE Headlamp while low-weight and great for camp, is not bright enough for hiking.

If an emergency retreat or exit is necessary, your headlamp should be bright enough and last long enough that you can safely hike and navigate all night. To do that, you need a seriously bright and long lasting headlamp— putting out a beam of 50-60+ meters for ~12+ hours. A headlamp like this is likely in the range of 3 to 4 ounces. Examples: Black Diamond Spot Headlamp (Note: you only need one this strong for a party of hikers. The others following behind the leader can use smaller lighter headlamps, e.g. Black Diamond Ion.) And a spare set of batteries is always an excellent idea.

7 – Emergency Shelter

10 Essentials

Tarps & pyramid tarps provide tremendous shelter at a fraction of the weight & cost of a traditional tent. As such, they are light enough to be used as both a primary and/or emergency shelter. [Yes, another summer storm. This time the High Sierras.]

Light backpacking tarps (usually silnylon) make great emergency (and non-emergency) shelters. They provide tremendous protection from wind, rain and other precipitation. But make sure you have stakes and guylines for your tarp, and are practiced setting it up before your trip (having a pair of trekking poles to support the tarp provides you more options for pitching). And where you pitch a tarp makes a huge difference. Try and get out of the wind and into the shelter trees, rocks, etc. See more on selecting and using tarps. If you are backpacking, this could also be a light tent.

True bivy sacks like these also make good emergency shelters and even the light emergency bivy sacs are OK. I am not a big fan of the paper thin, mylar emergency blankets as they can’t really be staked out to provide a true shelter like a tarp. That being said, they are certainly better than nothing.

8 – First Aid Kit

10 Essentials

I prefer to assemble my own 3 oz First Aid Kit  (detailed list) as I can do a better job for less weight than pre-packaged ones. My kit includes bandages, tape, gauze, wound wipes, antibacterial lotion, and OTC med’s like Tylenol, Benadryl, Sudafed, Nexium, Imodium. I also carry some Rx meds like antibiotics. But you can also buy a pre-packaged First Kid Kit like one of these.

Most of the injuries I have treated have been scrapes and cuts (abrasions and lacerations) and all I had to do was stop the bleeding (direct pressure, always) and clean it up and dress the wound. I rarely get blisters since I train in the same shoes and socks that I backpack in. Even so, I carry Leukotape Tape and tincture of benzoin to treat hot spots and mild/early blisters.

A small first aid guide/booklet (often included in kits) is a good idea. Or even better, take a Wilderness First Aid Course at REI, or from NOLS or Landmark Learning.

9 – Hydration (prudent amount of extra water)

10 Essentials

A light, inexpensive, fast and effective water purification and hydration system: Sawyer Squeeze Filter and  Water Treatment Tablets

Yes, bring a prudent amount of extra water because human beings don’t do well without it. For hiking in the desert, extra water would likely be right after Navigation Tools on the essentials list. But for most hiking and backpacking in the US, water is usually available every few hours. With a filter like the Sawyer Squeeze you can drink immediately at water sources. This means both quick, effective hydration/purification and less water to carry. An even lighter alternative (and backup system for a filter) are Water Treatment Tablets.

You may be drinking more water than you need: The healthiest hydration strategy is to drink when thirsty. The saying “If you are thirsty, it’s already too late” and “If your urine is yellow, you are dehydrated” are myths. In fact, over hydration (hyponatremia) is becoming more of a risk than dehydration. I’ve extensively researched this topic with experts in sports hydration here: “The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty.

10 Essentials

In cooler temps and/or where water is plentiful you may not need to carry as much extra water. Drink from the source, & you’ll likely not be thirsty by the time you reach the next water source. [But do know where your next water sources are.]

10 – SOS Device (satellite based, like inReach or SPOT)

10 Essentials

This is #10 because as noted earlier, prevention (having a plan, intelligently executing it), & having the right stuff (items 3 through 9) is your first & best way to stay out of trouble.

But even with the best planning and execution, stuff like a serious fall, an on-trail appendicitis, serious concussion, or a heart attack can happen. A SOS Tracking Device is the best and most reliable way to summon help in such an emergency. Two-way devices like a Garmin inReach allow you to get medical advice to care for and treat the injured party before help arrives. And they are a big help to arrange/coordinate a helicopter rescue potentially saving a life. For one thing, the EMTs know the exact nature of the emergency and come fully prepared. Read more on selecting SOS/Tracking Devices and their use.

Note: Another benefit of two-way devices like a Garmin inReach is to get in-the-field weather reports.

11 – Nutrition

10 Essentials

[Note: for a long day hike, 1 to 1.5 pounds of this nutritious food should work for most people]
It makes sense to bring an appropriate daily amount of food that is high in nutritional value and low in weight. (See: “How much daily food should I take?“) But unlike water, your body can go without food for much longer. Therefore, going overboard on too much extra food vs. a prudent amount is a trade off. Think of what other more useful gear for your safety you could bring for that same weight. For example, more warm clothes, a better shelter or an SOS device might contribute more to your safety. That being said, my favorite (extra/backup) foods are usually a high calorie energy bar, and homemade mix of dried fruit, nuts, and a few dark chocolate M&Ms. They are simple, fast, and don’t require cooking.

12 Repair Kit and Tools

10 Essentials

While a repair kit is nice to have, I’m not sure it is a true essential. But it’s light so no big deal. I maintain my gear, inspect it before each trip and then treat it with care on the trail. Therefore, while I do carry a small repair kit, I rarely use it. And when I do it’s not for what I would consider an “essential” repair.

I carry a small pair of school scissors (technically part of my first aid kit) which are far more useful than a knife and they can be transported on an airplane. I also have duct tape, needle and dental floss, a few cable ties and a small tube of krazy glue and one of Aquaseal, along with a some Gear Aid Tenacious Tape. All together they weigh less than 3 ounces. For non-do-it-yourself folks, Gear Aid also has a nice pre-packed Repair Kit altho I wouldn’t take all of the items. And if you own a NeoAir sleeping pad, consider NeoAir patch kit.

13 – Fire (lighter/matches/fire-starters)

10 Essentials

(right) Coghlans Fire Sticks are one of the easiest and safest fire starters to use. (center) A standard lighter is a first choice but Storm Matches are a good backup. (left) Most energy bar wrappers (mylar) also make great fire starters. And best of all I usually have a number of them in my trash bag.

While I do carry these fire starting items, they are last on this list. To this point, in over 40 years of hiking I have yet to use them in a dire emergency situation. Yes, I have started a fire a few times (where legal) to warm up and dry out a lot faster than getting into my sleeping bag in dry clothes—but this was more a comfort and convenience than an emergency. In contrast I’ve used my warm down jacket and my tarp a number of times for what I would consider to be an emergency or close to it. But my favorite fire starters, a lighter and energy bar wrapper (mylar), are already packed every trip so I have them by default.


Appendix – Navigation Tools & Electronics

A Critical Caution for Electronic Items

Neither an electronic GPS App with maps, or a paper TOPO map will figure out the best off-trail route for you. In both cases you’ll need to understand what they show you. That is, you’ll need to be able to tell where things like impassible cliffs are, etc. And you still need to make in-field assessments of the best route while you hike off-trail.

  • These electronic items need to work with full functionality without a cellular phone signal (voice or data). You should configure them to be used as such, and not rely in any way on having cellular data.
  • You should have backup batteries to recharge your electronic devices (phone, SOS/tracker, etc.)
  • Satellite SOS Device (or a cell phone if you have signal) should never be considered a license to do silly things or take unnecessary risks. And note that sometimes even when you can transmit emergency messages, a timely rescue is not possible. As they say, the best rescue is self-rescue.
  • Finally, to state the obvious, Goal One is not needing to make an emergency call/transmission in the first place. So do your pre-trip homework, be sensible and stay safe out there at all times.

Taking all this into account, electronic items are still serious tools that can do things that non-electronic tools cannot.


Pick the Right Navigation Tools for YOU!

I’ve used USGS 7.5′ Topo maps and a traditional compass to navigate for over 40 years. Much of this off-trail, in difficult to navigate areas. They worked then and they still work now. BUT that doesn’t mean a traditional compass is the best navigational tool for all people.

I suggest that there is no perfect navigation tool. All have strengths and weaknesses. In the end its a personal choice.  Select the right tools for you—tools that you have the skills to use and meet the navigational requirements for your trip. And whatever tools you decide on, you do need to know how to use them AND you’ll certainly want to bring a backup.

Paper Maps & Compass

a) Can I “use” a map and compass?

This is the first thing you should consider when deciding on the right navigation system for you. For example, can you can orient your map and compass to true north (taking into account declination), always find your location on the map, take a bearing to a point you want to navigate to, and then use the compass to sight and follow that bearing, taking into account elevation contours (reading Topo lines) and other physical features depicted on the map to make an informed decision on the best route. If not, you might want to 1) learn how to really use a map and compass and/or 2) consider a smartphone GPS App (or even a traditional GPS unit if you already have one).

b) What if you want to learn how use a map and compass?

If you want to learn map and compass skills, great. But to keep your newly learned map & compass skills sharp and effective, you’ll need to use them on a frequent basis. [Note: after teaching many people map and compass navigation, I’ve noticed a low retention rate for those that don’t regularly practice their map & compass skills each year.]

c) All types of navigation tools can fail – even maps

Contrary to what most say, paper maps and traditional compasses can “fail.” First, as stated earlier, many people are not proficient with them. This is a failure of sorts since the map and compass won’t deliver their intended function—and there are no backups to fix this. In addition, maps are accidentally left on a rock, they easily blow away in the wind, they mysteriously creep out of pack and pants pockets, and they can get ruined by water. A couple of times a year I pick up somebody’s full map-set that I found in the middle of the trail. Finally, compasses can be lost, misplaced or damaged (yes, I’ve had clients break a compass).

Smartphone GPS Apps

10 Essentials

The EasyAcc battery on the right will recharge the iPhone 6 Plus two times. (The wall charger and micro-USB cable [top center] are only needed if you’ll have access to electricity mid-trip). See more in Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear.

For many, a smartphone GPS App with downloaded off-line maps (no cell signal needed) may be a good choice for navigation. Many people are already skilled navigating with their smartphone since they frequently do it in their daily lives. And practice and familiarity are the key for successful use of a navigational tool! In addition to being fast and easy to use, this is both low cost and low weight since people likely already own a smartphone. That is, people have one, can use it, and are already bringing it.

Smartphone GPS apps (and traditional GPS units) work far better in low visibility conditions like white out and in the dark. I have navigated off of more than a few complex summits in complete whiteout with a GPS.

Finally, a big advantage of the smartphone GPS App is the maps are free and instantly downloadable. You can get superbly detailed maps for your hike in a matter of minutes. I’ve downloaded them from my motel room. In contrast, getting and/or printing paper maps is far more costly, time consuming and cumbersome (USGS 7.5 min Topo map are harder and harder to get).

