Best Lyme and Zika Prevention for Hiking

Best Lyme and Zika Prevention for Hiking

2018 is forecast to be the worst year for tick/Lyme disease*. But don’t let fear of Lyme or Zika keep you off the trail! This article has tips on the clothing, gear, repellents, and techniques that will maximize your Lyme and Zika Prevention as well as other tick/insect diseases when hiking or backpacking. Includes section on new Picaridin lotion which is more effective than DEET with none of the downsides.

* new 2018: The CDC reported in May that illnesses like Lyme and Zika from mosquito, tick, and flea bites have tripled in the US.

Lead photo: 2015 map of prevalence of Lyme disease [source US Centers for Disease Control (CDC)]. Superimposed on the map is a blacklegged tick, the primary transmitter of Lyme disease to people. Zika is also on the increase as noted here (CDC Map of Zika), and here Harvard Medical School Article on the rise of Zika.

This Article in Five Parts

  1. DON’T GET BIT – DON’T GET SICK: Why not getting bit is your first and best strategy for lyme and zika prevention.
  2. Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme & Zika While Hiking: The Cliff Notes version
  3. New Picaridin Lotion. More effective than DEET with none of the downsides!
  4. What to Do if You Get a Tick Bite
  5. Non Chemical Ways to Reduce Bug Bites: For those leery of chemicals. But this content improves the effectiveness of all methods to reduce bug bites, chemical and non-chemical.
Lyme and Zika Prevention for Hiking

Why it’s hard to check for ticks in the field: Blacklegged tick nymphs which can transmit Lyme disease (second from left in photo) are exceptionally hard to see in the field. It’s extremely difficult to find them on your body during an evening check in camp and showering is not usually an option. For instance, how would you find the second from left blacklegged tick on your scalp or in body hair? Keeping them off of your body in the first place is your best strategy. BUT! by all means, continue to check for ticks (just don’t expect it to be 100% effective in the field). AND if you remove a tick quickly (within 24 hours) you can greatly reduce your chances of getting Lyme disease.

1. Don’t Get Bit – Don’t Get Sick

The best strategy to reduce your risk of getting a bug-transmitted diseases like Lyme and Zika is to not get bit in the first place. I know this sounds obvious, but some bug-transmitted diseases are not preventable. That is, if you get bit by a bug carrying some diseases you may get infected despite the best medicine. And if you contract a disease there may be no medications to effectively treat it. Consider the following:

  • Lyme Disease: Currently, there are no vaccines to prevent tick-carried diseases like Lyme disease, or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Fortunately per the CDC, “patients treated… in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely.”  (But note: there is some controversy about the effectiveness of treating Lyme disease if undetected/not-treated in time.)
  • Zika & West Nile: There are no vaccines to prevent mosquito-carried diseases such as Zika, and West Nile encephalitis today. And there are “no specific medicines” for Zika or West Nile if you contract them.

2. Best Lyme and Zika Prevention for Hiking

Permethrin Treated Clothing
Per the CDC
 a key element for maximum tick and mosquito protection is wearing Permethrin-treated clothing. Treated clothing can be of thinner, cooler fabrics and still provide protection. This is crucial to staying cool and comfortable when hiking in warm weather—the conditions when bugs are prevalent & disease most likely.


The following is SAFE and effective. The “Best Lyme and Zika Prevention” techniques in this post are are based primarily on information and recommendations from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). E.g the CDC’s section on “Maximizing protection from mosquitoes and ticks:” But they are also based on Alison’s and my experience hiking long distances in hot, humid environments with high disease risk. Examples include the tropical jungles of South America—or spring in Shenandoah National Park (lots of Lyme!).

A short list of Clothing and Bug Protection (a cool set that you won’t overheat in)

Lyme and Zika Prevention for Hiking

Yes, the outfit might look slightly geeky (although bright gaiters spice things up). But having contracted Lyme disease on the AT, I can say without reservation it is an illness you never want!

for best viewing of this table on a mobile device, turn phone sideways (or view on a laptop or tablet)

E GBug repellent on face neck handsSawyer Picaridin lotion 14 hrs!
Pocketable Picaridin 0.5 oz spray
Lasts 14 hrs! No odor. Won’t melt plastic. Small, pocketable, easily applied.
AHat (repellent)Exofficio Bugsaway HatBug repellent for upper head area
 BShirt hiking*RailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s OasisCool fabric, mesh side vents, sun protection, Lifetime insect repellent (vs. sprays 8-14 hrs)
Shirt (alt)Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’sWidely available: Campsaver and other sources like Amazon. Lifetime insect repellent.
CPants hiking*ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’sAvailable in both Men’s and Women’s. Light, cool, sun protection. Lifetime insect repellent.
Pants (alt)RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect ShieldRailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. Lifetime insect repellent.
E GBug repellent on face neck handsSawyer Picaridin lotion 14 hrs!
Pocketable Picaridin 0.5 oz spray
Lasts 14 hrs! No odor. Won’t melt plastic. Small, pocketable, easily applied.
 DPhysical Prot. Tuck pants into socksPrevents tick entry into pants. Stops pants legs from “gapping” and exposing ankle to mosquitos
FPhysical Prot. Tuck shirt into PantsPrevents tick entry into pants and lower shirt area.
 HGaitersDirty Girl gaiters (fun colors!) or
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
Seals pants against tick entry. No ankle gaps. Can be treated with permethrin spray.
HGaiter trap shoe
Altra Lone Peak shoes or
Altra Superior shoes
Velcro “gaiter trap” permanently attached to heel of shoe. (adhesive ones that come with gaiters only work for a while)

* You can treat your own clothing with Permethrin Spray (REI) or at Amazon  This lasts for up to 6 weeks or 6 washings. (For comparison: factory treated clothing is good for up to 70 washings, essentially “life-time” use). Both clothing treatments far exceed the 8-14 hours of skin applied repellents like Picaridin and DEET. And they don’t require the time/attention needed to properly apply repellents to large areas of skin each day.

Picaridin – A New Repellent Better than DEET

Best Lyme and Zika Prevention for Hiking

Picaridin (lotion) lasts 40% longer than most DEET products and lacks the downsides of DEET. It has no odor and doesn’t melt plastics or degrade clothing. In Hand: Airline friendly 0.5 pump sprays, last 8 hours are small, pocketable and easily applied in the field. Right rear: Picaridin lotion lasts 14 hours, and can be repackaged into small 1 oz squeeze bottles.

Picaridin is a new (2005) “pepper-based” insect repellent that lasts up to 40% longer than most DEET products. And perhaps more important, it lacks many of the downsides of DEET. Picaridin has no odor and doesn’t melt plastics or degrade clothing. It is registered as safe and effective by the US EPA. More about Picaridin here

Important: Make sure you closely follow the directions for applying repellents, including knowing how long an application will last! Skin applied repellent effectiveness greatly depends how well and how often you apply it.

Treated tents and camp mosquito netting

Note: The EPA has also approved Sawyer permethrin spray as an insect repellent treatment for tents. As such, you may want to consider this option if you are in an area with high risk of disease and/or you are a person super concerned about ticks and mosquitoes. This spray treatment might be especially useful to treat the bug netting on the door(s) of your tent where insect entry would be most likely and where mosquitoes want to hang out. As always, follow the package directions to the letter!

  • National Institute for Health (NIH) study indicates that “Permethrin treatment of tents is an effective, inexpensive public health measure to reduce mosquito bites.”
  • The CDC says: “[bug] nets are most effective when they are treated with a pyrethroid insecticide.”

3. What to do if you get a tick bite – per the US CDC

Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don't twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin.

Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. Avoid folklore remedies such as “painting” the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make the tick detach from the skin. Your goal is to remove the tick as quickly as possible–do not wait for it to detach.

  1. Here are the complete instructions for how to best remove the tick (and send it in for testing if you wish)
  2. In most cases, the tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours* or more to transmit Lyme disease
    [*Note: There may be no established minimum attachment time for Lyme transmission. Rather, This study from the National Institutes of Health suggests that the chance of Lyme transmission increases the longer the tick is attached, with no minimum time.]
  3. Here are the Signs and Symptoms of Lyme Disease to look for
  4. And always check carefully for ticks each hiking day

“If you develop illness within a few weeks of a tick bite, see your health care provider right away.”
“Patients treated with appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely.”

 4. Non Chemical Ways to Reduce Bug Bites

While this section is non-chemical, its content is important and applicable to all methods to reduce bug bites, chemical and non-chemical.


  1. Non Treated, Bug Protective Clothing: Wear clothing that bugs can’t bite through and/or ticks can’t enter. There are some challenges here when hiking in warm weather.
  2. Where and When You Go: Be smart about where and what time of year you take your trips. (also has a short section on international travel)
  3. Where You Camp: If possible, camp in areas with few bugs (some nearby camps, just a few minutes away can be much better than others!)
  4. Shelter bug netting: Includes tips you may not know about using a tent or shelter with bug netting

a) Non Chemically Treated yet still Bug Protective Clothing

The difficulty here is to: 1) prevent tick entry with seals on entry points for pants and shirt and 2) have clothing thick enough to stop mosquito bites.  By the time you’ve met both criteria, your clothing is usually too hot and uncomfortable for warm weather hiking—the exact weather when bugs are prevalent & disease most likely. In summary, this is not an optimal warm weather option. It is listed here as an alternative for hikers who are leery of chemicals.

I have used this non-chemical clothing system with success for some intense mosquito hatches in the Western Mountains in summer (Rockies/Sierras). It works well for camp, and is OK for moderate paced hiking as long as temps don’t climb into the 60’s or higher. The beauty of this system is that includes clothing I would normally bring on a hike (e.g. a windshirt/rain jacket and baselayer/hiking shirt).

Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking

for best viewing of this table on a mobile device, turn phone sideways (or view on a laptop or tablet)

AWindshirtPatagonia Houdini or
most “windbreakers”
Any windbreaker or rain jacket will work. When layered over a midweight baselayer, this provides decent protection against mosquito bites. Good for camp, but a hiking challenge in warm weather.
BaselayerCapilene Midweight Top
Ibex Indie Hoodie 1/4-Zip
This is also my hiking shirt in cooler environments like the Western Mountains in Summer (Rockies/Sierras)
 BGlovesGlacier Glove fingerless fleeceProtection from bugs, but fingertips free for dexterity.
CPants hikingREI Sahara convertible pants
RailRiders X-Treme Adventure
Need to be thick enough that mosquitoes can’t bite thru. Note: While these have worked well for me, I can’t say with 100% confidence that either of these pants are thick enough to prevent all mosquito bites.
DHat, ballcapOR Sun Runner HatScalp protect. Keeps netting off face. Any brimmed hat fine.
 EBug-netSea to Summit Head NetNon-chemically treated. OK for camp, but not fun to hike in.

For hiking in warmer weather (e.g. AT in summer), one might need to find a single shirt (and pants) that meet your personal criteria for adequate protection from mosquitoes bites. (Since I use chemically treated clothing in warmer temps, I don’t have enough experience to recommend non-chemical pants and shirts.)

b) Where You Go: Be smart about where and when you take your trips

If you are through hiking the AT, you may not have wiggle room to avoid bugs. You’ll likely have to hike through the height of mosquito and tick season (mid-spring, summer, and early fall). In this case, you’ll just need to do your best to avoid bug bites. But most trips will likely have some good options to avoid the worst bugs. So do your research on what bugs are present and what times of the year they are most present/active. Then if possible, plan your trip to avoid the worst of the bugs. Here are some examples:

  • We like to do much of our AT hiking in early spring and late fall when mosquito pressure is lower and there are hopefully fewer ticks. And winter on the AT is lovely with no mosquitoes and fewer ticks to worry about, and not a lot of people either!
  • Mosquito pressure in Alaska is surprisingly low in August. But it is insane intense just a few months earlier around summer solstice (June 21).
  • Alison and I take our kayaking trips in the everglades in January and February when mosquitoes are virtually non existent.
  • And finally, where you camp (see below) and where you walk has an impact, especially with ticks. Wading through thick brush or grasses (e.g. an off trail bio break) in spring/summer on the East Coast will invite a greater chance of encountering ticks. Sticking to the grass free center of the trail helps.

Here are a few resources to help research bug and disease pressures for your trips

c) Where You Camp: If possible, camp in areas with fewer bugs

While it is unlikely that that you can avoid bugs completely, good campsite selection can greatly reduce the number of bugs in camp, even in areas with lots of bugs like Alaska in June. Sometimes a campsite only a few minutes walk away may have far fewer bugs.

  • Where insects live: Camp away from boggy soggy areas areas with standing water.
  • Avoid places obviously frequented by animals: Don’t camp along game trails or other places obviously frequented by animals like deer and rodents (especially white-footed mice the primary carrier of blacklegged ticks that transmit Lyme).
  • Find wind: Try to camp in open areas that have a breeze which reduces the number of flying insects. An elevated area, like a bluff above a river or a small ridge is a good place. If you know the prevailing wind direction use it to your advantage. Note: Dense trees or brush stop wind, and therefore can harbor a lot of insects.
  • Pay attention to elevation: In the mountains, biting insect hatches usually are most active at a particular altitude. Plan your day to camp above or below that altitude to reduce bug pressure.
  • Final Check!: Before you commit to a camp, it’s good to stand around for 5-10 minutes and assess how bad the bugs are. If they are bad you can look for a better camp without having committed the time and effort to unpacking and setting up camp.

d) Use a tent or shelter with good mosquito netting

This is solution that is likely familiar to most people. And most of you already own a tent with good mosquito netting. But here are some things you may not know.

