The How to Guide to Backpacking
The How to Guide to Backpacking
Complied by Ken Lake, Troop 8, Blissfield, Mi.
Selecting Gear: What's the Right Amount?
How much gear do you need for a safe and satisfying experience in the wilderness? It's a
question that yields no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. Your decisions will depend on:
Your level of outdoor experience.
Your style of backcountry travel (Do you like low-key strolls? Or high-risk expeditions?).
Your long-term ambitions.
Your personal comfort level.
Some basic guidelines, though, can be applied to nearly everyone. Here are some suggestions
we at REI have shared with customers for the past six decades:
Fundamental Gear Guidelines
Select equipment designed to perform in the toughest overall conditions you anticipate
experiencing. It's better to be a little over-prepared than to find yourself 20 miles from the
trailhead and wishing you had chosen a sleeping bag rated 10 degrees warmer.
Conversely, don't go overboard buying too much gear, or expedition-level gear that
exceeds your realistic needs. For instance, you probably don't need a GPS receiver for
modest strolls in nearby foothills. Good equipment is a big help in the wilderness, but
don't view it as a replacement for backcountry smarts and good preparation. Your most
valuable asset in the wilderness is an assured, well-informed mind.
Choose gear that best accommodates your long-range ambitions; look beyond your
near-term trip and anticipate what your needs will be 2, even 5 years ahead.
Try before you buy. Rent gear from your nearest REI store or borrow it from friends to
help you gain insight on backcountry equipment. It will make you a savvier shopper when
you finally make a purchase.
Start with the essentials; add gear as you gain experience. If you are new to outdoor
adventure, multi-purpose clothing makes a smart first purchase. Start with a light- or
midweight synthetic top, one that wicks moisture from your skin. (Example: REI's
midweight MTS short-sleeve T-shirt.) These garments will work well on the trail—or while
biking, running or just working around the house. Another smart initial purchase: durable,
trail-ready footwear. Consider a rugged trail shoe such as the men's Merrell Mesa Dry Lo
or Timberland Omni Pass for women. They can handle wet sidewalks as well as slippery
Know your personal preferences and comfort level; work at keeping your load light, but
carry enough items to ensure that you feel cheerful (maybe a few favorite food items) and
secure (extra flashlight batteries) in the wilderness.
Scan an REI trip-planning checklist (Dayhiking; Overnight Backpacking; Snow
Camping). See what items you already have. Select a few items you would most like to
own and begin researching them.
Understand that all of your gear will wind up on your back; strive to be properly
equipped while keeping your load light. Don't, for example, take both cups that came with
your cookset if you only need 1; skip the lantern if you're already carrying a headlamp.
What About Price?
It's smart to shop for quality. The good stuff performs reliably and lasts for years. Happily, in this
performance-minded industry, even modestly priced gear from established equipment-makers
conforms to elevated standards of quality.
As an outdoor specialist, REI offers a product mix that caters to all experience levels and
budgets. Our lines of less expensive gear can be counted on to perform well in the field,
delivering greater long-term satisfaction than lower-priced (and lower-quality) items found in
department stores and mass discounters.
Many times customers tell us they "just want the best" when selecting new gear. That's good; just
keep in mind that what's "best" for your ambition level does not necessarily have to be the most
expensive item in the store.
Some Thoughts About Weight
Some outdoor purists lament that the modern wilderness visitor has become overly reliant on
wonderfabrics and specialized gizmos. Recreational hikers, they believe, simply carry too much
stuff into the woods.
We all like to travel light in the backcountry. Some ultralight hikers step out for week-long trips
with all of their equipment and supplies stuffed into a compact daypack.
That's impressive. Yet a minimal load typically requires a wilderness traveler to make some soulsearching choices. For instance, should you:
Skip a tent and opt for only a tarp?
Leave the stove and fuel behind and rely solely on ready-to-eat foods?
Minimize your clothing options?
Only you can answer such questions. Reflect on your past outdoor experiences. Can you live the
life of a backcountry minimalist and remain content? Or are you really a hedonist at heart? Or do
you fall somewhere in between?
We encourage backpackers to travel wisely and lightly. So don't take 2 fuel bottles when 1 will do.
Carry a 4-ounce tube of sunscreen, not a 32-ounce bottle. If your tent came with 12 stakes, do
you really need to carry them all?
Tip: Minimize; just don't compromise.
Quick Review
The reason you carry gear is to help you feel comfortable, secure and content in the
wilderness. How much is enough? It depends on your individual standards of comfort, security
and contentment. How can you know what those are? Take a hike, get some experience, ask
friends for advice—educate yourself about what factors are most important you in the outdoors.
Equip yourself accordingly.
Bottom line: Know thyself. It's your best first step when approaching a gear purchase.
How to Fit a Backpack
Forget about the color and the fancy logos. What really matters when selecting a new backpack
is making sure that it's a good fit for your body.
You want to choose a pack well suited to your individual dimensions, then you need to customize
it to your body shape. Here are some tips to help you accomplish that:
Determine Your Torso Length
Torso length is a crucial measurement. It is important to distinguish between your height and the
length of your torso. Just because you are a certain height — say a 5' 9" female or 6' male —
does not mean you automatically need a "large" or "tall" pack. Your torso length, not your height,
determines your pack size. Here's how to measure yours:
Enlist the help of friend. Have that person locate the bony bump at the base of your neck,
where the slope of your shoulder meets your neck. (It's known as the 7th vertebra.) Tilt
your head forward to locate it more easily.
Using a flexible tape measure, ask your friend to start at that spot and measure down
your spine, following the curves of your back along the way.
Place your hands on your hips so you can feel your iliac crest—the twin pointy
protrusions on the front of your hips. (The iliac crest serves as the "shelf" of your pelvic
girdle, the area that is gripped by your pack's hipbelt.) Position your hands so your
thumbs are reaching behind you.
Have your friend finish measuring at the point where the tape crosses an imaginary line
drawn between your thumbs. This distance is your torso length.
Generally, your measurement will fall into one of these frame-size categories:
Small: Up to 17 1/2".
Medium/Regular: 18" to 19 1/2".
Large/Tall: 20" and up.
Pack manufacturers typically use general terms (small, medium, large) to identify their frame
sizes; look at each pack's technical specifications to find the actual numeric range. lists
those numbers in a chart that accompanies each pack description.
A person with a measurement right on the border (say, 17 3/4") might want to visit an REI store to
try on both a small and medium version of a particular pack. REI's product line includes adult
packs sized to fit torso lengths as compact as 14" (10" for children) and as long as 23". If your
measurement lies outside that range, you might require a custom-built pack.
Determine Your Hip Measurement
While not as crucial as your torso length, your hip measurement is useful to know. It's very helpful
if you are considering a pack that offers interchangeable hipbelts.
Take your tape measure and wrap it around the top of your hips, the "latitude line" where you can
feel your iliac crest — those two pointy bones just above the front pocket on your pants. A
properly positioned hipbelt will straddle your iliac crest, about an inch above and below that line.
Test Fit Your Backpack
At REI, we acknowledge that shopping for a backpack online is not the same as examining the
packs firsthand. How do you know if it's going to feel good without first trying it
on? A comfortable fit, after all, is crucial to your satisfaction.
Ideally, you should visit an REI store in person and try on some packs. If that's
not possible, try the procedure described below at home with any pack you
order. If it just doesn't feel right, send it back. We don't want you to try and lug
an uncomfortable pack into the wilds. To be fair, you need to keep in mind that
no fully loaded pack ever feels truly "comfortable." What you are seeking to
avoid is any sharp or unreasonable discomfort.
A Good Fit, Step by Step
If possible, start with about 20 or 30 pounds of weight to place inside the pack:
sandbags or weighted pillows supplied by the store; items of personal gear
packed into stuff sacks; climbing ropes. (If you're able to visit a store, throw
some things in a duffel bag and bring them with you.) Distribute these
throughout a pack's interior, keeping the weight close to your body with the
heaviest portion near your shoulder blades. Next:
1. Loosen the pack's shoulder straps, load-adjustment straps and hip belt.
2. Slip your arms through the shoulder straps.
Tip: What's the best way to hoist a heavy pack on your back, you ask? Click here.
3. Position the hipbelt so it basically straddles your hipbones (iliac crest); close the buckle
and make the hipbelt straps snug.
Tip: The belt should completely, comfortably cover your hips, but its 2 ends should not
touch. If the belt is too loose or too tight, reposition the buckle pieces on the hipbelt
straps. If this doesn't give you a secure fit, you may have to try a different pack or hipbelt.
Do not tighten your hipbelt excessively. Keep it snug, but if it's too tight or too long on the
trail, you'll have sore spots on your hips the next morning.
4. Cinch the shoulder straps down tightly, then ease the tension slightly.
5. Look sideways in a mirror. Check the position of your shoulder straps:
For internal-frame packs: The padded sections of the shoulder straps should
wrap around the crest of your shoulders comfortably and attach to the frame
about 1" below that point. No gaps should appear
For external-frame packs without load-lifter straps: The shoulder straps should
attach to the pack frame at a point slightly higher than the top of your shoulders.
For external-frame packs with load-lifter straps: The padded sections of the
shoulder straps should wrap around the top of your shoulders comfortably and
attach to the frame about 1" below that point.
6. Check your load-lifter straps. These should attach to your shoulder straps at a point just
above your collarbone and just below the top of your shoulders. From there, they should
rise up to join with the frame at an angle of between 40 and 50 degrees. If the angle is
higher than that, your frame is too long. Any lower and your shoulders will carry too much
of the load.
7. Check the shoulder strap length and width:
The buckle on the strap should be far enough below your armpit that it won't
chafe. How far? Try a hand-width.
The straps should be far enough apart that they don't squeeze your neck, but
close enough together that they don't slip off of your shoulders during hiking. The
width is sometimes adjustable.
Women need to pay special attention to the fit of shoulder straps. On some
unisex packs, the distance between shoulder straps may be too wide, or the
straps themselves are wide enough to gouge an armpit or breast. If you find a
good fit is elusive, seek out a pack designed specifically for women.
8. Check for a good torso fit. If the pack fits you correctly, you should be able to redistribute
the weight of the pack between your shoulders and your hips simply by loosening and
tightening your shoulder straps slightly.
Tip: Make any adjustments by moving the shoulder harness up or down, using whatever
means the individual pack provides. On a "ladder" system, for instance, you can rethread
the webbing and fasten it at a new position on the ladder.
9. Adjust the sternum strap. Position it about 2" below your collarbone. You should be able
to breathe comfortably when the strap is fastened. It is not essential that you keep your
sternum strap fastened at all times. It is most helpful when you are negotiating uneven
10. Check for comfort:
Does the pack feel good on your back?
