Backcountry Tips & Tricks
When it comes to essential wilderness techniques, we'll show you how to do it right. The best part: There's no test. Until you encounter that rattlesnake, of course.
Want to be a better hiker? Look no further. Here are some backcountry secrets that separate average campers from true wilderness experts.
From Backpacker’s Nov. 2008 “Essential Outdoors Skills Special: How to Do Everything” by: Annette McGivney/BACKPACKER magazine.
There are two ways to learn backpacking skills: 1) The hard way–in which you find out what a rattlesnake looks like when it’s about to sink its fangs into your ankle; and 2) the easy way–in which you learn from others’ mistakes. That’s what we’re here for. Pitching a tent in hurricane-force winds? We’ve done it. Losing dinner to a pack of hungry raccoons? Ditto. Spending an hour desperately trying to get a fire started? Check. Leave trial-and-error for the fun skills, like perfecting your margarita recipe. When it comes to essential wilderness techniques, we’ll show you how to do it right. The best part: There’s no test. Until you encounter that rattlesnake, of course.
Stay dry in a downpour.
Pop an umbrella and open every vent and pit zip. Make sure the cuffs of your baselayer aren’t exposed, or they’ll wick moisture up your sleeves. Keep your jacket hem cinched snugly and shield your face by pulling your hood over a billed cap. In wet brush, wear rain pants over gaiters. Don’t get wet from the inside out. If you’re overheating, minimize sweat by shedding layers or slowing your pace.
Nothing is harder on the knees than hiking downhill on steep terrain while wearing a heavy pack. To avoid injury:
1) Make sure your hip, knee, and foot are aligned when stepping off or over big ledges. This protects you from rolling an ankle and takes the strain off your leg muscles and joints.
2) Keep your knee slightly bent as you transfer weight onto the downhill leg, which allows your muscles–not the joint–to absorb the impact.
3) Use the “double plant” when stepping off huge ledges: With hands firmly grasping the tops of the handles, place both of your trekking poles simultaneously on either side of the spot where you’ll be putting your foot. Lower yourself slowly, using the poles like crutches.
Beat fatigue on steep climbs.
When high altitude and big mountains take their toll, use the “rest step.” With each stride, lock your downhill knee, shifting the weight momentarily onto that back leg. This puts your weight on your bones for a moment, allowing your leg muscles to relax. As you take your next step, transfer your weight to the uphill leg and let momentum swing your downhill foot forward. Repeat. Inhale deeply as you step up; exhale deeply as you pause in the rest step. If you’re feeling especially winded, try “pressure breathing”: Exhale forcefully through pursed lips as if you’re blowing out a candle to push oxygen from the alveoli to the bloodstream.
Read a rattlesnake’s body language.
Coiled, with tail parallel to ground: All clear–it’s just hanging out
Coiled, with tail in the air: On the prowl, looking for mice
Rattle up, head and upper body raised off the ground: Ready to strike. Slowly back away!
Predict weather with an altimeter.
The altimeter on your watch gauges altitude by measuring air pressure: Falling pressure means you’re climbing, and rising pressure translates to going downhill. Dropping air pressure usually indicates an approaching storm system, while a rise in pressure means the weather is clearing. So if your altimeter says you’re hiking uphill and you’re not, pull out the rain shell: Foul weather is likely headed your way.
Identify a mountain lion track.
Heels: Cougars have three lobes on the hind edge of the heel pad, while dogs have just two. Lion tracks also have two points on the leading edge of the pad; dogs have a single leading edge. Front toes One of the cougar’s middle toe pads is in front of the others. A dog’s toe pads are side-by-side. Claws Lion tracks don’t show claw marks, unless the cat was running. Dog tracks usually do.
5 ways to navigate without a compass.
1) Sun Hold an analog watch flat, with the hour hand pointing to the sun. South is halfway between the hour hand and 12.
2) Shadows Stand a 3-foot stick vertically in the ground and mark the tip of its shadow with a rock. Wait at least 15 minutes, then mark the shadow again. The line connecting the two roughly coincides with the east-west line.
3) Stars Find the Big Dipper. Follow an imaginary line drawn through the two stars at the end of the cup and extending into the sky to a medium-bright star–this is Polaris, the North Star.
4) Moon Watch the sky. If the crescent moon rises before sunset, its illuminated side will face west. If it rises after midnight, the brighter side faces east.
5) Plants In Eastern and Midwestern prairies, find the bright-yellow bloom of a compass plant (Silphium laciniatum, right). In sunny spots, its leaves generally align themselves along the north-south line.
4 ways to prevent blisters.
1) Buy shoes that allow room for your feet to swell. Break them in by wearing them around town and on dayhikes.
2) Wear wicking socks (synthetic or wool); change into a fresh pair as needed. Hang on your pack to dry.
3) Reduce friction by smearing trouble areas with Sportslick or Bodyglide.
4) Stop and cover hotspots immediately with moleskin, Adventure Medical Kits GlacierGel pads, or plain old duct tape.
Lace your boots for maximum comfort.
This method leaves wiggle room for toes and swelling feet, but still keeps the heel locked in place. 1) Lace boots normally, but don’t pull tight.
2) Tie a snug overhand loop at the ankle to create a locking twist, then wrap laces around eyelets.
3) Repeat the single overhand loop at each pair of eyelets.
4) If the boots feel too tight while hiking, relieve pressure by skipping a pair of eyelets near the top.
Pack in 20 minutes.
Keep a gear list taped to the inside of a closet door or under the lid of your storage bin. Visit backpacker.com/checklists for samples. Stow your backpacking clothes–including hats, gloves, and bandanas–together in a dedicated place in your closet or dresser. Reserve a small corner of the pantry for camp food (dehydrated meals, dried fruit, nuts) so that you don’t have to shop for staples en route to the trailhead. Replenish after every trip. Store essentials in a plastic “go box.
IN YOUR GO BOX:
Mug, spoon, bowl
Cookware, scrub pad, soap
Two kinds of firestarter
Sanitation kit (trowel, TP, hand sanitizer)
Bring the Right Amount of Food
Most hikers carry more food than they really need, which means dead weight in your pack. Take a maximum of 3,500 calories per person per day (about 2 pounds) for standard trips; bump it up to a max of 5,000 calories for extremely cold conditions.