Backpacking Essentials: Camping Techniques

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Since the point of going backpacking is to enjoy yourself, you don’t want to get sick or injured. Prevention is better than cure, and most emergencies are preventable; but you should be pre pared for them. You will need a first-aid kit and some knowledge of first aid. But just as you do not memorize the recipes of all the things you cook, or the lines on the map where you’re going, you don’t need to memorize the contents of a first-aid handbook. In stead, carry one in your pack. Section 14 lists several good ones. Be in good health and physically fit before you start. You should also obtain and maintain immunity against tetanus, typhoid, and any deadly diseases of the particular area you are going to.

First Aid

Make up a first-aid kit to take along that meets your own needs and know how to use it. Later, as you gain experience, revise it to reflect what you have learned. Any first-aid kit should probably include:

  • aspirin or ibuprofen for light pain and headaches codeine or other prescription for severe pain
  • a laxative
  • a disinfecting ointment for cuts and burns (such as Neosporin)
  • band-aids (assorted)
  • moleskin (for blisters)
  • triangular bandages (2)
  • scissors
  • gauze pads for covering larger wounds adhesive tape (2 inches wide)
  • a needle for removing splinters and piercing blisters
  • tweezers for removing splinters and other foreign matter water-purification tablets
  • soap for washing wounds sunscreen
  • ACE bandage
  • your personal prescriptions
  • paper and pencil (to record problem and treatment for medical personnel to look at)

If your first-aid kit is in camp and you have an accident two miles away, it won’t be much help. Carry it, always.


To prevent illness on your trip, avoid getting too tired, drink plenty of water, and eat good food. A simple measure of whether you are drinking enough is the color of your urine. If the color is clear to light yellow, you are hydrated; if it’s dark, drink more.

To prevent injury on your trip, don’t take chances, especially near the end of a long hike. Don’t try a daredevil climb on rock or snow unless you are an experienced climber with proper equipment. Be very careful of your footing when walking downhill, especially with your pack on. Be respectful of fires, knives, stoves, fishhooks, tent stakes, etc.

The commonest illness backpackers have is mountain sick ness, which some people get if they drive rapidly up from near sea level. The cause is too little oxygen in the air you breathe, and the symptoms are headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, short ness of breath, palpitation of the heart, and diarrhea. If it is severe, the cure is to descend to a lower altitude; if mild, lie down and endure it till your body gets acclimated to the high altitude. However, you can avoid mountain sickness—if you happen to be prone to it—by sleeping one night in the mountains before starting to hike, not hiking too fast, and drinking plenty of water.

The commonest injury to backpackers is sunburn, because the burning power of sunlight is so much greater through the thin, clear air at high elevations. The badly burned person feels so terribly miserable that super-caution is justified to avoid this situation. Even if you have a good tan, don’t rely on it for protection in the mountains, as you would at sea level. Whatever parts of you are not shaded by a hat and clothing must be covered with a rather thick layer of a good sunblock reapplied as necessary. If you are hiking around a lot of snow, multiply this advice by ten.

Your eyes are also subject to sun damage, and most people need sunglasses for long walks in the high country. Everybody needs them above timberline and around snow.

Poison oak and poison ivy are hazards in low elevations in some states. You can avoid contact if you learn to recognize them, and you can prevent the itchy rash by washing thoroughly with any ordinary soap soon after contact. In tick country, periodically check your clothing for ticks.

Fig 10-1 Where not to be during lightning:

1. under a tree or other tall feature

2. exposed on a high place

3. on wet, marshy soil

4. in the open

Bad Weather

If really bad weather strikes, seek shelter or turn back. Should the bad weather include a lightning storm in your immediate vicinity, stay off exposed places where you would be taller than your immediate surroundings. A safe place is among the smaller trees in a forest. If possible, stand on a dry, nonconducting object. Remember that wet things conduct electricity. Get rid of your camera, packframe, knife, belt—anything with metal.

In ordinary bad weather, the two things to keep are your spirits up and your sleeping bag dry. It’s hard to remain ecstatic if a long rainstorm keeps you tent-bound for several days, but a few good books or a chess set can at least keep your mind occupied. Veteran backpackers in rainy climes consider books or games a necessity. As for a dry sleeping bag, you will survive naked in it even if everything else you own is soaked.


Every year you can read accounts of hikers freezing to death in the mountains. They die of hypothermia, the #1 killer of outdoor recreationists. Because it is so easy to die from hypothermia, I am including the following information, which is endorsed by the Forest Service and by mountain-rescue groups. It may save your life.

