If this is the year you want to up your backpacking game, then you’ve come to the right article! Multi-day backcountry travel can be both daunting and challenging, but mastering the art is absolutely worthwhile. Compared to a beginner, the veteran backpacker can efficiently and systematically plan and safely execute complex trips, in which they hike farther and faster for less energy supported by reliable lightweight gear and nutrition that helps them achieve their goal - whether that means having the most fun, or hiking the most miles. The right combination of training, experience, knowledge, equipment is crucial to improving, so here’s how to build up.
Physical Training - At its core, backpacking is an endurance sport, and like all sports, physical training and exercise are the best ways to improve. From my experience, hill running and weighted hill walking are the go-to ways (besides hiking itself) to increase your hiking speed and endurance. Mix in some core, flexibility work, and cross training, but don’t stress about heavy weight lifting or anything too fancy. Cardio and endurance are the way to go.
Upgrade your Gear - A good backpacking kit, not counting consumables, should weigh 15 lbs or less. If you grimace when you put your pack on, then it’s time to upgrade. The less your gear weighs, the farther you can hike, the better you’ll feel, and the happier you’ll be while spending time in nature. It’s that simple. Start with footwear, backpack, shelter, and sleep system for the biggest weight saving opportunities. Hammock Gear’s line of Burrow quilts offers some of the best and lightest, or most economical options on the market.
Mastering Navigation and Safety - In this day and age, every backcountry traveler should always know exactly where they are, and how to call for help. And that means mastering some relatively new tech. Gaia GPS, or similar services, are widely available for not much money, and offer a Google Maps-like service for backcountry trails, no signal required. Add in a Garmin inReach, or similar, and you’ll have search and rescue services at your fingertips. Combined, these digital tools represent the biggest boost to backcountry safety and navigation since the conception of topographic maps (which you should still carry and know how to use).
Taking Solo Trips - Going it alone will quickly bring to light any gaps you have in your skill set. It can be scary, uncomfortable, and highly daunting, but nothing else does as good of a job at forcing you to learn. Beyond the scope of backpacking skills, spending 24+ hours entirely alone is also a great way to explore your psyche and learn about yourself in a new context. And did we mention that hammocks are the best, lightest, and comfiest option for going solo? If you don’t have one yet, check out the Wanderlust Complete Kit for Hammock Camping.
Hiking with Different Experience Levels - As with any pursuit, you can learn a lot about backpacking by doing it with more experienced people. Picking up their habits and asking why they do things a certain way is an excellent opportunity to get better. You can even hire expert guides and join education-oriented outings. Conversely, once you’ve established a baseline, it also helps to backpack with less experienced hikers. Teaching others is an excellent way to learn. Explaining things forces you to think about them in new ways, and it will test every skill you’ve built, similar to solo trips.
Cooking and Nutrition - Sure, freeze dried meals, GORP, and energy bars are easy to toss in the bag, but just know that there is a wide world of foods out there with which to mix it up. Variety, flavor, and nutritional density are key and mixing it up will boost morale and make every trip better. To up your game, look up how to make your own backpacking dinners, see about reducing total food weight while keeping calories the same, and try mixing in a couple new snacks.
Hiking in New Environments - The savviest hikers are capable of backpacking through any kind of environment, whether that means sunny desert, humid Appalachia, or frigid alpine. Seeking out and hiking through different ecosystem is a great way to learn about new gear and strategies, and have fun while rounding out your hiking skill set.
Climbing and Mountaineering - Like running, biking, or yoga, climbing and mountaineering are a great way to boost your backpacking prowess. Understanding the basics of snow or glacier travel and rock climbing maneuvers can be hugely helpful when you have to ascend a mountain pass in early June or cross a section of class 3 terrain. Dabbling in more technical outdoor sports is great cross training and skill building for hikers.
Trip Prep, Planning, and Section Hiking - A backpacking trip doesn’t start at the trailhead, it starts days, weeks, or months in advance as you make a trip plan and acquire any necessary permitting. National parks can seem like an impossible hurdle sometimes, but I encourage you to dive in. Indulging in these processes will give you access, or at least a chance at access, to all of our nation’s most beloved trails. Better yet, plan a section or thru-hike, involving food resupplies for maximum complexity. The John Muir Trail, for instance, is a logistical beast, and if you are able to execute that, you can pretty much plan any future hike with ease and you won’t feel beholden to short local overnight on Forest Service land.
Hiking Cross Country Routes - Hike enough miles and eventually you’ll discover the need, or itch, to walk beyond the scope of where the trail can takes you. Traveling “cross country” can be some of the most rewarding and empowering experiences a hiker will have. It creates such a profoundly deep connection to the landscape and the utmost feeling of freedom. Practicing off-trail travel (where allowed), will prepare a hiker for places like Alaska, or remote sections of the Sierra, the Wind River Range, or Utah’s Canyonlands. It is a great way to improve at navigation, and will certainly be a valuable skill should you ever become lost. In my humble opinion, off-trail travel is the pinnacle expression of hiking.
One of the best parts about backpacking is how elegantly simple, yet deep and complex it is. There is always room to improve your skills, fitness, and experience, and I find that invaluable in keeping me interested in a lifelong hobby. It’s part of why hiking has captured my imagination and hooked me so deeply for the past decade. I know a lot about it, and there is still room to grow. In your personal backpacking journey, I wish you many learnings and happy trails. May you walk safely, efficiently and joyously across this beautiful planet we call home!