Nine pounds of backpacking gear is all a hiker needs to be safe and warm. So, if you want to reduce pack weight without reducing comfort, look no further! The hiking gear in this guide is suitable for all 3-season conditions on trips around the world
This post takes the BS & mystery out of finding the right camera. A camera that meets YOUR needs & YOUR budget. And you don’t need an expensive camera to take superb backpacking photos. Some of the best lightweight backpacking and hiking cameras cost far less than you think. You might already own one!
Looking to reduce backpack weight to the absolute minimum? Then you’ve come to the right place. This ultralight backpacking gear list has the lightest possible gear that still makes practical sense.
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.
- Best time to go: mid-March to May | mid-September to October (or even November)
- Special skills needed: This post covers much of what you need to know. It includes tips on how to purify and best manage your water in a dry desert environment (don’t stress it’s not that bad!).
- Navigation: Explains how canyon navigation is different from regular hiking/backpacking and what you’ll need to know.
- Special gear needed: While there is no need for ropes or climbing equipment, our section on the Right Gear will make canyon travel easier and safer. And there’s a section on desert canyon clothing tips, including sand resistant shoes that are also good for wading.
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.
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:
- Canyon travel can be technical and non-technical – This 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.
- 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).
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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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!
- Guidebooks to get you started – Steve 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.
- 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!)
- 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!!
- 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!
- 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.]
- 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!
- What a technical canyoneering trip looks like: A Very Different High Route | Escalante Overland Route
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.
When you haven’t backpacked in months & months, getting your systems dialed back in can be overwhelming and challenging. Between gear, food and logistics, it’s easy to lose track of things. But with these 12 tips for your first backpacking trip of the year you’ll quickly find your stride and confidence. A successful first trip of the season awaits you!
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12 tips for your first backpacking trip of the year – make it easy – have fun!
Getting ready for a backpacking trip is not rocket science or brain surgery. Use the following tips to make it a lot easier to pack and get out on that first backpacking trip of the year. And this is supposed to be fun — even the pre-trip preparation!
1. Pack to a Gear List!
There are any number of good checklists for bringing the right gear. Print one out and use a pencil to check off each item. If you have a spare room (or even the living room) lay things out clearly in groups; sleeping gear (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad) in one area, clothing in another, cooking gear in another, etc. When it’s laid out like this I find it substantially easier to make sure I have exactly what I need.
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:
- Cheap Lightweight Backpacking Gear
- REI Member Rewards Event: Members save 20% on one full-price item and one REI Garage item
- Campsaver.com: Huge Spring 20/20 Sale. Save 20% Around The Site Coupon Code 4UTWNTY
- or full time discounters like Sierra Trading Post
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.
- Best Backpacking Food | simple and nutritious – great food ideas as well as nutrition guidelines
- Backpacking Food List for 7 days – easily adjusted to a 2 or 3 day early season trip
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
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.
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.)
- For weather weenies: the NOAA hourly weather graph is among the most informative & accurate
- Weather Underground has one of the best & easiest to understand 10-day forecasts.
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.
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.
- How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS
- 10 hacks and accessories for better smartphone hiking photography
- Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT?
- Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear
- Best Backpacking Cameras 2018
Always Bring a Backup Battery!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.]
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.
- Top Mistakes Using the Layering System – How to Stay Warmer and Drier
- Rain Jacket Durability | How to Select the Best Durable Rain Jacket
- Guide to Lightweight Down Jackets and Pants for Backpacking
- The Art of Sleeping Warm | A Guide to Sleeping Bags and Quilts
- Why You Won’t Freeze or Starve Backpacking
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.
This article proposes a more realistic 13 Essentials that will better keep the modern hiker safe. This is because the Classic 10 Essentials (first proposed in the 1930’s) need an update for the 21st Century given the realities of a modern day hiker.
- First, a major conceptual trap of the traditional 10 Essentials is that they are all gear. I would counter that the two most important “essentials” are actually skill and knowledge items: 1) good trip planning and 2) the skill of staying found.
- Second, why should there be only 10?
- Third, why do none of the 10 Essentials take advantage of 21st century technology?
- And finally, some 10 Essentials are a bit arcane & don’t match the skills & habits of the modern hiker.
Lead photo: A “freak” summer blizzard in the Wind River Range. I was super grateful to have all my warm clothing, a bivy sack and 1/2 lb tarp. And even more appreciative I had the skills and knowledge to use them.
The 13 Essentials for the Modern Hiker
My revised “essentials” are to help people be prepared for emergency situations outdoors. As such, it’s a good idea to bring them whenever you are in the backcountry—whether it’s just a long day hike, or a multi-day off-trail backpacking trip.
The following 13 Essentials favors a pragmatic approach to bringing the right gear. First and foremost, it relies on your best piece of gear, what’s between your ears.
1 Trip Plan
Use what’s between your ears. More problems arise from poor planning and lack of information about a hike than from not bringing the right gear. So, whether you’re day-hiking or backpacking you should:
- Do your research on hiking distances, trail conditions, campsites and water ability. Good examples of this type of research are: Map kiosks/Information Centers at major trailheads or park publications like the excellent Zion Park Map and Guide, or guide books. Much of this info is now online.
- Then make an honest/realistic estimate of how far you’ll hike each day. Be conservative. You don’t want to end up stranded somewhere because you only hiked ¾ of the distance you expected. And in case you end up short, have a backup camp area with a water source.
- Get a weather report for your trip and then plan and pack gear for those conditions! Since 90% of hikers or backpackers take 90% their trips for 3 days or or less, this weather report should be quite accurate. My favorite weather app for both smartphone and desktop is Weather Underground.
- And once on your trip, you also need to watch the weather and be prepared to deal with “freak” weather. This is especially true in high western mountains where a summer blizzard is always possible. Even the lower elevation Appalachian Mountains can have some cold and severe weather in the warmer months. Usually park info sites will let you know what sorts of extreme weather might be possible. [Note: This does not necessarily mean going overboard with gear—just taking the right gear.]
- Leave a copy of your trip intineary with someone. See: How to make and use a Trip Itinerary.
2 Staying Found
Staying Found is the key navigation skill that experienced navigators always use but never mention.
|The highly effective, “Staying Found” approach to navigation is within the capability of all hikers.|
Good navigators rarely get lost because they have a good idea (Trip Plan) in their head of where they are going and what to expect. That is, they are vigilant and observant while they hike—always comparing what they see on the trail against the plan in their head. They continually monitor their progress and check for upcoming trail junctions, lakes, stream crossings, a steep climb, a section of bog & other features to confirm that they are on the right track. If they stray, they quickly identify & correct it. You should do likewise. It’s your first and best navigation “tool.”
3 Navigation Tools (not always paper map and compass)
Important Note: I respectfully suggest that people read the Navigation Tools & Electronics Appendix carefully before commenting on this important topic. In particular, it covers the strengths and weaknesses of navigational tools, their proper use and the ways they can fail (yes, map & compass can “fail” too).
For Navigation – Take the tools you can actually use!
The first question that requires an honest answer is, “what navigational tools can I actually use?” Like having a bicycle but not knowing how to ride it, navigational tools (like a compass or USGS topographic map) without the knowledge to use them properly are not tremendously useful. It might even be dangerous if your are relying on them to navigate and keep you safe, but under false assumptions about your skills.
Topographic Map and Compass
If you are skilled with a map and compass, then take them. They are reliable, light, effective, inexpensive and don’t require batteries, or cell phone signal [I bring them on every trip.]
Alternatives to Topographic Map and Compass
But if you aren’t confident using a topographic map and compass there are alternatives. You might consider using tools that you are more familiar with and easier to operate— ones that you can reliably use in the field. Two options are:
- A Simple Hiking Map like the Zion Park Map and Guide and using Staying Found Navigation as described above. This is your first and best strategy even when you bring other navigational tools!
- A Smartphone GPS App with dowloaded, Off-line Maps that does not need cell signal! (A quick test with your phone in airplane mode can determine if your App & maps work offline.)
A Smartphone GPS App Might be a Better Navigation Tool for Some Modern Hikers
Many traditionalists insist that a paper topographic map & compass are mandatory. But frankly, many modern recreational hikers may not have the map and compass skills to be able to rescue themselves using them. But they do have a lot of practice and skill navigating with their smartphones. And practice and familiarity are the key for successful use of a navigational tool!
Therefore, properly used* a Smartphone GPS App might be a better option for some. [*Please see: Navigation Tools & Electronics Appendix for a caution and advice about using electronics in the backcountry, especially battery life management, backup batteries, and not relying on cell coverage.]
