What I wished I knew before I starting backpacking and hiking, but didn’t…. Part 6: Tools/ miscellaneous

This is the sixth part of a series.  Please read the other sections.

I labeled this section as miscellaneous because it doesn’t fit any of my other categories. There could be pages upon pages written about each individual topic as many are hobbies within themselves. However, for the beginner, I didn’t feel a need to get too detailed but generally give what I have observed from the average backpacker (if there is such a thing).

Cellphone. Nearly everyone has a smartphone that can do many things including operating as a Kindle or reading device, play movies, perform GPS duties, most newer phones have really great cameras in them, can even operate as a flashlight in a pinch for a short time, AND operate as a phone for text messages and phone calls! For the beginner, carrying a phone instead of all of these individual items is very common and I often still carry my phone on certain trips. There are really two main drawbacks from using your phone for everything. One is durability. The woods are full of rocks, water, mud, and icky stuff that your phone doesn’t like. A durable and waterproof case is a must. The other issue with using your phone is battery life. Most phones now have built in batteries so it isn’t as simple as swapping out a dead battery for a fresh one. There are ways around this that I’ll address later, but for the beginner on an overnight trip, a phone is a no brainer.

I do feel as if I have to give a word of caution here, however…. We get spoiled with having a signal for our cell phone everywhere we go. There are MANY places that isn’t the case when you are hiking in the backcountry – even just a short distance from the road – so plan accordingly. I set my phone in airplane mode (or turn off) when I’m hiking so it won’t drain the battery looking for a signal (because there’s not one). Many of the functions can still be used such as the camera, GPS apps, music downloaded to your phone, etc while the phone is in airplane mode. Also, dim the screen brightness as that also helps extend the battery life. I believe many new people believe there’s always going to be a signal where they can call for help if they need it. That is often not the case.

GPS device. I wouldn’t recommend purchasing one until you decide this hobby is for you. There are affordable models out there that do a great job, but for the beginner, if you want GPS functions, there are many apps that can be downloaded for free or purchased. I personally use the Gaia app and have a blog post comparing the data from the app to my stand alone GPS device. I would suggest BEFORE buying a dedicated GPS device (or really even hiking) that you learn how to navigate using a map and compass. The military teaches it for free (at least that’s how I learned) or some outdoor stores/clubs will have an orienteering class. A compass is cheap, I’ve never had one break, and doesn’t rely on batteries. I often plan my hike on paper (map) and track my accuracy electronically (GPS). IF you rely on the GPS only, things can go bad very quickly if your GPS fails.

Camera. My phone takes some really great pictures. In fact, some of my favorite pictures have come from my phone, not my camera. If you already have a camera, I’d suggest taking it. There are often settings on a camera that aren’t available on a phone and more often than not, the camera will take a better picture. I use a “point and shoot” type camera that suites my needs. I have been with others that have taken their larger (and heavier) 35mm cameras with several different lens. What was said about phones also applies to cameras. There are a lot of rocks, water, mud, etc in the woods…. The camera I use is a “rugged” point and shoot model that is waterproof and shockproof and would suggest something like that for backpacking.

Kindle/iPad/Books. I don’t personally take any of these items. I go to the woods to be in nature by myself or with friends. I enjoy being “unplugged.” You may have a different opinion, and that’s ok. IF I was to take something, it would probably be an old fashioned book. I do know hikers that do this and use the pages they have read to start the fire. Do what works for you.

Light. Yes is the answer. You will need at least one light source. I’d suggest having one set of extra batteries or a backup especially for extended trips. It never ceases to amaze me how early it gets dark in the woods. Trying to set up your shelter, cook, start a fire, looking for firewood or something in your backpack, and nearly everything you do after dark will require a light. I would suggest getting a headlamp. It’s basically a flashlight you wear around your forehead. Wearing a headlamp keeps both hands free to do whatever you are doing. My first overnight trip I didn’t have a headlamp and was holding my flashlight between my shoulder and neck in a very uncomfortable position trying to set up my gear. It wasn’t fun.

I would suggest a headlamp with a night mode although I suspect all models sold now would have one. Night mode is most often a red light but green and blue are also colors I have seen. This keeps your night vision more intact which means when you turn off your light your eyes are semi adjusted to the dark and you can see better. Also try to angle your headlamp down slightly otherwise when you look at someone your light is shining right in their eyes. I also have a small keychain push button light in an inside pocket of my backpack for backup.

