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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How to Be Awesome at Hiking and Camping: Part 1

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I have been wanting to do a series about camping and backpacking, but it's such a huge subject I had trouble figuring out how to start.  But fall is in the air, and that makes me think of all the things I love about camping, so I've decided to just break it down into very small steps and tackle it a little at a time.  That's how we learned, so that's how I tell it.

First, I'll give you a little background.  Brian and I have been backpacking seriously, either together or separately, for about ten years.

We'd each done a little before then, but we really started to get serious about it when we got married.  Our first couple of trips were disasters.  We packed way too much stuff, brought all the wrong gear, froze at nights, and came home early and exhausted.

But for some reason, we kept at it.  We bought book after book, read magazines, joined online forums, and gradually, we got better at it.  We went on practice hikes to test our packing techniques.  We planned for weeks before each overnight trip to make sure we did it better than the last time.  We talked about it day and night for months.  We went alone.  We brought friends.  We learned.

We're now at a place where we are pretty confident in our abilities, although we are always learning and trying out new things.  Personally, I have come from being completely useless to being confident that if you put me in the woods alone with a pack, I could survive just fine for days.  That's a huge improvement!

That's me being totally hardcore right there.

Of course, we don't get to go as much as we used to because we have Cricket. Now we are learning a completely different kind of camping, which I'm sure I'll get to later.  For the moment, though, I am going to cover some of the basics of backpacking with just adults.

Packing is probably the most important part of backpacking, because it determines how well you will do everything else.  You have to get all the gear you need, make sure it doesn't break your back, and pack it in such a way that it is comfortable to hike with.  Our packs typically weight between 15 to 25 pounds before water.  (As a contrast, our packs on our first trip weighed over 50 pounds--each!)

You need to make a master list of what you are going to take in your pack.  Forgetting something is not an option when you're a day's hike or more from the nearest road.  This is not something you can just throw together on a whim.  As you think through your list, try to stick mostly with items that have multiple purposes, or that can be shared when possible.  No sense doubling up on weight.

I'm going to talk you through our master list, one section at a time.

       Walking Sticks
       Rain gear
       Camel Back Water Carrier

Most of these are pretty basic.  One important one is the walking stick or hiking pole.

Walking sticks are great for hiking rough terrain, but they're also good for setting up emergency shelters, making a tripod for hanging bags at the camp site, and about a dozen other uses.

Using hiking sticks to set up a tarp for a rain cover.

We have telescoping poles with carbon tips, and they're fantastic.  You don't need a super expensive one.  You're going to be stabbing it in the dirt repeatedly.

Rain gear is important, even if you're sure it's not going to rain.  Often, it rains even when it's not "supposed to," and even if it doesn't, it's nice to have something water proof if you're fording a river.  I use a rain jacket and Brian uses a poncho.  Ponchos also make great emergency shelters.

Camel Backs and other similar water carriers are the greatest.  

They let you drink while you hike, which keeps you from getting dehydrated, because you drink a lot more than if you had to stop and get out your canteen every time you felt thirsty.  We've also used ours as a makeshift refrigeration unit by putting ice in it and then packing lunch meat between the bladder and the outer casing, which kept it cold until our first meal.  They also spread out the water weight nicely which is an added bonus.

1st Aid
       1st aid kit
       ACE bandage
       Meds (check levels)

We have that note about the meds because it has definitely happened before that we've gotten out into the middle of no where and needed something from the first aid kit only to find out that we used all the Advil the last time we had the flu or whatever.  Always check.  Also, always have moleskin for blisters.  Always. 

Tent Gear
       Mosquito Net

Depending on the weather and where we are going, we really prefer to sleep in hammocks instead of a tent. 

 It's much more comfortable, lighter to pack, and faster to set up.  Plus, hammocks are just awesome.  

Me in my awesome hammock-burrito.

Only if it's really cold or if we have the baby with us do we use a tent anymore.  I'm kind of a sissy, though, so I prefer to hang a mosquito net above my hammock so that I don't wake up with a bug on my face.

Me sleeping in my hammock-burrito covered in mosquito net.

Brian is hardcore and doesn't seem to mind bugs on his face.  

       Tooth Paste (travel size)
       Garbage bags
       Wet wipes
       Camp towels
       Hand sanitizer
       Wash cloth

Of course, your hygiene kit will probably be different from ours, but make sure you have the basics.  I keep floss on the list because, in addition to its obvious use, it is great as an emergency string since it's pretty strong.  Camp towels also have amazing uses, because they are super absorbent, which came in really handy that time it rained for three days straight and we found out the hard way that our tent was not as water proof as we might have hoped.

