Trail Life 101: Planning for Your Backpacking Trip


While getting outside and reconnecting with nature always sounds appealing, more often than not figuring out where to start can become more daunting than the actual trip. After you have purchased all the necessary gear, next comes the fun part of planning. So grab a guidebook to your chosen destination along with a detailed topographic map and keep these essential tips in mind when planning your big trip.

Choosing a Destination

Consider planning your first few backpacking adventures in areas that are within driving distance of home; this will allow you to reschedule should bad weather unexpectedly strike. Setting out on a well-marked trail with easy terrain, established campsites and ample water sources will aid in alleviating some of the first time jitters and allow you to focus more on the fun and beauty.


A successful hike always starts with research. Your most up-to-date resource are the rangers who roam the area and are well acquainted with the area in which you are about to travel. One phone call or visit to the nearest ranger station can supply you with current trail conditions, permit requirements, what critters to be watchful of and any trail or campsite closures that may be in effect. When researching possible trails keep in mind your physical conditioning and if your skill set (and gear) can handle the worse weather you could possibly encounter. If you find yourself wavering towards maybe (or no) consider modifying your trip and your goals.


Know Before You Go

Plan to hike no more than five to seven miles a day, depending on your physical conditioning. Before setting off be sure find out if the area in which you are traveling will require a backcountry permit, check the weather religiously before departing and most importantly, where you can find a post-trip beverage! Also, do not forget to let someone back at home know your plans and stick to your chosen route. So if for some reason you run across trouble you will be easier to locate.

On the Trail

Stay flexible as surprises are bound to happen eventually. By doing your homework you will be prepared to improvise if need be. Consider keeping a log, at least on your first few excursions. By recording the weather and trail conditions, how long it took you to get from point a to point b, how long it took to set up and break down camp, you can use this information for planning future trips.

Trail Life 101: Tent Care

Like most outdoor fanatics I scrimp, save, and scan Gear Trade  or other sale sites for the backpacking tent I have been drooling over for the past six months (or more).

Backpacking tents are one of the largest investments that any avid backpacker or climber will make. Taking time to give your new investment some TLC after every trip will help to ensure a number of comfortable evenings for many trips to come. 

Basic Cleaning and Storage

One of the top priorities in tent care is properly cleaning and storing it after each trip. Not only will this prolong the tent’s life, you will also avoid that disgusting smell of mildew next time to you go set up camp ten miles in. Shake out loose dirt, clean off any mud, wipe down the floor, and fly with a sponge and water when you return home from every trip. Make sure the tent and fly are also both dry (avoid direct sunlight) before packing it away. If you live in a humid environment consider storing your tent loosely in a stuff sack or box to avoid mildew.

Mildew will kill a tent and your sense of smell. This fungus will penetrate the urethane coasting of the tent fabric and grow between the fabric and coating eventually lifting the coating from the fabric thus loosing all waterproof capabilities. Should mildew begin to form you can sponge-wipe the tent with a solution made up of 1/2 cup Lysol to a gallon of hot water, or rinse with a solution of 1 cup of lemon juice and 1 cup of salt to a gallon of hot water.

Zipper Care

Most of the problems experienced with tent zippers are due to wear in the zipper sliders, rather than a failure of the coil itself. (The slider is the metal part that you move to zip and unzip the zipper.) Particles of dirt and grit on the coil, accumulated during use, abrade the mechanism inside the slider head. Once a slider becomes worn it will stop engaging the teeth of the coil correctly and cause the zipper to slide out-of-place. Avoid accelerated wear and tear by cleaning the zipper coils after every trip, especially in sandy and gritting environments. Zipper cleaners and lube are available at most outdoor stores, or you can use paraffin wax or lip balm if you’re in a pinch. Petroleum based lubricants are not recommended.

Sun Damage

One of the biggest causes of tent damage comes from the sun. UV damage will cause nylon and polyester to become brittle and eventually tear. When traveling in dry and sunny environments try to set up your tent in the shade whenever possible. Consider using the rain fly even on clear days as it acts as a sunscreen for the tent and is less expensive to replace if it is damaged.