Spare batteries/Recharging options. With all the electronics, how do you plan on keeping the items operating on longer trips? Sometimes it is easy to replace the batteries such as in a headlamp, camera, or GPS. Cell phones, some cameras, and other devices that have a built in battery pose a different set of difficulties. How to recharge your items? It all depends on where you are, how much you use the device (or how fast they drain a full charge), and how long you plan on being in the woods. The most common solution is a backup battery device with the cables to charge multiple items. The backup battery device gets recharged in town on resupply days or after the trip depending on the variables above. The answer comes through experience but it’s something to consider. One thing I see newer people consider are solar charging devices. In the woods, I’m often covered by shade and solar devices require a lot of sunlight and a fairly long time to be effective. In your environment they may be a solution, but they are not very practical here.

Knives/Sharp things. Once again, yes is the answer. One of the things I see newer people carry are large survival type knives. Hopefully you do not find yourself in a survival situation on a simple overnight trip. I find that I most often use my knife to open food packets, not to construct shelter from large trees. I would carry something smaller than you think you need. I also bought a cheap multitool and carried it for several trips. I discovered that I never used and it and it has sat in my box of gear ever since. If you are one of the people that can’t leave the house without your multitool, then carry it by all means, but know that your blade will get 99% or more of the use.

Before I talk about collecting firewood and the need for an axe or saw, I must bring up something called Leave No Trace (LNT). Their website (https://lnt.org/) can give you lots of great information. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a national organization that protects the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly. To make it simple, my version is to take only pictures and leave only footprints. In the purest form, LNT does not recommend fires. However, to most people camping isn’t camping without a camp fire. I would just suggest being responsible and reasonable.

To be perfectly honest, I camp mostly during the Fall, Winter, and early Spring and I most often have a fire. It’s a relatively small fire and I ensure the ground around the fire and overhead is not combustible. I also most often camp in a designated Wilderness area without established campsites. There are many places that are popular and all the firewood has been collected and burned over the years by the many visitors. I don’t camp there. Most often where I camp there is wood that can be collected and burned without the use of an axe or saw. The really only exception where a small hand saw would be helpful is a large downed tree. Of course, never cut anything living (it won’t burn well, if at all) and be respectful of your environment. I carried a hatchet on one trip and I’ve never carried a saw. My camping partner does often carry a saw, so that helps our ability to collect firewood.

Sitting. The picture of friends sitting around a campfire cooking hotdogs or roasting marshmallows is the postcard for camping, isn’t it? If you have ever sat around a campfire, how and where did you sit? Most often this is done in a setting where everyone can bring their big comfortable chair. That isn’t exactly the case when backpacking. Some people pull up a log or rock. Some people sit on the ground. Others carry a small stool or pad to sit on. I have a small backpacking chair I carry on all but the longest multiday hikes. I have discovered at my age after a long day hiking/backpacking, my back and legs need a break and my chair does the job. The options here are endless but just remember, without some type of insulation barrier, the rocks, logs, and ground will steal body heat and you will cool down quickly.

Trekking poles. Some call them hiking poles. Why do you need them? You may not and I probably would buy other items first, but I really like mine! I use two, although some people only use one. The two trekking poles help keep me from slipping when I’m going downhill – especially when it is muddy or slippery. I’ll put them out in front of me to steady myself if I start to slip. They help me keep my balance when I’m tiptoeing across rocks crossing a stream. I also use them to clear spider webs strung across the trail, push limbs out of my way, and even to slightly propel myself forward on flat ground (think ski poles and skiing). Some people say their knees aren’t as sore when they use trekking poles. I use them on my tarp to elevate one side to set up “porch mode.” So I even use them around camp.

The two most common materials for trekking poles are aluminum and carbon fiber. Of course, aluminum is more durable but heavier, while carbon fiber is lighter and not as durable. The price of carbon fiber has come down drastically, so don’t discount them for a beginner. The handles are generally cork or a synthetic (plastic) material. I prefer the cork handles. They just feel better in my hand and I’ve never had a blister from using them. Some trekking poles come with a shock absorber or spring, but I prefer the ones without. To me, it’s just something else to break and I get a better “feel” of the ground with the models without the spring. While there are models that don’t collapse (think of skiing poles) most models do so they can be easily stowed when not in use. The two most common locking devices are a twist lock and a flip lock. I prefer the flip lock as the twist lock seems to come loose through use at the worst possible time. I highly recommend them and would suggest trying a cheap pair and see for yourself before investing a lot of money on trekking poles.