Does it pinch or bind or unusually restrict your movement?
Can you look up without hitting the pack with your head?
Can you squat down without cutting off the circulation to your legs?
This may seem like a lot to keep in mind, but all of the above will become automatic as
you gain experience. Now walk around with your pack. Climb and descend a flight of
stairs. Hop from spot to spot. Reach. Walk a line. If anything is pinching, try adjusting the
various straps.
Additional Considerations
Bending the stays: The stays that serve as the frame of internal-frame packs are almost
always removable and can be bent to conform to the contours of your torso. How
meticulously and precisely should they be bent? It's a matter of choice. It's usually
sufficient to give the stays a modest bending so they follow your spine's natural S-shape.
To make sure your stays are not damaged when bending them, it's best to have a trained
technician bend them for you.
Breaking in your pack: Ideally, make your first trip with your new pack a short one. You
can make some modest adjustments during rest stops. Over time, with regular wear,
items such as internal stays and the padded hipbelt will conform to your body
How to Enjoy Pure Drinking Water
Current estimates suggest that 90% of surface water in the United States fails to meet EPA
standards for acceptable drinking water. Since it's impossible to determine ahead of time (without
expensive testing) whether a given water supply is safe to drink (no matter how pristine it
appears), it pays to protect yourself.
Water supplies are often contaminated by a number of different disease-causing microorganisms.
Consuming water that contains these organisms can lead to cramps, vomiting, diarrhea and (in
some cases) more serious medical problems. For water to be safe, these microorganisms must
be either removed or rendered inactive prior to drinking.
Meet the Trouble-Makers
Protozoa -- This group includes giardia and cryptosporidium, two of the most well-known
trouble-causing microorganisms. Protozoa are relatively large by microorganism
standards (1-16 microns. 1 micron = 1 millionth of a meter). This makes them relatively
easy to filter out of water. Protozoa are more resistant to chemical disinfection than
bacteria or viruses.
Bacteria -- This category includes microorganisms like e. coli, salmonella, cholera and
others. Bacteria tend to be smaller than protozoa (from .2 to 10 microns), but they can
still be caught by many filters. Bacteria also respond well to chemical disinfection.
Viruses -- Commonly-known viruses include rotavirus, hepatitis A and polio. Viruses are
extremely small (.02 to .085 microns) which makes them very difficult to filter. But viruses
do respond well to chemical disinfection.
Basic Treatment Methods
Boiling -- No living microorganism can survive in water that is brought to a full boil.
Positives: 100% effective, simple to perform, inexpensive
Negatives: Time-consuming (especially when treating water for large groups), requires
an extra supply of fuel. Does not remove suspended solids from water.
Chemical treatment - Most water-borne organisms can be rendered inactive by
exposing them to iodine. Iodine is available in tablet, crystalline and liquid form.
Positives: Convenient, quick and easy to use. Filters remove organisms (and suspended
solids) from water, instead of simply rendering them inactive.
Negatives: Time-consuming (especially if the water is cold or murky), can taste bad
(neutralizing tablets help somewhat). Can be unhealthy for some people -- notably
pregnant women or people with thyroid conditions. Iodine is not 100% effective against
NOTE: Disinfecting chemicals (iodine and chlorine) play a role in most water purification
systems. See below for details).
Filtering -- Most microorganisms can be removed from water by straining them through
compact, lightweight filter systems.
Positives: Convenient, quick and easy to use. Filters remove organisms (and suspended
solids) from water, instead of simply rendering them inactive.
Negatives: More expensive than boiling or iodine. Can break down and/or clog up over
time. Overall performance depends on the material used in the filter element, the size of
the filter pores and the design of the filter. Some low-cost filters cannot catch all protozoa
and bacteria. Very few filters can remove viruses from water.
Purification -- Purifying removes or renders inactive all dangerous water-born
microorganisms. Most purifying systems combine mechanical filtration (for protozoa and
bacteria) and chemical treatment (for viruses). NOTE: The disinfecting chemicals used in
purifiers are often contained in solid resins to cut down on the amount of chemical that
remains in the treated water.
Positives: Renders water completely pure.
Negatives: Expensive. Mechanical system can break down and/or clog up over time.
The health drawbacks of iodine still exist in some models (though it's present in far lower
How Should I Choose Between Treatment Methods?
Step #1: Consider relative effectiveness and reliability
Boiling - Bringing water to a rolling boil will kill 100% of microorganisms.
Chemical Treatment - If used correctly (the right amount of chemical for the right length
of time), iodine will render most, but not necessarily all, microorganisms inactive. If
combined with mechanical filtering (either before or after), it can be extremely effective.
Filtering - Effectiveness depends upon the materials used in the filter, the size of the
filter pores and the design of the unit. The models that REI carries remove most of the
harmful microorganisms found commonly in the United States. Very few filters can
eliminate viruses.
Purification - Effective at killing and/or removing all microorganisms, along with most
suspended particles. When treating cold water, experts recommend passing water
through purification systems at least twice to be sure that all pathogens have been
effectively neutralized.
Step #2: Think about how much time each method takes
Boiling - Slow, especially when treating a large amount of water. Can be tough in bad
weather conditions.
Chemical treatment - Slow, especially if water is cold or murky.
Filters/purifiers - Fastest option by far. Different models work at different speeds (see
section on choosing a filter/purifier below for details).
Step #3: Consider how easy each method is to perform
Boiling - Involves setting up a stove or building a fire, then maintaining the source of
heat as the water comes to a boil. It also involves cool-down time.
Chemical treatment - The easiest option. Pick the right amount of iodine and dump it in,
then simply wait.
Filters/purifiers - In general, water filters and purifiers are quite easy to use. Complexity
depends upon the design of the model being used.
Step #4: Note how much space and weight each option will involve
Boiling - Requires an extra supply of fuel. No big deal on short trips with few people. But
it can be quite cumbersome on longer trips with bigger groups.
Chemical treatment - Compact and lightweight. One small bottle can last all season.
Filters/purifiers - There are a number of different sizes available. In general,
filters/purifiers are bulkier than the options listed above. But there are a number of
lightweight, compact models.
How to Choose an Energy Bar
hether you're out hiking a steep mountain trail or watching a grueling road race,
chances are you've seen someone reach for an
energy bar. Packed with essential nutrients,
energy bars help promote and sustain energy to
allow for peak performance.
But no matter what your activity level, energy
bars offer instant fuel and should be part of a
healthy regimen of exercise, a well-balanced
diet and plenty of water.
Choose Bars Based on Their Nutritional
While taste, of course, is a big consideration when you reach for an energy bar, we'll stick
to nutritional analysis as a less-subjective way of making an informed choice.
REI makes it easy to compare nutritional content. Each of our product pages includes
specifications for calories and fat, carbohydrates/sugars/starches, protein, vitamins and
minerals and sodium in particular.
Here is a summary of energy bars' nutritional content:
Calories and Total Fat Content
Energy bars are all relatively low-cal and low-fat. (Containing only 100 to 300 calories
and around 2-4 grams of fat per serving.)
This is your main energy source, so the higher your level of activity and duration, the
more carbohydrates you need. Look for energy bars with plenty of carbohydrates. (Most
bars range around 15-55 grams of total carbohydrates per serving.)
When you read the labels of energy bars, you'll often see simple and complex
carbohydrates listed. Here's a quick breakdown of what they are and how they benefit
Simple carbohydrates — Otherwise known as sugars, such as fructose,
glucose, maple syrup and honey. Simple carbohydrates can give you quick
bursts of energy. Remember that sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup are
dehydrating. Make sure you drink plenty of extra water.
Complex carbohydrates — Otherwise known as starches, such as grains,
breads, rice, pasta, vegetables and beans. Complex carbohydrates offer you
more sustained energy levels.
Protein — Helps your body rebuild tissues and recover after exercise/activity. Highprotein bars contain moderate carbohydrates and usually more fat. This slows the entry
of carbohydrates into the bloodstream, helping to stabilize blood sugar levels. Stabilized
blood sugar levels encourage fat metabolism and help keep your energy more balanced
during activity.
Vitamins and Minerals
Your body naturally burns vitamins and minerals through exercise and activity, so the
more a bar has to offer, the better. Most bars contain 100% of B and E vitamins. B
vitamins assist in converting carbohydrates to energy and promote a healthy nervous
system, heart, blood, skin and eyes. E vitamins act as a natural antioxidant and help
reduce the risk of heart disease. Total calcium intake per energy bar is around 15% to
45% of your total daily requirement (based on a 2,000 calorie diet).
Even though one energy bar may have a higher number of vitamins and minerals than
another, it is important to look at the percentages of each vitamin and mineral in
comparison, and what is most important to your particular dietary needs.
If you're on a low-sodium diet or are participating in less-strenuous activities, look for
lower levels of sodium. Most bars range around 60 to 90 grams per bar. The more
strenuous the exercise and the more prone you are to sweat, it is better to look for higher
levels of sodium to help replace what your body has lost. Watch Out for Added
If you're sensitive to caffeine, steer away from chocolate, peanut butter-chocolate and
mocha flavors. If you see guarana as an added ingredient, know that it is also caffeine.
Pick Your Favorite Flavor
While many outdoor enthusiasts love to munch on great traditional flavors such as
oatmeal raisin and yogurt honey peanut, energy bar creators now offer a wider variety of
tasty flavors to better suit individual preferences. Find your favorite flavors from choices
such as almond fudge, vanilla crisp, cookies n' cream, cherry crunch, chocolate peanut
butter, raspberry truffle plus many, many more.
How to Choose the Right Sleeping Pad
Sleeping pads perform 2 important functions -- first, they keep you comfortable when you're
sleeping on hard, uneven ground. Second, they provide an important layer of insulation between
you and the ground (to cut down on conductive heat loss).
How do they work?
Sleeping pads insulate the same way that sleeping bags and clothing layers do. They trap and
hold a layer of dead (non-circulating) air between your body and the cold (in this case, the cold
ground). Your body gradually warms this layer of dead air and it becomes an insulating barrier.
The insulative performance of a pad depends upon how much air it holds inside and how free that
air is to circulate.
Step #1: Consider Your Plans
The primary variables to consider when choosing a pad are:
To decide which of these variables are most important to you, consider your outdoor plans. Think
The kinds of weather you expect - if you're a fair-weather camper/backpacker, comfort
will probably be more important than insulation. But if you hit the trail year-round or enjoy
early spring or late fall trips, make sure you get a pad that provides protection from cold
and wet conditions. It is recommended that you use two pads in snow or frozen
The level of comfort you want while sleeping - some people prefer to save money,
space and weight by sticking with very basic pads. Other prefer to spend (and carry) a
little more to stay as comfortable as possible in the wilderness.