Tree Sap

Tents are made from a variety of materials so it is difficult to say what substance will or will not damage your tent. You are best to start with only a small spot on the tent and with substances that are less likely to do any damage to begin with. Some die-hard backpackers swear by butter or vegetable oil rubbed into the area with a paper or cloth. Unless you enjoy the midnight invasion of woodland creatures licking your face or attempting to tear down your tent, make sure to immediately follow this method with soap and water to remove any oil and residual smell.

Tales from the Road: Journey of a Chilly Kind

Original posting from’s Dirtbagger Diaries

How Low Can You Go?


© Patricia Poulin /
© Patricia Poulin /

The car was packed, dog loaded and tentative plans mapped out yet the reality of my newfound vagabond lifestyle had still not sunk in. Headed for Phoenix, I was making a brief stop to pick up Doug, my partner in adventure for the next couple of weeks. As I pulled up to the front door, nerves sank in. Not only was I headed into the unknown and open road, but I was about to embark upon it with the added pressure of being with another person 24 hours a day. Being a fiercely independent person, I began to wonder what the next two weeks would bring; I wondered if I would be able to break through, or at least muffle, the stubborn streak that plagues much of my life. I even pictured one of us ending up on the side of the road with bags in hand and thumb high in the air. Yet before I could give it another thought, we were loaded up, dog crammed in with our ridiculous amounts of camping gear, and headed to New Mexico.


Outside in the “Arctic Blast”


Welcome to Gila! / Patricia Poulin /© Patricia Poulin /

After spending our first night in the warmth of southeast Arizona, we arrived in the Gila Wilderness after  driving 40 miles down a winding, desolate, two-lane road dodging ice patches and hurried drivers. The sun had set hours before our arrival and temperatures quickly began to drop into the teens. When we originally started this tour, we accepted that the temperatures would be cold, but the aptly deemed “Arctic Blast” that was sweeping the nation had never been a consideration. It felt as if my body froze instantaneously after arriving at our campsite for the evening.

Starving, we quickly set up camp and I proudly pulled out my hand-me-down Coleman stove, deemed my “super stove.” I was anxious to cook my first meal on this single burner and grill combo. As I fumbled to assemble the stove with frozen fingers I began to realize something was missing. Taking inventory once more, I began to realize the connection from propane to stove was missing. Both in denial, Doug and I scoured the box it came in; we checked the car and after much frustration, finally accepted the fact that we were relegated to using our less powerful backpacking stoves.

Shaking off my frustration, I went back to preparing dinner and grabbed a bottle of water only to realize that it had already began to freeze after pouring it into the pot. Hungry, cold, and tired, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into; maybe I should have listened to the smarter people in my life and waited for spring. Dinner was devoured quicker than it was made and I was off to bed in hopes of sleeping off the evening’s events. I curled up in the tent with Sienna; she shivered through the night and my face began to freeze as temperatures dipped into single digits. Morning light could not come soon enough and even as the sun rose over the surrounding cliffs, the little doubtful voice continued to fill my thoughts.


Our New Years Eve


Hiking into the New Year / Patricia Poulin /© Patricia Poulin /

It’s difficult to get up before the sun when you lose all feeling in your face overnight. After Doug slept in much later than expected, he got up and prepared coffee. The campground was relatively empty of campers, and day-use visitors drove by us in their warm minivans and sedans looking at us as if we were sideshow freaks, crazy for camping in the bitter cold. Yet even with the brisk evening, we remained hopeful that our plan to bring in the New Year from the backcountry of the Gila Wilderness next to Jordan Hot Spring was within reach.

As we prepared our bags, my spirits lifted, or maybe it was just the coffee buzz. Either way, we were on the trail and headed out around noon on New Years Eve. It was not until close to four miles in that we once again faced with a challenge. A challenge that made me realize why the visitor’s center attendant at the Gila cliff dwellings looked at us as if we were crazy when we mentioned that we were heading to the hot spring for the night. Sure, six miles into the backcountry is not so bad; 15 river crossings are also not so bad; but when it’s 20 degrees outside, and the river is too wide to cross without getting your feet wet, it gets to be pretty bad.

We had a mere two miles left after already traveling a solid four miles; how badly did we really want to spend New Year’s Eve by this elusive hot spring? Not wanting to be the one to give up, we egged each other on like two grade school children, about how far we would actually go.