Electronic Navigation Tools are not as unreliable as “experts” claim

  1. In five years of intense backcountry use my close hiking partners and I have never broken an iPhone or the GPS App. We’ve taken our iPhones on numerous packrafting trips in Alaska, winter rafting down the Grand Canyon, technical Canyoneering in Utah, climbing in the Wind Rivers and the Sierras, long hikes in the U.S.A, Turkey, Australia, Europe, and a canoe trip down the length of the Mighty Mississippi River. All without incident. No failures. No dead batteries.
  2. But as a backup, at least one hiking partner carries another smartphone with GPS App & offline maps. (sometimes even an alternate App and mapset).
  3. We do not need cell signal to use our GPS App.
  4. We get around 7 days of use before we need to recharge it—see more about iPhone/smartphone battery management.
  5. And a light USB battery gets us a couple more charges if we need them. The same USB battery charges all our other electronics like headlamps, cameras, and Garmin inReach. See more about field batteries for recharging electronics.

Always Bring a Backup Battery!

It’s critical safety precaution to make sure your electronics are always available for use. My three favorite lightweight and high capacity USB backup batteries are:

  1. Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery (pictured right)- With two built in cables (lightening & micro-USB) it will charge just about any backcountry electronics. It has a faster charging rate than the EasyAcc below but has slightly less overall capacity.
  2. EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery This has slightly more capacity (tested) than the Jackery battery but has a slower charging rate & only a built micro-USB cable (altho you can attach your own lightening cable to charge an iPhone). It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 about 1.4x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 2.3x.
  3. Anker PowerCore 10000 (only 6.4 oz) this is the lightest option f you need to recharge your electronics a lot.  It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 ~2.5x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 ~3.5x. Its limitation is that it only has one USB port for a cable.
  4. And of course for a SPOT messenger and many headlamps a spare set of lithium AAA batteries.

Traditional GPS Units

10 EssentialsFinally, traditional GPS Units like a Garmin Oregon run 16 hours on a single set of batteries that can be recharged. Assuming you don’t leave it on all the time, you could get weeks of use out of it before needing to recharge it or put in a new set AA batteries. These units are rugged and with reasonable care, difficult to damage in the field. But they are getting long in the tooth. The basic unit is quite expensive, where as you likely own a smartphone. And their internal maps are not as good as the ones for an App like GAIA GPS. Finally, any additional maps (beyond the pre-installed ones) are proprietary and very expensive. This only increases the already substantial investment into the unit itself.


Best Backpacking Food

Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious

Keep it simple, nutritious and save weight: I take inexpensive trail foods which are both tasty and nutritious. Specifically, foods that give you calories, protein, good fats, vitamins and other micro nutrients. This keeps you healthy and cruising along the trail with a spring in your step. Just as important are foods (and meals) that can be quickly prepared. My outdoor time is precious and I prefer to spend it hiking and enjoying my natural surroundings rather than food prep. What I show below incorporates all of these qualities and therefore is “the best backpacking food.”

Quick Links to Best Backpacking Food Resources on this Site

What types of food should I take?

  • I minimize freeze-dried backpacking food (but do use some like this). Be sure to read the labels carefully. Compared to homemade, many freeze dried foods while easy, are expensive, low on nutrition, & have tons of sodium.
  • Instead, I prefer healthy, natural foods: dried fruit & vegetables, nuts, whole grains like these tasty crackers, soybean jerky (veggie protein), vegetable oils, nut butterswhole-fat powdered milk, etc.
  • Therefore, while it takes a bit more upfront time, I mostly make my own uncomplicated & delicious meals out of the same heathy ingredients. Meal Recipe are here.
  • Finally, I do take some “healthier” energy bars like PROBARs.
Best backpacking food

While we make most of our own meals, there are some simple and healthy freeze dried meals like this Black Beans & Rice  that we do use. We doctor it up into one of our favorite dinners by adding grated cheddar cheese and corn chips. Recipe is here.

How much food should I take?

It is actually quite straight forward. Here is primer on: How to calculate your pounds of food per day.” You can probably save more weight on food than almost anything if you follow the primer!

  • My nutritious food weighs about 30% less than a typical backpacker’s food. This could save me 5 pounds or more of food on a trip (my 11 lbs of food for a 7-day trip vs. a typical backpacker’s 16 lbs).
  • How many pounds of food per day? 
    • Although it may vary, the short answer is around 1.5 lb/day for 2-5 day shorter mileage trips. The majority of the clients I guide for trips up to 5 days get by fine on around 1.5 lb/day.
    • The slightly longer answer is 1.4 to 1.7 lb/day for backpackers covering 10+ miles a day or for trips up to a week long.
  • A good target to balance calories and nutrition is 120 to 125 calories per ounce of food. In comparison, most backpackers don’t average above 100 cal/oz for their food.
  • Maintain nutrition: Try to get the most calories per weight in your food but not at the expense of a poor diet. You want a balance of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins & other nutrients.
A simple and quickly assembled set of food for a 6 to 7 day trip. Aligning food in rows per/day helps to organize and provides a useful check that you've packed correctly.

A simple and quickly assembled set of food for a 6 to 7 day trip looks like this. Aligning food in rows per day helps to organize while providing a useful check that you’ve packed food correctly. Link to a detailed 7 day food packing list for the above.

Some quick ways to reduce food weight – but still eat healthy!

Best Backpacking Food

Convenient pouches of my favorite, almond butter 

  • Take calorie dense but nutritious food. As noted, food at 125 calories per ounce will weigh 30% less than a typical backpacker’s food for the same calories and probably has better nutrition.
  • Don’t carry extra food: The standard advice to carry an extra day of food is not as set in stone as others profess. I figure I can make it at least 3 days without any food. (I’ve had to do this before and feel comfortable with my choice.) This is not a recommendation for others to do the same. You’ll have to make your own decision on extra food. Maybe bring just a bit less extra food on your next trip.
  • How to “Skip” one day of food: I eat a huge breakfast or lunch before I start hiking the first day and I eat a huge meal when I get out. By boosting my off trail calories on the first and last day I eliminate carrying a whole day’s worth of food in my pack. So for a weekend trip (three days and two nights) I might carry 3 to 4 pounds of food. That’s about 1/2 the weight of the standard recommendation of 2 lb per day + an extra day’s food = 8 pounds.

Getting Protein

Getting protein is always a challenge on the trail. A creative strategy of cheese, powdered milk, powdered soy protein, nuts, whole grains, dried beans and the healthier high-protein trail/energy bars (and dried meats if you aren’t veggie) will get you most of the way there.

The protein in these meats along with cheese will complement the proteins in grains (rice, grape nuts, crackers, grains in energy bars, etc.) and other vegetable protein sources like soy and dried beans. Many dried meats like the hard-dry salami are also high in fat, increasing your calories per ounce.

Best Backpacking Food

Bison Jerky is another backpacking favorite of mine.

What types of food should I take for each meal?


  • GORP: In the past, my basic food was the old standby GORP. Today, I custom mix my own, getting most of my ingredients from Trader Joe’s (TJ’s) and the bulk bins of my local food coop. When hiking with others I mix to their specifications. Feel free to get creative with your GORP!
  • Un-mixed GORP fixings: Now, more often than not, I take my GORP unmixed. Some favorites are whole raw almonds and walnuts, organic Thompson seedless raisins (TJs) unsweetened dried mango, apricots, papaya (all unsweetened & unsulfured) dried apricots, sweetened and unsweetened nuts, and honey sesame sticks (all from TJ’s, also found in natural food stores and food coops).
  • Honey sesame sticks: are 150 calories per ounce and a staple of my backpacking food (reliably from Whole Foods and online). I sometimes mix 50/50 with candied nuts (many nut options from TJ’s) for variety.
  • Peanut M&M’s (or even better almonds) are still great. Cheap, melt proof, and available almost everywhere (even on the GR20 in Corsica!) they are tasty, high in calories, easy to pack and eat. The advent of the dark chocolate version of the plain M&M’s into my GORP has changed the way I think about GORP.
  • Energy Bars: The best energy bars are compact and have reasonable caloric density and nutrition. They are easy to procure, no effort to pack, and easily unwrapped and eaten on the trail (even while hiking). They are expensive though. I like many varieties of Pro Bars, Kind Bars and Lara Bars. These have healthy, natural ingredients, less sugars and good nutrition. The Pro Bars and Kind Bars are close to 125 calories per ounce.
  • Protein Bars: Recently to increase my trail protein, I have been taking some higher protein versions of energy bars like ProBar’s Base Protein Bars or Cliff Builder’s Protein Bars (usually enhanced with soy protein). There are other manufacturers making good protein bars.
  • Nut Butters (peanut or almond butter–a personal favorite, from TJs or Costco) significantly boost caloric density. They are cheap and easy to pack. They are also a healthy fat, especially the almond butter. Get them in the healthier, un-hydrogenated variety. If you get them in a plastic jar you can take them on a plane or put them directly in your pack without having to repackage. They can also be added to hot meals, making a lovely Asian style sauce.
  • *Soy jerky: soy jerkies (Primal & Stonewall) 1) Stonewall’s Jerquee (the overs and unders for a discount) and 2) a the moister Primal Strips Vegan Jerky. Soy jerky is not the highest in calories but it is veggie, tasty, and adds protein. Meat eaters may choose hard salami or meat jerky.
  • Dried Meats: For those that are not veggie, dried meats are another option for protein and food variety. I take meat jerky (my favorites are Bison Jerky and Turkey Jerky online or from TJs) and/or hard, dry salami (I take locally made salami without nitrates). Pacific Gold brand Beef and Turkey jerky that Costco sells doesn’t have a bunch of additives. Much cheaper than alternate sources.
  • Tuna in olive oil: Get the tuna in the plastic packages that is packed in olive oil . The olive oil adds calories and healthy fat. If you can’t find it, there is a more common canola oil version.
  • Freeze dried meats and soy”meats”: The following protein sources can easily be added to most meals (your preference) (Soy) Textured Vegetable Protein – chicken flavor, and (Real meat) – freeze dried chicken or turkey (1 oz per serving).
  • Vegetable Oils: Packets or small bottles of extra virgin olive oil (my favorite) or canola oil add healthy calories to my dinners. I usually add an ounce or two to most meals.
  • Cheese: is a treat and adds calories, some protein and calcium. Note that cheese doesn’t keep as well as some other foods, we always eat the cheese first. Cheddar cheese is around 115 cal/oz and keeps better than other types. Parmesan is around 130 cal/oz and keeps very well. However, these are not healthy fats.
  • Crackers or Dense Breads add whole grains. They are good vehicles for eating the nut butters and cheese for dried meats. Some crackers can be quite high in vegetable fat (good) and approach 130 calories per ounce. Dr. Kracker crackers online or at Whole Foods are high in fat and almost indestructible on trail. In France, I rediscovered Petit Beurre crackers that are delicious and high in calories. They go wonderfully with a strong cheese. Breads (and tortillas) have lower caloric density (higher water content and little fat), rarely getting over 85 calories per ounce. Use them sparingly for variety. When carrying a bear canister, tortillas are a favorite hiking substitute as they are more compact.
  • Dried Fruits, e.g. Dried mango, un-sweetened/unsulfured add important fiber, variety, minerals and vitamins. I use them with some discretion since they are lower in calories per ounce (around 80 calories per ounce). I try to get ones that are un-sulfured and unsweetened, and preferably organic. If you are on a budget, Costco has huge bags of inexpensive, high quality mixed fruit. Unsweetened mango slices from TJs and unsweetened papaya from WF and food coops are favorites.
  • Chocolate (as needed), to add fat and calories. I prefer small pieces of very dark chocolate (70% or higher–with nibs even better) for dessert. Chocolate lovers will understand.
  • You can add Cocoa Nibs with your chocolate for a delicious crunch and a lot of phytonutrients.