How much extra weight you want to carry with you - Thicker, more comfortable pads
can be heavy, which can cause problems on long backpacking trips. But if your trips are
short or you're a car camper, weight will be less of an issue.
How much space you have for storage - If you're backpacking with a full gear load, a
light, compact sleeping pad will be far easier to pack. Space will be less of a problem if
you're carrying all of your gear in your car, or boat.
Step #3: Consider Your Options
Air mattresses - basic, inflatable air bladders
Positives - They're comfortable, adjustable and inexpensive.
Negatives - They tend to be heavy, bulky and they can be punctured/ripped easily. Air
inside is free to circulate, so they tend to be poor insulators.
Open-cell foam pads - sponge-like foam pads made up of tiny, open air cells
Positives - They're comfortable, lightweight and inexpensive. The tiny foam cells restrict
air circulation, so they are also more effective insulators than air mattresses.
Negatives - Open-cell foam is absorbent, which can cause problems in wet conditions.
It's also less insulating than closed-cell foam (it must be cut about four times as thick to
get the same insulation). Open-cell foam tends to be bulky, difficult to compress (for
packing) and not very durable.
Closed-cell foam pads - pads made out of dense foam filled with tiny closed air cells
Positives - They're cheap, durable (won't pop when tromped on) and extremely insulative
(almost no circulation of air in pad, so they can be cut thin yet still provide good
insulation). Closed-cell foam is also non-absorbent.
Negatives - They're relatively stiff and firm, with far less cushioning than open-cell foam
(so you'll need a thicker, heavier piece to be as comfortable).
Self-inflating pads - open-cell foam pads wrapped in air-tight, waterproof nylon shells.
Positives - They're as comfortable as open-cell foam, but much more insulating (the nylon
shell limits air circulation, while also protecting against water absorption). They're
adjustable (built-in air valves let you control the amount of air inside and thus the
firmness of the pad) and they're extremely compact when rolled up.
Negatives - They're more expensive than the options listed above. Can be punctured or
ripped (though field repairs are not difficult). Heavier than open- or closed-cell pads.
Step #4: Try Before You Buy
Sleeping pads come in a variety of styles, shapes and lengths. If possible, try out a number of
different pads before deciding on a single model. This will help you get a feel for:
How much cushioning you need to be comfortable
How long and/or wide you want your pad to be (many models are cut short to save
weight and packing space)
How easy the pad is to inflate, deflate, and/or pack away
Step #5: Consider the Extras
Finally, consider any extra pad features that might affect your decision -- like multiple air
chambers (for a more custom adjustment), built-in pillows (for comfort), textured pad surfaces (for
better insulation, less slip and more comfort) and tapered pad shapes that cut down on weight
and bulk.
If you'll be traveling with a close friend, consider pads that can be attached together to form a
larger sleeping area for two. Also, chair kits that work with inflatable pads offer a great deal of
comfort without a lot of weight and bulk. See our selection of pad accessories for more great
How to Choose the Right Footwear
Choosing the right footwear may be the most important decision you make as a beginning
backpacker. The shoes or boots you choose must be comfortable, durable and protective, mile
after mile.
Step #1: Consider the Kinds of Trips You Have Planned
Outdoor footwear can be divided into 3 basic categories. Begin your search for the right boots or
shoes by focusing on the category that best matches your backpacking plans.
Lightweight hiking - These boots (and trail shoes) are designed for day hiking and very
short overnight trips only. They stress comfort, cushioning and breathability. As a result,
they are less supportive and durable than the options below.
Midweight hiking/backpacking - These boots are designed for on- and off-trail hiking
with light to moderate backpacking loads. They are more durable and supportive than
lightweight hiking boots, but they are still intended primarily for short to moderate trips
over easy to moderate terrain.
Extended backpacking/mountaineering - These boots are designed for on- and off-trail
hiking with moderate to heavy backpacking loads. They are designed with multi-day trips
in mind. Durable and supportive, they provide a high degree of ankle and foot protection.
Some of these models are designed specifically for rough terrain with heavy backpacking
loads. They offer the very best in durability, support and protection. Some are stiff
enough to accept crampons for snow/ice travel.
Step #2: Consider the Materials
The materials used in a given boot or trail shoe will affect its weight, breathability, durability and
water-resistance. Since boots made of different fabrics can be very similar in performance,
however, personal preference is often the key when choosing between them.
Nylon mesh and split grain leather - Nylon and split-grain leather boots are lightweight
and breathable, which makes them perfect for warm- to moderate-weather use and short
to moderate backpacking trips. They tend to be softer on your feet, they take less time to
break in, and they are almost always lighter than full-grain leather boots. They also cost
less. Unfortunately, nylon/split grain boots tend to be less water-resistent than full-grain
leather boots (although styles that feature waterproof liners can be just as water-tight, if
not more so).
Full-grain leather - Full-grain leather is extremely water-resistant, durable and
supportive (more so than split-grain leather or nylon). It's used primarily in backpacking
boots designed for extended trips, heavy loads and hard terrain. Not as lightweight or
breathable as nylon/split grain combinations, but it typically lasts far longer. Full-grain
leather usually requires a break-in period..
Waterproof barriers - Lightweight, waterproof barriers (like Gore-Tex®) are built into
many hiking boots to enhance their water resistance. These barriers are available in a
variety of boot styles, from lightweight hikers to extended hiking/backpacking models.
Waterproof performance depends upon the type of barrier used, the materials protecting
it and how well the boots/shoes are taken care of. If cared for correctly, these waterproof
barriers often last longer than the boots themsleves.
NOTE: Be careful when shopping for backpacking boots to differentiate between the following:
Waterproof leather -- This is leather that's been treated to be waterproof. It's great stuff
to have, but remember -- leaks may still occur (depending on how well the boot pieces
are put together).
Waterproof (or water-tight) construction -- This refers to construction techniques
designed to keep leaks out (like seam-sealing, special stitches and precise designs).
Water-tight construction is typically combined with waterproofed materials.
Waterproof liners -- These are the special waterproof barriers described above that are
built right into the boot to protect you from whatever leaks make it through the boot
materials. These liners typically do a great job of keeping you dry. But remember, GoreTex (and the others) don't last forever.
TIP: The waterproofness (or water-resistence) of your hiking boots depends significantly on how
well you treat them. Be sure to follow all care instructions that come with your boots so that they
can perform well and last a long time.
Step #3: Consider the Way the Boots are Constructed
Upper construction
The more seams a boot or shoe has, the higher the risk for leaks and/or blow-outs. Leaking
occurs when water seeps through the needle-holes or spaces between the boot panels. Blowouts occur when general wear, repeated flexing or a snag causes a stitch to break and 2 panels
to separate. In general, the less seams an upper has, the more water-resistant and more durable
it will be.
The connection between the upper and the sole
Hiking boot soles are either stitched or cemented to the rest of the boot.
Stitching - Durable, reliable, can be undone to replace the sole once it has worn down.
Different techniques (Littleway, Norwegian) result in different strengths and stiffnesses.
Cementing - Faster and less expensive than stitching, resulting in lower boot prices. It
hasn't always been reliable, but most modern methods produce durable, lost-lasting
bonds (depending upon the process and specific glue used). Most cemented boots can
now be resoled just like traditional stitch-down models.
Step #4: Test for Fit
Once you've narrowed down your options to a handful of boots or shoes, the best way to decide
between them is to try them on. Don't rely solely on your "regular" shoe size when searching for
the best fitting boots or shoes. One manufacturer's "9" may vary widely from another's (see
Fitting tips:
Begin with a foot measurement - Have an experienced REI salesperson measure both
of your feet using a Brannock device. Use these measurements as your starting point for
trying on boots. If one foot is larger than the other (which is quite common), fit your larger
foot first. You may need to use extra socks or an insert to take up extra space in the other
Pick the right socks - Wear the type of socks and sock liners that you'll be using out on
the trail whenever you try on boots.
Check the initial fit - Lace up the boots and stand up. They should feel snug around the
ball and instep of your foot, but loose enough that flexing your foot forward is not
uncomfortable. Your heel should be held firmly in place. If your foot feels like it's "floating"
inside the boot, try a half size down. If your foot feels cramped or your toes make contact
with the front or sides of the toe box, try the next bigger size.
Take a walk - Take a walk and see how comfortable the boots/shoes are. Check for any
looseness, foot movement and/or heel lift. Good-fitting boots will hold your feet firmly in
place without binding or pinching them. New boots may feels a little stiff at first, but they
should still be comfortable.
After a quick walk across a flat surface, step onto an incline facing downhill (if one is
available) to check for foot slippage. Your feet should not slide forward easily, nor should
you be able to move your heel from side to side. If either of these is possible, try a
smaller (or lower volume) boot. If your toes make contact with the front of the boot
without much forward movement, try a larger size or a different boot.
Investigate your options - Try on a number of boot models before you decide on a
single pair, even if the first pair feels good. Every boot model is built around a different
"last" (standard foot shape), so each one will grab you a little differently.
Boot Care Basics
Keep your boots and trail shoes clean between uses by brushing off dirt and mud (both can ruin
leather over time). Most fabric boots/shoes can be washed on the outside with mild soap and
water (not detergent).
If your boots get drenched, stuff them loosely with newpaper and dry them in a warm place.
Never rush the drying process by placing them near a fire, heater or other heat source.
Boots, especially leather ones, should be conditioned from time to time to maintain your
investment. This is true whether you hike in dry, hot condiitons or wet, temperate ones.
How to Choose the Right Backpacking Stove
Quick Introduction: How Camp Stoves Work
Step #1: Consider the Kinds of Trips You have Planned
To find the right backpacking stove, focus on two things -- the kinds of trips you want to take and
the kinds of meals you want to enjoy.
Try to figure out how many people you'll be cooking for (which will affect how big a stove you'll
need), what kinds of temperatures you'll be cooking in (which may affect the kinds of fuels you
burn) and how complex your meals will be (which will affect how adjustable your stove will have
to be).
Step #2: Choose the Right Size
Backpacking stoves come in a variety of sizes -- from lightweight micro-stoves that fit in your
pocket to two-burner platforms that barely fit in your trunk. In general, stick with the lightest, most
compact model you can find, unless your plans include short trips, big meals and large groups of
To save space and weight in your pack, look for stoves that:
Can be disconnected from their fuel supply - Many stoves can be unhooked from external
fuel bottles for easier storage in your backpack and less chance of breakage.
Fold up/collapse - The legs, base supports and pot holder arms of many backpacking
stoves can be collapsed or folded for easier packing.
Fit inside of cookware - Some stoves are designed to fit inside of popular cook sets. This
can be a great space-saver (be sure to bring a plastic bag to put your stove in so no fuel
spills onto your pots and pans).