Insect control. In all except the coldest environments, yes is the answer once again! Nothing is worse that feel as if you are being eaten alive by various insects without any way of relief. While it will greatly depend on your environment and season, there are insects/bugs out nearly all year in many areas of the world. Not only do they make the experience unpleasant, but they can actually carry disease so it is something that must be considered. Regardless of your precautions, one word of advice (even around town) is not to wear anything heavily scented. This draws the insects to you. While I don’t have any scientific proof of this, I have made this observation more than once.

I use a chemical called Permethrin. It can be bought online or in outdoor supply stores. It’s even available at Wal-Mart in the sporting goods department. I spray/soak my outer clothes and some gear in advance and the chemical is active for over a month, which has been shorter than my longest trip. This will repel/kill ticks, fleas, chiggers, and other creepy crawlies. You want to make sure you treat your clothes several days in advance and allow your clothes to dry fully before your outing. As a note, it is lethal to cats when wet, so you do have to be careful. I do wear gloves and use in a well ventilated area. When it is dry, there is no smell and will survive several washings. It works for me, but there are other options if you are concerned about chemicals. There are other areas where the flies and gnats are so bad a head net or net suit is required for protection. I hope not to visit those areas any time soon….

Fire starting device. Once again, the answer is yes! You should always have the ability to build a fire. I find the easiest and cheapest is a miniature Bic lighter. They weigh next to nothing but can literally be a lifesaver. You could get cold, wet, need to start a signal fire, etc. ALWAYS have a way to start a fire even if you don’t plan on it.

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What I wished I knew before I starting backpacking and hiking, but didn’t…. Part 5: Cook system

This is the fifth part of a series.


The fourth item on the “Big Four” is your cooking system. When it comes to cooking, the choices are nearly endless but break down into several categories. You can cook over a wood fire, have a canister stove, an alcohol stove, or not cook at all. We’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each method. I am not one of the people that can eat the same thing every day for multiple days in a row, so I generally use a couple of methods within an extended trip for variety. There are generally two categories of cookware: aluminum and titanium. Regardless of where you start, one common beginner mistake it to bring too much food! Food options and actually cooking will be addressed later in the food section.

                Cooking over a fire when camping is cliché but common. When I first started, I often planned on cooking over the campfire for overnight trips and still do on occasion. For prolonged trips, however, it isn’t practical. If your food isn’t cooked or preserved, it can spoil quickly. Gathering firewood takes a lot of energy – especially at established campsites where firewood has been gathered and burned by previous visitors. Add in a couple of rainy days before (or during) your trip, and sometimes making a fire is difficult, if not impossible. In the warmer weather, do you really want a fire? All of these are things to consider. For the beginner overnight trip in the cool weather, I still cook over the fire.

                The most common stove I see in the woods is a canister stove. These are the stoves that attach to a pressurized gas canister. They are very easy to turn on and off, and easy to light with some even have built in lighting mechanisms. I don’t know that I’ve ever had one NOT light so they can be very convenient. One of the major disadvantages is that it is difficult to determine how much fuel is left in the canister. This may cause either running out of fuel or replacing a canister before it is truly empty. Possessing several partially filled fuel canisters are a common issue with someone using this type of stove. Some types of canister stoves can seem quite loud when operating in the quiet early morning.

                The last type of stove that is gaining in popularity is the alcohol stove. These can be made out a variety of materials including uses aluminum cans, containers, and there are some models precision machined out of solid aluminum. They can be handmade or purchased from a variety of vendors. The advantages of an alcohol stove is generally they are much lighter, extremely quiet, and easy to operate. Alcohol stoves use a variety of alcohol (denatured alcohol or methanol are the two most popular) and the flame is nearly invisible during the day. There is not an on or off switch and it can be difficult to put out the fire if the alcohol is spilled. You must “ration” fuel for extended trips so you can still cook on the last day (this takes practice). For these reasons, this type of stove is not recommended for younger backpackers and care must be used regardless of the age of the user. In some areas, they are illegal during burn bans because there isn’t an off switch.  

