A Hiking Guide: Packing and Camping Tips

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You'll discover new "essentials" after each trip, but don't include more than you can comfortably carry all day.
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The Alaskan packboard is sturdy and easy to make.
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Frame dimensions, crosspiece details and packing details of the Alaskan packboard.

Reprinted from MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 15.

“Footpower!” first appeared in MOTHER EARTH NEWS pages back in May of 1972. At that time — though the activity of carrying a portable home on one’s back had been around for millennia — backpacking as a major outdoor recreational activity had only recently come into its own in North America. Because of the sport’s relative youth, we chose to run as MOM’s first-ever backpacking article a summary of the best backpacking equipment and techniques. Kim Zarney’s fast-paced “Footpower!” hiking guide was just that.

A Hiking Guide: Packing and Camping Tips

Hiking in the mountains means cold nights and changeable days. A wide-brimmed wool hat, Alaskan wool shirt, climbing knickers, over-the-knee wool socks, and a down parka (kept ready at the top of the pack) should prepare you for any mercury plunging which might occur during a late-spring to early-fall excursion into high country. If you anticipate crossing large or steep snowfields, you’ll find an ice axe handy for testing loose or rotten snow, for chopping footholds, and as an all-round walking stick. When the axe is not in use, place guards on its head and spike.

Good hiking boots are the backpacker’s best friend. Make sure yours are comfortably molded to your feet BEFORE you leave on a trip . . . lest ye sit in camp with wall-to-wall blisters. Boots should hold firm without “stubbing.” Vibram soles and heels are best in mountains and rough terrain . . . they give firm support, grip well in mud and snow, and offer a sure hold on rock. Waterproof your boots regularly (Sno-Seal, a favorite application, does the job without softening footwear or causing it to stretch).

One or two pairs of heavy wool socks over light cotton or silk inner stockings should keep your feet warm and dry. Carry two or more of these multi-sets of socks, and alternate them as necessary . . . tie the sweat-soaked ones on top of your pack to dry as you hike.

The weight you can carry and the type and amount of terrain you can cover depend directly on the condition of your feet and legs. Good boots will minimize the strain on soft “city feet,” but they won’t do it all. Get in shape BEFORE that long wilderness trip . . . then pace yourself on the trail and don’t immediately try to break any records for speed and distance.

It’s better to carry a kit of foot first-aid items and never need them than the other way ’round: thick gauze pads, moleskin patches, antiseptic cream, adhesive tape, scissors, and a small tin of powder (foot, talcum, or any other that’ll keep the feet dry).

Other personal care and survival items you should pack along include wool inner gloves (for warmth), leather outer gloves (for protection), sunglasses, matches in a waterproof container, a camp knife, two lightweight aerial signal flares, sunscreen and lip balm, a scarf, insect repellent, a good compass, small binoculars, calendar wristwatch, break-down fishing gear, and — perhaps less essential — a camera.

For night life out on the trail, carry along a flashlight, toilet paper, camp shoes, and a canteen of water for that 2:00 A.M. thirst. Put your parka and other clothes in the sleeping bag stuff-sack before turning in . . . it keeps them all in one place and serves as a nifty pillow.

You’ll discover new “essentials” after each trip, but don’t include more than you can comfortably carry all day. If you’re not absolutely sure of the value and usefulness of an item you’re thinking of adding to your pack, remember the hiker’s motto, When in doubt, this hiking guide says leave it out.

Correctly fitted, a nylon pack with aluminum frame and padded waist belt becomes an extension of your body (hike your shoulders, cinch the belt tight, and carry the weight low on your hips instead of up on your back). Keep the center of gravity of your gear high and forward so that, by leaning ahead only a little, your pack’s center of gravity will be comfortably over your own. Light sleeping bags and pads are tightly rolled, stuffed into tough sacks, and lashed to the bottom of the pack frame. Heavy gear is kept high in the front of the pack and evenly balanced from side to side. Rainwear, maps, and items of emergency equipment are stowed near a zipper or flap where they’re easily reached.

Lightweight rucksacks and child carriers, while not usually suitable for extended packing, are nice for one-day trips. The small sacks will hold rainwear, lunch, camera equipment, fishing gear, binoculars . . . maybe even a notepad and pen.

