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  • Writer's pictureMatt Carter

Top 5 Tips for Backpacking

Backpacking allows us to get out and experience the outdoors while keeping costs to a minimum and adventure to the max. But what drives someone to pack a 40+ pound bag and venture into nature for days on end? For some it's a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, for others it's an opportunity to test themselves both physically and mentally, and sometimes it's just the only way you can experience a certain part of the world that's completely cut off from the rest of us.

If you've never gone backpacking , there are a few things to know before you go, here are my top five tips.

1. Pack Smart

Do you really need your laptop on a five-day trek through the wilderness? I doubt it, but I've still seen people bring their 13" Mac laptops backpacking. Packing only the essentials is key -- you'll want to limit the amount of clothes, gear and food you pack while making smart choices between what's necessary and what you likely won't ever use.

Food and Water

When you're deciding what to pack for food, it's important to plan ahead. How many days are you backpacking - how many meals and snacks will you need? Always pack a little bit more than you think just in case you're especially hungry from a long day and need to eat an extra dinner. You'll want to pack highly caloric foods that are light -- things like a trail mix that is full of nuts, oatmeal, granola bars, dehydrated meals and fruits etc. Plan to eat between 2,500 and 4,500 calories each day depending on the weather and how difficult the hike is. I like to also pack small treats like chocolate or gummy bears to have a long the trail, and miso paste to make a hot cup of soup for something quick and warming. An easy way to stay hydrated is bringing electrolyte tabs to put in your water (I use either Berocca or Nuun tabs), for a boost of energy get the ones with caffeine and B vitamins in them.

If you won't have fresh water sources throughout the hike, you'll need to pack a water filtration tool, like LifeStraw. I prefer to carry water in a 2-3 litre CamelBak as it's an easier to carry than multiple bottles.

Clothing and Footwear

Avoid packing cotton clothing or wearing heavy jeans -- you'll want to pack breathable fast-drying layered clothing, merino wool and polyester blends are great options. While it does add a bit of extra weight, I like to pack a pair of sandals to change into at the end of the day, giving the feet a breather from hiking shoes while still being able to comfortably explore the camp site's surroundings.


If you plan to stay in huts along your trek, make sure to see whether you need to book a bunk far in advance. The upside to hut stays is that you don't have to lug around a tent, but you're also likely going to be in a room full of snorers. If you are planning to camp, pack a lightweight tent with a raincover, I like to use the two-person Big Agnes Backpacking tent.

If you're backpacking in cold weather, you'll need to pack a sleeping bag, but if it's warm, I recommend saving on weight and packing one or two lightweight liners; I use the Sea to Summit liners.

First Aid Kit

And always pack a first aid kit. There are a lot options to include in a safety kit, but you'll want to pack the medicinal essentials: aspirin (for heart attacks), tylenol (for pain and inflammation), and an antihistamine (for allergies); as well as bandaids, antibiotic ointment, gauze, a CPR mask, and a compression wrap. You can purchase a first aid kit or put your own together with exactly what you need.

2. Learn How to Read a Map & Plan Ahead

Do you know how to read a topographical map or have you always relied on Google maps to get you from point A to B? Knowing where you're going, what route(s) it will take to get there and how to detour if you run into trouble are very important. You'll want to learn how to read a map and bring one with you - laminating the map is a best practice, so that it doesn't ever become unreadable if it happens to become soaked in the rain.

Packing a compass and GPS enabled device are also important; I use the Suunto Spartan watch that has a handy breadcrumb feature in case of whiteout conditions.

You'll also want to assess the trail before you set out - figuring out what's realistic for each day and setting expectations. Look at the elevation gain and mileage when planning how far you plan to hike each day. And of course figure out beforehand what's required for your trek in terms of permits and passes.

3. Be Safe

Depending on where you're going backpacking, you'll need to be aware of the risks. Are there dangerous animals in the area? What will the weather be like? Always be aware of your surroundings and on the lookout for signs of dehydration, hypothermia or hyperthermia.

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, and a common misconception is that it has to be freezing for hikers to catch hypothermia. Even a wet chill can cause hypothermia. Your body's response can vary based on a number of factors, but it's important to be able to identify the signs --

Signs of Hypothermia:

  • Shivering

  • Mumbling

  • Shallow breathing

  • Weak pulse

  • Low energy

  • Confusion

Conversely, if you're hiking in very hot weather or on a trail that's overexposed to the sun, you need to look out for signs of hyperthermia, which can occur when the body produces more heat than it can lose.

Signs of Hyperthermia:

  • Deep breathing

  • Reduced sweating

  • Nausea

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Confusion

Bear Safety

If there are bears in the area, pack bear spray if local rangers advise so, and each night make sure to pack your food away (including toiletries, mints, gum etc), hanging it from a tree far from your campsite or in a bear canister. If you come into contact with a bear along the trail stay calm, make yourself look as large as possible, and do not run but move away slowly. And if you see baby cubs, walk away, no matter how cute a photo they'd make, mamma bear will not be kind to you when she comes back in the picture.

4. Plan for Downtime

While you might set out planning to be active and hiking all the time, a day or two of terrible weather can confine you to a tent and you'll have wished you packed something to keep your mind occupied. Consider packing a book or kindle -- even if you don't run into terrible weather, reading a story is a great to unwind at the end of a day. If you're hiking with a group, packing a deck of cards is also a great idea. If you'll be near a water source, you could also bring some fishing line and a lightweight rod to test your luck. Or pack an artists pad, pencils and paint and see what kind of art is inspired by the beauty around you.

5. Leave No Trace

More and more people are choosing to backpack these days, which makes it incredibly important to be conscious of how we each treat the trail and its surroundings. While you may only be on a trail for a few days, the decisions you make along the way can have a significant impact on the flora and fauna that you've just passed. Be a conscious backpacker, and keep these few things in mind:

  • Keep to the trail, avoid walking or camping on living vegetation

  • Pack out what you pack in - do not leave rubbish, including all food scraps

  • If you see trash left by others, pick it up

  • Dig a hole at least 6 inches deep to go #2

  • Don't try to leave your mark on a trail by carving a tree

  • Wash your dishes more than 200 feet from any water sources

  • Don't feed wild animals

  • Keep you noise level low

Enjoy backpacking!

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