Tip:  When entering your tent, take “a lap” away from your shelter before running back and jumping quickly through the door. By doing this you’ll likely shake the insects hovering around you, and therefore bring far fewer mosquitoes into the tent. After getting into the tent, do a search and destroy mission for the few bugs that may have tailgated in with you.

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.

Related Content


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!

Related content | tips for your first backpacking trip of the year

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.

Related content

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.

Related content

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

Related content

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.)

Related content

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.

Related content

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.

Related content

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.

Ultralight Day Hiking Checklist

3 lb Ultralight Day Hiking Checklist – stay safe, be light, have fun!

Day hiking is supposed to be fun. And part of the fun is a light pack for easy walking. Unfortunately, most day hiking checklists are way too heavy.  But on the other hand, you DO want all the right gear to be safe!

So what to do? This ultralight day hiking checklist will help you select the right gear to keep your daypack light, a spring in your step, but still keep you safe and happy. Better yet, it has a lot of inexpensive gear so you won’t go broke in the process!

For most day hiking checklists: If you add up the weight of their suggested gear, your “daypack” may approach the weight of a heavy backpack for a multi-day trip in the backcountry. Not fun!

Problems with Most Day Hiking Checklists

This day hiking checklist is more comprehensive & useful than other hiking checklists. Here his why:

    1. Most lists don’t have weights for their gear. This inevitably leads to a heavy pack.
    2. They don’t give specific options for light gear or budget gear. E.g. the 10 oz!  $40 REI Flash 18 Pack or the value $40 Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles (on Amazon — 1/3 price but equal to the best poles!
    3. They are too focused on the 10 essentials and fail to recommend important items like packs, trekking poles; light, non-blistering hiking shoes; best strategies for Lyme & Zika protection, etc.

Summary of Weights

Day hiking backpack & rain cover0.7List includes a range of packs for both cost & weight
Navigation, Hydration, Emergency Gear…1.2also Knife/Multi-tool, Repair Kit, Insect & Bug Protection, Sanitation
Rainwear, Warm Clothing1.1Carried in pack (not worn most of time)
BASE DAYPACK WEIGHT (BPW) 3.0BPW = all items in pack = all items above
Clothing Worn and Items Carried (not in pack) 3.8Includes hiking shirt & pants, hat, shoes, trekking poles, stuff in pockets, etc.
Average amount of water carried in pack?Based on water availability & hiker preferences
See: Hydration in 13 Essentials
Snack food for day hike?Based on length of hike & hiker preferences
See: Nutrition in 13 Essentials
Camera Equipment Gear List (new page)Details for Serious Light Backpacking Cameras
Ultralight Day Hiking Checklist

Buckskin Gulch Utah: One of the longest and deepest slot canyons in the world. It’s a fabulous 21 mile, semi-technical canyoneering day hike where a light pack makes a huge difference in having fun!

3 lb Ultralight Day Hiking Checklist

Like most day hiking checklists this is based on a core set of “essentials.” In this case, my popular “13 Essentials for the Modern Hiker —A Realistic 10 Essentials.” (It’s worth a quick read if you haven’t done so.) But my list goes further to give you all the OTHER gear you need to be safe and happy on a long day hike.

Day hiking Backpacks

Pack opt 1$55 REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack 14.5
or smaller $28 Flash 18 10.0
 10.0Very light, inexpensive & functional UL packs. Blessedly minimal which is wonderful!
Pack opt 2Osprey Talon 22 M’sTempest 20 W’s DaypacksLots of pockets for fast access & gear org. Non-sweaty backpanel.
Pack opt 3$90 Moutain Laurel Designs Core 22L Pack 6.5-7.5 ozLightest pack here. Made in USA. Minimal, durable, utilitarian.
Your own “day” packMost small to medium backpacks! e.g. $16 High Sierra Riprap Backpack at Costco (25 oz)Most packs approx. 15 to 30 liters (900 to 1800 in3) should work. I’ve taken my city laptop backpack on daylong technical canyoneering trips!
Waterproofing for packGossamer Gear Pack Liner (1.2)
(alt: a trash compactor bag)
 1.2Both are lighter less expensive & more effective than a pack cover.
3 lb Ultralight Day Hiking Checklist

Light & low cost daypacks L to R from lightest to heaviest:  [Far left – $90 MLD Core 22L Pack (6.5-7.5 oz) Made in USA. It’s the lightest pack. Minimal, durable, utilitarian design.], $28 REI Co-op Flash 18; $55 REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack;    Ultimate Direct. Fastpack  (not low cost, but efficient & full of pockets ), $16 High Sierra Riprap from Costco, the least expensive but heaviest.


Primary mapPaper: type of map & weight varies 1.0See  “Staying Found” in 13 Essentials Modern Hiker
CompassSuunto M-3D Compass (1.6)1.6Lightest compass with declination adjustment
Alt. navigationGPS App on Smartphone (~6 oz)See “13 Essentials for Modern Hiker” for more info. on GPS navigation and mapping via smartphone.


Water “bottle”Sawyer 32 oz Squeez Pouch 1.0 oz
Sawyer 64 oz Squeez Pouch 1.5 oz
1L commercial h20 bottle 1.0 oz
1.0See “Drink When Thirsty” regarding best practices for good hydration
Standard water bottles, e.g. Aquafina, work great.
PurificationSawyer filter (3.0)3.0To drink on the spot – greatly reduces water cary/weight. Non chemical.
PurificationChlorine Dioxide tablets (0.5)Light purification alternative. Filter backup.

Emergency Gear and First Aid

HeadlampBlack Diamond Ion (1.9 oz)
Black Diamond Spot (3.2 oz)
$11 Energizer Vision HD (3.0 oz)
 1.9Ion for a “usual dayhike.” (REI Garage closeout)
Spot headlamp if hiking dawn/dusk or dark
Value $15 Energizer @Amazon, Target, or Walmart
Batteries Spare1.0For headlamps and other essential gear
First Aid$12 Adv Med Kits Travel Medic 2.0
Adv. Medical Kits Day Tripper
 2.0or assemble your own. See: 1st Aid – 13 Essentials
See my Homemade 1st Aid Kit here
SOS/TrackerPreferred: inReach SE  (6.9)2-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.
ShelterEmergency bivy 3.8 Prefer bivy over blanket. Can also take a light tarp.
FirestarterBic lighter, + fire starting material 0.5 Energy bar wrappers, or Coghlans Fire Sticks
See: Fire Starters in 13 Essentials

Knife or Multi-tool & Repair Kit


R-L: Cutting tools for ~1 ounce – Swiss Army Classic, Spyderco Ladybug, $14 Gerber L.S.T. Drop Point ,$4 school scissors

Knife/scissors$4 Wescott school scissors0.9More useful than knife – OK for plane carryon
Knife$14 Gerber L.S.T. Drop Point 1.2 oz
$10 Schrade Little Pal Knife 1.6
Fave. Can cut bread & salami. Light for 2.6″ blade
Schrade good value for light knife. 2.3″ blade.
Knife (alt)Spyderco Ladybug Knife (0.6)2″ blade – one of the lightest functional knives
Multi-tool Leatherman Squirt PS4 (1.9)More a multi-day item. Bring small one if you want
Repair Kit A minimal repair kit 1.0 See Repair Kit in 13 Essentials

Warm Clothing Carried in Pack (select based on expected weather)

shirt/baselayer/ mid-layerPatagonia R1 Hoodie
or Patagonia R1 Pullover
Think of it as “fur for humans.” possibly the most versatile cool  to very cold weather base layer. It works over an astonishing range of conditions.
Mid-layer topREI Co-op Fleece Jacket or
a light! fleece jacket you own
REI Co-op Fleece Jacket on Sale for $22 (a great low-cost, 200 wt mid-layer)
Mid-layer top TNF TKA 100 1/4 Zip Pullover  or
Amazon 100wt fleece w zipper
7.9Sadly 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
WindshellPatagonia Houdini Jacket (3.3)If I don’t bring, will layer rain jacket over my fleece
Warm jacketFeathered Friends Eos Down Jacket (hooded) (10.5 oz)For colder hikes, and especially at rest stops. Stuffed with 900 fill power down!
Wm jacket (alt)West. Mtn. Flash XR Jacket (11)Water resistant shell (for wet and cold hikes)
Value wm jkt$24 “32 Degrees” Down Vest 6.0“32 Degrees brand” Packable Down Vest @Amazon.
For more down clothing see: Recommended Down Jackets, Pants, and Booties
Warm hatOR Option Balaclava1.2Warmer than hat. Or a fleece beanie.
Gloves (basic)DuraGlove ET Charcoal Wool (2.5)Great liner glove – light, warm, durable!
Gloves alt.$13 Glacier Glove fingerless (2.0) 2.0Dexterity & warmth for photog. & other activities
Ultralight Day Hiking Checklist

Good clothing is critical when the weather turns to crap!

Rainwear Carried in Pack (select based on expected weather)

Rain JacketOutdoor Research Helium II (6.4) 6.4From REI: less expensive than many at this weight
Rain Jacket (Value)REI Co-op Essential Rain Jacket – Men’s (8.8) REI Co-op Essential Rain Jacket – Women’s (7.6 oz) $70 is a great value for a sub 9 oz rain jacket with a solid and functional design.
RainJacket (alt)Patagonia Storm Racer  (6.0)Light! Minimal. Amazing it’s 3-layer fabric!
Rain PantsOR Helium Rain Pants (6.0)Light, inexpensive. Don’t bring on many hikes.
Rainpants (alt)Rain chaps or rain kilt (2.0 oz)For trips with low probability of rain, or warm rain
Rain Mitts (alt)MLD eVENT Rain Mitts (1.2)Light. Waterproof. Add a lot of warmth over gloves.

Hiking Clothes Worn – NOT Carried in Pack (select based on expected weather)

Note: Read more on clothing suggestions for Best Ways to Protect from Lyme & Zika
ShirtRail Riders Adventure Top 7.3
or Sahara shirts like these at REI
Pers fave. For hot and/or brushy (not a baselayer)
Shirt (alt)$40 REI 1/4-Zip Tech Shirt 6.5 REI Co-op Merino Half-Zip (8.8) 6.5Versatile, light, 50 SPF, nice collar, zipper neck
Wool shirt & baselayer: for cooler weather – love new REI merio
PantsREI Sahara convertible pants (14) 14Ex Officio and many others make similar pants
Sun/hiking hatOutdoor Research Sun Runner Hat2.5Removable sun cape. Adaptable to most situations
UnderwearPatagonia briefs Mens
Patagonia briefs Women’s
2.0Dry fast, don’t hold a lot of moisture.
BraPatagonia Active spots braAlison’s favorite
ShoesAltra Superior Trail-Running or
Altra Lone Peaks
 18.0Light. Huge toe room. Comfortable! Superiors lighter. Lone Peaks more protective sole.
Shoes (alt)Brooks Cascadia (25 oz)Very popular trail shoe for hikers (& backpackers)
Shoes (alt)Lightweight trail running shoes
(you likely own a pair)
Most non-Goretex trail/road running shoes that fit
SocksSmartWool PhD Light Mini  or
Darn Tough 1/4 UL w cushion or
DeFeet Wolleators
1.8All are great socks. For most hikers, the thinner & less padding the better.
GaitersDirty Girl gaiters (1.2 oz)I rarely find the need for gaiters with long pants

Gear Worn – NOT Carried in Pack

Watch value$35 basic solar wrist watch1.5My favorite basic watch for hiking.
WatchSuunto Core w positive display 2.2Compass, altimeter, multifunctional timepiece.
SunglassesRx and non-Rx (polarized)1.0 for cheap Rx options
GlassesZenni clear Rx glasses (1.0 oz)Great glasses! for $20 or so. But 2-3 week delivery
CameraVaries depending on photo goals
Could be better using your phone!
See Serious Lightweight Backpacking Cameras
Poles value$40 Cascade Mtn. Tech Carbon15.2Personal favorite. 1/3 price but equal to best poles
Trek PolesREI Flash Carbon Poles (14.8 oz)Stiff, light, travel-friendly, won’t break off-trail/rough terrain (readily available)

Insect and Bug Protection

Hiking clothesSun & bug protective clothing is your first and best option…See clothing section above for best hiking shirt, pants, hats, trail shoes, etc.
Insect repell.Sawyer Picaridin lotion 14 hrs!
Pocketable Picaridin 0.5 oz spray
 1.0 Lyme Zika protection: Picaradin Lotion most effective & long lasting. Unlike DEET it has no odor & won’t melt plastic.
 Sunscreen Small 1 oz tube 1.0Or repackage your favorite into a 0.5 or 1.0 oz bottle. Best if applied before you go hiking.
Lip balmHigh SPF water resistant types0.2Minimal wt for dedicated lip balm
SunglassesNeedn’t be expensive (~ 1 oz) 1.0 e.g. Tifosi’s on discount in REI Garage
Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika

Best Lyme & Zika protection: Picaridin (lotion) lasts 40% longer than most DEET products and lacks the downsides of DEET. It has no odor and doesn’t melt plastics or degrade clothing. In Hand: Airline friendly 0.5 pump sprays, last 8 hours are small, pocketable and easily applied in the field. Right rear: Picaridin lotion lasts 14 hours, and can be repackaged into small 1 oz squeeze bottles.