Step #3: Consider your Fuel Options
Before you look at specific stove models, take a few minutes to decide which type (or types) of
fuel will work best for you. This will help you narrow down your options:
Butane & butane blends - (Compressed gas)
Convenient, clean-burning and easy to light. Burn hot immediately, do not require priming
(for more information on priming, use the link at the top of this page). Can be adjusted
easily for simmering. Can't spill.
More expensive than other fuel types. You must carry and dispose of the fuel canisters
(most are non-recyclable). Performance may decrease in temperatures below freezing
(blended alternatives - Butane/Propane and Isobutane - work better than straight Butane
in cold conditions. Pure propane works well down to 0ºF. Butane will not work below
Overall review
Great for warm- to moderate-weather campers who want easy adjustability, few hassles
and who don't mind carrying a little extra weight in their packs.
Kerosene - (Liquid)
Inexpensive, easy to find (throughout the world), high heat output, spilled fuel does not
ignite easily.
Somewhat messy (burns dirty, smelly). Priming is required (easier if a different priming
fuel is used), tends to gum up stove parts. Spilled fuel evaporates slowly.
Overall review
A cheap, versatile fuel choice, especially for backpackers who plan on traveling outside
of the United States (where white gas and Butane blends may not be readily available).
Not as clean or easy to deal with as butane or white gas.
White gas - (Liquid)
Inexpensive, easy to find throughout the United States. Clean, easy to light, spilled fuel
evaporates quickly.
Volatile (spilled fuel can ignite quickly), priming is required (fuel from the stove can be
used). Can be hard to find outside of the United States.
Overall review
A great overall performer, perfect for travel throughout North America in just about any
weather conditions. Reliable, inexpensive and efficient.
Denatured Alcohol - (Liquid)
A renewable fuel resource, low volatility. Burns almost silently. Alcohol-burning stoves
tend to have fewer moving parts than other types, lowering the chance of breakdown.
Lower heat output, so cooking takes longer and requires more fuel. Fuel can be hard to
find outside of the US and Canada.
Overall review
A viable, environmentally-friendly option for travel in the US and Canada, especially if you
crave peace, quiet and a slow pace on your backpacking trips.
Unleaded gas - (Liquid)
Very inexpensive, easy to find throughout the world.
Burns dirty/sooty, can lead to frequent stove clogs. Extremely volatile.
Overall review
Usually used as a last resort only. Price and availability make it an attractive option for
backpackers traveling in extremely remote areas.
NOTE: Never use oxygenated gasoline in your backpacking stove. Sold in many parts of the US
in the Winter months, it's additives can destroy rubber stove parts and seals.
Multi-fuel stoves
Many of the backpacking stoves that REI carries are designed to burn more than one type of fuel.
They tend to cost more than single-fuel models, and they can be more difficult to maintain. But if
your plans involve visits to a wide range of destinations, the added flexibility will be worth the
extra cost.
Step #5: Look for a Stove Design that Works for You
Backpacking stoves come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and designs. Once you've decided on a
general size and fuel type, take a look at your options and ask yourself (or your REI salesperson):
How easy is the stove to set up? Does it require assembly every time it's used? If so, is
the assembly easy or complex?
Is the stove sturdy? Is it stable on uneven ground? How hard is it to balance a pot on
If a gas canister is used, is it easy to attach and remove? Can it be detached before it's
completely empty?
How easy is the stove to light? Does it require priming? Can it be primed with fuel from
the stove itself?
How easy is the stove to control? Can the heat output be adjusted easily? Will the stove
How easy is the stove to maintain in the field? Can I handle basic maintenance myself?
Step #6: Consider Performance
Finally, once you've narrowed down your stove choice to a handful of specific models, consider
their overall performance. A good way to do this is with REI's in-store printed comparison chart.
Consider variables like:
Average boiling time - This measures how hot the stove burns.
Water boiled per pint of fuel - This measures how efficient the stove is. It's like
comparing cars based on how many miles-to-the-gallon they get.
Burn time at maximum flame - This measures how long the stove will burn on a given
supply of fuel before it has to be refilled.
Hints for improving your stove's performance:
Use a lid when cooking.
Use a windscreen.
Use a heat-exchanger on trips of more than a few days (to improve fuel economy).
Use alcohol for priming (this will help keep your stove soot-free).
Learn how to clean and maintain your stove properly.
Use a coffee filter to filter all of your liquid fuel before use.
Use the sun or body heat to melt snow (rather than your stove).
How to Choose Backpacking Socks
The socks you wear on the trail can have a significant effect on your backpacking experience.
Like footwear, socks must be chosen carefully to match the kinds of conditions you expect.
Step #1: Consider the Kinds of Trips You Have in Mind
Backpacking socks are designed to provide warmth, cushioning and abrasion resistance in a
variety of conditions. The right sock for you depends on the kinds of trips you have planned and
the weather conditions you expect. Here are the basic categories you have to choose from:
Liners - Sock liners are thin, lightweight wicking socks designed to be worn right next to
your skin. These liners wick sweat away from the surface of your foot to keep you dry and
more comfortable. Liners also limit the amount of abrasion between your outer sock and
your skin. They are designed to be worn under other socks.
Lightweight hiking/backpacking socks - Designed for warm conditions and easy trails,
lightweight backpacking socks stress wicking performance and comfort over warmth.
These socks are thicker, warmer and more durable than liners alone. They also provide
more cushioning. But they are relatively thin so that you can stay comfortable on warm
weather trips. Because most lightweight backpacking socks are made from wicking
materials, they can be worn with or without liner socks.
Midweight hiking/backpacking socks - These socks are designed to provide reliable
cushioning and insulation in moderate to cold conditions. They tend to be thicker and
warmer than lightweight hiking socks. Many models have extra padding built into highimpact areas like the heel and the ball of the foot for maximum comfort. These socks
should be worn with liners.
Mountaineering socks - Mountaineering socks are the thickest, warmest and most
cushioned socks available. They are designed for long trips, tough terrain and cold
temperatures. Usually, mountaineering socks are too thick and warm for basic
backpacking journeys in warm conditions.
Step #2: Consider Your Material Options
Wool - Wool is an extremely popular natural sock material. It is warm, cushioning, and
retains heat when wet. Unfortunately, wool can take a long time to dry and it can be
scratchy next to your skin (NOTE: many new wool options, including mohair, do not have
this problem). It can also wear out quickly if not reinforced with other materials. Wool
blends (combinations of wool and synthetic materials) are extremely popular because
they address many of these problems.
Synthetic insulating materials - REI offers a number of man-made materials designed
to insulate like wool and wick moisture, without the negatives mentioned above. These
materials (Hollofil(R), Thermax(R), Thermastat(R)) trap warmth like wool, but they are
softer on the skin. They also dry more quickly and are more abrasion resistant. These
materials are available in a variety of sock styles and thicknesses.
Silk - Silk is a natural insulator. It's comfortable and lightweight, but not as durable as
other options. It's occasionally used in sock liners for reliable wicking.
Synthetics wicking materials - The synthetic wicking materials (like polypropylene and
Coolmax) used in wicking sock liners are often woven into thicker backpacking socks as
well, to enhance wicking performance.
Cotton - 100% cotton is not recommended as a sock material for backpacking. Cotton
absorbs sweat, dries slowly, provides no insulation when wet and it can lead to
discomfort and blisters out on the trail. However, cotton is extremely comfortable. And
when combined with wool or other wicking and insulating fibers, cotton can be a great
choice for light hiking in summer.
Cushioning materials - Many backpacking socks provide extra cushioning around the heel, the
ball of the foot and the toe area to increase comfort. The padding is created either by increasing
the density of the weave in those areas, or in some cases by weaving long-wearing materials like
acrylic into those areas. This extra padding can be a real foot-saver on hard trips over rough
Support materials - Many of today's hiking socks include a small percentage of either stretch
nylon or Lycra(R) spandex. These elastic materials help socks hold their shape and keep
bunching and wrinkling to a minimum.
Step #3: Take a Test Drive
When possible, take a quick walk in the sock styles you are considering to get a feel for how
much cushioning they have. And be sure to buy the right size--your socks should fit snugly.
Bunched up sock material can make any backpacking trip an uncomfortable one.
How to Choose a Tent
ind. Rain. Cold. Bugs. Dust. Creepy
crawlers. If someone asks you why you feel
the need to carry a tent into the backcountry,
those are 6 good reasons.
Tents also provide a place of privacy in the
middle of wide open spaces, plus an
intangible feeling of security once you're
zipped inside for the night. It's impressive
how much comfort and reassurance we
humans find between a few well-stitched
panels of nylon. Which model is right for
you? Here are some guidelines:
1. Pick a tent equipped to withstand the harshest
conditions you might encounter. Example: If
you're a three-season backpacker who hikes late
into the fall, you might want a four-season tent or
a convertible model.
2. Four-season tents are roughly 10 to 20 percent
heavier than three-season models (typically due
to extra poles). Convertible tents allow you to add
or omit poles and adjust ventilation as conditions
3. Freestanding tents (those that can stand without
the aid of stakes) are very handy. You can move
them easily or lift them to shake out debris. Very
lightweight tents are rarely freestanding.
4. Capacity ratings, assigned by individual
manufacturers, sometimes tend to be optimistic.
A two-person tent may be a tight squeeze for two
large adults and their gear.
5. Use a tarp, ground cloth or footprint to extend the
life of a tent's floor.
Types of Tents
Backpacking tents fall into two general categories: three-season (general backpacking) and four-season
(winter/mountaineering) models. Here's a look at how tents differ:
Lightweight three-season tents are intended for spring, summer and fall usage in temperate climates. They
perform well in wind and rain, though their designs are not suited to handle significant snow loads. A threeseason model won't collapse if two inches of snow fall on it, but 20 inches could be a problem.
Super-sturdy four-season tents usually integrate one or two additional poles into their designs to fortify
walls and help them stand firm against severe wind or heavy snow loads. Winter tents feature some type of
rounded dome design, thus eliminating flat spaces on a tent's rainfly where snow can accumulate. Of
course, these winter/mountaineering tents work just fine during mild conditions. Their extra poles will
make them a touch heavier than their three-season cousins.
Convertible tents are four-season models that can be converted into three-season tents. This usually
involves shedding one or two poles from the tent's four-season design. Models may also offer zippered
panels that can be opened during milder conditions or feature a detachable vestibule.
Warm-weather tents are lightweight shelters, usually designed for one or two people, that feature large
mesh walls for superb ventilation. They can be used in three-season settings, but their special appeal is their
usefulness in warmer, humid climates.
Single-wall tents are designed with the minimalist in mind. Essentially, they are rainflies equipped with a
few vents you can zip open during warmer conditions.
