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

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

Why Leave No Trace?

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

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

 

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

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

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

The Ultralight Backpacker’s Guide to Leave No Trace

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

6 Select Areas of LNT Specific to Ultralight Backpacking

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

1. Table of Select Ultralight Gear for Leave No Trace

Item Oz $ Comments
Sanitation and Potty Needs
Deuce of Spades Potty Trowel 0.6 $20 Lightest effective trowel for digging catholes to bury human waste. See LNT Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly
Zerogram Cathole Trowel  1.0 $5 Nice light stainless steel trowel. Great value.
GSI cathole Trowel 2.9 $5 Low-cost, readily available. More comfortable handle but heavy.
Wag bag 2.5 $3 When reg’s require you carry EVERYTHING out! e.g. Mt Whitney
Bears — LNT Food Storage
Note: Bear canisters and the Ursack are as easy as it gets to effectively protect your food vs. the far more difficult and less effective method of hanging a bear bag (see below)
Ursack S29.3 Bear Bag 7.8 $80 Game changer! Same benefits as a bear canister but 5x lighter and much less bulky in your pack. Caution: Still pending approval in a few parks, e.g. Yosemite & Sequoia Kings Canyon.
Bear Vault BV500 canister 41 $80 Low cost.  Approved by almost all areas. Readily available.
Wild-Ideas Weekender 31 $288 Lightest bear canister approved in most parks. Pricy tho.
Hang a Bear Bag
(traditional, e.g PCT method)
like MLD Pro Bear Bag Sys.
4.1 $10 to
$50
Low cost & low weight. Not great for areas with bear problems. Time consuming & difficult to do correctly. Finally, by the time you hang it so bears can’t get it—you may not be able to get it.
 Aloksak OP Sak 12.5″ x 20″ 1.0 $6 Use with all methods for less food scent & animal attention
Tents for LNT
REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent 53 $349 Lower cost freestanding tent with minimal staking needs. Easier to setup on hard, durable LNT surfaces like rock.
Big Agn. Copper Spur HV UL 2 44 $450 A lighter but more expensive freestanding tent.
Zpacks™ Duplex Flex Tent 33 $725 2 lb freestanding shelter! Crazy light. Pricy! (I haven’t tested it.)
Think Outside the Box LNT Shelter Options
Bivy Sack: Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight 1 per or 2 per 8 $175 Low cost, low weight, no stakes. Fits into small areas where tents won’t. (may need to supplement with a UL tarp)
Hammock: Hennessy or Dutchware 8 to 32 $40 to med. Great LNT. No ground contact. Expands campsite options into the woods. Many low weight. See: 7 Reasons Why Hammock Camping is Fantastic – How To Get Started
For Minimal Ground Damage Hiking — Light Shoes with low profile tread & soft soles
Trail running shoes: Altra Superior or Altra Lone Peak 18 $110 Great shoes with soft soles and minimal tread. Light. Huge toe room. Super comfortable!
Brooks Cascadia Shoes 24 $130  Slightly heaver and stiffer option with a snugger fit.
Respect Wildlife with a Long Zoom Camera  — phone cameras mean you will have to get too damn close!
Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70 super zoom camera 11 $480 Low weight. Long, 720mm zoom lens brings wildlife to you. 25x further away than an iPhone!
Many compact zoom cameras  8? A 120 mm zoom keeps you 4x further away than an iPhone

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

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

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

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

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

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

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

Hanging a Bear Bag

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

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

3. Sanitation and Human Waste Disposal

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

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

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

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

Catholes and Potty Trowels

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

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

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

When Regulations Require you Pack EVERYTHING Out!

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


4. Low Impact Camping – Tents and Other Shelters

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

Where to Camp for LNT

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

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

Hammock Camping – Another UL, Outside the Box LNT Option

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

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

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


5. Low Impact UL Backpacking Footwear

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

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

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

Travel on Durable Surfaces

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

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

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

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


6. Respect Wildlife with a Long Zoom Camera

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

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

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

A few very light telephoto camera options are:

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

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



Appendix – Reference

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

The 7 principles of Leave No Trace

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

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


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.

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

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

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

The 13 Essentials for the Modern Hiker

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

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

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

 


1 Trip Plan

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

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

2 Staying Found

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

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

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


3 Navigation Tools (not always paper map and compass)

10 Essentials

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

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

For Navigation – Take the tools you can actually use!

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

Topographic Map and Compass

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

Alternatives to Topographic Map and Compass

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

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

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

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

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

 

10 Essentials

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


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

10 Essentials

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

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

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


5 – Insulation (extra clothing)

Sometimes

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

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


6 – Headlamp – A Good One!

10 Essentials

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

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


7 – Emergency Shelter

10 Essentials

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

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

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


8 – First Aid Kit

10 Essentials

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

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

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


9 – Hydration (prudent amount of extra water)

10 Essentials

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

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

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

10 Essentials

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


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

10 Essentials

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

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

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


11 – Nutrition

10 Essentials

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


12 Repair Kit and Tools

10 Essentials

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

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


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

10 Essentials

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

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



 

Appendix – Navigation Tools & Electronics

A Critical Caution for Electronic Items

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

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

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

 

Pick the Right Navigation Tools for YOU!

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

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


Paper Maps & Compass

a) Can I “use” a map and compass?

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

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

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

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

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


Smartphone GPS Apps

10 Essentials

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always Bring a Backup Battery!

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

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


Traditional GPS Units

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

 

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

It turns out that your body’s natural, thirst mechanism (700 million years old) works well to keep you hydrated and healthy during exercise. In fact, the amount of water your body requires is probably far less than what the Sports Drink and Bottled Water companies have been telling us.

 

People may be drinking too much water…

With all the hype about the risks of dehydration, it is actually over hydration (hyponatremia) that may be more of a risk. People are now having serious health problems from over hydration for endurance races and even hiking in the Grand Canyon—sometimes resulting in death1,2,3. [Note: Since I first published this post it has been shared by numerous Emergency Medical Treatment and Search and Rescue organizations for this very reason.]


Best hydration system

Best Hydration and Purification System – It’s NOT Complicated!

The simple, inexpensive Hydration and Purification System that Alison and use is shown above. When “drinking to thirst,” it has kept us well hydrated — even between distant water sources in the desert.

Excerpted from my 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List:

  1. Sawyer Squeeze Filter: We can drink immediately at water sources. This means both quick, effective hydration and less water to carry when we hike.
  2. Water Treatment Tablets: For fast, efficent water purification in camp. We can treat 3 or more liters of water in less than a minute. And it’s ready to drink 20-30 minutes later.

Drink When Thirsty – Myths and Facts about Hydration

I recently interviewed three world experts in the field of sports hydration (not affiliated with Sports Drink and Bottled Water companies)

  • Dr. Marty Hoffman, MD, founding member of the Foundation for Medicine & Science in Ultra-Endurance Sports, a member of the Wilderness Medical Society, and professor at the University of California Davis
  • Dr Tamara , D.P.M., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Exercise Science, Oakland University, Rochester, MI
  • Dr. Kristin Stuempfle Ph.D, Professor, Health Sciences, Gettysburg College

This is what I learned from these experts…


Myth1 – If you are thirsty, it’s already too late
Correct – Drink When Thirsty

  • All the experts in sports hydration I talked with adamantly agreed that Drink When Thirsty is the best and healthiest strategy for hydration during exercise*.
  • As Dr. Hoffman’s puts it: “Drink When Thirsty works for prolonged exercise. Our bodies have a fine tuned feedback system that lets us know when to drink…there is no real danger of dehydration when people have access to water. Thirst kicks in, and people drink.”
  • This agrees with the recommendation from the Statement of the Third International Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia Consensus Development Conference, 2015to Drink When Thirsty; “Using the innate thirst mechanism to guide fluid consumption is a strategy that should limit drinking in excess and developing hyponatremia [over-hydration with significant health consequences] while providing sufficient fluid to prevent excessive dehydration.”
  • Excessive drinking when you are not thirsty increases the risk of hyponatremia, arguably a greater risk than dehydration.

*Dr. Tamara Hew-Butler says the natural thirst mechanism has been working in animals and keeping them well-hydrated for at least 700 million years. See more from Dr. Hew on how the human thirst mechanism works.

So why have we been told to drink, drink, drink?

Why do we continue to hear sayings like, “hydrate or die,” “if you are thirsty, it’s already too late,” and stating that “your athletic performance will drop if you don’t drink enough“?

Deborah Cohen, investigations editor for the BMJ [formerly British Medical Journal], wrote up her findings in the 2012 feature article, “The truth about sports drinks5“. This article implies that the sports drinks industry has dramatically increased sales of their products by:

  1. Creating a “disease of dehydration”
  2. Stating that the natural thirst mechanism is inadequate to keep athletes hydrated. [Cohen implies that the evidence for this view is lacking.]
  3. And that this “lack of evidence” is in part due to the close financial and other affiliations between the sports drink companies and the scientists/researchers and supporting institutions that produce the research to support this view.
  4. Cohen’s article gives examples of studies supporting the sport drink companies claims, that when reviewed by an independent panel of experts, are not deemed robust enough to support those claims.