4 – Protection from Sun and Bug Transmitted Diseases, Like Lyme
In addition to sun protection, I am adding bug protection to your basic trail needs. 2017 is forecast to be the worst year for tick/Lyme disease, and it’s only going to get worse in other parts of the US. Other diseases like Zika are also on the rise.
Your first and best option for sun and bug protection is appropriate full-coverage clothing like this. While chemical/skin applied sunscreen and bug repellants work (Picaradin Lotion is the most effective and long lasting without the problems associated with DEET) they are not nearly as long lasting or effective as sun & insect protective clothing and a good sunhat. And yes, wear those sunglasses. For more reading, see my piece on the Best Clothing & Repellants to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika.
5 – Insulation (extra clothing)
My warm clothing gets used on almost every trip. A good Down Jacket has saved my ass on numerous occasions such as a freak snowstorm on a summit, where I needed to stay warm enough to hike down to shelter and warmth. It’s also essential to keep an injured person warm until help arrives. Other invaluable pieces of warm clothing are a light rain jacket, warm hat and gloves like these.
While backup clothing is good, it’s usually best to first make the most of the clothes you are actually wearing. Towards that end, here’s a good piece on how best to use the clothes you are wearing: Top Mistakes Using the Layering System – How to Stay Warmer and Drier.
6 – Headlamp – A Good One!
If an emergency retreat or exit is necessary, your headlamp should be bright enough and last long enough that you can safely hike and navigate all night. To do that, you need a seriously bright and long lasting headlamp— putting out a beam of 50-60+ meters for ~12+ hours. A headlamp like this is likely in the range of 3 to 4 ounces. Examples: Black Diamond Spot Headlamp (Note: you only need one this strong for a party of hikers. The others following behind the leader can use smaller lighter headlamps, e.g. Black Diamond Ion.) And a spare set of batteries is always an excellent idea.
7 – Emergency ShelterLight backpacking tarps (usually silnylon) make great emergency (and non-emergency) shelters. They provide tremendous protection from wind, rain and other precipitation. But make sure you have stakes and guylines for your tarp, and are practiced setting it up before your trip (having a pair of trekking poles to support the tarp provides you more options for pitching). And where you pitch a tarp makes a huge difference. Try and get out of the wind and into the shelter trees, rocks, etc. See more on selecting and using tarps. If you are backpacking, this could also be a light tent.
True bivy sacks like these also make good emergency shelters and even the light emergency bivy sacs are OK. I am not a big fan of the paper thin, mylar emergency blankets as they can’t really be staked out to provide a true shelter like a tarp. That being said, they are certainly better than nothing.
8 – First Aid Kit
I prefer to assemble my own 3 oz First Aid Kit (detailed list) as I can do a better job for less weight than pre-packaged ones. My kit includes bandages, tape, gauze, wound wipes, antibacterial lotion, and OTC med’s like Tylenol, Benadryl, Sudafed, Nexium, Imodium. I also carry some Rx meds like antibiotics. But you can also buy a pre-packaged First Kid Kit like one of these.
Most of the injuries I have treated have been scrapes and cuts (abrasions and lacerations) and all I had to do was stop the bleeding (direct pressure, always) and clean it up and dress the wound. I rarely get blisters since I train in the same shoes and socks that I backpack in. Even so, I carry Leukotape Tape and tincture of benzoin to treat hot spots and mild/early blisters.
9 – Hydration (prudent amount of extra water)
Yes, bring a prudent amount of extra water because human beings don’t do well without it. For hiking in the desert, extra water would likely be right after Navigation Tools on the essentials list. But for most hiking and backpacking in the US, water is usually available every few hours. With a filter like the Sawyer Squeeze you can drink immediately at water sources. This means both quick, effective hydration/purification and less water to carry. An even lighter alternative (and backup system for a filter) are Water Treatment Tablets.
You may be drinking more water than you need: The healthiest hydration strategy is to drink when thirsty. The saying “If you are thirsty, it’s already too late” and “If your urine is yellow, you are dehydrated” are myths. In fact, over hydration (hyponatremia) is becoming more of a risk than dehydration. I’ve extensively researched this topic with experts in sports hydration here: “The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty.”
10 – SOS Device (satellite based, like inReach or SPOT)
This is #10 because as noted earlier, prevention (having a plan, intelligently executing it), & having the right stuff (items 3 through 9) is your first & best way to stay out of trouble.
But even with the best planning and execution, stuff like a serious fall, an on-trail appendicitis, serious concussion, or a heart attack can happen. A SOS Tracking Device is the best and most reliable way to summon help in such an emergency. Two-way devices like a Garmin inReach allow you to get medical advice to care for and treat the injured party before help arrives. And they are a big help to arrange/coordinate a helicopter rescue potentially saving a life. For one thing, the EMTs know the exact nature of the emergency and come fully prepared. Read more on selecting SOS/Tracking Devices and their use.
Note: Another benefit of two-way devices like a Garmin inReach is to get in-the-field weather reports.
11 – Nutrition
[Note: for a long day hike, 1 to 1.5 pounds of this nutritious food should work for most people]
It makes sense to bring an appropriate daily amount of food that is high in nutritional value and low in weight. (See: “How much daily food should I take?“) But unlike water, your body can go without food for much longer. Therefore, going overboard on too much extra food vs. a prudent amount is a trade off. Think of what other more useful gear for your safety you could bring for that same weight. For example, more warm clothes, a better shelter or an SOS device might contribute more to your safety. That being said, my favorite (extra/backup) foods are usually a high calorie energy bar, and homemade mix of dried fruit, nuts, and a few dark chocolate M&Ms. They are simple, fast, and don’t require cooking.
12 Repair Kit and Tools
While a repair kit is nice to have, I’m not sure it is a true essential. But it’s light so no big deal. I maintain my gear, inspect it before each trip and then treat it with care on the trail. Therefore, while I do carry a small repair kit, I rarely use it. And when I do it’s not for what I would consider an “essential” repair.
I carry a small pair of school scissors (technically part of my first aid kit) which are far more useful than a knife and they can be transported on an airplane. I also have duct tape, needle and dental floss, a few cable ties and a small tube of krazy glue and one of Aquaseal, along with a some Gear Aid Tenacious Tape. All together they weigh less than 3 ounces. For non-do-it-yourself folks, Gear Aid also has a nice pre-packed Repair Kit altho I wouldn’t take all of the items. And if you own a NeoAir sleeping pad, consider NeoAir patch kit.
13 – Fire (lighter/matches/fire-starters)
While I do carry these fire starting items, they are last on this list. To this point, in over 40 years of hiking I have yet to use them in a dire emergency situation. Yes, I have started a fire a few times (where legal) to warm up and dry out a lot faster than getting into my sleeping bag in dry clothes—but this was more a comfort and convenience than an emergency. In contrast I’ve used my warm down jacket and my tarp a number of times for what I would consider to be an emergency or close to it. But my favorite fire starters, a lighter and energy bar wrapper (mylar), are already packed every trip so I have them by default.
Appendix – Navigation Tools & Electronics
A Critical Caution for Electronic Items
Neither an electronic GPS App with maps, or a paper TOPO map will figure out the best off-trail route for you. In both cases you’ll need to understand what they show you. That is, you’ll need to be able to tell where things like impassible cliffs are, etc. And you still need to make in-field assessments of the best route while you hike off-trail.
Taking all this into account, electronic items are still serious tools that can do things that non-electronic tools cannot.
Pick the Right Navigation Tools for YOU!
I’ve used USGS 7.5′ Topo maps and a traditional compass to navigate for over 40 years. Much of this off-trail, in difficult to navigate areas. They worked then and they still work now. BUT that doesn’t mean a traditional compass is the best navigational tool for all people.
I suggest that there is no perfect navigation tool. All have strengths and weaknesses. In the end its a personal choice. Select the right tools for you—tools that you have the skills to use and meet the navigational requirements for your trip. And whatever tools you decide on, you do need to know how to use them AND you’ll certainly want to bring a backup.
Paper Maps & Compass
a) Can I “use” a map and compass?
This is the first thing you should consider when deciding on the right navigation system for you. For example, can you can orient your map and compass to true north (taking into account declination), always find your location on the map, take a bearing to a point you want to navigate to, and then use the compass to sight and follow that bearing, taking into account elevation contours (reading Topo lines) and other physical features depicted on the map to make an informed decision on the best route. If not, you might want to 1) learn how to really use a map and compass and/or 2) consider a smartphone GPS App (or even a traditional GPS unit if you already have one).
b) What if you want to learn how use a map and compass?