If you find a new rig too expensive, make your own Trapper Nelson (also called Alaskan) packboard. Start with two pieces of sturdy wood 2-1/2 inches wide, 1/2 inches thick, and 28 inches long for the frame sides. Round the tops but leave the bottoms square. Crosspieces are two strips of 2-1/2 inches by 1/2 inches. One is 13 inches long (12-3/4 inches on its top edge) and the other is cut to a length of 15-1/8 inches (14-7/8 inches). If you build your frame with notched joints (see Detail A in the image gallery) rather than fitting the crosspieces flush against the side pieces (see Detail B in the image gallery), add 1 inch (1/2 inch for each side) to the overall length of both cross members. The crosspieces are mounted flush with the edge of the frame’s sides farthest from the packer’s back. Over this finished structure, lace a cover of 12-ounce canvas that’s 30 inches wide at the top (28 inches after hemming), 26 inches high (25 inches), and 37 inches across the bottom (35 inches). The sides of the cover are hemmed with double folds and seven brass grommets are inserted on each edge through all three layers of cloth for strength. Center, cut, and hem an 8 inch-long slit 3-1/2 inches down from the cover’s top edge for the shoulder straps to pass through. Lash the cover drum tight with leather thong or strong cord.

The shoulder straps are leather 2 inch wide at the top and tapered to a width of 1 inch on the bottom. Secure them to the top cross member with small bolts, pass them through the slit in the cover, and run the punched (for adjustment) narrow end of each strap through a 1″ buckle. The buckles are fastened to pieces of leather which are screwed to the outsides of the frame’s vertical sidepieces and 6 inches above their bottom ends. Lash your load to the frame with rope strung through holes drilled at the top and bottom of the uprights.

A lightweight rain parka wears better on the trail than a poncho (especially in wind). The parka is also long enough to keep your backside dry while sitting.

An experienced camp chef armed with a light, stamped skillet and a few handfuls of staples (jerky, rice, flour, beans, dried fruit, etc.) . . . and aided by increased outdoor appetites, can produce gourmet meals far out on the trail. So can a rank amateur equipped with a nested cooking kit and a selection (everything from turkey tetrazzini to ice cream!) of the new freeze-dried foods. Either way, choose your menu carefully . . . bearing in mind the length of the trip, the number of folks going, and the extra two days you might be snowed in!

Most plastic is icky . . . but some plastic camping gear is also extremely light, unbreakable, and handy to have along in the field. Refillable food tubes are ideal for peanut butter, jelly, honey, or baby vittles . . . especially when grouped together in a plastic bag as added insurance against leakage. A squeeze bottle with spout (such as is often used in restaurants for catsup) is great for squirting powdered milk into a glass. Small, plastic pill vials can be recycled into salt and pepper containers. Hard plastic plates (divided into compartments, if desired) and cups retain heat better than pie tins — the packer’s traditional dinnerware — and will prove far easier to handle when full of hot food.

A stamped steel frying pan with collapsible handle is far superior to aluminum . . . but an aluminum knife, fork, and spoon set is durable, light, and easy to clean.

The tiny portable cookstoves — Svea, Optimus, Primus, Sigg, Bluet, and other stake minimal space in your pack, use little fuel, and heat like blowtorches. They’re perfect for quick lunches, mountain meals above timberline, and companion cooking with a campfire (for which a lightweight, three-rod aluminum grate is extremely handy). Fuel is carried in flat, tinned containers with brass pouring spouts, filling caps, and built-in filtering screens . . . or in spun aluminum bottles.

An old-time canvas water bag is still mighty useful around camp at mealtime. It packs flat but will both hold and cool for hours (if its exterior is soaked before filling) a gallon of water.

Soap the bottoms of all pans before putting them on the fire and they’ll be easier to clean afterwards. A dishrag, towel, steelwool pad, and biodegradable soap (not detergent!) are all you’ll need for that detail . . . IF you take along a plastic trash bag for whatever food containers, packages, and foil you have left over. You brought it in . . . YOU PACK IT OUT! A good outdoorsman takes nothing from the wilderness but memories, and leaves nothing but footprints.

Backpacking tents used to be little more than crude shelters designed only to protect a couple of sleeping bags from the worst of the elements . . . now, with the advent of superlight waterproof and ripstop fabrics, a luxuriously comfortable night’s quarters weighs only a couple or three pounds. Today’s packing tents are well built, rugged, easy to stow, and simple to set up. Some even have sophisticated features formerly available only as expensive accessories (such as a rain fly) designed right into the basic structure.

