A backpacking checklist is usually about the
"stuff." Good equipment is nice to have, but even with the best gear
you can get into trouble in the wilderness. You might have matches
and the latest fire starters, but still not be able to get that fire
going. It takes more than good gear to assure a safe and enjoyable
trip. Towards that end, then, this is a list of skills you should
have or learn.
1. Navigation. Contrary to what many novices
think, a compass doesn't tell you where you are. For that matter, a
either, if you don't know how to use it. Practice close to home if
you can't yet use both of these easily. Do the same with your
2. Staying warm. There are tricks to staying warm.
Shed layers as you get warm, for example, so you don't have sweat to
chill you later. Use wind-blocking shell clothing, and wear a hat.
Eating fatty foods before sleeping can keep you warmer.
3. Pitching a tent. Pitch your tent or tarp wrong
and the rain will come in, or the wind will tear the seams. They
need to be pitched tight, and you should be able to do it in a few
minutes. Practice in the yard.
4. Cooking over a fire. Making
soup over a small
fire is not as easy as it seems. Cover the pan, block the wind, and
keep the fire small and concentrated. Time yourself when you
practice. You don't have to rush normally, but speed can be
important in some situations, and it's always possible your stove
5. Identifying edible plants. Learning to identify
three or four wild edible
berries can make a trip more enjoyable. Learning to identify
cattails and one or two other good survival food plants can be very
helpful, especially if you ever lose your food to a bear.
6. Walking. If you pace yourself and learn how to
move comfortably over rocky terrain, you'll be less tired, and less
likely to twist an ankle. Tighten those laces, too.
7. Understanding animals. Is the bear "bluff
charging" or stalking you? The latter means you'll be the bear's
supper if you play dead. A clue: making a lot of noise usually means
he just wants to frighten you (a "bluff charge"), but you need to
read up on this one.
8. Sky reading. Are those just clouds, or a
lightning storm coming? It would be good to know when you're on a
high ridge. In the rockies, afternoon thunderstorms are the norm in
summer. Learn about the weather patterns of an area, and the basics
of predicting weather, and you'll be a lot safer.
9. Basic first aid. What are the symptoms of
hypothermia? Stumbling and slurred speech are a couple of them. How
do you properly treat blisters? You can use duct tape if you don't
have moleskin. These and other basics are good things to know.
Start practicing in your yard. Try to start that fire with one
match. Also try it the next time it's raining. Get in the habit of
collecting dry tinder before the rain comes. Learn what things burn
even when wet, like birch bark and pine sap.
This last one can be one of the more important
skills in an emergency. Experts can start a fire in almost any
circumstances, but you don't need to be an expert in wilderness
survival to enjoy a safe hiking trip. For a safer, more enjoyable
trip, just do the best you can, and start checking off the skills on
this backpacking checklist.
Steve Gillman is a long-time advocate of lightweight backpacking.
His tips, photos, gear recommendations and a free book can be found
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