If you want to learn map and compass skills, great. But to keep your newly learned map & compass skills sharp and effective, you’ll need to use them on a frequent basis. [Note: after teaching many people map and compass navigation, I’ve noticed a low retention rate for those that don’t regularly practice their map & compass skills each year.]
c) All types of navigation tools can fail – even maps
Contrary to what most say, paper maps and traditional compasses can “fail.” First, as stated earlier, many people are not proficient with them. This is a failure of sorts since the map and compass won’t deliver their intended function—and there are no backups to fix this. In addition, maps are accidentally left on a rock, they easily blow away in the wind, they mysteriously creep out of pack and pants pockets, and they can get ruined by water. A couple of times a year I pick up somebody’s full map-set that I found in the middle of the trail. Finally, compasses can be lost, misplaced or damaged (yes, I’ve had clients break a compass).
Smartphone GPS AppsFor many, a smartphone GPS App with downloaded off-line maps (no cell signal needed) may be a good choice for navigation. Many people are already skilled navigating with their smartphone since they frequently do it in their daily lives. And practice and familiarity are the key for successful use of a navigational tool! In addition to being fast and easy to use, this is both low cost and low weight since people likely already own a smartphone. That is, people have one, can use it, and are already bringing it.
Smartphone GPS apps (and traditional GPS units) work far better in low visibility conditions like white out and in the dark. I have navigated off of more than a few complex summits in complete whiteout with a GPS.
Finally, a big advantage of the smartphone GPS App is the maps are free and instantly downloadable. You can get superbly detailed maps for your hike in a matter of minutes. I’ve downloaded them from my motel room. In contrast, getting and/or printing paper maps is far more costly, time consuming and cumbersome (USGS 7.5 min Topo map are harder and harder to get).
Electronic Navigation Tools are not as unreliable as “experts” claim
- In five years of intense backcountry use my close hiking partners and I have never broken an iPhone or the GPS App. We’ve taken our iPhones on numerous packrafting trips in Alaska, winter rafting down the Grand Canyon, technical Canyoneering in Utah, climbing in the Wind Rivers and the Sierras, long hikes in the U.S.A, Turkey, Australia, Europe, and a canoe trip down the length of the Mighty Mississippi River. All without incident. No failures. No dead batteries.
- But as a backup, at least one hiking partner carries another smartphone with GPS App & offline maps. (sometimes even an alternate App and mapset).
- We do not need cell signal to use our GPS App.
- We get around 7 days of use before we need to recharge it—see more about iPhone/smartphone battery management.
- And a light USB battery gets us a couple more charges if we need them. The same USB battery charges all our other electronics like headlamps, cameras, and Garmin inReach. See more about field batteries for recharging electronics.
Always Bring a Backup Battery!
It’s critical safety precaution to make sure your electronics are always available for use. My three favorite lightweight and high capacity USB backup batteries are:
Traditional GPS Units
Finally, traditional GPS Units like a Garmin Oregon run 16 hours on a single set of batteries that can be recharged. Assuming you don’t leave it on all the time, you could get weeks of use out of it before needing to recharge it or put in a new set AA batteries. These units are rugged and with reasonable care, difficult to damage in the field. But they are getting long in the tooth. The basic unit is quite expensive, where as you likely own a smartphone. And their internal maps are not as good as the ones for an App like GAIA GPS. Finally, any additional maps (beyond the pre-installed ones) are proprietary and very expensive. This only increases the already substantial investment into the unit itself.
Keep it simple, nutritious and save weight: I take inexpensive trail foods which are both tasty and nutritious. Specifically, foods that give you calories, protein, good fats, vitamins and other micro nutrients. This keeps you healthy and cruising along the trail with a spring in your step. Just as important are foods (and meals) that can be quickly prepared. My outdoor time is precious and I prefer to spend it hiking and enjoying my natural surroundings rather than food prep. What I show below incorporates all of these qualities and therefore is “the best backpacking food.”
Quick Links to Best Backpacking Food Resources on this Site
What types of food should I take?
- I minimize freeze-dried backpacking food (but do use some like this). Be sure to read the labels carefully. Compared to homemade, many freeze dried foods while easy, are expensive, low on nutrition, & have tons of sodium.
- Instead, I prefer healthy, natural foods: dried fruit & vegetables, nuts, whole grains like these tasty crackers, soybean jerky (veggie protein), vegetable oils, nut butters, whole-fat powdered milk, etc.
- Therefore, while it takes a bit more upfront time, I mostly make my own uncomplicated & delicious meals out of the same heathy ingredients. Meal Recipe are here.
- Finally, I do take some “healthier” energy bars like PROBARs.
How much food should I take?
It is actually quite straight forward. Here is primer on: “How to calculate your pounds of food per day.” You can probably save more weight on food than almost anything if you follow the primer!
- My nutritious food weighs about 30% less than a typical backpacker’s food. This could save me 5 pounds or more of food on a trip (my 11 lbs of food for a 7-day trip vs. a typical backpacker’s 16 lbs).
- How many pounds of food per day?
- Although it may vary, the short answer is around 1.5 lb/day for 2-5 day shorter mileage trips. The majority of the clients I guide for trips up to 5 days get by fine on around 1.5 lb/day.
- The slightly longer answer is 1.4 to 1.7 lb/day for backpackers covering 10+ miles a day or for trips up to a week long.
- A good target to balance calories and nutrition is 120 to 125 calories per ounce of food. In comparison, most backpackers don’t average above 100 cal/oz for their food.
- Maintain nutrition: Try to get the most calories per weight in your food but not at the expense of a poor diet. You want a balance of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins & other nutrients.
Some quick ways to reduce food weight – but still eat healthy!
- Take calorie dense but nutritious food. As noted, food at 125 calories per ounce will weigh 30% less than a typical backpacker’s food for the same calories and probably has better nutrition.
- Don’t carry extra food: The standard advice to carry an extra day of food is not as set in stone as others profess. I figure I can make it at least 3 days without any food. (I’ve had to do this before and feel comfortable with my choice.) This is not a recommendation for others to do the same. You’ll have to make your own decision on extra food. Maybe bring just a bit less extra food on your next trip.
- How to “Skip” one day of food: I eat a huge breakfast or lunch before I start hiking the first day and I eat a huge meal when I get out. By boosting my off trail calories on the first and last day I eliminate carrying a whole day’s worth of food in my pack. So for a weekend trip (three days and two nights) I might carry 3 to 4 pounds of food. That’s about 1/2 the weight of the standard recommendation of 2 lb per day + an extra day’s food = 8 pounds.
Getting protein is always a challenge on the trail. A creative strategy of cheese, powdered milk, powdered soy protein, nuts, whole grains, dried beans and the healthier high-protein trail/energy bars (and dried meats if you aren’t veggie) will get you most of the way there.
- Veggie Protein – A creative strategy of:
- Almond butter in backpacking convenient pouches, or in plastic jars from Costco or Trader Joe’s. Or other nut butters.
- cheese, powdered milk, powdered soy protein, soy jerkies (Primal & Stonewall)
- freeze dried beans and rice (or rice and bean meals),
- high protein energy bars (Cliff, ProBar and others)
- and whole grains should get you most of the way to balanced protein for your trip.
- Vegan Protein – Pretty much the same as veggie above, less the cheese and powdered milk while checking other food ingredients to make sure animal products haven’t been slipped in.
- Omnivore Protein – I don’t consume a lot of meat at home (but do not wish to proselytize my choice to others). But on the trail, for food variety and to get some extra protein I have succumbed to taking some
The protein in these meats along with cheese will complement the proteins in grains (rice, grape nuts, crackers, grains in energy bars, etc.) and other vegetable protein sources like soy and dried beans. Many dried meats like the hard-dry salami are also high in fat, increasing your calories per ounce.
What types of food should I take for each meal?
- GORP: In the past, my basic food was the old standby GORP. Today, I custom mix my own, getting most of my ingredients from Trader Joe’s (TJ’s) and the bulk bins of my local food coop. When hiking with others I mix to their specifications. Feel free to get creative with your GORP!
- Un-mixed GORP fixings: Now, more often than not, I take my GORP unmixed. Some favorites are whole raw almonds and walnuts, organic Thompson seedless raisins (TJs) unsweetened dried mango, apricots, papaya (all unsweetened & unsulfured) dried apricots, sweetened and unsweetened nuts, and honey sesame sticks (all from TJ’s, also found in natural food stores and food coops).