Here are some excerpts from the article

“Sports drinks are increasingly regarded as an essential adjunct for anyone doing exercise, but the evidence for this view is lacking. Deborah Cohen investigates the links between the sports drinks industry [e.g. Powerade (Coca-Cola) and Gatoraide (PepsiCo)] and academia that have helped market the science of hydration.”

‘“The problem was industry wanted to sell more products so it had to say that thirst was not adequate,” Noakes [Professor Tim Noakes, Discovery health chair of exercise and sports science at Cape Town University] says.’

‘Disease mongering is a well documented phenomenon in healthcare6 and Noakes suggests that industry has followed a similar pattern with dehydration and exercise.

“When industry wanted to sell more product it had to develop a new disease that would encourage people to overdrink,” he said adding: “Here’s a disease that you will get if you run. Here’s a product that is going to save your life. That’s exactly what they did. They said dehydration is a dreaded disease of exercise.”’

 


Debunking Other Hydration Myths

The following debunks:

  • You need to drink a liter per hour
  • Dehydration is a big problem
  • If your urine is yellow you are dehydrated
  • Dehydration causes cramping

And finally it address the Big Question, “How much water should I drink/carry on a hike?


Myth2 – You need to drink a liter per hour
Correct – Drink When Thirsty

  • Again, Drink When Thirsty is the best strategy.
  • Dr. Kristin Stuempfle says that studies7 show that the human body can only process a maximum of  0.8 liters (27 oz) to 1 liter (34 oz) of water at rest. That is not what your body needs—just the maximum amount of water it can process if needed—an important distinction.
  • That maximum amount of water processed will go down during exercise. According to Dr. Stuempfle our body’s natural response to exercise is to shunt blood from the kidneys and the GI (stomach and intestines) and  put it toward motor (leg) muscles, heart, and skin (cooling). In addition, during exercise the body secrets a natural antidiuretic hormone (ADH) to slow urine output. All these combine to reduce your body’s ability to process water.
  • So if you drink more water than you need during exercise (i.e. not drinking to thirst) then your body is receiving more fluids but has less capacity to handle them. Thus the risk of overhydration, and possibly hyponatremia.
Drink When Thirsty

In cooler environments where water is plentiful you may not need to carry any water with you. Drink from the source, and you will likely not be thirsty when you reach your next water source.


Myth 4 – Dehydration is a big problem
Correct – Mild dehydration is not a cause for serious concern

  • It will not significantly impair performance or health
  • Dr Hoffman told me:  “Even a mild hydration deficit of 2-3 liters is OK (provided you were adequately hydrated at the start of your hike). You may not be happy about it, but it’s not a serious problem.
  • Dr Hoffman also told me: “Top ultra runners are still performing well late in the race [100 miles] with a few percent bodyweight loss. They could not perform as well as they do, if percent bodyweight loss and mild dehydration was a big impediment to race performance8,9.”

Myth 5 – If your urine is yellow you are dehydrated
Correct-  Urine naturally turns yellow during exercise, even when adequately hydrated

  • Dr Hoffman says that: “Trying to keep urine clear during exercise will cause over hydration.” There was complete agreement among all the researchers on this point.
  • Additionally Dr Hoffman said: “[during exercise] urine color is not useful, and should not be used, as an indicator of hydration status…During exercise, because of hormonal influences to retain fluid and blood flow being shunted away from the kidney, urine production should be diminished, so urine color will darken.”
  • And from Cohen’s article5: “The science of dehydration has led to another widely held belief that is not based on robust evidence—that the colour of urine is a good guide to hydration levels.” And also from Cohen’s article5: “There is a lack evidence for the widely recommended practice of assessing hydration status by looking at the colour of urine,” it suggests.

Myth 6 – Dehydration causes cramping
Correct – Cramping well understood but not likely from dehydration or electrolyte levels

  • All the researchers I spoke with agreed that cramping is complex, not well understood and likely has multiple causes.
  • They also agree that dehydration and electrolyte depletion are not likely the main causes.
  • Dr. Hoffman not only noted that cramping appears to be neuromuscular, but that dehydration or electrolyte depletion does not cause cramping. Dr. Hoffman said this finding has been known for a number of years. In fact, cramping has more to do with neuromuscular nerve misfiring—nerves sending a false signal to muscles to contract and stay contracted, as indicated in research10 by  Martin P Schwellnus, UCT/MRC, Research Unit for Exercise, Science and Sports Medicine, Department of Human Biology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa.
  • From the New York Times Article A Long-Running Mystery, the Common Cramp by By GINA KOLATAFEB. 14, 2008:
    • “DR. SCHWELLNUS proposes that the real cause of cramping is an imbalance between nerve signals that excite a muscle and those that inhibit its contractions. And that imbalance, he said, occurs when a muscle is growing fatigued.”
    • “There’s the dehydration proposal: you just need more fluid. But, Dr. Schwellnus said, he studied athletes who cramped and found that they were no more dehydrated before or after a race than those who did not have cramps.”

How much water should I Drink/Carry on a hike?

This is the big challenge for backpackers, day-hikers or others that need to carry enough water between distant sources. Unlike Dr. Hoffman’s “There is no real danger of dehydration when people have access to water,” there is a possibility that if we don’t carry enough water between distant sources that we could run out of water and potentially become dehydrated. On the other hand, if we are hiking a long distance between water sources and and decide to carry 5 liters of water we are carrying an additional 11 pounds. This too has serious downsides.

So the big question for hikers and backpckers is

How do you estimate the “right” amount of water to carry between distant sources?

 

The goal is homeostasis, or to drink the same amount of water as your body uses. But how do we estimate our personal water consumption needs for homeostasis in the field? There is likely no “right or exact” answer to this. Dr. Stuempfle and Dr. Tamara Hew-Butler agree that the following would be a reasonable strategy for individuals to estimate their personal water consumption in the field:

  • On test day-hikes (or a weekend backpacking trip), Drink When Thirsty and record the amount of water your drink per hour. Try to do this close to the same level of exertion, and temperature and humidity that you will expect on your backpacking trips (or long day hikes).
  • Use this consumption rate per hour as a starting point for estimating the amount of water you’ll need to carry between distant sources in the field for your longer and more serious trips.
  • It is best to be conservative (carry a bit more water) until you have tested out and fine tuned your personal water consumption rate over at lest a few longer trips in the field.
  • Obviously if it is hotter, more humid, you are working harder, or your pack is heavier, you may need more water per hour. But, if it is cooler, less humid, or you are not working as hard, you may need less water per hour.

On a personal note, when following Drink When Thirsty I frequently do not carry any water with me in the field (Sierras, Appalachian Trail, etc.). When I drink (using aSawyer Squeeze Filter so I can drink directly at the source), I find that I am unlikely to be thirsty until I reach the next water source. My wife seems to run a bit thirster, and in addition to drinking at water sources, she usually carries somewhere between ½ to ¾ of a liter between sources.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Although I rarely carry water with me, the desert is the exception. This picture is from a drought year in the Southern Utah desert. So an unusually dry time in an already hot and dry place. I have collected a lot of water: for dinner that evening, breakfast the next morning & to carry during the day to our next reliable water source.

The only place we carry large amounts of water between sources is in the Desert Southwest, like Canyoneering in Utah. But even then, following Drink When Thirsty, we carry less water than the “recommended” amounts in guide books and other “authoritative” sources. We pull long days in the desert and feel healthy and fine. But we have years of field experience and comfortably know our personal water needs in the desert.


How the natural thirst mechanism works

Dr Tamara Hew-Butler, who has studied the natural thirst mechanism in animals, says it’s been working to keep them well-hydrated for at least 700 million years. The human thirst mechanism functions in two ways:

  1. Brain sensing electrolyte levels11: Your brain has real-time osmosensors that monitor sodium concentrations (more specifically, the amount of osmoles, for which sodium makes up the greatest amount) circulating in the blood. When sodium levels start to rise above normal, your body has a two stage response. The first response, is to slow urine output and therefore water loss (this occurs before thirst is triggered). If sodium levels continue to rise, your thirst mechanism kicks in and you become thirsty. It is important to note that you are NOT dehydrated at this point. All this happens before dehydration becomes an issue. This is your body’s normal mechanism to keep you from getting dehydrated. Dr. Hoffman and Dr. Hew-Butler both point out that as long as folks have access to water, their thirst will cause them to drink and not become dehydrated.
  2. Your heart (actually the main valves) senses blood volume (water): Your heart valves have barorreceptors that can detect a reduction in blood volume (water in the body). This also has a two stage response just the same as the brain’s osmosensor responses. Stage 1 happens at an 8-10% blood volume depletion and triggers an anti-diuretic hormone release which slows urine output and therefore water loss. You are not thirsty at this point. If blood volume continues to decrease, your thirst mechanism kicks and you get thirsty. Again note: that you are NOT dehydrated at this point. All this happens before dehydration become an issue. This is your body’s normal mechanism to keep you from getting dehydrated.
homeostasis-tamara-hew-1200

Figure source: 11 – INADEQUATE HYDRATION OR NORMAL BODY FLUID HOMEOSTASIS? – Tamara Hew-Butler, PhD, LETTERS, American Journal of Public Health, October 2015, Vol 105, No. 10, page e6


Summary

Drink When Thirsty, it’s been keeping hominoids well hydrated for millions of years.

