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Backpacking Essentials: Gear, Skills & More

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Backpacker overlooks a mountain lakeContinuing the celebration of National Get Outdoors Month, today we cover some essential backpacking gear, skills and preparations that will ensure you return from your adventure happy, healthy, and in one piece.

Preparing for a backpacking trip can be intimidating – there is so much to think about! What are you going to eat? How much water do you need? Which animals can you encounter? Should you go to your local REI and grab one of everything, or can you get away with just a shower curtain for shelter and a change of clothes like famed Appalachian Trail hiker Grandma Gatewood?

Basically, all these questions come down to: What could you kill in nature, and how can you successfully avoid those things?

First and foremost, the work you do beforehand is focused on staying alive. In addition, you want to pack smartly and not take more than necessary. Comfort is also a consideration. Given the choice, even the most hearty of us would prefer not to be too hot, cold, hungry, thirsty, tired, itchy, burned, chafed, or blistered. Backpacking is hard enough without additional inconveniences.

This is not meant to scare you! Backpacking can be truly transformative: a chance to break free from the rigors of everyday modern life, explore places you can’t get by car, test your physical and mental skills and reconnect with nature in a soul level. Backpacking is all the more worthwhile because it is challenging. The right foundation prevents unnecessary suffering.

Backpacking Checklist: What Gear Should You Bring?

You can (and probably will) spend months researching the best ultralight gear, drooling over the most expensive options, and thinking about it all. It’s great fun and often overwhelming. Below you will find an overview of what you need.

Protection from the elements

  • Lodging and sleeping accommodation
  • A way to make fire
  • sun protection
  • All-weather clothing (Opt for breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics. Wool is a great option. It comes in different weights for warm and cold temperatures, and you can wear it for several days before it starts to stink.)

Wildlife protection

  • Bug spray
  • Whistle
  • Bear spray, bear bus

Food and Hydration

  • Water and ways to make drinking water (filter, iodine tablets)
  • Food
  • Cooking utensils (stove, pan, kitchen utensils)
  • electrolytes

Navigation

  • Physical map of the area (not just on your phone)
  • Compass
  • GPS unit (optional but recommended, especially in the deep wilderness)

Injury and illness

Hygiene

  • Toiletries (soap, toothbrush, etc.)
  • Bathroom accommodations (shovel, toilet paper, wag bags if needed)

Miscellaneous

  • headlight
  • Knife, multi-tool
  • Duct tape, repair kits
  • Batteries, Chargers
  • Cash, credit card (in case you need to go back to civilization to buy food, equipment, or a ride back to your car)

Backpacking Tips

There’s a lot more to backpacking than dropping mega bucks on gear, donning your boots and heading out.

First, give yourself enough time to train. As I mentioned in last week’s training post, backpacking is an endurance event. As with any form of endurance, you need to prepare your body (and mind) to take on the physical (and mental) challenge. Tailor your training to the conditions you face.

Learn how to use your equipment. Practice setting up and breaking down your tent. Make campfires. Try out your water filter and learn how to disassemble and clean it. Find out which of your gear has batteries or needs charging, and make sure you have enough power for the trip.

Start small and work your way up. Head out for two or three nights before attempting an epic 10-day hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. If possible, work with a more experienced backpacker who can help sort out these first trips.

Essential outdoor skills to master

Don’t venture out without a working knowledge of these skills that could save your life on the road:

  • Survival Skills: How to build a fire (more than one way, ideally), how to build a basic shelter.
  • Wildlife encounters: Could you encounter snakes, bears, cougars, scorpions, moose? Know what to do.
  • Navigation: To be able to read an old school map and use a compass. Don’t rely on GPS alone.
  • First aid: Know how to handle cuts, sprains, burns, broken bones and stitches until you can see a doctor or hospital if necessary.

Plan your camping meals and trail food

Bringing the right amount of food requires quite a bit of planning, plus some trial and error (another good reason to start with shorter trips). The goal is to bring enough to support yourself without taking more than you need. The typical recommendation is: 25 calories per pound of body weight per day, plus or minus 5 calories depending on how strenuous your journey will be.

Of course, if you’re committed to a low-carb Primal and keto way of eating, the conventional tank advice doesn’t really apply to you. Whether you’re hoping to stick with your typical food or want to strategically add carbs to spice things up, it’s a good idea to practice refueling during your training walks and shorter backpacking trips. Endurance athletes have a saying: “Nothing new on race day.” In other words, don’t eat anything during a competition that you didn’t consume during training. That also applies here. Remember, your favorite home snacks won’t necessarily sit well if you’re on a hot 8-mile hike with a heavy backpack. Experiment with hydration and electrolytes while you’re at it.

Also, try a few meal options before you go. It’s such a shame to sit down to a much anticipated dinner at the end of a long day only to find that you absolutely hate the dried meals you brought with you.

Here are some backpack meal and snack ideas to get you started.

Get excited!

The adventure awaits! And yes, there are a lot of details to capture before you go, but planning can be fun. Enlist the help of more experienced backpackers. Make use of their wisdom. Learn from their mistakes. You might even be able to borrow some stuff to try before you buy.

Be prepared, but try not to overthink every decision. Don’t get so caught up in the details (“Should I get the trekking poles that weigh an ounce less but only have 3.5 stars?”) that you’re a hot mess of stress by the time your trip rolls around. Remember this should be fun.

Anyway, overthinking doesn’t help. Every journey will be a learning experience. You discover things you like and things you wish you had done differently. However well prepared you are, there will be surprises. Expecting the unexpected is part of the adventure. Decide here and now to roll with the punches, and you’ll have a much better experience.

Now go out and do something epic!

Novice backpackers – what are your most pressing questions?
Veterans backpacking – what’s your best advice?

Primal Kitchen Ketchup

About the author

Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.

As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the what, why, and how of living a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in social and personality psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and educator.

Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her spare time she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping and game nights. Follow it on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay tries to juggle work, family and endurance training while maintaining a healthy balance and most importantly having fun in life.

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