Sanitation – Leave No Trace

Potty needsDeuce of Spades Potty Trowel 0.6
$5 GSI cathole Trowel 2.9 oz
 0.6For digging catholes to bury human waste. See LNT Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly
Sanitizer/soapAlcohol based, e.g.  “Purell” 0.51/2 oz or 1.0 oz travel size in most pharmacies
Toilet paperPlain, white, non-perfumed Use sparingly. See LNT practices.
Wag bag To carry human waste out (2.5 oz)When reg’s require, e.g. Mt Whitney CA
Ultralight Day Hiking Checklist

Right: The 0.6 oz Deuce of Spades Potty Trowel, minimal TP, and small bottle of Purell allow for good LNT Waste Disposal for around an ounce. Left: “Wag bag” for when regulations require you carry everything out.

Finally a Few Tips

  1. Bring a change of clean clothes, sandals for tired feet, water, & a snack in the car for post hike.
  2. Read more on clothing and repellent suggestions for Best Ways to Protect yourself from Lyme & Zika and other bug transmitted diseases.
  3. Leave one trip itinerary/emergency info document with a friend and another in your car at trail head. See more: “Why You Should Make a Trip Plan and Leave it with Someone for Every Trip”
  4. Practicing Leave No Trace Principals: e.g. proper tools & techniques for waste disposal; using light, low profile tread shoes for minimal impact, etc.


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.

Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT?

Last year we had a local backpacker freeze to death. They’d likely be alive today if they had brought a Satellite Messenger & activated its emergency signal (by the time they were reported missing and the search crews went out, they had frozen to death overnight). Of course, there are many other good reasons to carry a Satellite Messenger. With newer, 2-way Satellite Messengers you can get interactive help like medical advice (assessment & treatment), other information like helicopter landing sites, best evacuation routes, etc. In fact, you may get enough information to help yourself and not even need a rescue—the best possible outcome.

The older inReach SE is highly capable & a deal for only $250

Updated 2018

The the unit I use, the older but still highly capable (Amazon’s choice) DeLorme inReach SE, is still available for only $250 on Amazon. This is $150 less than the new Garmin inReach SE+. The older DeLorme inReach SE is the unit I continue to use each year with great satisfaction. But I’m not sure how long it will be available. If you are intersted in a discounted unit you might want to grab one while they are still around.

As of now the small difference in price between the older $250 DeLorme inReach SE vs the $150 SPOT makes the inReach SE as a better deal for price to performance. That is, you get significantly more fictionality and safety for only a $100 more in purchase price. And you have to spread that $100 over the number of year of serviceable life which makes the price difference even smaller on a per/year basis.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series

  1. Why You Should Make a Trip Plan – how to create one. it might be faster and simpler than you think!
  2. The Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT? – what’s the best Satellite Messenger. And how to best use both the inReach and SPOT
  3. Five Good Reasons to carry a Satellite Messenger (besides sending out an SOS) coming soon

What is in This Article?

  1. Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT – A comparison of the pros and cons of the Garmin inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger. And yes, I have a strong favorite
  2. Tips on How to Best Use an inReach or SPOT – Especially how to get reception in difficult areas, setup messaging, and how best to configure/use their tracking modes
  3. The limitations of Satellite Messengers – what they can’t do for you

a) Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT


Both of these Satellite Messengers can call for a rescue and track your route, but the iReach can do far more…  Pictured L to R

The current inReach versions are the Garmin inReach SE+ (pictured) and inReach Explorer+.

The current inReachs are the Garmin inReach SE+ & inReach Explorer+.

Both SPOT and inReach Perform Well – either is far better than not carrying anything!

I have used both the Garmin inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger extensively over years. Both of these units will do the job. They will send out location and emergency messages as well as record tracking waypoints along your route. Either of these units is way better than not carrying anything at all. And they are the perfect complement to your Trip Plan.

Comparison Table – Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT

Advantages of SPOT Satellite Messenger

  • The SPOT Satellite Messenger is less expensive* than the inReach, $150 vs $250
  • It is lighter at 4.8 oz vs 6.9 oz
  • A single set of lithium batteries lasts a long time—about 120-150 hours of tracking/use in my field experience. The batteries can be easily replaced mid-trip with a spare set. In comparison, the inReach has less tracking time and a non-removable battery that has to be recharged via an external USB battery.
    • But this battery efficiency comes at a price. The SPOT’s low 0.4 watt transmission power, based on my field experience means fewer successful waypoints/messages sent in difficult receptions areas.
  • Depending on how much you use your unit, the annual service plan for the SPOT may or may not be less expensive than the as-needed Freedom Plan for the inReach.

* Note: Over time the service plan is far and above the major cost for both the inReach and SPOT

Advantages of Garmin inReach

  • The Garmin inReach has 2-way communication similar to a Sat. Phone, but the device and service plan cost a lot less than a Sat Phone. Garmin calls it “The satellite communicator that allows you to type, send and receive, track and SOS all from the palm of your hand.”
  • Better emergency options:
    • 2-way communication is a BIG DEAL! You can send and receive text messages. As such, you can get interactive help like medical advice (assessment and treatment) and a ton of other useful information like helicopter landing sites, best evacuation routes, etc.
    • And you might even get enough information to help yourself and not need a rescue
    • If you do need a rescue, the authorities will know what the problem is and therefore show up with the right personnel and equipment. [vs. a “blind” SOS message from a SPOT where they have no idea what the emergency/problem is.]
    • Finally, you’ll get some peace of mind knowing that help is on the way, and where and when they will arrive
  • More reliable messaging:
    • 4x higher transmission power, 1.6 watts vs 0.4 watts for the SPOT. In my experience this gives you a higher percentage of successfully sent messages vs. SPOT. This is especially true in difficult transmission areas like dense tree cover and/or tight canyons
    • Better satellite network (Iridium) equals faster and more reliable message transmission
    • You get confirmation that your tracking points have been sent. Again, especially helpful if you are a difficult transmission area
  • You can request and receive a weather report for where you are hiking/climbing
  • Ease of use: Compose and send/read messages via your smartphone. It’s pretty much the same as regular texting. (You can send them via the unit too, although the typing is tedious).
  • Cost: There is an option for a month-to-month service plan which might be less expensive than SPOTs annual plan

Note: skip the Garmin inReach Explorer+ and use the Garmin inReach SE+. Your smartphone with GAIA is far superior for the GPS mapping functionality then anything the Explorer adds. See How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS.

Conclusion – so which is the Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT?

The Garmin inReach SE+ is by a large margin the better device. The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger’s lack of 2-way messaging, lower transmission power, difficulty to carry in the optimal antenna orientation, and no confirmation that messages or waypoints have been successfully sent are problematic. Especially since there is an alternative unit with similar cost that outperforms it (the inReach).  And there just are times when you need to send out a message but are in a crappy reception location (like a deep forested canyon). It’s good (possibly critical) to have higher transmission power and know that your message actually went out!

In summary: you might pay a slightly higher annual price (unit and service plan) for the inReach vs. SPOT, but you get far more functionality, safety, and peace of mind from the inReach. That being said, the SPOT is still a valid Satellite Messenger and is way, way better than not carrying anything at all.

b) Tips on How to Best Use an inReach or SPOT

Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT

Tip: Do a quick pre-trip test to make sure make sure your emergency contacts can see both your “location messages” and “tracking waypoints.” The best way to do this is on a quick hike with tracking on and sending out a few location messages along the way. Your contacts should be able to access the web page (e.g. and see information like this.

Make a Trip Plan

Pre-Trip Testing

Test your unit with your emergency contact(s) before leaving for your trip:

  1. Do a quick pre-trip, test hike and make sure your emergency contacts can see both your “location messages” and “tracking waypoints” on the tracking webpage like the picture above
  2. Send out your basic message types, like OK, Custom and Help (SPOT and inReach) and make sure that each of your emergency contacts receives them
  3. InReach only, make sure your emergency contacts can reply to your text messages and independently send texts to you. Again this is best done with test texts before you leave on your trip
  4. InReach battery drain test. Put your inReach in tracking mode and take it for a 4-8 hour hike on the weekend. Send a few locations and messages along the way. After the hike, check the remaining battery percentage do the calculations on % battery drain per hour. Use this to estimate whether you’ll need a recharging battery on your trip. See Batteries and Recharging below.

Agree on Meaning of Messages and What to Do

  • Make sure that you and your emergency contacts know/agree on the meaning of the basic message types, like OK, Custom and Help (SPOT and inReach). And that they know what to do for Custom and Help messages. See Trip Plan for examples.
  • Have an agreement on what to do when tracking points stop and do not resume in an agreed upon time (i.e. within a 12-hour time period).
  • Have an agreement on what to do when the unit “goes completely dead,” i.e. no tracking points and no messages. See Trip Plan for examples.

All of the above is best done in a Trip Plan. Here is a  link to Template Trip Plan Document that you can fill out and use: Full Trip Plan for Backpacking.

Tracking Mode

  • My suggestion is to use the tracking mode (10 minute interval seems about best). If nothing else, at the end of your trip you’ll have a nice map of your route and your friends may enjoy following your progress and adventures real-time.
  • Most important, Tracking Mode can alert your emergency contact of a problem even if you can’t. In a bad accident (especially when off-trail and solo), you may be severely injured (i.e. a serious fall, getting struck by a tree limb, etc.) such that you can’t activate the SOS function of your device. Your tracking (bread crumb trail) will let your emergency contact monitoring the trip (and SAR personnel) know your last known location within 10 minutes. And 1) your lack of moment will tip off your emergency contact that something is not right and 2) it will greatly accelerate locating and getting help to you.
  • Avoid turning the unit off at breaks (my experience is that I inevitably forget to turn it back on).
  • When in tracking mode, carry your inReach or SPOT in the correct position for best transmission (see owner’s manual).
    • For the inReach this is with the antenna pointing towards the sky and free of your body or other obstructions.
    • The SPOT device should be oriented so the face is pointing to the sky (unit horizontal). This is difficult to do while hiking. If you use the clip provided with the SPOT, it usually ends up hanging vertically (face of the unit pointing away from your pack/body). While not optimal, it seems to work for many people.

Good antenna orientation: The Mountain Laurel Designs Shoulder Strap Pocket  is an excellent way to carry an inReach with optimal vertical antenna orientation. It’s also very easy to access while walking.

Improving Performance in Difficult Reception Areas

Improving performance in difficult reception areas all boils down to increasing your view of the sky. That is, increasing your line-of-sight/unobstructed-sky to the satellites you are trying to reach, along with proper antenna orientation. In other words, your transmission reliability may be impaired if you can’t see a good portion of the sky (e.g. heavy trees, deep canyons, etc.).

  • This is especially important for SPOT use because in bad reception areas, you will get no indication of whether you have successfully transmitted messages.
  • Make sure your antenna is properly oriented (see end of Tracking Mode above). This is especially important in difficult receptions areas!
  • Physically move to where you can get a larger, unobstructed portion of the sky. Try walking to a large clearing in the trees. Or moving to a wider point in a canyon with more view of the sky. You may even need to hike up the canyon wall some to increase the percentage of sky you can see. I had to do this once in the Grand Canyon to initiate a helicopter rescue.

House Keeping

  • For both SPOT and inReach, delete all pre-trip/at-home messages and tracking points. This will make tracking the trip a lot easier than having a thousand(s) mile long track line from your home to the start of your trip.
  • inReach only: If you have a limited text plan, know that all incoming messages count towards your plan total—none are free. So let your contacts know to only reply to text messages when needed, like when you ask for a weather report. If 2-3 people reply to each message it can quickly add up.
  • Consider giving a trusted person (knowledgeable about the account) access to your account. See Trip Plan for an example.

Batteries and Recharging

See Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear for more detail on lightweight batteries and recharging.

  • For the SPOT carry a spare set (4) four AAA lithium batteries. Note: once the SPOT starts to blink red you don’t have a lot of operational time left.
  • For the inReach consider carrying an external USB battery in the range of 6000 to 100o mAh. (This can be also be used to recharge most of your other electronics.)
  • See lead picture of SPOT and inReach for a visual on these battery options.

Always Bring a Backup Battery!

It’s critical safety precaution to make sure your inReach is always available for use (especially if you are using it in tracking mode during a trip). My three favorite lightweight and high capacity 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 inReach 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 the SPOT a spare set of lithium AAA batteries.

c) The limitations of Satellite Messengers

Sometimes a timely rescue is not possible. A Trip Plan and/or a Satellite Messenger like the Garmin inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger is not the solution to everything. I have been in some extremely bad situations where rescue was not feasible even if I had sent out an SOS. As they say, the best rescue is self-rescue. And to state the obvious, Goal One is not needing rescue in the first place. So be sensible and safe out there.

Finally, a Satellite Messenger should never be considered a license to do silly things or take unnecessary risks.