Bivy sacks are minimalist solo shelters that offer little space for anything but you and your sleeping bag.(If
you're a climber and plan to spend nights on steep rock faces where tents would be impractical, a bivy is
definitely the way to go.) If saving weight is your chief priority, a bivy is worth considering. If you like
room to move inside your shelter, look elsewhere. Is a bivy right for you? We offer a separate clinic on
bivy shelters for your consideration.
Sleep screens and tarp tents are ultralight shelter options. Sleep screens, including screen houses, are
useful in warm conditions and offer mesh coverings, some fully enclosed, some not, to keep occupants
shielded from bugs, but not rain. Tarp tents offer minimalist shelter, at a minimal weight, for three-season
Family (or basecamping) tents and shelters can accommodate large groups (between four and six usually,
sometimes more). Dome-style models can be transported into the backcountry, as long as group members
are willing to carry a share of the load; house-like models are intended for campgrounds and basecamps.
A Few Terms Explained
Dome Tents: Most four-season tents involve some form of rounded, geodesic-dome
design. Domes avoid flat spots and shed snow more easily. They stand strong in the
wind and provide generous interior headroom.
Tunnel Tents: Many three-season models use this narrow, linear design, typically
involving a rectangular floor plan. Also called hoop tents, these models use fewer poles,
less fabric and often have wedge-like shapes. Their rainflies, which lie flatter, can collect
snow. A heavy snow load could flatten them.
Freestanding Tents: Domes are freestanding, meaning they do not require stakes in
order to stand up. You can pick up a freestanding tent (it's like a huge beach ball) and
move it to a different location. You can also easily shake it out before you disassemble
and pack it.
Which Type is Right for You?
Questions worth asking:
Q: What times of year will you use your tent?
Winter campers need a four-season tent, period. If you have an Arctic expedition in mind,
consult with people who have already made such trips and get their advice.
If you're a three-season hiker who heads out in March or tries to squeeze in late trips in
October and November, give yourself an extra buffer of security—get a four-season tent
or at least a convertible.
If you're a recreational traveler and do the bulk of your camping between May and
September, choose a three-season model.
Q: How many people usually travel with you?
Do you consistently travel with a partner? You need at least a two-person tent. Are the
two of you large people? You might need to bump up to a 2-to-3-person model or even a
three-person tent.
Does your group size vary? You'll probably need more than one tent to fulfill your needs.
If your budget is tight, buy the size that fits most of your trips; when your group size
changes, rent a tent.
If you're sharing a tent at the end of the day, share the load as you hike. Someone can
carry the poles, another person the rainfly, and so on.
Do you travel solo? If you demand lots of space, look for a compact two-person model. If
you count every ounce, select either a bivy or a very light one-person tent.
Q: Won't a cheap tent from a discount store work just as well as a brand-name model?
Department-store tents are typically mass-produced items that supply less attention to
details. Example: Examine the stitches of a quality tent. You'll find a greater number of
stitches per inch in that tent than you'll find in the discount tent, and you'll often find seam
sealing. This means a stronger tent is at work for you when the weather turns nasty.
Quality tents use high-grade aluminum poles. Bargain tents often rely on fiberglass poles,
which are less shatter-resistant. Top-brand tents often give you more ventilation options
as well.
Inexpensive tents use large panels of coated nylon on their canopy (side walls). That
material is not breathable, so if it's a balmy night, you might swelter inside.
Understanding Tent Specifications
When surveying REI's online selection of tents, you'll find a general description and a list of specifications
that accompany each model. These "specs" look technical, but the information is really quite helpful. Click
here to learn the details behind each entry.
Tent Capacity
Manufacturers classify their tents according to sleeping capacity: solo tents, two-person tents, three-person
tents and so on. You'll also find references to items such as 1-to-2-person tents or a 2-to-3-person model.
To better understand what all this means, click here and we'll "go inside the numbers" to explain some
terms in detail.
Getting a Good Fit
How do you know if a tent is a good fit—physically—for you?
Here's one technique—not perfect, but certainly useful—to help you envision how you might fit into a tent:
Measure your backcountry sleeping pad and use its dimensions as a general guide when you consider a
tent's measurements.
Example: The popular Therm-a-Rest standard model from Cascade Designs is 72" long
and 20" wide. Width is the crucial measurement. To fit two people inside a tent, you will
thus need at least 40 inches of width to feel even marginally comfortable—if you don't
mind sleeping close. If you need a few inches of separation, then add a couple of inches
to your measurement. If you thrash around a lot at night, you might need to add several
Compare your numbers with the floor dimensions provided with each tent. That gives you some idea of
how snug, or spacious, a tent might feel. Floor dimensions, of course, indicate only the maximum width a
tent offers, typically the spot where your shoulders lie. Tents often taper in the foot sections, and walls
angle in toward the ceiling. All of this impacts the amount of space found inside a tent's walls. Roomy tents
are nice, but tend to weigh more.
Tip:—Looking at two-person tents? Consider one that could adapt well to some of your other travel plans.
Maybe you're anticipating future solo hikes, or a long-distance bike trip. If so, a 1-to-2-person model might
be a good choice. If you're a couple and you sometimes invite along a friend or relative, consider a 2-to-3person, or even a three-person model. You'll like the flexibility, plus the extra bit of space, these models
give you.
Additional Considerations
Do you camp often in rainy climates? Take a look at roomier tents, and consider adding a gear loft. That's
basically a piece of interior netting that stretches out, hammock-like, near the ceiling of your tent.
Overnight you can dangle damp items from a loft and hasten their drying process.
A tarp, ground cloth or footprint can help protect the floor of a tent and extend its life. Plus, it gives you a
clean place to fold your tent in the morning.
For some thoughts on ventilation and a list of other helpful tips and reminders, click here.
Does Everybody Need a Tent?
Some hardy souls will argue that a tent is a burdensome luxury. Ultralight advocates point out that a tarp, a
little cord and some ingenuity are all people need to create sufficient shelter in the wilderness.
In many situations, that's a valid point. But then an unexpected overnight weather front blows through, or
skeeters arrive by the thousands, or you're not really sure if a nearby ant hill is inactive after all. A night or
two like this is usually all it takes to convince most recreational hikers that the full enclosure a backpacking
tent provides is worth a little extra bulk and weight in their packs.
Chosen wisely, a tent will add only a modest amount of weight to your load. In return, it will give you the
confidence to know you are equipped to take shelter from just about any rude surprise nature may dish out
during your trip.
Quick Review
Tents serve both a physical and psychological function; they protect you from the
elements and surround you with a sense of security.
Anticipate what awaits you in the backcountry—the weather, number of people in your
party—and seek out a tent equipped to accommodate your most demanding ambitions.
General backpacking (three-season) tents are excellent, lightweight performers;
winter/mountaineering (four-season) tents are good year-round and give you extra
stability during harsh conditions.
How to Choose the Right Backpacking Clothing
The clothes you bring with you on a backpacking trip must perform 2 important jobs. First, they
must protect you from the elements (rain, snow, and wind). Second, they must keep you
comfortable during a variety of activities and weather conditions.
The best way to choose backpacking clothing is to build a "system" of clothing layers that can be
mixed and matched to handle different trips and different conditions.
Some Basic Definitions
Layering is the practice of dressing in a number of lightweight clothing layers instead of 1
or 2 heavier layers. Layered clothing systems are versatile (you can add or remove layers
in response to changing conditions) and efficient (a number of thin layers will be warmer
than 1 or 2 thick layers, and they'll take up less room in your pack).
Certain clothing layers enhance comfort by pulling sweat from the surface of your skin
and transferring it into other clothing layers. This process, called wicking, keeps you dry
and comfortable in warm conditions. It also keeps you warmer in cold conditions by
reducing evaporative and conductive heat loss.
To stay comfortable when temperatures rise or your activity-level increases, you need
clothing layers that let your sweat and body heat escape. A garment's ability to do this is
referred to as its breathability. Breathability is affected by the materials that a clothing
layer is made out of and the design of the layer itself.
Step #1: Consider the Layers You'll Need
Backpacking clothing can be grouped into 4 basic categories: inner layer, mid layer, insulation
layer and outer layer. Each type performs a specific task within a clothing system. Whether or not
you need them depends on your backpacking plans.
Inner layers
Inner layer clothing is worn right next to your skin. Its job is to keep you comfortable by
wicking the sweat from your skin and providing an extra layer of insulation. Inner layer
clothing is usually worn in moderate to cold conditions when a little extra insulation is
needed and the chance of aerobic activity is high. It's available in a variety of thicknesses
for different activities and weather conditions.
Mid layers
Mid layer clothing consists of the items you use every day: shorts, T-shirts, lightweight
pants and long-sleeve shirts. The primary function of mid-layer clothing is to provide
basic insulation and protection in warm conditions. Mid layer items are often worn alone
on short trips in good weather conditions. The pieces you choose should be comfortable,
lightweight and built to last.
Insulation layers
Insulation layer clothing is designed specifically to provide additional warmth. It's typically
worn whenever mid layer and/or inner layer pieces are not warm enough for the current
conditions. The insulation layers you use should be warm, lightweight and as non-bulky
as possible. They should also breathe well to let sweat and body heat escape.
Outer layers
The primary job of outer layer clothing (both tops and bottoms) is to protect you from the
wind, rain and snow. But it needs to be somewhat breathable as well, to let sweat and
body heat escape. Backpackers should always carry protective outer layers.
Step #3: Consider Your Fabric Options
Inner Layers
Cotton - Cotton is comfortable when it's dry, but it absorbs sweat and holds it right next
to your skin (which can lead to significant heat loss). Cotton also takes a long time to dry,
which can cause discomfort. For these reasons, cotton is not recommended for inner
layers used in cold conditions.
Silk - Silk is an effective wicking and insulating material. It's extremely comfortable and
lightweight, but not as durable as the options below. Some silk layers require special care
when washing and drying.
Polypropylene - One of the very first man-made wicking materials, Polypro wicks sweat
away from the skin effectively. Early versions tended to retain odors and become
scratchy after repeated washings. Newer Polypro fabrics have overcome these
MTS 2® (Moisture Transport System) - MTS 2 is a durable, reliable polyester-based
fabric that wicks sweat like polypropylene--without its drawbacks. It's comfortable like
cotton, and it's available in a variety of "weights" for different conditions.
Capilene® - Capilene is another comfortable, reliable polyester-based wicking fabric. It
performs like MTS 2®, with a special chemical treatment to help spread sweat throughout
the fabric so that it evaporates quickly.
Mid Layers
Cotton - Cotton is a common choice for warm-weather backpacking clothing. It's
comfortable, lightweight and it keeps you cool. Cotton is best for warm weather uses
because it takes a long time to dry and is an ineffective insulator.