Drink When Thirsty

References

1 Three Cases of Severe Hyponatremia During a River Run in Grand Canyon National Park – Emily A. Pearce, BS, et al., WILDERNESS & ENVIRONMENTAL MEDICINE, 26, 189–195 (2015)

2 Hiker Fatality From Severe Hyponatremia in Grand Canyon National Park – Thomas M. Myers, MD, et al., WILDERNESS & ENVIRONMENTAL MEDICINE, (2015)

3 Exercise-associated hyponatremia with exertional rhabdomyolysis: importance of proper treatment – Martin D. Hoffman1, et al., Clinical Nephrology, DOI 10.5414/CN108233

Statement of the Third International Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia Consensus Development Conference, Carlsbad, California, 2015 – Hew-Butler, Tamara DPM, PhD, et al., Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine: July 2015 – Volume 25 – Issue 4 – p 303–320, doi: 10.1097/JSM.0000000000000221

5 The truth about sports drinks – Deborah Cohen investigations editor, BMJ 2012;345:e4737 doi: 10.1136/bmj.e4737 (Published 18 July 2012)

6 Moynihan R, Heath I, Henry D. Selling sickness: the pharmaceutical industry and disease mongering. BMJ 2002;324:886.

Peak rates of diuresis in healthy humans during oral fluid overload – Noakes TD, et al., 2001 Oct;91(10):852-7. PMID:11732457

8 Race Diet of Finishers and Non-Finishers in a 100 Mile (161 km) Mountain Footrace – Kristin J. Stuempfle, PhD, Martin D. Hoffman, MD, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 30, No. 6, 529–535 (2011) page 529

9 Association of Gastrointestinal Distress in Ultramarathoners With Race Diet – Kristin J. Stuempfle, Martin D. Hoffman, and Tamara Hew-Butler, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2013, 23, 103 -109

10 Cause of Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC) — altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? M P Schwellnus, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2009 43: 401-408 originally published online November 3, 2008 doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2008.050401

11  INADEQUATE HYDRATION OR NORMAL BODY FLUID HOMEOSTASIS? – Tamara Hew-Butler, PhD, LETTERS, American Journal of Public Health, October 2015, Vol 105, No. 10, page e5

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

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

Efficient Backpacking Tips – Thru hiker tested

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

Help to Better Hike Your Own Hike

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

This post is in the following sections

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

1) On Trail – Efficient Backpacking Tips

Efficient Backpacking Tips

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

Spend less time on mundane tasks and more time having fun

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

Why “short” stops rob you of time for fun

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

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

Organized Pockets. The more the better.

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

Where I store my gear to save time

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

Backpack Pockets

I like BACKPACKS like these with lots of pockets.

PACK *Gear Stored
L shoulder 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

Efficient Backpacking Tips

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

Cargo Pants Pockets

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

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

Item Description Comments
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

PANTS Gear Stored
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

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

Evening Camp Routine – ideally 20 to 30 minutes

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

Before making camp

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

Arriving at camp – first tasks

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

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

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

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

Once the water boils:

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

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

Prep for the next day’s hiking

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

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

Morning Camp Routine

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

For those that have cold hands (like me)

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

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

3) Clothing Adjustments

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

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

xxxx

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

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

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

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

Clothing Item Oz Comments
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!

pack-snow-1200

MLD Prophet Pack with pockets jammed full of gear.

Alert! as a backpacker you are not well served by mainstream camera reviews like DPReview.

That is, the 5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera are quite different than those for a general use camera in mainstream reviews. Here are the major differences.

  • CAMERA WEIGHT – In mainstream reviews, the weight of the camera with a sharp zoom lens is not factored into their ratings. In fact, they routinely think that hefty cameras are better!
  • ZOOM LENSES – Many zoom lenses commonly sold with good cameras can only resolve 6 to 9 perceptual megapixels of the camera’s 24 MP sensor! Something not highlighted in mainstream reviews.
    Bottom line: a great camera with a mediocre lens will give you mediocre results.
  • IMAGE QUALITY HANDHELD – Mainstream review image quality assessment is done with the camera on a tripod using the highest quality (expensive and heavy) non-zoom lenses in the controlled environment of a test facility. While lightweight backpackers and hikers usually shoot in the field, handheld using a single zoom lens. (This saves the weight of a carrying a heavy tripod and multiple lenses.)
  • DAWN/DUSK PERFORMANCE – A backpacking photographer is further challenged by taking handheld photos in the dim light of dawn and dusk. This is the golden hour when the light is perfect for that great backcountry photo. Unfortunately, these are also conditions particularly vulnerable to images being completely ruined by blur from low shutter speeds and camera shake. This is not well covered in mainstream reviews.
5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera

A great backpacking camera is light but equally important, it gives you sharp photos even when handheld using a zoom lens in the low light of dawn and dusk. Pictured the environmentally sealed Olympus OM-D EM-5 ii with 12-40 f/2.8 PRO lens.

5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera – Summary

  1. Light and compact with ruggedness and environmental sealing a plus
  2. Sharp, wide angle zoom lens that is also light. These can be very difficult to find!
  3. Takes sharp, high quality photos HANDHELD
  4. Fast and easy to use in manual or semi-manual mode  (many light/compact cameras are not!)
  5. Bright viewfinder with all essential information displayed on one screen

And at the end I list What Cameras I take Backpacking that meet these criteria.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Surprised you don’t see any point and shoot cameras in here?

In The Point and Shoot Camera is Dead for Hikers, I discuss why I belive the point and shoot camera is dead (or approaching non relevance) for hikers and backpackers. But to summarize:

 

  • The point and shoot (p/s) camera is being squeezed into the grave from two sides. 1) on the inexpensive side by constantly improving smartphone cameras. And 2) on the more expensive side by very light mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras. If photography is a serious objective of your trip, their near “pro-level” performance justifies their cost/weight vs. carrying just your smartphone.
  • I am covering very light mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras in this post
  • And I will cover smartphone cameras, accessories, and techniques in a future post.

 

Top 5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera – Detail

1) Light and compact with ruggedness and environmental sealing a plus

  1. Yes number 1 is weight, but not in the way you might expect. First, this is the weight of the camera with a sharp zoom lens. And second, as long as it’s below a critical weight I don’t worry about it so much. After that, capturing a good photograph is my primary concern. Criteria 2 through 5 below all contribute to getting the best possible photo when backpacking.
  2. For me, the critical weight for a backpacking camera is determined by what I comfortably carry all day mounted to the shoulder strap of my pack. That is around 24 oz (1.5 lb) for camera and lens. And around 30 oz when I need an environmentally sealed camera/lens system, e.g. the Olympus OM-D EM-5 ii with 12-40 f/2.8 PRO lens.
  3. Environment sealing is important in some situations but not others. It adds significant cost and weight to a camera. Dust resistance is probably the most important since blown dust from dry and windy environments is quite common.
  4. If you are hiking on trail and take reasonable care of your camera, ruggedness is not a big deal. On the other hand, if you are bushwhacking, scrambling, or outright climbing and frequently using your camera, ruggedness may be a very good feature.
For me the maximum weight of a camera is determind by what I an comfortably carry on the shoulder strap of my pack.

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

2) It has a sharp*, lightweight wide angle zoom lens

  1. This is number 2 for a reason. And one could argue it should be number 1. The lens, not the camera is the limiting factor for image quality. Unfortunately, most light and inexpensive zoom lenses sold with cameras (“kit lenses”) can only resolve 6 to 9 perceptual megapixels of a 24 MP camera sensor! And sharp zoom lenses light enough for backpacking are few and far between. As such, it pays to do your research to find zoom lens and camera combinations that produce the best image quality.
    *See more on sharp below…
  2. Zoom lenses save weight by not having to carry multiple prime (fixed focal length) lenses. Wide zoom lenses are well suited to the sweeping landscapes of the backcountry and and allow for dramatic perspectives. They speed up work by not having to change lenses. In addition the lens stays on the camera protecting the sensor from dust and moisture.
  3. And for prime lens aficionados, yes there is an argument for them. Two good primes; one wide angle (around 35mm equivalent) for most work and supplemented by a fast and super sharp normal lens is a a great setup. Your feet do a great job of lens zooming! (Or I have used a light zoom supplemented by a fast and super sharp prime lens for critical shots.)
  4. For both zoom and prime lenses make sure you consider 3rd party lenses from the likes of Sigma, Tokina, Tamron, and even Zeiss. Many times these lenses will significantly outperform your your camera’s native lenses. Personally, I’ve had great results from Sigma lenses.
  5. Bottom line: a great camera with a mediocre lens will give you mediocre results.
5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera

An example of two sharp wide angle zoom lenses for Olympus’ u4/3 system. 1) To the left of the camera, the compact, wide and sharp 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 lens weighing only 5 oz! 2) On the right the very sharp environmentally sealed, 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens. Far left is the sharpest lens of the bunch, the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 prime.