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking

We use this common sense, 2-day-a-week training program to prepare for hiking 30+ mile days on the AT. But it’s also excellent training for the John Muir Trail, PCT, CDT or even the GR20 in Corsica, “the toughest long distance trek in Europe.” And this Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking works equally well for shorter, less intense trips. And it always keeps in mind that fun is the first priority of any trip!

Busy Lives Require Intelligent, Time Efficient Training

We all know pre-trip training is hugely important to the success and enjoyment our next trip, but… Let’s face it, most of us don’t have hours and hours of spare time each week to train for hike or big trip. As such, we need to train intelligently and efficiently—getting the maximum training benefit with the least amount of training time. With this Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking you can be physically prepared for your next big trek with as little as two core hikes per week.

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

Good training makes even 30+ mile days fun, even over “the rocks of Pennsylvania!” The team grinning ear to ear at the historic or traditional mid-point on the AT, just a few miles before you enter Pine Grove Furnace for ice cream!

And It’s Not All About Speed – Training Has More Important Benefits

It’s good to remember that your first goal on any trip is to enjoy yourself. Reading the following conditioning regimen, you might wrongly assume that we are focused on blazing through the landscape—barely taking time to view and appreciate the wondrous terrain passing through. Quite the opposite, we propose that properly conditioned for a hike, you are more likely to enjoy yourself and appreciate your surroundings.

1) Training Helps You Enjoy the Hike

Not under the physical and psychological stress of being overwhelmed with the effort of hiking, you are more relaxed and fully present to appreciate your surroundings. In addition, the ability to move quickly (when you want) gives you far more options to get to that perfect campsite, have some extra time for a side trip, take more photos, go for a lunchtime swim, bag a peak, or even take a midday nap!

2) Training Makes Trips Possible with Limited Vacation Time

Many of us are short on vacation time. We do not have two to three weeks to leisurely do the John Muir trail or a long section of the AT. Many of us struggle to get a squeeze a longer trip into a single week of vacation. Being a better conditioned and able to hike faster may make the difference between doing a long backpacking trip or not.

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

Alison descending from the crux of the GR20 Trek. Good training, and a A Light Pack (see our gear list), made all the difference to our enjoyment of this rugged and difficult trek!

Overview of Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking

No fads. No gimmicks. This is just common sense use of tried and true professional training techniques. It is essentially training your body over 8-12 weeks* to hike the daily distance you intend to hike, over the terrain you will hike in, carrying the weight of your backpack. Our training consists of just two conditioning hikes per week; one evening hike after work and a longer weekend hike that still has us back before 2:00 pm allowing ½ of a precious weekend day to do other things.

First and foremost, do what you can! Any walking is better than no walking and no training program is ever perfect. The more miles (feet-on-ground) you accumulate (even if it is on local sidewalks to your workplace) the better off you are. Don’t let perfection stop you from doing whatever you can!
  • Your core training is hiking/walking with a pack.
    While running and biking, etc. are all excellent cross training; build aerobic conditioning, strengthen joints and muscles; nothing prepares you to backpack— like hiking with a pack on your back! Specificity, specificity, specificity.
  • Wear Your Backpack (or a daypack). Work up to having that pack loaded to 75% (or more) of the anticipated pack weight for your trip.
  • Train on terrain similar to what you’ll hike on. If your trip will be on hilly and rocky trails, train on steepest and rockiest trails you can find nearby (like we did in the Sugarloaf example below). If you’re trip is in the sandy desert, train back and forth on a local beach.
  • Think creatively on this one. On the super hilly and rocky GR20 we met two fast and fit hikers from the Netherlands–one of the flattest places on the planet. They had trained for the GR20 with heavy packs in sand dunes and in building stairwells. It worked! They were rockin’ the route.
  • Hike in the shoes (e.g. light trail runners like Brooks Cascadia or Altra Lone Peak) & socks (thin is better) that you intend to wear on your trip. This is the key to not getting blisters on your trip.

Make sure to train with trekking poles if you use them (we do). OUR FAVORITES: these great bargain carbon fiber poles for only $45 from Amazon!

  • Note: if your hiking will be at over 8,000 feet having good aerobic conditioning will take some of the sting out of the lower oxygen levels at altitude. That is you won’t be as out of breath. This is more efficiently done by running, biking, stairmaster, etc. vs. walking. (Important – this will not help with altitude sickness. There’s no correlation of aerobic fitness to reducing your risk for altitude sickness.)

* Realistically, you should start training in earnest at least 8 weeks before your trip. Prior to that, it really helps to start with a good base of moderate walking, jogging, biking etc. and thus already have basic aerobic and joint muscle conditioning. If you do not have this base, a 12-16 week progressive build-up to pre-trip hiking fitness may be more appropriate.

Some suggested gear to make your training easier and more effective

Training in the exact shoes and socks as you’ll use on your trip is critical for for foot comfort and no blisters!! 
ShoesAltra Lone Peak Shoes 21Lone Peaks are the most popular hiking & backpacking shoe! Light, huge toe room, comfortable! Probably the best “training aid” you can get.
Shoes (alt)Brooks Cascadia (25 oz)Very popular trail shoe for UL backpackers. (Formerly the most popular hiking/backpacking shoe)
Shoes (alt)Lightweight trail running shoesMost non-Goretex trail running shoes that fit well
SocksSmartWool PhD Light Mini  or
Darn Tough 1/4 UL w cushion or
DeFeet Wolleators
1.8Thin wool socks (single pair) are best for comfort and blister protection. As such, size your shoes accordingly.
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)
Pack-weight training aids10 lb Weight Belt or RUNFast/Max Pro Weighted Vest 20 or 40 lbs.While loading up your backpack is best.. these are much easier and faster to use, reducing prep time and increasing on-trail training time.
Watch/GPS for trackingYour smartphone using the
GAIA GPS App (iOS/Android) with exclusive discounts for my readers
Likely the least expensive way to track and monitor your training progress. Bonus it can double as the best mapping GPS for your trip! Read more here…
Watch/GPS for tracking (alt)Suunto Ambit3 Peak GPS (Amazon) or at REI my favorite for cost, long battery life & ease of useAdmittedly not necessary & expensive… but it has long battery life & greatly simplifies tracking mileage, hiking speed, & especially elevation gain & loss stats (a pain to get by other methods).
See more here on Tools and Equipment that we routinely use to make monitor and track our training.

The Weekly Training Schedule

This is the weekly training routine that Alison and I use to prepare for our big backpacking trips. This routine uses our limited training time to best advantage. Ideally, each week we do:

  1. One Long and Hilly Hike on the weekend,
  2. One Shorter and Faster Hike midweek
  3. Supplement this with Other Training: running, biking, Stairmaster, uphill treadmill, swimming etc. as the spirit moves us.

1. Long and Hilly Hike on the weekend

The goal of the long weekend hike is to build up to hiking the same distance and elevation gain and loss as your anticipated longest/hardest hiking days (maybe by increasing mileage and elevation by 5-10% per week as you get fitter).

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

Our weekend long hike and the foundation of our training: Sugarloaf Mountain is 40 minutes away, giving us more hiking time & less driving time. Our “creative” route on the mountain allowed us to build up to hiking our target of 30 km with 1500 m of elevation gain and loss (19 miles & 5,000 ft) in around 6 hours. To get that much elevation gain, we did the Mountain Loop (green) trail 4x at the start of our hike. [We used CalTopo, the best route planning tool available to plot our route and calculate distance and elevation gain.]

  • We don’t live in Colorado (Rockies) or California (Sierras), so we do our best to find terrain “similar” to the GR20 within an hour drive from our home . If you live near something like Longs Peak, by all means hike there!
  • In the above example our goal was 30 km hiking with 1500 m of elevation gain and loss (19 miles & 5,000 ft) in around 6 hours hiking time—about what we believed our hardest days would be.
  • You may need to be creative with local features. Remember the Dutch hiking up and down building stairwells? E.g. doing multiple laps up and down a small ridge to meet your elevation gain and loss goals. In the example above, we did the Mountain Loop (green) trail 4x at the start of our hike to get in 1000 m or 3,400 ft. elevation gain.
  • Consider working up to hiking about 15-30% faster than you intend to hike on your trip. This will in some way compensate for hiking back-to-back long days on your trip. We averaged about 5.0 kph (3.1 mph) on our Sugarloaf hikes. [On the actual GR20 we averaged between 2.2 to 2.7 mph most days.]
  • For your training hikes, log your average hiking speed, total distance traveled, and elevation gain and loss. This will be your key indicator of progress and a measure of your physical preparedness for your trip. Use this information to make realistic estimates of how far you’ll go each day on your trip and plan logistics. You’ll be surprised how accurate your predictions will be!
  • Find a partner to go with or these long hikes may get stupefyingly boring! Alternatively you can listen to Audio Books (our favorite), Podcasts, or just do a walking meditation.

Finally, consider taking a two or three day weekend backpacking trip a few weeks before your trip. This will give you back-to-back trail day conditioning and give you a pre-trip opportunity to shake out gear. See our: Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking article.

While loading up your backpack is best, and costs the least… weight vests and belts are much easier and faster to use, reducing prep time and increasing on-trail training time.

Training with the same backpack and weight as you intend to use on your trip is the best and least expensive BUT… it can be cumbersome and time-consuming to pack your backpack with the same weight as for your trip. Yes, people have used a combination of gear, towels, duct-taped bricks, water bottles, bags of flour, canned food etc. to mimic what they take. We find that a 10 lb Weight Belt or the RUNFast/Max Pro Weighted Vest (can be loaded in increments up to 20 lb or or 40 lb) are faster and easier to use (especially for midweek hikes) and give you the same training benefit. [Just make sure you do a few long hikes with your actual backpack before your trip!]

2. Shorter and Faster Hike midweek

For our Weekday Shorter and Faster Hike, we focus on hiking fast over easier terrain (laps in a local park, up and down in the hilly section of town, etc.). This develops leg speed and gives us the ability to opportunistically “crush” easier sections of trail, gaining valuable time and distance. This also adds feet-on-ground conditioning time each week.

We try and cover as much distance as we can in about 2 to 3 hours. This allows us to fit the hike in before or after work. (See example hike below)

3. Other Training

  • Stairmaster is a great training tool! It is a fabulous and time efficient workout that builds essential uphill hiking muscles and aerobic capacity—it can be done in crap weather—or in the dead of winter. It’s a core element of our training. Work up to doing 45 minutes to an hour (or more) alternating between steady pace and faster intervals. I try to do 3,000 to 4,000 ft vert (283 to 377 floors) in a workout. For those doing trips at altitude this is a great opportunity for low impact hiking specific aerobic conditioning. (Note: Stairmaster is not a complete tool since it does not condition you to hike downhill—arguably just as important as going up. On your long weekend hikes you will need to ensure that you also train your legs to go downhill, sometimes steeply. And stairmaster does not simulate sloping/uneven trails and randomly varying step heights. Only up and down hiking trails can do that!)
  • Stairwells in tall buildings are also excellent midweek or lunchtime conditioning, especially since you go up and down.
  • Fast walking on a steeply inclined treadmill is also good and time-efficient uphill training. Also consider wearing a pack or a weight belt on the treadmill.
  • Trail running is a great way to aerobically condition yourself, and to develop the eye-foot coordination to miss rocks, tree roots, holes, and other difficult terrain. This does not need to be fast running at all. Slow jogging, even walking steep hills as necessary is just fine! [Some accomplished trail runners may do a lot of long runs for their trip prep, that’s fine. It’s just not our thing.]
  • Alison and I also swim and bike during the week, but mostly from long-standing habits as triathletes. Not sure that these are the best training for backpacking, but they probably help some (or do whatever aerobic activity floats your boat.)

Tools and Equipment for Monitoring your Training

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

Old school tools still work! For free you can get trail miles from signs or paper maps and use your own watch for timing. With these you can record distance hiked, your average speed (and possibly elevation gain/loss) for your training hikes. Photo right is my favorite $35 basic solar wrist watch for hiking.

  • The Gaia GPS App on a smartphone (in tracking mode) is our favorite way to log essential information from our training hikes—distance hiked, speed, and elevation gain.
  • See How to use the iPhone as the Best Backpacking GPS for more information on how to use your iPhone/Smartphone as an excellent tool for training, hiking & backpacking.
  • Or you can use a GPS watch to record time, mileage, and elevation gain/loss on your training hikes. Good GPS watches are available for around $100. A basic Garmin is just fine.
  • For free, use old school tools to get trail miles and elevation gain/loss from paper maps or trail signs and use your own watch for timing. My favorite basic watch for hiking is this $35 solar wrist watch.
  • Use CalTopo or (free) or Map Pedometer (free) to plan your training hikes and calculate hiking distance and elevation gain and loss (or you can use paper maps if you have them.)

Monitoring your Training Hikes (distance, speed, and elevation gain)

Gaia GPS  in tracking mode is our favorite way to log essential information from our training hikes—distance hiked, speed, and elevation gain. It only uses about 2% battery life per hour on my iPhone 6+ so it easily handles even a day long hike with battery to spare.


Gaia GPS  iPhone App data screen from Our Weekday Shorter and Faster Hike: Out of our front door we can do the whole 10+ mile hike after work (hike takes us about about three hours ad we get 1,300 – 1,5000 ft of elevation gain). Also See This Post for more information on how to increase battery life on a smartphone.