Warm hiking boots removed, pant legs rolled up, we finished the last two miles in flip-flops, walking across packed snow and through freezing water. By the sixth crossing my feet began to turn bright red. All I though about was the hot spring, and hoped that it actually existed. Each step sent pins and needles up on my legs. I stumbled over algae-covered rocks in the river as Sienna bounded past me with ease. After what felt like a number of miles, the evening’s darkness began to fall, and that not-so-sweet smell of Sulfur filled the air. I wondered if I was starting to hallucinate, or if we really made it. I could see Doug smiling up ahead and I began to believe it was going to be a great New Year’s Eve after all.

Not only had we made it to our destination, we somehow did so while working as a team and without too much complaining in the process. I wearily threw my backpack to the ground and we pitched our shelter in record time. Stillness blanketed the valley and cliff walls around us. The cold set in, yet somehow the sweet victory of our trek made it not so bitter. (Or it could have been the celebratory champagne flowing into our classy enamel ware cups.) We made it in one piece with smiles and humor still intact. Now all we had to do was hike back.

Trail Life 101: Trail Comfort Essentials

What should you carry in your pack during a day, overnight, or multi-day journey?

This age old debate can often be over heard while gearing up at the trail head or even while already on the trail, I have even heard a meeting of the minds over a pint at the local tavern in certain mountain towns that shall remain unnamed. Everyone has a different view which generally derives from personal experience and knowledge. As for my own personal answer, this list is my bare bones answer to what I personally carry in my backpack during any given day. Although this list may be added to or subtracted from depending on the duration of the trip and the area of travel, these basic items will aid in response to an accident and prepare hikers to safely spend an unexpected night in the wilderness if the need arises.


Although we live in the age of advanced technology where GPS units can do just about everything except prepare a warm cup of coffee, it is still a good idea to carry a topographic map and compass as a backup. Adding very little extra weight to your pack, a map and compass do not rely on batteries and can provide a wealth of information from finding ideal camping areas to locating water sources along the trail.


It is easy to stay beyond your expected time when traveling across panoramic ridgelines. If you ever find yourself trekking out of the backcountry at twilight or attempting to set up camp as the sun sets behind the horizon, a headlamp is an invaluable piece of equipment. Lightweight, compact and offering a hands-free light source, newer headlamps with LEDs feature a longer battery life than now-ancient incandescent bulbs. Many headlamp models also offer a strobe light mode, which is a great option to have during an emergency situation.

Extra Food and Water

It is always a good idea to carry an extra day’s worth of food and water on any backpacking trip. Even day hikers should carry enough food to sustain them for at least a day. Simple items such as freeze-dried meals or even no-cook items packed with calories and the shelf life of a Twinkie are even better. Energy bars, nuts, dried fruits and jerky are all excellent trail foods.

If you will be traveling in areas that offer abundant sources, be sure to carry proper means of water treatment such as a water purifier or iodine tablets. The average hiker will use three quarts of water per day; this average will vary depending on the conditions and terrain in which you are traveling.

Extra Layers

Inclement weather has a way of sneaking up on your when you are traveling in the backcountry. Carrying additional layers of clothing for protection from the elements if caught unexpectedly is a smart move and highly recommended. Consider the season and environment in which you are hiking to determine what type of extra clothing you should pack. Commonly carried items include an extra pair of socks, a synthetic jacket, and insulating hat.

First Aid Supplies

There are things in your first aid kit that you cannot easily replicate in nature. Backcountry travelers should make the first aid kit a piece of gear carried with every trip. Pre-assembled first-aid kits are a quick and easy way to get your basic supplies while still being able to personalize it to suit your specialized needs. Whether you buy a pre-made kit or make your own, the kit should include latex gloves, tweezers, blister treatments, adhesive bandages of various sizes, several gauze pads, athletic tape, disinfecting ointment, over-the-counter pain medication, a compact first aid guide, and pen and paper (for documenting treatments, vital signs and other necessary information).

Sun Protection

Sun protection does not stop with sunscreen; it also includes sunglasses, lightweight skin shielding clothing and brimmed hats. Your activity level and the temperature are the factors that will determine if you choose to wear pants or shorts or longer or shorter sleeves while outdoors.