- Honey sesame sticks: are 150 calories per ounce and a staple of my backpacking food (reliably from Whole Foods and online). I sometimes mix 50/50 with candied nuts (many nut options from TJ’s) for variety.
- Peanut M&M’s (or even better almonds) are still great. Cheap, melt proof, and available almost everywhere (even on the GR20 in Corsica!) they are tasty, high in calories, easy to pack and eat. The advent of the dark chocolate version of the plain M&M’s into my GORP has changed the way I think about GORP.
- Energy Bars: The best energy bars are compact and have reasonable caloric density and nutrition. They are easy to procure, no effort to pack, and easily unwrapped and eaten on the trail (even while hiking). They are expensive though. I like many varieties of Pro Bars, Kind Bars and Lara Bars. These have healthy, natural ingredients, less sugars and good nutrition. The Pro Bars and Kind Bars are close to 125 calories per ounce.
- Protein Bars: Recently to increase my trail protein, I have been taking some higher protein versions of energy bars like ProBar’s Base Protein Bars or Cliff Builder’s Protein Bars (usually enhanced with soy protein). There are other manufacturers making good protein bars.
- Nut Butters (peanut or almond butter–a personal favorite, from TJs or Costco) significantly boost caloric density. They are cheap and easy to pack. They are also a healthy fat, especially the almond butter. Get them in the healthier, un-hydrogenated variety. If you get them in a plastic jar you can take them on a plane or put them directly in your pack without having to repackage. They can also be added to hot meals, making a lovely Asian style sauce.
- *Soy jerky: soy jerkies (Primal & Stonewall) 1) Stonewall’s Jerquee (the overs and unders for a discount) and 2) a the moister Primal Strips Vegan Jerky. Soy jerky is not the highest in calories but it is veggie, tasty, and adds protein. Meat eaters may choose hard salami or meat jerky.
- Dried Meats: For those that are not veggie, dried meats are another option for protein and food variety. I take meat jerky (my favorites are Bison Jerky and Turkey Jerky online or from TJs) and/or hard, dry salami (I take locally made salami without nitrates). Pacific Gold brand Beef and Turkey jerky that Costco sells doesn’t have a bunch of additives. Much cheaper than alternate sources.
- Tuna in olive oil: Get the tuna in the plastic packages that is packed in olive oil . The olive oil adds calories and healthy fat. If you can’t find it, there is a more common canola oil version.
- Freeze dried meats and soy”meats”: The following protein sources can easily be added to most meals (your preference) (Soy) Textured Vegetable Protein – chicken flavor, and (Real meat) – freeze dried chicken or turkey (1 oz per serving).
- Vegetable Oils: Packets or small bottles of extra virgin olive oil (my favorite) or canola oil add healthy calories to my dinners. I usually add an ounce or two to most meals.
- Cheese: is a treat and adds calories, some protein and calcium. Note that cheese doesn’t keep as well as some other foods, we always eat the cheese first. Cheddar cheese is around 115 cal/oz and keeps better than other types. Parmesan is around 130 cal/oz and keeps very well. However, these are not healthy fats.
- Crackers or Dense Breads add whole grains. They are good vehicles for eating the nut butters and cheese for dried meats. Some crackers can be quite high in vegetable fat (good) and approach 130 calories per ounce. Dr. Kracker crackers online or at Whole Foods are high in fat and almost indestructible on trail. In France, I rediscovered Petit Beurre crackers that are delicious and high in calories. They go wonderfully with a strong cheese. Breads (and tortillas) have lower caloric density (higher water content and little fat), rarely getting over 85 calories per ounce. Use them sparingly for variety. When carrying a bear canister, tortillas are a favorite hiking substitute as they are more compact.
- Dried Fruits, e.g. Dried mango, un-sweetened/unsulfured add important fiber, variety, minerals and vitamins. I use them with some discretion since they are lower in calories per ounce (around 80 calories per ounce). I try to get ones that are un-sulfured and unsweetened, and preferably organic. If you are on a budget, Costco has huge bags of inexpensive, high quality mixed fruit. Unsweetened mango slices from TJs and unsweetened papaya from WF and food coops are favorites.
- Chocolate (as needed), to add fat and calories. I prefer small pieces of very dark chocolate (70% or higher–with nibs even better) for dessert. Chocolate lovers will understand.
- You can add Cocoa Nibs with your chocolate for a delicious crunch and a lot of phytonutrients.
- Whole Fat Powdered Milk: *Nestle Nido is a staple in my backpacking diet. This whole-fat powdered milk is 140 calories per ounce and tastes great. It can usually be found at Hispanic markets or online. I also use it to mix my own hot chocolate, as well as add it to breakfast cereals. Powdered milk is an animal protein that will complement vegetable proteins like soybeans and grains. And, it’s wonderful in coffee. In addition to the Nido, I add a scoop or two of Plain Soy Protein Powder (cheaper when you buy it at TJs!) for additional protein (vegan) in my breakfasts.
- Whole Grain Cereals: I usually alternate between two breakfast cereals mixed with Nestle Nido whole-fat powdered milk and soy protein powder.
- Grape Nuts or the similar Kashi Seven Nuggets in the morning with freeze dried strawberries or other dried or freeze dried fruits.
- Whole grain muesli (the high quality organic sort like Bob’s Red Mill Muesli) mixed with dried cherries, dates, strawberries and raspberries (dried or freeze-dried), dried blueberries, walnuts and almonds, etc.
Caffeine is important! Nothing can get folks grumpier and harder to get along with than not getting their caffeine the way they like it.
- Coffee: Those that prefer coffee may choose to use Starbucks VIA packets (which have pretty much taken over backcountry coffee). Downside to the VIA is that it is expensive, but can be as little as $0.72 per cup at Amazon! Via packets can also be found slightly discounted at *Costco in bulk packages.
- For better and less expensive coffee, although heavier and more fuss, use a *MSR MugMateTM Coffee/Tea Filter in a 16 oz mug (MLD 475 ml mug is my favorite). Pre-grind your coffee before the trip and package it into individual servings in ZipLok snack bags
- The brewing technique suspends the gold filter in the mug. From there, add the coffee then slowly pour boiling water in allowing it to drain through the filter with each pouring. At the end you will have water almost to the brim of the mug and the filter mostly submerged in the water. After 3-4 minutes slowly pull the filter out of the mug allowing it to fully drain. You may wish to top the cup up with more hot water after removing the filter. This will be a full rich cup of coffee similar to a french press.
- Tea: I make loose leaf tea, connoisseur style. See the Tea Section. Real tea doesn’t need to be ground, keeps longer, and is easier to cleanup (with the exception of SB Via). Tea bags are a less complicated alternative if they are in individually sealed envelopes, and are reasonably fresh.
- No Stove Caffeine: The no-stove alternative is chocolate-covered-coffee-beans. Yumm!
- For most meals try to make your own simple dinners based on ingredients like instant rice, freeze dried beans, whole wheat couscous (my favorite and from TJ’s), or instant mashed potatoes
- Freeze dried dinners can be tasty, but most are bulky, expensive, extremely high in sodium and low in caloric density. It is probably best to minimize their use on a trip unless
- 1) you really like them
- 2) want hot dinners, and/or
- 3) are very limited on time and inclination for pre-trip food prep
- If you need to take freeze dried meals, try to use the simpler meals that are lower in sodium and higher in fat (e.g. Backpackers Pantry Mac and Cheese). If I bring them, I will usually add freeze dried veggies from JustTomatoes.com to spice up meals and then add olive oil to boost the calories.
- If you are limited in pack volume (e.g. using a bear canister, or just a very full pack) freeze dried meals may not be a good choice. Taking them out of their Mylar packaging and putting them in quart, heavy duty, freezer baggies will help reduce volume. (Once you do this tho they will not keep for years like the mylar sealed ones.)
- Most of my dinners get a liberal dose of hot pepper flakes, or ground cayenne pepper. I also use Dave’s Insanity Sauce (Please be careful it is the only sauce ever banned from the National Fiery Food Show. The NYT calls it the hottest culinary experience known to man.)
- I rehydrate many of my meals by pouring hot water directly into a quart baggie that contains the dinner. I wait for 10-20 minutes and share the meal with my partner using long handled spoons. When you are done eating, zip up the baggie and KP is complete!
- If you are doing the rehydrate in the bag, you may consider a Anti Gravity Gear Cozy.