  • Whole Fat Powdered Milk: *Nestle Nido is a staple in my backpacking diet. This whole-fat powdered milk is 140 calories per ounce and tastes great. It can usually be found at Hispanic markets or online. I also use it to mix my own hot chocolate, as well as add it to breakfast cereals. Powdered milk is an animal protein that will complement vegetable proteins like soybeans and grains. And, it’s wonderful in coffee. In addition to the Nido, I add a scoop or two of Plain Soy Protein Powder (cheaper when you buy it at TJs!) for additional protein (vegan) in my breakfasts.
  • Whole Grain Cereals: I usually alternate between two breakfast cereals mixed with Nestle Nido whole-fat powdered milk and soy protein powder.


Caffeine is important! Nothing can get folks grumpier and harder to get along with than not getting their caffeine the way they like it.

  • Coffee: Those that prefer coffee may choose to use Starbucks VIA packets (which have pretty much taken over backcountry coffee). Downside to the VIA is that it is expensive, but can be as little as $0.72 per cup at Amazon! Via packets can also be found slightly discounted at *Costco in bulk packages.
  • For better and less expensive coffee, although heavier and more fuss, use a *MSR MugMateTM Coffee/Tea Filter in a 16 oz mug (MLD 475 ml mug is my favorite). Pre-grind your coffee before the trip and package it into individual servings in ZipLok snack bags
    • The brewing technique suspends the gold filter in the mug. From there, add the coffee then slowly pour boiling water in allowing it to drain through the filter with each pouring. At the end you will have water almost to the brim of the mug and the filter mostly submerged in the water. After 3-4 minutes slowly pull the filter out of the mug allowing it to fully drain. You may wish to top the cup up with more hot water after removing the filter. This will be a full rich cup of coffee similar to a french press.
  • Tea: I make loose leaf tea, connoisseur style. See the Tea Section. Real tea doesn’t need to be ground, keeps longer, and is easier to cleanup (with the exception of SB Via). Tea bags are a less complicated alternative if  they are in individually sealed envelopes, and are reasonably fresh.
  • No Stove Caffeine: The no-stove alternative is chocolate-covered-coffee-beans. Yumm!


  • For most meals try to make your own simple dinners based on ingredients like instant rice, freeze dried beans, whole wheat couscous (my favorite and from TJ’s), or instant mashed potatoes
  • Freeze dried dinners can be tasty, but most are bulky, expensive, extremely high in sodium and low in caloric density. It is probably best to minimize their use on a trip unless
    • 1) you really like them
    • 2) want hot dinners, and/or
    • 3) are very limited on time and inclination for pre-trip food prep
  • If you need to take freeze dried meals, try to use the simpler meals that are lower in sodium and higher in fat (e.g. Backpackers Pantry Mac and Cheese). If I bring them, I will usually add freeze dried veggies from JustTomatoes.com to spice up meals and then add olive oil to boost the calories.
  • If you are limited in pack volume (e.g. using a bear canister, or just a very full pack) freeze dried meals may not be a good choice. Taking them out of their Mylar packaging and putting them in quart, heavy duty, freezer baggies will help reduce volume. (Once you do this tho they will not keep for years like the mylar sealed ones.)
  • Most of my dinners get a liberal dose of hot pepper flakes, or ground cayenne pepper. I also use Dave’s Insanity Sauce (Please be careful it is the only sauce ever banned from the National Fiery Food Show. The NYT calls it the hottest culinary experience known to man.)
  • I rehydrate many of my meals by pouring hot water directly into a quart baggie that contains the dinner. I wait for 10-20 minutes and share the meal with my partner using long handled spoons. When you are done eating, zip up the baggie and KP is complete!
  • If you are doing the rehydrate in the bag, you may consider a Anti Gravity Gear Cozy.
  • Hot Chocolate: I make my own with Ghirardelli Double Chocolate mix and Nestle Nido. High in calories and delicious! [4 Tbsp cocoa mix + ~¼ cup Nido]


  • I do not bring vitamin supplements. I believe that well selected foods should provide ample nutrition.
  • Fresh food, although attractive, is not a good choice. It weighs a ton, and doesn’t keep well. I don’t take it, even for the first day.
  • Canned foods. A disaster! Why carry a metal can around with you? Ultra low caloric density, and you have to carry the empty can back out. Ouch! The exception is tuna in foil packets but only if it is packed in oil.

Cooking and Stoves

  • See: Best Backpacking Stove Systems for pro’s and cons of the best canister and best alcohol stove systems.
  • For green reasons, I am not fond of non-refillable, non-recyclable canister stoves. When I solo on short trips, I may skip the stove, eat cold food and take caffeine pills for my morning buzz (or make a cold powdered milk and instant coffee shake). Not cooking limits my food choices but makes for speedy meals on the trail and simplifies pre-trip preparation.
  • *Trail Designs Caldera Cone Stove System: Since the introduction of greener, easy to use, extremely efficient, and very light alcohol stoves, I have warmed to stoves and usually take one—even when I solo.
  • One of the advantages of the Trail Designs Caldera is that I can light it and leave it unattended while I perform camp chores.

How to make Backcountry Tea (loose leaf, connoisseur style)



Backcountry Tea using the Trail Designs Caldera Cone Stove cooking system

Efficient Backpacking Tips

Efficient Backpacking Tips – Easily Increase Mileage & Fun

Any hiker can use these Efficient Backpacking Tips to get more time to do what they love best outdoors. Whether it’s covering more miles, extra time to enjoy the views, take photographs, fish, get some extra swimming in a lake or even (gasp!) a mid-afternoon nap.

Lead photo: 15,000 ft afternoon nap and photo time—Peruvian Andes, Cordillera Huayhuash

Efficient Backpacking Tips – Thru hiker tested

While some of these Efficient Backpacking Tips are my own habits, most are common sense tips that accomplished thru hikers have been using for years. Many thanks to my world-class thru hiker friends Andrew Skurka and Flyin’ Brian Robinson for insights on how they achieve the most miles every day.

Help to Better Hike Your Own Hike

Luckily, these tips work for all hikers—even mere mortal hikers (myself included) who are not focused on making 40 mile days. All of us can can use these Efficient Backpacking Tips to spend less time on mundane tasks and get more time each day to do what matters most. To Better Hike Our Own Hike—whatever that means to each of us.

This post is in the following sections

  1. On Trail – Efficient Backpacking Tips
  2. In Camp – Efficient Camping Tips
  3. Efficient Clothing Adjustments

1) On Trail – Efficient Backpacking Tips

Efficient Backpacking Tips

Author hammering out some long miles on the Southern Sierra High Routea superb alternative to the John Muir Trail. Efficiency (minimize stopping) is just as important as hiking speed to get enough miles before dark each day. [photo Don Wilson]

Spend less time on mundane tasks and more time having fun

You likely spend far more time than you realize on trail stops for mundane tasks—making clothing adjustments, collecting and treating water, putting on sunscreen, accessing maps/trail guides, etc. By doing necessary tasks most efficiently and eliminating unnecessary ones, you might get most of that time back to do the things you love be it hiking a few more miles before dusk to reach your favorite campsite, or stopping midday to meditate on the glorious view from the rim of a canyon.

Why “short” stops rob you of time for fun

Perceptually, the time spent on “short” stops to do mundane tasks seems inconsequential. But it isn’t! When you tally up all those stops at the end of the day (say, with a GPS), you’ll likely find that you’ve spent at least 1 to 2+ hours stopped for various reasons. I have also done some observations of hiking with clients, and an average stop to take a pack off, find something, fiddle with it, put it in the pack again and start walking is around 4-6 minutes. And many people stop 2 to 3 x per hour.

If you do the math over an 8 hour hiking day, that’s 1.1 to 2.4 hours of stopped time—and that’s likely a conservative estimate.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend the time taking photos or getting a few more miles down the trail, than fiddling around with mundane tasks.

Organized Pockets. The more the better.

Well organized pockets are your best timesaving friend. The goal is to access everything you need during the day from your pack or pants pockets. This minimizes stopped/fiddle-with-gear time for mundane tasks and maximizes fun time.  To do this, keep all the gear you need during a normal hiking day organized in pants and pack pockets where you can quickly find and access it.

Where I store my gear to save time

My goal is to access most of my essential gear while I walk—and if possible, even do tasks while I walk. For example, accessing food and eating it while I walk is pretty simple. Here’s my strategy for storing gear I may use during the day:

Backpack Pockets

I like BACKPACKS like these with lots of pockets.

PACK*Gear Stored
L shoulder strapCamera on a quick release bracket. I can take the camera off, shoot a photo and put it back in less than 10 seconds. Not only do I save time, I find that I get more photos and better photos vs. other camera storage methods. See my Best Backpacking Cameras and in particular the video of the bracket in action.
R shoulder strap(when taken) Tracking Device, Garmin inReach or SPOT,  in a shoulder strap pocket. This keeps the antennas free of my body for good reception and I can use it without stopping.
Rear lg. pocketTP and hand-sanitizer, headlamp, rainwear, North Face 100 Glacier 1/4-Zip light fleece shirt, gloves, warm hat, larger 2 liter water bottle (full if I need additional storage), sunglasses case, spare maps and guidebook pages, stored flat in a gallon Ziplock freezer bag. Sometimes a small ditty bag with 1st aid, foot repair stuff, camera battery, etc.
R side pocket1 Liter Platypus (or Sawyer) water bottle.  I can grab it, drink & put it back while walking.
L side pocketDay’s food in a quart Ziplock freezer bag, my Sawyer Squeeze water filter, alcohol stove fuel in this great Twin Neck Fuel Bottle (I don’t like to keep fuel inside my pack!).
R hip belt pocketSome snack food like a bar and a small bag of gorp. See my: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious for more info on backpacking food and recipies.
L hip belt pocketSunscreen, bug spray in pocketable 0.5 oz bottle, water treatment tablets along with a knife or scissors. (I can collect and treat water in a matter of seconds without taking my pack off. 20 to 30 minutes later it’s ready to drink.)

