7 Wildfire Safety Tips for Hiking and Backpacking. Be sure you have the proper knowledge, equipment, and navigational resources be safe!

Train for hiking in just two core hikes per week! No fads. No gimmicks. Use this common sense training program to prepare for any hiking or backpacking trip.

A shakedown hike is critical to the success of your big backpacking trip for the year. Learn how to plan and execute a shakedown to avoid costly mistakes. Think of it as “Spring Training” for backpacking.

For much of the US hammock tent camping is fantastic & arguably the best way to sleep in the backcountry. This is true anywhere with trees—nearly all of the eastern US & much of the Mountain West.

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

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

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

This Article in Five Parts

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

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

1. Don’t Get Bit – Don’t Get Sick

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

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

2. Best Lyme and Zika Prevention for Hiking

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

 

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

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

Lyme and Zika Prevention for Hiking

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

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

Item Description Comments
E G Bug repellent on face neck hands Sawyer Picaridin lotion 14 hrs!
Pocketable Picaridin 0.5 oz spray
Lasts 14 hrs! No odor. Won’t melt plastic. Small, pocketable, easily applied.
A Hat (repellent) Exofficio Bugsaway Hat Bug repellent for upper head area
 B Shirt hiking* RailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s Oasis Cool fabric, mesh side vents, sun protection, Lifetime insect repellent (vs. sprays 8-14 hrs)
Shirt (alt) Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’s Widely available: Campsaver and other sources like Amazon. Lifetime insect repellent.
C Pants hiking* ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’s Available in both Men’s and Women’s. Light, cool, sun protection. Lifetime insect repellent.
Pants (alt) RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect Shield RailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. Lifetime insect repellent.
E G Bug repellent on face neck hands Sawyer Picaridin lotion 14 hrs!
Pocketable Picaridin 0.5 oz spray
Lasts 14 hrs! No odor. Won’t melt plastic. Small, pocketable, easily applied.
 D Physical Prot.  Tuck pants into socks Prevents tick entry into pants. Stops pants legs from “gapping” and exposing ankle to mosquitos
F Physical Prot.  Tuck shirt into Pants Prevents tick entry into pants and lower shirt area.
 H Gaiters Dirty Girl gaiters (fun colors!) or
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
Seals pants against tick entry. No ankle gaps. Can be treated with permethrin spray.
H Gaiter trap shoe
(optional)
Altra Lone Peak shoes or
Altra Superior shoes
Velcro “gaiter trap” permanently attached to heel of shoe. (adhesive ones that come with gaiters only work for a while)

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

Picaridin – A New Repellent Better than DEET

Best Lyme and Zika Prevention for Hiking

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

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

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

Treated tents and camp mosquito netting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 4. Non Chemical Ways to Reduce Bug Bites

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

Overview

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

a) Non Chemically Treated yet still Bug Protective Clothing

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

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

Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking

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

Item Description Comments
A Windshirt Patagonia Houdini or
most “windbreakers”
Any windbreaker or rain jacket will work. When layered over a midweight baselayer, this provides decent protection against mosquito bites. Good for camp, but a hiking challenge in warm weather.
Baselayer Capilene Midweight Top
Ibex Indie Hoodie 1/4-Zip
This is also my hiking shirt in cooler environments like the Western Mountains in Summer (Rockies/Sierras)
 B Gloves Glacier Glove fingerless fleece Protection from bugs, but fingertips free for dexterity.
C Pants hiking REI Sahara convertible pants
RailRiders X-Treme Adventure
Need to be thick enough that mosquitoes can’t bite thru. Note: While these have worked well for me, I can’t say with 100% confidence that either of these pants are thick enough to prevent all mosquito bites.
D Hat, ballcap OR Sun Runner Hat Scalp protect. Keeps netting off face. Any brimmed hat fine.
 E Bug-net Sea to Summit Head Net Non-chemically treated. OK for camp, but not fun to hike in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

d) Use a tent or shelter with good mosquito netting

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

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

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.

Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

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


Tips for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

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

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

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

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

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

    A section dedicated to clothing is below.

    paria-02-1600

    Paria Canyon

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

    xxx

    Neon Canyon, Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument

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

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

    2010ut_pic09

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

    xx

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

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

    Paria Canyon

    Paria Canyon

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

Tips for those feeling more adventurous

Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

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

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

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

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

Parting Photos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1. Pack to a Gear List!

