Learning to backpack can be challenging. It’s totally worth it, but there’s a lot to learn and mistakes will undoubtedly be made when you’re just beginning. Even for experienced backpackers, there are always more tricks of the trade to pick up for a more seamless trip. Backpacking hacks are great because they help you think creatively and make life easier or better on the trail. After thinking about my own experiences and talking to fellow backpackers, I put this list of hacks together that will help other adventurers make the most of their outdoor experiences.
Everything tastes better during a backpacking trip. These hacks will help you enjoy your outdoor cooking or eating experiences even more.
If you plan to backpack in the snow, bring a dash of Crystal Light or preferably powdered Gatorade to whip up snow cones. Simply create a snowball, sprinkle some powder on top, and enjoy. Besides tasting yummy, powdered Gatorade will help replenish electrolytes. Just make sure to bring enough for your hiking buddies!
Mini Spice Kit
Add pizazz to your camp meals by bringing along a lightweight spice kit. Pour a small amount of spice into tiny resealable bags (the size often used for storing buttons), roll them up together, and store them in a slim, empty pill bottle.
Make Your Own Backpacking Stove
Feeling creative or have a knack for reusing materials? Instead of buying a backpacking stove, or as a fun alternative, learn to make your own lightweight stove using an aluminum can, a pocketknife, alcohol for fuel, and other common materials. There are several designs, so experiment and find the one that works best for you.
Why bring a fork and spoon when you can save weight and have both in one? If you typically eat freeze-dried meals, make sure to choose a long-stemmed spork, as it’s ideal for reaching into those deep pouches.
Bear Canister Key
Bear-resistant containers are a great way to safely store food and scented items in the backcountry. However, it’s common to find yourself fishing around for a key to open the slotted locks. Coins work perfectly, but they’re easily lost. The edge of a knife blade also works, but can eat away at the plastic around the slot. To always have a key ready, tie a string around a washer and attach it to your backpack.
If only backpacking packs could be like a Mary Poppins bag. Or, for Harry Potter fans, like Hermione’s handbag that is lightweight and small yet magically holds various large and heavy items. For non-magical humans, packing needs to be carefully done before a backpacking trip, and each item should be lightweight and purposeful.
Every pound makes a difference on the trail. Remove some of your burden by packing lightweight items and seeing what you can trim down on. For example, see if you can replace one of your hard plastic water bottles, such as a Nalgene, with a soft water bottle that weighs a little more than an ounce. (But do keep one Nalgene — they’re amazing and can be used as a part of other hacks!) Remove unnecessary packaging from food items, and pack in layers so you don’t have to bring bulky jackets. Wrap some duct tape around a lighter, a trekking pole, or a hard water bottle so you don’t have to bring the whole roll.
Pill Bottle Match Holder
Store several matches inside a small, empty pill bottle so they stay intact and dry. Furthermore, cut the striking paper from a matchbox and paste it onto the inside of the lid. If there’s room, add a fire starter (see below) to the pill bottle as well.
Bandana Button Hole
A bandana has many uses while backpacking: sun protection, a hair band, a pre-filter for a water purifier, a scarf, and so much more. Keep one handy by sewing a buttonhole into the bandana. First, use a box cutter or a razor blade to cut a small line on one corner of the bandana (a couple of centimeters from the edge). It should be just large enough to latch onto a small button. Next, seal the opening by sewing around the hole in small loops. You can then latch this bandana onto a buttoned shirt for easy access, or use a carabiner to clip it through the hole onto a loop or strap on your backpack.
Put your daydreaming to use and plan trips in advance, without a specific date in mind. That way, when you have a couple or a few free days, you can leave without having to make a lot of last-minute choices. Even if you leave on a whim, make sure to leave your itinerary with friends or family before you depart from civilization. Packing always takes longer than you think, so keep your backpack as ready as possible with all of the essentials. An exception to this is that your sleeping bag should be left in a loose bag during storage, not in its compression sack, because insulation loses loft when compressed for long periods of time.
Comfort and Hygiene Hacks
It’s always refreshing to get a little dirty and feel one with the land while backpacking. However, small comforts go a long way in the backcountry, especially when you’re feeling wiped out from the day’s adventure.
Before setting out, use a vegetable peeler to shave a couple thin pads from a bar of biodegradable soap. These are perfect for when you really just want to wash up properly. Ensure that you don’t pollute natural water sources with the soap by using Leave No Trace principles.
Toasty Sleeping Bag
On really cold nights, boil water and pour it into a Nalgene water bottle. Wrap the bottle with a bandana or shirt to prevent burning, and stick it into the bottom of your sleeping bag to keep you cozy. While you’re at it, tuck tomorrow’s clean socks and underwear next to the water bottle so they’ll be warm and ready for you in the morning.
As you wind down inside your tent, create ambient light by pointing your headlamp into your Nalgene (or similar bottle). This method creates a glow rather than a harsh beam.
A great pair of hiking boots might be your best friend on the trail, but let your puppies breathe in a pair of lightweight sandals after you set up camp. Sandals are also great if you wake up in the middle of the night with a full bladder, because who wants to lace up full boots for a quick jaunt to the pee tree?
Baby Wipe Bath
Keep yourself clean (or relatively so) with a pack of travel baby wipes. You might be surprised by how much fresher you feel with a quick wipe-down at night. Of course, you might not want to bring wipes if you’re backpacking ultra light because you’ll also need to pack them out.
Bear Canister Washing Machine
On extended backpacking trips, your clothes will inevitably get dirty and retain a certain odor. But there’s hope: if you’ve brought a bear canister, use it as a washing machine. Simply empty the container and add some hot water, a couple drops of biodegradable soap, and your offending clothes. Shake the canister briskly for a minute or so, remove the clothes, and scatter the dirty water away from natural water sources. Repeat those steps with clean water (no soap) until the clothes are sufficiently rinsed.
Last but not least, these easy hacks will come to your rescue in a variety of situations.
DIY Fire Starters
If fires are permitted, bring along a DIY fire starter to get flames dancing in no time. Store-bought fire starters can be expensive, but making your own is easy. Simply slather cotton balls or cotton pads in Vaseline (both highly flammable materials) until they’re saturated and store them in a Ziploc bag. Once one of these is lit up, it burns for a surprisingly long time.
Save Your Battery
On my last backpacking trip, I found a light shining in my backpack and realized that my headlamp had switched on. To prevent the button from being accidentally pressed, turn one of the batteries the opposite direction while not in use.
Repair Gear Rips
Your gear takes you through mountains and deserts and everywhere in between, so it’s bound to get a little beat up. To repair small rips or holes while on the trail, pick up a lightweight tube of super strong glue at two dollars a pop. Krazy Glue is my personal favorite. For bigger rips, use dental floss and a needle for repairs. Floss is much stronger than thread.
Camera Case Shoulder Pocket
Attach a mini camera case onto your shoulder strap to hold small essentials that you’d like to keep handy. That way, you don’t have to stop and fish around in your backpack when you just want to keep going. Though this isn’t a tip meant for ultra-light backpackers, it’s helpful for hikers who don’t mind a few more ounces of weight.
Ask Other Hikers About Trail Conditions
Be friendly on the trail and stop to talk with other backpackers who are traveling in the opposite direction. They might have valuable information about trail conditions, safety tips, or suggestions about a scenic viewpoint or special spot just off the path. Help fellow hikers by offering your information and advice as well.