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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Well said, Andrew, completely agree. I think it all starts with the Objective as outlined above. Over time the experiences (and information sources like yours and others) help refine the objectives.
Awesome Article! Thanks!
Also, you should follow the rules and regulations of the place you are backpacking in. I can’t tell you how many times people have said that you can disobey rules on bear canisters, permits, or fire restrictions because HYOH.
Could not agree more! Frustrating to see hikers on popular thru hike trails camping on fragile environments, near precious water resources and generally using ‘stealth’ sites to suit personal preferences and goals.
“The very best thing you can do, however, is to simply go. There is no better teacher than experience.”
Nice write up. I’ve always followed the mindset of “better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it”. But really, I’m getting used to carrying less, actually making it a self challenge to go llighter. It really boils down to planning. Hiking lighter really makes the trip much more comfortable. I realized the best way to shave the weight was from my belly! Haha. Thanks !
Just did my first hike to and camp… and it was on snow… in The Enchantments. I was lucky enough to have a friend who is a mountaineer, and he helped a bit, but I was looking forward (if you will) to my mistakes, and I learned so much already from my first hike and overnight camping experience. I’m willing to trade weight for a certain level of comfort, and this is all for photography purposes, but I must say, following your site for a couple years now has been indispensable, so thanks again, and great to see an update here.
Well said.. I hate the HYOH expression. SAR personnel especially do not appreciate extricating hikers off mountains who insisted on doing their own ‘thang’ in flip flips, a Canadian tuxedo, and no GPS or compass.. Do your homework! Be prepared! Don’t put others’ lives in danger!
I totally agree. On a Scout trip, I’ll spend more time sitting around and watching while the Scouts “do”, so I’ll bring an extra layer and a chair.
Way back in the 1970’s, my dad and I met a photographer with a pretty lean camping kit but a whole lot of photo gear. He was also properly equipped for his hike.
Planning and skills weigh nothing. Fear and “just in case” are very heavy. Before you hike your own hike, you need to really understand what your hike is. And your hike is a dialog with the land and the weather.
I like the breakdown of gear, supplies and skills. I will definitely use this approach as I continue working with Boy Scouts. I also use one other technique that my College X-C coach used with us and i later used with my collegiate athletes. Immediately after a race he would give us a card to fill out that asked us questions about the race we had just ran. Then a few days later he would hand us another card to do the same thing again about that same race. About halfway through the season he would then hand us back all of the cards we had filled out and use that to help refine our race plans and possible training for the remainder of the season. I do a similar thing with my scouts, although not with cards. ON the last day of the trip or on the way back home in my van we would verbally hash out the trip both good and bad. Then in about a week we woud do it again. We look at everything and decide what we are keeping, what we are tossing ad what we need to get better at and what we would do different.
So during the hike we follow our plan (if possible) but afterwards we get ourselves better for the next trip.
Development only occurs after honest and thoughtful analysis of past actions.
I do this exact thing, and usually call it “Notes for next time.” The most recent examples, https://andrewskurka.com/2016/notes-for-next-time-gear-logistics-snow-travel-glacier-divide-route/
I really enjoy your commitment to helping others enjoy the outdoors through development and thought of skills and equipment.
My passion for backpacking began as a teenager in Boy Scouts. That turned into an early career selling high end backpacking and mountaineering gear, which became an obsession. It was all about squeezing every ounce out of the choices I had made, which allowed me to pursue greater and greater endeavors.
Now, as an adult Scout error, and learning from my early trips, with no gear and minimal skills, and remembering those big boots and heavy packs, I am working hard at educating the next generation on “the right way”, or” the SMART way”.
Thank you for being a great resource.
Well put, Andrew. It’s helpful to differentiate skills/equipment from objectives.
Thanks for writing about this topic. I love interacting with people on the trail, but I cringe at the inevitable question of, “So, how many miles are you doing per day?”, “When did you start?” or “How much does your pack weigh?”. I also cringe when I meet hikers trying to complete a thru-hike that are carrying massive packs and are visibly suffering as a result. I want to ask, “Do you need all that?”.
Sometimes these questions are about learning and helping each other, but they are often about comparing ourselves to others or interpreted as, “you think your better than me?” (Search “Mandelbaum Episode Seinfeld” in YouTube for a comedian’s take on this aspect of human nature.) Your definition of the “right way to backpack” is practical and objective, and I think provides a great framework for having these types of discussions. I’ll be referring to it in future conversations.
I do think one important component of your definition is missing: physical fitness. One’s fitness, or a group’s collective fitness, must match up with their trip objective and knowing one’s limitations and capabilities is invaluable. That could fall under “skills”, but I think is important enough to be listed separately along with gear, supplies, and skills.
I too read this expecting to see fitness under skills. How fast I can move over what terrain, how my fatigue influences how cold I get or how much I enjoy myself, and many other ways my physical condition influences my hikes. It was a process learning to correlate how I’m feeling with planning a realistic mileage, intensity, and packing list.
I totally agree with you, Dan.
I took a NOLS glacier mountaineering course in 2013. And some of the students had no idea what they are getting into. Some of them had never been outside, camped or even slept in a sleeping bag.
They were physically and mentally not fit and prepared. Other students had to do things for them, like cook, pitch a tent, melt snow, and even carry their stuff.
One girl even asked if anyone wants to volunteer to carry her backpack over and across a tough, high pass that we were attempting.
Finally, the situation got so worse, that we had to abandon the course objective altogether and turn around.
Sometimes backpacking the wrong way is the right way. This also is consistent with your point.
Key word being: sometimes..
Getting out and gaining real life experience coupled with taking in the knowledge of those more experienced has changed how I enjoy nature as well as increased how often I enjoy it. Thanks for this website.
Regarding campsite selection, with lightweight mattress options like the NeoAir do you think softer less trafficked campsites still offer a more comfortable sleep? Wind, bugs, temp aside…
In terms of sleeping comfort, a “soft” site is less important when you have a plush and well insulated air pad like the NeoAir. However:
1. A non-insulated pad will not fare as well, because hard-packed ground is more thermally conducive.
2. Rain water will pool on a hard-packed site, rather than percolating into the ground. If this happens to you, a NeoAir will still help, but not in the way you hoped it would: it will help you float atop the puddle rather than being submerged in it.
I just want to point out some things about recommending NOLS to others.
Firstly, let me tell you that I am a two times NOLS alum, Trip Leading and Glacier Mountaineering.
In 2012, NOLS even asked me to become their instructor.
NOLS is primarily a soft skills school which uses hard skills as a way to develop those soft skills, like decision making, tolerance to adversity and uncertainty, etc. But many of the assumptions they have made in developing their curriculum are not true or sometimes even completely wrong.
And they know it and they themselves admit it. They even say that we have not arrived and we will probably never arrive. They are open and honest about it.
Moreover, since it’s a school it’s also not nimble and agile in learning and making changes. They took up light weight backpacking much later than other folks.
The NOLS experience very much depends on the quality of instructors. No doubt they have some of the best instructors, but still these instructors when they teach for NOLS, they can’t teach their best tips and techniques if it is not what NOLS recommends or contradicts with the NOLS way of doing things. So, the instructors have to conform to NOLS’ standards, which might be outdated.
And this is one of the reasons why I chose not to be a NOLS instructor, in spite of the fact that it gives you a great reputation, opportunity to work in great places around the world, and some decent money also.
Hope this helps folks out there with making a better choice of an outdoor school.
I feel it would be better to go on an expedition with you, than NOLS or any other school for that matter.