*Note: Gear in this post is excerpted from my 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List

Efficient Backpacking Tips

Getting some High Sierra Fishing in a remote lake. [photo Alison Simon]

Cargo Pants Pockets

I like CARGO PANTS like these with lots of pockets:
Of particular note is that this is shaping up to be a big tick season. For those that are worried about Lyme, Zika and other tick/mosquito transmitted diseases, insect repellent cargo pants like ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants, might be an attractive option. These when combined with gaiters or tucking your socks into your pants legs, should provide a good below-the-belt deterrent against ticks and mosquitoes. This is per the US CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control) section on “Maximizing protection from mosquitoes and ticks.”

And, while applied insect repellents only last 8-14 hours at best, factory treated clothing has near-permanent effectiveness (clothing treated before purchase is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings). Finally I’ve listed a shirt since it adds two pockets for gear storage, and gives the option to have top to bottom insect protective clothing. (Tuck your shirt into your pants.)

Pants stdREI Sahara convertible pants (14)Great pants, good pockets, readily available. Ex Officio and many others make similar pants
Pants bug repellentExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’sFor ticks. Continuous insect repellent. Avail in both M’s and W’s. Light, cool, sun protection. Great pockets. Also available at REI 
Shirt bug repellentExofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’sCompletes insect repellent clothing. Light, cool & widely available via Amazon, and REI.
GaitersDirty Girl gaiters (1.2 oz)
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
Optional, but does seal ankles against tick entry. Tucking pants into socks also works.

What I put in my cargo pants pockets

PANTSGear Stored
L hip pocketiPhone 6 Plus in a pint Ziplock freezer bag (great!). I access it for a multitude of uses.
R hip pocketDay’s map, guide pages, milage sheet, and Fisher Space Pen in a quart Ziplock freezer bag. Possibly my gloves, if I’ve taken them off (they stay warmest in hip pockets if it’s cold).
Front cargo pocketsIf my pack doesn’t have hip belt pockets, I store that gear here. Otherwise these pockets are free for “as-needed” storage for gear that needs quick access.
Rear pocketsDuring colder weather hikes these hold my gloves and hat when not in use – e.g. hiking uphill and getting hot. Otherwise they are free for “as-needed” gear storage. But these are usually the smallest and least useful of pants pockets.
Zippered pants pocket of choiceMy ID, cash and credit cards in a plastic bag. Especially on trips where I might need to take it out to buy stuff, like a small store along the AT. (And in general I like to have my iPhone, ID, cash and credit cards on my person at all times.)
A shirt pocketCompass if I am using it frequently. (or on lanyard around neck)

Efficiency gains for two hikers

  • Obviously, pocket access becomes faster and easier if you can get some help accessing pack pockets
  • In addition, you can share items like sunscreen, bug spray, and water treatment. E.g. your pack holds the water filter, while your partner’s pack has the bug spray and sunscreen.
  • This makes even more pockets available for gear storage. And it should be fairly simple to get everything needed during the day into an easily accessible pack pocket.

Case Study – “A place for everything, and everything in its place”

Hiking one spring morning in a cold rain I had a fairly pressing bio-urge. I stopped, took my pack off and looked for my TP and hand-sanitizer in the usual place. Not there! After nearly 10 minutes of rifling through my pack, the bio-urge far greater and with damp gear strewn around me, I finally found the TP in one of my cargo pants pockets. (I had moved it there before leaving camp because I had expected to use it soon.)

Moral of the story: even with good intentions, it’s best to keep putting the same stuff in the same place every time! Deviate from this and suffer the consequences. While the above story is amusing (at least in the retelling) not being able to locate your wind-shell, warm gloves and hat when on a windy ridge, late in the day with temperatures dropping to near freezing, is a lot less fun and possibly more serious.

2) In Camp – Efficient Camping Tips

Camp on the Wind River High Route, mile for mile, the finest non-technical Alpine route in North America

Evening Camp Routine – ideally 20 to 30 minutes

Having a well thought-out routine to set up camp and cook dinner saves time. It also makes for a far more relaxing evening, leaving enough time to enjoy sunset across the lake while sipping your hot chocolate.

Before making camp

  • My evening camp routine starts with opportunistically collecting enough water to cook dinner about 30-60 minutes before arriving in camp (unless I know that good water will be quickly available in camp).
  • Usually I prefer to cook with treated water as I don’t have to worry as much about a complete boil or boil time. And evening hot drinks only require 140° to 160° F water.
  • If it’s late in the day, I locate my headlamp and hang it around my neck so I don’t have search around for it as evening turns to dark.

Arriving at camp – first tasks

  • If cold: I immediately put on warm clothes and especially get on dry socks and warm footwear. (my hands and feet run cold). Down Booties are fantastic!
  • Then my first task when arriving in camp is to get my cook set out and start the right amount water boiling for both meal and hot drink. (For maximum efficiency your stove/pot combo should be able to boil all dinner water at one time.)
  • Tip: Avoid stove/cooksets combos that are tippy, non-wind resistant and need tending. You want to put water in a pot, light your stove and leave it mostly unattended to boil water while you perform camp chores.  The two best systems the Jetboil, and the Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri bundle. I discuss these in detail in my post, The Best Backpacking Stove Systems.

An airy dinner on a ledge high above a remote canyon in Southern UT.

While waiting for the pot to boil I start my other camp chores:

  • I collect additional water in both my 2 L and 1 L squeeze bags.
  • Put Chlorine Dioxide water treatment tablets in my 1 and 2 L squeeze bags—it’s faster and easier than squeeze filtering. This gives me enough water until mid-morning the following day.
    (Then I am done with this chore—no hand numbing collection and treating of freezing water is needed the next morning.)
  • I setup my shelter and unstuff my down. This allows plenty of time for the down to fluff up and hopefully dry out if needed.
  • Tip: Down fluffs up faster in the evening when it’s not super-compressed. And in the morning, with cold fingers and frost on your sleeping bag, it’s a lot easier and faster to stuff it back into a larger stuff sack. If necessary, I size up in backpack volume to accommodate my preference for larger down stuff sacks.

Once the water boils:

  • I pour some water into my dinner in a Ziplock bag and set it aside to re-hydrate for at least 10 minutes.
  • I pour the rest into my mug for my hot drink (usually homemade hot chocolate mix).
    See my: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly for more info on backpacking food and recipies.
  • I consume my hot drink while my meal rehydrates, possibly doing more camp chores as necessary.

Two of the Best Backpacking Stove Systems – Trail Designs Caldera and JetBoil. Both are stable, fuel efficient, wind resistant, and don’t need a lot of tending. This is a plus for doing camp chores while you boil water for dinner and a hot drink.

Prep for the next day’s hiking

It’s a lot easier to do next-day prep the evening before when it’s warmer and you are more awake. With your camp and gear in order, you can break camp quickly and efficiently the next morning.

  • I organize food for the next day in a Ziplock baggie and locate breakfast food and coffee at the top of food sack. Last, I appropriately store food per park reg’s.
  • I organize maps and guide pages, etc. for the next day.
  • I look at maps and guide book pages, and mileage charts, and figure out my goals for the next hiking day. Miles, water sources, navigational difficulties, stores along they way, etc.
  • I make notes on what went well today and what I could do better in the future.
  • Constantly assessing, learning and making adjustments is a key to efficiency and meeting your goals.

Morning Camp Routine

  • Like dinner, in the morning the first thing I do is light the stove to boil water for coffee.
  • While I wait for the water to boil, I start my morning camp chores.
  • Sometimes I leave the most hand-numbing tasks until I have a warm cup of coffee to wrap my hands around.
  • I usually do a light wipe-down of cookware in the morning. It’s faster and doesn’t freeze hands. (I do a more thorough cookware cleaning in the evening).
  • Last thing before leaving camp is to strip down into your hiking clothes. You’ll likely need to set out at a brisk pace to get warm. But if you’ve got your clothing right you’ll be warm in 5 – 10 minutes and can settle into your normal hiking pace.

For those that have cold hands (like me)

Mornings can be tough if you have cold hands. Temperatures are the coldest, your metabolism is still in sleep mode, and you’re handling a lot of cold gear. Here are a few tips to keep your paws warm.

  • In cold weather, fingerless gloves (Glacier Glove fingerless fleece) are great for manual dexterity and speeding up camp chores. They save time from taking gloves on and off, and keep your hands warmer.
  • I usually put my gloves on inside my sleeping bag and warm them up a bit before getting out. That way I get out of my bag with super warm hands and gloves. I find this gives me the best chance to keep my hands warm while handling cold gear.
  • If it’s cold, wrapping my hands around a hot mug helps me warm them between spells of handing cold gear. Stuff sleeping bag. Warm hands around mug. Put away shelter. Warm hands around mug…
  • Per above, I avoid collecting, treating and handling water in the morning. This is best done the evening before.

3) Clothing Adjustments

In colder weather, you can spend a lot of time adjusting clothing especially if you are consistently getting sweaty and hot going uphill, and freezing on ridges and downhills, all conditions common on the trail.

The layering system sounds attractive, but it takes a a lot of time to stop, take your pack off, put-on or take-off a layer, put your pack back on and start hiking again. In addition, stopping inevitably makes you colder! Moderate but consistent movement (it needn’t be at all tiring or strenuous) is the key to keeping warm when it’s cold.


Late winter conditions, windy and in the 20s on the Appalachian trail: I’m warm and comfortable hiking at my own pace for almost the entire day, wearing just a 6 oz base layer, a 7 oz fleece shirt (mid-layer) , a 2 oz fleece hat, and 2 oz gloves. I can hike in this outfit from the mid-20s to around 50; up and down hill without needing to stop for a clothing change.

Here’s how I keep warm with a single set of clothing, without stopping

  • I put on just enough clothing to keep me warm when moving. Overdressing, getting hot and then sweating out is a great way to get wet and then really cold. It’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness.
  • I only add warmer clothing when I can no longer stay warm walking at a comfortable pace.
  • Of special note: I find that for the same weight of a windshirt, a light fleece shirt (like the North Face TKA 100 Glacier 1/4-Zip) has far greater temperature range for comfort. It’s far warmer than a windshirt, does an OK job in wind, and is far less clammy and more breathable than a windshirt. (By the time it’s cold enough and windy enough to warrant a fully windproof barrier, my rain jacket does a fine job—and it’s cold enough that condensation is not a huge issue.)