                The last option of preparing food is not technically cooking. There is a growing trend of going “stoveless” or NOT cooking. Some people don’t cook to save the weight of a stove and fuel while others want to be able to eat at a moment’s notice. The food variety is more limited in this type of food preparation, but there are still plenty of options. One could carry “open and eat” type of food that requires no preparation (think of Pop Tarts, jerky, chicken and tuna in a pouch). Another popular option is sandwiches/wraps which I often eat for lunch when I don’t want to break out the stove. During the warmer temps, I will often use a food preparation method called cold soaking. I will add water to the food and seal it in a container and let it soak and rehydrate while I hike or do other activities (like setting up camp). This method takes longer, but if you’re not in a hurry and don’t mind cold food, there are lots of options. Cold soaking can be used for oatmeal, pastas (longer soak time), grains, or really any food that just requires water.

                Cookware breaks down into two materials – aluminum and titanium. Generally speaking, aluminum is slightly heavier, not as durable, but cheaper.  Titanium is slightly lighter, more durable, and more expensive.  I have used both in the past.  One thing that I noticed is that aluminum has a better heat transfer than titanium.  If you are wanting to simmer food over a stove, I would suggest aluminum cookware because I have experienced hot spots/scorching with titanium.  If you are going to boil water and pour the hot water into something else, either material will work.          

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What I wished I knew before I started hiking and backpacking, but didn’t…. Part Four: Shelter

This is the fourth part of a series.

The second “Big Four” item is shelter. You should NOT go build yourself a shelter out of tree branches except in survival situations. It devastates the environment, is time consuming, and takes a lot of energy. There are three basic approaches to shelter. The minimalist tarp, a tent, or hammock. I started my outdoor adventure with a tent as many people and it is probably the easiest way to go camping for the beginner. A quality tent for the occasional camper can be really affordable and easily picked up at a number of stores or ordered online.

                Some people prefer to sleep on the ground under a tarp. I call this the minimalist tarp. It’s not fancy and it works in nice weather.  However, when it begins to rain or the temperature drops, I’m not sure how they stay dry or warm. Others just cowboy camp or don’t set up anything and sleep under the starts.  These are not for me, but they are the lightest option. 

Which is better, a tent or a hammock? Tents can be set up nearly anywhere and hammocks rely on having two trees or two things to attach each end of the hammock and tarp. Tents are easier to assemble while hammocks take some practice to get right. Tents are more readily available from just about any outdoor outfitter and generally cheaper for the beginner. Tents systems can be lighter. If you have never camped before, I would suggest starting with a tent.

One thing to consider is a way to insulate against the cold on all sides. In a tent this is done by using a sleeping bag and a ground pad. Sleeping bags are filled with either a synthetic material or down.  Synthetic bag are usually cheaper, weigh more, don’t compress as much, and aren’t rated for really cold weather.  Sleeping bags are more expensive, weigh less, compress down very small, and some models are rated for below zero degrees Fahrenheit. As with all down products, a down sleeping bag is nearly worthless if it gets wet so you must ensure it stays dry so it can keep you warm. The sleeping pads come in many different styles and prices, but generally are either inflatable or semi rigid foam.  They are really there to prevent the ground from stealing all of your body heat, although there are thicker models that are actually comfortable.  Of course, the thicker and comfortable models cost and weigh more than something simpler.  You will need a ground pad if you are sleeping on the ground in all except very warm temperatures. A closed foam pad is much cheaper and you don’t have to worry about air leaking out in the middle of the night.  The can be pretty cheap and some models fold up to save space in/on your backpack.  Keeping warm in a hammock can be done by using pad and sleeping bag or down quilts on top and under the hammock. Of course, the down quilts are much more comfortable but more expensive. 

IF you want to plunge into hammocks, they do have some advantages. Hammocks don’t care about uneven or rocky ground. When it rains when using a hammock, all of the mud and rain are a foot or two beneath you. I think it is easier to set up/take down a hammock system in the rain while staying dry. The biggest plus is hammocks are much more comfortable (once you get it figured out). I would suggest make a commitment in one direction (tents or hammocks) before you buy too much expensive gear.  You can buy a cheaper hammock and tent and see which one you think you will prefer before investing a lot of money.

After a few years of sleeping on the ground, I began sleeping in a hammock under a tarp. The possibility here are nearly endless. There are many different styles, vendors, and ways to hammock camp. If you are interested, the best source I have found is www.hammockforums.net and nearly every question can be answered there. I personally use a tarp, hammock, and down quilts. I have several different items from different vendors that I mix up and use depending on the conditions and temperatures. I have been dry in driving rain and warm down to about 15 degrees Fahrenheit, but it does take practice to get it right. If you consider a hammock, I suggest getting a long and wide gathered end to start. These can be easily made with very little/no sewing on your own. There is one brand of hammocks (ENO) that are very popular and sold at many outfitters, but if you are over 5 feet tall they will be too short. A long and wide hammock allows you to lay on the diagonal and nearly flat. I often sleep on my side just as flat as my bed.

