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You Can Contribute to the 'College of Backpacking Knowledge'

I can’t help but notice many YouTube backpacking videos contain disturbing images of participants exhibiting bad practices. From tents set up 15 inches off the water’s edge to preparing food with filthy hands, I often wonder how these folks make it home in one piece or at least not retching from a bad case of the turistas.

Is this the state of backpacking? Bear hangs at eye level? Attempting to cut logs with a machete? 

I took my first backpacking trip as a 13-year-old in 1969. My army-surplus rucksack was too heavy, my 8-jillion-pound rectangular sleeping bag (plus bed pillow!) didn't help and cooking food right in the can was hazardous to my health.

Luckily, I had many adult role models to set me straight eventually. Whatever they didn't know, I learned from reading The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher and trying all this wisdom out in the field. 


Hoping to do the same for others, I've created a master list of backpacking skills and knowledge important to me, then ran it by a couple of REI colleagues. Now it’s your turn:

You Are An Accomplished Backpacker If You Can…

  1. Look at the sky and know what will happen weather-wise in 5 hours.
  2. Set up a tent and cook a meal in the dark with only a headlamp.
  3. Minimize impact on an area by configuring a campsite properly.
  4. Know area regulations regarding human waste disposal and implement them.
  5. Find north under any circumstances.
  6. Understand all the symbols on a topographic map.
  7. Place yourself on a map accurately with either a compass or GPS or both.
  8. Understand altitude effects and acute mountain sickness (AMS), their prevention and treatment.
  9. Understand hypothermia, its prevention and treatment.
  10. Fix a blister or 3.
  11. Stop arterial bleeding.
  12. Splint a broken limb.
  13. Treat for shock.
  14. Perform CPR.
  15. Treat for both sunstroke and heat exhaustion; understand the difference between them.
  16. Signal a rescue helicopter with a mirror.
  17. Identify at least 1 edible plant on your route or at least the inedible ones capable of killing you.
  18. Build a fire in the rain.
  19. Create an emergency shelter with only the materials at hand.
  20. Find water where its location is not obviously apparent.
  21. Know the uses for and be able to tie a square knot, sheet bend, clove hitch, bowline and taut-line hitch.
  22. Understand the habits and behaviors of an area’s top predators.
  23. Recognize the potential for lightning storms and minimize the risks.

Personally, I need a little work on number 17. Number 15 confuses me because one is “face red, raise the head,” but which one? 

Everyone can acquire more knowledge for safety, comfort and confidence. This list could be a group’s collective knowledge unless the first-aid person is the one currently lying there unconscious. 

How do you accumulate this knowledge? Your local REI contains a boatload of books on beginning backpacking, first aid, survival, navigation, campcraft and even weather forecasting. Or take an REI Outdoor School class covering the same subjects under a certified instructor’s supervision. Web MD and other responsible websites are good resources for information on first aid, hypothermia and altitude sickness. Numbers 2, 16, 18, 19 and 21 require nothing but practice.

What’s important to you? What would you add? Twenty-three is a weird number of list items so there’s room for 2 more. I’ll take the best 2, republish the list and give you credit.


All photos by Damon Parrish, REI.

Posted on at 10:15 AM

Tagged: Backpacking

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Just Your Average Hiker

Similar to 13 and 9 - Proper layering.

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You are an accomplished backpacker if you can LEAVE NO TRACE.


Know the signs of an impending flash flood.
Know quick sand and how to get out of it.


You can create a detailed itinerary to leave with your emergency contact. Include instructions on when to call search and rescue.

car camping dad

...relace your boots as needed to eliminate pressure points and to lock-in your heel using surgeons knots. (Knowledge I gained from "Gina" at the REI Conshohocken, Pennsylvania store.)

car camping dad

I remembered her name wrong. It is Jodi or Jody at REI Conshohocken: Saving feet from their owners, two at a time.


Can filter/treat water without using traditional means

Andrew W

You are an accomplished backpacker if you can... teach these principles to other young backpackers.

Summit Junkie

You are an accomplished backpacker if you can: find the joy in any moment and bring yourself to laugh!

Peeing on your pant leg, waking up in a flooded tent, screaming "Auntie Em Auntie Em!" while your tent blows across the beach with you in it, climbing 7000+ feet for 10 feet of visibility.

Finding joy regardless, now that's accomplishment!

Mike Shaw Today

I'll have to applaud you there! Being present and in the moment is what it's all about! Thanks!
Mike Shaw


how to actually pack a backpack

warning signs of a flash flood

Tomahawk at 133

Heres some help on your number 15! Treating heat and sun stroke mostly involves slowly rehydrating and cooling down the body. "Face is red, raise the head. Face is pale, raise the tail" is in reference to treating shock(number 13). Now i need help on number 20 anyone have any useful tips?

Tom A Hawk Store 133
NOBO '11

Timber Outdoor

For number 20 look fro these things:

Heavy green vegatation and or moist soil,

Moss, if you find a clump of it squeeze out the water in it (this isnt best for the whole LNT thing but in an emergency is good advice),

Plants with large bowl shaped or inward sloping leaves, water can be found in them,

and finally collecting rain or dew with a cloth early in the morning.


Recommend at a minimum every accomplished backpacker has taken a Wilderness First Aid course, if not a Wilderness First Responder course.


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