Backpacking Tips, Tricks, and Hacks for the Beginning Backpacker

In our most previous post, we talked about preparing for your first backpacking trip. We covered basics of clothing (layering and protection from the elements), choosing a basic shelter setup, sleeping bags, ground pads, and several other backpacking basics. Our goal for this post is to provide a little bit more in-depth explanations and “how-to’s” on basic backpacking skills. Some of the areas that we’ll cover in this post are; packing efficiently, starting a fire in wet conditions, keeping you and your gear dry, a simple first-aid packing list, and a handful of little shortcuts that will make your trip a little bit easier and less expensive if you don’t already have all of the latest greatest gadgets. If you have any added tips or suggestions please leave them in the comment section below!

Packing

 

Knowing how to pack correctly is critical, especially when it’s a long trip or a multi-day trip. Properly packing will both save space, and reduce the weight of your pack, making the physical stress of carrying your gear a little bit easier. The good thing about saving space is that you’ll have room in your pack, so your gear isn’t ripping the zippers. Also if weight isn’t an issue, you’ll have more space to take things for leisure such as a notebook or camera.

  • First things first, make a checklist of what you need to take and check things off as you pack them, assuring that you don’t leave anything important at home. I always keep the lists I make and keep them for future reference, it’s much easier to remember what to take when you do this. When you make your list, consider how much each item weighs, then consider removing unneeded items to lighten your pack or make space for leisure items.

Stuff Sacks & Plastic Baggies

  • Use stuff sacks for things like clothes, sleeping bag, and other soft gear that won’t be damaged if it’s compressed. (if you have space in your pack, you can use jackets or tent body to fill in the gaps to distribute weight). Sea To Summit makes excellent dry bags in all sizes and colors.
  • Repackage food in plastic baggies. Most food packaging has a lot of air in it and prevents it from being compactable. Remember to write any instructions for cooking on the baggie.
  • Remove the cardboard roll inside of toilet paper to make it flat for easier packing. With the roll being flat it will easily fit in a plastic baggie to stay dry.

Pack Organization

  • Pack gear inside of other gear. I.E., when packing a Jetboil, put your silverware inside the cozy, and place your lighter, stove attachment, and stand inside the pot and replace the lid. This saves a lot of space as well as it keeps gear organized.
  • If you have clothing brands such as Patagonia, most of their gear is designed to pack itself inside one of the pockets to save space. I love hiking in Patagonia Baggie shorts because that pack into the pocket down to the size of a tennis ball, and have a loop to hang on the outside of your pack if you need to.
  • Always pack and unpack your gear the same way. This will keep things organized, helps you keep track of your gear, and it will be much easier to pack when getting back on the trail.
  • Don’t try to pack large items on the inside of your pack. Things like tents, sleeping bags, and ground pads can be strapped to the outside of your pack with paracord to save space inside. Paracord is super cheap on Amazon for a pretty long spool.
  • Pack according to the frequency of use, not what type of gear it is. If you use something often on the trail such as a camera or headlamp, keep it in a place that it’s easily accessible. Taking your pack on and off on the trail will wear you out faster than you know, and every time you take your pack off, it gets harder to carry when you put it back on (trust me I speak from experience).
  • Pack your sleeping bag at the bottom of your pack, medium weight gear above the sleeping bag, heavy gear close to your spine, and light smaller items at the top and around the side of the pack. Always keep first aid in a quickly accessible location such as the head of the pack.
  • Keep snack foods and food for lunch in a place that’s easily accessible. This will prevent you from having to unpack and repack just to eat lunch on the trail. I often take a separate dry bag for daytime food so I can repack it at camp and have it ready to go when it’s time for lunch or snacks.
  • Find multiple uses for gear to save weight.

Staying Dry

Although a rain jacket and quick drying material are the most obvious things to pack to keep dry, there are several more ways to keep you and your gear dry.

  • Use dry bags or plastic baggies for things that can’t get wet. Toilet paper can go in a plastic baggie, and food and clothes can go in dry bags. Dry bags can also double up as a bear bag if you need one.
  • Make sure you have either a pack cover or plastic trash bags to keep your pack dry. You can either put the plastic bag over the outside of the pack or line the inside with it. I recommend both if rain is certainly on the forecast. If the outside of your pack gets wet, the pack will weigh more.
  • Take a backpacking towel (or small microfiber towel) for after you swim and bandannas for drying gear off if it gets wet before you repack it. Again, a wet pack is a heavy pack.
  • Open your pack as little as possible in rainy conditions, the more you open it, the more the rain can get in.
  • Keep wet gear underneath the vestibule of the tent or under your hammock rain fly; this allows it to dry out, and also keeps moisture out of the tent.