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

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tips for your first backpacking trip

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


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

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


3. Keep Your Food Simple

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

tips for your first backpacking trip

Altra Lone Peak shoes

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


6. Get a Weather Report

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

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

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

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

Always Bring a Backup Battery!

tips for your first backpacking trip

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

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

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



8. Evaluate the following before your trip

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

9. Keep your Trip Short

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


10. Keep your trip local

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

tips for your first backpacking trip

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


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

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

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

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


Closing Thought – Embrace Your Mistakes!

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

Bonus Tip – Keep your Trip Fun

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

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



Disclaimer

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.

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

The Newest Smartphone Cameras Kick Ass!

The new iPhones (and other high-end smartphones like the Google Pixel) are intensely applying  “computational photography” (sophisticated software image processing) to significantly improve photos. This includes dynamic range (ability to handle large differences from the lightest to darkest parts of the photo), color, contrast, texture, and even focus to their photos.

The improvements can be dramatic. So much so, that many times the photos from the new smartphones often look better than photos from much larger “traditional” DSLR cameras. It may take a lot of editing of photos from a traditional camera to clearly see the benefits of a larger sensor. That being said, this article will help you get the very best out your smartphone camera.

smartphone hiking photography

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

 10 Hacks and Accessories for better smartphone hiking photography

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

10 Hacks and Accessories for better smartphone hiking photography

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

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

6 Bonus Hacks

best backpacking cameras

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

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

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

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

Or better yet, you can use folded garment (or other prop) on top of a rock, or fallen tree to make an improvised tripod/camera rest. Now that you are not holding the camera, remember to put the shutter release on a 2-second delay for sharpest results. But many times pressing the camera will bump it out of position or knock it over. In this case, use a bluetooth remote shutter release (or for iPhone users, remember that your headphones as a remote shutter button) see details in hacks above.

Additional Reading

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

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


 

Disclaimer

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.

Rain jacket “durability” is a complex topic not well understood by most people. This post debunks some durability myths and clearly lays out what to look for in a durable rain jacket. Finally, we list some of the very best durable rain jackets on the market that are also light!

If you can’t wait, jump to see our Best Durable Rain Jackets here. Or the new complete list of Best Ultralight Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking.

This is part 1 of a series on Rain Jackets:

  1. Rain Jacket Durability 101 – How to Select the Best Durable Rain Jacket
  2. NEW!   Best Ultralight Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking
    This includes a section Rain Jacket Breathability 101 or why waterproof-breathable rain jackets get an unfair bad rap!

What is Rain Jacket Durability?

In brief, rain jacket durability is a complex topic that includes the jacket remaining waterproof while continuing to breathe (vent body moisture), the shell fabric not ripping, seams not failing, and zippers, elastic adjusters, velcro etc. continuing to work without massive cleaning and maintenance.

NOTE: There are many good reasons why you might not buy the most durable rain jacket! Case in point, is the 8 oz, 2.5 layer jacket above, my first choice for so many trips that it finally wore out. See more here…

 

The 12 oz REI Co-op Rhyolite with its 3-layer eVENT fabric is durable AND Light. At half the price of competitor’s jackets, it’s a great value!

The Three Elements of Rain Jacket Durability

A. Outer shell fabric durability

The ability of the rainwear’s exterior fabric to:

  1. Resist tearing, punctures and abrasion damage
  2. Maintain its water shedding & breathability—usually with a durable, water repellent finish DWR
    Note: outer shell fabric “wet out,” the breakdown of this water shedding property, does not completely stop all breathability as is popularly believed. See more below.

B. Inner waterproof/breathable (WPB) membrane durability

The ability of the shell’s inner WPB lining to maintain waterproofness AND breathability:

  1. The WPB membrane should remain physically intact under the wear and tear of garment use (not so easy in regular use with a backpack!).
  2. In particular the WPB membrane should not delaminate from the outer shell, develop cracks, etc. In this case, 3-layer construction jackets are likely more durable. That’s because their inner fabric liner protects the more delicate WPB membrane vs. the unprotected membrane of 2.5 layer jackets.
  3. The WPB membrane should not foul with body oils, dirt, detergent residues or other materials which will cause the WPB membrane to leak.