Hypothermia is subnormal body temperature, which is caused outdoors by exposure to cold, usually aggravated by wetness, wind and exhaustion. The moment your body begins to lose heat faster than it produces it, your body makes involuntary adjustments to preserve the normal temperature in its vital organs. Uncontrolled shivering is one way your body attempts to maintain its vital temperature. If you’ve begun uncontrolled shivering, you must consider yourself a prime candidate for hypothermia and act accordingly. Shivering will eventually consume your energy reserves until they are exhausted. When this happens, cold reaches your brain, depriving you of judgment and reasoning power. You will not realize this is happening. You will lose control of your hands. Your internal body temperature is sliding downward. Without treatment, this slide leads to stupor, collapse and death. Learn the four lines of defense against hypothermia.

Your first line of defense: avoid exposure.

1. Stay dry. When clothes get wet, they lose most of their insulating value. Wool and pile lose less than cotton or down.

2. Beware of the wind. Wind drives cold air under and through clothing. Wind refrigerates wet clothes by evaporating moisture from the surface.

3. Understand cold. Most hypothermia cases develop in air temperatures between 30 and 50 degrees. Most outdoorsmen simply can’t believe such temperatures can be dangerous. They fatally underestimate the danger of being wet at such temperatures. But just jump in a cold lakelet and you’ll agree that 50’ water is unbearably cold. The cold that kills is cold water running down neck and legs, cold water held against the body by sopping clothes, cold water flushing body heat from the surface of the clothes.

Your second line of defense: terminate exposure.

If you cannot stay dry and warm under existing weather conditions, using the clothes you have with you, terminate exposure.

1. Be brave enough to give up reaching your destination or whatever you had in mind. That one extra mile might be your last.

2. Get out of the wind and rain. Build a fire. Concentrate on making your camp or bivouac as secure and comfortable as possible.

3. Never ignore shivering. Persistent or violent shivering is clear warning that you are on the verge of hypothermia. Make camp.

4. Forestall exhaustion. Make camp while you still have a reserve of energy. Allow for the fact that exposure greatly reduces your normal endurance. You may think you are doing fine when the fact that you are exercising is the only thing preventing your going into hypothermia. If exhaustion forces you to stop, however briefly, your rate of body heat production instantly drops by 50% or more; violent, incapacitating shivering may begin immediately; you may slip into hypothermia in a matter of minutes.

5. Appoint a foul-weather leader Make the best-protected member of your party responsible for calling a halt before the least-protected member becomes exhausted or goes into violent shivering.

Your third line of defense: detect hypothermia.

If your party is exposed to wind, cold and wetness, think hypothermia. Watch yourself and others for hypothermia’s symptoms:

1. Uncontrollable fits of shivering.

2. Vague, slow, slurred speech.

3. Memory lapses; incoherence.

4. Immobile, fumbling hands.

5. Frequent stumbling; lurching gait.

6. Drowsiness—to sleep is to die.

7. Apparent exhaustion, such as inability to get up after a rest.

Your fourth and last line of defense: treatment.

Victims may deny they’re in trouble. Believe the symptoms, not the patient. Even mild symptoms demand immediate, drastic treatment.

1. Get the victim out of the wind and rain.

2. Strip off all wet clothes.

3. If the patient is only mildly impaired:

a. Give patient warm drinks only if fully conscious.

b. Get patient into dry clothes and a warm sleeping bag. Well-wrapped, warm (not hot) rocks or canteens will hasten recovery.

4. If the patient is semiconscious or worse:

a. Try to keep patient awake.

b. Leave patient stripped. Put patient in a sleeping bag with another person (also stripped). If you have a double bag or can zip two together, put the victim between two warmth donors. Skin to skin contact is the most effective treatment. Never leave the victim as long as they are alive. To do so is to kill them—it’s just that simple!

5. Build a fire to warm the camp.

Being Lost

What about getting lost? Section 11 will tell you how not to get lost, but suppose you get lost anyway? First, sit down and think. When were you last on familiar ground? Where was it? You may find you aren’t lost. If you are, think about how to help rescuers find you, and how to stay well. If you stay in one place, you’re more likely to be found and less likely to exhaust your self. You’ll need water much more often than food. Save your energy for shouting periodically, making a fire, keeping warm and—as a last resort—walking out of the wilderness in the direction you finally decide is best.

Minimum Safety Package

There is a minimum safety package for use in the wilderness: waterproof matches, map, compass, a little food, rain gear, a warm garment, a whistle, a knife and a first-aid kit. I always carry these things, even when I leave my pack to make a side excursion. I’ve never been lost, but if I ever get a little confused, these things will be most handy.

The Right Companions

In my experience, the greatest threat to well-being and safety is the wrong companions. A backpacking group is a very intimate group. For everyone’s well-being the hikers must cooperate extensively, and for everyone’s safety, they must all be careful, prudent and helpful. Choose your companions very thoughtfully. Then, show the way in cooperating. Be extraordinarily consider ate of everyone else. Offer someone else the first everything— serving of food, choice of bedsites, drink at the spring. By doing so you help build good will and group spirit that will overcome the interpersonal frictions which are bound to arise.