The Olympus ED 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 lens is a great example of a light, sharp zoom lens well suited to backpacking. This lens is exceptionally wide-angle (18-36mm equivalent) for dramatic perspectives and sweeping landscapes. Compact and only 5 ounces, it is a marvel optical engineering.

Camera Shake – the Fastest Way to Ruin a Backpacking Photo

Camera Shake can quickly blur a 24 megapixel image down to essentially zero megapixels!
Lightweight backpackers are particularly vulnerable to camera shake since they take most of their photos handheld. Factors that combat camera shake all involve increasing shutter speed:

  • First is image stabilization from the lens (or in the camera body—better since it works with any lens). Image stabilization will usually give you an extra 2-3 shutter speeds with little downside.
  • Second is high ISO performance which uses less light to the sensor for the photo. High ISO performance will usually give you an extra 2-4 shutter speeds with minimal image degradation.
  • Third is a faster (wider aperture) lens. This might get you 1-2 shutter speeds. Downside is buying a heavier and more expensive lens.

If you combine all three above, you can gain a 5-9x increase in shutter speed with minimal impact on image quality. This is what makes handheld shots possible at dawn or dusk. Even so, bracing your camera against a tree, rock, trekking pole or even using a small, 1-3 oz tripod are all improvements over handheld. All Olympus camera bodies and now the new Sony a6500 have in-body image stabilization.

 

3) It takes sharp, high quality photos handheld

Especially in situations encountered backpacking like the dim light of dawn and dusk. Contributors are:

  1. Excellent image stabilization (in-camera is preferred.). A tripod is a last resort for most backpacking photos—it’s both heavy, and time consuming.
  2. High ISO performance gives you sharper images in low light, gaining you 2-4 shutter speeds  This is with only a slight decrease in image quality. After that, image quality increasingly degrades as you go higher.
    Note: for handheld shots at dawn or dusk the shutter speeds gained from a & b above,  may have more impact on image sharpness than the camera’s sensor and lens!
  3. Fast and light lenses are usually primes (fixed focal length) and will gain you 1-2 shutter speeds. Fast zoom lens with good image quality are very expensive and sometimes weigh more than the camera they are mounted to. But some of these zooms have image quality that equals the best prime lenses. This makes them a tempting option if photography is a major objective for your trip.
  4. Fast accurate focusing on the correct subject is essential to quickly getting sharp photos.
  5. Good DRO (digital range optimization). DRO deals-with the less than flattering, high-contrast light of midday when we take most of our photographs. It automatically brings up shadow detail without blowing out highlights. DRO is faster and easier to use than high dynamic range (HDR) photography which takes multiple images and must be done on a tripod.
  6. Finally but by no means least, good quality JPEGs out of the camera: This greatly speeds getting photos into publication—the single largest time consumer/bottleneck in the whole photographic production process. (I am only going to edit RAW images for the few critical shots that need it.)
5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera

Sometimes to get the highest image quality you need a sharp prime and a small tripod. In this case the Sony a6000 camera with the super sharp Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Art lens.  At only 22 oz,  this camera/lens combo has image quality equal to or exceeding the very best, and much heavier APS-C camera systems.

Bad Focus – Another Way to Ruin a Backpacking Photo

Occasionally the camera’s “smart” auto-focus algorithm fails and puts the focus in the wrong place, leaving your “intended” subject all blurry. And sometimes in the low light of dawn and dusk there may not be enough light or contrast to get reliable focus. In either case, the resulting photo is useless.

  • A camera with more focus points and a fast, sophisticated focus algorithm is highly desirable. Some of the newer mirrorless cameras like the Sony a6300 and a6500 are rivaling the very best cameras for both speed and accuracy of focusing
  • Consider using manual focus some of the time. Mirrorless cameras have an advantage with their fast, and easy to use manual focus. A key to this is the “focus assist function,” with auto-zoom and/or focus peaking options. These options make it fast and easy to get sharp focus exactly where you want it. I suggest you program one of you cameras functions button to toggle between auto & manual focus.
  • Another great “manual focus” option is a touchscreen that allows you to put your finger where you want focus. This is particularly effective when shooting off of a 1-3 oz tripod.

 

4) It is is fast and easy to use in manual or semi-manual mode

By the nature of backpacking we are moving—we have places to go and other things to do besides fiddling with a camera. That is, we need to quickly take our best photo and move on. To do this:

  1. You should be able to adjust all critical functions without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.
  2. Fast easily accessed controls are key. Ideally at least two knobs on the top of the camera do the bulk of the work. And a number of customizable function buttons do the rest. You use all of these to quickly modify your major camera settings: exposure, aperture, shutter speed, ISO setting, activate manual focus, manage DRO (digital range optimization), timed shutter release, etc. All in a matter of seconds, not minutes.
  3. Small dials on the camera back, critical items buried in nested menus, etc. all slow down picture taking.
  4. A touchscreen, while not essential, has its advantages, particularly when focusing and making adjustments when shooting from a tripod.

5) Bright viewfinder with all essential information displayed on one screen

A Good viewfinder allows for faster photo taking, better photos, and fewer re-takes. That is, the better you see your image and the more information you have before you take your photo, the better the photo.

  1. Cameras without viewfinders are close to non-starters. Rear screen displays are almost impossible to see in bright daylight. And even if visible, the image is usually far too small to see essential details well enough to assess the quality of the picture before taking it.
  2. In the viewfinder, you should be able see all your critical settings (including histogram). This enables you to quickly assess your photo and make the necessary adjustments before you take it.
  3. A good viewfinder also helps with manual focus.

What is Sharp?

Sharp as I use it is the “perceptual megapixels” of the final image.  This is a combination of both lens and camera—not simply the native resolution of the camera sensor! As an example, for most 24 MP, APS-C (crop sensor cameras like the Sony a6300 and a6500Nikon D7200 or Canon EOS 80D) the perceptual megapixel resolution final image maxes out at around 17 MP or around  70% of the native 24 MP sensor resolution, even with the best and most expensive prime lenses.

Almost all of the loss of the camera sensor’s 24 megapixels is due to the lens. Compared to primes, most zoom lenses do worse, with image resolutions well below 50% of the camera’s sensor. Some going as low as 25% or only 6 MP of your camera’s 24 MP sensor.  So it’s important to consider the camera lens combination with a major focus on the lens image quality. One could even argue to select your lens first, and get a camera body that works it.

Bottom line: a great camera with a mediocre lens will give you mediocre results.

For more reading see DxOMark on Perceptual Megapixels, and take a look at a sample table of the Perceptual Megapixels for Nikon DX lenses on various camera bodies.

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

What Backpacking Cameras I Use Most of the Time

On most of my backpacking trips and on international travel, I carry:

Sony Cameras

Olympus Cameras

 Sony a6000 or Sony a6500

Lenses for Sony

Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Contemporary lens sharp as it gets!
Sony SEL35F18 35mm f/1.8 sharp, fast, stabilized
Sigma 19mm f2.8 DN low cost, light
Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN sharp, low cost, light
kit Sony 16-50mm f/3.5-F5.6 decent, low $, light

Olympus EM-10 Mark II or EM-5 Mark II

Lenses for Olympus

Olympus 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 super wide, 5 oz!
Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO very sharp, environmentally sealed
Sigma 30mm f/1.4 prime. tack sharp, fast
kit Olympus 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 IIR decent, low $, light

For astro/star photographers

The lens for this is probably the Rokinon 12mm F2.0 NCS CS Ultra Wide Angle Fixed Lens available in Sony-E and u4/3 mount. Excellent value, fast and reasonably sharp. Manual focus tho, not that it is a big deal when doing astro work, just set it to infinity and go.

The Possible Exception to P/S Death

“Point and shoot like,” 1-inch-type sensor cameras, e.g. the Sony RX-100 series do perform significantly better than the best smartphone cameras. For some their smaller size and lower weight vs. a mirrorless camera is a godsend. As such, they occupy a valid but narrow niche between smartphone cameras and mirrorless cameras. But note that their image quality not quite as good as similarly priced mirrorless cameras that may weigh only a few ounces more. They are too large and heavy to be truly “pocketable.” And finally, their single lens is only about 1/3 as sharp as the best interchangeable camera lenses for mirrorless cameras like the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Contemporary lens.