C. Hardware failures

  1. Zippers that jam, no longer mate at the bottom, or start auto-separating in the field
  2. Elastic adjusters on hoods, cuffs and hems of jackets. Velcro that looses its stick, adjusters/buckles that break or slip, etc.

So What Fails Most Often?

Best Durable Rain Jacket

[Two high quality 2.5 layer jackets from big name outdoor gear companies] In my experience, membrane delamination like this in the neck and upper shoulders is the most common way that rainwear permanently fails. While this happens faster to the unprotected WPB membrane of 2.5-layer jackets like these — if you wear a 3-layer jacket long enough it too will eventually delaminate and leak. And backpackers beware: wearing a pack dramatically speeds up this delimitation process for both 2.5 and 3-layer jackets!

1) Waterproof Breathable Membrane Delamination

As the pictures above show, WPB membrane failure is likely the first and most common, non-fixable way rain jackets fail (leak). And note that while the examples are dramatic, many small cracks, punctures, and delaminations are not obvious but will still cause your jacket to leak. This is true for 2.5 and 3-layer jackets, although 3-layer rain jackets usually last longer. This is one reason why the outdoor industry still makes a big deal about 2.5 vs 3-layer construction.

Note: Many outdoor companies like Patagonia, REI and Outdoor Research, offer good product warranties that cover zipper failures, membrane delamination, etc. This will protect your jacket as a long term investment. But if your jacket fails in the field you may have to suffer through wet until you get home and can ship it back for repair or replacement.

 

Best Durable Rain Jacket

Fabric ‘wet out’ reduces but doesn’t completely stop breathability. [click photo to enlarge]

On the left is a traditional fabric surface treated with a DWR that has already started to fail (wet out). Large wetted out areas will reduce the breathability of a rain jacket. In comparison, on the right is a newer, non-chemical water shedding fabric technology, Columbia’s naturally hydrophobic Columbia OutDry Ex Eco Tech fabric  continues to bead and shed water.

2) “Wet Out” (DWR failure) – Outer Shell no Longer Beading/Shedding Water

Wet out is another common “failure,” altho it can be fixed. Wet out happens when the durable, water repellent finish DWR no longer beads up and sheds water. The most common reason for this is the DWR finish (a chemical) wearing off after many garment washings, and/or the surface getting fouled with dirt and other compounds. While this doesn’t cause the rain jacket to leak, it does likely slow down the breathability of the jacket (see more below). This makes it easer to sweat out the inside of the jacket if you are working hard. Your DWR can be refreshed by washing the jacket and treating it with a DWR restoring wash compound and/or spray. E.g. some of these form Nikwax.

Note: While, some newer fabrics like Columbia OutDry Ex Eco are inherently hydrophobic and don’t need a DWR. You will still need to keep the fabric free of dirt for best water shedding.

Myth: A Wetted Out Rain Jacket Doesn’t Breathe

It’s a myth rainwear stops breathing once it wets out.  This is according to interviews I had with 1) Jeff Mergy, the Director of the Innovation Team at Columbia Sportswear (among other things tech. guy for OutDry Ex Eco Fabric and 2) Dr. Fred Wilson PhD a long term industry scientist who worked for both GORE and eVENT on WPB fabrics.

In an interview I had with Jeff Mergy, he stated that WPB membranes are still breathable when outer shell is wetted out but not as breathable. It is still not clearly understood how less breathable but Jeff believes it is significant. BUT he said that part of what consumers believe is “not-breathable” is often the clammy next skin feel of conventional WPB jackets. Columbia OutDry Ex Eco helps with this by having an actual wicking fabric that feels far more comfortable next to the skin. Even when the outer shell is wetted out. [Note: other 3-layer technologies with a fabric liner should have a similar non-clammy feel.]

 

3) Fouled WPB Membranes Can Leak

Body oils, dirt, and other compounds can contaminate the inner WPB membrane and cause it to leak. This is another non-permanent failure that can generally be fixed by properly washing your jacket. Nonetheless this is a problem in the field as it can’t be easily fixed until you get home. 3-layer jackets are less prone to membrane contamination since they have a fabric liner that keeps them away from your skin, dirt, oils and other sources of contamination.

From ‘B’ and ‘C’ it should be clear that keeping your rainwear clean, and refreshing the DWR are easy ways to improve the long-term breathability of an waterproofness of your rain jacket. So use products like these form Nikwax.