Fire Starting, Even With Damp Conditions

 

Fire starting in damp conditions can be difficult even for the experienced backpacker. Here are several tips that may help you get one going even in the rain. Keep in mind these tips are adequate for dry conditions as well and will make fire starting very easy.

  1. Start small. Use the smallest twigs that you can find and keep them in a bundle.
  2. Gather far more wood than you think you’ll need; you don’t want to leave the fire once it’s started to burn.
  3. Make a foundation. Use bigger sticks and lay them side by side like a raft, making a platform to build a fire.
  4. Build your structure. I use the teepee method. Start with pencil size sticks and go with larger sticks as you build out the structure. Take a bundle of the small twigs that you found and place them under the bottom layer of sticks, and light the fire.

I’ve found several different things are home to pack that will help start a fire, even in wet conditions.

  • Pack dryer lint, vaseline covered cotton balls, or small, lightweight fire starters, these ignite very quickly and typically burn for several minutes.
  • Always pack a backup method of ignition. I.E., matches, lighter, or flint and steel.

Disclaimer: Never leave a fire unattended. Many people leave a fire burning even when they go to sleep. Remember, it’s not like your firepit at home, there’s no accessible water hose, and you won’t have cell phone service to call emergency services.

Misc Gear, Tips, and Tricks

Over the years I’ve learned a lot of things that would help a lot on the trail that I never would’ve thought of. Although there are products available for all of these, sometimes alternatives are merely something you have in your house.

Keeping Gear Dry

  • Plastic baggies and dry bags are great for things that can’t get wet such as clothing, toilet paper, and valuables.
  • Pack either a pack cover or plastic trash bags to keep your pack dry. Osprey makes a really nice pack cover, and it’s very durable.
  • Old prescription bottles are excellent to keep your matches and striker dry (or other small items).
    • Dip matches in hot candle wax for additional waterproofing.

Fire Starting

  • Pack dryer lint or cotton balls coated in vaseline for starting a fire.
  • Take a backup ignition source; lighter, matches, or flint and steel.

Misc Tips and Tricks

  • Duct tape can be used for many things, even putting on your heel to keep your boot from blistering your foot when your shoes get wet.
    • When packing duct tape, you can wrap it repeatedly around your water bottle to save space.
  • Pack a Tick Key to easily remove ticks, believe me, you will get ticks. Duct tape can also help get ticks off.
  • Know how to tie multiple different knots, this helps a lot when strapping gear to your pack, or setting up a tent or hammock system.
  • Split the weight when going with a group. If two people are sharing a tent, have one carrying the tent, and one carries the poles and rain fly. Same with food and other shared items.
  • Bandannas can be used as a sun blocking head or neckband, slow drip coffee filter, dish sponge, and a mitt for holding a hot cup.
  • You’re going to smell bad anyway, and deodorant is heavy, leave it at home.
  • Always hang your food in a bear bag, even if there are no bears in the area. Raccoons, hogs, and coyotes want your food, too. Many dry bags come with a loop on them that make them excellent for use as a bear bag.
  • Pack extra paracord. Don’t worry its light. It’s useful for setting up tents and hammocks, dry line, hanging a bear bag, and strapping gear to your pack. I always take extra, and I’ve used it almost every time.
  • Always test your gear before you hit the trail, never try out gear for the first time on the trail. Imagine getting a new camp stove and trying it on the trail for the first time, if its defective, you don’t want to eat crunchy noodles.

First Aid Basic List

As far as first aid goes, most people just pack a pre-setup first aid kit. I do the same thing, but after you use a couple of thins out of it, it’s nice to know what you need to check for. Although I won’t go very in-depth with is, here’s a simple list of what your first aid kit needs to have.

Basics

  • Bandages (Bandaids) – Several sizes, fabric is best and stays on longer.
  • Antibiotic Creme (Neosporin) – For treating wounds.
  • Wound closure strips – For larger wounds.
  • ACE Bandage & Safety Pins – For sprains.
  • Alcohol Prep Pads – For cleaning cuts and scrapes.
  • Antiseptic Wipes – For cleaning hands, cuts, and scrapes.
  • Ibuprofen – Anti-Inflammatory.
  • Antihistamine (Benadryl) – For allergic reactions.
  • Bandanna – For splints.
  • Duct Tape – For blisters (see above for how to pack duct tape).
  • Tweezers – For splinters.
  • Medical Tape – For gauze, and when bandaids just won’t stick.
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Nail clippers – For hangnails.
  • Sterile Gauze – (For bigger wounds).


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