Backpacking (wilderness)

Backpacking (wilderness)
Backpacking in the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Backpacking at Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp, a summer camp in the U.S.

Backpacking (in North America; tramping, trekking, or bushwalking in other countries) combines the activities of hiking and camping for an overnight stay in backcountry wilderness. A backpack allows a hiker to carry supplies and equipment to accommodate one or multiple days out on a trail, into areas past where automobiles or boats may travel.



Hikers backpacking through Stein Valley Provincial Park in British Columbia.

Backpacking is an outdoor activity where a participant packs all of their gear into a backpack. This gear may include food, water, and shelter, or the means to obtain them, and often little else. Since each item must be carried, weight is a very important factor in equipment and supply choices and options.Backpacking trips may consist of just an overnight stay, a weekend (one or two nights), or an extended length, as in long-distance expeditions of weeks or months, sometimes aided by planned food and supply drops. A backpacking trip without an overnight stay is considered a day hike).

Backpacking camps are often more spartan than ordinary camping trips from a car, boat, recreational vehicle. In areas that experience a regular traffic of backpackers, a hike-in camp might have a fire ring where fires are permitted, and a small wooden bulletin board with a map and some warning or information signs about the trail and area. Many hike-in camps are no more than level patches of ground without scrub or underbrush. In remote wilderness areas, established camps may not exist at all, and travelers must choose an appropriate place to camp themselves.

In some places, backpackers have access to lodging that is more substantial than a tent. In the more remote parts of Great Britain, bothies exist to provide simple (free) accommodation for backpackers. Another example is the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite National Park. Mountain huts provide similar accommodation in other countries, so being a member of a mountain hut organization is advantageous (perhaps required) to make use of their facilities. On other trails (e.g. the Appalachian Trail) there are somewhat more established shelters of a sort that offer a place for weary hikers to spend the night without needing to set up a tent.

Most backpackers purposely try to avoid impacting on the land through which they travel. This includes following established trails as much as possible, not removing anything, and not leaving residue in the backcountry. The Leave No Trace movement offers a set of guidelines for low-impact backpacking ("Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but photos. Kill nothing but time. Keep nothing but memories").

Professional backpacking

For some people, backpacking is a necessary and integral part of their job.

In the US military a framed backpack is referred to as a "rucksack" or simply a "ruck". Soldiers who serve in the militaries of most nation-states usually receive at least some rudimentary backpacking training while infantrymen are often trained to a more advanced backpacking skill level. They share many common attributes with amateur backpackers: being self-contained, use of land-navigation skills and actively minimizing their environmental foot-print. There are, however, a few differences—such as the need to carry weapons, ammunition, and communication equipment, and sometimes the need to maintain "noise and light discipline", which means remaining silent and in darkness to avoid detection.

Other professional backpackers include scientific and academic researchers, professional guides, photographers, park-rangers and "search & rescue" personnel.


A backpacker's modern lightweight dome tent near Mount Anne in a Tasmanian Wilderness area

People are drawn to backpacking primarily for recreation, to explore places that they consider beautiful and fascinating, many of which cannot be accessed in any other way. A backpacker can travel deeper into remote areas, away from people and their effects, than a day-hiker can. However, backpacking presents more advantages besides distance of travel. Many weekend trips cover routes that could be hiked in a single day, but people choose to backpack them anyway, for the experience of staying overnight.

These possibilities come with disadvantages. The weight of a pack, laden with supplies and gear, forces traditional backpackers to travel more slowly than day-hikers would, and it can become a nuisance and a distraction from enjoying the scenery. In addition, camp chores (such as pitching camp, breaking camp, and cooking) can easily consume several hours every day. However, with practice, much of this downtime can be removed from the day.

Backpackers face many risks, including adverse weather, difficult terrain, treacherous river crossings, and hungry or unpredictable animals. They are subject to illnesses, which run the gamut from simple dehydration to heat exhaustion, hypothermia, altitude sickness, physical injury, and giardiasis. The remoteness of backpacking locations exacerbates any mishap. However, these hazards do not deter backpackers who are properly prepared. Some simply accept danger as a risk that they must endure if they want to backpack; for others, the potential dangers actually enhance the allure of the wilderness.


