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Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.
Sam Owens | 06.03.2019

In the August of 2016, my friend Ravi and I backpacked from the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park down 6 miles and 5,000 feet into the canyon's arid belly.

Neither of us had been backpacking before, but as we planned things out, nothing about the trip seemed too daunting. We had been driving for a few weeks around the country, climbing and hiking everyday, sleeping wherever we could pitch a tent, and cooking every meal over a fire. It was safe to say that we were feeling like regular old outdoorsmen.

However, if anyone with backpacking experience had been watching us as we stuffed a ridiculous assortment of unnecessary items into our packs the night before our descent, they would have been rolling over with laughter or angrily scolding us.

For a single night in the backcountry, we brought: a 4-pound Coleman single-burner grill, the heaviest frying pan I've ever owned, a hatchet, a large hammer, a pint-sized tank of propane, three metal cans of soup, and a week's worth of clothes each. At the time, as we weighed each item in our hands, it was hard to imagine how a few extra pounds could make that much of a difference.

This was a mistake that our legs, shoulders, backs, and overall psyches would later regret. The trip down was tolerable, the trip up was far less so. As we climbed the endless zig-zag trail that takes you up the Grand Canyon's rocky wall, I could feel the frying pan and hammer pulling me back down to the bottom.

The trek entailed a lot of resting and very little sightseeing, as our eyes were intently focused on the ground in front of us. By the time we reached the top, our bodies were so exhausted that we had to sit down in the parking lot to prepare ourselves for the last 100 feet of pavement between us and our car.

We aren't the first people to be ill prepared for a backpacking trip. For someone who has never been backpacking, it may seem like little more than hiking with a few extra supplies on your back. However, those who have ventured into the backcountry know you are always learning new ways to improve your experience, and the margin between comfort and discomfort often comes down to a few small adjustments.

If I could go back to 2016, I'd have some advice for myself, and in hopes that I can help someone avoid my mistakes, I've created a list of backpacking tips I've picked up since my trip into the Grand Canyon.

 

On the South Kaibob switchbacks, what goes down must come up. Dan Sherman.

Tip #1: Weight adds up quickly

It's amazing how a few needless items can turn a trip from comfortable to backbreaking. The best way to avoid this, and probably the most important part of backpacking in general, is to plan ahead of time. Scope out how long you'll be out and decide what you really need.

Also, try your best to limit creature comforts (you really don't need that ukulele and six-pack of beer). Similarly, space runs out quickly, and substituting things like a stuff sack full clothes in place of a bulky pillow can make a significant difference.

 

Tip #2: Get to know federal lands

You can backpack into a crazy number of unbelievably stunning places. There are public lands all across the country that allow for backpacking and backcountry camping.

At the federal level, the majority of public lands are managed by the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Depending on the agency, as well as an array of other factors, accessibility and regulations on backpacking may differ.

Wilderness areas are home to some of the most pristine natural areas, and it's generally safe to assume that they'll give backpackers the greatest freedom to roam and camp. To make sure you're not backpacking where you shouldn't be, read up on where you're going and all pertinent regulations.

 

It helps to lay out your gear categorically when preparing for a trip. Forrest Setnor.

Tip #3: Stay organized

Before a backpacking trip, I lay out everything I need and separate items based on their use (e.g. break up cooking utensils and electronics).

To keep items separate, stuff sacks are your friend. Stuff sacks are cheap, reusable, and allow you to keep your gear compact and organized. To avoid a mess, I place my food into resealable bags, push out all the air, seal them, and throw them in a stuff sack (this may be a poor man's vacuum seal, but I'm still yet to have a leak).

From there, I place the stuff sacks into my pack based on when and how much I plan on using the items. This way I'm not digging through my pack on the side of the trail in search of that bag of trail mix.

 

Tip #4: Go with an experienced backpacker

There's no better way to learn than from someone who has put in their hours in the backcountry. Also, each individual backpacker has their own secrets and ways of doing things, so expanding your backpacking community and learning from a variety of people will help you learn quickly.

 

Laboring up Thorong Pass on the Annapurna Circuit is not something you want to attempt unprepared or disorganized. Emily Pennington.

Tip #5: Get in shape

Backpacking is physically challenging, even for those who hike and work out on a regular basis. Make sure you're prepared for the wear a trek will put on your body, not doing so can put yourself and others in serious danger.

 

Tip #6: Prep meals beforehand

Although there are a wide variety of freeze-dried meals that many backpackers enjoy, my experience with them is that they are overpriced, under-filling, and too salty. This means that I am left preparing all of my own meals.

Although cooking from scratch in the backcountry can be fun under the right circumstances, more often than not I find it to be messy, time consuming, and in the end not very tasty. That's why I try to prepare my meals before I set out.

This can range from spreading peanut butter and jelly on bread to cooking your favorite meal so all you need to do is heat it up when you're ready to eat. Obviously some foods are going to spoil without refrigeration and may be too bulky for a backpacking trip, but there are still a wide range of great meals that you can prepare for the backcountry.

 

Tip #7: You have a great GPS on your phone

Navigating the backcountry can be tricky at times. As you enter more remote areas, there tends to be less trail management, and getting lost is a very real danger. Although a GPS can be expensive, apps are relatively cheap and allow you to download maps onto your phone prior to your trip. These maps can then be used to track your location in the backcountry, even when you're offline.

If you're worried about your phone going dead, Goal Zero makes great lightweight portable chargers.

 

Investment in a high-quality pack, like the Osprey Tempest 30, can make a huge impact on comfort. Crystal Sibson.

Tip #8: Pay extra for a high-quality backpack

My first pack cost me $80, and for my first 3 years of backpacking, I thought that throbbing shoulders after 2 miles of hiking was just part of the experience. When I borrowed my uncle's $400 pack, I was astonished with how much easier it was on my body.

Although that type of money can be a big investment, I'd recommend making a high-end pack a priority when purchasing gear. You can buy all the light-weight tents, stoves, and other gadgets you want, but if your pack isn't distributing your weight properly you're going to be very uncomfortable.

Also, purchasing the right sized pack and knowing how to properly wear it are just as important as the price tag.

 

Tip #9: Camp near (but not too near) water

Although there are many factors to take into account when searching for a campsite, few are more important than a nearby water source.

But water is heavy.

To avoid breaking your back you should figure out how much you really need to have in your pack at one time. Keep a water filter or purifier for when you run out.

After a day of hiking you'll likely be ready to relax, so the closer to water you set up camp the more time you'll have for this. To further limit your trips back and forth, Sawyer makes compact lightweight water pouches that can be left empty as you hike and filled once you reach your campsite.

Keep in mind that general backcountry regulations require camping at least 100 feet from the water. Leave no trace!

 

Incredible views on the Widforss Trail could be yours with just a little preparation. Loreah Winlow.

Tip #10: Dream big

A few years ago, I thought that some of the places I've now been to only existed in calenders. On top of that, I haven't just hiked into these places, snapped a photo and hiked out, I've spent days living in them.

Backpacking gives you the chance to experience and have a truly intimate connection with some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet. Realizing this is an incredible revelation that will likely leave you hooked and eager for more.

 

Tip #11: Respect and protect these beautiful places

As to be expected, the most breathtaking environments are also some of the most popular destinations. As a result these places receive the greatest amount of human impact and are at the largest risk of being altered.

When backpacking, limit your footprint by following all regulations and the general principals of Leave No Trace. We want to make sure these incredible places stay intact so that the next generation of backpackers can experience them the same way we have been able to.

For more tips, check out Backpacking Essentials for Beginners.

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