Nylon - Lightweight, durable and (generally) non-absorbent, nylon is great for
backpacking shorts, pants and shirts. It is available in a variety of styles, for both warm
and cold weather uses. Most modern nylons are soft and comfortable against your skin.
Wicking materials - Some backpackers wear wicking inner layers like MTS 2® and
Capilene® as mid layers. Why not? These layers help you keep dry and comfortable and
they provide good insulation.
Wool - A great natural insulator, wool is perfect for moderate- to cold-weather
backpacking clothes. It's available in full-sleeve shirts, pants, over-shirts, sweaters,
jackets and more. Wool insulates well when wet but it can be somewhat scratchy and/or
Insulation Layers
Wool - Wool is a great natural insulator. It's available in knickers, pants, long-sleeve
shirts, pullovers, sweaters and jackets. It insulates when wet but can take a long time to
dry. Can be heavy/bulky.
Pile/Fleece - These popular man-made insulation materials are available in a wide
variety of styles and thicknesses. They are comfortable, warm (even when wet), fast
drying and lightweight (half as heavy as wool). Pile/fleece products are available in shirts,
pants, vests, jackets, pullovers and sweaters. Traditionally, pile/fleece layers have
provided only minimal protection from the wind. But new pile/fleece garments are
available today with wind- and weather-stopping liners built right in.
Outer Layers
Outer layer clothing can be divided into 3 basic categories (see below). Each has it's own set of
characteristics, and each protects backpackers from precipitation, wind and sweat build-up to
different degrees. To choose the right outer layer clothing, focus on the general category that
sounds best for your needs. Then consider the design features listed at the end of this section to
choose a specific model.
Water-resistant/breathable fabrics (e.g., REI Windpack outerwear)
o Positives: These repel wind and light precipitation while providing excellent
breathability. They tend to be less expensive than other options.
o Negatives: They are not waterproof enough to protect you in harsh weather
conditions or extended periods of rain.
o Typical Uses - Water-resistant/breathable fabrics are perfect for backpackers
who travel in arid and/or warm conditions where good breathability is important
and the chance of heavy precipitation is low. They are popular among
backpackers who plan short trips in good weather and those who enjoy
strenuous activities like trail running.
Waterproof/Non-Breathable Fabrics (e.g., Columbia Sportswear Ibex rainwear)
o Positives: These are completely waterproof, and they're less expensive than
waterproof/breathable fabrics.
o Negatives: They provide very little breathability, which can be extremely
uncomfortable it's hot or if you're working hard on the trail. To let moisture out,
layers using waterproof/non-breathable fabrics have to be cut extremely loose
(like ponchos) or they must have special vents or openings built in to let the heat
and sweat out.
o Typical Uses - Because of the lack of breathability, most backpackers stay away
from waterproof/non-breathable outer layers (unless temperatures are very low
or the chances of heavy precipitation are very high). They are used occasionally
in moderate conditions in inexpensive rain pants and emergency ponchos.
Waterproof/Breathable Fabrics (e.g., REI Elements®, Gore-Tex®)
o Positives: These fabrics are both waterproof and breathable (to a degree). They
are good performers in a wide range of weather conditions.
o Negatives: Even waterproof/breathable fabrics heat up and trap sweat during
strenuous backpacking. Exact performance depends on the specific type of fabric
used, the outside temperature, the amount of activity and other factors.
Waterproof/breathable fabrics are more expensive than other types of outerwear.
o Typical Uses - More and more wilderness enthusiasts are choosing
waterproof/breathable fabrics for their outer layers. These fabrics are comfortable
in a wide variety of situations and conditions. And performance levels keep
improving all the time.
A Note on Outer Layer Design
There is more to choosing the right outer layers than just deciding on a type of fabric to use. You
must also consider the designs features included in different jacket and pant models. When you
start comparing different styles head-to-head, consider the following:
Fit - Outer layers should be roomy enough to fit over your clothing layers but snug
enough to cinch down tight in nasty conditions. They should also allow for a full range of
Access - Full-zip jackets and full-zip pants are easier to get in and out of than pullover
tops or pull-on pants. However, more zippers mean a higher chance of leaks.
Specific Features - Specific features can have a significant effect on an outer layer's
performance and comfort:
o Adjustable Openings - The waist, cuffs and neck should seal tight for bad
weather but open easily for extra ventilation.
o Vents - Vents enhance breathability no matter what type of fabric an outer layer
is made of. Larger vents are typically more effective than small ones, but they
may leak more. Typical vents include under-arm zips, side zips, mesh-lined
pockets and draft flaps.
o Pockets - The more pockets an outer layer has, the easier it will be for you to
store essential gear items. But keep in mind that pockets increase the weight of
the layer. Pockets should be easy to reach, easy to open and close, and wellprotected against leaks.
o Hoods - Any outer layer top you use for backpacking should have a hood to
keep your head dry. Integral (permanently attached) hoods offer the best
resistance against leaks. Hoods that can be rolled up and/or folded away when
not in use are easier to deal with in changing conditions.
o Storm Flaps - Storm flaps cover zippers, pockets and other openings to protect
against leaks. They are commonly found on front zippers, under-arm zips and
external pockets.
o Sealed Seams - Sealed seams are a must for any waterproof outer layer.
They're not necessary for water-resistant ones.
How to Choose a Backpack
ome people need to get out more. Way out,
that is — beyond the limits of a day hike, out to
lovely, lonely places where a person has the
time and space to absorb the deeper
satisfactions of what John Muir described as
"vast, calm, measureless mountain days."
It takes a backpack to get you there. Modern
backpacks, unlike their shoulder-gouging
ancestors that you sometimes still see hanging
in a neighbor's garage, feature intelligent design concepts that provide surprising comfort and
load-carrying efficiency. Such advancements have made the art of self-propelled adventure a
much more agreeable pursuit.
Here are some tips gathered over the years by REI that can help you sort through your
Select Your Style: Internal or External
Long-haul backpacks (suitable for 2-day trips or longer) are known as frame packs, meaning
a metal frame supports the packbag and helps focus the weight where your body can most
effectively carry it — on your hips. Manufacturers offer 2 styles of frame packs: internalframe packs and external-frame packs.
Internal-Frame Packs
Internals feature a narrow, towerlike profile and integrate their framework inside
the pack, behind the shoulder harness. The frame usually consists of "stays," or
flat bars, about an inch wide and 1/8-inch thick. Stays are usually aluminum and
are configured in a V-shape. Alternative frame materials (such as composites)
and stay-alignments (parallel, X-shaped; U-shaped) are sometimes used. Stays
are removable and can be shaped to conform to your torso.
Internals are popular packs with many advantages:
Flexibility. Stays make internals stiff, but not rigid. This allows
the pack to more easily move in harmony with body movements,
a big plus for climbers and skiers.
Balance. Internals hug your body. This holds your equipment
closer to your natural center of gravity and helps you keep your
balance when it counts — for example, while you're scooting
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across a log above a stream.
selection of
Stability. Compression straps are everywhere on an internal.
You use them to cinch down your load and keep individual items
bunched together. This keeps them from shifting and throwing
you off-balance if you make any abrupt moves.
Maneuverability. Because internals feature a slimmer shape, it's easier to swing
your arms freely — another reason why these packs are popular with climbers and
Nordic skiers. This narrow profile also helps hikers whenever they have to squeeze
through tight spots or when they're bushwhacking through thick brush.
Adjustability. Internals use suspension systems (involving the shoulder harness and
hipbelt) that can be adjusted more precisely than external-frame systems.
The downside of internals:
The black hole. Most internals have 1 cavernous main storage compartment, plus a
separate section for a sleeping bag. Other than a lid pocket, nearly everything gets
stuffed into that single, deep compartment. So, if it's necessary to find 1 particular
item during a rest stop, you may have to hunt a while to locate it. Want some packing
tips? Click here.
Hot stuff. You'll sweat more wearing an internal because it rides so close to your
back. The design offers little room for ventilation.
Cost. Internals typically cost more than externals of a similar size.
External-Frame Packs
Externals connect a packbag to a rigid frame made of aluminum tubing.
Externals ruled the backcountry until internal-frame design was introduced in
the late 1970s. Internals have surged in popularity, yet externals are still a great
choice for transporting heavy loads along trails. With an external, the pack's
weight sits more squarely on your hips; with an internal, the back, shoulders and
hips share the load.
The advantages of externals:
Cooler to carry. An external's load does not sit flat against your
back, allowing air to circulate.
Easier to pack. Externals feature at least 2 main compartments
plus several side pockets. You can organize your gear into
"zones" and locate it more easily.
Heavy loads won't sag. They might in an internal, depending
how you pack it. Plus, since your center of gravity sits higher in
an external, it's easier to walk upright.
Cost. You'll pay less for an external.
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selection of
The shortcomings of externals:
Minimal agility. They tend to make you walk more stiffly, making externals
cumbersome when you try to walk off-trail. Attempting to scramble up rocks or hop
across a boulder field while wearing one is difficult, even unpleasant.
Poor traveling companions. Sometimes you can squish a loaded internal into a car
truck or back seat; an external frame won't give an inch. Plus, in the luggagetransport systems of airports, externals sometimes can take a pounding.
Rucksacks are a third category of overnight packs. These are usually frameless packs (some models
include a single stay) that can store between 2,500 and 3,500 cubic inches of gear, enough for 1 or 2
nights — or more, if you are an ultralight specialist. These are essentially overgrown daypacks and
often feature lightly padded backs. They are popular with skiers, trail-runners, rock scramblers and
Which Is Best for Me?
The answer depends on your hiking style and the types of places you explore most often.
Which people are better suited for an internal?
Off-trail (cross-country) hikers covering rough terrain
Why? The snug fit of an internal allows your load to move with you, helping you stay balanced and
agile on uneven terrain. Recreational backpackers have also grown to prefer internals, valuing their
comfort and versatility. Internals have emerged as very popular general-purpose packs, typically
outselling externals by a sizable margin.
Which people are better suited for an external?
Beginning hikers
Hikers hauling heavy loads over easy to moderate trails and terrain
Why? Externals appeal to juniors and beginners because they cost less. For people toting monster
loads, the frame becomes an efficient extension of your upper thighs and pelvic region — an area of
stout bones and thick muscle groups that are well-suited to the task of bearing the weight of a
backpack. Are externals becoming obsolete? Don't count on it. Tradition is on their side, and they're a
great bargain.
What Features Should I Look For?
Hipbelt: Generously padded hipbelts (unlike the thin cloth waistbelts found on Sixties-era backpacks)
represent a major advancement in pack design and greatly enhance your ability to carry tonnage into
the backcountry.
Most consist of various grades of foam: open-cell foam for cushioning, closed-cell or molded foam for
firmness. The hipbelt should straddle your "iliac crest" — the 2 prominent bones on the front of your
hips. This is the area where your pelvic girdle begins to flare out, providing the hipbelt with a stable,
fortified foundation.