Varsity Scouts of the Boy Scouts of America loading equipment and preparing to backpack

The basic elements for maintaining human life in comfort are all carried while backpacking: shelter from the elements, a sleep system (sleeping bag and perhaps a pad), clothing (although typical urban gear can suffice, cotton clothing doesn't insulate well when wet. Wool and synthetic outdoor clothing is far superior. Proper clothing for the weather [waterproof, etc.] is required), proper footwear, food and means to prepare it, and other smaller miscellany, some critical and some not. Almost all backpackers seek to minimize the weight and bulk of gear carried. A lighter pack causes less fatigue, injury and soreness, and allows the backpacker to travel longer distances. Every piece of equipment is evaluated for a balance of utility versus weight. Significant reductions in weight can usually be achieved with little sacrifice in equipment utility, though very lightweight equipment can be significantly more costly.

A large industry has developed to provide lightweight gear and food for backpackers. The gear includes the backpacks themselves, as well as ordinary camping equipment modified to reduce the weight, by either reducing the size, reducing the durability, or using lighter materials such as special plastics, alloys of aluminium, titanium, composite materials, impregnated fabrics and carbon fiber. Designers of portable stoves and tents have been particularly ingenious. Homemade gear is common too, such as the beverage-can stove.

Some backpackers use lighter and more compact gear than do others. The most radical measures taken in this regard are sometimes called ultralight backpacking.

Due to the emphasis on weight reduction, a practical joke common in some circles is to secretly pack a small but relatively heavy luxury item, such as a soft drink, into another backpacker's pack. Then, once the group stops for a rest, the perpetrator retrieves the item, thanks the bearer for carrying it, and consumes it.


Military canteen with nested canteen cup and cover

Backpackers often carry some water from the trailhead, to drink while walking. For short trips, they may carry enough to last the whole trip, but for long trips this is not practical. A backpacker needs anywhere from 2 to 8 litres (roughly 1/2 to 2 U.S. gallons), or more, per day, depending on conditions, making a water supply for more than a few days prohibitively heavy. 1 litre (1.1 US qt) of water weighs 1 kilogram (2.2 lb).[1]

Backpackers may carry one to four litres of water, depending on conditions and availability. Although some backpacking camps in heavily-used areas provide potable water, it must usually be obtained from lakes and streams or preferably springs.

Many backpackers believe that drinking water needs treatment before consumption to protect against bacteria and protozoa. Some treatment methods include:

  • boiling (over fire, stove, or outher heat producing device)
  • treatment with chemical tablets (such as chlorine and iodine)
  • passing through ceramic or pressed solid chemical filters (in conjunction with chemical treatments)
  • ultraviolet light-based systems

Recent research on the topic of consuming untreated water found in backcountry settings in the United States and Canada is beginning to suggest treatment is unnecessary.[2][dead link] Cited in this report is a study of a collection of wilderness areas in the Western United States which found infiltrate levels to be well within safe drinking tolerances. State health departments in the U.S. do not find giardia in backcountry settings. "Outbreaks have been linked to contaminated drinking water in small towns, food handlers, and child-care workers who are infected when they change diapers — the researchers didn't find any evidence that wilderness water is a cause."[3] Further research in this topic may eventually shift common opinion away from requiring treatment for most water sources.

Ultimately, it is important to research water conditions and sources in prospective backpacking locations in order to prepare appropriate gear. If water is unavailable (or if available water is untreatable by normal means, due to chemical contaminants -- rare except for desert zones), backpackers may need to carry large amounts of water for long distances.

Water may be stored in bottles or in soft, collapsible hydration packs (bladders). Some backpackers store water in ordinary plastic beverage bottles, while others use special Lexan bottles or metal canteens. A popular form of water transportation is the use of Nalgene brand bottles which have extremely high impact resistance and a graduated scale printed on the side for easy measurement. For accessibility, they may be carried by a shoulder strap or attached to the outside of a pack. Bladders are typically made of plastic, rubber, and/or fabric. They generally weigh little and are collapsible. Water bladders may be equipped with drinking hoses to allow use without requiring the bladder be removed from the pack. In spite of this convenience, bladders are more prone to leaking than bottles, particularly at the hose connections. Hoses also allow the hiker to lose track of the water supply in the bladder and to deplete it prematurely. Bladders are also unsuitable for freezing temperatures due to the formation of ice in their tubing and valves.


Baking oatcakes on a gas-fueled Trangia stove as used in backpacking
Cooking in the outdoors using a heated stone
Two MRE packets: beef teriyaki and meatloaf with gravy

Some backpackers enjoy cooking elaborate meals with fresh ingredients, particularly on short trips, and others carry the gear and take the time to catch fish or hunt small game for food. However, especially for long expeditions, most backpackers' food criteria are roughly the same: high food energy content, with long shelf life and low mass and volume. An additional concern is the mass and volume of any equipment required to cook the food; while Dutch oven and campfire cookery are historically popular, small liquid-fuel campstoves and ultralight cooking pots ("billycans") made of aluminum or titanium are more common in modern usage due to weight limitations and fire restrictions in many locales. Many backpackers use a campfire as a cooking heat source where wood is available.