While not necessary and expensive… a Wrist GPS is nice if you can spare the $. It has far longer battery life than using a smartphone to track. And it greatly simplifies tracking mileage, hiking speed, and especially elevation gain and loss stats (which are a pain to get by other methods). My favorite is the Suunto Ambit3 Peak GPS (Amazon) or Ambit3 at REI.

Tools to Plan Routes for Your Training Hikes or Your Next Big Trip!

We use or Map Pedometer, both free, to plot our route and get distance and elevation gain. Both automatically route along many common trails near you. But CalTopo is an better and far more sophisticated tool, perfect for both planning training hikes AND also planning the route for you next big trip!

Below is an example of our standard 10+ mile “Shorter and Faster Hike midweek.”


A hiking route planned out with gPed. It automatically routes along trails giving you distance and elevation gain.

Related Post you might like

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-wide. 

Parting Shot

Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking

Training works! Hiking a high ridge on the tough GR20. We did 3 High Alpine stages in a single day. And our training enabled us to do the whole GR20 in ½ the normal number of days.


This post contains affiliate 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.

smartphone hiking photography

10 hacks and accessories for better smartphone hiking photography

Many stunning outdoor photos are shot with smartphones. BUT most are no accident. The photographer used good basic techniques & inexpensive gear to get that great photo. The good news is that you too can do this with the 10 following hacks and accessories for better smartphone hiking photography.

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, this article will help you get the very best out your smartphone camera.

smartphone hiking photography

The best hiking camera is the one you have with you. For me, that most often is my iPhone. I used my iPhone 6+ to quickly grab a spur of the moment shot of my wife cat napping on warm November afternoon. [And my new iPhone X would have taken an even better photo!]

 10 Hacks and Accessories for better smartphone hiking photography

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).

10 Hacks and Accessories for better smartphone hiking photography

For only $25 and some basic technique, you can take far better photos with your iPhone or Android.

  1. Take the photo! Don’t ever think your smartphone camera is holding you back.
    As hockey great Wayne Gretzky says, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The same applies to photography, maybe more so. Grab your smartphone and start shooting. Some of my best photos were taken on a lark. An “I wonder what this will look like attitude” pays off!
  2. Clean your camera lens. It’s likely filthy! That layer of grime will make every photo worse.
  3. Get an App for manual control of your camera. Camera+ is a personal favorite for it’s ease of use and power. It also has decent photo editing capabilities.
    • For iPhone: Camera+ , or Manual, or VSCO, or ProCamera, or ProCam 4 – Manual Camera
    • For Android: Open Camera (free), Camera FV-5, and VSCO
    • Note that your Camera App doesn’t need to be complicated or hard to use. All you really want is control over ISO, shutter speed and focus area. This is mostly for shooting off the tripod in the magic light of dawn and dusk. [Ideally, you want to manually set focus and a low ISO (around 32) to get the best images.]
    • Tip: Get the best quality photo negatives from your smartphone. If you will be doing serious editing of your photos (see #9 below) then use your camera app to also save in RAW format.
  4. Get a small tripod: This eliminates camera shake, and blurry photos in low light.
  5. Get a remote shutter button: This prevents photo blur when you press your camera to take a photo (the camera moves/vibrates while touching it). It’s also fabulous for high quality selfies (e.g. without your face smashed into the phone see more on this below).
    • Bluetooth Smartphone Camera Remote Shutter
    • Or use the 2 or 10 second timer setting for your smartphone camera
    • Or a little known free feature: Your iPhone wired headphone set works as a remote shutter button. Just press the ‘+,’ volume up button to take a photo!
  6. Get closer to your subject and fill the frame (if you can).
    • Closer is almost always better! So walk, scramble or climb closer to your subject.
    • DON’T USE YOU CAMERA’S ZOOM! (unless you have one of the new dual lens cameras like the iPhone 7+, 8+ or X. Then go ahead and use that ‘2x’ button.)
    • All your smartphone’s “zoom” function does is pre-crop your photo. You aren’t getting any more pixels or resolution than if you just cropped it yourself. As such, you might just as well have the additional area around your subject in case you want to use it later.
  7. Try and shoot with the sun behind you, or around 90 degrees from the sun (sun to your left or right.)
    • If you shoot into the sun, light will fall directly onto your camera lens. This will create washed out low contrast photos lacking in color and detail.
    • If you absolutely need to shoot into the sun… you can try and shade the lens with your hand, but this can be difficult to do and still tap the shutter button. Sometimes a friend’s hand is a big help.
  8. Take a breath and carefully REVIEW YOUR PHOTO after taking it! You’ll likely not get a 2nd chance, so make sure it’s right.
    • Sharpness: Enlarge your photo and scan it. Is everything you want in focus, especially critical areas like people faces/eyes & foreground detail?
    • Exposure: Correct overall exposure? Is there some detail in both shadows and highlights?
    • Dim Light Problems: Any camera shake (overall photo blur) from a low shutter speed? Smudging, poor color and other nastiness from a high ISO?
    • People: Eyes open? Good expression? Awkward position, clothing malfunction?
    • Extraneous Objects: Any odd objects in the photos. E.g. trekking poles you left in the foreground, piece of garbage, somebody photobombing, etc.? Also, make sure you didn’t inadvertently cut off something critical like the top of a mountain.
  9. Use a good photo editing app like Snapseed to dramatically improve the look of your photos. Spending just a few minutes editing can transform a so-so photo to something special. Many of these programs are free and simple to use.
    • My personal favorite is Snapseed but some apps like Camera+ also have decent editors.
    • And of course Lightroom Mobile is good if you already own one of the Adobe Creative Cloud Photo Plans. But some people may not like the subscription fees.
    • Tip: Use your camera app to also save in RAW format to give you the most latitude to edit your photos. The RAW file has more dynamic range (ability to capture a larger range of lights to darks without losing detail). E.g. clouds and other light objects will still have good detail while the normal (JPEG or HEIF) files will not.
  10. Manage your battery life and carry a backup battery.
    • Manage your battery life. Nothing is worse than having an incredible photo opportunity in front of you and pulling out a dead smartphone. With good battery management I get 7 days on trail use hiking with my iPhone. Read more on battery management here.
      The best batteries for charging smartphones are:
    • The 5 oz EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery. The highest capacity for its weight, it charges a smartphone 2 to 3 times. I use it on 7-14 day backpacking trips. It has a built-in micro-USB connector and you can connect a lightning cable to its USB port. So you can charge lightening and micro-USB devices at the same time.
    • Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery. This has faster charging and both micro-USB & lightning connectors. Downside is it has slightly less overall tested (vs. claimed) capacity than the EasAcc.

6 Bonus Hacks

best backpacking cameras

Take the photo! Don’t ever think your smartphone camera is holding you back –  I took this shot with a cheap 2011 point & shoot camera but my current iPhone X would have taken a better photo! The major point is that I had a camera and made the time to take the photo. [Pic is Canyonlands UT: An ugly storm of sleet & snow was about to break when a sudden opening in the clouds illuminated the bluff in front of me. I had less than 30 seconds to extract the camera from my pocket, get it out of a waterproof baggie and take the shot before the sun was gone and the heavens opened.]

  1. Take High Quality Selfies. Use one of the small tripods and a Bluetooth Smartphone Camera Remote Shutter. That way you and your friends can easily pose in a picturesque spot many feet from your phone and casually press the remote shutter to take a great photo!
  2. Shoot in the “golden hour” of dawn and dusk. This is when the pro’s shoot. Take the time when you get into camp to scout out some good areas to shoot at dawn and dusk. Then get there with plenty of time to setup and wait for the light show to unfold.
  3. A headlamp is a big help to hike there/setup in the dark, and/or to takedown and hike back in the dark. Use a good Headlamp with a dimming function so you can have low light for not blowing your eyes out when setting  but also have a very bright light for hiking.
  4. Protect your smartphone in the field and save weight and money. Rather than bulky, awkward and expensive cases like an OtterBox Case, use the following items:
    1. A simple sub-$10 phone case like this Spigen Ultra Hybrid iPhone X Case or the same one for iPhone 7/8.
    2. Tempered Glass Screen Protector
    3. Pint Ziplock Freezer bag. I highly recommend using a Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag used to protect your smartphone from dust, scratches and water (effective, lighter and less expensive than elaborate waterproof cases!  And it works well for other electronics.).
  5. Take dreamy blurred water photos. Using Apples new “LIVE” mode or using an app like Slow Shutter Cam. Note that you WILL need to use a tripod and a remote shutter button to get best results. (see above for gear details).
  6. Make your smartphone into the best hiking GPS going. See How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS.

Final Hack – Improvise a “Tripod” to Stabilize your Camera

You can get much of the benefit of a tripod to stabilize your smartphone by improvising a “tripod.” You can brace your smartphone up against a rock, tree, or even hold it against your trekking pole. Remember to squeeze off that shutter gently! Every bit of stability helps to get a sharp photo.

Or better yet, you can use folded garment (or other prop) on top of a rock, or fallen tree to make 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. But many times pressing the camera will bump it out of position or knock it over. In this case, use a bluetooth remote shutter release (or for iPhone users, remember that your headphones as a remote shutter button) see details in hacks above.

Additional Reading

Best Backpacking Cameras 2017 – This highly ranked article lays out the best gear and technique for larger, non-smartphone cameras.

How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS – This is the definitive article on how your smartphone can blow away the best dedicated GPS units from Garmin and other major GPS manufactures.



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.

Top Mistakes Using the Layering System – How to Stay Warmer and Drier

Top Mistakes Using the Layering System – How to Stay Warmer and Drier

The layering system sounds attractive in theory. But as practiced by most hikers it is seriously flawed. It can be heavy, and expensive. And not used properly it could even make you colder. This article points out the major mistakes hikers make when buying and using a clothing layering system. And of course, it has tips on how to properly select and use a better and lighter layering system!

Lead photo: Southern Sierra in a “shoulder season” spell of winter-like conditions—daytime highs below freezing & nighttime low temps around +12 ºF.

Shoulder Season Update*: Now that hard frosts are becoming common, but the trails are still in decent enough shape for hiking… this updated, seasonal version of this post contains:

Top Mistakes Using the Layering System

  1. People bring too many layers as well as the wrong layers. This costs a lot of money and it’s heavy. Try to find a minimal set of light clothing that will work in a broad range of conditions. It can be done!
  2. A good layering system is NOT about frequently changing layers. Quite the opposite, you should strive to minimize adding or removing layers!  A single set of well-selected clothes should work in a broad range of temperatures (from mid-20s °F to around 50 °F) without adding or removing layers. [* “shoulder season” clothing should get you down to +10º to 0º F]
  3. Frequent stops to change layers can seriously chill you. And once chilled it can be exceptionally hard to get warm again. (In cold weather, constant but moderate movement is what keeps you warm.)
  4. Overheating and sweating out clothes will get you very cold in the long run. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness. (And in cold weather it takes a very long time to dry, if ever.)
  5. A windshirt is not all that it’s cracked up to be. An inexpensive, midweight fleece jacket or (*Patagonia R1 Hoodie) is far more useful cool weather and saves weight. (Among other things, it helps minimize sweating out your clothes!)
  6. Finally, leave your shorts and short sleeved shirts at home. Long pants and long sleeved shirts are far better and more practical at protecting you from brush, sun, and disease carrying insects than sunscreen and insect repellents. [Note: this year will be a bad one for Lyme. See Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking].

A single set of clothes for the entire day: Here I am in late winter conditions at around 4,000 ft on the Appalachian Trail. It’s windy and about 25 degrees. But I’m warm and comfortable hiking at my own pace 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 °F to around 50 °F – going up and down hill without needing to stop for a clothing change.

Why Use a Layering System?

A layering system is really just a set of good hiking clothes. It is supposed to keep you safe and comfortable in a broad range of temperatures and environmental conditions (wind, rain, sleet and snow). The layering system is most useful for cold weather (in warm weather, a light top and bottom usually suffice). Ideally, this layering system should be simple, light and inexpensive.

In cold weather the challenge for a layering system is to have you:

  • Not freeze when hiking in low temperatures and/or at low physical exertion levels (e.g. walking downhill)
  • But also not overheat and soak your clothing with sweat as temperatures get warmer and/or at high physical exertion levels (e.g. hiking uphill with a pack on)
  • To protect you from wind and precipitation
  • Finally, have a very warm layer ready (usually a down jacket) to keep warm at rest stops and in camp

A Layering System for Hiking and Backpacking

This clothing layering system is designed for 3-season conditions (spring, summer, and fall) and for temperatures from the mid-20s °F and up. It has withstood the test of time and many difficult environments. I’ve used this layering system for the past 5 years hiking in many places and many seasons in the US and on 3 continents. And with surprisingly little variation it has worked exceptionally well from the high mountains, to the desert and jungles of South America. (Note: to be very clear, this system is not for full-on winter hiking. But I have included some clothing adjustments (in blue) for brief periods of winter-like conditions of the shoulder seasons of late fall and early spring.)

The following layering system is slightly tuned towards cooler temperatures of the high mountains, or early spring and late fall at lower elevations (e.g. March on the Appalachian trail). But I’ve also added a few options in a subsequent table for warmer, more humid conditions (e.g. the Appalachian Trial mid-summer, or the tropical jungle).