My wife makes fun of me, but regardless of your gear, ALWAYS try out/test your gear before taking it to the woods. I would rather it fail (not keep me warm or dry) where I can just go inside rather than miles from my car. Miles from the car is not when you want to realize your new tent is missing the main tent poles or your hammock setup is missing a critical component. It has happened….

There are lots of options (and prices) when it comes to shelter.  It is helpful to know the temperature/weather conditions you intend on experiencing the outdoors as that will give you a great starting point.  Get out and experiment, ask questions, and find what works for you.


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ANYONE can go hiking

While I am an experienced hiker/backpacker, I also enjoy introducing others to my hobbies.  Like many of you, I enjoy watching YouTube.

If you haven’t heard, there is an individual attempting to thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which extends from Mexico to Canada.  This individual weighed over 400 pounds when he first began.  On his last video, he was on day 21 and had hiked 66 miles. His goal is to reach Canada and lose at least 200 pounds in the process.

While hiking for 66 miles isn’t a feat for most of us (especially over 3 weeks), he has made great gains.  The first day he struggled to hike 3 miles.  During the last video, he hiked over 10.  He was able to hike and talk at the same time, something he couldn’t do in the beginning.

Yes, he has people giving him advice but one of his biggest challenges is just body mass.  Equipment doesn’t fit properly (he can’t fasten his waist belt, for example). He does have a great attitude and I highly encourage you to follow him on YouTube.

His channel/trail name is Second Chance Hiker and his channel is here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4DLytGAdFb-9ArE02HUHeQ/videos

I am not connected to him and any way but thought anyone that enjoys hiking or inspirational videos would enjoy his contribution.

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What I wish I knew when I started hiking and backpacking, but didn’t…. Part Three: Backpack

This is the third part of a series.

If you have been out of backpacking or hiking for several years, when you think of a backpack, you probably think of the ones with the external metal frame. Times have drastically changed. The majority of the backpacks sold today have internal frames. The backpack is one of the items called the “Big Four.” The “Big Four” refers to the largest expense and weight items overall in your backpacking system. The “Big Four” items are: shelter, sleep system, cook system, and backpack. While we talk about backpacks, two things need to be addressed. How big of a backpack do you need and how to pack it.

The volume of your backpack depends on your gear and how long/when you will be backpacking. For example, a down sleeping bag will pack down much smaller than a synthetic bag. Of course, a down sleeping bag is much more expensive than a synthetic bag. Another example influencing the size required is that more (bulkier) gear is needed in the winter than during the summer. I would suggest the opposite of what most people do. I would buy a cheaper backpack until I purchase the rest of my gear and then buy an appropriate size backpack. This comes from experience. I purchased one backpack and then after I upgraded most of my gear, it was way too large and had to get a smaller size of the same brand. Backpacks can be one of the more expensive pieces of gear so choose wisely. There are many great vendors selling quality products. I personally use the ULA Ohm 2.0 and love it, but packs are a personal choice and there are many great choices. Find what works for you.

Most of the internal frame backpacks have a suggested load of around 25-30 pounds or less. I would try – through experience – to get into the 15-20 pound range excluding food and water. This is known as your base weight. It will differ on the season and environment, but carrying less makes hiking more enjoyable and camping possibly less “comfortable.” This is why determining your priority is important. While you can hike with 35 plus pounds, it is not as fun as hiking with 20 pounds.

Some backpacks have integrated rain covers or you may purchase one separately. They do not protect from water running down your back and soaking the contents during a rainy day. I prefer to keep everything that needs to stay dry in a trash compactor bag on the inside of my pack.

So how do I pack my backpack? There are several different ways to think about this, but this is my way. I first put the trash compactor bag inside my backpack and insert everything that needs to stay dry. This will be the last things I pull out at camp. The last thing I would need are dry clothes, so they go in first, next would be my quilts (or sleeping bag), my hammock, possibly jacket depending on the weather, and anything else that needed to stay dry. I roll the top and fold it over so water cannot get inside the trash compactor bag.

