12 Weird Backpacking Tips from a Thru-Hiker

There’s a lot of things you can’t buy at REI that will help make your week long backpack or thru-hike a lot more enjoyable.  Below are a few tips for newbies and old hats alike.  Also, if you’ve read any of my other articles you might remember that I am not hiking the AT this year, but the Arizona and Continental Divide trails (along with the Te Araroa next year) and raising money for their trail associations.

Poop First, Dig Later

Everybody poops but some of us have to poop RIGHT NOW! Instead of hurriedly digging a pathetically shallow cat hole that would make even the most shameless hiker embarrassed, give the ground a poke with your digging implement to ensure dig-ibility, poop and then dig your hole next to the dirty deed.  Once you have your eyes on the prize you’ll know how big to make the hole and have the time to do it.  Then use sticks or wads of leaves to push the poo into its new found home, cover with 6-inches of dirt and scatter some forest litter on top as camouflage (because all hikers are actually part time ninjas).  Pack out your TP nested in the many trash bags from your daily ramen noodles or whatever inside a zip lock.  Breakfast Essentials or hot chocolate packets also work great.  No one likes to see TP flowers on the trail and they come from animals digging up shallow TP filled poo-holes.  Let’s try and keep the trail clean people!


Do this AFTER you poo!


Buy Your Trail Runners/Boots/Whatever Big

Your feet are almost guaranteed to swell at least half a size, probably more like a full size.  Without room to expand your toes will be smushed against the front of your footwear where they will rub and cause painful blisters.  If your shoes are not wide enough you’ll get blisters in between your toes, if they’re not long enough you’ll lose toenails. Buy up before the hike instead of limping into town 40 miles in and shelling out cash for a bigger pair like I did.

Tie Your Laces Funny

Sizing your footwear up means your feet will feel loose in them at the start of your hike.  That’s usually fine unless your heel starts to sleep up and down in the shoe.  That movement will tear up the skin and wear out the back of the shoe.  On my hike in 2013 I wore through the padding and into the plastic heel cup.  I had to duct tape a piece of my foam sleeping pad back there to keep it from tearing my skin up worse!  To prevent heel slip, tie your shoes with a heel lock shown here:

Clean Your Socks and Feet

Seriously, no matter how much you let the rest of yourself go, take 5 minutes at the end of the day to clean the dirt and sweat off your feet and wash your socks.  Wash them in a zip lock bag full of water and dump it out 200 feet from water sources.  You can wring those suckers out a dozen times and the water will still come out gray so don’t sweat it, some washing is still a big improvement over none.  Dry them off on your pack the next day by attaching them with a clothes pin or stick them in your pants pockets while you hike to dry out.  Dirty salty socks will create friction and cause blisters – easily infected blisters.  A bandanna is great for cleaning your feet and other unmentionable bits and works to wipe down condensation in your shelter or bank robbing.

Use Boiling Water to Clean Burned Pots

Burn your Mac on the bottom of your fancy titanium pot? Never fear, boiling water will loosen the crud and a little scrubbie sponge will take care of the rest.  If you’re brave/stupid you can use the burned-pasta water to make hot chocolate!  Don’t use soap in the backcountry, even the biodegradable kind (yes even Dr. Bronners) changes the pH of water sources and leaves behind secondary chemicals that won’t biodegrade.  Even without soap, dump your dirty dish water 200 feet away from water sources and common campsites to prevent contamination and visits from animal friends.

Hand Sanitizer has Many Uses

Sometimes people forget their 2 ounce bottle of G.I. distress prevention is also an excellent fire starter or backup alcohol stove fuel since it is literally gelled alcohol.  In a pinch you can use it if you run out of HEET or to start a fire with wet wood or a smear will help start finicky esbit tabs.