- Hot Chocolate: I make my own with Ghirardelli Double Chocolate mix and Nestle Nido. High in calories and delicious! [4 Tbsp cocoa mix + ~¼ cup Nido]
- I do not bring vitamin supplements. I believe that well selected foods should provide ample nutrition.
- Fresh food, although attractive, is not a good choice. It weighs a ton, and doesn’t keep well. I don’t take it, even for the first day.
- Canned foods. A disaster! Why carry a metal can around with you? Ultra low caloric density, and you have to carry the empty can back out. Ouch! The exception is tuna in foil packets but only if it is packed in oil.
Cooking and Stoves
- See: Best Backpacking Stove Systems for pro’s and cons of the best canister and best alcohol stove systems.
- For green reasons, I am not fond of non-refillable, non-recyclable canister stoves. When I solo on short trips, I may skip the stove, eat cold food and take caffeine pills for my morning buzz (or make a cold powdered milk and instant coffee shake). Not cooking limits my food choices but makes for speedy meals on the trail and simplifies pre-trip preparation.
- *Trail Designs Caldera Cone Stove System: Since the introduction of greener, easy to use, extremely efficient, and very light alcohol stoves, I have warmed to stoves and usually take one—even when I solo.
- One of the advantages of the Trail Designs Caldera is that I can light it and leave it unattended while I perform camp chores.
How to make Backcountry Tea (loose leaf, connoisseur style)
Any hiker can use these Efficient Backpacking Tips to get more time to do what they love best outdoors. Whether it’s covering more miles, extra time to enjoy the views, take photographs, fish, get some extra swimming in a lake or even (gasp!) a mid-afternoon nap.
Lead photo: 15,000 ft afternoon nap and photo time—Peruvian Andes, Cordillera Huayhuash
Efficient Backpacking Tips – Thru hiker tested
While some of these Efficient Backpacking Tips are my own habits, most are common sense tips that accomplished thru hikers have been using for years. Many thanks to my world-class thru hiker friends Andrew Skurka and Flyin’ Brian Robinson for insights on how they achieve the most miles every day.
Help to Better Hike Your Own Hike
Luckily, these tips work for all hikers—even mere mortal hikers (myself included) who are not focused on making 40 mile days. All of us can can use these Efficient Backpacking Tips to spend less time on mundane tasks and get more time each day to do what matters most. To Better Hike Our Own Hike—whatever that means to each of us.
1) On Trail – Efficient Backpacking Tips
Spend less time on mundane tasks and more time having fun
You likely spend far more time than you realize on trail stops for mundane tasks—making clothing adjustments, collecting and treating water, putting on sunscreen, accessing maps/trail guides, etc. By doing necessary tasks most efficiently and eliminating unnecessary ones, you might get most of that time back to do the things you love be it hiking a few more miles before dusk to reach your favorite campsite, or stopping midday to meditate on the glorious view from the rim of a canyon.
Why “short” stops rob you of time for fun
Perceptually, the time spent on “short” stops to do mundane tasks seems inconsequential. But it isn’t! When you tally up all those stops at the end of the day (say, with a GPS), you’ll likely find that you’ve spent at least 1 to 2+ hours stopped for various reasons. I have also done some observations of hiking with clients, and an average stop to take a pack off, find something, fiddle with it, put it in the pack again and start walking is around 4-6 minutes. And many people stop 2 to 3 x per hour.
If you do the math over an 8 hour hiking day, that’s 1.1 to 2.4 hours of stopped time—and that’s likely a conservative estimate. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend the time taking photos or getting a few more miles down the trail, than fiddling around with mundane tasks.
Organized Pockets. The more the better.
Well organized pockets are your best timesaving friend. The goal is to access everything you need during the day from your pack or pants pockets. This minimizes stopped/fiddle-with-gear time for mundane tasks and maximizes fun time. To do this, keep all the gear you need during a normal hiking day organized in pants and pack pockets where you can quickly find and access it.
Where I store my gear to save time
My goal is to access most of my essential gear while I walk—and if possible, even do tasks while I walk. For example, accessing food and eating it while I walk is pretty simple. Here’s my strategy for storing gear I may use during the day:
|L shoulder strap||Camera on a quick release bracket. I can take the camera off, shoot a photo and put it back in less than 10 seconds. Not only do I save time, I find that I get more photos and better photos vs. other camera storage methods. See my Best Backpacking Cameras and in particular the video of the bracket in action.|
|R shoulder strap||(when taken) Tracking Device, Garmin inReach or SPOT, in a shoulder strap pocket. This keeps the antennas free of my body for good reception and I can use it without stopping.|
|Rear lg. pocket||TP and hand-sanitizer, headlamp, rainwear, North Face 100 Glacier 1/4-Zip light fleece shirt, gloves, warm hat, larger 2 liter water bottle (full if I need additional storage), sunglasses case, spare maps and guidebook pages, stored flat in a gallon Ziplock freezer bag. Sometimes a small ditty bag with 1st aid, foot repair stuff, camera battery, etc.|
|R side pocket||1 Liter Platypus (or Sawyer) water bottle. I can grab it, drink & put it back while walking.|
|L side pocket||Day’s food in a quart Ziplock freezer bag, my Sawyer Squeeze water filter, alcohol stove fuel in this great Twin Neck Fuel Bottle (I don’t like to keep fuel inside my pack!).|
|R hip belt pocket||Some snack food like a bar and a small bag of gorp. See my: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious for more info on backpacking food and recipies.|
|L hip belt pocket||Sunscreen, bug spray in pocketable 0.5 oz bottle, water treatment tablets along with a knife or scissors. (I can collect and treat water in a matter of seconds without taking my pack off. 20 to 30 minutes later it’s ready to drink.)|
*Note: Gear in this post is excerpted from my 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List
Cargo Pants Pockets
I like CARGO PANTS like these with lots of pockets:
Of particular note is that this is shaping up to be a big tick season. For those that are worried about Lyme, Zika and other tick/mosquito transmitted diseases, insect repellent cargo pants like ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants, might be an attractive option. These when combined with gaiters or tucking your socks into your pants legs, should provide a good below-the-belt deterrent against ticks and mosquitoes. This is per the US CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control) section on “Maximizing protection from mosquitoes and ticks.”
And, while applied insect repellents only last 8-14 hours at best, factory treated clothing has near-permanent effectiveness (clothing treated before purchase is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings). Finally I’ve listed a shirt since it adds two pockets for gear storage, and gives the option to have top to bottom insect protective clothing. (Tuck your shirt into your pants.)
|Pants std||REI Sahara convertible pants (14)||Great pants, good pockets, readily available. Ex Officio and many others make similar pants|
|Pants bug repellent||ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’s||For ticks. Continuous insect repellent. Avail in both M’s and W’s. Light, cool, sun protection. Great pockets. Also available at REI|
|Shirt bug repellent||Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’s||Completes insect repellent clothing. Light, cool & widely available via Amazon, and REI.|
|Gaiters||Dirty Girl gaiters (1.2 oz)|
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
|Optional, but does seal ankles against tick entry. Tucking pants into socks also works.|
What I put in my cargo pants pockets
|L hip pocket||iPhone 6 Plus in a pint Ziplock freezer bag (great!). I access it for a multitude of uses.|
|R hip pocket||Day’s map, guide pages, milage sheet, and Fisher Space Pen in a quart Ziplock freezer bag. Possibly my gloves, if I’ve taken them off (they stay warmest in hip pockets if it’s cold).|
|Front cargo pockets||If my pack doesn’t have hip belt pockets, I store that gear here. Otherwise these pockets are free for “as-needed” storage for gear that needs quick access.|
|Rear pockets||During colder weather hikes these hold my gloves and hat when not in use – e.g. hiking uphill and getting hot. Otherwise they are free for “as-needed” gear storage. But these are usually the smallest and least useful of pants pockets.|
|Zippered pants pocket of choice||My ID, cash and credit cards in a plastic bag. Especially on trips where I might need to take it out to buy stuff, like a small store along the AT. (And in general I like to have my iPhone, ID, cash and credit cards on my person at all times.)|
|A shirt pocket||Compass if I am using it frequently. (or on lanyard around neck)|
Efficiency gains for two hikers
- Obviously, pocket access becomes faster and easier if you can get some help accessing pack pockets
- In addition, you can share items like sunscreen, bug spray, and water treatment. E.g. your pack holds the water filter, while your partner’s pack has the bug spray and sunscreen.
- This makes even more pockets available for gear storage. And it should be fairly simple to get everything needed during the day into an easily accessible pack pocket.