Here is my go to clothing system for hiking in the cold (excerpted from my 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List )

ShirtIbex Indie Hoodie 1/4-Zip (8.8)
Patagonia Capilene Zip-Neck T
8.0Neck zipper key to warmth management
Mid-layer topNorth Face TKA 100 Glacier 1/4-Zip7.9For use as a mid-layer (and as a “windshirt”)
RainJacketOutdoor Research Helium II 6.4 Use as “windshirt” only when very cold
PantsREI Sahara convertible pants (14)Ex Officio and many others make similar pants
UnderwearPatagonia briefs Mens or W’s2.0Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days
ShoesAltra Superior Trail-Running
Brooks Cascadia Trail-Runners
 18.0Altra: Light, huge toe room, super comfortable!
Brooks: tried and tru trail favorite.
SocksDeFeet Wolleators or
SmartWool PhD Light Mini  or
Darn Tough 1/4 UL w cushion
1.8Key to keeping feet warm is to keep moving.
Warm hatOR Option Balaclava (1.8)1.8Warmer than a hat
GlovesDuraGlove ET Charcoal Wool (2.5)2.5Great liner glove – light, warm, durable!
Rain MittsREI Minimalist Mitts
MLD eVENT Rain Mitts (1.2)
1.2Wind protection and warmth
Warm jacketFeathered Friends Eos Down Jacket  (hooded)10.5For rare rest stops. Moderate/consistent movement is key to keeping warm when it’s cold

How I use my clothing system

  • I regulate my temperature by making clothing adjustments without stopping. Too hot: take off hat and gloves (put in rear pants pockets), also can unzip fleece shirt and base layer, and possibly push sleeves up. Too cold: reverse the procedure.
  • If it’s extremely cold and windy, I will use my rain jacket as a windshell. (unzipping your rain jacket all the way is a major cooling force.)
  • Finally, if I really do need to stop, my warm down jacket comes out mighty fast! I store the jacket as the topmost item in the main bag of my backpack.

Enjoy Your Hike!


MLD Prophet Pack with pockets jammed full of gear.

Lightweight Backpacking Gear Checklist

9 Pound Full Comfort Lightweight Backpacking Gear Checklist

A 9 pound pack is all you need to be safe and warm. So, if you want to lower your pack weight but retain all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking, look no further than this Lightweight Backpacking Gear Checklist.

This Lightweight Backpacking Gear  Checklist is suitable for most backpackers on most 3-season trips in the lower 48 and most trips world-wideIn some instances, you may wish to fine-tune this list to your particular trip needs and/or backpacking style by selecting suitable optional or alternate gear in this list. I’ve also tried to list a number or items available from major retailers like REI, e.g. the excellent and reasonably priced Outdoor Research Helium II Rain Jacket at only 6.4 ounces!

Note: feel like going even lighter? See: 5 Pound Practical Lightweight Backpacking Gear Checklist (link) New
The lightest gear that still makes practical sense. Focused on efficiency while staying warm, dry & safe

9 lb Lightweight Backpacking Gear Checklist – summary with weights

Backpack and Gear Packaging1.9Backpack, stuff sacks, food storage
Sleeping Gear & Tent/Shelter (conventional tent)2.8best high Western Mountains & treeless areas
Opt. sleeping Gear & Shelter  – (hammock)2.8 best East Coast and other wooded areas e.g. AT
Cooking Gear and Water Storage/Treatment0.8Stove, pot, cookware, water “bottles” & purification
Clothing in Pack (not usually worn)2.4Rain jacket, warm jacket, gloves, etc.
“Essential” Gear1.4Maps, SOS device, first aid kit, headlamp, knife sunscreen and small items not included in above
BASE PACK WEIGHT (BPW)9.3BPW = all items in pack = all items above,
less “consumables” (water, food and fuel)
1 Pint of Water1.0Average amount of water carried in pack
See: The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty
Food – for a long weekend – 3 day trip4.53 days x 1.5 lb per day
Fuel0.24 fl-oz alcohol = 3.2 oz wt
Total of Consumables5.7 Water, food, and fuel
TRAIL PACK WEIGHT (BPW + consumables)15.0 For a long weekend – 3 day trip
Clothing Worn and Items Carried (not in pack)4.8Not included in pack weight: clothing worn on the trail, hat, shoes, trekking poles, stuff in pockets, etc.
Also see: Best Ways to Protect from Lyme & Zika
Camera Equipment Gear List (new page) ?Details for Serious Light Backpacking Cameras

Detail of Gear Checklist Items


Pack opt 1Hyperlite Mountain Gear SW 2400
 (some may prefer larger 3400)
 28.0Light, super durable, (waterproof, seam sealed bag), great frame/carrying capacity, good pockets.
 Pack opt 2ULAOhm 2.0 Pack (32 oz) Do-it-all pack, great value, durable, fits bear can.
Through Hiker Favorite PackOsprey Exos 48 Pack (40 oz)Good price. Larger pack. Fits bear canister. A staple on the AT and PCT
Pack UltralightMountain Laurel Designs 3500ci EXODUS (16 oz) No frame. Almost all Dyneema. Very little mesh. For shorter trips without bear canister
Pack UltralightGossamer Gear Mariposa 60 (29) Big volume, fits bear canister, lots of pockets
Waterproofing for pack2x Gossamer Gear Pack Liner (1.8) (alternate: a trash compactor bag)(1) liner for sleeping bag and insulating clothes
(1) liner for everything else

Gear Packaging & Food Storage

Bear canisterBear Vault BV500 (41) or Wild-Ideas Weekender (31)(when reg’s require) Wild-Ideas is lighter but pricy. Bear Vault is a better value
Bear can alt.Ursack S29.3 Bear Bag (7.8 oz)1st choice: bear storage req’ed AND Ursack approved
Food storageAloksak OP Sak 12.5″ x 20″ (1.0)control food scent – attract less animal attention
Food storageQuart-sized HD freezer bag0.5For storing organizing ‘todays’ snack food
Stuff sacksFor sleeping bag, clothes, etc.2.0Silnylon: keep gear organized, clean, protected
Map sleeveGallon-sized freezer bag0.5Gallon: fewer map folds & shows more map area
Eyewear casepadded nylon sleeve + Ziplock bag0.4No need for a heavy rigid case. The lightest cheapest sleeve your optometrist gives out is great.
TOTAL Backpack and Gear Packaging1.9 Lb

Sleeping Bag or Quilt and Pad

Sleeping BagItemOzComments
Sleeping QuiltHammock Gear Burrow Quilt +3014.5Pers fave. Great value! ~1/2 cost of sleeping bag.
Sleeping BagWestern Mountaineering SummerLite Sleeping Bag (19)Conventional +32 F sleeping bag. Light, warm, highest quality, long loft retention.
Sleep Bag (alt)Feathered Friends Merlin UL 30 (23 oz)For those that sleep cold. Closer to a +20 F sleeping bag with 12 oz of 900+ FP down!
Sleeping PadT-Rest NeoAir X-lite “Women’s”12.1Perfect size for most. Warm. Super comfortable! The best pad for both Men and Women.

Tents & Other Shelters (TarpTents, Pyramid Shelters, & Tarps)

For more shelter options see: Recommended Tents, Tarps, and other Shelters
Tent/ShelterMountain Laurel Des. Solomid XL [in Silnylon (17 oz)]14.0Pers fave. Extremely versatile shelter for low weight. (no bug netting or floor)
Tent/ShelterMLD Solomid InnerNet (11/7.5oz)bug protection/floor (only for when bugs are bad)
Tent (alt)TarpTent ProTrail – 1 pers (26oz)
Full rain & bug protection for one person (has floor)
Tent (alt)TarpTent MoTrail – 2 pers (36oz)Full rain & bug protection for two (has floor)
Tent (alt)Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 Tent  (44 oz for 2 people)REI: One of the lightest freestanding tents
 Tent (alt)REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent  (53 oz for 2 people)REI: Good value in a lightweight free-standing backpacking tent. Lot’s of vertical room.
Tent/Shelter (alternate)MLD Grace Duo Tarp Silnylon (15) Cuben (7.8)Pers fave for many trips: Huge coverage. Low weight. Great ventilation and views.
BivyMLD Superlight Bivy (7.0)Perfect with tarp. When bringing will cowboy camp under stars most nights
Ground clothGossamer Gear Polycryo M (1.6)1.6Not needed with a bivy or shelters with a floor
Stakes8 MSR Groundhog Y-stakes .5oz ea4.0Hold better than skewer stakes. Red easier to find!
Guylines3mm MSR Reflective Utility Cord  2.4mm reflect cord (8×4-ft lines)1.02 to 3mm – all work well – diameter your preference

Optional: Sleeping Gear & Shelter – Hammock (*great for East Coast & wooded areas)

This link jumps to a hammock gear section at the end of the page. In areas with plentiful trees like the East Coast of the US I feel that hammock camping has many advantages. When in the Sierras or other areas with few trees, the opposite is true and I usually camp on the ground using a NeoAir mattress, in a 7 ounce bivy sack, only putting up a tarp when it is actually raining (or sharing a pyramid shelter with my hiking partner). [And I fully realize that some readers will be unconvinced by my enthusiasm for hammock or tarp camping even in areas with lots of good trees. Ground camping is just fine!]

Cooking Gear and Water Storage/Treatment

SeeThe Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty. This debunks the many myths about hydration and dehydration like “If you are thirsty, it’s already too late” and “If your urine is yellow, you are dehydrated.” This article suggests that Drink When Thirsty is the best and healthiest strategy for hydration during exercise.

BottlesSawyer 64 oz Squeezable Pouch1.5For collecting treating water in camp – dry camps
BottlesSawyer 32 oz Squeezable Pouch1.0Use during the day (note: Platypus doesn’t fit Sawyer)
PurificationSawyer filter (3.0)3.0To drink on the spot – greatly reduces water cary
PurificationChlorine Dioxide tablets0.5For treating 2L bladder in camp
CooksetTrail Designs Toaks 900ml Pot, Sidewinder Ti-Tri, 4fl-oz fuel bottle5.3Lightest, most practical cookset on the market.
TD Kojin Stove stores unburned fuel.
Cookset (alt)Jetboil MiniMo Cook System, Jetpower 100 Fuel Canister (20.8)EZ to use. Much heavier than the alcohol stove cookset. Not “green” with non-recyclable canisters.
Cookset(cheap)TOAKS 900 ml Ti Pot  or
TOAKS 1.3L Ti Pot
 Light and inexpensive for titanium. Pair these with a canister stove like Olicamp Kinetic Isobutane.
Fuel container Twin Neck Fuel Bottle (1.2 oz) The best! Easy measurement! Secure storage.
IgnitionStandard (not micro) BIC lighter0.2Larger is easier to use with cold hands
MugSnow Peak Ti Single 450 Cup (2.4)
Fave: MLD 475 Ti mug (1.3oz)
1.3Eat breakfast & have coffee at same time
MLD 475 mug goes in and out of stock
Bowl/Mug (alt)Ziplock 16 fl-oz bowl (0.9 oz)Pers fave: “mug” and/or bowl. Cheap & Light!
Mug (alt)Starbucks “$1,” 16 fl-oz cup (1.6oz)Readily available, inexpensive, reasonably durable
UtensilPlastic spoon with big shovel
or TOAKS Ti long-handled spoon
0.3cut plastic spoon handle cut to fit in pot OR use longhandle spoon to get inside of food pouches
Coffee brewMSR MugMate Coffee Filter (1.0)For using ground coffee (and not Starbuck’s VIA)

