10 Essential Life Hacks for Backpacking and Thru-Hiking

The essence of a backpacking trip is simple: put one foot in front of the other, and eventually, you will reach your destination. But when you dive deeper, it becomes more complicated. How do you sleep comfortably? How do you resupply efficiently and keep devices charged? As it turns out, there are tons of tips and tricks to help simplify things. These 10 backpacking hacks will make your life easier with only a little effort on your part.

1. Avoid “vampire energy.”

battery bank backpacking hacks

Lots of thru-hikers charge their cell phones overnight in the backcountry using portable battery packs. It’s easy, convenient, and who doesn’t love the feeling of a fully charged phone when you wake up in the morning? However, a phenomenon known as standby power, often referred to as “vampire energy,” is wasting precious, limited electricity. 

When an electronic device, including a cell phone, is fully charged and plugged in, it will continue to drain electricity from the power supply. In a home, this amount is negligible and hardly makes a difference on your electric bill. However, when your portable charger only has enough power for a few charges, the difference is notable and significant.

Instead of charging overnight, consider charging while you are hiking or taking breaks to avoid keeping something plugged in at full battery. This will greatly increase the efficiency of your battery pack and could even allow you to carry a smaller, lighter one.

READ NEXT – Top Stoves, Filters, and Power Banks on the AT: 2022 Thru-Hiker Survey

2. Make an easy pillow with gear you’re already carrying.

To bring a pillow or not to bring a pillow? It’s a topic that backpackers can’t seem to agree on. A pillow is so much more comfortable than a pile of clothes that will always be just a little dirty, even fresh from the laundromat. Unfortunately, the pillow comes at a cost in terms of weight.

Instead of a loose pile of clothes or an expensive ultralight pillow, try filling your sleeping bag’s stuff sack with clothes or a jacket. This will be much more comfortable than a loose pile but will save you the weight and money of a dedicated backpacking pillow.

READ NEXT – 44 Ultralight Backpacking Tips Thru-Hikers Can Actually Use

3. Don’t “walrus” in your sleeping bag.

Photo: Samantha Olthof

Mummy bags and side sleepers often have a touchy relationship. Every side sleeper knows the feeling of rolling over only for the bag to stay put. It leaves you tangled and despite how easily it happened, the only way to fix it is a groggy game of Sleeping Bag Tetris Jenga. This phenomenon is often called “walrusing.”

Side sleepers will rejoice to hear that this problem is easier to fix than you might think. By rolling with the bag, you stop the tangle before it happens, leaving you more comfortable and well-rested. Instead of rolling over via your stomach, roll over your back and pull the bag with you.


4. Use a pump sack or quick and short breaths to inflate a sleeping pad.

Blowing up a sleeping pad seems to take an eternity. Long breaths will make you feel light-headed and sleepy, but there are better ways. Many modern sleeping pads come with pump sacks that weigh almost nothing and can be used to inflate the mattress without having to blow into it.

Simply wave the sack through the air to fill it, attach the nozzle to the pad, and squeeze the air to inflate. This saves you from having to blow it up manually, and keeps your breath’s mold-causing moisture from damaging the sleeping pad. The sack can also double as a storage container for clothing or as a pillowcase.

If you’re in a pinch and don’t have a pump sack, use short and quick breaths instead of long and slow ones. While it seems counterintuitive, many fast breaths will work more quickly than fewer long breaths.

5. Fill up your water bottle by using a leaf.

leaf faucet backpacking hacks

Photo: Emily Rahn

You’ve run out of water, you’re parched, but you’re miles from the next consistent water source. Or maybe you got to a stream that was described as gushing, but a recent drought has turned it into just a trickle. Sometimes, the “small pond” you read about in the guidebook is simply an overhyped puddle.

In these situations, you’ll need to get crafty to fill up your water bottle or hydration bladder. By placing your bottle slightly below the water source and using a leaf to channel the water like a funnel, you can increase the flow rate and make it easier to fill your bottle.

6. Make a lantern with a water bottle and a flashlight.

water bottle lantern backpacking hacks

Headlamps work great for hiking, but they’re not so helpful when you’re trying to cook dinner in a crowded shelter or play cards with your tramily. It’s hard to keep your light from wandering into the eyes of your companions and becoming that guy. A solution to this is to make a makeshift lantern by shining a flashlight into a water bottle. This can be done with a purpose-built flashlight or even just a cell phone flashlight.

Simply place a water bottle on top of the light, and watch as the water illuminates the surrounding area.

7. Don’t look at the rocks.

The trail is very rocky, but when you focus on the flat ground between the rocks, you can see there are plenty of places to step.

What appears to be an easy and flat trail on a topographical map can easily turn out to be a treacherous slog if it’s covered in rocks. Anybody who has hiked on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania or the White Mountains (OK, not so flat) can attest. However, with the right technique, these trails can feel much easier.

Skiers and mountain bikers have likely heard the advice, “don’t look at the trees, look at the spaces between the trees.” This saying works because the human brain is programmed to look out for obstacles and hazards such as trees. It is human nature to move in the direction that you are looking, so it’s best to look at empty spaces rather than hurdling into a tree at 30 mph.