Trim AND File Your Toe Nails

What is it with me and feet? Oh maybe because you’ll be using them for 12 hours a day.  If you let your nails grow too long they’ll push up against the front of your shoe, die and fall off or get in-grown.  Gross.  If you don’t file them after you trim them the little sharp corners will snag your socks, put pressure on the nail bed and they’ll die and fall off too.  Even as a weight weenie ultralighter I carry an actual pair of nail clippers since mine are too tough for my micro swiss army knife scissors.  While you’re there, give them a nice massage.

Use a Wind Shirt

I used to think they were stupid, but for cool weather hiking a 3 ounce wind shirt is an extremely versatile layer.  You sweat less than a rain jacket and you’ll keep your rain jacket from wearing out too fast by leaving it in your pack.  That thin fabric adds a lot of warmth when you’re moving and if you do sweat it up the wind shirt dries very quickly – unlike a fleece.  Size up a little so you can wear your puffy under it for extra warmth.  If your toes are cold at night you can wrap the bottom of your sleeping bag in your wind shirt and add a little warmth.  It adds a little rain protection for when it isn’t really raining, but it’s raining.

Learn Some Knots

The bowline is an essential, the sliding hitch is nice to know and figure out how make a knot “slippery” for an easy release.  Sure you can tie your bear bag up with a big tangled up mess but it’s better to know how to tie real knots.  You can use them to guy out your shelter for high winds or snow loads and show off to your pirate friends.

Carry a Needle and Thread

You’ll inevitably rip a hole in something that wasn’t meant to have a hole in it.  A needle and thread will help get you to town for a real repair if you suck at sewing like me and also help drain stubborn blisters.  A blister under a callous will close up the puncture used to drain it the first time and refill.  Instead, thread your needle, boil it and carefully thread some now sanitized thread through the blister to act as a wick.  Tie a little knot on each end so it doesn’t slide out.

Ziplock Bags + Duct Tape Make Cheapo Stuff Sacks

A thin strip of duct tape around the edges of your favorite zip lock makes a durable, light, waterproof and almost free stuff sack for pokey items.  They’re great for electronics, maps, tent stakes and beer.  Those fancy dry bag stuff sacks wear holes in the silicon lining pretty quickly and will let water in eventually, trust me.

Make a Chair with Your Pack

Naps are a luxury normal life does not afford often enough so take advantage while you can!  Set your pack vertically against a tree, put your sleeping pad on the ground in front of it and take a load off.  Instant camp chair – no money or extra weight needed.

Sleep TAwD-ey

For a warmer more comfortable night pick a spot under Trees, Away from water, and out of Depressions.  Cold air settles in low spots like canyons or bowls, open water makes for more humidity/condensation and trees help block cold wind while holding in the days heat.  Sleeping away from water has less impact on the already fragile ecosystems surrounding lakes and streams and lets our animal friends have their nightly drinks in peace.  Of course if you’re on the AT there’s always a shelter full of snores, norovirus and mouse droppings if you prefer.  Sounds lovely!

Hope you learned a few new things, I leave for the Arizona trail March 16th – consider donating to my fundraiser to support the trail associations!

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Comments 5

  • TicTac : Feb 22nd

    One final tip about catholes and poop. Once you have deposited your poop in your cathole (minimum 6″ deep), grab a handy stick (10-12″ long), stir up some mineral soil with your poop (hastens decomposition), then leave the stick poking out of the ground as you back fill the cathole. You allow future hikers to avoid patronizing the same spot, and allow same future hikers to spead out the wealth as it were.

  • wkreese : Feb 26th

    pick a spot under Trees- just make sure to look up and check for widowmakers before deciding on a camping spot.

    • Rocko : Apr 9th

      Yeah, sleeping under trees can be bad-falling branches, pine cones, etc.

  • Josh Johnson : Mar 15th

    Love these tips and I appreciate the clarity on buying shoes big and lacing properly. Wish i would have known before I lost a toe-nail on my foot. LOL

  • Uriah Pariah : Dec 7th

    Good stuff here, if basic. Further experience will teach a hiker, for example, to trim his or her thick-ass toenails after a sopping wet day or after a long soaking; the task is much easier; even mini Swiss Army knife scissors can do it.


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