Clothing in Pack (not usually worn)

Rain JacketOutdoor Research Helium II (6.4) 6.4From REI: less expensive than many at this weight
Rain Jacket
REI Co-op Rain Jacket, M’s (8.8)
REI Co-op Rain Jacket, W’s (7.6)
 $70 is a fantastic value in a sub 10 oz rain jacket!
A great basic jacket that gets the job done.
RainJacket(alt)Patagonia Storm Racer  (6.0)Light! Minimal. Amazing it’s 3-layer fabric!
Rain PantsOutdoor Research Helium (6.0)Light. Not expensive. Don’t bring some trips.
Rainpants(alt)Rain chaps or rain kilt (2.0 oz)For trips with low probability of rain, or warm rain
Mid-layer topTNF TKA 100 1/4 Zip Pullover  or
Amazon 100wt fleece w zipper
7.9For use as a mid-layer (and as a “windshirt”) Sadly it appears that 100 wt fleece shirts like this are a dying breed. You may still be able to find a few. Otherwise go for a 200 wt one, the Patagonia R1 Hoodie above or a Patagonia R2 garment
Mid-layer topPatagonia R1 Pullover (11.9)Alternative mid-layer if you can’t find 100wt fleece
WindshellPatagonia Houdini Jacket (3.3)If I don’t bring, will layer rainjacket over my fleece
Warm jacket1Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket  (hooded)10.5Stuffed with 900 fill power down! Warmth Important for rest stops and in camp.
Warm jacket2West. Mtn. Flash XR Jacket (11)Water resistant shell and 850+ FP down.
Warm pantsWest. Mtn. Flash Pants (6.5)
Montbell Superior Down Pants 8.4
For colder weather. WM pants light & warm!
Montbell’s a great value in down pants.
For more down jackets and down pants see: Recommended Down Jackets, Pants, and Booties
Warm hatOR Option Balaclava1.8Warmer than hat – great for quilt w/o hood!
Liner glovesDuraGlove ET Charcoal Wool (2.5)2.5Great liner glove – light, warm, durable!
Camp glovesGlacier Glove fingerless fleece (2.0)Dexterity at camp chores or climbing in cold Wx
Rain MittsZPacks Challenger Rain Mitts (1.0)1.0For intermittent use. Expensive.
Rain Mitts(alt)MLD eVENT Rain Mitts (1.2)For intermittent use.
Rain Mitts(alt)Outdoor Research Revel (3.5)For constant use: waterproof, durable, grip palm
Spare socksSmartWool PhD Light Mini  or
Darn Tough 1/4 Sock Light or
DeFeet Wolleators
1.8Will bring to wash & switch between pairs
Sleep socksDeFeet Woolie Boolie (3.0)No day use; sleeping and dry camp only
Sleeping topPatagonia long sleeve Cap LW (3.5)Dry/clean for camp. Only bring in very wet climates
Sleeping bot.Patagonia Capilene LW (3.4 oz)Dry/clean for camp. Only bring in very wet climates
Sleeping (alt)Terramar Thermasilk top & botInexpensive alternative to expensive base layers

Clothing Worn and Items Carried (stuff not in pack)

ShirtRail Riders Adventure Top or
Sahara shirts like these at REI
7.3Pers fave. For hot and/or brushy (not a baselayer)
Shirt (alt)$40 REI Sahara LS Shirt 6.5 
Smartwool PhD Light 1/4-Zip 8.8
Versatile, light, 50 SPF, inexpensive
Wool shirt & baselayer: for cooler weather
PantsRail Riders X-Treme Adventure (16)16.0Pers fave. Very durable, no velcro on pockets!
Pants (alt)REI Sahara convertible pants (14)Ex Officio and many others make similar pants
More on clothing for Lyme/Zika:Best Ways to Protect from Lyme & Zika
Skirt or KiltPurple Rain — Kilt or SkirtFor hot/humid weather. Skirt (women), Kilt (men)
UnderwearExOfficio Give-N-Go Briefs M’s
Patagonia briefs Women’s
2.0Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days
BraPatagonia Active spots braAlison’s favorite
ShoesAltra Lone Peaks (21)
Altra Superior Trail-Running
 18Light. Huge toe room. Comfortable! Superiors lighter. Lone Peaks more protective sole.
Shoes (alt)Inov-8 ROCLITE 295 (20oz)Pers fave. Light, sticky rubber, durable, low heel rise
Shoes (alt)Brooks Cascadia (25 oz)Very popular trail shoe for LW backpackers
Shoes (alt)Lightweight trail running shoesMost non-Goretex trail running shoes that fit well
SocksDarn Tough 1/4 Sock Light
DeFeet Wolleators or
SmartWool PhD Light Mini  or
1.8Light, thin, warm, simple, durable
GaitersDirty Girl gaiters (1.2 oz)I rarely find the need for gaiters
HeadwearOutdoor Research Sun Runner Hat2.5Removable sun cape. Adaptable to most situations
WatchSuunto Core with positive display2.2compass, altimeter, multifunction timepiece. No GPS
Watch/GPSGarmin Fenix GPS/Watch (3 oz)Accurate trip track: GPS, compass, altimeter, time
SunglassesRx and non-Rx (polarized)1.0http://www.zennioptical.com/ for cheap Rx options
GlassesZenni clear Rx glasses (1.0 oz)Great glasses! for $20 or so. But 2-3 week delivery
Camera (alt)Sony RX100 i-v or Sony a6000 or  Sony a6500See Serious Lightweight Backpacking Cameras
GPS/CommIphone &+ Ziplock ba (7.5)
and GAIA GPS maps on iPhone
7.5Primary GPS & map source (not leaving in car!)
GAIA GPS maps on iPhone better than trad. GPS!
Poles bargain$40 Cascade Mtn. Tech Carbon15.2Pers fave. 1/3 price but equal to the best poles
Trek PolesREI Flash Carbon Poles (14.8 oz)
BD Carbon Alpine (18 oz)
Stiff, light, travel-friendly, won’t break off-trail/rough terrain (readily available)

“Essential” Gear (smaller items not included in above)

MAPS11X17 Custom Maps in Ziploc
and GAIA GPS maps on iPhone
2.0Mapped with CalTopo and printed at Kinkos
GAIA GPS maps on iPhone  better than trad. GPS!
ChargingJackery Bolt 6000 mAh batt 6.0
Anker PowerCore 10000 batt 6.5
Charge an iPhone 8+ or Galaxy S7 ~2.5x & a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 ~3.5x.
SOS/TrackerPreferred: inReach SE+ (6.9)6.92-way communication (a big deal!), visible GPS coordinates, and trip tracking+SOS
SOS/Track (alt)SPOT Gen3 (4.8)Disadvantages: only 1-way com, no vis. GPS coord.
GPS & CommIridium 9555 SatPhone (9.7 oz)
or Iridium GO!
Make no mistake: voice communication is still the gold-standard for high risk trips
OpticsROXANT 7×18 monocular (2.0)Light: scouting/route finding, decent, inexpensive
Optics (alt)MINOX BV II 8×25 binoc’s (10.8)Scouting, much better wildlife observation, value
Pen/pencilFisher Space Pen0.2To mark up maps, take notes about trip
ToothbrushGUM 411 Classic Toothbrush0.4Full head. minimal handle (but not cut in 1/2)
ToothpasteTravel size 1/2 full0.7
Toilet paperWhatever is on the roll at home1.0TP only for polish, use found materials first
Soap/sanitizerDr. Bronners0.5Dr. Bronner’s – repackaged into small bottle
Sunscreensmall plastic tube about 1/2 full0.5for face & hands: most of body covered—large hat
Lip balmHigh SPF water resistant types0.2Minimal wt for dedicated lip balm
First Aid KitMeds, wound/injury, foot care3.0See detailed list at bottom
HeadnetSea to Summit Head Net (1.2)Mosquito netting – don’t take on most trips
Insect repell.Sawyer Picaridin lotion 14 hrs!
Pocketable Picaridin 0.5 oz spray
Lyme Zika protection: Picaradin Lotion most effective & long lasting. Unlike DEET it has no odor & won’t melt plastic.
Foot care kitBonnie’s Balm in small balm jar0.5In case of wet feet. Never get blisters.
CompassSuunto M-3D Compass (1.6)1.6Lightest compass with declination adjustment
Knife/scissorsWescott blunt tip school scissors0.9More useful than knife – OK for plane carryon
KnifeGerber L.S.T. Drop Point (1.2 oz)Can cut bread and salami – very light for 2.6″ blade
Knife (alt)Spyderco Ladybug Knife (0.6)2″ blade – one of the lightest functional knives
FirestarterBic Mini Lighter + trash0.2Energy bar wrappers are great fire starter
LightBlack Diamond Ion (1.9 oz)
Black Diamond Spot (3.2 oz)
$15 Energizer Vision HD (3.0 oz)
1.6Ion for a “usual” trips.
Spot headlamp if hiking dawn/dusk or dark
Value $15 Energizer @Amazon, Target, or Walmart
Light (alt)Fenix LD02 w spare battery (1.0)Best mini light available, attach to hat brim with clip
RepairTenacious patch, duct tape, glue 0.2Also consider NeoAir patch kit, and Aquaseal
Finance/IDID, CCs, and cash in snack Ziplock0.2More secure on me than left in car

First Aid Kit (detail)

First AidItemOzComments
Pain, fever inflammationNaprosyn (Aleve), Ibuprofen, or Tylenol (fever)0.4In ziplock pill bag available at pharmacies
Foot/blisterGauze + Leukotape Tape0.3For taping over blisters, or pre-blister areas
Foot/blisterTincture of benzoin in micro-bottle0.2For getting tape or Bandaids to REALLY stick!
Wound careBandaids + gel blister covers0.5Assorted sizes – your preference
Wound careAntibact. packets + wound wipes0.4Wound cleansing, infection prevention
Wound care (12) 4×4″ gauze pads + 1 roll gauze Use duct tape to hold in place (from above – Repair Items)
OTC medsBenadryl, Sudafed, Nexium, Imodium, caffeine tablets0.4All in tablet/pill form
Rx medsPersonal Dr’s Rx meds0.4
Pain seriousDr’s Rx Painkiller0.2For serious injury, tooth abscess, etc.
Storage/orgBag Poly 5×8  to hold 1st Aid Kit0.2 Keep size down. Can only put in what can fit in bag.
TOTAL3.0 Oz (included in “Essential” Gear)

Sleeping Gear and Shelter – Hammock (*best for East Coast and other wooded areas)

*See: Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems

HammockUltralite Backpacker Asym Zip
or Hyperlite Asym Zip
Hennessy most readily available commercial hammock.
HammockDutchware 11 ft Netless Hammock
Dutchware Hammock w bugnet 10
8.01.0 Hexon single layer fabric, with ridgeline
Top quiltHammock Gear Burrow Quilt +3013.0Trimmed vers. (+40 quilt w 2 oz over fill = +30F)
Bottom quiltHammock Gear “Phincubator” +30 14.060″ ver. of “Phoenix 40” with down overfill to get +30. (no need for pad under feet)
 TarpHammock Gear Cuben Fiber Hex
+ Zing-it ridge-line w hardware
 5.6Light, hammock specific tarp, huge protected area
Hammock SuspensionKevlar tree straps
Whoopie Hook Suspension
 3.0Kevlar straps, w Amsteel whooppie hook susp. Talk to Dutchware to ensure you get the right stuff
Stakes4 MSR Groundhog Y-stakes .5oz ea 2.0 Hold better than skewer stakes. Red easier to find!
 Guylines 3mm MSR Reflective Utility Cord  2.4mm reflect cord (8×4-ft lines) 1.0 2 to 3mm – all work well – diameter your preference
 TOTAL 2.8  Lb


This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. For product reviews: unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA

Take the train to the AT—low carbon, low stress. No car, no complicated shuttles. Just great hiking! This AT section hike has it all—an ideal blend of natural beauty, history, small towns, great local parks, and meeting interesting people. It’s a perfect example of what makes hiking on the AT a unique and special experience—why people come from all over the world to hike the trail.


