Backpacking Skills

by Bill Burnham
(published in MetroSports)

If I knew back then what I know now, would I have gone?

“Back then” was my first overnight backpack trip. A friend outfitted me with a generic metal-framed backpack. I tied a flannel-lined sleeping bag on with rope, laced up my all-purpose work boots, knotted a red bandana around my head and headed out.

Mistakes are an inevitable part of the outdoor experience, and we made plenty. No Vaseline to rub on hot spots that became puffy blisters, which evolved into raw, exposed wounds. No sleeping pad to rest my weary bones and soften knobby tree-roots and twigs. No sweater to shield me atop Algonquin Mountain, where I was overwhelmed by both the Adirondack High Peaks and frigid high winds.

Yet for all that went wrong, one thing went right: We had a blast. This alone made jumping from day trips to overnight hikes a decision I’ll never second-guess. Here are some tips for making your backcountry trip more comfortable.


Simply put, there are five must-have items. A reputable outfitter will allow hands-on testing with each product. These tips will help you reach a final decision.

Backpack: Chose an internal frame pack. In the store, ask sales staff to add weight. Walk around and gauge how comfortable it feels. Weight should ride on your hips, not your shoulders. When you bend over or turn suddenly, the pack should remain stable, not shift to-and-fro. Gear Tip: Rent a backpack instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars for a product that, depending on your experience, may not be used again.

Boots: Boots with all-leather uppers provide the best ankle support. Boots with fabric or synthetic uppers dry faster. Foot-bed inserts cost extra, but offer priceless comfort. Thick soles cushion the shock of rocky terrain. Walking downhill with a 35-pound backpack is hell on the entire body, including toes. Make sure boots are a snug fit and toes can’t wiggle.

Gear Tip: A blister will ruin a good time faster than most anything, outside traumatic injury. Combat this by buying boots early and wearing them often.

Stove: Campfires are for toasting marshmallows and singing songs, not cooking a meal. When stomach gremlins are growling, the premium is on ease of use. First-time backpackers should focus on “canister stoves.” These use propane, butane, isobutane or isopropane in a container attached to a burner. With the twist of a knob, fuel begins flowing.

Gear Tip. A windshield wraps around the stove, saves fuel and decreases cooking time.

Sleeping Bags: Sleeping bags are rated for temperature. A 40-degree sleeping bag is good for summertime camping. On trips in spring or fall, use a bag rated for 30 degrees or lower. When it comes to fill material, down is natural, comfortable and warmest. It is, however, more expensive and does not dry quickly. Synthetic material holds loft—or puffiness—longer and dries quicker.

Gear Tip. A sleeping pad increases comfort and keeps body heat from being sucked into the ground.

Tent. Once upon a time, “dome” was the first and last word in tent design. Now, there are modified hammocks, a-frames, tee-pees, mummy-shaped bivy sacks and jazzed-up tarpaulins. A backpacker’s tent is his or her backwoods castle. Don’t be afraid to indulge yourself. A vestibule keeps boots and packs dry. Look for models with handy inside pockets to stash essentials.

Gear Tip. Seal tent seams with a waterproofing material. A tarpaulin over the tent provides extra protection in heavy downpours.

The Four Ws

Water. You can’t carry all you need, so plan a trip that passes water sources. Treat all water found in the wilderness, either by boiling, using iodine tablets or filtering. Mask the taste of iodine with iced tea or lemonade mix.

Weight. Clothes, tent, food, water, sleeping bag, stove—they all add up to serious pounds. Some weight-saving tips:

• Wear quick-drying clothes that can be rinsed and reworn.

• Transfer liquids into lightweight plastic bottles.

• Pack sample-size toiletries but only necessities.

• Plan simple meals with dried foods in bags or pouches. Go easy on the cans. (Remember: Pack it in, pack it out.)

Weather. Death and taxes are to life what bad weather is to backpacking: an absolute certainty. Plan for it. • Pack a hat and sunscreen.

• Invest in polypropylene underwear (known as “poly-pro”) or some other synthetic. Avoid cotton, which steals heat from your body when wet.

• Learn the signs of hypothermia, which can strike wet, exhausted hik ers even in the middle of summer.

• A five-second difference between flash and thunderclap means it struck one mile away. Add a mile for each additional five seconds.

• Don’t set up a tent beneath a standing dead tree that might fall in high winds.

(Bill Burnham grew up near the Adirondack Mountains. In more than a decade of hiking, he’s never forgotten anything while packing for an overnight trip. Honest.)