How Backpacking Works


National Park Image Gallery Backpacking requires excellent cardiovascular health and strong leg and back muscles. See more relaxing scenes in these pictures of national parks.
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Nothing humbles quite like the weight of your own possessions at the bottom of a steep trail. You pause to look up its winding path. Your thighs ache. Your lower back throbs. Accountability sets in. You've no one to blame but yourself for the four extra cans of beans and third pair of shoes you stashed in your pack at the last minute. As you climb the hill, you discover what your body can use -- physical fitness -- and what it can do without -- extraneous footwear -- when it's deep into the woods.

Backpacking is a terrific challenge. Not only do you immerse yourself in nature and its gorgeous backcountry scenes, but you get excellent exercise. If you thoughtfully prepare for your journey -- packing practically and preparing your body for the trails -- you'll reap the outdoors reward you desire.

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No matter how long your trip, you'll want to pack certain essentials -- map, compass, water, water purification device, food, change of clothes, rain gear, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, firestarter or matches, knife or multi-tool, flashlight or headlamp, batteries, and a first aid kit. Pack as if a sudden downpour is likely, even if the weatherman says it's not. And although your backpack advertises that it's waterproof, separate your gear into stuff sacks and waterproof bags from the camping supply store, or heavy duty plastic bags that zip shut, to keep your things dry.

Pack your backpack smart. Separate your gear into bags logically -- for example, pack toiletries together and place then near the bottom of the pack since you won't use them on the trail. If you're worried it's going to rain, pack your tent near the top of the pack in case you need to get it out quickly to take cover. Put your first aid kit in a designated spot so that it's easy to access at all times.

But before you ever pack, you'll need to prepare your body's physical fitness for the feat. Learn more on the next page.

Backpacking Guide to Training

When you backpack, you're exposed to some awesome views.
When you backpack, you're exposed to some awesome views.
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Most people who backpack carry somewhere between one-sixth and one-third of their own body weight on their backs. Regardless of how much stuff you decide to carry, you'll have a much more comfortable hike if you increase your physical fitness before you ever set out.

Backpacking requires two types of fitness -- cardiovascular and muscular. Cardiovascular fitness is built through aerobic exercise, and muscular fitness is built through weight training. Some people choose to improve their fitness by walking on a treadmill or around town with a weighted backpack on their backs. But you can also prepare for a backpacking trip with more traditional exercise.

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Cardiovascular fitness is achieved through aerobic exercise, including walking, running, biking and swimming. This exercise strengthens your lungs and heart, and will increase your body's ability to circulate oxygen. The more rigorous the hike, the more important it is to have a strong cardiovascular base.

Weight training will help to prepare your body for the strain of carrying a backpack on the trail. If you currently belong to a gym, ask a trainer to construct a workout for you that will prepare you for backpacking. If you're on your own, concentrate on exercises that strengthen your legs and back, and exercise each body part two to three times a week. Try bent rows, deadlifts, squats and pull-ups.

Your cardiovascular health is important, but your legs are your motor. They move you and support your weight and your pack's weight on the trail. For this reason, exercises that emphasize leg strength are essential. Try doing some squats, lunges, calf raises and step-ups. For additional strength training, choose a cardiovascular exercise like running, walking or a using a stair-climber to exercise your lower body.

After each exercise session, take a few minutes to gently stretch the muscles that you worked. And don't leave the stretching routine at home -- use it on the trail. At the end of a long day of hiking, take a few minutes to stretch your chest, which may be constricted from withstanding the weight of your backpack all day, your back, calves, both your quadriceps (the fronts of your thighs), and your hamstrings (the backs of your thighs).

Planning Your Backpacking Trip

Rain can quickly drench your pack, so be sure its contents are protected.
Rain can quickly drench your pack, so be sure its contents are protected.
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If you're planning a backpacking trip, you'll need to map out how much distance you expect to cover in a day. This distance will be different for each person, and a number of things will factor into the total -- your fitness level, the weight of your pack, the terrain and the condition of your traveling companions. A good average distance is 10 miles (16 kilometers) per day. Traveling with children can cut that average in half. When planning your trip, you should also take zero days into account. Zero days is the term used for days that are spent in camp, with no hiking.

You might, for example, schedule in a zero day to rinse out laundry and rest at a nicer campsite. You also need to account for unplanned zero days -- when you have to spend a day hunkered down in your tent riding out a thunderstorm, for example. For your first backpacking trips that are more than a few days duration, plan on a zero day every few days to rest and recharge.

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Many maps provide an estimate on how long it takes to hike a particular trail. This can be helpful when you're planning your journey. You want to make sure you arrive at a suitable campground at a suitable time, especially if you're counting on that campsite's water source. And you want to arrive at camp early enough to set up your tent before dark.