As for social relations with other people you encounter in the wilderness, remember that some love to talk, but some want to be left alone. Give the other person lots of room unless he invites you closer.

Drying Out

The backpacker’s darkest moment comes when he is wet and tired and it is still raining. Of course, I have tried with my advice to keep you dry, but I may have failed.

If so, you have three choices—unless symptoms of hypothermia appear. You can walk back to civilization, you can be stoical about your plight, or you can stop and make camp. If you have good rain shelter, set it up quickly and stay in it with your pack until the rain lets up. No matter how skillfully you set it up, how-’ ever, some water will probably get into it—another reason for being stoical. When the rain stops, make afire, using the method described under “Building a Fire” in Section 9. String a line near the fire on which to hang your wet clothes and watch carefully in order to get the clothes dry without burning them. If you’re lucky enough to have sunshine soon after the rain, use that instead to dry out. Think about how to avoid getting soaked next time.


Blisters are easy to prevent but hell if they develop. If your boots fit well (see Section 2) you probably won’t get blisters unless you allow your socks to get wrinkled or too dirty. Even then, you can prevent a blister by stopping the very second you feel any irritation. Don’t wait until it hurts. Apply moleskin or plain adhesive tape to the irritated area and walk on. If you get a blister nevertheless, drain it only if it is too painful. Sterilize a needle, clean the skin around the blister with soap and water, and puncture the blister at the edge. Gently press out the fluid and cover the area with a dough-nut shaped piece of moleskin which you create with scissors. On a large blister, it may take several layers of moleskin to create enough height to take the pressure of your boot off the sensitive area. Leave it on until it comes off by itself. The blister will take days to heal.

If you are prone to blisters, carry a change of socks and wash them every day. You might also cut down on your mileage.


If you have no protection against mosquitoes, they can ruin your trip. However, protection is easy. Any insect repellent containing N, N diethylmeta-toluamide will keep them off. Don’t buy one without it. Clothing is also a bar to mosquitoes—a good reason for wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts. If you are a favorite target for mosquitoes (they have their preferences) you might take a head net—a hat with netting suspended all around the brim and a snug neckband. Planning your trip to avoid the height of the mosquito season is also a good preventive.

Stream Crossings

In early season, when the snow is melting, crossing a stream can be the most dangerous part of a backpack trip. Later, ordinary caution will see you across safely. If a stream is running high, you should cross it only if I) the alternatives to crossing are more dangerous than crossing, 2) you have found a suitable place to ford, and 3) you use a rope.

As for #1, obviously it’s better to turn back than to risk accident. As for #2, it may take considerable looking around to find a suitable place to ford. If you can find a viewpoint high above the river, you can better check out the river’s width, speed and turbulence, any obstructions in it, and the nature of its bottom. As for #3, there are several ways to use a rope. The three diagrams be low show the use of a continuous loop of rope with a minimum of three hikers. The first person crosses while the rope is tended by the second and third. They do not tie the rope to themselves. If the person crossing slips, the downstream person will haul them in. Never try to pull in a person upstream. Then the second per son crosses, as the rope is tended by the first and the third. If the second person slips, the downstream person hauls them in. Finally, the third person crosses, with the same provision for hauling. If the group has a climber’s sling and a carabiner, all but the first can cross while clipped to the rope and wearing the sling.

These devices are described in Basic Rockcraft (see Section 14). The best rope for fording is about 150 feet of 5-millimeter climbing-type rope.

If the ford is not highly dangerous and you have no rope, two or three hikers should cross together, linked in such a way that only one need move at a time. One linkage is to form a circle with arms about one another’s shoulders. Another way is one behind the other, facing upstream, with hands on the chest of the person in front.

Whichever method you use to cross a stream, you should:

1. If the water is at all high, wait till morning to cross, when the level will be at its daily low.

2. Unfasten the hip belt of your pack, in case you have to jettison it.

3. Keep your boots on. They will protect your feet from in jury and give your feet more secure placement.

4. Never face downstream. The water pushing against the back of your knees could cause them to buckle.

5. Move one foot only when the other is firmly placed.

6. Never allow your legs to cross; keep them apart.

7. Use a stick as a support on the upstream side.

Wilderness Permits

The law requires you to obtain a permit if you are going into certain federally designated wildernesses in national forests and national parks.

You may write for a permit to the government official in charge of the wilderness area, stating where you are going and when. You may be asked to tell where you will camp each night—but if so, you won’t be arrested for deviating from your plan! You may also secure your permit at a ranger station near your trailhead. In some national-forest wildernesses, permits are needed for day hikes as well.

Leaving Word

Good safety practice requires that you leave a copy of your itinerary with a relative or friend back home. Then, if you don’t return on time, they can contact the authorities (if you’ve left the phone numbers), who will know where to look for you. To avoid unnecessary worry, always notify them immediately upon your return.

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