Food items with low mass and volume typically will be those with a low water content. Water (as part of food) is generally considered an unnecessarily weighty item in a backpack. The assumption is that water will be added to dry food to prepare it for consumption or that water drunk by the backpacker can provide the necessary physiological hydration when mainly dry food is consumed. One further (critical) assumption is that the backpacker will be able to obtain this needed water from lakes, streams, springs, or melted snow near their campsite.

While most backpackers consume at least some specially prepared backpacking food items, many backpackers mainly rely on ordinary household foods with a low water content, such as cold cereal, powdered milk, cheese, crackers, bread, sausage or salami, raisins or other dried fruit, peanut butter, pasta, rice, and commercially packaged dinner entrees. Popular snack foods include trail mix, easily prepared at home; nuts, convenient and nutritious energy bars, chocolate, and other forms of candy, which provide quick energy and flavor. Traditional outdoor food includes dried foodstuffs such as jerky or pemmican, and also products like oatmeal (which can also be consumed raw in emergency situations). Coffee, tea, and popcorn are common items on backpacking menus. Household food items are typically repackaged in zippered plastic bags.

One can also purchase and use a commercial food dehydrator to remove the majority of water from raw food items or from a precooked meal. Many backpackers go this route to make their own dried fruit, jerky, and dried stew for consumption in the wilderness.

Most backpackers avoid canned food, except for meats or small delicacies. Metal cans and glass jars and their contents are usually heavy, and like all trash the empties must be carried back out.

For dinners, many hikers use specially manufactured, precooked food that can be eaten hot. It is often sold in large, stiff bags that double as preparation or serving or eating vessels. One common variety of special backpacking food is freeze-dried food, which can be quickly reconstituted by adding hot water. This mixture is then left to rehydrate (and cool somewhat) for a few minutes and agitated occasionally before eating. Manufacturers of such products include Backpackers Pantry and Mountain House. Manufacturers and backpackers have found that most any food can be freeze dried and then prepared in the wilderness to result in meals that are practically indistinguishable from their counterparts in civilization. Even freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches have been commonly available at retail for some four decades.

Another kind of special backpacking food is UHT-packaged. This type of food is prepared at full water content, has not been dehydrated, and need not be rehydrated. It can be reheated with a special, water-activated chemical heater. This technology originated with the U.S. military's Meal Ready-to-Eat ("MRE"), but is now produced also for the commercial market. The small chemical heater obviates the need for a portable stove and fuel, however the high (full) water content of MREs eliminates most weight advantage versus dehydrated food. MREs can be useful to backpackers for several reasons:

  • MREs do not need to be rehydrated or heated, which is useful in areas where flame is not allowed and water is scarce.
  • They are very durably packaged
  • A single MRE contains a full meal complete with snack and dessert
  • They offer a great deal of variety in each meal, including condiments
  • They are individually packaged inside the "brown plastic wrapper", so you can place individual components in various pockets and "eat on the move".

As more and more "big box" retail stores carry prepackaged freeze-dried foods (such as the Mountain House brand) however, it is becoming increasingly easier to buy packaged meals retail versus mail order. MREs can be difficult to find in retail stores, though a good selection is often available in a military surplus store (U.S.).

There is a genre of cookbooks specializing in trailside food and the special challenges inherent in backcountry cooking. Most such cookbooks espouse one of two philosophies; the first, generally used on short trips, involves planning out meals and preparing many ingredients in one's home kitchen before departure. The second method, bulk rationing, simply supplies the hiker with ingredients, allowing on-trail cooking with minimal prior planning, and is sometimes used for extended outings. A third form of the genre deals in Dutch oven cookery, which has considerable historical cachet (especially in countries such as the United States with a long pioneer tradition), but is dependent on suitable locations for a campfire.

Winter backpacking

Although backpacking in the winter is rewarding, it can be dangerous and generally requires more gear. Backpackers may need skis or snowshoes to traverse deep snow, or crampons and an ice axe to cross ice in colder climates. Cotton clothing, which absorbs moisture and chills the body, is particularly dangerous in cold weather, so backpackers stick to wool or synthetic materials like nylon or polypropylene, which tend to hold less moisture. Special low-temperature sleeping bags and tents can be expensive, but will be more comfortable than many layers of warm clothing. However when hiking in cold weather, it is always better to start a hike with multiple layers of clothing so that as the body heats up layers can be taken off without causing the wearer to sweat or become very chilled. It is also important to stay dry while backpacking in cold weather. Water will quickly wick your body heat away from you and can lead to severe health problems like frostbite or hypothermia.