The less experience you have backpacking, the more important it is to carefully choose your destination each evening. If you must make the choice between a short day and a long day, choose a short day. Pre-trip, you may feel you can cover 10 miles each day, but you may wish you'd planned less aggressively once you're out on the trail.

­Regardless of how many miles you plan on covering each day, leave plenty of time for setting up camp. This chore is much more enjoyable and goes much quicker in the daylight. Remember, setting up camp is more involved than simply pitching a tent. And the longer you're out, the more there is to do. You'll need to locate a water source and replenish your supply, lay out your sleeping mat and bag, prepare a meal to refuel from the day's trip and hang up anything that has gotten wet from rain or perspiration so that it'll be ready to use the next day. It may be tempting to avoid these chores when you're tired from hiking, but you'll sleep much better after eating a hot meal, and your morning will go much smoother if you arrange your camp carefully when you arrive.

You'll also need to plan for the weather. When you're hiking in hot weather, water becomes even more important. Not only is it important that you stay hydrated, but you've got to gather enough water for your day. The water in streams and rivers may dry up during summer months. If you plan on hiking during hot weather, ask other experienced hikers whether the water sources featured on maps are really available year round.

Cold weather hiking arguably is even more of a challenge. It requires a greater level of physical fitness because your backpack will most likely be heavier -- you'll need to pack more warm clothing and more food. The body heats itself through calories, so backpacking in cold weather demands more of them. Without enough food, you won't have the energy to complete your hike.

Backpacking Gear

A couple sets up camp near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
A couple sets up camp near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
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Backpacking is more enjoyable when you've got the right equipment. But outfitting yourself with the newest and the best of everything just isn't realistic for most rookie backpackers. As you collect equipment, shop carefully and make decisions based not just on price, but on comfort and durability.

The piece of equipment that deserves the most thought is the backpack. It will contain everything to your name on the trail, so it's important that it fits properly and is comfortable enough for you to wear all day. There are two basic types of backpacks -- internal-framed and external-framed. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and you should try them out before purchasing.

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As the name implies, an internal-framed backpack has the frame on the inside of the pack. The backpack is designed to fit snug against the hiker's back. This streamlined fit makes it easier for you to maneuver rough trails or venture off the beaten path. But because it sits against your back, it's hotter, and you'll find that even in cold weather, the back of your shirt becomes damp with perspiration. It also can be more difficult to organize than an external-framed backpack because it typically has fewer pockets.

The external-framed pack has a rigid outside frame and a variety of pockets and bags attached, which makes it easier to organize than the internal-framed pack. The rigid frame of the external-framed pack holds the pack away from the hiker's back, which makes things cooler for the hiker. But this design also affects the hiker's balance. So external-framed backpacks aren't suited for off-trail or rough terrain hiking.

­Whether you choose an external- or internal-framed backpack, a proper fit is important. You can carry more weight comfortably when the pack fits well than when it doesn't. To determine what backpack size works best for you, you'll need to know your torso length. Look down and feel the back of your neck. The vertebrae that feels the largest is where you want to begin the measurement. Continue down your back to the area even with your hips. The measurement of the length between these two spots is your torso length. Between sizes? Opt for the larger size. Once you know what size you're looking for, try on a variety of styles until you find a backpack that feels comfortable on your back, shoulders and hips.

Next, you'll need a sleeping system. When choosing a sleeping bag, bear in mind the weather conditions in which you'll backpack. Price often directly relates to insulation and weight. If you plan on hiking in milder weather, you may want to invest in a lighter-weight sleeping bag. Later, if the opportunity for a cold weather trip arises, you can add a quilt or fleece liner to your existing sleeping bag. Bags rated for nights as cool as 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 6 degrees Celsius) are affordable and will be warm enough for most three-season camping. The choice between goose-down filling or synthetic is personal, and both have advantages and disadvantages. Goose-down is heavier and takes a long time to dry if it gets wet, synthetic dries quicker and is lightweight. But many people feel that goose-down makes for a warmer and more comfortable sleeping bag.

If you plan on hiking rough terrain or in cold or wet conditions, you'll probably need hiking boots. Trail shoes are lighter weight and often more supportive. They're a good alternative if your backpacking trip is not overly aggressive.

Backpacking Meals

Appalachian Trail hikers prepare and eat dinner in the Great Smokey Mountains.
Appalachian Trail hikers prepare and eat dinner in the Great Smokey Mountains.
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Having enough food and water in your pack could mean the difference between a pleasant trip and an early return home. So, how much is enough? This is where a meticulously planned route can be helpful. If your journey takes you to several water sources each day, and you have a water filter to treat the water, 2 quarts (1.8 liters) of water should be plenty. If, however, you're hiking in a dry area and covering rugged terrain, you should drink as much water as possible, at least 2 quarts, before leaving camp in the morning, and carry up to 2 gallons (7.5 liters) of water with you for the day's hike.

