Backpacking (wilderness)

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This article is about backpacking that involves hiking. For other uses, see Backpacking (disambiguation).
Backpacking in the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Backpacking in the Beskid Niski mountains, in the Polish part of the Carpathian Mountains
For a broader coverage related to this topic, see Hiking.

Backpacking is generally an extended journey or walk with a backpack,[1] often on long distance trails. However, for North American hikers it more frequently describes a multi-day hike that involves camping, though occasionally it may involve the use of simple shelters or mountain huts. In New Zealand, tramping is an equivalent term though overnight huts are frequently used.[2] Hill walking is the equivalent in Britain, though backpackers make use of all kinds of accommodation, in addition to camping. Backpackers use simple huts in South Africa.[3] Similar terms used in other countries are trekking or bushwalking. A backpack allows a hiker to carry supplies and equipment to accommodate multiple days out on a trail. There is another form of backpacking: a method of travel which mainly utilizes public transport, for a journey which can last months.


The Pocosin cabin along the Appalachian trail in Shenandoah National Park

Backpacking is an outdoor activity where gear is carried in a backpack. This can include food, water, bedding, tent, clothing, and cooking stove. Since all items must be carried, weight is a very important factor in choosing equipment. Backpacking trips consist of at least one night and can last for weeks or months, sometimes aided by planned food and supply drops or resupply points. Backpacking camps are usually more spartan than camping trips from a car or boat. In areas that experience regular backpacker traffic, a hike-in camp might have a fire ring where fires are permitted, an outhouse, and a small wooden bulletin board with a map, and some 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 hikers must choose an appropriate place to camp.

In some places, backpackers have access to lodging that is more substantial than a tent. Backpacking in Europe differs from that in North America, because, while backpackers do camp, other types of accommodation are frequently available, often with meals provided. Backpackers can walk from hut-to-hut high in the Alps using mountain huts, or in places like the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales in England stay in Youth hostels, farmhouses or guest houses. In the more remote parts of Great Britain, especially Scotland, bothies exist to provide simple (free) accommodation for backpackers. On the French system of long distance trails, Grande Randonnées, backpackers can stay in gîtes d'etapes, which are simple hostels provided for walkers and cyclists. There are some simple shelters and occasional mountain hut also provided in North America, including on the Appalachian trail. Another example is the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite National Park. Long distance backpacking trails with huts also exist in South Africa, including the 100 km plus Amatola Trail, in the Eastern Cape Province.[4] Backpacking (trekking) is also popular in the Himalayas, where porters and pack animals are often used. Typical trekking regions in Nepal are Annapurna, Dolpo, Langtang, Manaslu, Kangchenjunga, Mount Everest. In India the Kashmir Valley also has many trekking routes.[5]

Good backpacker practice is to minimize their impact on the land through which they travel, and this includes staying on established trails, not picking plants, and carrying garbage out. 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".[6]

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

Backpackers can encounter difficulties, including adverse weather, difficult terrain, treacherous river crossings, dangerous animals, dehydration, heat exhaustion, hypothermia, altitude sickness, physical injury, and giardiasis. The remoteness of backpacking locations can exacerbate any mishap.


Varsity Scouts of the Boy Scouts of America loading equipment and preparing to backpack
Main article: Hiking equipment

See also Outdoor equipment.

The basic elements for maintaining human life in comfort are all carried while backpacking: a sleep system (sleeping bag and perhaps a pad), specialized clothing (although typical urban gear can suffice), and perhaps a shelter, depending on precipitation expected. Proper clothing for the weather is required, as are proper footwear, food and means to prepare it, and other smaller miscellany, some critical and some not. A loaded backpack should weigh no more than 25% of a person's weight. 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 cost significantly more.

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 others. The most radical is known as ultralight backpacking.


A backpacker viewing a dead jellyfish on a beach
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 (1/2 to 2 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).[7]

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.

In most areas, drinking water needs treatment before consumption to protect against bacteria and protozoa. Some treatment methods include:

  • boiling (over fire, stove, or other heat producing device)
  • treatment with chemical tablets (such as chlorine or iodine)
  • passing through a filter (in conjunction with chemical treatments)
  • ultraviolet light-based systems

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 specially designed Lexan bottles or metal canteens. A popular form of water transportation is 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. A water bladder may be equipped with a drinking hose 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 backpacking stove
Cooking in the outdoors using a heated stone
Two MRE packets: beef teriyaki and meatloaf with gravy
Main article: Camping food

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.

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, 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 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 contribute significantly to trash which must be carried 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 and serving 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 re-hydrate (and cool somewhat) for a few minutes before eating.

Another kind of special backpacking food is ultra high temperature (UHT) processed food. It 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 MRE, but is produced also for the civilian 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 or 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 a brown plastic wrapper, so individual components can be carried in various pockets and eaten on the move.

As more retail stores carry prepackaged freeze-dried foods 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 (U.S.) military surplus store.

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 meals and preparing many ingredients 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[edit]

A winter bivouac in Germany.

Although backpacking in the winter can be rewarding, it requires a higher level of skill 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 retains moisture and chills the body, is particularly dangerous in cold weather, so backpackers stick to wool or synthetic materials like nylon or polypropylene, which hold less moisture. Special sleeping bags and tents designed for low temperatures 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 chilled. It is also important to stay dry while backpacking in cold weather because wet clothes quickly saps body heat and can lead to frostbite or hypothermia.