4) Hardware Failures

Another fairly common failure are front zippers that jam, no longer mate at the bottom, or start auto-separating in the field. In my experience zipper problems are second only to membrane delaminations for “non-fixable” failures. It is why I prefer beefier toothed zippers (vs. coil) on my rain jackets, or even a 1/2 zip rain jacket that eliminates the always risky mating of the zipper at the hem.

5) Ripping, Tearing and Puncturing the Jacket Shell Fabric

Finally, what rarely fails (at least in my 20+ years of using modern rain jackets) is the actual shell fabric of the rain jacket. I’ve used a large number very thin jackets over the years and they have rarely torn, ripped, punctured or had a seam fail. Generally, something else gets them first. (But I do avoid bushwhacking in sub 7 ounce rain jackets if at all possible.) Note that torn, ripped, punctured jackets are rarely covered under any warrantee, so the durability of a rain jacket’s outer shell fabric is a serious consideration if you think you might abuse your jacket.



 

The Best Durable Rain Jackets

Two of the very best durable rain jackets. (Green – Right) Outdoor Research Realm with its extremely breathable, tough, semi-stretch AscentShell 3-Layer fabric.  (Blue – Left) Montbell Storm Cruiser which manages a full feature set including big pit zips at only 10 oz. Both have chest pockets well above a pack’s hipbelt.

Not long ago, a getting a durable rain jacket meant getting heavy bulky jacket that cost and arm and a leg. Now you can get a tough and durable rain jacket that is under 12 ounces and possibly as light as 6 – 8 ounces. And some cost less than you’d think!

The following are our picks for the Best Durable but still Lightweight Rain Jackets for Backpacking.  The cutoff weight for inclusion is approximately 12 ounces. We believe that for this weight you can get sufficient durability, features, waterproofness and breathability for all activities short of severe bushwhacking and intense alpine climbing (and even then… ). And while we do not exclude running or climbing/mountaineering jackets they also need to be well suited to backpacking (and some are).

Note that many mainstream outdoor apparel brand offer “extremely durable” jackets. These jackets often use GORE-TEX pro with 50-70 denier fabric (or similar). They weigh 16-24 ounces and cost ~ $300-500. These have limited application in sports or professions other than hiking. We strongly believe they are far too heavy for hiking, backpacking or even lightweight mountaineering or climbing.


 REI Co-op Rhyolite

WEIGHT: 12 oz – $189

At at almost 1/2 the price of competitor’s jackets the Rhyolite is a great value!

TECH: 3-layer eVent DValpine™ fabric (20,000 g/m2/hr)

FEATURES: The REI Co-op Rhyolite is a solid three layer jacket at a great price! It has two well placed chest pockets and adjustable hem, cuffs and hood. REI made some good design choices with this jacket: the pockets are high enough to use when wearing hip straps and it has mesh pocket linings creating two large and effective chest vents (which we prefer over pit-zips). Additionally, the Rhyolite’s seam-free shoulder design is good when wearing a pack and should increase durability in this critical area. If you’re planning on buying this jacket, note that the hem comes up just a little short in the back, and the fabric is a bit on the stiff side (it didn’t bother us).

BEST FOR: Hikers and backpackers looking for a great value in rain protection with good breathability and great ventilation that can endure significant wear and tear. And it has the REI warranty! Note: the jacket uses the more waterproof/but moderate breathability 3-layer eVent DValpine™ fabric (20,000 g/m2/hr) vs. the more highly breathable DVstorm fabric (30,000 g/m2/hr).


Columbia OutDry Ex Eco Tech Shell Rain Jacket – M’s & W’s

WEIGHT: 12.1 oz – $199

TECH:  OutDry Ex Eco fabric (“1-Layer” is our term, not the manufacturer’s, since the shell fabric & membrane are one in the same!)

FEATURES: An unusual entry, the OutDry Extreme Eco uses newly developed eco-friendly, “1-layer” technology to make a mid-price, full featured, lightweight rain jacket with elastic drawcord hood (and hood velcro), velcro adjustable cuff, drawcord adjustable elastic hem, and two mesh chest pockets (great for ventilation). From our use the OutDry Ex Eco fabric is waterproof, breathable, and quite tough. And the OutDry technologies inherent water repellence prevents wet out without using traditional PFC-based DWRs. The jacket has a roomy fit for layering and nice length in the back for covering your tail. Some have criticized the Eco for keeping in the heat, but we have not found that to be the case.