Some packs offer interchangeable belts, permitting a more customized fit, and even belts where the
angle of the fit can be adjusted. The hipbelt's padded ends should not touch; you need some space to be
able to cinch the belt securely. On the other hand, don't tighten a belt excessively. Your hips could be
irritated if you do.
Internal-frame models include a lumbar pad. This large pad should offer cushioning yet should not feel
spongy. If it does, it could break down quickly under a load.
Framesheet: Some internal packs place a thin but stiff sheet of plastic between you and the packbag.
Often this is a material known as HDPE, or high-density polyethylene. This adds stiffness to the frame
without adding much weight. Plus, it prevents objects in your pack from poking you in the back.
Internals sometimes include some type of mesh or foam panel that rests near the middle of your back.
This is an attempt to separate the pack from your back and encourage some air flow between the two. It
offers modest help. Here is a trail-tested truth: Count on having a sweaty back if you tote an internal.
Suspension system: This involves the shoulder straps (padded and contoured), load-lifting straps, a
sternum strap and belt-stabilizer straps. These items, and tips for adjusting them, are discussed in our
clinic Fitting a Backpack. So-called ladder suspensions typically allow you to reposition the shoulder
harness in 1-inch (or, preferably, smaller) increments. The more fine-tuning a pack permits, the better
the fit.
Packbags: Common materials are packcloth (a sturdy grade of nylon) and Cordura, a burly fabric with
a brushed finished. Both resist abrasion and are coated for water resistance. Cordura is tougher and a
bit heavier. Ballistics nylon, a strong, lightweight material, has popped up in newer pack designs and
seems to work well. Internals usually offer an "extendable collar" or "spindrift collar" — additional
nylon with a drawstring closure that allows the main compartment to stretch higher and hold extra gear.
Detachable pocket: Many internals allow you to detach the "floating lid" pocket from the pack and
convert it into a fanny pack or daypack. That's a handy feature when you choose to make day hikes
from a backcountry basecamp.
Water-bottle holders/hydration pockets: Externals offer plenty of side pockets where you can stash a
water bottle. Internals rarely do, although several now offer elasticized mesh "holsters" on the side
where you can keep small bottles handy. Hydration systems (water reservoirs, or bladders, connected
to a long sipping hose) have boomed in popularity. Many high-end packs now offer such systems.
Extras and attachments: Lash points allow you to attach even more gear to your pack if you feel the
need. Climbers and early-season hikers should look for ice-axe loops, daisy chains (a series of small
loops where you can dangle gear, such as carabiners) and crampon patches. A so-called shovel
pocket holds items tight against the back of your pack; it's a good place to stash wet things. All of
these extras, of course, add weight to a pack.
Loading options: Most internals are "top-loaders," where all gear passes through one big hole at the
top of the packbag's main compartment. This requires you to keep quick-access items near the top.
Some internals now provide zippered, slit-like openings on the sides of their main compartments. This
allows you to stash smaller items (water bottles, for instance) lower in your pack but still have quick
access to them. Most externals, meanwhile, are "panel-loaders." In this configuration, a zipper follows
a U-shaped track along one side of a compartment. When unzipped, the compartment's side panel falls
away like a flap to give you wide access to the compartment's interior.
Packs for women: Several packs, both internal and external models, have been modified with
narrower shoulder straps, smaller hipbelts and shorter torso lengths.
Packs for travel: Travel packs offer you the ability to conceal and protect a pack's suspension system
when using it on public transportation. Typically, the suspension systems are not quite as substantial as
regular internal-frame packs.
Packs for kids: External-frame packs are traditionally the first choice for a youngster's first pack.
Some options: The REI Long Trail Jr., the Long Trail Regular and Long Trail Large; the JanSport
Scout II and the Kelty Yukon. Midsize daypacks may be sufficient if an adult can transport the child's
sleeping bag. If your child needs to be self-sufficient, one of the beginning externals mentioned, all
under $100, represent good choices.
Packs for dogs: Even your pooch can carry a pack. Dog packs are sized according to a dog's weight.
How Much Can I Expect to Spend?
REI offers some external-frame packs for less than $100; a few high-end internals sell for nearly $500.
Most internals cost between $200 and $300. Externals rarely exceed $200.
If you regularly visit the backcountry and anticipate at least 1 overnight trip per year, invest in a quality
pack with a capacity that matches your ambitions. Inexpensive discount-store backpacks are poorly
made, rarely last, have inadequate padding and can be miserable to wear. An uncomfortable pack can
ruin an otherwise beautiful outing.
Consider renting a pack before buying your first backpack. It will help you become better acquainted
with how a pack fits and performs. A good rental shop such as REI's will adjust a pack to conform to
your body shape. Nearly every REI store includes a rental shop and offers at least 1 REI-brand
internal- and external-frame pack. Call your nearest REI store for details.
What's the Right Capacity?
As the phrase goes, your numbers may vary. But here's a general guide for internals:
Up to 3,000 cubic inches: Good for day hiking or a 1-night trip in warm weather where your supplies
will be minimal.
3,000-4,000 cubic inches: Enough space for 1- or 2-night trip. You can go even farther if you team up
with a partner who could help carry the load of shared items.
4,000-5,000 cubic inches: Generally good for up to 3 days of overnight camping.
5,000-6,000 cubic inches: Can accommodate up to 6 days of overnight camping. The lower end of this
range is good for most backpackers. Don't buy too large a backpack, though, if you don't anticipate
needing the space. The more compact and lightweight your load, the better.
6,000-plus cubic inches: For long hauls lasting a week or more.
Keep in mind: Capacity figures for internal and external packs vary significantly.
Sleeping-bag storage accounts for the discrepancy. Internals carry sleeping bags in a
special compartment behind the hipbelt, and synthetic bags can consume 2,000 or
more cubic inches of a pack's stated capacity. With externals, bags are usually
strapped to the underside of the packbag. This does not influence the pack's capacity
By the numbers: Not every manufacturer measures cubic inches the same way. So
one company's measurement of 4,000 cubic inches may differ a bit from another
company's calculation.
Weight: Internals tend to be a touch lighter, but the differences are minimal. Large
packs can weigh up to 8 pounds. That's 8 pounds on your back before you add any
gear! This should remind you to buy a pack that fits your ambitions. If you hike only
modest distances, you don't need a monster pack.
How Do I Know If It Will Fit?
Fit is crucial. Follow the guidelines detailed in our clinic, Fitting a Backpack. DO NOT SKIP THIS
The clinic will offer instruction on:
Measuring your torso
Selecting a pack size appropriate for your torso length
Custom-fitting a pack to your body
Interpreting REI's product specification charts
What Else I Should Know?
As our fitting clinic points out, people may be the same height yet have different torso
lengths. Make a backpack purchase based on your torso length.
How do you hoist a heavy backpack onto your back? Study the tips found in our
Packing a Backpack clinic.
If a pack feels burdensome while you walk, consider porters in Nepal who still
transport large loads on their backs using a tump line — a long strap of fiber that
wraps around the load, then is worn across the forehead.
Quick Review
Internal-frame packs, with their body-hugging design and low center of gravity, are ideal for any
outdoor activity — mountaineering, skiing, scrambling and hiking on- or off-trail. They offer you good
balance and more freedom of movement. Internal packs are the popular choice of most outdoor
External-frame packs are good choices for carrying heavy loads over easy to moderate terrain,
primarily trails. Their rigid design makes you walk more stiffly and is not the best for rock-hopping or
other types of cross-country travel. They cost less than internals.
Rucksacks are, in essence, extra-large, frameless daypacks that can accommodate enough gear for a
lightweight overnight trip.
Fit is crucial. Make sure you review our Fitting a Backpack clinic and make the effort to have your
pack customized for your torso.
How to Choose Rainwear
our outer shell does more than keep off rain. Rainwear also protects you from wind, snow and cold.
Different garment styles, fabrics and construction are available to suit a wide variety of needs.
1. Your choice of rainwear depends on expected
weather and climate, your planned activities and
your budget.
2. The main fabric choices for rainwear are
waterproof/breathable, waterresistant/breathable, and waterproof/nonbreathable.
3. Waterproof/breathable fabrics, available in
different weights, are the most versatile fabrics.
4. Features such as vents, zippers and linings can
add to your comfort.
5. Other considerations include a garment's style
and cut, plus how well it packs.
Consider Your Needs
Choose rainwear appropriate for your outdoor plans. How and where will you be using it? Anticipate the
most extreme conditions you might encounter and plan accordingly. Will you be in a canoe, waiting for the
fish to bite? Hiking or running a trail? Visiting a rainforest? Skiing or climbing in a snowstorm? Walking
around town?
Begin your search for the right rainwear by considering all of the following:
Temperatures you expect to encounter most often
Amount and type of precipitation you anticipate
Types of activities where you'll use your rainwear
Consider Fabric Choices
Fabric affects the performance and comfort of your outer layer. Rainwear fabric falls into three basic
Because water vapor is able to pass through the fabric, waterproof/breathable shells are appropriate for the
widest range of activities and weather conditions. Such fabrics are not 100 percent waterproof or perfectly
breathable, but they do an impressive job of repelling water while allowing water vapor to escape as you
work up a sweat.
Typical Uses—Waterproof/breathable fabric can be found in a variety of garments—technical parkas for
skiing and mountaineering, more casual rainwear for hiking or around-town use.
Positives—Waterproof/breathable layers are an excellent choice for a wide range of weather conditions and
activities. Their combination of breathability and moisture protection means that you can buy a single layer
for everything from summer backpacking to backcountry skiing.
Negatives—Even waterproof/breathable fabrics have their limits. Exact performance depends on the
specific type of waterproof/breathable fabric used, the outside temperature, your activity level and other
factors. Waterproof/breathable fabrics are more expensive than other types of outerwear.
Examples—There are two types of waterproof/breathable fabrics: laminates and coated fabrics. Both are
very effective. A membrane such as Gore-Tex®, REI Elements® or Marmot MemBrain™ is laminated to a
base nylon or polyester fabric. Or a waterproof/breathable coating is applied. Coated, waterproof/breathable
fabrics include Hydroseal®, Columbia Sportswear Omni Tech Ceramic™ and Lowe Triple Point®
Ceramic. All of these fabrics also have a durable water-replellent finish (or DWR) on the outside that
causes water to bead up and roll off.
Water Resistant/Breathable
These shells serve as breathable outer layers for mild weather, light precipitation and high activity level.
They're made of tightly woven fabrics (such as mini ripstop nylon) that block the wind, and they're also
treated with a durable, water-resistant (DWR) outer finish to make water bead and roll off.