A winter bivouac can also be made in a snow cave, which is a shelter constructed in snow by some winter recreational enthusiasts, and winter survivalists. It has thermal properties similar to an igloo and is particularly effective at providing protection from wind as well as low temperatures. A properly made snow cave can be 0 °C (32 °F) or warmer inside, even when outside temperatures are −40 °C (−40 °F).[8][9] It is constructed by excavating snow so that the entrance tunnel enters below the main space to retain warm air. Construction is simplified by building it on a steep slope and digging slightly upwards and horizontally into the slope. The roof is domed to prevent dripping on the occupants. Adequate snow depth, free of rocks and ice, is needed — generally a depth of 4 to 5 ft (1.2 to 1.5 m) is sufficient. Another kind of snow cave is the quinzhee, which is constructed of snow rather than created by digging a hole out of (or displacing) snow.

Skills and safety[edit]

A bear-resistant food storage canister
  • Survival skills can provide peace of mind and may make the difference between life and death when the weather, terrain, or environment turns unexpectedly for the worse.
  • 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 the current location and formulate a route to somewhere more desirable. At their most basic, navigation skills allow one to choose the correct sequence of trails to follow. In situations where a trail or clear line-of-sight to the desired destination is not present, navigation and orienteering allow the backpacker to understand the terrain and wilderness around them and, using their tools and practices, select the appropriate direction to hike. Weather (rain, fog, snow), terrain (hilly, rock faces, dense forest), and hiker experience can all impact and increase the challenges to navigation in the wilderness.
  • 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[edit]

Some backpackers bring along a pack animal, such as a horse, llama, goat, dog, or donkey 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 domestic animals at all in backcountry areas.[10] Like their human counterparts, pack animals require special backpacking gear like a variety of leads, harnesses, and panniers or packs. Dog packs are widely available in outdoor sporting goods stores. Predators can be attracted to pack animals, so caution is necessary when bringing domesticated animals into backcountry areas. Some trails have permanent corrals that specifically cater to large pack animals.

Packhorses have been used since the earliest period of domestication of the horse. They were invaluable throughout antiquity, through the Middle Ages, and into modern times, used wherever roads were nonexistent or poorly maintained. They were heavily used in the transport of goods in England in the period up until the coming of the first turnpike roads and canals in the 18th century. Away from main routes, their use persisted into the 19th century. This usage has left a history of old paths across wilderness areas called packhorse roads, and distinctive narrow and low sided stone arched packhorse bridges at various locations.

The packhorse, mule or donkey was a critical tool in the development of the Americas. In colonial America, Spanish, French, Dutch and English traders made use of pack horses to carry goods to remote Native Americans and to carry hides back to colonial market centers. They had little choice, the America's had virtually no improved waterways before the 1820s and roads in times before the railroad and automobile were only improved locally around a municipality, and only rarely in between.

Mules are still used extensively to transport cargo in rugged roadless regions, such as the large wilderness areas of California's Sierra Nevada mountains. Commercial pack mules are used recreationally, such as to supply mountaineering base camps, and also to supply trail building and maintenance crews, and backcountry footbridge building crews.[11] As of July 2014, there are at least sixteen commercial mule pack stations in business in the Sierra Nevada.[12] The Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club has a Mule Pack Section that organizes hiking trips with supplies carried by mules.[13]

Dogs tend to show admirable hill-climbing ability 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 dense 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, 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 much 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.

Related activities[edit]

  • Hiking may or may not use backpacks.
  • Canoe and kayak camping is similar to backpacking, but uses 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, or bikepacking cyclists carry their equipment in panniers or bicycle trailers during multi-day excursions, either on pavement, or on back-country fire roads and trails.
  • In animal packing (horse packing, mule packing, etc.), travelers use pack animals (usually horses, mules, or llamas) to carry their equipment. Porters are sometimes hired for the same purpose.
  • In trail riding, people ride horses or mules, sometimes accompanied by additional pack animals. Rather than wearing backpacks, personal gear is often carried in saddlebags attached to the rider's own saddle
  • Backpacking (travel) focuses on cultural attractions, rather than natural ones, though it may also include wilderness side trips.
  • Adventure travel is tourism 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.
  • Ultralight backpacking is 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 with the main goal being to survive off the land, etc.
Free heels are a defining characteristic of Ski touring

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Travel or hike carrying one's belongings in a backpack: [e.g.] a week's backpacking in the Pyrenees, [or] he has backpacked around the world" (New Oxford American Dictionary).
  2. ^ H. W. Orsman, The Dictionary of New Zealand English. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Zurick, Pacheco, J.Shrestha, Bajracharya, B. (2006). Illustrated Atlas of the Himalaya. India Research Press. ISBN 9788183860376. 
  6. ^ "KashmirTreks Protect Environment". Retrieved 2014-07-24. 
  7. ^ "Comparisons and Conversions". pp. 2nd paragraph. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  8. ^ "Quinzee (aka - Snow Cave)". Retrieved 2007-01-30. 
  9. ^ Gerke, Randy. "When Storms Rage (or how to build a snow cave)". Enviro-Tech International. Retrieved 2007-01-30. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ Jackson, Louise A (2004). The Mule Men: A History of Stock Packing in the Sierra Nevada. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press. ISBN 0-87842-499-7.
  12. ^ "Members of the Eastern Sierra Packers". Eastern Sierra Packers. 2009-01-18. Retrieved 2014-07-16. 
  13. ^ "Mule Pack Section, Angeles Chapter, Sierra Club". [1]. Angeles Chapter Sierra Club. 2014-04-18. Retrieved 2014-07-16.

External links[edit]

  • 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.