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

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

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

I’ve wanted to wear a skirt for a while. My wife will back me up on this, but not for the reasons you think. And to be clear, I have Scottish blood (clan Dixon) so I get to wear a kilt which is pretty much a skirt. But the main reason I wanted to wear a hiking skirt/kilt was for comfort and hygiene hiking in the hot and humid summers on the east coast.

Hiking Skirt

As a man, I had some concerns about people’s reaction to me wearing what is essentially a skirt—especially from other men. But it turns out other hikers are pretty chill about it. I’ve had zero negative comments and more than a few compliments.

A Man’s Take on Wearing a Hiking Skirt (er, Kilt)

I guess I’m at an age where I am comfortable with who I am. I am not going to let societal stereotypes deter me from checking out a possibly more comfortable and efficient way to hike.

And it’s clear that there are many women hikers kickin’ some ever lovin’ ass on the trail—like my fabulous wife and the record setting Heather (Anish) Andersen who is besting the men. If they see benefits and efficiencies in hiking in a skirt, I am interested.

It took a lot of courage to take those first steps on a public trail

As a man, I had some concerns about people’s reaction to me wearing what is essentially a skirt—especially from other men. But it turns out other hikers are pretty chill about it. I’ve had zero negative comments and more than a few compliments on my kilt (all women) but that’s just fine!

Bottom line: I liked my hiking kilt enough that I’ve added it to my most popular  9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List. Both “men’s” and women’s versions are listed.

 

The Breaking Point – My Decision to Try a Skirt

What finally made me man-up and wear a hiking skirt, was a late spring section hike on the AT. My wife and I were covering 25+ miles a day in the first sweltering heat-wave of the season. It was so hot and humid that the rocks on the trail were sweating and slippery even in the heat of midday. It had been a cold spring and we were in no way heat adapted. So, if the rocks were sweating, us warm-blooded humans were gushing the stuff. Alison was literally wringing sweat out of her hair.

Our main complaint was with our sweat drenched underwear. By day 2 our soggy underwear had become so unpleasant we stopped wearing them and went commando (fairly common practice). We washed as frequently as we could, but even not wearing underwear, our light nylon shorts trapped too much heat and moisture below the belt to give us complete relief.

By day 3, we vowed to buy hiking skirts. So when we finished the section hike I emailed Mandy at Purple Rain Adventure Skirts, a hiking clothing company. I ordered an Adventure skirt for Alison and an Adventure Kilt for myself. We are both very glad we did.

Hiking Skirt

Hiking skirts work in cool weather too. Alison wearing her Purple Rain Adventure Skirt on a crisp fall morning.

What’s Good About a Hiking Skirt or Kilt

Hiking skirts have advantages over shorts. Heather (Anish) Anderson, who currently holds the unsupported records for the PCT and the AT hikes in a dress or skirt most of the time.

  • Bio breaks are faster with a skirt. Dramatically so for women who also use the “pee rag system.” But even for men, bio breaks are faster and more convenient.
  • They are more comfortable than shorts. In warm weather, there’s a ton more ventilation.
  • Hygiene. There’s a lot more below the belt ventilation and drying going on. This equals better hygiene. When used without underwear there’s even more ventilation and less environment to breed bacteria.
  • There’s far more range of motion that you might expect in a skirt. Neither of us had any problems taking huge strides over large trees blown down on the AT.
  • A very nice pocket arrangement. Two on each hip (one Velcro security pocket, one drop in pocket) with the drop in pocket being the perfect size for your smartphone.
  • For women, you can look more upscale for a town visit and/or at a restaurant. (Men maybe not so much)

For all these reasons, Alison and I have added the Purple Rain Adventure skirt and kilt  to our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List.

Hiking Skirt

Bio breaks are faster with a skirt. Dramatically so for women who also use the “pee rag system.” The red cloth on the right side of Alison’s pack is a pee rag drying out.

Downsides for Hiking Skirts and Kilts

  • Men only: Depending on the local town, you may need to change into light shorts to be “socially acceptable.”
  • Little mosquito protection. But then that’s true for shorts too. Unless mosquito pressure is insanely bad, you can usually get by with a skirt in the middle of the day while you are moving. But you’ll likely need some light legging or pants for evenings in camp. Alison and I have sometimes used our light rain pants to save the weight of carrying pants just for this purpose. If mosquitoes are horrendous even midday you’ll likely need to abandon both skirts and shorts.
  • For Purple Rain skirts: get the correct fit. If the waistband is too loose, heavy objects in the pockets may cause it to slide down a bit. (But once the waistband is secured under you pack hip-belt, this is not a problem.)

Conclusion

So yes, I guess I can now say that I’m man enough to wear a skirt (er, kilt). And am better off for it.

Hiking Skirt

A new trail look for me

 

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.

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Route Overview Map: click image for larger view

Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT

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

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

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

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

Reduce the Carbon – Take the Train

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

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

Overview

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

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

Make your trip even more enjoyable…

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

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

 

What’s in this Trip Guide

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


Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train

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


Guide Resources

Stats – Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train

The trip takes between 5 to 9 days

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

Transportation Time

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

Waypoint and Mileage Table

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

Maps and Guides

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

We supplement it with the following Appalachian Trail Pocket Profile Maps

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

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

Options for Trip Start in Harpers Ferry WV

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

Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights – a Photo Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make it a 4 state trip!

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

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

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

Ferns along the AT in a lush stream valley.

Ferns along the AT in a lush stream valley.

Crampton Gap Shelter and Gathland State Park

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

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

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

Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge.

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

Washington Monument State Park

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

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

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

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

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

Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell Shelters

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

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

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

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

“The Rocks of Pennsylvania”

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

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

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

Raven Rock Shelter

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

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

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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.

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The AT where it crossed the Mason Dixon line.

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

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

Tumbling Run Shelter to Caledonia State Park

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

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

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

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

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

Quarry Run Shelters

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Rhododendron tunnel on the way to Quarry Run Shelters.

Birch Run Shelter

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

Appalachian Trail Midpoint(s)

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

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

Pine Grove Furnace

The Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park.

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

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

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

James Fry Shelter

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

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

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

Entering the Cumberland Valley

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

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

Boiling Springs PA – 1st option to uber to train

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing the Cumberland Valley

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

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

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

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

Leaving the Cumberland Valley to Trip End in Duncannon PA

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

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

Hawk Rock

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

Duncannon PA – the end of the trip

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

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


Logistics – getting to and from trip start and trip end

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

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

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

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

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Rail yard at Washington DC Union Station

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

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

To Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS)

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

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


Lodging in Harpers Ferry

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

harpers-ferry-lgv2-1200

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

The Lower and Upper Sections of Harpers Ferry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fun things to do in Harpers Ferry besides the National Park

guide-shack-cafe-1200

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

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

Most people know about Aron Ralston of “127 hours,” who cut his arm off to save his life. A major take-away from this was that he should have left a Trip Plan with a friend. Something as simple as a short note saying where he was going and what to do if he wasn’t back on time would have gotten him help far sooner than 127 hours. This is why you should make a Trip Plan (even a very short one) and leave it with someone for every backpacking trip. [Picture above is the author about 12 miles from where Aron Ralston’s arm was pinned by a loose rock.]

You think disaster won’t happen on your trip – but you might be wrong

No matter how incredibly competent you are and how meticulously you’ve prepared for your trip, an accident or emergency can happen to just about anybody, at any time.  It happened to Aron Ralston with a random loose rock. And similarly random things have happened and will happen to many others. A fluke accident, a flare up of a pre-existing medical condition, or even the odd event like an appendicitis, or acute altitude sickness, etc. can change your trip from fun to damage-control-mode in an instant.

The Life you Save Might be your Own!   or Why you Should Make a Trip Plan

If you make a Trip plan you stand a much better chance of getting help or a rescue.
And stuff can happen. Personally in the last 5 years:

  • I’ve participated in an immediate, life-threatening helicopter evacuation (not my bad).
  • Received in-field medical instruction on how to lance an abscessed tooth though the gum with a pocket knife (yes, my tooth!).
  • And locally we had a backpacker die, due in part to not having a Trip Plan and therefore, not getting rescued in time.

Finally, even if you don’t do it for yourself (or your loved ones!), make a Trip Plan as a courtesy to the Search and Rescue Personnel that may need to come look for you. These folks are mostly volunteer and it’s not respectful to have them spend countless days and hours searching for a missing person with little or no information.

What’s in this Article

The main purpose of this article is to make it fast and easy to make an effective Trip Plan. That way you’ll always do it!

What’s not in this Article

The 3 Most Important Elements for a Trip Plan

It’s far better you make short Trip Plan than to not make one at all. In that vein, a Trip Plan needn’t be a lengthy or complicated.

