Building Backpacking Skills Novice to Pro: The +1 Method

The Challenge of Backpacking

Like most hobbies, backpacking requires a diverse set of skills and equipment. But unlike other activities, getting in over your head on a hike could result in injury or worse. Many skills necessary for backpacking are hard to learn without hitting the trail and getting some firsthand experience, and it also takes experience to know whether you and your equipment are up for the task. Sure, you might have read about what to do if you fall in a creek during  a winter hike, but unless you’ve experienced it, you really have no way of knowing whether or not you could pull it off—and you don’t want to find out halfway through the trip. To solve this problem, I developed the +1 Method to help aspiring backpackers gradually gain skills through their own experiences, lowering the chances of biting off more than they can chew.

A mountain in the distance.

It’s views like this that lead us to take the risk.

The +1 Method

The +1 Method operates on three central parameters: length (in time), terrain difficulty (total change in elevation), and temperature. The  fourth universal parameter is precipitation, which we’ll talk about later.

As your starting point, imagine the conditions for a hike that you’d be perfectly comfortable with, no questions or concerns. Take this as your baseline, then pick one of the parameters above—just one—and increase by a small amount, maybe an hour or two longer, a hundred extra meters of elevation change, or a 5-10 degree temperature change.

Complete the hike, and then assess yourself. Did the trip go off without a hitch, or were there any problems? Were you too cold or hot? Did you lack gear you wished you had? Did you have enough water and food? If there was anything at all that needed improvement, change it. If you don’t know how to solve it yourself, hit the message boards and articles, find your answer, and try again. Did that solve the problem? Then +1 another of the parameters and repeat.

The time parameter: Considering overnight hikes

One special consideration to take into account is the effect overnight hikes have on your time parameter—each night adds a good 12 hours to the length of the whole trip. Keep that in mind as you manipulate your this parameter, particularly if you’re going out on your first overnight hike. On the first one, don’t hike all day and then camp; instead, hike an hour or two in from the trailhead, set up camp, then hike out the next day.

Your first overnight hike will also have you testing a bunch of new equipment for the first time—your tent, sleeping bag, camp stove, etc. If anything doesn’t cut the snuff, you want to be certain that you can get right back out if you need to. As you get more comfortable with overnighters, extend the hike time before setting camp.

Precipitation: The universal parameter

The parameter that you need to consider for all trips is precipitation, one of the most unpredictable and dangerous factors for hikers. Even in relatively warm weather, hypothermia can set in if you get wet. For this reason, you need to have hiking experience in rainy weather, particularly circumstances that won’t turn dire if something goes wrong.

For this parameter, start with summer days and hike in the rain for short distances—just a few hours to get the feel of it. Did your equipment keep you dry? Did you feel cold? Pay attention to how you feel after you stop moving. It’s easy to stave off hypothermia when your core temperature is elevated, but once you stop moving you’ll really know how cold you are.

Finally, on these rainy test hikes, be sure to practice setting up your tent. You need to be able to do it while keeping yourself and your sleeping bag dry.

foot injury

Also, keep your feet dry!

The +1 Method in practice: My experience

I had some experience backpacking with my dad during my teenage years, but he always did all the planning and had the skills. Once I’d graduated college and moved back to an area with decent hiking, I got the itch to get on the trail, but when I thought about it I realized how little I actually knew about planning and executing a hike myself. With no hiking buddies in my new home and my dad a half world away, how was I supposed to get started?

Knowing at least that I lacked the skills and the confidence for longer trips, I started with short hikes on a small, 600-meter mountain near my apartment. Over the course of a year, I explored the mountain all over, gradually increasing the length of the hikes as well as visiting in all seasons, from high summer to the depths of winter, and I even went out in the rain a number of times. This taught me a lot about my environment and my equipment.


On a day hike near home

During my second year in that area, I decided to start doing overnighters. Again, conscious of my lack of experience, I would just hike up on that 600-meter mountain and camp out overnight—literally close enough to my apartment that I could be back down in a couple of hours if I had trouble. I also started to move a bit further afield, but I didn’t do anything more than two full days. But, again, I built up my skills, tweaked my equipment list, and developed the confidence I needed for longer solo trips.

Today, I regularly go out by myself for four days at a time. I’ve been out in the height of summer in a torrential rain, I’ve been snowed on, I’ve gotten hit with three straight days of rain on a Christmas hike, and I’ve even spent a few days wandering around the mountains when the temperatures didn’t even get close to 32 for the whole trip. The confidence to go out on these trips came from my process of gradual experience, which I systemized for you here as the +1 Method.


Don’t wait, hit the trail

I hope that aspiring backpackers can use this method to get over doubts and gain experience. If you combine the +1 Method with advice from experienced hikers, before you know it you’ll be out on the trail for days at a time like you’ve been doing it your whole life.

As a final note, even if you live in an urban space where you can’t go hiking as often as you want, you can still build your skills using the +1 Method—just pack your bag as if you were going hiking and wander around. You’ll find interesting new parts of your city and you can still test your skills and equipment to a certain extent. Good luck!

a bend in a river

Owl’s Bend, Current River, Missouri

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Comments 2

  • Dick Sorensen : Feb 7th

    Excellent advice. Especially the part of practicing close to a bail out point. Thanks for sharing.

  • Elizabeth Hauser : Feb 9th

    I thought this was really sound advice. Testing equipment, clothing, water carrying, even food choices in all these different parameters is going to help a lot. And gradually increasing the challenge of each parameter is EXCELLENT advice. I hiked the Wonderland Trail in 2001 with minimal experience, other than a couple of short overnight shake down hikes. My husband is 80 and I’m 63 . When he is gone, I plan to do the AT. Probably the PCT, too. I consider it my grief therapy. In addition to just plain getting in condition, I’m going to use your method to prepare. In Utah it might be hard to find rainy opportunities, but I used to live on the Oregon Coast, where there’s no shortage of rain, and it’s not that far away. Thank you for your article.


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