Backpacking Guides

A guide to comfort and safety while backpacking

We have covered all the basic gear necessary for having a successful backpacking trip but what about all the little things we haven’t talked about yet? Well…that’s what this chapter is about.

It may go without saying but light is necessary on the trail. The popularity of LED lights which are smaller and more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs has made this part of backpacking easy. A single LED headlamp should suffice for most hikes. There are even attachments that turn the headlamp into a lantern for use in the tent at night.

Although some people still use a handheld flashlight, the headlamp keeps your hands free which is unbelievably important when making camp or cooking after sundown.

First aid

It’s advisable to take a basic first aid course before starting off on your first backpacking adventure. The Red Cross and the YMCAboth offer decent courses covering basic first aid techniques.

In addition to learning the skills required, you should carry a first aid kit with at least basic supplies. It doesn’t need to be anything too complicated but if possible should be a kit designed for backpackers. Many popular outdoor retailers sell kits for this purpose.

Keeping clean

You might be surprised by how infrequently you need to bathe in the wilderness. Yes, you might get a little smelly but it’s usually nothing a quick dip in some water can’t fix.

About the only area you should definitely wash all the time is your hands. You are more likely to ingest Giardia or other pathogens by improper hand washing than from drinking unpurified water. And if you are going on a short hike of a only a few days, this is likely all you need to maintain yourself until you return to civilization.

Keeping your hands clean is easy. There a plenty of biodegradable soaps available that can be carried in the pack although I would caution that these still shouldn’t be used near water sources. An even better solution is a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Sanitizer doesn’t require water and because it is alcohol-based it can even be used to help start fires.

For the rest of your body, No-Rinse Bath Wipes are a good choice. They are larger than normal baby wipes and don’t leave a residue on your skin. Usually, this is enough to keep you fresh until you get home and take a much-needed shower.

Other items should include a toothbrush, small tube of toothpaste (remember to store it in a bear canister in bear country) and some moist wipes for general cleaning duties.

Finally, don’t forget toilet paper because wiping with leaves is not any fun! If you take out the center cardboard tube the roll takes up much less space in your pack.

Sunscreen and bug spray

These are both necessities in the wilderness. The sun’s rays are much more intense at high elevations and sunburn is a quick way to ruin your trip. Likewise, bugs can be really bad during certain seasons so a quality bug spray is a must.

Both of these items are usually scented so they should be stored with your food in a bear canister when necessary.

Some people have a reaction to DEET, a popular chemical used in bug spray. It also melts plastic so if you use a spray with DEET make sure it is stored away from items that could be damaged. There are other bug sprays available that do not contain DEET and might be worth considering instead.

Some insects, especially black flies, are impervious to bug spray. For these critters a bug net and tightly woven clothing are essential. You can learn more about the insects you are likely to encounter by researching the area where you plan to hike.

Electronic devices

There are all sorts of electronic devices found on the trail these days from iPod MP3 players to smartphones used for GPS navigation. While hardcore backpackers may disagree with having some of these electronic gadgets on the trail there is no denying that some of them can be very useful or entertaining.

The Amazon Kindle, for instance, allows a backpacker to carry thousands of books in a small device no larger than a paperback book. Since I love to read in the tent in the evening, the Kindle is perfect for me.

Likewise, many people enjoy listening to music while loafing around camp at night. Smartphones and iPods work well for this.

I also bring my smartphone on the trail but only to use as a standalone GPS unit. I put the phone in Airplane Mode to conserve battery and the app I use allows me to map my progress in real­time. It works well and in an emergency, I could call for help on the phone assuming there was a signal.

Cameras are another popular device and are a great way to document your trip along the way. Many backpackers are semi-professional photographers who have honed their skills through years on the trail. Hence, these people tend to have expensive DSLR cameras. Personally, I have a basic point-and-shoot with optical zoom that fits perfectly into one of the pockets on my hip belt. It takes pretty good pictures and works well for my purposes.

No matter what electronics you decide to bring, you need a way to charge them if you are going to be traveling for more than a day or two.

Fortunately, there are quite a few lightweight solar chargers available. Usually, these units strap to the outside of your pack allowing you to charge necessary items while you hike. Obviously, they do not work well (or at all) on cloudy days or when you are in deep forested areas with little sunlight but they are a welcome addition to the average backpacker’s gear list.