Here are the 3 Most Important Elements for any Trip Plan:

  1. The Route
    • Time and location of your trip start, and time and location of your trip end
    • Your route between the trip start and trip end (and where you plan to camp each day)
  2. Notifications
    • The time and method you’ll notify your trip-tracking-emergency-contact that you are out safely
    • The time your trip-tracking-emergency-contact should notify the authorities that you are a no-show/missing (providing local emergency contact info, Park, SAR, Sheriff etc. very helpful)
  3. Emergency Contact: Leave the Trip Plan with a trusted person (your trip-tracking-emergency-contact)

For Aron Ralson, communicating this minimal amount of information via an email, text or phone call to a friend (in all of 1-2 minutes) would have likely had him rescued within 24 hours.

Why You Should Make a Trip Plan

When you’re traveling off-trail in terrain like this it’s good to have a Full Trip Plan Document. On the Southern Sierra High Route. [photo Don Wilson]

Example Trip Plans – for you to fill out and use

Below is how to create your own Trip Plan from a Simple Trip Plan (“low risk” trips. e.g. hiking on the Appalachian Trail) to a Full Trip Plan (“high(er)” risk trips, e.g. dropped into Alaska by bush plane a zillion miles from anywhere). Note: Everybody has their own take on what is a risky trip. A low risk trip to one person may seem crazy risky to another person. As such, “Low Risk,” “Moderate Risk” and “High Risk” are in parenthesis for the rest of this article.

A Simple Trip Plan

When might you use a Simple Trip Plan?

As stated previously, it’s far better you make short Trip Plan than to not make one at all. But here are some instances where a Simple Trip Plan might work well:

  • Local weekend trip on good trails or other familiar, relatively safe area that you know well
  • Usually less than a day to hike out if you have a problem, and usually a lot of other hikers around
  • A more adventurous, higher risk day hike
  • Your trip-tracking-emergency-contacts know you well and know your skill-set/abilities. They are already be familiar with tracking your previous trips and use of standard communications protocols for inReach, SPOT, mobile phones etc. (So no need for a lengthy reiteration of this.)

Example Trip: Section hike of the Appalachian trail with a friend (not solo) in seasonable weather

Example of a Simple Trip Plan

The following is an example of a Simple Trip Plan. It takes the form of a short email to your trip-tracking-emergency-contacts. Obviously, if you want to include more information you can certainly use the more detailed template document, Full Trip Plan Document for Moderate to High Risk Trips (next box below), and fill it out with the information you feel is necessary and important for your trip.


To: Trip-tracking-emergency-contacts
Subject: Monitoring of our AT Section Hike, Harper’s Ferry to Harrisburg PA. Low key trip. Not expecting problems.

  • ITINERARY: May xx to May yy. Hike on the Appalachian Trail from Harper’s Ferry WV (starting evening of May xx) to Duncannon PA (late in the day May yy) where we’ll call to let you know we are out safe by dark.
  • Approx. route is mapped here: http://caltopo.com/m/xxxwe’ll be taking the inReach (in 10 min tracking mode) here https://share.delorme.com/xx and our cell phones which should have intermittent coverage most of the way.
  • If you don’t hear from us by 11pm last day (May yy) notify local authorities that we are a no-show.

[Note that this quickly covers all of the “3 most important elements for a Trip Plan” in an email format]

 

A Full Trip Plan for “Moderate Risk” and “High Risk” Trips

A Full Trip Plan is a lot more work! It includes things like the gear you are bringing including pictures of your shoe tread & tent; detailed information about each party member including wilderness experience, skills (including medical), personal medical history, etc.; extensive information about the communications electronics you are brining (including communication protocols between hikers and the emergency contacts), URLs for a map of the route, etc., etc. As such, you might not want to include all this information for a basic trip.

When might you use a Full Trip Plan?

The following are some things to contemplate when you decide how “risky” your trip is and how much information you want to include in your Trip Plan:

  • You are traveling solo
  • Backpacking in a more remote area that you are not as familiar with
  • A longer duration trip 4-7 days or more
  • Likely 2 or more days to hike out for help if you have a problem
  • Might have off trail travel, scrambling, skiing, technical climbing, whitewater river travel, winter conditions or other features that significantly increase risk vs. walking on good trails in fair weather
  • May use an SOS/Tracking Device (inReach or SPOT)
  • And for very remote and/or technical trips might include a Satellite Phone in your kit

“Moderate Risk” Trip Example: Week-long hike in the Sierra Nevada with a mixture of some on-trail travel and some off-trail side trips with sections of up to class 3 travel (scrambling on rocks using hands as well as feet—no rope needed).

“High Risk” Trip Example: 1) A week-long technical canyoneering trip (class 5 rock climbing) in a remote and mostly untraveled desert canyon system. 2) Getting dropped in by float plane to white water pack-raft and climb in Alaska above the Arctic Circle. In these cases there will be more detailed trip information and likely use of a Sat. Phone.

Full Trip Plan Document for Moderate to High Risk Trips – a template to fill out and use

Template document – Full Trip Plan for Moderate to High Risk TripsThis is a link. Click to open Template.

  • Note to user: This is a Template Document. Copy the text from this Google Document Template and paste it into your own document editor (MS Word, Google Docs, etc.) . Then fill it out (edit it) to contain the correct information for your trip.
  • The information in this Template is extensive and intended for a “high(er) risk” trip
  • For a more “moderate risk” trip some of this info may not be needed. Omit/modify at your discretion.
  • This covers integration of your Trip Plan with a DeLorme inReach or SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger – and also uses of a  Satellite Phone

Selecting an Emergency Contact to Give Your Trip Plan to

Here are some important factors to consider when selecting an emergency contact (trip-tracking-emergency-contact):

  • Level headed and reliable. For me this is usually a close family member or one of my trusted hiking/climbing partners. I trust them to seriously monitor my trips and in an emergency do the right thing without drama.
  • Familiarity with the area. If I am pack-rafting in Alaska I want someone that is familiar with the terrain and challenges of white water packrafting and land travel above the Arctic Circle. If I am on a Technical Canyoneering trip in Utah, I want someone experienced in canyon travel to be my emergency contact. With less specialized and technical terrain, there are far more people eligible to be emergency contacts.
  • Responsiveness. In this day and age, especially for higher risk trips we might be communicating  indirectly or directly with our emergency contact. This could be indirectly via location-check-ins or tracks from devices like a SPOT or inReach. Or it can be directly like text messages from an iReach or a call form a Sat. Phone. I want my contact to closely monitor these communications and quickly respond to things like an emergency, or if my trip track hasn’t moved in 24 hours and I haven’t notified them as to why. Or just to reply to my request for a weather update before climbing, etc.

The limitations of a Trip Plan and SOS Devices

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

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

Why You Should Make a Trip Plan

A shoe tread picture for a Trip Plan Document. My Altra Lone Peak 3.0 trail running shoes.

 

It’s a myth that ultralight backpacking makes you cold, wet and hungry. It doesn’t. In fact, I’ll wager that with my 5 to 9 pounds of ultralight gear I’m more comfortable, sleep better, and eat better than many campers carrying 20 to 30 pounds of conventional/heavier backpacking gear. So, here are 3 Reasons why You Won’t Freeze or Starve UltraLight Backpacking.

Picture above: A 1.5 pound pyramid shelter is an excellent choice for protection from wind, rain and snow. Weighing a fraction of a conventional tent, it also has far more room to relax and spread out.

If 5 pounds sounds a little too light…

Our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List is likely the best fit for most backpackers. So, if you want to lower your pack weight 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!

Freeze or Starve

 

3 Reasons why You Won’t Freeze or Starve Ultralight Backpacking.

  1. Have good camping skills: Good camping skills rule! They are far more important than the weight of your gear for keeping safe, warm and dry. And by camping skills, I don’t mean the questionable survival “skills” of reality TV—I mean the basic, garden-variety skills that every backpacker knows—like putting on rainwear or a warm jacket when needed, selecting a good campsite, and doing a decent job of pitching a Good UL Tent or Tarp/Pyramid Shelter.
  2. Take light gear, appropriate for the conditions: I pick the lightest, fully-functional gear appropriate for the actual conditions I backpack in. Light gear like:
    1. UL Backpack
    2. UL Sleeping Bag or UL Down Quilt (my favorite!)
    3. Warm UL Down Jacket, and a light 6-8 oz Rain Jacket
      All of these work as well as conventional (heavy) gear at 3 times the weight.
    4. Appropriate for the conditions: I take gear for actual conditions for the time of year and location I am backpacking. E.g. I don’t take 4-pound, 4-season dome tent, a +20F sleeping bag, and a down jacket for a warm May trip on the Appalachian Trail with expected lows in the 60s—you’d be surprised how many people do!
  3. Pack nutritious high-calorie food: Intelligent selection of food is key:
    1. My food gives me 3,000 nutritious and filling calories of complex carbs, protein and healthy fats for around 1.5 pound/day.
    2. This is the same number of calories provided by 2 pounds of average backpacking food.
    3. Over a 3 day weekend backpacking trip I get as many calories and nutrition, possibly more than someone carrying twice the food weight.
why you won't freeze or starve ultraLight backpacking

Ultralight done right: warm, dry, well-fed and lovin’ life on the trail!