Note that compared to the other 3-layer jackets in this category, the fabric in these jackets feels odd, like your first rubber rain jacket in grade school. This may be off-putting to some. But we didn’t find it impaired its performance. And the all-white color while eco may not be some people’s ideal fashion statement for the trail.

BEST FOR: Someone looking for an extremely durable jacket for frequent use that has long term waterproofness and breathability and water shedding (without need to refresh a DWR). This jacket might well survive the longest when worn continually with a backpack.


Outdoor Research Realm

WEIGHT: 10.9 oz – $279

Possibly the best all-around jacket in this group and at a reasonable price.

TECH: AscentShell 3-Layer, 100% nylon 20 D mechanical stretch ripstop face with 100% Polyester 12 D backer (30,000 g/m2/24h) 

FEATURES: The Outdoor Research Realm is a close competitor with the Montbell Storm Cruiser — they’re close in price, weight, feature set. What makes the Realm unique is its high breathability (30,000 g/m2/24h!) AscentShell fabric which also has stretch and a super nice feel. The Realm has two double pockets in the chest (one mesh, one waterproof with a subpocket for an iPhone in the mesh pocket), dual drawcord hood, tough toothed zipper, huge hood,  velcro cuffs, and stiffened brimmed hood. The Realm also has great range of motion in the shoulder area making it well suited for climbing as well as backpacking .

BEST FOR: Anyone looking for tough, highly breathable, full-featured rain that works equally well for hiking, backpacking or climbing. Note that the Realm does not have pit-zips, altho its fabric breathability makes these less essential.


Montbell Storm Cruiser

WEIGHT: 10.0oz – $289

This is the #1 selling rain Jacket in Japan, a country crazy about hiking and getting outdoors.

TECH: 3-layer GORE C-KNIT Backer Technology 20-denier Ballistic rip stop nylon

FEATURES: The Montbell Storm Cruiser is a full-featured, durable jacket that competes with the Outdoor Research Realm. The Storm Cruiser has all the bells and whistles while remaining at 10 oz! Drawcord adjustable hem, velcro adjustable elastic cuffs, big pit zips, two big waterproof chest pockets (above that pesky hip belt), a good-sized coil zipper and a three way adjustable hood (it’s quite deep). For venting the Storm Cruiser has two large pit-zips vs. the Realm’s single mesh lined chest pocket. This may be more to some people’s liking.

BEST FOR: Anyone looking for tough, breathable, well designed rain jacket that has pretty much every feature, including large pit-zips! Note: This jacket is only available directly from Montbell.


Patagonia M10 Anorak

WEIGHT: 8 oz

Note: The Patagonia M10 Anorak is the only jacket here that fits in both this 3-layer Durable Category and the ExtremeLight Category below. Quite an achievement if you can deal with the 1/2 zipper and minimal feature set! And it does have a nice chest pocket!

TECH: 3-layer, 2-oz 12-denier 100% nylon ripstop with a WPB barrier and a DWR finish

FEATURES: The M10 Anorak has a huge hood, deep chest zip and Napoleon pocket. The zip on the front contributes to the durability of the jacket (much lower risk of zipper wear and separation) and the reduced feature set leaves less to break while still allowing for full functionality. The jacket does have a snug fit — we had to size up to fit the jacket comfortably. But the Anorak is a standout pick in our list for anyone looking for durability that doesn’t weigh you down. Additionally, the Anorak further improves durability by using tough “welded seams” and moving seams away from the back, neck, and shoulder area (places where the jacket wears the quickest).

BEST FOR: The M10 Anorak is an excellent choice for someone looking for a long lasting fabric and feature set jacket that is incredibly light. Intended for athletes, the Anorak’s slim fit is extremely useful for runners climbers and others not looking for much insulation beneath a rain jacket. Given that, if you want to layer with the Anorak, you should consider sizing up.