Case Study – “A place for everything, and everything in its place”
Hiking one spring morning in a cold rain I had a fairly pressing bio-urge. I stopped, took my pack off and looked for my TP and hand-sanitizer in the usual place. Not there! After nearly 10 minutes of rifling through my pack, the bio-urge far greater and with damp gear strewn around me, I finally found the TP in one of my cargo pants pockets. (I had moved it there before leaving camp because I had expected to use it soon.)
Moral of the story: even with good intentions, it’s best to keep putting the same stuff in the same place every time! Deviate from this and suffer the consequences. While the above story is amusing (at least in the retelling) not being able to locate your wind-shell, warm gloves and hat when on a windy ridge, late in the day with temperatures dropping to near freezing, is a lot less fun and possibly more serious.
2) In Camp – Efficient Camping Tips
Evening Camp Routine – ideally 20 to 30 minutes
Having a well thought-out routine to set up camp and cook dinner saves time. It also makes for a far more relaxing evening, leaving enough time to enjoy sunset across the lake while sipping your hot chocolate.
Before making camp
- My evening camp routine starts with opportunistically collecting enough water to cook dinner about 30-60 minutes before arriving in camp (unless I know that good water will be quickly available in camp).
- Usually I prefer to cook with treated water as I don’t have to worry as much about a complete boil or boil time. And evening hot drinks only require 140° to 160° F water.
- If it’s late in the day, I locate my headlamp and hang it around my neck so I don’t have search around for it as evening turns to dark.
Arriving at camp – first tasks
- If cold: I immediately put on warm clothes and especially get on dry socks and warm footwear. (my hands and feet run cold). Down Booties are fantastic!
- Then my first task when arriving in camp is to get my cook set out and start the right amount water boiling for both meal and hot drink. (For maximum efficiency your stove/pot combo should be able to boil all dinner water at one time.)
- Tip: Avoid stove/cooksets combos that are tippy, non-wind resistant and need tending. You want to put water in a pot, light your stove and leave it mostly unattended to boil water while you perform camp chores. The two best systems the Jetboil, and the Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri bundle. I discuss these in detail in my post, The Best Backpacking Stove Systems.
While waiting for the pot to boil I start my other camp chores:
- I collect additional water in both my 2 L and 1 L squeeze bags.
- Put Chlorine Dioxide water treatment tablets in my 1 and 2 L squeeze bags—it’s faster and easier than squeeze filtering. This gives me enough water until mid-morning the following day.
(Then I am done with this chore—no hand numbing collection and treating of freezing water is needed the next morning.)
- I setup my shelter and unstuff my down. This allows plenty of time for the down to fluff up and hopefully dry out if needed.
- Tip: Down fluffs up faster in the evening when it’s not super-compressed. And in the morning, with cold fingers and frost on your sleeping bag, it’s a lot easier and faster to stuff it back into a larger stuff sack. If necessary, I size up in backpack volume to accommodate my preference for larger down stuff sacks.
Once the water boils:
- I pour some water into my dinner in a Ziplock bag and set it aside to re-hydrate for at least 10 minutes.
- I pour the rest into my mug for my hot drink (usually homemade hot chocolate mix).
See my: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly for more info on backpacking food and recipies.
- I consume my hot drink while my meal rehydrates, possibly doing more camp chores as necessary.
Prep for the next day’s hiking
It’s a lot easier to do next-day prep the evening before when it’s warmer and you are more awake. With your camp and gear in order, you can break camp quickly and efficiently the next morning.
- I organize food for the next day in a Ziplock baggie and locate breakfast food and coffee at the top of food sack. Last, I appropriately store food per park reg’s.
- I organize maps and guide pages, etc. for the next day.
- I look at maps and guide book pages, and mileage charts, and figure out my goals for the next hiking day. Miles, water sources, navigational difficulties, stores along they way, etc.
- I make notes on what went well today and what I could do better in the future.
- Constantly assessing, learning and making adjustments is a key to efficiency and meeting your goals.
Morning Camp Routine
- Like dinner, in the morning the first thing I do is light the stove to boil water for coffee.
- While I wait for the water to boil, I start my morning camp chores.
- Sometimes I leave the most hand-numbing tasks until I have a warm cup of coffee to wrap my hands around.
- I usually do a light wipe-down of cookware in the morning. It’s faster and doesn’t freeze hands. (I do a more thorough cookware cleaning in the evening).
- Last thing before leaving camp is to strip down into your hiking clothes. You’ll likely need to set out at a brisk pace to get warm. But if you’ve got your clothing right you’ll be warm in 5 – 10 minutes and can settle into your normal hiking pace.
For those that have cold hands (like me)
Mornings can be tough if you have cold hands. Temperatures are the coldest, your metabolism is still in sleep mode, and you’re handling a lot of cold gear. Here are a few tips to keep your paws warm.
- In cold weather, fingerless gloves (Glacier Glove fingerless fleece) are great for manual dexterity and speeding up camp chores. They save time from taking gloves on and off, and keep your hands warmer.
- I usually put my gloves on inside my sleeping bag and warm them up a bit before getting out. That way I get out of my bag with super warm hands and gloves. I find this gives me the best chance to keep my hands warm while handling cold gear.
- If it’s cold, wrapping my hands around a hot mug helps me warm them between spells of handing cold gear. Stuff sleeping bag. Warm hands around mug. Put away shelter. Warm hands around mug…
- Per above, I avoid collecting, treating and handling water in the morning. This is best done the evening before.
3) Clothing Adjustments
In colder weather, you can spend a lot of time adjusting clothing especially if you are consistently getting sweaty and hot going uphill, and freezing on ridges and downhills, all conditions common on the trail.
The layering system sounds attractive, but it takes a a lot of time to stop, take your pack off, put-on or take-off a layer, put your pack back on and start hiking again. In addition, stopping inevitably makes you colder! Moderate but consistent movement (it needn’t be at all tiring or strenuous) is the key to keeping warm when it’s cold.
Here’s how I keep warm with a single set of clothing, without stopping
- I put on just enough clothing to keep me warm when moving. Overdressing, getting hot and then sweating out is a great way to get wet and then really cold. It’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness.
- I only add warmer clothing when I can no longer stay warm walking at a comfortable pace.
- Of special note: I find that for the same weight of a windshirt, a light fleece shirt (like the North Face TKA 100 Glacier 1/4-Zip) has far greater temperature range for comfort. It’s far warmer than a windshirt, does an OK job in wind, and is far less clammy and more breathable than a windshirt. (By the time it’s cold enough and windy enough to warrant a fully windproof barrier, my rain jacket does a fine job—and it’s cold enough that condensation is not a huge issue.)
Here is my go to clothing system for hiking in the cold (excerpted from my 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List )
|Shirt||Ibex Indie Hoodie 1/4-Zip (8.8)|
Patagonia Capilene Zip-Neck T
|8.0||Neck zipper key to warmth management|
|Mid-layer top||North Face TKA 100 Glacier 1/4-Zip||7.9||For use as a mid-layer (and as a “windshirt”)|
|RainJacket||Outdoor Research Helium II||6.4||Use as “windshirt” only when very cold|
|Pants||REI Sahara convertible pants (14)||Ex Officio and many others make similar pants|
|Underwear||Patagonia briefs Mens or W’s||2.0||Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days|
|Shoes||Altra Superior Trail-Running|
Brooks Cascadia Trail-Runners
|18.0||Altra: Light, huge toe room, super comfortable!|
Brooks: tried and tru trail favorite.
|Socks||DeFeet Wolleators or|
SmartWool PhD Light Mini or
Darn Tough 1/4 UL w cushion
|1.8||Key to keeping feet warm is to keep moving.|
|Warm hat||OR Option Balaclava (1.8)||1.8||Warmer than a hat|
|Gloves||DuraGlove ET Charcoal Wool (2.5)||2.5||Great liner glove – light, warm, durable!|
|Rain Mitts||REI Minimalist Mitts|
MLD eVENT Rain Mitts (1.2)
|1.2||Wind protection and warmth|
|Warm jacket||Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket (hooded)||10.5||For rare rest stops. Moderate/consistent movement is key to keeping warm when it’s cold|
How I use my clothing system
- I regulate my temperature by making clothing adjustments without stopping. Too hot: take off hat and gloves (put in rear pants pockets), also can unzip fleece shirt and base layer, and possibly push sleeves up. Too cold: reverse the procedure.