The same philosophy applies to hiking. You naturally focus on hazards like sharp rocks or roots that you don’t want to step on. However, when you actively train your brain to focus on the flat and forgiving sections of trail, it becomes much easier to plan your steps.

READ NEXT – 7 Ways AT Thru-Hikers Survive Rocksylvania With Their Feet Intact

8. Carry your water bottle upside down in the cold.

A frozen water bottle is more than just an inconvenience; being unable to stay hydrated is downright dangerous. As such, when backpacking in freezing temperatures, it’s important to prevent your hydration system from turning into a block of ice. Avoid hydration bladders in cold temperatures as their hoses freeze very quickly (though some bladders have insulated hoses which help slightly). In freezing temperatures, it’s best to stick to a regular bottle, preferably with a wide mouth.

Just like a lake, the top of a water bottle will freeze before the bottom. This leads to issues when the mouth of the bottle freezes first. To avoid this, carry your bottle upside down so that the bottom of the bottle freezes before the mouth. Additionally, in extreme cold, filling the bottle with warm water and insulating it with a sock or purpose-made sleeve will delay the freezing process.

9. Make a natural heater by filling up a water bottle with hot water.

Photo: Alexandria Cremer

When you’re shivering in your sleeping bag on a cold night, a water bottle heater can be a lifesaver. Before going to bed, fill a bottle with hot water, make sure it’s tightly sealed, and sleep with it at night. Use it as a foot warmer or snuggle with it to warm your core. Usually, the heat will last all night.

Just be sure to use a reusable bottle and hot but not boiling water. Boiling water can easily melt even hardy reusable bottles, while single-use plastics are very fragile and melt even more easily.

10. Focus on food and water weight.

Photo: Joellyn Sargent

Backpackers love to obsess over the weight of the Big Three: the backpack, sleeping bag, and shelter. These tend to be the heaviest pieces of gear, but practically, the heaviest item in almost any hiker’s pack is the food bag. Big Three gear purchases can be stressful and expensive, but minimizing food and water weight is comparatively cheap and simple.

You can reduce the weight of your food bag by buying food with high caloric density and by resupplying more often. When resupplying, look for foods without water in them —dried foods like pasta, instant potatoes, and freeze-dried meals are good options. If you choose to bring heavier foods like fruits and vegetables, try to eat these early so you don’t have to carry them as far.

Water is very heavy, too—one liter weighs about 2.2 lbs. Many backpackers will go to great lengths to shave that much off their base weight but don’t think twice about the amount of water they’re carrying.

The FarOut app provides hikers with reliable and updated information about the state of water sources, making it easier to plan water fill-ups. For example, in a section with frequent water, you can chug water at the source and carry very little.

READ NEXT – Everything You Need To Know About Appalachian Trail Resupply: Shopping Strategies, Nutrition Tips, and More


Backpacking is hard. While on paper, it’s very simple, challenges big and small can add up and can turn a hike into something that’s overwhelming and chaotic. Sometimes, though, a few backpacking life hacks can make a big difference.

Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 3

  • Mechanical Man : Apr 28th

    I just don’t get the obsession with having to take an electronic device on a thru hike, or any hike for that matter. Isn’t one of the reasons for doing such a hike to get away from society rather than drag it with you. I recently was doing a day hike on the AT when I met a NOBO. I mentioned that I had done a SOBO in 2005 and after awhile he said 2005 was before cell phones, what was that like? I replied that it was just fine. I have been places where there has been no one within 80 miles and very unlikely that I would encounter someone and I have never wished I had one. For me if I had one and it went off, I would go nuts. Probably should use a different word than nuts because you probably think I already am.

    • Rebecca : Apr 29th

      totally hear you and agree! I never even really take photos or do any phone stuff at all. I really don’t understand the base weight obsession but then you bring a 1lb battery pack and sometimes even books. It makes very little sense to take a smartphone that has an older battery inside as well, so I hope people are getting that replaced before burning through their battery pack on a 2yo+ phone battery trying to keep it charged!

  • Rolf Asphaug : May 1st

    These are great tips and I’ve used – or wish I’d used – 1, 2, 4 and 5.

    I’ve experienced vampire energy and it’s really demoralizing when your phone has FarOut, Garmin Messenger and your photo app … only to wake up and realize that because you left your phone plugged in to the charger all night you have very little juice left until the next time you see an outlet in maybe several days’ time.

    A similar situation occurs if you briefly get a signal, you call your loved one, and then you forget to put your phone back into airplane mode and it’s wasting power searching for a signal.

    (Why not leave electronics at home? For me it’s a matter of safety, plus I use my phone to take photos – especially portrait mode photos of the wonderful people I meet along the way, which I send to them later. People sometimes really appreciate those.)

    As for a pillow, I won’t bother with an inflatable pillow anymore. My sleeping pad inflator is wonderful for this – and I keep my extra clothes in it while on the trail. I dump them out in my tent, inflate my pad, and put all my clothes back in for pillow mode. And if it’s warm enough I slip the bag in my hoodie so I have a fleece pillow.

    The leaf is a nice trick; another option is to use your metal poop trowel. (Put a rock on the handle end to keep it in place.)


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