Garbage bags are great because they don't weigh anything, pack very small, and can be used for emergency rain protection for your stuff if necessary.

Small bottles of hand sanitizer are awesome for staying healthy in the woods.  We keep one in a Ziploc with our toilet paper, so it's always there when you need it.

       Water purifier
       Water carriers

Light My Fire sells awesome sporknives that have everything you need for cooking and eating all in one utensil.  

We always carry a water purification method and a back up: usually a Nalgene water purification bottle and our back up is boiling water.  We also always have at least three ways of starting a fire, in case the others don't work.  

That means typically carrying matches, a lighter, and a fire steel kit.  Water carriers include my Nalgene and Brian's army canteen.  I always bring a few extra Ziplocks, too, for packing out trash or as an emergency water carrier.

Our stove is just a tiny little contraption that screws onto a canister of fuel so you can set a pot on it.  

Very basic, but it does everything we need.  I can make muffins, and even pizza on that bad boy!  (More on camp food later.)

       Duct tape
       Bug Spray
       Pocket knives
       Sewing Kit
       Safety pins

Our rule is that everyone carries a pocket knife and a whistle on their person at all times. (We use a combination whistle/compass/magnifying glass.)  Whistles are great because you can blow a whistle a lot longer than you can scream, so in an emergency, they are handy to have.  We carry them on our person because you don't usually take your backpack with you when you go to the bathroom, and that's when you're most likely to get lost or get into trouble by yourself.  

A pair of heat-proof gloves are amazing to have for cooking, keeping hands warm, and protecting them from injury.  

Pictured:  Brian's gloves, doing all of the above.
A book is not necessary, but we usually bring our paperback copy of Robin Hood because it's awesome to read around the campfire.

We use headlamps for flashlights because they free up your hands.  You can get them cheap at Walmart.  Oh, and wrap some duct tape around your hiking stick, whistle, pencil, and bug spray container so you don't have to take the whole roll with you.

       2 shirts each
       2 pants each
       Camp shoes
       Hair Bands
       Long sleeve shirts

Obviously the clothes you pack are going to depend on the weather and conditions of the place you are going, but actually, this tends to be a pretty good list.  Even when it's chilly during the day, short sleeves are good for hiking, and even when it's hot during the day, a long sleeve shirt is usually good for evenings and sleeping.  I like the off-brand Under Armor long sleeve shirt that I can wear under my camp shirt at night.

We usually take one pair of hiking clothes and one pair of camp clothes.  That way, your hiking clothes are dirty and covered with bug spray, and you can hang out at camp in clothes that are cleaner and more comfortable.  We also change into camp shoes because it gives your feet a break from your hiking boots, it's easier on the campsite, and they are easier to slip on and off.  Also, zip-off pants/shorts are a great space and weight saver.

We also typically each take a pair of shoe covers from Brian's work.  That way we can cover our boots before we put them in the tent and they don't get so dirty.  When we're hiking, we put the covers on our camp shoes, protecting our packs.

Bandannas are another very multi-purpose handy thing to keep around.  You can cover your head with them, use them as pot holders, cleaning rags, washcloths, etc.  The list goes on and on.

10 Pc. Kit
       Folding saw
       Fire steel
       Cook set

The ten piece kit is Brian's thing.  It's supposed to contain everything he needs for survival.  (My idea of survival and his are very different, obviously.)  If you're interested in it, check out his videos on his YouTube channel.  He has a whole survivalist-type deal going on over there with lots of cool stuff.

Trail Bag

A trail bag isn't really a separate packing list.  It's an alternate method of carrying what you need to get to easily while hiking.  Your pack is big and strategically packed, and it can take a while to get in and out of it.  We use army ammo bags like the one in the picture up there about clothing.  It weighs almost nothing, and it's the perfect size for carrying trail mix, a knife, a compass, a bandanna, a headlamp, and a few other things you always want to be able to get to quickly.

Of course, we also pack food and water, but that's a post for a later time.  This is our general list, and we modify it depending on the weather, time of year, if we're using hammocks or tents, and where we're going.  Also, remember this is our list for two people, and we divide it up.  If you're going solo, it's going to be completely different.

What kind of things do you pack when you go hiking?  Anything different than what's on this list?


  1. How fun! I think you're super hardcore to sleep without a tent at all, idk if I would ever do that LOL! We went camping a lot when I was growing up & LOVED it. My friends & I always wanted our dads to take us primitive camping but they were never brave enough ;-)

    1. We should totally go camping! I really want to do it more this fall, once the weather is nice!