ExtremeLight Rain Jackets that are a durable in their own way

(R)  Hyperlite Mountain Gear: THE SHELL jacket has unusually durable fabric and many full-sized features for its 5.8 oz weight. (L) Zpacks Vertice jacket has crazy high 56,000+ g/m2/24hr breathability!, 3-layer fabric and yet still weighs ~6 oz with a full feature set including pit-zips.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear: THE SHELL

5.8 oz – $450

Note: Hyperlite Mountain Gear: THE SHELL jacket is included for its unusually durable shell fabric, eVENT breathability and many full-sized features for its weight.

TECH: 2-layer, strong and super-breathable (32,000 g/m2/24hr) eVent | DCF-WPB fabric (formerly Cuben) with Dyneema® and eVent® materials technology

FEATURES: This is both the lightest and most expensive jacket of the group. Staying true to the HMG motto “less weight more options,” THE SHELL is extremely roomy, super-breathable (Breathability Rating: 32,000 gm2/24hr), and fully featured. It’s amazing that a sub 6 oz jacket can have an easy to operate, beefy, toothed waterproof zipper; a large, full-featured hood, and full-sized cuff closures. The Dyneema® Composite Fabrics (formerly Cuben Fiber) shell fabric is strong and compressible. The only thing to keep in mind is that the 2-layer eVent membrane is not protected with a fabric backing like more durable 3-layer jackets. Full review is here…

BEST FOR: Ultralighters looking for the very lightest jacket but with a tough outer shell fabric — and don’t mind spending significant $. It’s better for less frequent rain vs. week-after-week wear with a heavy backpack on, e.g. wet climates like Pacific NW.


 

Zpacks Vertice

WEIGHT: 6.2 oz – $300

Note: Zpacks Vertice  jacket is included because of of its 56,000+ g/m2/24hr breathability!, 3-layer fabric (membrane durability) but still weighing around 6 oz  and full-featured with pit-zips.

TECH: 3-Layer “Ventum-WPB” fabric. crazy 56,000+ g/m2/24hr breathability!, Tricot lining, a waterproof, vapor permeable membrane, & 7 denier ripstop nylon on the exterior.

FEATURES: The Zpacks Vertice is nearly twice as breathable as the next most breathable jackets in this guide—56,000 vs 32,000. Its 3-layer construction has a fabric liner to protect the WP/B membrane. It’s also the most fully featured jacket in this group, with a large dual adjustment hood with stiffened brim, pit-zips, adjustable cuffs, a large chest pocket, & long protective hem.

BEST FOR: Ultralighters looking for the lightest jacket that is super breathable, fully featured including pit-zips, and with 3-layer construction to protect the WP/B membrane. Note that this has the thinnest shell fabric of any jacket (7 denier ripstop nylon). That being said, the fabric does not seem to be unduly delicate. Adjustment hardware is also among the smallest and lightest in this group making it harder to manipulate than larger hardware.


Conclusion

If you will frequently wear your rain jacket with a pack on and/or use it bushwhacking etc. one of the durable rain jackets above is likely your best choice. Just to be clear, there is no perfect rain jacket. And there are implications for choosing the most durable rain jacket. That is, a rain jacket that scores highly on all of the durability features above will be expensive to very expensive and likely weigh 11 to 12 oz. This is about double the weight of the lightest rain jackets. And it is likely 2 to 4 times the cost of an excellent value rain jacket like the Marmot Precip.

Why might you get a less durable rain jacket?

Alternatively, while many very light rain jackets have thinner less durable shell fabric and/or thinner less durable WPB membranes (usually 2.5 layer) — they do have many desirable characteristics that heavier, durable rain jackets lack — they are crazy light, compact, less expensive and they will still keep you dry! For example, during summer in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with their infrequent afternoon thunderstorms, your rain jacket is likely to stay in your pack unused for the entire trip, or possibly just a few hours in a couple T-storms. As such, it may be more than durable enough for its “intended use” and last many seasons. In this case you can save the weight and cost of a durable 3-layer jacket, and get by with something like a:

Note: Lightweight and budget jackets will be covered in a future post.


Disclaimer

This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a slight portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you.  I am never under an obligation to write page post a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Easiest Way to Take a Wilderness First Aid Course

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

How to Register for a WFA Course

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

First Choice – Your local REI

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

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

Wilderness First Aid Course

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

Major Topics of NOLS Wilderness First Aid Course

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

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

What to Expect

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

Cost: Approx. $215 to $265

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

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

Dress for activity

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

Next Steps?

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

Conclusion

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