This post is in four parts

  1. Layering System for Colder Weather, including the”shoulder season”
  2. Shoulder Season Gear Hacks Addendum Table. Non-clothing gear like shelter and sleeping bag to keep warm early season “winter-like” conditions
  3. Layering System for Warm Weather (also Lyme & Zika Protection)
  4. The Essential Techniques to Use these Layering Systems

1) Layering System for Colder Weather
Including the “shoulder season” – Spring or Fall with potential winter-like conditions

layering system

A light layering system while summiting in Scotland’s Highlands. I was ribbed by the Scots as “the Yank in trainers [running shoes] and yellow pants” for wearing virtually nothing given the winter conditions. Nonetheless, I summited just fine in my light running shoes and 4 oz shell pants—wearing the same clothing system without changes to the summit and back down.

Note: much of the following is from my top-ranked 9 Pound, Full Comfort, Lightweight Backpacking Gear List). Take a peek at it for an integrated set of gear that won’t weigh you down and break your back.

shirt and baselayer*$40 REI 1/4-Zip Tech Shirt 6.5 
Smartwool PhD Light 1/4-Zip 8.8
8.0Neck zipper key to warmth management
(for cold Wx)
Patagonia R1 Hoodie 12.5Think of it as “fur for humans.” possibly the most versatile cold  to very cold weather base layer. It works over an astonishing range of conditions.
Mid-layer top*TNF TKA 100 1/4 Zip Pullover  or
Amazon 100wt fleece w zipper
7.9Sadly 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
Midlayer active layer top (alt)Patagonia Nano-Air
OR Ascendant Insulated Hoodie
 13.0New highly air-permeable (super breathable) shell, synthetic fill jackets are a new alternative to fleece. More expensive and less durable they are lighter and more compressible for equivalent warmth, especially when it’s very cold and/or windy.
Rain JacketOutdoor Research Helium II or
REI Coop Rain Jacket $35-$70!
 6.4Light rain-jacket is just as dry as a heavy one
Use as “windshirt” only when very cold
Rain Jacket
3-layer tech
(for cold Wx)
Outdoor Research Interstellar
Montbell Storm Cruiser
Patagonia M10 Anorak  only 8 oz!
 10.9Given that I will likely be wearing my jacket more frequently (both for rain and as a “windshirt” when cold), I favor a more breathable & durable 3-layer construction for shoulder season (SS). Outdoor Research Interstellar is my current favorite.
Rain Pants
(bring them!)
Outdoor Research Helium (6.0 oz)
Zpacks Vertice Rain Pants (3.6! oz)
 6.0While I might not bring them on all 2+ season trips, I DO bring rain pants in the (SS). Vertice pants are super light and crazy breathable.
Warm jacket A high quality down jacket (REI)
or Feathered Friends Eos Jacket
10.5For occasional rest stops. Moderate/consistent movement is key to keeping warm when it’s cold
Down jacket
(very warm)
Feathered Friends Helios Jacket
or Montbell Mirage (12.8 oz)
13In very cold Wx a puffy jacket essential for warmth in camp, rest stops AND at night to supplement your down sleeping bag/quilt.
For more down jackets and down pants see: Recommended Down Jackets, Pants, and Booties
Pants*REI Sahara Pants 14Ex Officio and many others make similar pants
Down pants
(for cold Wx)
West. Mtn. Flash Pants (6.5)
Montbell Superior Down Pants 8.4
FF Heilos Down Pants (13)
 6.5For colder weather. West. Mtn. pants light & warm!
Montbell’s a great value in down pants.
Helios crazy warm with side zips.
UnderwearExOfficio Give-N-Go M’s or W’s2.0Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days
GlovesDefeet DuraGloves (2.5)2.5Great liner glove. Light, warm, durable! (or similar)
Rain Mitts (bring them!)REI Minimalist Mitts or
MLD eVENT Rain Mitts (1.2)
 1.2Critical for keeping hands warm and dry in cold rain. Also work as great wind shells.
(for cold Wx)
RBH Designs Vapor Mitt 9.0My goto insulated mitts (I have a 4oz UL Version)
Gloves – cold & wet conditionsShowa Japanese fishing gloves 4.5Alternative hand-wear for wet & cold. Waterproof, breathable, with grippy rubber-like shell.
ShoesAltra Superior Trail-Running or
Brooks Cascadia Trail-Runners
 18Altra: Light, huge toe room, super comfortable!
Brooks: tried and tru trail favorite.
SocksSmartWool PhD Light Mini or
Darn Tough 1/4 UL w cushion
1.8Key to keeping feet warm is to keep moving and NOT warmer socks
Camp footwearFeathered Friends Down Booties For those with cold feet. Put on with dry socks as soon as you get into camp!
Warm hatWarm watch cap/beanie (REI)
or OR Option Balaclava (1.8)
1.8Also note that a hooded down jacket is HIGHLY DESIREABLE. And the built in hood on the Patagonia R1 Hoodie is excellent
Cold hands and feetChemical hand warmer and foot warmer packetsCritical re-warming contingency/backup for hands and feet in case you blow it and get them too cold to warm up again on their own.

* Note: You only need one! Extra shirts, pants (and base-layers) are a poor choice to stay warm. And you only need single 6-12 oz fleece/wool mid layer garment.

2) Shoulder Season Gear Hacks Addendum Table

The following is excerpted from Why You Won’t Freeze or Starve Ultralight Backpacking. This gear (in combination with the clothing above) will keep you warm and protected with a minimal increase in weight over 2+ season gear.

  • Your tent doesn’t keep you warm. The hard reality is that the temperature inside your tent, at best, will only be a few degrees warmer than the outside temperature.
  • Your tent just keeps the wind and rain off (very important!)—but so will a tarp or pyramid shelter.
  • What does keep you warm is a puffy down sleeping bag and jacket. Usually used in combo when it’s super cold. That is, down get you the most warmth for its weight.
  • So get a good down jacket and a down sleeping bag or quilt vs. spending extra bucks and weight on a bomber shelter. That is the difference in weight between a 14 oz pyramid shelter and a 3+ pound tent will get you some incredible warmth in down gear and clothing!
  • Don’t believe the dire warnings about getting down wet—it’s hard to do. In over 40 years of backpacking all over the world in all sorts of conditions, I have yet to get my down so wet that it didn’t keep me warm. (New water resistant shell fabrics and water resistant down only improve upon this.)
Tent/ShelterMountain Laurel Des. Solomid XL
HMG Ultamid 2 Pyramid Shelter
14.0Late season bugs non-existent. Pyramid design is light, strong, and able to withstand rain, snow and hight winds at a fraction of the weight of a tent. Super easy to setup (faster than most tents!).
Sleeping Bag
(a warm one!)
REI Co-op Magma Bag (32 oz)
Feath. Friends Merlin UL 30 23 oz
FF Hummingbird UL 20 (25 oz)
Feathered Friends are among warmest & lightest bags. Conservatively, rated they are likely +20 and +10F respectively.
Sleeping QuiltHammock Gear Burrow Quilt +1018.0I add +2 oz of down (to a +20F quilt) in the top vertical baffles to bring temp rating to around +10F. Great value! ~1/2 cost of sleeping bag.
For more on Sleeping bags and Quilts see: The Art of Sleeping Warm – A Guide to Sleeping Bags and Quilts
Sleeping Pad
(warm one!)
T-Rest NeoAir X-lite “Women’s”
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm
Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest 1/2 pad
12.1“Women’s” R3.9 lighter/warmer than Men’s. Best for for men too!  XTherm, R5.7, is warmer & heavier. For a light, low cost hack cut Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest pad in half & put it over the top of your current pad (shoulder to knees).

3) Layering System for Warm Weather (also Lyme & Zika Protection)

Note: Many of these layers are also perfectly appropriate for cold and temperate weather. As such, they bear serious consideration if you only want to buy one set of clothing for 3 seasons (Spring, Summer and Fall). In contrast to cold weather layering systems, this warm weather version also:

  • Protects you from Solar Radiation
  • Keeps you cool when it is hot
  • Protects you from bug transmitted diseases such as Lyme and Zika

And as stated earlier, long pants and long sleeved shirts are far better and more practical at protecting you from brush, sun, and disease carrying insects. Chemical sunscreens and insect repellent lotions take a lot of time to correctly apply to large areas of skin. And they don’t last nearly as long as the near-lifetime* effectiveness of long pants and long sleeve shirts against bugs and sun.

Note it’s going to be the worst year yet for Lyme Disease. For more detailed information on how to protect yourself see: Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking.

Hat (repellent)Exofficio Bugsaway HatBug repellent for upper head. And sun protection
Shirt hiking*RailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s OasisCool fabric, mesh side vents, sun protection, Clothing bug repellent lasts 70 washes (vs. sprays 8-14 hrs)
Shirt (alt)Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’sAlso good, widely available via Amazon and other retailers like REI. 70 wash insect repellent.
Pants hiking*ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’sAvailable in both Men’s and Women’s. Light, cool, sun protection. 70 wash insect repellent.
Pants (alt)RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect ShieldRailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. 70 wash insect repellent.
GaitersDirty Girl gaiters (fun colors!) or
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
Seals pants against tick entry. No ankle gaps. Can be treated with permethrin spray.
Gaiter trap shoe
Altra Lone Peak shoes or
Altra Superior shoes
Velcro “gaiter trap” permanently attached to heel of shoe. (adhesive ones that come with gaiters only work for a while)

* You can treat your own clothing with Permethrin spray (REI) or (Amazon). This lasts for up to 6 weeks or 6 washings. (For comparison: factory treated clothing is good for up to 70 washings, essentially “life-time” use). Both clothing treatments far exceed the 8-14 hours of skin applied repellents like Picaridin and DEET. And they don’t require the time/attention needed to properly apply repellents to large areas of skin each day

4) Essential Techniques to Use these Layering Systems

Keep Hiking When It’s Cold

In colder weather, you can spend far too much time stopping to adjust layers. This is especially true on hilly trails where you are consistently getting sweaty and hot going uphill, and freezing while on ridges and going downhill. Moderate but consistent movement, not stopping for layer changes, is the key to keeping warm when it’s cold.

  • Hiking to keep warm needn’t be at all tiring or strenuous.
  • Even walking 1 to 1.5 miles per hour should keep your internal, metabolic heater going, and keep your hands and feet warm. If you are getting tired you are going too fast!
  • Minimize stops to essential needs, and don’t make them longer than necessary. When you stop, you get cold quickly and it takes a long time to warm up again. If you’re starting to chill it’s time to move.
  • If you really need to stop for a longer time (over 5 minutes), try to do it in a warmer, more protected area and put on warm clothing (e.g. a high quality down jacket) as soon as you stop. Take your warm clothing off just before you start hiking again. Or after you have been walking for a few minutes. (note: I store the jacket as the topmost item in the main bag of my backpack so I can quickly retrieve it and put it back.)

Clothing Adjustments

  • When starting to hike, I put on just enough clothing to keep me warm when moving. (It might take 5-10 minutes at a brisk pace to get fully warm. Then I can back-off to my normal hiking pace.)
  • 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. [Note this is where the better venting fleece jacket outshines a windshirt, allowing sweat to pass through your clothing and evaporate!]
  • Temperature adjustments are made without stopping or changing a top or bottom layer. Too hot? take off hat and gloves (put in pants pockets). To further cool unzip fleece jacket and/or your base layer, and possibly push sleeves up. Too cold? reverse the procedure.
  • I only add warmer clothing when I can no longer stay warm walking at a comfortable pace (and with a good clothing system, this is a rare).
  • If you do need to change layers do it quickly. What most people don’t realize is how much time it takes to stop, take your pack off, put-on or take-off a layer, put your pack back on and start hiking again. It’s plenty long enough seriously to chill!
  • If it’s extremely cold and windy, I will use my rain jacket as a windshell (note: unzipping your rain jacket all the way is a major cooling force when needed).

Keep your Clothing Dry

  • At the risk of pointing out the obvious, put on your rainwear before you get wet. Have your rainwear readily available on the outside of your pack so you can put it on quickly and without opening your main pack bag and exposing your pack contents to rain. (I like to keep it in the large rear pocket.)
  • When wearing your rain jacket pay special attention to not sweating out your clothing.  Adjust and ventilate your clothing and/or slow your hiking pace as necessary. As above, it’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather.
  • And if it’s going to rain for a long time you are going to get wet—it’s inevitable one way or the other. Just try to do your best to keep warm and minimize it. [A discussion on how to deal with long periods of rain (like days), is another whole topic and beyond the scope of this post.]

A Fleece Jacket is Better than a Windshirt?

I find that in cool weather (where a layering system is most useful) a fleece shirt is better. For almost the same weight of a windshirt, a light 100 weight fleece shirt has a greater temperature range for comfort — which means fewer clothing changes. And a thin fleece doesn’t trap moisture in the same way as windshirt. Yes, against common perception, windshirts are not all that “breathable!” Try running on a warm day in a T-shirt and then in a T-shirt with a windshirt over it if you don’t believe this. (Note: many cheap fleece jackets in the $20 range may work fine. I’ve been using one that was a giveaway at triathlon I did. It works great!)