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If you're carrying less than one gallon (3.7 liters) of water on the trail, you may find that various sized water bottles placed in your backpack are easiest to carry. But if you're carrying more than one gallon, you may want to invest in a bladder carrying system. This water system allows you to carry water on your back with a straw that runs over your shoulder so that you can easily drink while you hike. Because water is heavy, at 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) a gallon, carrying it on your back is an energy saver. Some backpacks include a water bladder within the pack. If yours doesn't, you can pack the bladder in your backpack.

Choosing the right food for your backpacking trip is a matter of weighing your calorie needs against the weight you want to carry. It's a good idea to select energy-rich and calorie-dense foods for the majority of your meals -- for example, dried fruits, nuts and peanut butter, whole grain crackers, jerky, energy bars and granola. If you'll be out for more than a few days, add some variety to your diet with foil packed tuna, salmon or chicken, and rice or potatoes that can be prepared with boiling water. Bring along powdered milk, tea bags and electrolyte powder to add to your drinking water.

Lightweight cooking stoves are inexpensive and a better choice than cooking over a campfire because they're easier to use and don't impact the environment. You'll also need cooking fuel and a pot. Some people carry separate dishes, but you can carry less if you use your pot as your serving dish. And remember -- a spoon is more versatile than a fork. For the lightest weight cookware, choose titanium (although you'll spend more for it). Otherwise, stainless steel is also a good option.

A general rule of thumb is to pack 1.5 to 2 pounds (0.7 to 0.9 kilograms) of food per day. So if you plan on hiking for five days, you need to pack between 7.5 and 10 pounds (3.4 and 4.5 kilograms) of food. The food should be calorie-dense with a variety of carbohydrates, fats and protein.

On a zero day or light day, you'll require less food. A challenging trail or cold weather will increase your appetite. Also, if you're generally a big eater, that probably won't change on the trail. To lighten your hiking load somewhat, eat a large breakfast. If you start out with a large meal, you may not need to eat again until you stop for the night. On your last day, plan on eating light and refueling at the end of the trail. Some people choose to eat a larger, hot meal each evening and snacks throughout the day. No matter how you break up your meals, be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Finding Your Way: Backpacking Trails

It can be confusing, but checking a map will help you find your way.
It can be confusing, but checking a map will help you find your way.
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Your backpack is packed, you're in superb hiking condition -- now it's time to set out on the trails. So how will you find your way? If you plan on sticking to well-established trails, you may be fine with a trail map. But if your plans call for backcountry hiking or hiking on unpopulated trails, you should pack a topography map and a compass, and know how to use both. Many outdoor stores offer classes on now to use a map and compass. If you're just learning, take your map and compass with you on trails that you're familiar with for practice.

Some people choose to invest in a global positioning system (GPS). A GPS unit can tell you exactly where you are, your elevation and how far you've traveled. It can't chart out the course in front of you, however. That's why you still need a map. A growing number of trails are available to download to your GPS. But, of course, if you remain on the trail you're not likely to become lost in the first place. Once you're off the trail, there's little the GPS can do to help you become reoriented. A GPS simply doesn't replace the old-fashioned map and compass.

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Before heading out, make sure someone at home knows your anticipated route and when you expect to return. That way if you get lost, somebody knows it. It also helps rescuers to narrow down their search for you.

­To prevent yourself from getting lost, pay attention when you're hiking. By noting the details of your surroundings, you're more likely to notice if something looks wrong or if you're walking in circles. If you believe that you may be lost, remain calm. If you're tired, cold and hungry, or it's getting late, stop and set up camp. Things may look much different in the morning. Have a good meal and try to get some rest. If you still find you're lost in the morning, look for a drainage area or stream bed and follow it downhill. Often that will lead you to more populated trails or roads.

For more information on backpacking, camping and other outdoor sports, consult the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Backpacking and Hiking for Beginners. (October 22, 2008) http://www.backpacking.net/beginner.html
  • Berger, Karen. "Trailside Guide: Hiking and Backpacking, New Edition." 1995.
  • Curtis, Rick. "The Backpacker's Field Manual, a Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills." 1998.
  • Johnston, Matt. "Packing a Pack." The Backpacker. (October 22, 2008) http://www.thebackpacker.com/articles/tipsandhow/art201.php
  • Lundkvist, Mats. "Why Should You Use Hiking Poles?" The Backpacker. (October 22, 2008) http://www.thebackpacker.com/articles/tipsandhow/art201.php
  • Olson, Eric. "Getting Started." The Hiking Website. 2007. (October 22, 2008)http://www.hikingwebsite.com/hiking/howto.htm
  • McGivney, Annette. "Leave No Trace: A Guide to New Wilderness Etiquette." 2003.

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