Skills and safety

A bear resistant food storage canister
  • Survival skills are handy for peace of mind: In case the weather, terrain or environment is more challenging than prepared for.
  • Navigation and orienteering are useful to find the trailhead, then find and follow a route to a desired sequence of destinations, and then an exit. In case of disorientation, orienteering skills are important to determine where you are and formulate a route to somewhere more desirable. At their most basic, navigation skills allow you to choose the correct sequence of trails to follow.
  • First aid: effectively dealing with minor injuries (splinters, punctures, sprains) is considered by many a fundamental backcountry skill. More subtle, but maybe even more important, is recognizing and promptly treating hypothermia, heat stroke, dehydration and hypoxia, as these are rarely encountered in daily life.
  • Leave No Trace is the backpacker's version of the golden rule: To have beautiful and pristine places to enjoy, help make them. At a minimum, don't make them worse.
  • Distress signaling is a skill of last resort.

Backpacking with animals

Some backpackers bring along a pack animal, such as a horse, llama, goat, or dog to help carry the weight of the gear. These animals need special considerations when accompanying backpackers on a trip. Some areas restrict the use of horses and other pack animals. For example, Great Basin National Park does not allow pets at all in the back country areas.[4] Like their human counterparts, pack animals require special backpacking gear like a variety of leads, harnesses, and packs. Dog packs are widely available at outdoor sporting goods stores. Wild animals can be attracted to pack animals, so extreme caution is necessary when bringing domesticated animals into back-country areas. Some trails like the Libby Creek Quartet[5] have pre-made corrals which specifically cater to large pack animals.

Dogs tend to show admirable hill-climbing and endurance capabilities and can carry a few kilos (several pounds) of gear (their own dry food and other) when among a backpacking party. However, few dogs will be able to traverse the roughest off-trail terrain that their human backpacking companions will cross with little trouble. For example, cross-country travel through fields of 1-meter (3-foot) boulders or 3/4-meter-tall (2-foot) brush may cause a dog to balk or halt entirely. Such balking may be especially pronounced when one or more of these factors is present: small body size, e.g. under 30 kilos (60 pounds), puppyhood or age greater than a few years, obesity, and a dog pack weight of greater than a few kilos or pounds. A steep descent will cause a dog more hesitation than it will a backpacking human. Restricting travel to well-maintained trails, therefore, may be needed. Attention to a dog's paw condition is important. For example, hidden adhesions of pine pitch between toes may cause balking or limping even when otherwise uncalled for.

Otherwise, dogs will need few other special arrangements while backpacking. As experienced owners of large dogs of the working and sporting breeds can attest, a dog in a backpacking party needs comparatively little in terms of insulation, shelter, and bedding. Their food need only consist of some combination of human food scraps, fish scraps, and their own carried dry dog food.

See also

Backpacking in the Beskid Niski mountains, in the Polish part of the Carpathian Mountains

Related activities

  • Hiking may or may not use backpacks.
  • Canoe camping is similar to backpacking, but uses canoes or other boats for transportation.
  • Ski touring and snowshoeing are alternative forms of hiking (overnight or otherwise) that can be engaged in when the ground is buried deeply in snow.
  • In self-contained bicycle touring, cyclists carry their equipment in panniers or in trailers during multi-day excursions, either on pavement, or on back-country fire roads and trails.
  • In animal packing ("horse packing", "mule packing", etc.), the hikers use pack animals (usually horses, mules or llamas) to carry their equipment, and sometimes they will even ride the animals. Porters are sometimes hired for the same purpose.
  • Backpacking (travel) focuses on cultural attractions, rather than natural ones, though it may also include wilderness side trips.
  • Adventure tourism is travel in a region or environment that is, for one reason or another, highly unpredictable or hazardous.
  • Thru-hiking is traversing a long-distance trail in a single, continuous journey by starting at one end of the trail with a backpack and hiking essentially unaided to the other end.
  • Ultralight backpacking is a form of backpacking focused on minimizing the weight of the gear carried. It is often employed by long distance hikers.
  • Wilderness survival is the practice of living in uninhabited or wilderness areas for a certain period of time with the main goal being to survive off the land, etc.


External links

  • American Hiking Society Preserves and protects hiking trails and the hiking experience
  • Leave No Trace - The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is an educational, nonprofit organization dedicated to the responsible enjoyment and active stewardship of the outdoors by all people, worldwide.

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