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Got Sage Backpacking Advice?

Hi friends!

While I've been an avid day-hiker and car-camper for years, I've just recently gotten the time and money to get into backpacking. I like to think I've got all the right gear and I've got experienced friends and resources that have prepared me so much, but with that, there are things you can only learn from experience.

I hope we're all aware of the ten essentials, listen to your body, bring paper maps, never skimp on water, etc., but I'm looking for something a little deeper than that...

So I beg the following questions: If you could take your first trip again, what's the one piece of advice you wish you'd known? Is there one piece of gear you can't live without? How can you physically and mentally get the most out of the experience? Deep down, what's the reason you keep getting out there?

Feel free to expand on those questions or not. Looking forward to learning from you guys 😊

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21 Replies

So very true.  The same seems to be true for light. 

“Take care of the earth”

Cognitive science researchers say that the mental benefits of immersion in Nature kick in after  about three days.  I think that's about right.   In a practical sense, that means day three and beyond are going to be your most profoundly experienced backpacking days.  Add an extra day when you can. 

As for essential gear, I'd say a nice set of polypro long underwear to wear for sleeping and with shorts instead of bringing long pants. 

Remember to it’s not a marathon, it’s about the journey, go at a pace you can enjoy what’s around you, and that will answer why you do it. Lighter pack means improvise your gear meaning each item has more than one use. Practice primative skills and bushcraft projects to open yourself to out of the box thinking. Water is essential , make sure you have a away to properly purify it, I am liking my Grayl a lot.

I've got to say that my first trip some 40+ years ago was too full of stupid naive newbie mistakes to fully incorporate here.

The advice learned was to be mentally tough and keep putting one foot in front of the other. That first trip saw probably the very slowest climb from Mist Falls to Lower Paradise Valley in human history as we'd stop at *every* switchback and look up at the switchbacks above and sip some water. But the more general advice is, it isn't a race; the trip became worth repeating when we gave up and retreated slowly back down the trail, giving us time to really soak in our surroundings.

The piece of gear would be twofold and shockingly basic. We used tube tents; they are worthless in a heavy dew let alone an actual downpour. Some ultralight gear is nearly as useless (especially if you aren't comfortable with it). So a real tent (it is a lot more fun to watch an epic thunderstorm while dry than while trying to make a tarp cover everything). The second is a decent stove (ever try sterno cans? I hope not; it is not a wise choice...). Though an alternative is coming up with a full meal plan lacking heat. Nothing will dampen your mood quite like looking at your scrumptious freeze-dried gourmet meal after a long hike than the recognition that it isn't going to go down well ice cold. 

How can you get the most out of the experience? Live it. This is different for different people. Some sketch, some write, some take pictures, some meditate, some fish. Make little forays from camp just to recognize the place so you could find it again in a couple years time from memory. Try and identify plants. Go watch an ouzel in a stream. You may think you need your tunes or your phone or some other entertainment, but you don't. It might be uncomfortable for awhile, but you'll get over it. Others have said three days is a threshold, and I agree. Day one is tied to the schedule it took to show up, day 2 seems to have a hangover from day 1 as you find all the sore spots you didn't expect and recall all the things you thought you brought or should have brought or brought by mistake. Day three clears all that away as you are beyond regrets and timepieces. 

What's the reason I keep going out, 45 years after a trip with so many blunders, screw-ups and weird moments that it could become a screenplay? When I have to be sure to get in shape to carry a pack down the sidewalk, let alone up a mountain trail? You know, I'm not sure I have the words, but it is compelling. I think it centers me. There is a magic in the mountains or out in the desert where nothing is scheduled, nothing is asked of you, and the unexpected will occur, whether the epic thunderstorm or a surprising flower. We are creatures of nature, and we remember that on such trips.

Best wishes on a memorable and successful time away from civilization...

Ah, in doing a quick backpack this past weekend, a probably more useful gear answer came to mind. Back on my first trip, we drank out of streams directly, which is not advised in most places these days. If you are in one of those places, the piece of gear I love the most is a gravity-feed water filter. That is so much easier than pumping and so much better tasting than iodine. And tons better than boiling and boiling water (yes, got stuck doing that on one trip when a pump filter broke).


Boiling is not a problem when you want coffee, tea, or something hot.  I have boiled water, poured it into a canteen, and then immersed the canteen back in the stream.  Cool, clear, water!!

Boiling is the most fool proof way of getting rid of the bad bugs.

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I guess I've been in a situation where we wanted about a gallon of cold water for travel and tasks and it takes a lot of fuel and time to boil enough for that. (Worse, we had to use a wood fire to do it). I'm not sure that boiling is any less foolproof than a gravity filter (fill bag, hang, get clean water from tube vs. making sure you are at a rolling boil for three whole minutes), but it is more generally applicable to more kinds of tainted water. The CDC page is perhaps of interest to those following along.


Onee thing that has perplexed me are the wildly varying times recommended for boiling water, ranging from 15 minuts to just get it to boil (and then cool gradually). This last was recommended by Dr. James Wilkerson in his book, Mountaineering Medicine, pointing out that milk ws pasteurized by bring it to 175F with a gradual cool down period.

I hav never suffered ill effects from drinking directly from streams and springs in over 60 years of backpacking, hiking, and various outdoor activities.  lately I have been more cautious about untreated water.

It is worth remembering that the effects of dehydration are more immediate and serious (up to fatal) than are the consequences of drinking untreated water (old desert rat experience here).  So if you are in a pickle, and looking at drinking untreated water, drink up, get back to town where you can be cured, if necessary.  Heretical, I know, but that has been my experience and I have retrieved unhydrated bodies in my time

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The  the length of time to boil water can vary, check with the rangers for the current info.  In Montana one time he said to boil for 15 min.  I just brought water to a boil and had a stomach ache for the whole trip.  Apparently various places and bugs and elevation and seasons will make a difference.


I’ve been using the Grayl for a couple years, easiest system, even effective against virus. I suggest everyone familiarize themselves with multiple ways to purify, bleach, iodine, potassium Permanganate, sodus method. You never know when you may need to rely on alternative methods.