Let’s face it; we all love to nerd out on gear. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent researching the latest pack suspension technology or which hydrophobic down jacket is the least absorbent, but I know that it’s embarrassing, and I know it’s a number high enough to rival many part time jobs. This week, I figured I would put my career in procrastination to good use and share the best tips, tricks, and hacks I’ve found over the years to stay comfy and safe in the wilderness. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my pack.
Find a backpack that suits your specific needs best.
After nearly 2 years in an ill-fitting pack I picked up at a hole in the wall outfitter in Rishikesh for $60, I finally bit the bullet and sauntered into an REI to get a proper backpack fitting. It was then that I fell deep into the rabbit hole of functionality and form, and I’m still learning to this day. Are you planning on ultra light backpacking with only a bivvy sack in the summer? You can get away with a 30L. Are you going to be hitting it hard on a longer thru-hike and sweating your freckles off? A 65-70L Osprey with ventilation and mesh is going to be your friend. I ended up snagging a 70L Gregory Deva as my workhorse for alpine climbing. Its sturdy design, solid suspension, and lack of mesh are perfect for when I’m scrambling up boulders and skidding down rock faces. However, this means it’s a bit heavier than its counterparts. Think long and hard about what activities you’re going to be doing the most with your pack on and arm yourself with that info when you head to the store.
Supercharge your sleep system.
Like most things in your backpacking kit, a good sleeping setup should be light and compact. Sleeping bags have comfort ratings by gender to give you an idea of the weather they are intended to endure. Every experienced backpacker that I know likes to add about 10 degrees to that rating for safety. Trust me, it’s better to be a little too toasty than to be huddled and shivering with all your layers on inside the bag! Sleeping pads have warmth ratings as well that combine with the bag for maximum comfort. Look into the different seasonal highs and lows in your area and know when you plan to be out. Many people end up getting a bag for winter and a different one for summer that’s lightweight. I learned this the hard way – I should have bought a zero degree sleep sack much sooner than I did. I’ve had to find a plan B on more than one occasion when the evening temperatures were forecasted to drop below freezing, and it’s a bummer that I missed out on a chunk of winter mountaineering season as a result!
The lightest kitchen setup is none at all.
So, yes, when I’m on a leisurely backpacking trip with friends or I know I’m going to be boulder hopping at an alpine lake all weekend, I absolutely pack a stove and fuel. But, the older and more grizzled I become, the more I’m realizing how much time and weight you can save by ditching the kitchen gear, pumping less water to cook, and simply munching on dry foods from inside the warmth of your sleeping bag before packing up camp in the morning. Get creative with your cold snacks! When I was solo hiking the Backbone Trail, I met two hardcore trail runners who laughed at my pack size and told me that their favorite non-stove camp dinner is dehydrated refried beans (just stir in a little water) and crushed up Frito chips. I am now completely addicted to this trashy trail crack. It’s salty, higher calorie than Backpacker’s Pantry, and weighs less!
Squeeze bags > Steripen.
I was a diehard Steripen fan throughout my travels in India, as it was the simplest solution to getting clean water that’s free of bacteria AND viruses. However, when mine started acting up on a solo trip deep into the hills above Big Sur, I felt my stomach sink at the prospect of putting my health in the wild on anything that requires batteries. I have now been converted to the squeeze bag system, which is more time-consuming, but lighter and more foolproof. I personally can recommend the Sawyer Mini. It takes up the space of a tube of toothpaste and can be used as a squeeze bag system, gravity filter, or lifestraw. Be sure to grab some extra 64oz. bags to go along with it, as the one it comes with is tiny.
Wet wipe showers!
Who needs a tub when you can take yourself to the backcountry spa with wet wipes? I’m very spartan on toiletries when I go backpacking, but one thing I do not skimp on is a hearty pack of baby or face wipes. It’s such a treat at the end of a long, dusty day to wipe down your face, pits, and crotch so that at least 10 inches of your body can feel fresh again. They also help to do the dishes when water is scarce and you’re in a pinch!
Pack a luxurious amount of socks.
You’re going to be on your feet with a large amount of extra weight all. freaking. day. Foot care is probably the most important priority while backpacking, because if your feet get rubbed weird or wet for too long, they’ll start to blister, and skin will fall off of them in large strips. This has absolutely happened to me, and I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a bad look, and you’ll end up hobbling to the next junction, cursing your toes and the fact that you live in a meat sack. The best solution I’ve come up with so far is packing 3 pairs of socks at all times, even on short weekend jaunts. This allows you to rotate between the pairs even when it’s raining or you accidentally slide into a puddle. Make sure your first aid kit has moleskin in it, too. Cut strips to match the size and shape of ripped blisters or sore hot-spots and slap them on to minimize the chance of it getting worse. Your feet are your vehicle on this crazy ride – treat them well!
Invest in a super light 3-season tent.
When I was solo-traveling through India, I ran into a guy who worked as a ranger at Yellowstone National Park. So, like any good wilderness junkie, I invited him to grab a bite while we nerded the hell out on beta. The one piece of advice he gave me that still echoes in my mind today is this: never buy a two person tent that weighs over 4 pounds. Simple! So, when it was time for me to invest in a solid backpacking tent, I prioritized weight and price over all else. I ended up with the REI Quarter Dome 2, and I’ve never looked back. This thing has held up in high winds, late season snow, and so much rain.
For winter mountaineering, my pack and clothing selections get a bit more complicated, depending on what I’m doing and if I’m bringing protection. However, here’s a list of my absolute essentials – crampons, ice axe, gaiters, avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel. Investing in a good set of safety gear is essential. It’s pricey, but worth it if you’re looking into bagging bigger peaks in the snow this season. Your life is worth so much more than the gear.