Route Overview Map: click image for larger view

Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT

  1. The variety of hiking:  A mix of everything — high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, rolling farm fields and wildflowers. And in the summer it’s cool & shaded; 90% of the time no hats /sunglasses needed.
  2. Lots of History: Harpers Ferry (historic town & national park), the C&O Canal, Mason Dixon Line, Galthand, Washington Monument, Pine Grove Furnace, the Cumberland Valley and the historic towns of Boiling Springs and Duncannon PA on the shore of the Susquehanna River.
  3. Hike in 4 of the 13 original states
  4. Some of the nicest shelters on the AT: Well-maintained, many with nice camping options around them. E.g. the new, two-story Raven Rock  Shelter, Quarry Gap Shelters, & Tumbling Run Shelters.
  5. Pennsylvania State Parks: Pennsylvania spent the time and money to do their state parks right. In picturesque settings with lovely shaded picnic areas, good camping, (food in season), lakes to swim in, nice bathrooms, and even some free showers. Pine Grove Furnace and Caledonia State Parks are standouts among a number of great parks.
Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

The hike starts in historic Harpers Ferry, WV and it’s well worth an overnight stay and exploration before hiking. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

Note this is installment one of a series of Low Carbon Section Hikes

Stay tuned as we add more Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail…

Reduce the Carbon – Take the Train

This hike is quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. For us, it only took $13 and 2 hours on public transportation from our front door to hiking on the AT! And that was on Memorial Day weekend! We missed all the heinous holiday traffic, serenely traveling on the train.

$13 Train: This hike is quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. For us, it only took $13 and 2 hours on public transportation from our front door to hiking on the AT! And that was on Memorial Day weekend! We missed all the heinous holiday traffic, serenely traveling on the train.


This guide is meant to supplement the many excellent general guides to the Appalachian Trail (AT). As such,

  1. Our guide gives more detail to this specific section of the AT, and in particular how to access it by train from much of the Northeast US.
  2. Lighten your load: The gear (link) and  food (link) for the light packs we used to efficiently and comfortably hike the AT. We believe this will make the hike more pleasant for others.
  3. And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.

Make your trip even more enjoyable…

Our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List will lighten your load and put a spring in your step. So if you want a light pack but retain all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking, look no further. You’ll be safe, warm and comfortable. This list has served Alison and I admirably on most 3-season trips in the lower 48 and on our trips world-wide. It works!

Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge.Light pack & easy hiking: Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge from White Rock Cliffs of South Mountain.


What’s in this Trip Guide


After many miles hiking along ridges and through woods you break out into the idyllic farmlands of the Cumberland Valley. Alison is carrying less than 10 pounds on her back. Using this Gear our light packs made hiking a breeze.

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train


Mountain laurels along the trail near Raven Rock, the highest point of the AT in Maryland.

Guide Resources

Stats – Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train

The trip takes between 5 to 9 days

  • 0 mile – trip start in historic Harpers Ferry, WV
  • 98 miles to first logical exit, historic mill town of Boiling Springs, PA
  • 124 miles to trip end in Duncannon, PA, near Harrisburg PA

Transportation Time

  • 1.5 hrs from Washington Union Station to start in historic Harper’s Ferry VA (via train)
  • 4-5 hrs from trip end in Duncannon PA back to Washington Union Station (via Uber/Taxi and train)
    and shorter if you are just heading to Philadelphia, PA – Amtrak 30th Street Station (PHL)

Waypoint and Mileage Table

The table below is in scrollable window or you can see the table full page here, as a Google Sheet

Maps and Guides

The Appalachian Trail is possibly the most documented trail in the world. There are many excellent guides. Our favorite guide is David Miller’s (AT trail-name, AWOL) “The A.T. Guide Northbound.”

We supplement it with the following Appalachian Trail Pocket Profile Maps

The recently renovated main hall of Union Station in Washington DC. It's a one hour train ride form here to the trip start in Harpers Ferry WV.

Trip Start: The recently renovated main hall of Union Station in Washington DC. It’s a one hour train ride from here to Harpers Ferry WV. [We just walked on to the train in our hiking clothes and with our backpacks on.]

Options for Trip Start in Harpers Ferry WV

  1. You can walk right off the train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill).
  2. Or, you can stay overnight in a B&B, get a nice dinner and enjoy Harpers Ferry for the evening. Then you can get up bright and early the next morning for breakfast and start your hike.
  3. If you have the time, consider spending a day or 1/2 day exploring the historic town and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. For a stunning view we highly recommend the hike to Maryland Heights. (The lead picture for this article was taken from Maryland Heights.)
  4. If you want to make this a 4 state trip by adding a short side trip to Virginia see Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights for more detail.
  5. For those wanting a very early start and coffee/breakfast the veteran owned Guide Shack Cafe opens at 5:00 am and has the best coffee in town.

Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights – a Photo Essay

This section hike has it all—high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, historic towns and parks, and rolling farmlands. Between Harpers Ferry WV and Harrisburg PA, it follows the Appalachian Ridge for over 100 miles going through over dozen parks, vast forests, and other public lands. In all, it travels through four states (if you take a short side trip to Virginia).

The trip starts in Harpers Ferry, WV where it crosses over the Potomac River to Maryland and covers all 41 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in MD. In Pennsylvania it continues another 83 miles on the AT, much of it in the vast Michaux Forest. It ends at the mighty Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, PA.

On a historic note, the hike crosses the Mason Dixon Line, two historic and one actual midpoint markers of the Appalachian Trail, and a number of historic places like Washington Monument PA, Pine Grove Furnace, the old mill town of Boiling Springs, the rolling farmlands of the Cumberland Valley, and the historic river town of Duncannon PA on the banks of the Susquehanna.

John Browns Fort in

John Brown’s Fort in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (NHP) is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

The trip starts as you pass by John Brown’s Fort (click for precise map) to pickup the Appalachian Trail at the WV side of the footbridge crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Once in Maryland the AT turns right and heads east along the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (National Historic Park).

Note: You can walk right off the early evening train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill). Or, and the option many will choose, is to stay overnight and enjoy Harpers Ferry. If you start early the next morning you can make it to Crampton Gap (10 miles) or Rocky Run Shelters (16 miles)


Footpath along the railroad bridge that crosses the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry WV into Maryland and to the towpath on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (National Historic Park)

Make it a 4 state trip!

Note: If you want to make this a four state trip (fun!), you’ll want to make a brief side-trip into Virginia. Hike west on the AT to the 340 bridge and follow the AT across the bridge south onto the Virginia bank of the Shenandoah River. Link to Map showing both trip start across the Potomac River into Maryland to the C&O Canal towpath, and the side trip into Virginia across the Rt. 340 bridge.


Turtles in the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The canal goes 184 miles from Washington DC to Cumberland Maryland.

After about 3 miles of fast and level walking on the C&O Canal Towpath, the AT turns left, crosses the train tracks and heads steeply uphill to the Junction with the side trail to the Ed Garvey Shelter.

Ferns along the AT in a lush stream valley.

Ferns along the AT in a lush stream valley.

Crampton Gap Shelter and Gathland State Park

Gathland State Park is a good place to collect some spigot water and use a restroom. The spring at Crampton Gap shelter is intermittent (worst mid-summer).

Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park are worth at least a brief look. Built in the late 1800’s, Gathland was the mountain home of George Alfred Townsend, a Civil War journalist. A few of this unique collection buildings and structures, designed and constructed by Townsend, were partially restored in the 1950’s.


Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park: The War Correspondents Memorial Arch, constructed in 1896, is a National historic monument. Photo by By Antony-22 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge.

View from the White Rock Cliffs of South Mountain – mile 11 – between Crampton Gap and Rock Run Shelters.

Washington Monument State Park

Washington Monument State Park is a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table and use a restroom. The Monument is worth visiting both for its history and for a great view of the Cumberland Valley.


Washington Monument State Park: The original 1827 tower was the first monument dedicated to George Washington. The more famous Washington Monument in the District of Columbia was not completed until 1885, over 50 years later!

View from the top of the Washington Monument, looking west across the cumberland valley and the Potomac River.

View from the top of the Washington Monument, looking west across the Cumberland Valley and the Potomac River.


The impressive and functional, if not aesthetic footbridge across I-70. It gets the job done!

Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell Shelters


The unremarkable Pine Knob shelter is worth a stop for the nice piped spring behind it.

The unremarkable Pine Knob shelter is worth a stop for the nice piped spring behind it. There are some large campsites near the shelter. To regain the AT northbound take the shortcut (rather than retracing your steps).

Good water source between Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell shelters:
There’s a nice piped spring a few 100 yds west of the AT (downhill) from Pogo Memorial Campsite.

If possible, avoid camping at Ensign Crowell Shelter. It’s not the nicest shelter. It’s very near a road, often crowded, and has an iffy water source mid-summer.

“The Rocks of Pennsylvania”

The rocky trails of PA, while not a huge problem, will definitely slow your walking pace to a crawl in sections.

The rocky trails of PA, while not a huge safety issue, will definitely slow your walking pace in sections.

This section of intermittently rocky trail actually starts in Maryland about 5-10 miles before you enter Pennsylvania. “The Rocks of Pennsylvania” are not as bad their reputation. Care and patience will get the job safely done. The hardest and rockiest section of trail is on the descent off the ridge down to Pen Mar County Park near the MD/PA border.

Raven Rock Shelter


The new 2-story Raven Rock shelter replaces the old Devil’s Racecourse shelter (many guides still refer to the older shelter). The flat expanse around the shelter has lots of great camping areas, many with their own picnic tables. Photo: HIKERS OF TWC

Raven Rock Shelter (mile 36) is one of the nicer shelters of the trip. In addition, the flat expanse around the shelter has lots of great camping areas, many with their own picnic tables. The only downside is that there’s no water at Raven Rock Shelter. It’s a fairly long round trip downhill get water. (Alternatively you can collect water from the stream at MD 491/Raven Rock Hollow, before hiking about 1 mile uphill to the shelter).