What goes on top of the trash compactor bag depends on the conditions, but it is generally things that can get wet and I’ll need shortly after reaching camp. This could be my camp chair (If I’m “camping”), tarp, food, stove, or possibly jacket depending on the weather. The outside pockets hold water bottles, water filter, map and compass, sit pad, stakes, snacks, and anything else I may need while I’m hiking. This way I can get to things I need without ever opening my pack during the day. The food for that day (not including snacks) sit on the very top near my First Aid Kit.

As I’m packing and unpacking my backpack, what I will use last goes in first and what I need first goes in last or fits in one of the outside pockets. This process is refined over time but just makes sense to me. I don’t use many stuff sacks. I have found that having everything in a stuff sacks is like packing little bubbles. There is a lot of wasted space between all the little stuff sacks, I only use a few and that allows me to compress everything in my pack together. The secret is learning what works for you and packing exactly the same way every trip so you know where something is without having to empty every pocket and part of your pack to find something. My pack pet peeve is dangling things. Everything is tucked in or put away so it doesn’t swing, bounce, or get caught on branches as I walk by.

Backpacks are a lot like shoes. An ill fitting backpack can make the difference between enjoying your trip and being miserable. I would suggest when you want to shop for a backpack, go to an outfitter and try a bunch on and walk around while wearing them. Some outfitters even have store models that you can drop a 20 pound weight in so you can feel what it feels like under a load. Get the staff to show the correct way to adjust the backpack for your body. Even if you don’t buy that model, most backpacks adjust in very similar ways. You have to find one that not only meets your needs, but fits you well.

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What I wish I knew when I started hiking and backpacking, but didn’t…. Part Two: Clothes

This is the second part of a series.

What do you wear? You may think a visit to the local outfitter store is needed before you can go backpacking or camping. If you go that route, the chances are they will try and sell you what they stock, which normally name brand top of the line clothing and gear. That stuff is not cheap or needed in most cases. While you may want to do that, I wouldn’t recommend it. My first “real” hike was in items I already owned. I wore gym pants (nylon baggy type not yoga pants or tights), a synthetic shirt, hat, rain jacket, tennis/running shoes, cotton socks, and used an old college backpack. It was a muddy and sloppy mess because it had just finished raining, but I had a lot of fun and decided I wanted to do more of this.

My clothes continue to evolve. Clothes are some of the heaviest items you carry. Extra clothes are super heavy. This is another reason you weigh and make a list of everything. One general rule is to avoid cotton. There’s a phrase that “cotton kills.” While you won’t instantly drop dead if you wear cotton in the woods for a few hours, it is highly discouraged for a couple of reasons. Cotton fibers hold or retain moisture and this is less than ideal. Moisture is heavy. Have you ever been caught in the rain wearing blue jeans? Did you notice they immediately got extremely heavy and took forever to dry? Moisture in your socks plus the friction of walking can quickly cause blisters. Cotton isn’t that warm compared to other materials, especially when it is wet.

Aim for wool or synthetic materials. I would suggest starting the clothes conversation in an area you wouldn’t think of starting. Two of the most influential areas to enjoy your time outdoors are your feet and undergarments. You want comfortable socks and shoes because walking with blisters is not fun. Neither is chaffing in the private areas. If you have never experienced either one of these, take my word for it!

Shoes. Historically, hiking boots were the normal and common thing to wear. Unless you have weak ankles and/or will be hiking on very rocky trails, I’ll suggest moving to a shoe. Merrill makes various hiking shoes and I wore a pair for many years without issue and Merrill Moab Ventilators are a very common choice. Last year I switched to a trail runner type shoe and I’ll never go back to Merrill. They are much more comfortable and durable to me. When you get serious, I suggest going to a store that specializes in running shoes. Talk to the salesperson and tell them what you are planning. Try on every single shoe they have in your size and find what fits you the best. The very last pair I tried on were my favorite. If you are curious, I am using Altra Lone Peak shoes.

While we are discussing shoes, let’s address the waterproof vs not waterproof shoe. The first pair I bought for hiking were waterproof. I thought it was a great idea. Waterproof shoes have a few issues, though. One, they don’t breathe so my feet stayed hot and sweaty. Second, if water can’t get in, that also means that IF water gets inside your shoe, your feet stay wet because there is no way the water can leave the shoe. After an experience where my shoes stayed wet for 3 days, now I prefer non-waterproof shoes. If (or when) my feet get wet, the water drains out and my feet dry out over time while I’m hiking.