  • A light 100 or 200 weight fleece shirt or jacket is far warmer than a windshirt and more versatile It is an excellent insulating mid-layer, and it does a surprisingly good job of slowing down the wind. (Sadly many major brands are discontinuing their 100 wt fleece shirts. You may need to make due with 200 wt/mid-wight fleece OR buy a thinner “cheap” fleece at stores like Target. Oh, and the Patagonia R1 Hoodie is still a great option albeit a bit pricy.)
  • Note: this is for inexpensive fleece that has a much tighter weave and is far more wind resistant than more open weave, high tech fleece like Patagonia R2. As such, the fleece does an a decent job keeping wind from penetrating your clothing. BUT it is far less clammy and more breathable than a windshirt, allowing sweat to pass through your clothing and evaporate.
  • By the time it’s cold enough and windy enough to warrant a fully windproof shell like a windshirt, my rain jacket does fine. By then it’s cold enough that condensation from the rain jacket is not a huge issue.
  • Finally, it’s lighter. Since you’d bring a fleece layer anyway, you save the weight of a windshirt and simplify your layering system.
  • That being said, a good windshirt is only 3 ounces, so bring one if you want! (I just find that I end up in a taking it on and off scenario to control heat and prevent sweating out. And this ends up with extra stops and lost time.)

Enjoy Your Hike!



This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a slight 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.  I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

Why Wilderness First Aid Matters and How to Take a Course

Knowing what to do in a medical emergency in the wilderness can make all the difference to someone in need. That someone might even be you! I was reminded of this as I refreshed my Wilderness First Aid (WFA) certification this past weekend. In fact, just a few years back I used my Wilderness First Aid skills in the Grand Canyon to assess a serious wilderness medical emergency and provide comfort and care to a patient in the middle of winter. I eventually coordinated an emergency helicopter evacuation via satphone. Take home message:  stuff can and does happen in the backcountry, and YOU can make a difference!

Note: Taking a Wilderness First Aid Course is easy! And it is as close as your local REI Store.

“In just two days, you will learn the knowledge, skills & ability to make sound decisions in an emergency.”

Lead photo: Things can get pretty realistic in a WFA course. Our instructors did a convincing job of making my head look as if I’ve been struck by a large rock. My role was to “play” someone with a concussion. The rest of the group had to assess and figure out the problem using the standard WFA “Patient Assessment System.”

Why a Wilderness First Aid Course vs. “Regular” First Aid Course

  • In a populated area you call 911 and until an EMT’s arrive, your job is to keep the injured person stable and alive—CPR, stop bleeding etc.
  • In the wilderness, 911 is not usually an option & the EMTs aren’t coming right away. It may be a day or two until help arrives.  You need to be a lot more self-reliant and make a lot of good decisions.
  • As such, in the wilderness, you have more responsibilities: to figure out what’s wrong with the person, then treat, stabilize and care for them. Essentially, doing much of what EMTs would do.
  • Wilderness First Aid focuses more on injuries likely to happen in the wilderness—hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, etc.
  • You have far fewer first aid materials at hand vs. in a populated area. You need to learn how to re-purpose hiking, backpacking gear to bandage, splint, etc.
  • The List of Wilderness First Aid Topics is in the last section of this article
Wilderness First Aid Course

Only 10g or 1/3 oz! The incredibly useful, light & compact NOLS Wildness First Aid Pocket Guide goes into my first aid kit on every trip. BUT! it’s meant to be a refresher for people who have taken the WFA course and are familiar with the material. It is far less useful if you haven’t taken the course.

The Easiest Way to Take a Wilderness First Aid Course

The short answer is at your local REI Store. This is where I did my WFA course last weekend. The course is run by REI in cooperation with NOLS Wilderness Medicine, the recognized leader in this area. REI makes it easy by hosting the NOLS instructors and providing a classroom and an outdoor area to practice various emergency scenarios. And I can’t say enough good things about the expertise, professionalism and teaching skills of our two NOLS instructors, Clemencia Caporale and Ryan Murphy.

How to Register for a WFA Course

Note: WFA courses fill up fast. As such, it’s always better to sign up early for courses. This is the voice of experience. I was a bit late scheduling this year, and by then my first two choices were already filled.

First Choice – Your local REI

Go to WILDERNESS MEDICINE ACTIVITIES on the REI Site. Put in your zip code and look for courses titled “Wilderness First Aid with NOLS and REI”

If you don’t find a match, or don’t live near an REI store, you can try the NOLS Wilderness Medicine site. Here’s a link to NOLS Wilderness First Aid Courses. Finally, Landmark Learning (a NOLS affiliate) also offers Wilderness First Aid Classes

Wilderness First Aid Course

Instructor Ryan Murphy demonstrating an improvised splint for lower leg injury using materials you would have on hand backpacking. In this case, a sleeping pad and clothing. This is an unusable injury and she will not be walking out. [Course section on Musculoskeletal Injuries]

Major Topics of NOLS Wilderness First Aid Course

  • Patient Assessment System (how to systematically figure out what’s wrong)
  • Emergency and Evacuation Plans (when to stay put, when to evac., etc., including how to phone in a good “radio” report)
  • Emergency Communications Devices – Strengths, Weaknesses, and Use
  • Spine Injuries
  • Head Injuries
  • Shock (identifying and treating it)
  • Wilderness Wound Management (Simple scrapes to deep gashes, & burns; Infection management)
  • Musculoskeletal Injuries (sprains, muscle tears, dislocations and broken bones)
  • Heat Illness (heat exhaustion, dehydration, heat stroke)
  • Cold Injury (hypothermia, frostbite)
  • Lightning (prevention and treatment)
  • Altitude Illness
  • Allergic Reactions, e.g. bee stings, food allergies, etc. (anaphylaxis and EpiPen training)
  • Finally, figuring out the right First Aid Kit to carry.
Wilderness First Aid Course

Preparing to “BEAM*” carry an injured person to a safer and more comfortable area. This method of carrying keeps the patient’s neck and spine stabilized in case of a suspected spinal injury. No special equipment like a backboard is needed. [* BEAM stands for Body Elevation and Movement]

What to Expect

Duration: This course is two 8-hour days. Usually Saturday and Sunday. WFA courses are offered year round.
They usually start at 9am and finish at 6pm, with an hour lunch midday.

Cost: Approx. $215 to $265

Note:  Many times there is also an optional CPR/AED course run Friday Night (most guiding programs require certification in both Wilderness First Aid and CPR/AED). You can also take CPR/AED separately—from your local Red Cross (tons of times and options).

The course is definitely “hands on.” You’ll learn the super-professional way to hands-on examine fellow participants—to find injuries, bleeding, take pulse, check for skin temperature, etc.—even carrying injured people and moving them to more comfortable positions. You’ll do a lot of realistic simulations and ask each other some interesting and sometimes blunt and detailed personal questions that you wouldn’t normally ask people. All of this is essential to provide the best care for your patient!

Dress for activity

Since you courses are year round and you’ll be outside some of the time, you’ll need to bring clothing appropriate for the weather (heat/sunshine, cold etc.). Also, you will be involved in a number first aid scenarios, many likely on the ground. As such, you may wish to bring an insulated pad or crazy creek chair for your comfort during these scenarios. This course uses stage blood for realistic scenarios, which may stain some fabrics. So wear clothing you do not mind getting dirty/stained. The classroom environment generally lends itself to casual clothes and a pair of comfy shoes or slippers.  In summary, come equipped with a light daypack, your lunch and snack food, comfortable clothes, and enough insulation to keep you warm during the outside scenarios in colder weather.

Next Steps?

There is also a longer course, Wilderness First Responder (WFR), for folks who already know something about first aid and want to take their skills to a whole new level. If so, checkout the NOLS WILDERNESS FIRST RESPONDER (WFR) Course.


Remember that Wilderness First Aid matters! Not only for someone in your own party, or somebody else you come by that needs help—but also potentially yourself. You might think it will never happen to you our your group, but it can. And if it does, knowing those skills can literally mean the difference between life and death.

The Ultralight Backpacker’s Guide to Leave No Trace

Want to practice good Leave No Trace (LNT) but keep your pack ultralight? No problem, this guide gives you some think-outside-the-box, ultralight (UL) options for LNT. It also covers areas of caution where UL backpackers need to pay special attention with regard to LNT. As such, this Ultralight Backpacker’s Guide to Leave No Trace covers specific UL gear and techniques that will keep the wilderness looking like wilderness & your pack weight low!

Lead photo: Thinking outside the box, a simple 10 oz. bivy sack might be your lightest and best LNT option. You can easily camp on ideal durable surfaces like this slickrock in Utah (which is great LNT!). In addition it’s super fast & easy to setup & take down. In contrast, many popular ultralight tents & shelters rely on numerous stakes and guy-lines for support and therefore are extremely difficult to pitch on solid rock! [Photo Alan Dixon]

Why Leave No Trace?

Standing atop Ryan’s Peak in the blazing heat of Joshua Tree National Park, I looked south over the vast desert of Joshua trees. The wind on the peak was the only sound as I happily chatted with my hiking partner on the way to the top. At the summit, we were alone, and it was easy to imagine we were explorers in a new land – the first eyes to look on the desert below.

Far too often that magic moment is suddenly shattered when we see a strip of toilet paper waving about from under a nearby rock.


The good news is that it isn’t difficult or a lot of work to dramatically reduce our impact when we hike or backpack. And it can be ultralight. With just a little effort, we can leave places just as we find them, and preserve magic moments for those that come after us — the essence of LNT. In summary, this article will give Ultralight Backpackers some of the gear and skills to be LNT ambassadors.

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

Keep that TP and poop from poking out of a shallow hole! An Ultralight Backpacker’s Caution: Using the heel of your shoe or a stick, it is very difficult to impossible to dig a correct LNT cathole. Better to carry the right UL tools for the job! Right: an 1.5 oz ultralight potty kit – Deuce of Spades Potty Trowel, minimal TP, and small (1/2 oz) bottle of Purell allow for good LNT Waste Disposal. Left: a “Wag bag” is a light sanitary solution for when regulations require you carry EVERYTHING out.

The Ultralight Backpacker’s Guide to Leave No Trace

This guide focuses only on select areas of LNT specific to Ultralight Backpacking. Specifically, options are proposed to keep pack weight low, or cautions (in red) where standard ultralight gear or practices might need to be modified for good LNT. As such, this is NOT an exhaustive treatise of all LNT guidelines. For a complete listing of the all 7 principles of Leave No Trace see the Appendix.

6 Select Areas of LNT Specific to Ultralight Backpacking

  1. A Table of Select Ultralight Gear for Leave No Trace
    and then the specific topic areas of
  2. Food Storage: Bear Canisters & Ursacks vs. Bear Bag Hanging in a Tree.
    (Or why hanging your food in a tree is not great.)
  3. Sanitation and Human Waste Disposal
  4. Low Impact Camping – Tents and Other Shelters (sometimes a challenge for Ultralight Backpackers)
  5. Low Impact UL Backpacking Footwear
  6. Respect Wildlife with a Long Zoom Camera — phone cameras get you do damn close!

1. Table of Select Ultralight Gear for Leave No Trace

Sanitation and Potty Needs
Deuce of Spades Potty Trowel0.6$20Lightest effective trowel for digging catholes to bury human waste. See LNT Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly
Zerogram Cathole Trowel 1.0$5Nice light stainless steel trowel. Great value.
GSI cathole Trowel2.9$5Low-cost, readily available. More comfortable handle but heavy.
Wag bag2.5$3When reg’s require you carry EVERYTHING out! e.g. Mt Whitney
Bears — LNT Food Storage
Note: Bear canisters and the Ursack are as easy as it gets to effectively protect your food vs. the far more difficult and less effective method of hanging a bear bag (see below)
Ursack S29.3 Bear Bag7.8$80Game changer! Same benefits as a bear canister but 5x lighter and much less bulky in your pack. Caution: Still pending approval in a few parks, e.g. Yosemite & Sequoia Kings Canyon.
Bear Vault BV500 canister41$80Low cost.  Approved by almost all areas. Readily available.
Wild-Ideas Weekender31$288Lightest bear canister approved in most parks. Pricy tho.
Hang a Bear Bag
(traditional, e.g PCT method)
like MLD Pro Bear Bag Sys.
4.1$10 to
Low cost & low weight. Not great for areas with bear problems. Time consuming & difficult to do correctly. Finally, by the time you hang it so bears can’t get it—you may not be able to get it.
 Aloksak OP Sak 12.5″ x 20″1.0$6Use with all methods for less food scent & animal attention
Tents for LNT
REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent53$349Lower cost freestanding tent with minimal staking needs. Easier to setup on hard, durable LNT surfaces like rock.
Big Agn. Copper Spur HV UL 244$450A lighter but more expensive freestanding tent.
Zpacks™ Duplex Flex Tent33$7252 lb freestanding shelter! Crazy light. Pricy! (I haven’t tested it.)
Think Outside the Box LNT Shelter Options
Bivy Sack: Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight 1 per or 2 per8$175Low cost, low weight, no stakes. Fits into small areas where tents won’t. (may need to supplement with a UL tarp)
Hammock: Hennessy or Dutchware8 to 32$40 to med.Great LNT. No ground contact. Expands campsite options into the woods. Many low weight. See: 7 Reasons Why Hammock Camping is Fantastic – How To Get Started
For Minimal Ground Damage Hiking — Light Shoes with low profile tread & soft soles
Trail running shoes: Altra Superior or Altra Lone Peak18$110Great shoes with soft soles and minimal tread. Light. Huge toe room. Super comfortable!
Brooks Cascadia Shoes24$130 Slightly heaver and stiffer option with a snugger fit.
Respect Wildlife with a Long Zoom Camera  — phone cameras mean you will have to get too damn close!
Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70 super zoom camera11$480Low weight. Long, 720mm zoom lens brings wildlife to you. 25x further away than an iPhone!
Many compact zoom cameras 8?A 120 mm zoom keeps you 4x further away than an iPhone

2. Food Storage: Bear Canisters & Ursacks vs. Bear Bag Hanging in a Tree

Caution area for ultralight backpackers. Bear bag hangs, while light, are likely NOT the best option. An Ursack or Bear canister is likely better. Where allowed, Ursack S29.3 Bear Bag is the lightest, simplest and most effective choice. And, both the Ursack and canisters are also much faster and easier to use than a bear bag hang.

