Luckily, backpacking is a fairly simple activity to learn, compared to say downhill skiing or rock climbing, but there are a few essential backpacking skills you need to master to stay safe and happy on the trail.
Learn These 10 Essential Backpacking Skills:
- Purify your own water – research all the different ways, try a few out, and figure out what works best for you. I use and love Aquamira Drops. Just make sure to treat your water – every time – while you’re on the trail.
- Eat well, and eat enough, while hiking. I recommend getting a lightweight backpacking stove, and make sure you know how to set it up and use it before your first trip. Then be sure to pack food you like to help replenish all those calories you’ll be burning.
- Pick a safe campsite. Before setting up camp, always check the area for signs of wildlife like trees that bears have ‘rubbed’ on or bark that has been chewed off by moose. These are signs that those animals travel in that area frequently – and I don’t want to sleep in the path of a bear! Also, look up and check for widow-makers, or dead branches or trees that haven’t fallen yet, you don’t want to sleep under those.
- Practice setting up your tent or hammock or tarp or whatever it is you’ll be sleeping in before your first backpacking trip. Make sure you have all the pieces you need, and that they aren’t broken. Maybe even test out the waterproofness of your tent/tarp before your first trip – just to make sure you don’t need to seam seal or spray your tent/tarp down with extra waterproofing spray.
- How to hang a bear bag. Or use a bear canister. Make sure you have a plan to protect your food at night and keep our wildlife wild in the process.
- How to Leave No Trace, so others can also enjoy our public lands without having to clean up other people’s messes, and by messes, I mean their shit. Literal human shit. That’s what land managers and volunteers have to do when hikers don’t learn to Leave No Trace.
- Practice good hygiene on the trail so you don’t get sick. Always wash or at least sanitize your hands after using the bathroom and before eating. Brush your teeth every day. Wash your body every once in a while, either in the woods 200 feet away from a water source, or whenever you go into town.
- Identify infection or serious illness. I recommend becoming at least first aid certified – or wilderness first aid or wilderness first responder certified if you want, so you know the difference between what you can handle treating on the trail, and what you need to go into town and seek medical help for.
- Learn to read a map and use a compass, and how to use a map and compass together. Please don’t rely solely on technology or GPS to keep you on track, always have a map and compass as a backup. Places like REI sometimes provide free classes teaching skills like this, or there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube.
- Always know how to get help. Make sure you have the phone numbers of the local rangers and/or police for where you’re hiking and carry them with you. These are usually printed on most maps and guidebooks. Make sure to leave your hiking plan and itinerary with a trusty friend or family member, so they know where to find you in case you don’t come back. Always carry a whistle on you and know how to make a smokey fire in case you are injured or lost so badly you are truly stranded somewhere.
- Take the Backpacking Skills Mini Course for more detailed lessons and video tutorials of all the essential backpacking skills you need to master like using a map and compass, starting a fire, food and bear safety, and more!
Now that you know what the essential skills are that you need to go backpacking – go out and practice them!
Practice in your backyard, or on day hikes, or in campgrounds, where you still have the comfort and reassurance of your car and other people close by.
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Then, after you’ve mastered these skills, go out on your first overnight (or several night) backpacking trip!
Drop any hiking or backpacking questions in the comments below!
For more backpacking tips and skills, check out:
- 5 Water Purification Methods For Hikers
- How To Pick A Good Campsite
- How To Hang A Bear Bag
- Take the Backpacking Skills Mini Course
About the author, Mallory Moskowitz:
After studying Recreation, Park & Tourism Management, Mallory spent several years teaching environmental education, guiding hikes, and leading backcountry trips. Her life-changing trek from Georgia to New York on the Appalachian Trail is what sparked the creation of Your Adventure Coach, to share backpacking tips and resources with as many new hikers as possible.