- If it’s extremely cold and windy, I will use my rain jacket as a windshell. (unzipping your rain jacket all the way is a major cooling force.)
- Finally, if I really do need to stop, my warm down jacket comes out mighty fast! I store the jacket as the topmost item in the main bag of my backpack.
Enjoy Your Hike!
Take the train to the AT—low carbon, low stress. No car, no complicated shuttles. Just great hiking! This AT section hike has it all—an ideal blend of natural beauty, history, small towns, great local parks, and meeting interesting people. It’s a perfect example of what makes hiking on the AT a unique and special experience—why people come from all over the world to hike the trail.
Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT
- The variety of hiking: A mix of everything — high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, rolling farm fields and wildflowers. And in the summer it’s cool & shaded; 90% of the time no hats /sunglasses needed.
- Lots of History: Harpers Ferry (historic town & national park), the C&O Canal, Mason Dixon Line, Galthand, Washington Monument, Pine Grove Furnace, the Cumberland Valley and the historic towns of Boiling Springs and Duncannon PA on the shore of the Susquehanna River.
- Hike in 4 of the 13 original states
- Some of the nicest shelters on the AT: Well-maintained, many with nice camping options around them. E.g. the new, two-story Raven Rock Shelter, Quarry Gap Shelters, & Tumbling Run Shelters.
- Pennsylvania State Parks: Pennsylvania spent the time and money to do their state parks right. In picturesque settings with lovely shaded picnic areas, good camping, (food in season), lakes to swim in, nice bathrooms, and even some free showers. Pine Grove Furnace and Caledonia State Parks are standouts among a number of great parks.
Note this is installment one of a series of Low Carbon Section Hikes
- Installment 1: This post – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA, 124 miles
- Installment 2: Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, 54 miles
- Installment 3: Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Roanoke to Shenandoah National Park, 134 miles
Stay tuned as we add more Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail…
Reduce the Carbon – Take the Train
This guide is meant to supplement the many excellent general guides to the Appalachian Trail (AT). As such,
- Our guide gives more detail to this specific section of the AT, and in particular how to access it by train from much of the Northeast US.
- Lighten your load: The gear (link) and food (link) for the light packs we used to efficiently and comfortably hike the AT. We believe this will make the hike more pleasant for others.
- And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.
Make your trip even more enjoyable…
Our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List will lighten your load and put a spring in your step. So if you want a light pack but retain all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking, look no further. You’ll be safe, warm and comfortable. This list has served Alison and I admirably on most 3-season trips in the lower 48 and on our trips world-wide. It works!
Light pack & easy hiking: Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge from White Rock Cliffs of South Mountain.
What’s in this Trip Guide
- Logistics: link on how to use trains and other transportation to and from the start and end of the hike
(including a bit of info on lodging in Harpers Ferrry, WV)
- Some of our favorite places: link to Photo Essay & Trip Description
- Gear: a link to list of gear that we took that kept our packs around 12 pounds
- Food: a link to list of the food we took to save food weight but still eat healthy
- Waypoint and Mileage Table: link to Waypoint and Mileage Table
- GPS Track: link to download GPX track and waypoint file suitable for loading into your iPhone or GPS
(if you want more info on this see: How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS)
- Maps: link to our recommendations for maps and guidebooks
- Harpers Ferry: link to ideas about where to stay and what to do in historic Harpers Ferry
Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train
Stats – Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train
The trip takes between 5 to 9 days
- 0 mile – trip start in historic Harpers Ferry, WV
- 98 miles to first logical exit, historic mill town of Boiling Springs, PA
- 124 miles to trip end in Duncannon, PA, near Harrisburg PA
- 1.5 hrs from Washington Union Station to start in historic Harper’s Ferry VA (via train)
- 4-5 hrs from trip end in Duncannon PA back to Washington Union Station (via Uber/Taxi and train)
and shorter if you are just heading to Philadelphia, PA – Amtrak 30th Street Station (PHL)
Waypoint and Mileage Table
The table below is in scrollable window or you can see the table full page here, as a Google Sheet
Maps and Guides
The Appalachian Trail is possibly the most documented trail in the world. There are many excellent guides. Our favorite guide is David Miller’s (AT trail-name, AWOL) “The A.T. Guide Northbound.”
We supplement it with the following Appalachian Trail Pocket Profile Maps
Options for Trip Start in Harpers Ferry WV
- You can walk right off the train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill).
- Or, you can stay overnight in a B&B, get a nice dinner and enjoy Harpers Ferry for the evening. Then you can get up bright and early the next morning for breakfast and start your hike.
- If you have the time, consider spending a day or 1/2 day exploring the historic town and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. For a stunning view we highly recommend the hike to Maryland Heights. (The lead picture for this article was taken from Maryland Heights.)
- If you want to make this a 4 state trip by adding a short side trip to Virginia see Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights for more detail.
- For those wanting a very early start and coffee/breakfast the veteran owned Guide Shack Cafe opens at 5:00 am and has the best coffee in town.
Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights – a Photo Essay
This section hike has it all—high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, historic towns and parks, and rolling farmlands. Between Harpers Ferry WV and Harrisburg PA, it follows the Appalachian Ridge for over 100 miles going through over dozen parks, vast forests, and other public lands. In all, it travels through four states (if you take a short side trip to Virginia).
The trip starts in Harpers Ferry, WV where it crosses over the Potomac River to Maryland and covers all 41 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in MD. In Pennsylvania it continues another 83 miles on the AT, much of it in the vast Michaux Forest. It ends at the mighty Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, PA.
On a historic note, the hike crosses the Mason Dixon Line, two historic and one actual midpoint markers of the Appalachian Trail, and a number of historic places like Washington Monument PA, Pine Grove Furnace, the old mill town of Boiling Springs, the rolling farmlands of the Cumberland Valley, and the historic river town of Duncannon PA on the banks of the Susquehanna.
The trip starts as you pass by John Brown’s Fort (click for precise map) to pickup the Appalachian Trail at the WV side of the footbridge crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Once in Maryland the AT turns right and heads east along the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (National Historic Park).
Note: You can walk right off the early evening train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill). Or, and the option many will choose, is to stay overnight and enjoy Harpers Ferry. If you start early the next morning you can make it to Crampton Gap (10 miles) or Rocky Run Shelters (16 miles)
Make it a 4 state trip!
Note: If you want to make this a four state trip (fun!), you’ll want to make a brief side-trip into Virginia. Hike west on the AT to the 340 bridge and follow the AT across the bridge south onto the Virginia bank of the Shenandoah River. Link to Map showing both trip start across the Potomac River into Maryland to the C&O Canal towpath, and the side trip into Virginia across the Rt. 340 bridge.
After about 3 miles of fast and level walking on the C&O Canal Towpath, the AT turns left, crosses the train tracks and heads steeply uphill to the Junction with the side trail to the Ed Garvey Shelter.
Crampton Gap Shelter and Gathland State Park
Gathland State Park is a good place to collect some spigot water and use a restroom. The spring at Crampton Gap shelter is intermittent (worst mid-summer).
Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park are worth at least a brief look. Built in the late 1800’s, Gathland was the mountain home of George Alfred Townsend, a Civil War journalist. A few of this unique collection buildings and structures, designed and constructed by Townsend, were partially restored in the 1950’s.
Washington Monument State Park
Washington Monument State Park is a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table and use a restroom. The Monument is worth visiting both for its history and for a great view of the Cumberland Valley.
Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell Shelters
The unremarkable Pine Knob shelter is worth a stop for the nice piped spring behind it. There are some large campsites near the shelter. To regain the AT northbound take the shortcut (rather than retracing your steps).
Good water source between Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell shelters:
There’s a nice piped spring a few 100 yds west of the AT (downhill) from Pogo Memorial Campsite.
If possible, avoid camping at Ensign Crowell Shelter. It’s not the nicest shelter. It’s very near a road, often crowded, and has an iffy water source mid-summer.
“The Rocks of Pennsylvania”
This section of intermittently rocky trail actually starts in Maryland about 5-10 miles before you enter Pennsylvania. “The Rocks of Pennsylvania” are not as bad their reputation. Care and patience will get the job safely done. The hardest and rockiest section of trail is on the descent off the ridge down to Pen Mar County Park near the MD/PA border.
Raven Rock Shelter
Raven Rock Shelter (mile 36) is one of the nicer shelters of the trip. In addition, the flat expanse around the shelter has lots of great camping areas, many with their own picnic tables. The only downside is that there’s no water at Raven Rock Shelter. It’s a fairly long round trip downhill get water. (Alternatively you can collect water from the stream at MD 491/Raven Rock Hollow, before hiking about 1 mile uphill to the shelter).