Socks. Find socks that are specially designed for hiking. Generally, they are wool and remember to avoid cotton unless you enjoy blisters. Wool is one of the few materials that keep you warm even when it is wet. That’s important – especially because my shoes are not waterproof! These are not the loose thick wool socks your grandparents wore. My hiking socks are thin and fit snug. I have tried many brands and there are even more brands that I didn’t try, but I really like a brand called Darn Tough Socks from Vermont, USA. They aren’t cheap (around $20 USD for a pair), but it is worth every penny to not have blisters! Plus, the socks have a lifetime warranty. If you wear a hole in them, you can send them back and they will send you a new pair.

Undergarments. I’m not trying to get too personal, but this can make a huge difference in the enjoyment level of your outdoor adventure. Once again, stay away from cotton! Some people prefer the liners in hiking/running shorts or pants. I had a very unenjoyable experience with them so I either cut them out or look for something without a liner. Your experience may be different. I like a longer synthetic boxer brief that prevents the “high thigh” area from chaffing. As I mentioned earlier, trying to hike with chaffing issues is just a slow torture with every step! I prefer the 6” boxer brief from exofficio. They are comfortable, light, and dry quickly.

Pants/shorts. I prefer to hike in convertible pants. Others people like shorts. Some men even hike in kilts. You have to wear something down there, and convertible pants work best for me. Once again, synthetic is the way to go since they are thin and dry quickly. One of the reason I prefer pants is tick/bug prevention. I treat all of my outerwear with Permethrin which lasts about a month with no smell and through multiple washings. If you are against chemicals, HYOH. Where I spend most of my time, the ticks and chiggers are relentless most of the year (even during the winter) AND I spend some time off trail. The treated pants protect me from ticks and chiggers and the pants material protect my legs (to a lesser degree) from the vines and thorns I always find myself in the middle of. Because they are going to eventually get holes in them from the fire or torn, I typically buy the cheapest pair of pants that I like. If I was hiking a clear and maintained trail such as the Appalachian Trail, I would probably switch to shorts.

Shirts. This may sound really strange – especially when the temperature rises, but try a wool T-shirt. Not only do they keep you warm when they get wet (such as in the rain) but wool has a natural odor resistance property, great moisture wicking properties, dry quickly, and the “new” merino wool is surprisingly not itchy. Sure, it cost more, but it is totally worth it – especially when you can find them on clearance online. If a wool T-Shirt is out of your price range, then there’s nothing wrong with wearing a synthetic shirt. I still have several that I wear on occasion. After several days, the synthetic will retain body odor much more than a wool T-Shirt, but for a day or two it will be fine.

Rain Gear. If you are hiking in the rain, you will eventually get soaked. Either from the rain or sweating in rain gear that doesn’t “breathe.” I personally wear a rain jacket with zippers in the arm pits. While it will keep me warm-ish from the cold rain and wind, I can unzip not only the front but the “pit zips” for ventilation if I get too hot. If I am cold I can close all the zippers to retain some body heat. You can purchase cheap rain gear or expensive rain gear. Find what works for you just realize you won’t stay dry if you are hiking in the rain. It’s about staying comfortable. Rain gear can be heavy but a rain jacket can also do double duty as a windbreaker. I try to find multiple uses for items when I can to keep from carrying extra items (and weight).

Headgear. I have really thick hair so I don’t really care for a hat most of the time when I’m not in the woods. Hiking, I almost always have one. It covers up the messy hiker hair and keeps the sun or rain out of my eyes. I will wear a trucker style (all mesh in the back) baseball hat when I’m hiking in sunny areas to shade my face. I don’t wear sunglasses when I’m hiking – that is just something else to lose. I also have a vented hat with a brim that goes all the way around I wear in the rain to keep the rain out of my eyes. When the temperature drops, I have a fleece or wool beanie I wear.

Spare clothes. This is where lots of extra weight can be added to your pack. I plan on hiking in the same stinky pants and shirt from the previous day. If it rains or I’m near a water source, they may get washed if possible. I do carry an extra pair of socks and underwear. I wear one and rinse/wash one. They dry overnight and are repacked for the next night. I also carry a pair of nylon short and another t-shirt to sleep in. I will probably carry a jacket except in the warmest weather. I DO NOT carry a full set of spare clothes. So I wear a set, only sleep in shorts/T-Shirt, and have a set of socks and underwear I rotate. That may seem gross to many of you, but when you discover how heavy and bulky clothes can be, it helps change your mind. If you carry two full sets of clothes and you hike for 4 days while alternating, you now have 2 full sets of stinky clothes.