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

A bear canister like the BV-500 (L) or an Ursack (R) are the most reliable way to protect your food. In addition they are much easier and faster to use with fewer mistakes/failures vs. hanging a bear bag in a tree. And the sad truth is that by the time you hang a food bag in a tree so bears can’t get it, it is extremely likely that you won’t be able to get it down either!

The fastest, easiest and most effective way is to store your food in a bear canister. And a number of bear canisters are approved for food storage in almost all US parks. Bear canisters such as the (41 oz) Bear Vault BV500 Food Container (canister) canister seal tightly with a double locking mechanism for smart bears and small rodents. They also make great camp stools!

Where allowed by regulations, our first choice would likely be the much lighter and also quite effective alternative Ursack S29.3 Bear Bag. At only 7.8 oz. it is 5x lighter than the BV-500, less bulky and takes up far less pack space. Ursacks are literally bulletproof—even if a bear gets to your bag, it won’t be able to tear through to your food. The downside is that the Ursack is still not approved in a few National Parks like Yosemite and Sequoia Kings Canyon. And, if a bear does get a hold of an Ursack, it is possible (probable) the food inside might get a bit squashed.

Note: it is also possible for bears to batter rigid bear canisters and seriously damage the food if given time to get into the container. Or, since a canister isn’t anchored to a tree like the Ursack, if given time they can roll the bear canister to an area where you’ll never find it. Per the Sequoia & Kings Canyon page on Wilderness Food Storage: “You can often scare bears away by making loud noises and throwing objects before they get to your food. Be bold, but keep a safe distance and use good judgment. Never attempt to retrieve food from a bear. Never approach a bear or get near a cub.

Hanging a Bear Bag

If the section above about Ursacks and canisters hasn’t convinced you, and if wilderness regulations permit, you may consider Hanging a Bear Bag in a tree. For better (or possibly worse) hanging food in bags out of reach of wildlife is an extremely common practice. Unfortunately, as hanging bear bags continues, bears and other wildlife are getting better and better at beating the bag. Bears have been known to cut them down or cooperate with each other to reach these bags. The irony of bear bagging is that when done properly, humans as well as animals struggle to retrieve the food inside. If you still want to hang a bear bag, there are a couple of things to consider:

  1. Do your research on the areas you’ll camp in to make sure there will be something to hang your bear bags from. It’s really hard to hang a bear bag in the desert or on coniferous pines.
  2. Decide which bear bag technique you want to use ahead of time. The PCT method and the double rope method are both effective in bear country.
  3. For more reading see Leave No Trace on Hanging a Bear Bag

3. Sanitation and Human Waste Disposal

Caution to UL Backpackers: the heel of your shoe, stick or another found object are NOT great tools to dig a deep enough or large enough cathole to properly bury human waste. Do yourself and other hikers a favor and carry a good potty trowel. How can you argue with a UL Potty Trowel that weighs only 0.6 oz!?

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

At 0.6 oz, the Deuce of Spades is one of the best and lightest potty trowels for UL backpackers.

Another UL potty trowel is the 1.0 oz, stainless steel Zerogram Cathole Trowel.

Catholes and Potty Trowels

For every well-travelled campsite in the backcountry, there’s likely a space close by dotted with exposed toilet paper “blooms” and torn up moss. A common backcountry pooping practice, catholes can be easy and effective if used properly, but disruptive and harmful when poorly executed. For lightweight backpackers interested in catholing, the Deuce of Spades Trowel and the Zerogram Cathole Trowel are excellent potty trowel options.

The basic standards for backpacking human waste disposal are listed below (excerpted from: LNT Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly)

  1. Catholes must be 200 feet from trails and flowing water
  2. Catholes should be 6x6x6 inches in soil rich in organic material
  3. Accelerate the decomposition process by stirring with a stick before filling in the hole.
  4. You may need to carry out used toilet paper (but “Natural TP” is always OK). And it may be acceptable to bury certain types TP in your cathole in certain environments. But in unsuitable areas like the arid desert, the best practice is to carry your TP out. And it not a good idea to burn your TP. For more on TP use see: LNT Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly

When Regulations Require you Pack EVERYTHING Out!

In some areas, catholes are not acceptable as wilderness bathrooms. This is because, either the soil lacks bioactivity to break down feces, or because high traffic overwhelms the capacity of a space to accommodate everyone’s restroom needs. In these situations, hikers are obligated to pack it out. Some examples are the Grand Canyon, Mt. Whitney area in California, and Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon in Utah. In this case, The $3 – CleanWaste Wag Bag,  RESTOP Wilderness Waste Containment Pouch and Biffy Bags are all effective and lightweight options for these trips. They can be used repeatedly and are leak proof.

4. Low Impact Camping – Tents and Other Shelters

Caution for UL backpackers. Many popular UL tents and shelters may NOT be a good option for camping on hard durable surfaces like rock, or even very hard and/or rocky soils. This is where you can think outside the box about your shelter.

Where to Camp for LNT

First, if there are approved and established campsites the park wants you to camp at, use them as your first and best campsite option rather than finding your own. Otherwise, follow these 3 critical goals when finding an ideal LNT campsite:


  1. Follow the 200 Rule: Highly impactful backpacking moments like cooking, sleeping, and pooping and sensitive environments like rivers and trails should be kept at least 200 feet from each other.
  2. Camp on the most durable surfaces possible. Slick rock and pine duff are good examples.
  3. Find how you fit into the environment: “Good campsites are found, not made.” That is, don’t cut away brush, dig trenches, pull out large rocks, bend down small trees or otherwise modify an area to fit your tent. When you leave, your campsite should look exactly as you found it.


Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 tent at ~3 lb is a good UL choice for LNT: The main tent body is supported by poles and can be pitched without stakes on hard, durable surfaces like rock. [You may need a few rocks to anchor the rain fly tie-outs.]

Durable surfaces are almost by definition hard and difficult to get stakes into—and it’s impossible to get stakes into rock. Certain ultralight shelters that depend on many stakes and guy-lines (non-freestanding tents, tarps, pyramid shelters, etc.) struggle on the most durable surfaces (e.g. slickrock) because they can’t be staked out. Alternatively, freestanding tents, those whose structure is supported solely with poles, e.g. the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL  2 tent or REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent offer greater versatility in choosing where to sleep, since they can be pitched on hard/durable surfaces with no stakes or a minimum of stakes anchored with rocks.

Bivy Sack – A Very Light, Outside the Box LNT Option

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

Only 10 oz (1/4 the weight of the tent above) a bivy sack is a super fast, super easy way to practice LNT camping. You can camp on the hardest of surfaces like this slickrock, but without the need for stakes. Setting it up and taking it down is a breeze. In addition, a bivy sack takes up the smallest area allowing you to squeeze into sites that would far too small for a tent.

Hammock Camping – Another UL, Outside the Box LNT Option

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

Sunrise hammock camping along the AT. Note that the hammock is directly over a sloping area covered with large rocks that would be un-campable with a tent.

Hammocks offer a fantastic LNT alternative to ground-based shelters like tents; there is no contact with sensitive terrain or wet ground. Also, hammocks can be used where durable terrain isn’t flat enough for an on-ground shelter like a tent. When camping with a hammock, it’s easy to avoid impacting trees, just use wide tree-straps 1″ to 1.5″. Almost all backpacking hammocks are sold with this type of strap. For more see Leave No on Hammock Camping.

5. Low Impact UL Backpacking Footwear

Think outside the box hiking shoes: Alan used very low profile tread, 9 oz UL “road running” shoes (Brooks Pureflow)  on a 100 mile technical canyoneering trip (Escalante Overland Route), and to hike multiple 30+ days on the AT. Although they are called “road running” shoes, they obviously work great for backpacking, even on technically challenging terrain and wading.

Hiking on trail, ultralight backpackers have an LNT advantage. Using a very light set of gear like this  9 Pound Full Comfort UL Backpacking Gear List, ultralight hikers can move away from heavy, ankle supporting, deep-lugged boots to lighter, ecologically friendly shoes with low profile tread. These are great for minimizing the weight of footsteps and reducing ecological damage. If your pack is light enough, consider wearing trail running shoes with low profile treads like the Altra Superior Trail Running Shoes or the sturdier Lone Peaks. Most truly lightweight shoes implement low profile treads into their design, so finding the right low-trail-impact shoe shouldn’t be a challenge.

Two great ultralight backpacking shoes for LNT: (Left) The 9 oz Brooks PureFlow “road running” shoes. The minimal tread on the Pureflows works quite well almost all surfaces. On the (Right) the more mainstream, 10 oz. Altra Lone Peak Trail Running Shoes (R).

Travel on Durable Surfaces

Caution: Backpackers who travel off trail (and there are a number of UL’ers who do) must hold themselves to the highest standards of LNT hiking. Off trail treks through sensitive areas leads to degradation and development of trails—the end of off trail hiking in the area. But Ultralight backpackers are doubly fortunate in meeting this standard as lighter packs and higher energy allows them to find and navigate more durable terrain.

Durability is a key concept when deciding where to hike. Stay on established trails whenever possible. When off-trail, backpackers should spend as much time as possible on durable surfaces like rock, gravel, sand, mud, firm grasses on dry ground and temporary terrain like snow. And scrupulously avoid sensitive surfaces like wet meadows, biological crusts, and delicate vegetation.

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

The rut of the John Muir Trail on the left as it goes through the fragile meadows of Lyell Canyon. It is hardly Leave No Trace and besides being an eyesore it has significant environmental impact. Meadows and other wet areas are example of surfaces that are neither hard or durable. They are easily damaged by even moderate walking. The current convention is to route trails around meadows bogs and other fragile areas. This what the Yosemite Conservancy is doing with the John Muir Trial, rerouting it to higher ground above the meadows. Photo: courtesy the Yosemite Conservancy. Check out their site to learn more.

6. Respect Wildlife with a Long Zoom Camera

Caution to UL backpackers and anybody else photographing wildlife with cell phone cameras: In keeping with LNT Principle 6, Respect Wildlife, you should keep respectful distance from wild animals. A common pitfall is to try and get way too close with the wide angle lenses common on almost all phone cameras. Obviously you could get seriously injured, as in the recent fatal bear attack in West Milford, NJ.

Using a telephoto lens to photograph wildlife: A telephoto lens brings wildlife to you. Here Alan is filling the camera frame with a telephoto lens. And it makes sense to lie on the ground, or conceal yourself behind rocks or vegetation, and move slowly to keep you presence discreet and not alarm wildlife. You’ll get better photos too! [photo: Colby Brown]

Wilderness photography is an important part of hiking for some ultralight backpackers. And a great photo of moose, rare bird or other animal can be a trip making experience. With that said, backcountry photography has its place in the LNT guidelines. Animals acquainted with humans lose their fear causing them to encroach into more populated areas endangering humans and themselves. As such, telephoto lenses for photography should be used to put distance between yourself and animals.

A few very light telephoto camera options are:

  • Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70 super zoom camera: Low weight. Long, 720mm zoom lens brings wildlife to you. 25x further away than an iPhone!
  • Many inexpensive, compact zoom cameras have a 100mm to 120 mm equivilent zoom, which keeps you 4x further away than an iPhone. (Chances are, you may already own one.)

For more information on backpacking cameras and lenses see the Best Backpacking Cameras 2017 list and the 5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera.

Appendix – Reference

Developed in the 1960s by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Leave No Trace principles were first designed to minimize the environmental and ecological impacts of outdoor activity in state parks. Even then with far fewer hikers than today, hikers & backpackers were having profound & long lasting negative impacts on beautiful areas. LNT is well known in outdoor circles thanks to decades of work by the Leave No Trace Organization. The original guidelines were outlined by the Forest Service in seven critical principles to leaving the path behind you unchanged.

The 7 principles of Leave No Trace

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

The brilliance of these guidelines is that they are universal & can be implemented regardless of budget, equipment, or experience. With that said, certain outdoor communities must lead the way as standard bearers & LNT innovators. Ultralight Backpackers have the skill & commitment necessary to fulfill this role as LNT ambassadors.


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.