Common Sense Backpacking
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Common Sense Backpacking

Common sense can go a long way out in the backcountry and will be needed whether you are an expert or novice on the wilderness trails. Avoiding injuries, weather exposure, unwanted critters, pests, etc. should be at least one of your goals when getting out on the trail. Let’s explore some of the basic principles to having a great backpacking experience and file them away for future reference with the rest of our experiential common sense knowledge

Hiking the Trail

Once you have packed your backpack correctly, displacing the weight appropriately while keeping the total weight down to a manageable load for yourself, it’s time to hit the trail. Walk at a comfortable pace for the terrain at hand, backpacking is not a race! You will find leaning slightly forward will help manage the weight of the back and aid in your comfort. But don’t overdo this. Walking naturally upright will help avoid unnecessary muscle strains. When meeting a hiker on steep terrain step aside and allow the hiker coming down to pass then you may proceed up. Think about a good pair of walking poles. They come in handy when traveling over dicey terrain and act as another foot.

Common sense on the trail:

  1. Watch where you are going
  2. Look where you are placing your foot
  3. Rest when needed
  4. Watch out for wet slippery surfaces; leaves, mud, rocks
  5. Keep an eye out for low hanging branches so you don’t lose an eye
  6. Keep in visual contact with your hiking buddy
  7. Know where you are and where you are going
  8. Know and obey your limitations. Know when to turn back or not go over
  9. Hike as fast as the slowest person in the group
  10. Don’t over-tighten your pack straps or have too loose

Take Care of Yourself

We all know everyone needs food, water and sleep to stay comfortable but at times it seems like we forget this as soon as we get on the trail. I don’t know if it’s the excitement of being outdoors, the great scenery or just trying to get too far too soon. Pay attention to signs of hunger, thirst and tiredness and take care of these basic needs. Eat and drink often while on the trail. I carry a nut, dried fruit and chocolate mix with me where I can get to it while hiking and often eat while walking down the trail. I also store my water bottles on the outside side compartment of my pack which I can reach and drink while hiking.

Common sense personal needs:

  1. Eat
  2. Drink
  3. Sleep
  4. Rest when needed
  5. Wear appropriate clothing
  6. Use sunscreen even on cloudy days
  7. Don’t forget the insect repellent
  8. Wear a hat for protection
  9. Pay attention to your feet-dry socks, properly fitted shoes and using moleskin can keep down the blisters

Bugs and Critters

Insect repellents will handle some of the pest out there but not all. Both mosquitoes and ticks can cause very serious health risks for the unprotected hiker. Black flies and gnats can also be a nuisance on the trail. There are a number of insect repellents in the form of juices, creams, gels and sprays that are DEET based which work well. Know the area and level of insect problems. In heavy areas you may also need some mosquito netting around your face or over your sleeping area. Look yourself over a couple of times a day and check for ticks and remove immediately if found. Ticks can be seen on light colored clothing better than dark.

Avoid any contact with animals in the wild. Don’t feed the cute chip monks or squirrels; they could be infected with rabies or other diseases. Unless you are an absolute expert, stay away from snakes. Carefully collect any firewood before dark and look around the dead limbs for snakes before picking up. Copper heads especially like to hide in downed tree limbs and brush. Remember even a bite from a non-poisonous snake or other animal can still get infected. Look and photograph the deer and other wildlife but stay away and don’t feed! For the most part the wildlife will be gone before you get there because of the racket you are making but every once in a while you will be delighted to round a corner to find the biggest buck you have ever seen standing in the middle of the trail. Stand still and enjoy the moment, he will move on when he’s ready.

Books have been written about surviving bear attacks telling us that it’s futile to run or climb a tree because they can outrun and out climb us. The experts tell us to just roll up into a ball on the ground and the bear will leave. Now I am not saying this isn’t sound advice but I will say I have spent years in the backcountry and have yet to come across a bear wanting to get close to me. Most times they are more afraid of me than I am of them, with the exception of the bears that frequent the garbage areas of some National Parks and Forrest. Don’t give the bears a reason to come into your camp! Use a bear canister (required in some States), hang your food from a tree limb or use an ursack if allowed. And don’t go to sleep with a candy bar in your pocket! Here’s a “rule of thumb” - Leave the animals alone and they’ll leave you alone.

Know your whereabouts

You have to know where you are to get where you’re going. Always track your progress on the map and know your location exactly. As you hike down the trail pay attention to your surroundings, make note of the streams, distinguishable mountain peaks and the sun. All of these things can help you get back on track if you get off the trail or took a wrong turn at the last fork in the trail. If lost don’t panic. Get the map and compass out and relocate your position. Remember to S.T.O.P - stop: calm down and slow down, think: decide what to do, observe: where you are, plan: how to get back to where you want to be.

personal safety:

  1. Always carry a compass or GPS
  2. Never lose sight of your hiking buddies
  3. Stay on the trail
  4. Be familiar with the area before hand by studying the maps
  5. Always know where you can find water

I don’t want to down play the dangers of being in the backcountry. As an inexperienced hiker you should learn as much as you can before taking on this kind of adventure. But if you were to ask most seasoned backpackers the secrets to hiking the wilderness it may surprise you to hear them say it’s just common sense. Although, obviously the experienced hiker has more experience to draw from when making these common sense decisions, but a newbie can also gain an upper hand to being outdoors by using some of his or her experiential common sense. If it looks dangerous don’t do it! Hospitals are just too hard to find in the backcountry.


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