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What I wish I knew when I started hiking and backpacking, but didn’t…. Part One: How to get started

I’ve been told to write a book.  I’m not sure why.  I didn’t invent anything and I don’t have knowledge that’s not available to the general public.  I HAVE spent a considerable amount of time in the woods and I HAVE helped others learn from my beginner mistakes.  Instead of writing a book (at least for now), I will publish a series of articles on my blog.

Here’s the first entry.  Enjoy! If you have suggestions for topics or any input, please provide that in the comments.  As always, thanks for reading!

Like most things in life, often the most difficult part of doing something is just getting started. Hiking and/or backpacking is no different. What do I wear? What do I take? How will I _____???? The list is pretty endless and can be overwhelming to the beginner. My hope is that after reading this, many of those questions will be answered. I have taken many people into the woods for the first hiking/overnight trip and have seen the mistakes that I made when I began and the mistakes of others. They were surprisingly similar.

Hiking is nothing more than walking while carrying the stuff you need. While that is over-simplified, in many ways it holds true. You don’t need expensive and/or top of the line gear to go walking. The gear you carry will evolve over time as your comfort level grows through experience. From my first trip until now, I have replaced nearly every single item I carry into the woods. I’m hoping to save you some time and money by learning from my mistakes. I have broken items into the following categories: Clothes (what to wear), Backpack (a way to carry everything), Shelter (where to sleep), Cooking (how to prepare food), Tools/miscellaneous (Phone/GPS/Kindle, Lights, knife, Chairs/stools, etc.), Health and Beauty Aids – HBA (how to stay clean), First Aid Kit – FAK (what to carry for injury/illness), Liquids (what to drink including Storage and treatment), and finally, Food (what to eat). You need to have a plan for each category before you leave.

I suggest starting small and looking around at what you already have. Do you have clothes, shoes, and a backpack of any type? If so, start with just a short day hike. Build on that experience and go for a longer hike and eventually build up to an overnight trip (even if it’s in the backyard). After the first overnight trip, work your way up to a trip involving staying out 2 nights (or 1 night not in the backyard). Start small and then build on each experience. ALWAYS test gear out before heading out into the woods. One place I learned a lot was an online forum for people hiking the Appalachian Trail. The forum is www.whiteblaze.net. If you are not aware, the Appalachian Trail is a trail stretching from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. That is over 2000 miles and many people hike the entire distance in one year. A great article on how to start cheap is found on whiteblaze and the link is here: https://whiteblaze.net/forum/showthread.php/15329-Cheap-Gear-–-How-to-Dirt-Bag-and-Deal-Shop-Like-a-Professional

The first question that should be answered before you purchase the first piece of gear is: Are you primarily interested in hiking or camping? If I’m camping, I stay at camp well before sundown to well after sunrise. If I’m hiking, I am moving from just after sunrise to just before (or after) sunset. I enjoy both, just not on the same trip so my packing list is different depending on the goal of the trip. One has to be the priority or you will end up carrying 60 pounds of gear. For me, it depends on the trip. For example, if I am interested primarily in camping on a certain trip that means we won’t be hiking very far. I am willing to carry more weight in items that make camping more comfortable for a few miles. If I am primarily interested in hiking on another trip, most of my comfort items will stay at home because I don’t want to carry them for many miles to enjoy for a relatively short time in camp.

After each trip, I come home and physically or mentally make 3 piles. The first pile is things I used and will take again. The second pile is things I didn’t use, but will take again. Hopefully, your First Aid Kit stays in this pile! The last pile is things I took, didn’t use, and won’t take on my next trip. This is an ongoing process and how your gear evolves. What works for me may not work for you.

Another great tip is to buy a cheap digital kitchen scale and weigh EVERYTHING! There is a phrase that “ounces make pounds.” That means that while that item may only weight 6 ounces, three of them adds just over a pound to your pack weight. If two short sleeve shirt are nearly the same, but one weighs 3 ounces less, I’m taking the lighter one. The same applies for everything you carry. I would also suggest using a spreadsheet or there are multiple websites such as www.geargrams.com to add the weight of everything. By doing this, I can plan the weight of my backpack instead of it being a surprise when I put it on at the trailhead.

In backpacking/hiking, there is a term known as HYOH. It means Hike Your Own Hike. Do what fits you without criticizing others. In this, I tell you what works for me through my experience. If you disagree, HYOH. I’m not here to argue. Everyone has different styles and opinions, and that’s OK.



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