In Summary

It’s not the weight of your gear but 1) rusty camping skills, 2) poor gear choices and 3) uniformed food selection that will make any backpacker more prone to being cold, wet and hungry. This is just as true for conventional (heavy) backpackers, as it is for lightweight or ultralight backpackers.


Reason 1 – Have Good Camping Skills

Good camping skills are the main reason why you won’t freeze or starve ultralight backpacking. Having confidence in your camping skills, means that you won’t compensate by packing a bunch of heavy, over-kill gear and backup gear. Here are some of what I believe are the most important camping skills:

camping skill 1 – Campsite Selection

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 slight chance of rain, otherwise it stays in my pack.

Good campsite selection: While I could have pitched this lovely HMG UL Tarp higher up on the canyon wall on a shelf with great views, I chose to camp in a warmer & more protected place in the trees. And discreetly camping out of sight, away from the trail & in the trees is a favor to others sharing the canyon with me. [Note that one tarp ridgeline is solidly anchored to a cottonwood]

Pitch your shelter in a protected area, preferably in trees.

First, discreetly camping out of sight in the trees, is a favor to others sharing the area with you—rather than advertising your presence to everybody for miles around. Second, trees do a number of lovely things for you:

  • Trees provide shelter anchors: for tarps, shelter tie-outs, and hammocks. Far more secure than stakes in the ground.
  • Trees block the wind: which keeps you a lot warmer (reduces convective heat loss). It also lowers wind load and stresses on your shelter and tent stakes.
  • Trees keep you warmer: Trees prevent radiant heat loss. They reflect the day’s heat back to the ground at night in the same way that a cloudy sky makes it warmer overnight.
  • Trees keep you drier: Camping in the trees is also less prone to the heavy dew and condensation of exposed campsites.The worst place for dew is in a treeless meadow at the bottom of a canyon. The best place to be is in the woods on a flat area a few hundred feet above the canyon bottom (or surrounding lower area).

Finally, make sure that your tent is not in an area where water will pool-up or stream through.

camping skill 2 – Know How to Pitch your Shelter

Be solid on this before your trip. It’s not rocket science. Anybody can pitch a tarp or pyramid shelter with just a bit of effort.

  • Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. They are likely excellent.
  • Setup your shelter in the backyard, or nearby park/playing field a few times before you go. If you are backpacking with a partner do this together. You should be able to easily pitch a tarp or pyramid shelter in 3 to 5 minutes.
  • For a basic tarp, there’s no need to get fancy. An A-frame pitch between two trekking poles (or better, two trees) will work fine 95% of the time. In strong winds, pitch it lower to the ground and flatter.
  • Orient your shelter to the expected wind direction. Orient tarps with the narrower/rear end low and into the wind, pyramid shelters/tents with the door facing away from the wind.
  • In very strong winds, use the the additional tie-out points on your shelter.
  • Use sturdy Y-stakes. They have great holding power, and you can pound them into rocky ground. Always carry 1-2 spare stakes and a few hanks of spare cord.
  • Shelter cord adjusters can slip. Know a few basic knots and guyline management—a figure 8 loop at the end of a line; a girth hitch and a trucker’s hitch for guyline tension adjustment.
why you won't freeze or starve ultraLight backpacking

Safe, well protected, warm and dry at 11,000 feet in a 1.5 pound pyramid shelter: We are above tree-line so it was really important to properly pitch our shelter and use lots of sturdy Y-stakes. In this case we used 8 stakes. (And had the option to put in 4 more if needed.)

camping skill 3 – Keep Hiking When It’s Cold

Moderate but consistent movement (it needn’t be at all tiring or strenuous) is the key to keeping warm when it’s really cold.

  • Even walking 1 to 1.5 miles per hour should keep your internal, metabolic heater going, and keep your hands and feet warm. If you are getting tired you are going too fast!
  • Minimize stops to essential needs, and don’t make them longer than necessary. You get cold quickly, and it takes a long time to warm up again. If you’re starting to chill it’s time to move.
  • If you really need to stop for a longer time (over 5 minutes), try to do it in a warmer, more protected area and put on warm clothing (e.g. down jacket) as soon as you stop. Take your warm clothing off just before you start hiking again. Or even after you been walking for a few minutes.
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Late winter conditions, windy and in the 20s on the Appalachian trail: I’m warm and comfortable hiking at my own pace, wearing just a 6 oz base layer, a 7 oz fleece shirt (mid-layer) , a 2 oz fleece hat, and 2 oz gloves. My entire pack for 100 miles including food and water is only 10 pounds.

camping skill 4 – Clothing Adjustments

  • Put on just enough clothing to keep you 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.
  • Only add warmer clothing when you can no longer stay warm walking at a comfortable pace.
    Note: I have a lot of experience staying warm and comfortable into the 20’s F when hiking at my own pace, wearing just a 6 oz base layer, a 7 oz fleece shirt (mid-layer), a 2 oz fleece hat, and 2 oz gloves. [Although my warm down jacket comes out mightily fast at stops!]
Caption: Keep your gear dry: The best way to keep your gear dry is not to get it wet in the first place—especially your down bag, and down jacket. A Cuben fiber backpack, with a roll top closure and sealed seams combined with stowing your sleeping bag/quilt and down jacket in Cuben Fiber stuff sacks is a great way to keep your gear truly dry.

Keep your gear dry: The best way to keep your gear dry is not to get it wet in the first place. Good stuff sacks for your down sleeping bag and jacket are important, along with a waterproof pack liner, or better yet a waterproof pack.

camping skill 5 – Keep your Gear Dry

The best way to keep your gear dry is not to get it wet in the first place. This means putting on your rainwear before you get wet. Not sweating out your clothes with perspiration while hiking. And keeping the gear in your pack dry (especially your down bag, and down jacket).

  • Pack contents dry: A trash compactor bag inside your pack is lighter and works considerably better than a pack rain-cover. Inside that, put your down bag, and down jacket in their own waterproof or highly-water-resistant stuff sacks. Even better but more expensive, get a Cuben fiber backpack, with a roll top closure and sealed seams along with stowing your sleeping bag/quilt and down jacket in Cuben Fiber stuff sacks. This is a great way to keep your gear truly dry and is less complicated and time consuming that pack rain-covers or liners.
  • You and your clothing dry: And finally, even tho it seems obvious, put on your rainwear before you get wet. Have your rainwear readily available on the outside of your pack (I like the large rear pocket) so you can put it on quickly and without opening your main pack bag and exposing your pack contents to rain.
  • Don’t sweat out in your rainwear: Adjust and ventilate your clothing and/or slow your hiking pace as necessary. As above, It’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather.

Reason 2 – Take Light Gear Appropriate for the Conditions

I am going to be blunt. Some gear is outright better than other gear. My ultralight gear, by almost every measure, outperforms the similar conventional (heavy) gear recommended by “trusted experts.” Look through my 5 Pound Ultralight Gear List and 9 Pound Light weight Gear List (full comfort) for what I think is the best lightweight and ultralight gear on the market.

light gear 1 – Use a weather report to help you select the right gear

  • Since 90% of backpackers take 90% their trips for 3 days or less, a good weather report should be quite accurate for the short time you are out.
  • This will let you pack a shelter, clothing, and sleeping bag appropriate for actual conditions.
  • It will also deter you from taking fear-based, “what-if-the-worst-happens!” gear, e.g. 6 pound tent, a +10F sleeping bag, and a down jacket for a warm weather trip on the Appalachian Trail.
  • For short term forecasts, the NOAA hourly weather graph is among the most informative and accurate. The best weather app for your smartphone is Weather Underground: Custom Forecast & Local Radar App.
  • For longer term gear planning there is historical average weather Data on Accuweather which will help you intelligently select gear months before your trip.

to-overlook

light gear 2 – Your tent doesn’t keep you warm

  • The hard reality is that the temperature inside your tent, at best, will only be a few degrees warmer than the outside temperature.
  • Your tent just keeps the wind and rain off (very important!)—but so will a tarp or pyramid shelter.
  • What does keep you warm is a puffy down sleeping bag and jacket. So…

light gear 3 – Get a good down jacket and a down quilt (or sleeping bag)

  • Down is the best and most weight efficient way to stay warm. At a minimum get a good down quilt (or sleeping bag and a down jacket.
  • Don’t believe the dire warnings about getting down wet—it’s hard to do. In over 40 years of backpacking all over the world in all sorts of conditions, I have yet to get my down so wet that it didn’t do a good job of keeping me warm. New water resistant shell fabrics and water resistant down only improve upon this.
  • The only advantage to synthetics is price, and then only in the short term. In the long term I find they usually lose loft after less than a season of use. This makes them a poor long term value. A good down bag will easily last 5 to 10 years.
  • And make no mistake, a wet synthetic sleeping bag or jacket is no joy! Keeping your gear dry is a better strategy for both down and synthetic gear.
  • Bring a sleeping bag for the average temp: I bring a sleeping bag (or quilt) rated for the average expected low temperature for the area and time of year I am backpacking. If I get a period of unexpectedly cold weather (it happens), I supplement my sleeping bag with my fleece mid-layer, down jacket, warm hat (and down pants and booties if I have them).
caption

