Backpacking Tips & Advice From A Thru-Hiker
Pro Advice For Your Time On Trail
Thru-hiking is simply backpacking a trail from beginning to end. What typically comes to mind for most people are long trails, such as the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail, but thru-hiking can also include shorter trails like the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, or John Muir Trail. During a true thru, there’s plenty of time and opportunity to learn, think about, and try, so after 6,000+ miles of backpacking, here is a list, in no particular order, of tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way.
- Use a contractor trash bag as a pack liner for waterproofing.
- Take pictures with fellow hikers. While views are great they start to blend together after the 100th overlook. The journey is about moments, not mountains..
- Some items are worth their weight in fun. If it makes your trip more enjoyable, bring it along.
- It’s easy to spice up a simple meal with condiment packets or spices. Be creative. If you’re tired of bland ramen, try adding sun-dried tomatoes. On the first day out of town, cheeseburgers, sub sandwiches, and pizza pack out well for lunch.
- Hiding a treat for your partner(s) in your pack is priceless. Sneak a soda or a special dessert for the first night on the trail.
- Be bold, start cold. It may be hard to leave your jacket in your pack on a chilly morning, but starting with fewer layers and being cold will make it so you don’t have to stop and strip layers 15 minutes later.
- Listen to music. On a tough stretch, the Hamilton Soundtrack can help knockout 5-8 miles.
- For packs with small hip belt pockets, fanny packs are in!
- Stretching is cool. It’s better to take a few minutes in the morning and night to loosen up than having to end the trip early. Let’s start normalizing stretching.
- Water boils in the time it takes to set up camp. Just like at home, while the water is boiling, it’s a good idea to knock out some other chores.
- Tenacious tape and Leukotape fix just about everything. Tenacious for gear and Leuko for an impressively long-lasting cover for blisters.
- When it’s cold, try water flavorings to help stay hydrated.
- Sucking on hard candy on a challenging climb helps pass the time and gives you a nice sugar boost.
- If everyone smells bad, then does anyone smell bad? Try taking swims to knock the dust off!
- Protein powder is a nice post-dinner treat and a great way to recover for the next day.
- Fruit is heavy. If you do want to pack it out, eat it first.
- Journal. Even if it’s just how many miles you went and an emoji of what happened that day in your notes app on your phone.
- Instead of a heavy and thick plastic bottle or a bladder (which usually needs special cleaning), I use a smartwater bottle with a sports cap to cut weight and for easy access.
- Help others. Invite others to share your fire, offer medical supplies, or help filter someone’s water. You never know how much that can encourage someone to continue backpacking. I’ve always told people, “If you ever lose faith in humanity, go on a thru-hike. The kindness you experience from strangers will restore your faith.”
- When you are back home at work, the .3 mile detour to a waterfall would have been worth it. Don’t pass up something beautiful for convenience. Those out-of-the-way moments are what we dream about while looking out the office windows.
- Sleep under the stars from time to time. When you wake up to roll over, you may just see the Milky Way or a shooting star. The night sky on a remote trip will take your breath away and is often missed because of sleep and canopies.
- Sunrise hikes are worth it. You can always take a lunchtime nap.
- Trail names are easier to remember than real names. How many Johns do you know in real life? Plenty. But there will only ever be one Slowdance, Sliced Beets, and Mouse King.
- Backpacking is a great way to get to know other people in a new environment and a great time to get to know yourself. Allow time to hike alone and be bored. You might learn something new you enjoy or even forgive yourself for past mistakes.
- A knife’s primary use is cutting cheese.
- The more you go, the better you get, and it will feel more natural. If you didn’t use something, leave it at home. If you missed it, add it back. Bring food you look forward to eating; if there was a brand or flavor of bar that made its way back home with you, replace it with something you like.
- Candles don’t require batteries. Every night can be a candle-lit dinner!
- Unzip all the pockets on your pack, so mice don’t chew holes in it. If everything is open, a curious mouse can climb in, find nothing, and climb out instead of chewing a hole in your pack to investigate.
- Lock your headlamp, so it doesn’t waste battery. Unless you also have a candle.
- Tuna packets are so satisfying for lunch or an appetizer at dinner!
- Pack your bag in the order you may need stuff throughout the day, and so you don’t have to take your pack off to access essentials like water, snacks, and chapstick/sunscreen.
- Drooling after being exhausted from a long day of hiking is normal. Consider keeping your buff handy at night—oh look, another use for the buff.
- If you are having a hard time falling asleep at night, try hiking further the next day to wear yourself out. If you are still uncomfortable, try a different sleeping pad and pillow. You can also use your pack to prop up your feet or head.
- Repack boxed food in a ziplock bag to save space. Once you finish, you can repurpose the ziplock as a trash bag.
- If you hunt, turning a deer into jerky is much tastier and affordable than constantly buying it for your pack.
- Coming in at 119 calories per tablespoon Olive oil is the most calorie-dense food you can bring and add to anything on trail.
- Pharmacies will often give you a small water-tight dropper bottle that you can fill with condiments like your favorite hot sauce.
- Tortillas are a food bus. Anything can hitch a ride in its soft shell, even dry ramen, some of the seasoning packet, and tuna.
- If your socks can stand up by themselves, it’s time to give them a rinse.
- Add anti-chafe/rash cream to your med kit. You can thank me later.
- Unless it’s a long trip, over ten days with no resupply, a solar panel isn’t worth it. Try using a portable battery bank instead.
- Buffs work as a beanie, a hanky, a glasses cleaner, and an eye mask.
- Pack out a napkin for each night on trail so you can wipe out your pot and not wastewater. Then do a thorough clean when you get to town.
- Chips add a nice texture to the otherwise chewy foods of backpacking.
- If your farts start to smell like a buffet, it’s time to get back to civilization.
- Mice are more consistently a menace than bears.
- Pringle containers make great trash bins after the first day on the trail. Plus, you have to eat all of the chips on the first day out of town.
- The best mosquito repellent is walking really fast or hiding in your tent.
- Everything can be eaten with a spoon. Chips, ramen, Nutella, Mountain House, you name it. In 6,000+ miles of backpacking, I have never wished I had also brought a fork.
I hope that you found some of these helpful, some funny and that you are willing to try some on your next trip. If you’re a new backpacker, I hope you found something useful, and if you are an experienced backpacker, something relatable. Whatever your takeaway, get out and enjoy the people and places where backpacking takes you.
Bennett Fisher enjoys challenging himself, which is probably why he has hiked over 6,000 miles on America’s long trails since 2015. He wants to share his love of the outdoors by helping others feel more confident to get out and enjoy it for themselves. If you would like to follow along on the next big hike, follow him on Instagram: @Bennettfisher
Photos by Bennett Fisher and Sam Martin. Follow Sam on Instagram @spmartin_