Pen Mar County Park and Mason Dixon Line
Pen Mar County Park has nice views. It’s a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table/pavilion and use a restroom. There are vending services in season. Just a few minutes past the park is marker for where the AT crosses the historic Mason Dixon Line.
Deerlick Shelters are nothing to get excited about. But there’s a a really nice spring about 0.2 miles walk from the shelters. And there are some nice campsites along the trail to the spring (and at a comfortable/quit distance from the shelters).
Tumbling Run Shelter to Caledonia State Park
This is one of the nicer portions of the hike. But it is rocky and has a fair amount of elevation change. At 10 miles long it is also a dry and long section. Best to fill up on water from the nice piped spring across the creek from the Tumbling Run shelters. And the shelters have nice shaded picnic tables.
The only water mid-route is at Rocky Mountain shelters. Unfortunately, they are a 1 mile round trip downhill from the ridge. Unless you are camping there, you might not want to walk all the way down just for water.
Caledonia State Park is an unqualified delight. We arrived at the Park in the late afternoon, overheated, grimy and sweaty from a very long day hiking on an unusually hot and humid spring day. We had an ice cream sandwich and a large cold drink from the snack bar, then followed that with a sublime dip in the vast and cold outdoor swimming pool. We emerged an hour later, freshly showered and blessedly cool and comfortable. Needless to say, it was one of highlights of the trip. In addition to the snack bar and pool, the park has a beautiful stream running through it, large shaded picnic areas with many pavilions, and excellent bathrooms.
From Caledonia State Park, it’s only a 30-45 minute walk uphill to Quarry Gap Shelters. These shelters are new and carefully tended and maintained. The picnic shelter had flower pots hanging from the eaves. There was a camp host to guide hikers to camping areas and otherwise help out and make things run smoothly.
Quarry Run Shelters
Birch Run Shelter
Birch Run is a nice shelter with grassy camping around it. There is small stream in front of the shelter and the larger stream, Birch Run itself, is only a few hundred feet further down trail. There is also a nice camp on the other side of Birch Run.
Appalachian Trail Midpoint(s)
Pine Grove Furnace
Pine Grove Furnace is an excellent stopping point on the AT. It has:
- The Pine Grove Furnace General Store, which has limited food, groceries & camping supplies; and a short-order counter serving hamburgers, sandwiches, ice-cream, shakes, etc.
- The store is where thru-hikers traditionally celebrate “1/2 and 1/2,” reaching the halfway point on the AT and by attempting to eat a half gallon of ice cream.
- Lodging at the Ironmasters Mansion Hostel
- A pleasant campground (fee) with excellent facilities
- A public swimming lake (in season) with free showers.
- Historic site/remains of the Pine Grove Iron Works/Pine Grove Furnace. In operation 1764 to 1895.
- The Appalachian Trail Museum housed in a 200 year old grist mill.
James Fry Shelter
Entering the Cumberland Valley
Note: After the Alec Kennedy Shelter there are no official AT Shelters until the Darlington Shelter 18 miles down the trail.
Boiling Springs PA – 1st option to uber to train
Boiling Springs is a lovely, historic mill town surrounding a large mill pond (now “Children’s Lake”). At mile 98 it is the first obvious opportunity to take an Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. Cost of ride is approx. $25 to $35 and around 30 minutes.
There are a number of lodgings, a couple of food stores and a few restaurants in Boiling Springs. There is also a free campground. There’s a nice public pool in town with showers (get $3 off admission at the ATC HQ Office).
The Appalachian Trail Club Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is along the shore of the lake. It’s definitely worth a visit—it has a lovely porch for sitting in the shade, trail needs, maps, and fuel.
Crossing the Cumberland Valley
Leaving the Cumberland Valley to Trip End in Duncannon PA
This section Starts with lots of walking through bucolic farm fields and hedge rows. Then you exit the valley by climbing the two ridges of Blue Mountain and Cove Mountain before dropping into Duncannon PA.
- From Boilings Springs to Duncannon PA, pretty much every crossing of a major road is a potential place to Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. See trip logistics section.
- There is no camping along the AT for this section.
- Spring water is much harder to find. And we were less happy about getting water from streams running through farmland and moderately populated areas. Altho there are some options to get spigot water along the way.
- Darlington and Cove Mountain Shelters are the last two AT Shelters of the trip: These shelters are respectively at the top of the last two ridges of the trip, Blue and Cove Mountains.
This rocky promontory offers superb views of the Duncannon area. It’s a stop on the Audubon’s Susquehanna River Birding and Wildlife Trail, and a famous rest stop for hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
Duncannon PA – the end of the trip
Uber to the Harrisburg Train Station is approx. $20-$30 and about 20 minutes. Duncannon PA is a very hiker friendly town. Their is a riverfront campground in Duncannon for a modest cost. There are also number of lodging options, food stores, restaurants and even an ice cream store.
Note: Duncannon is a historic river town on the Banks of the Susquehanna River just outside the Harrisburg metropolitan area. Duncannon is just downstream from the Juniatta-Susquehanna River confluence at Clarks Ferry and sits below the impressive the Kittatinny Ridge. The town had historic impact as a trading crossroads in Pennsylvania’s colonial era. From Conestoga freight wagons to canals, railroads, and highways, the Duncannon was a major influence on the region’s transportation.
Logistics – getting to and from trip start and trip end
Trip Start: getting to Harpers Ferry, WV from Washington, DC
Harpers Ferry is easily accessed from Union Station in Washington DC. The first train of the day arrives in Harpers Ferry just after 5:00 pm. The $13 Amtrak 29 Capitol Limited: 4:05 pm “Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS)” to 5:16 pm “Harpers Ferry, WV (HFY).” Other options are the MARC Brunswick Line commuter trains arriving at 6:05pm, 7:18pm, and 7:54pm, and 9:00pm (weekdays only), see MARC train schedule.
Need to Start from another city in the North East or Mid-Atlantic?
Amtrak’s DC Union Stations is accessible by train from most of the East Coast. See Amtrak trip planner.
Trip End: from Boiling Springs, PA or Duncannon, PA back to Washington DC
Trip end to the Harrisburg, PA Amtrak Train Station (HAR)
- Uber – We took Uber from our trip end to the Harrisburg Train Station. It took ten minutes for our car to arrive and 20 minutes to the train station, costing around $30. This works equally well from Boiling Springs or Duncannon, PA.
- Bus from Duncannon, PA – Although we didn’t take it, there appears to be a once daily, morning CAT commuter bus Route 23 from the Clarks Ferry Bridge Park and Ride – CAT and Carpool (it’s essentially on the AT, south shore of the Susquehanna River – here’s its location on Google Maps). It’s a 10 minute walk from the N 6th St & Boas St bus stop to the Harrisburg train station.
- From the Harrisburg Train Station there are number of daily trains back to DC. We took the Amtrak Keystone Service to Philadelphia, PA 30th Street Station (PHL) and transferred to the Northeast Regional to Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS). Approximately 4-5 hours and $80 to $120.
Lodging in Harpers Ferry
If you decide to stay overnight in Harpers Ferry, it’s best to book well ahead. Trip Advisor is a good place find a room. The historic town and National Historical Park are popular destinations. Even for mid-week reservations many B&Bs are booked weeks, even a month or more in advance (many with 2 night minimums on weekends).
The Lower and Upper Sections of Harpers Ferry
The town of Harpers Ferry is in two sections. 1) The small lower historic section by the river and the National Historical Park and 2) the larger upper section, about 10-20 minutes walk uphill. In the lower section, lodging is limited and competitive. There are a just few nice B&Bs in the lower section and they tend to be fully booked weeks or even month’s in advance. The Town’s Inn is a traditional place for Appalachian Trail hikers to stay. In addition to rooms, it has a small hostel, a cafe, a bistro and a small store with a good selection of trail food and supplies. Be forewarned, it was recently featured in the reality TV series, Hotel Hell (an amusing watch).
Lodging options are more plentiful in the upper section of the town, but there are fewer attractions and restaurants—altho the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters are here and also the best coffee shop in town, the Guide Shack Cafe which opens at 5:00 am for those wanting a very early start with coffee/breakfast. Many lodgings in the upper section provide free shuttle to and from the lower section. Some will even meet your train. We stayed at the Jackson Rose Bed & Breakfast and enjoyed it.
Fun things to do in Harpers Ferry besides the National Park
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