This luxuriously puffy, one-pound, +20F down quilt is warmer and almost 1/3 the weight of a +32 synthetic “conventional” sleeping bag. And make no mistake: a wet synthetic sleeping bag is not warm or fun! Plan A should always be to keep your quilt/bag dry in the first place.

light gear 4 – Extra shirts, pants and base-layers are a poor choice to stay warm

  • Your money and gear weight is better spent on buying a warmer down bag and jacket. Or even down pants, down hat and down booties. All of these are far warmer per ounce than extra shirts, pants, and base-layers.
  • And you only need one 6-10 oz fleece/wool mid layer garment.

light gear 5 – A tarp or pyramid shelter may be drier than a tent

  • The small, confined, and less ventilated area inside a tent can be wetter than a larger (and much lighter) pyramid shelter or tarp. This is also a recommendation to buy the larger tarp or pyramid shelter. For just a little more weight you get a lot more living space!
  • Condensation is a big problem in small tents. It’s very easy to get your gear wet from the high humidity inside. In tight quarters it’s almost impossible not to brush your sleeping bag or down jacket against condensing tent walls. And if you happen to get into the tent with wet gear it is unlikely to dry in the humid climate.
  • In contrast, a tarp or pyramid shelter might have twice the room & be better ventilated & less humid.
  • And if you’re stuck in the shelter for an extended period of time, you’ll welcome the larger and less constricted living area of a large tarp or pyramid shelter. During long rains, small backpacking tents become more like coffins than dwellings!

light gear 6 – Finally, resist the temptation to take extra/backup gear

  • This is the time to trust yourself, your gear and your camping skills!
  • If you’ve carefully selected the right gear, and researched trail conditions and the weather… then there should be little reason to bring “backup clothes or equipment.”
  • Not bringing unneeded gear, is the easiest way to save weight and money.

Reason 3 – Pack Nutritious High-calorie Food

food 1 – Take high calorie food and save food weight

You can save a lot of weight and even money by selecting the right backpacking food. My nutritious and high calorie Backpacking Food gives me 3,000 tasty, healthful and filling calories of complex carbs, protein and healthy fats for around 1.5 pound/day. Over a 3 day weekend backpacking trip I get as many calories and as much nutrition, possibly more than someone carrying almost double the food weight. See: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly

trip-food

The right food will keep you well-fed and save you 5 pounds or more of food on a trip vs. a typical backpacker’s food.

food 2 – Maintain nutrition

Try to get the most calories per unit weight in your food but not at the expense of a poor diet. You want a balanced diet with good protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and other nutrients.

  • I take healthy homemade meals, unsweetened, unsulfured dried fruit, freeze dried vegetables, nuts, homemade gorp, whole grain crackers, whole grain pasta, healthier-higher-calorie trail bars, and lean jerky and powdered milk and powdered soy for my protein.
Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

A nutritious dinner in the Alaska Range near Denali.

food 3 – Don’t carry extra food

The standard advice to carry an extra day of food is hooey. I figure I can make it at least 3 days without any food. Of course, I am not recommending going without food, just saying that you can live if you end up short on food. You’ll have to make your own decision on extra food. Maybe you will just bring a bit less extra food next trip.

food 4 – “Skip” one day of food

I eat a big breakfast or lunch before I start hiking the first day and I eat a big 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.

food 5 – Drink when thirsty and carry less water

  • Drink to Thirst: I carry only the water I need to meet my thirst. When I drink to thirst I rarely carry more than a liter, and usually a lot less.
  • “If you are thirsty, it’s already too late” and “If your urine is yellow, you are dehydrated,” are myths. My article The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty is based on the current best science (from experts in the field of sports hydration not beholden to sports drink and bottled water companies). It suggests that “drinking to thirst” is the safest and healthiest strategy for hydration during exercise.

Conclusion

People pack heavy, because they pack for their fears—for their wildly imagined “what if the worst happens scenarios.” Rather than relying on their camping skills (which should be more than adequate) and the predicted weather and conditions for their hike, they choose to overcompensate for their fears by packing heavy, over-kill gear, extra clothes, extra food etc. But heavy packing doesn’t make you all that much safer, warmer, well fed or comfortable. It just makes your pack heavy and walking slow and unpleasant.

Put a little faith in yourself and your gear and go lighter!

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These tasty and nutritious backpacking meal recipes are healthier, have more calories and cost less than commercial, freeze dried backpacking meals. Keep it simple — there are enough nutritious backpacking meal recipes here to provide sufficient daily variety to keep meals fun and interesting. But there aren’t so many recipes that I spend too much time buying ingredients and assembling a large inventory of gourmet meals. I’d rather spend my time hiking than fussing with food.

Note: This is a companion piece to my top rated post, Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly which has more detailed info on nutrition and backpacking food choices.

Photo: Author eating dinner in the Alaska Range – credit: Andrew Skurka

Meal Rotation Planner — Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Keep it simple — I rotate 2 to 3 meal options for each trip. This provides enough food variety on the trail. By limiting meals to 2 to 3 nutritious backpacking meal recipes, I simplify food purchasing and meal prep.

Backpacking Meal Planner – example of a 3-day rotation
Day Breakfast Lunch Dinner
1 None: eat large one off-trail #1 Wrap+cheese & mustard (fruit #1) #1 Rice+beans w chips+cheese
2 #1 Muesli #2 Bison+sesame stix (dried fruit #2) #2 Couscous curry
3 #2 Hot oatmeal/cream-o-wheat #3 Crackers+almond butter (fruit #3) #3 Chili mac
4 #3 Grape-Nuts + strawberries #1 Wrap+cheese & mustard (fruit #1) #1 Rice+beans w chips+cheese
#1 Muesli #2 Bison+sesame stix (dried fruit #2) #2 Couscous curry
6 #4 Quick breakfast meal bar #3 Crackers+almond butter (fruit #3) None: eat large one off-trail

If you don’t already have one get an inexpensive kitchen scale that weighs up to 11 pounds (5 Kg). Almost all the ingredients are measured by weight for these recipes.

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

If you don’t already have one get an inexpensive kitchen scale that weighs up to 11 pounds (5 Kg). Almost all the ingredients are measured by weight for these recipes.

Breakfast Recipes

The following are nutritious and filling breakfasts that should keep a spring in your step until lunch! They have healthy fats and a good amount of protein. Note that the table below is in scrollable window. Please scroll down to see all the recipes Or you can see ALL THE RECIPES full page here, as a Google Sheet

Dinner mid-way up Mt. Olympus, Olympic Peninsula Washington State.

Dinner mid-way up Mt. Olympus, Olympic Peninsula, Washington State.

Dinner Recipes

The following are nutritious backpacking dinner recipes. These are filling meals at around 700-800 calories per serving! They have healthy fats and a good amount of protein. Note that the table below is in scrollable window. Please scroll down to see all the recipes Or you can see ALL THE DINNER RECIPES on a full page here, as a Google Sheet

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Rehydrating in a Ziplock bag makes cleanup much easier. Especially nice in “dry” camps. You usually use less fuel as you kill your stove as soon as the water boils. Downside is that the meal does not rehydrate as well as when it’s cooked in the pot, and rehydration can take longer. A long handled spoon pictured here helps reach into deep baggies without getting your fingers covered in food.

Dessert and Hot Drink Recipes

The following are just few ideas for desserts and after dinner drinks. Note that the table below is in scrollable window. Please scroll down to see all the recipes Or you can see ALL THE DINNER RECIPES full page here, as a Google Sheet

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Cooking a meal in the pot does a better job of rehydrating a meal. Especially if you let it simmer for a few minutes after a boil. Downside is that the pot is harder to clean, especially with cheese. And food can burn to the pot bottom if you aren’t careful. (photo: Andrew Skurka)

Rice And Beans With Cheese And Tortilla Chips

Use these healthy freeze dried Black Beans & Rice (available at REI) or at Amazon. Open the meal bag and add 2 oz of Just Hot Veggies or any of Just Tomatoes FD veggies.

Then separately package in ziplock snack baggies:

  • 3-4 oz cheddar cheese (cubed or shredded)
  • 2 oz of lightly salted tortilla chips of your choice (lightly crushed)

Place both the cheese and chip baggies back in the meal bag and reseal it.

Meal Prep Directions

  • pour 17 to 18 oz hot water into the meal packet and set aside to re-hydrate
  • after about 5 minutes, stir in cheese
  • when full hydrated (about 10 min), crumble tortilla chips over the top and enjoy!

Note: eat in packet with long spoons unless you want to be scraping cheese out of your pot and/or bowls for some time.

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Dinner in a remote canyon in the Escalante Grand Staircase.