Essential Backpacking Skills

Checking out my map one last time before we begin.

Ahead of my upcoming “Intro to Backpacking” event, Andre asks about Essential Backpacking Skills:

I have been attending the HVH Beginner Series hikes to get in shape and acquainted with the area and gear, and Mary F. and Timothy from HVH (Hudson Valley Hikers) recommended I sign up for this one. My medium-term goal is to be able to backpack on my own, which leads to my question: What kind of skills do I have to learn to do solo backpacking/camping, and what challenges can I expect as opposed to doing it with a group?

Solo Backpacking

Conventional wisdom and advice given by most hiking organizations says you should never go into the wilderness alone. They push the buddy system and the safety that comes with traveling in groups. In reality, all serious hikers do eventually go hiking and backpacking on their own.  To that end, we might as well talk about it.

Solo Backpacking is a great way to learn self reliance. It teaches you to refine the skills you need both for planning and carrying out an adventure. The solo hiker finds a sense of inner peace and connection with nature not often possible when traveling with a group. When joining a group, that person is better able to contribute and provide leadership. Developing good skills for solo backpacking makes you a better team member. It allows you to give to the group and not being a burden. Finally, it allows you to step up and take charge if anything should ever happen to the leader.

In my opinion, the essential backpacking skills for a solo hiker are the same as those for hikers traveling with a group. Put differently, everyone traveling with a group should strive to be self reliant. They should know the route, the bail out options, the expected conditions, how to operate their own gear, etc.

Essential Backpacking Skills: Trip  Planning

I would list the essentials kills for a solo backpacker into three parts: trip planning, packing and wilderness skills. Being a successful backpacker starts at home. The Art of War can be summed up as, “know yourself, know the enemy and know the way.”  When planning a trip, it is essential to know your own limitations and needs.  While you should always push yourself, going on a trip that greatly exceeds your abilities is not fun nor safe. Likewise, knowing your needs will allow you to pack the right gear, food, and water for you. There is no magic formula for these things; you must know yourself.

Nature isn’t your friend or your enemy, but it is often both. Before going into nature, you need to know what threats might exist to your safety. These threats are most commonly from weather or terrain conditions and less commonly from plants or animals. Having a working knowledge of the environment you’re going into is essential.

Finally, you need to read and understand the map before you start your trip.  I actually suggest memorizing it.  Internalizing the map will help you keep a better mental picture of where you are at all times. It is important to understand the terrain, water availability, side trails, and shelter locations. Equally important is knowing local rules and regulations, like whether you’re allowed to build an open fire and where you’re allowed to camp.

  • Know Yourself
    • How much food do I need?
    • How much water do I need?
    • How far can I walk in a day?
    • How high can I climb in a day?
    • How much heat or cold can I withstand?
    • How do I use my gear?
    • Do I have any major allergies, asthma or medical conditions?
  • Know the Enemy
    • Is it going to rain or snow?
    • Is it going to be hot or cold?
    • Will their be blistering sunshine or chilling winds?
    • Might I encounter lightning?
    • What dangerous animals and plants exist in the area?
  • Know the Way
    • What is the terrain like?
    • How long is my primary route?
    • Are there easier routes around major obstacles?
    • Are there bypass routes for bad weather?
    • Are emergency shelters available in the area?
    • What is the local emergency contact number?
    • Are there any side trails into towns or to highways that could be used in an emergency?
    • Where am I allowed to camp?
    • Am I allowed to build a fire?
    • Where can I find water?

Essential Backpacking Skills: Packing

When packing for a trip, you should carry everything you need and nothing you don’t. Non-essentials tend to act as distractions that take you out of the wilderness experience. What are the essentials?  I base my gear list on The Rules of Three and the 10 Essentials.  These are the items you really need on any trip into the wilderness. Whether you carry the most minimal or most robust version of each is up to your understanding of the conditions you are expecting and your own personal taste.  Here is a basic packing guideline based on the Rules of Three and 10 Essentials:

  • Air
    • Asthma and Allergy Medicines
    • Working knowledge of CPR and the Heimlich Maneuver
    • Personal Flotation Device (for float trips.)
  • Shelter
    • Base layers
    • Adequate Insulating Layers
    • Rain or Shell Layers
    • Extra Socks
    • Gloves
    • Hat, Sunscreen, + Sunglasses
    • Sleeping bag or quilt
    • Sleeping pad
    • Shelter: tarp, bivy, tent, hammock…
    • Fire Starting Kit
    • Bug Repellant
  • Water
    • Enough water bottles or bladders to get from one source to the next
    • Water treatment system
  • Food
    • Enough calories to get you through each day, plus extra
    • Bear Bag (+rope) or Canister
    • Stove/Pot (If planning to cook)
  • Navigation
    • Map + Compass
    • GPS
    • Headlamp
  • Extras
    • Knife or Multi-tool
    • First Aid Kit
    • Repair Kit
    • Rope
    • Signaling Device

Essential Backpacking Skills: Wilderness Skills

Ok, now we’re in the woods. If you’ve made a good plan and packed the right gear, 90% of the work is over and its time to have fun.  The remaining skills involve protecting yourself and the environment.

Recommended Reading

Sample Day Hike Plan


8 thoughts on “Essential Backpacking Skills”

  1. The only things I’d add here is the rope to hang a bear bag (not necessary if carrying a bear canister but I’d still bring rope). Rope is multi use and can be used as part of your first aid. I can’t recommend the length but I believe mine is 20ft. It can also be used as guidelines if yours rip, a belt, etc.
    Also as part of a coocking system bring a camping stove, like a pocketrocket, pot of course, matches/lighter or two, and fuel compatible with a stove your are bringing unless you aren’t planning to cook anything and bringing dry foods like wraps, peanut butter, summer sausage and cheese and the noncook like for your dinners.

  2. Each one of these is a blog topic (or three). You’ll have something to write about for a very long time, CampingJay.

    1. I agree. I’ll start picking this post apart and expanding on it over the next few months. I may also write three expanded versions of the stove post.

  3. This is the first one I’ve ever seen a packing list broken out like this and I love it. Particularly the fact that you put all your clothing in the “shelter” category. I may borrow this style from now on. 🙂

    1. Thank you Scott. I consider “Shelter” as anything that protects your body from the environment. That includes sunscreen and big repellant.

  4. Do you know if HVH is going to do another “Beginner Series” for 2018? I wanted to sign up for the Beginner Backpacking on April 21st but need at least 4 weeks notice to schedule days off from work to participate.

Comments are closed.