A rain fly is a waterproof “second roof” which is suspended above a tent’s regular roof during wet weather. Such a fly, combined with storm flaps and the impermeable ground cloth sewn into most of the newer lightweight shelters, keeps everything inside (including the intrepid campers) warm, snug, and dry.

Given a choice of fabrics, many of today’s hikers pick overnight structures made of ripstop nylon. They’re airy and translucent enough to allow card playing or the reading of a paperback novel inside on those gray, drippy days that sometimes keep you off the trail and in your tent.

When bivouacking in the mountains or at high elevations during electrical storms, you’ll most certainly give frequent and long thought to substituting lightning-proof fiberglass tent poles for the “standard” aluminum and steel-reinforced framing that probably came with your shelter. Why wait till then? Make the switch at the time you buy or construct the tent . . . and snooze peacefully through the atmospheric light shows that follow.

Snow liners and tunneled entrances make winter camping much easier than in the past, while zippered mosquito netting on front doors and rear vent flaps adds joy to summer tent sleeping.

In the dim past, a tent stake was a tent stake . . . but no more. Special pegs are now available for pitching a shelter in sand and snow. Plastic stakes work best in soft ground . . . and hard or rocky soil calls for aluminum and steel pins.

For the traditionalists among us, a simple sheet of waterproof fabric with grommets at each corner and ties along the edges and across the body (there are several commercially manufactured versions) can be pitched in a variety of ways.

A 56 inch by 84 inch Space Blanket (which — pound for pound — is ten times warmer than wool, waterproof, and windproof; will never crack, rot, or mildew; and weighs only 11 ounces) makes a great all-round protective cover for a pack at night, and can serve as a ground cloth, blanket, emergency shelter, or windbreak.

No one sleeping bag can possibly be ideal for every person in every climate: An arctic model in warm weather is as useless as a summer bedroll during a blizzard.

Sleeping bag ratings are relative, and the comfort range of a particular model depends on many factors: adequate ground insulation, humidity, wind speed, and — most important — the metabolic rate and physical condition of the sleeper. The wise addition or subtraction of thermal underwear, bedroll covers, and tents significantly increases the effective temperature range for any given bag . . . and still, the ability of an individual’s body to produce heat and to tolerate cold must be taken into consideration.

For years now, prime, white, northern goose down has been the standard of excellence against which all other sleeping bag fillers are judged. Ounce for ounce, a bag made of down — which “breathes” — is generally regarded as the lightest, warmest, driest, most comfortable bedroll available. It also packs into the smallest bundle . . . and is the most expensive.

However, several companies now produce various insulating materials that are — as a class — nearly as warm as down, nearly as light, pack almost as small . . . and cost much less. Other than cost, the synthetics are clearly superior to down in only one (potentially critical) respect: They provide some warmth even when soaking wet, while a down bag accidentally dunked in a stream or drenched by rain is no comfort at all.

Sleeping bags, whether made with down or synthetic fillers, are usually fabricated in one of five ways:

(A) STITCH-THROUGH. The least expensive to produce, this construction allows heat to pass right through a bag at the seams.

(B) LAMINATED STITCH-THROUGH. Warm, but its four to six layers of cloth and filler add more weight and bulk than warranted.

(C) BOX. Ideal . . . so long as the filler has not shifted or bunched from being stuffed. Many bags have this construction but — unfortunately — also often have cold stitch-through seams.

(D) SLANT BOX. Better, because — even if down shifts — some is almost always held overlapping the insulation in adjoining compartments.

(E) OVERLAPPING “V” TUBE. The most expensive design to produce and the best of all because, no matter how down is shifted in the tubes, cold spots and cold seams cannot be created.

If you carry along a sleeping pad or an air mattress, make it a three-quarter-length model. You’ll save weight and bulk and, as long as it reaches slightly below the knees, you’ll find it comfortable. And, as noted above, a Space Blanket makes an ideal ground cloth.

So it was in 1972 . . . and, for the most part, so it is today. Of course, the sport of wilderness walking has grown considerably since “Footpower!” was first published as a hiking guide. The number of backpacking enthusiasts in North America has increased from a relative handful in 1972 to more than nine million today. And neither has technology stood still: A plethora of outdoor materials and gadgets has come along, many of which have since disappeared. Still, the overwhelming majority of the backpacking savvy provided in “Footpower!” is as valid today as it was when offered to MOTHER’s readers some 14 years ago — and as it no doubt will be 14 years hence.