Pen Mar County Park and Mason Dixon Line

Pen Mar County Park has nice views. It’s a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table/pavilion and use a restroom. There are vending services in season. Just a few minutes past the park is marker for where the AT crosses the historic Mason Dixon Line.


The AT where it crossed the Mason Dixon line.


The AT crosses a few farm fields before ascending back up to the Appalachian ridge in the distance.

Deerlick Shelters are nothing to get excited about. But there’s a a really nice spring about 0.2 miles walk from the shelters. And there are some nice campsites along the trail to the spring (and at a comfortable/quit distance from the shelters).

Tumbling Run Shelter to Caledonia State Park

This is one of the nicer portions of the hike. But it is rocky and has a fair amount of elevation change. At 10 miles long it is also a dry and long section. Best to fill up on water from the nice piped spring across the creek from the Tumbling Run shelters. And the shelters have nice shaded picnic tables.

The only water mid-route is at Rocky Mountain shelters. Unfortunately, they are a 1 mile round trip downhill from the ridge. Unless you are camping there, you might not want to walk all the way down just for water.

Caledonia State Park is an unqualified delight. We arrived at the Park in the late afternoon, overheated, grimy and sweaty from a very long day hiking on an unusually hot and humid spring day. We had an ice cream sandwich and a large cold drink from the snack bar, then followed that with a sublime dip in the vast and cold outdoor swimming pool. We emerged an hour later, freshly showered and blessedly cool and comfortable. Needless to say, it was one of highlights of the trip. In addition to the snack bar and pool, the park has a beautiful stream running through it, large shaded picnic areas with many pavilions, and excellent bathrooms.

From Caledonia State Park, it’s only a 30-45 minute walk uphill to Quarry Gap Shelters. These shelters are new and carefully tended and maintained. The picnic shelter had flower pots hanging from the eaves. There was a camp host to guide hikers to camping areas and otherwise help out and make things run smoothly.


In season, make sure you take a sublimely cooling dip in the vast outdoor public pool at Caledonia State Park. [also in season, there’s food and ice cream at the pool’s concession]

Quarry Run Shelters


Rhododendron tunnel on the way to Quarry Run Shelters.

Birch Run Shelter

Birch Run is a nice shelter with grassy camping around it. There is small stream in front of the shelter and the larger stream, Birch Run itself, is only a few hundred feet further down trail. There is also a nice camp on the other side of Birch Run.

Appalachian Trail Midpoint(s)


The historic or traditional mid-point on the AT is just a few miles before you enter Pine Grove Furnace.


The exact mid-point of the AT varies from year to year due to re-routing and other trail changes. You need to pay attention to not miss this much smaller sign. (It’s generally south of the historic marker in the photo above.)

Pine Grove Furnace

The Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park.

The Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park. It’s in a 200 year old grist mill.

Pine Grove Furnace is an excellent stopping point on the AT. It has:

  • The Pine Grove Furnace General Store, which has limited food, groceries & camping supplies; and a short-order counter serving hamburgers, sandwiches, ice-cream, shakes, etc.
  • The store is where thru-hikers traditionally celebrate “1/2 and 1/2,” reaching the halfway point on the AT and by attempting to eat a half gallon of ice cream.
  • Lodging at the Ironmasters Mansion Hostel
  • A pleasant campground (fee) with excellent facilities
  • A public swimming lake (in season) with free showers.
  • Historic site/remains of the Pine Grove Iron Works/Pine Grove Furnace. In operation 1764 to 1895.
  • The Appalachian Trail Museum housed in a 200 year old grist mill.

James Fry Shelter

Cozily hanging in out in our hammocks with light rain pattering on our huge hex tarps. Waiting for the full force tropical storm Bonnie to hit sometime overnight. We woke up happy and dry the next morning.=!

The James Fry Shelter located between Pine Grove Furnace and the Cumberland Valley: Cozily hanging out in our hammocks with light rain pattering on our huge hex tarps. The full force of tropical storm Bonnie would hit sometime overnight. We woke up happy and dry the next morning


The start of two fun “rock mazes” along the ridges just before you drop into the Cumberland Valley.

Entering the Cumberland Valley

Note: After the Alec Kennedy Shelter there are no official AT Shelters until the Darlington Shelter 18 miles down the trail.


After after almost 100 miles hiking along ridges and through woods you break out into the idyllic farmlands of the Cumberland Valley.

Boiling Springs PA – 1st option to uber to train

Boiling Springs is a lovely, historic mill town surrounding a large mill pond (now “Children’s Lake”). At mile 98 it is the first obvious opportunity to take an Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. Cost of ride is approx. $25 to $35 and around 30 minutes.

There are a number of lodgings, a couple of food stores and a few restaurants in Boiling Springs. There is also a free campground. There’s a nice public pool in town with showers (get $3 off admission at the ATC HQ Office).

The Appalachian Trail Club Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is along the shore of the lake. It’s definitely worth a visit—it has a lovely porch for sitting in the shade, trail needs, maps, and fuel.

The AT goes over this bridge into the historic mill town of Boiling Springs.

The AT crosses over this bridge into the historic mill town of Boiling Springs.


The Appalachian Trail Club Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is a great place to stop and rest on their shaded porch. There’s water and a nice store inside.

Crossing the Cumberland Valley


The fertile farmlands of the Cumberland Valley run along both sides of the AT.


There are a number of fun fence stiles like this in the Cumberland Valley.

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

Pre-civil war graveyard alongside the AT in the Cumberland Valley. Many where buried 20-30 years before the Gettysburg campaign.

Leaving the Cumberland Valley to Trip End in Duncannon PA

This section Starts with lots of walking through bucolic farm fields and hedge rows. Then you exit the valley by climbing the two ridges of Blue Mountain and Cove Mountain before dropping into Duncannon PA.

  • From Boilings Springs to Duncannon PA, pretty much every crossing of a major road is a potential place to Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. See trip logistics section.
  • There is no camping along the AT for this section.
  • Spring water is much harder to find. And we were less happy about getting water from streams running through farmland and moderately populated areas. Altho there are some options to get spigot water along the way.
  • Darlington and Cove Mountain Shelters are the last two AT Shelters of the trip: These shelters are respectively at the top of the last two ridges of the trip, Blue and Cove Mountains.

Hawk Rock

This rocky promontory offers superb views of the Duncannon area.  It’s a stop on the Audubon’s Susquehanna River Birding and Wildlife Trail, and a famous rest stop for hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

Duncannon PA – the end of the trip

Uber to the Harrisburg Train Station is approx. $20-$30 and about 20 minutes. Duncannon PA is a very hiker friendly town. Their is a riverfront campground in Duncannon for a modest cost. There are also number of lodging options, food stores, restaurants and even an ice cream store.

Note: Duncannon is a historic river town on the Banks of the Susquehanna River just outside the Harrisburg metropolitan area. Duncannon is just downstream from the Juniatta-Susquehanna River confluence at Clarks Ferry and sits below the impressive the Kittatinny Ridge.  The town had historic impact as a trading crossroads in Pennsylvania’s colonial era.  From Conestoga freight wagons to canals, railroads, and highways, the Duncannon was a major influence on the region’s transportation.

Logistics – getting to and from trip start and trip end

Trip Start: getting to Harpers Ferry, WV from Washington, DC

Harpers Ferry is easily accessed from Union Station in Washington DC. The first train of the day arrives in Harpers Ferry just after 5:00 pm. The $13 Amtrak 29 Capitol Limited: 4:05 pm “Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS)” to 5:16 pm “Harpers Ferry, WV (HFY).” Other options are the MARC Brunswick Line commuter trains arriving at 6:05pm, 7:18pm, and 7:54pm, and 9:00pm (weekdays only), see MARC train schedule.

Need to Start from another city in the North East or Mid-Atlantic?

Amtrak’s DC Union Stations is accessible by train from most of the East Coast. See Amtrak trip planner.


Rail yard at Washington DC Union Station

Trip End: from Boiling Springs, PA or Duncannon, PA back to Washington DC

Trip end to the Harrisburg, PA Amtrak Train Station (HAR)

To Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS)

Bording the train in Harrisburg PA. It's a xx hour ride to the NE train hub of Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.

Bording the train in Harrisburg PA. It’s a short 1.5 hour ride to the Northeast train hub of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

Lodging in Harpers Ferry

If you decide to stay overnight in Harpers Ferry, it’s best to book well ahead. Trip Advisor is a good place find a room. The historic town and National Historical Park are popular destinations. Even for mid-week reservations many B&Bs are booked weeks, even a month or more in advance (many with 2 night minimums on weekends).


The lower, historic section of Harpers Ferry. The upper portion of the town is up and to the right of the train station (lower right of the photo at the end of the train trestle). This view is from Maryland Heights. The hike up here is highly recommended.

The Lower and Upper Sections of Harpers Ferry

The town of Harpers Ferry is in two sections. 1) The small lower historic section by the river and the National Historical Park and 2) the larger upper section, about 10-20 minutes walk uphill. In the lower section, lodging is limited and competitive. There are a just few nice B&Bs in the lower section and they tend to be fully booked weeks or even month’s in advance. The Town’s Inn is a traditional place for Appalachian Trail hikers to stay. In addition to rooms, it has a small hostel, a cafe, a bistro and a small store with a good selection of trail food and supplies. Be forewarned, it was recently featured in the reality TV series, Hotel Hell (an amusing watch).

Rocking chair on the porch of the Town's Inn, in the historic lower section of Harper's Ferry.

Rocking chair on the porch of the Town’s Inn, in the historic lower section of Harpers Ferry.


The Town’s Inn (featured on Hotel Hell) in Harpers Ferry has a good supply of food for hiker re-supply, a few camping supplies, and a cafe.

Lodging options are more plentiful in the upper section of the town, but there are fewer attractions and restaurants—altho the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters are here and also the best coffee shop in town, the Guide Shack Cafe which opens at 5:00 am for those wanting a very early start with coffee/breakfast. Many lodgings in the upper section provide free shuttle to and from the lower section. Some will even meet your train. We stayed at the Jackson Rose Bed & Breakfast and enjoyed it.

The Jackson Rose B&B is one of many nice lodging options in the upper xx

The Jackson Rose B&B is one of many nice lodging options in the upper section of town.

Fun things to do in Harpers Ferry besides the National Park


Adventure Alan under the sign for Adventure and as always finding the best coffee in town! The Guide Shack Cafe is veteran owned, veteran operated and sources it’s coffee and food from veteran owned Co’s! It opens at 5:00 am for those wanting a very early start and coffee/breakfast.


Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters is a fun place to stop. There’s a great relief map of the entire AT, a well stocked bookstore, some camping supplies, an AT hiker lounge where you can check Web/email. There’s friendly and helpful staff and of course, AT hikers milling around.