One interaction I distinctly recall from the Appalachian Trail was in Virginia, with a fellow thru-hiker who was outwardly critical of my approach. I had been moving at a relatively quick clip, in the hopes of finishing the entire trail in about three months, before the start of my fall semester.
“You’re hiking too fast to enjoy it. You’re missing the point. The trail is not supposed to be speed-hiked. You should just get off the trail if you’re going to do it that way. You’re wasting your summer.” Yada yada yada.
Before I could tell this guy to f— off, another hiker interjected with an oft-heard refrain within the backpacking community that put an end to his diatribe: “Hike your own hike.” Needless to say, I never saw the jerk again after I resumed my northward trajectory.
My record of respecting the “Hike Your Own Hike” (HYOH) creed is not perfect, admittedly. Especially in my early years, I struggled to understand why other backpackers did not embrace the same things that I did, like split shorts, poncho-tarps, 40-mile days, and seasonal employment.
But I became more realistic and less naive as I got older. And I gained perspective by guiding trips, giving clinics, listening to readers, and backpacking with a spouse. Over time, I came to see the validity in low-mileage days, a double-wall freestanding tent, and a fishing pole.
The first edition of The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide forced me to think hard about my backpacking philosophy. I felt that what I finally articulated was consistent with HYOH, while also giving me space to explain what had worked best for me.
HYOH is a healthy attitude to have about the wide-ranging trip objectives that backpackers have. But on the issue of tactics or methods in achieving those objectives, HYOH’s inclusivity reaches its limit.
Actually, there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to backpack.
In this sense, backpacking is like driving a car, learning to play the violin, baking a cake, or installing a toilet. I suppose you could do it your own way, but you may get hurt, you will not improve as quickly as you should, you may be unsatisfied with the end product, and you may have to mop up sewage that leaked through the wax gasket.
What is the right way to backpack?
Ready for it? Here it is:
Backpackers should have gear, supplies, and skills that are appropriate for their trip objective and the conditions. Period.
I have backpacked “the wrong way,” when I lacked the proper tools and techniques, and it was less pleasant and more expensive than it should have been. But I learned from those experiences, and now backpack “the right way” to the best of my abilities.
Let me break this down a little bit more:
Gear, supplies, and skills
- Gear = Clothing, shelter, stove, etc
- Supplies = Food, maps, stove fuel, etc
- Skills = Trip planning, navigation, and campsite selection
What is the ratio of time you will spend hiking relative to the amount of time you will spend in camp or doing extracurricular activities like photography, birding, and socializing?
On intense trips, pack light and efficient gear so that you can be comfortable on the trail, and learn skills so that you can remain comfortable with less. On casual trips, you still want to limit extraneous gear, but mostly so that you can carry the in-camp comforts that will serve you best. On ‘tweener outings, balance these two approaches.
Temperatures, precipitation, ground cover, water availability, bug pressure, daylight, natural hazards, and frequency & quality of campsites. Learn to research environmental and route conditions.
How can you learn to backpack the right way?
Gear & supplies
Obtaining the proper gear and supplies is fairly easy. This blog is a good resource, and so are these. Books are more comprehensive and better organized, but not free; consider mine, Justin’s, and Mike’s. (My second edition will be released in March.) Finally, REI offers well balanced gear information with its Expert Advice.
Unlike gear and supplies, skills cannot be bought with a credit card after reading a few blogs and books. They are the “black arts” of backpacking. I’ve written a few skill posts and have produced a few videos, but I’m sure they are not as effective as my guided trips (which I did not offer this year). If you poke around, you might find a few other good online resources, too. In addition, backpack with a knowledgeable and patient veteran, and/or take a course with REI, NOLS, or BPL.
The very best thing you can do, however, is to simply go. There is no better teacher than experience.
Agree or disagree? Leave a comment.
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