Typical Uses—Water-resistant/breathable fabrics are perfect for anyone who needs weather protection
during strenuous outdoor activities such as running, cycling or Nordic skiing. They're also appropriate in
warm conditions where breathability is important and the chance of heavy precipitation is low.
Positives—Water-resistant/breathable layers repel wind and light precipitation while providing excellent
breathability to keep you cool when your body heats up. They tend to be lighter, less bulky and less
expensive than other outer layers.
Negatives—They are not adequately weatherproof to protect you in harsh conditions or during extended
periods of rain.
Examples—This rainwear is typically made of lightweight polyester or nylon, which is tightly woven to
keep out wind and light drizzle while allowing water vapor to escape. The fabrics have a durable water
repellent (or DWR) finish that causes water to bead up and roll off before it can be absorbed.
Typically made of a durable, polyurethane-coated nylon or PVC, these economical shells are water- and
windproof, making them ideal for light activity in heavy precipitation.
Typical Uses—Waterproof/non-breathable layers are most commonly used during low-energy activities
and when the chance of heavy precipitation is high. Because they're so affordable, waterproof/nonbreathable fabrics are also used occasionally in moderate conditions. Examples include ponchos and vented
rain suits.
Positives—Waterproof/non-breathable layers offer the ultimate protection from rain and wind. They are
more durable and less expensive than most other outer layer options.
Negatives—Non-breathable layers can get extremely uncomfortable with even moderate exercise and
outdoor temperatures. The moisture and heat that your body produces cannot pass through the fabric itself
so these layers must be cut extremely loose (ponchos, for instance) or they must have generous vents to
allow body heat and sweat to escape. This type of rainwear is generally heavier and bulkier than other
Examples—PVC and polyurethane-coated nylon jackets, pants and ponchos typically make up this type of
Consider Design Features
There's more to choosing rainwear than simply deciding on the right type of fabric. The cut of the garment
and features such as vents and zippers also contribute to its overall function. Consider the following when
making your rainwear choice:
Parka, Jacket, Anorak or Poncho—Full-zip jackets or parkas are easier to put on and take off than
anoraks (pullover jackets). However, more zippers mean a higher risk of leaks. Parkas cover the hips for
better overall protection, but shorter-cut jackets typically pack down smaller and provide ample coverage
when paired with rain pants. Ponchos are inexpensive, waterproof and allow plenty of ventilation.
Full-Zip or Pull-On Pants—While more expensive than pull-on types, rain pants with full
side zippers allow quick changes on the trail, opening wide for boots or shoes. Pull-on rain
pants can provide better protection in continued heavy rain. Again, fewer zippers mean
fewer chances for leaks. Some feature ankle zips to allow easier changes.
Hoods—Integral (permanently attached) hoods offer the best resistance against leaks. Hoods
that can be rolled up or folded away when not in use are less bulky.
Elastic cords with toggles that can adjust the hood around your face can greatly increase comfort and
visibility. Some rainwear styles have hoods with stiffened visors, and some even have brims that can be
shaped to fit better. Look for adjustment tabs on the back of the hood to allow for better fit and visibility.
Chin Guards—Chin guards are fleece or knit synthetic fabric linings on the inside of the collar that protect
your face from zipper abrasion and the cold, wet and frost that can build up from freezing breath.
Pockets—The more pockets an outer layer has, the easier it will be for you to store essential gear items.
But keep in mind that pockets increase the weight of the layer and can result in more leaks. Pockets should
be easy to reach, easy to open and close, and well protected against leaks. Some jackets feature a Napoleon
pocket, a vertically zipped pocket that allows you to assume the posture of Napoleon who often posed with
his hand inside his jacket. We're not sure about Napoleon's rationale. Today, the pocket is designed to
secure small items where they can be easily accessed.
Linings—Free-hanging nylon or polyester linings are often used to protect waterproof/breathable fabrics
from wear and tear. Mesh linings weigh less and breathe better than solid linings but don't offer as much
protection. Some outer layers (like 3-ply Gore-Tex®) have lining materials that are attached right to the
inside face of the outer layer fabric, eliminating the need for a separate, free-hanging liner. More technical
jackets feature moisture-wicking linings for comfort during high-energy activities.
Sealed Seams—Sealed seams are a must for any waterproof outer layer, since they keep water from
seeping through sewing holes. Sealed seams are not necessary for water-resistant layers. Some
manufacturers, including those making Gore-Tex® garments, seal their seams at the factory. Others
recommend that you apply seam sealer at home, although this is not as common as factory sealing.
Vents—Vents enhance a garment's ability to breathe, no matter what type of fabric is used in its
construction. The larger the vent, the better the airflow, but the greater the risk of leaks. Typical vents
include under-arm zips, mesh-lined chest pockets that double as vents, and mesh shoulder yokes with draft
flaps across the upper back.
Storm Flaps—Storm flaps cover zippers, pockets and other openings to protect against leaks. They are
commonly found on front zippers, underarm zips, full-zip pants and external pockets.
Technical Design Features
Some rainwear is specifically designed for alpine sports or cold, wet conditions. Look for the following if
your planned activities include climbing, mountaineering, skiing or snowshoeing:
Fabric Reinforcements—prevent wear and tear at the seat, knees, elbows
or shoulders from pack straps or contact with rocks or snow.
Articulated Elbows and Knees—allow excellent range of motion.
Scuff Guards—protect fabric on the inside edges of pant legs from skis or
Longer Sleeves—keep arms covered while reaching with climbing tools.
Shorter Hems—allow easy access to the climbing harness.
Drawcord Hem or Powder Skirt—seals out wind, snow and rain
How to Choose a Sleeping Bag
On a cool evening in an unfamiliar place, a good sleeping bag seems to work like magic.
Slip inside one after a few post-sundown shivers have rattled your body and, within
minutes, the chill in your bones is replaced by a warm glow. It's a sweet sensation that assures you of a
comfortable night's sleep.
Here are some tips to help you make a smart choice when selecting your own sleeping bag.
1. Match your bag's comfort rating with the coldest
nighttime temperatures you expect to
encounter—and maybe even exceed that number
for little security.
2. Bags using down insulation are lighter (providing
a higher "warmth-tp-weight" ratio) than bags
using synthetic fill. They also compress into
smaller shapes and last longer.
3. Synthetic-fill bags can provide some insulation
even when wet, and they dry out fairly quickly.
Plus, for the same temperature rating, they cost
less than down bags.
4. A bag's shape matters. Mummy-style bags
insulate most effectively and are your best choice
for colder, high-elevation conditions; rectangular
bags give you more room to change sleeping
positions but offer more space that your body
must heat up.
5. A good sleeping pad is essential. Your body
weight compresses a bag's insulation when you
lie on it, so you need a reliable buffer between,
your bag and the cold ground.
How Do Sleeping Bags Work?
Sleeping bags keep you warm by trapping and holding a layer of "dead" (non-circulating) air next to your
body. This air, which is warmed by your body heat, forms a barrier between you and colder air or cold
When evaluating bags, consider these key factors:
Comfort rating
Insulation (down or synthetic fill)
Size when compacted
Personal sleeping tendencies (are you, for example, a "cold sleeper"?)
Comfort Rating
A sleeping bag's temperature or "comfort" rating identifies the most extreme temperature the bag is
designed to accommodate. When you hear a bag described as a "+20 bag," it suggests most users should
remain comfortable if the air temperature drops no lower than 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Are such ratings infallible? No. Humans all have different metabolic rates, and no industry standards exist
that uniformly determine sleeping bag comfort ratings. Instead, each manufacturer assigns a rating to its
bags based on its own research. Therefore, use these numbers as a guide, not a guarantee. If you have
trouble deciding between two bags, it's not a bad idea to select one that offers a little more warmth than you
think you might need.
Many factors affect your ability to keep warm inside a sleeping bag:
The insulating pad beneath your bag (when sleeping on frosty ground at high elevation,
you need a full-length pad to keep you separated from the cold; when sleeping on snow
or frozen ground, two pads are recommended)
The presence/absence of a tent (a tent or bivy shelter traps an extra layer of dead air,
warming it by up to 10 degrees)
Your metabolism; you might be a "cold sleeper" (and thus one who prefers extra
insulation when sleeping) or a "warm sleeper" (someone who kicks the covers off at
Your gender (women frequently prefer bags with lower temperature ratings since they
tend to "sleep colder" than men)
Clothing worn while inside the bag (dry long underwear and clean socks are good
choices on cold nights, plus they help keep body oils off your bag; a cap and neck gaiter
keeps body heat from radiating away; fleece pants and jackets help on colder-thanexpected evenings)
Adjustments you make while in the bag (keep the bag zipped up and the hood cinched
on cold nights; be careful to not breathe into the bag, since moisture has a negative effect
on the insulation)
Food in your stomach (the process of digestion helps produce warmth)
Hydration (if you're not well hydrated the food won't help much)
Even experienced campers and backpackers can be surprised by unexpectedly cold overnight conditions,
particularly during trips in the spring and fall. It's smart to be prepared.
Tip—To be ready for those extra chilly nights, select a bag with a temperature rating that slightly exceeds
the low end of the temperature range you expect to experience. If a +20° F bag sounds right for you, a +10°
bag would probably work well, too. On warm nights, you can always vent a bag (by using the double
zipper to open the area near your legs) or simply drape it over you, unzipped. It never hurts to be a little
Recognizing that comfort ratings are merely general guides, REI organizes sleeping bags in the following
Bag Type
Comfort Rating (°F)
Summer Season
+35° and higher
3-Season Bag
+10° to +35°
Cold Weather
-10° to +10°
-10° and lower
Please note: Even in summer, a +35° bag may leave you feeling chilly when sleeping in the high country. If
you think of yourself exclusively as a warm-weather camper, yet plan to routinely camp at higher
elevations (3,000 feet and up), choose a bag with a comfort rating at least in the 20s.
Down or Synthetic Insulation?
The insulation or "fill" inside a sleeping bag largely determines a sleeping bag's:
Weight (and thus its "warmth-for-weight" ratio)
Down is the wispy, fluffy undercoating found just beneath the outer feathers of geese and ducks. This
natural fiber is an extraordinary insulator. Goose down is preferred to down from ducks, prized because it is
believed its plumes offer a higher "fillpower" (explained below).
Down's positives include:
It offers tremendous warmth for surprisingly little weight (thus offering a superior "warmthto-weight" ratio).
It can be compacted into very small sizes.
Its effectiveness outperforms synthetic insulation by years—even decades.
Down, though, does have a downside:
If it gets wet, it is of no value until it dries—and in the field, that can take a long time.
It is more expensive (keep in mind, though, that its resistance to deterioration makes it an
outstanding long-term value).
Down is graded according to fill power—meaning the number of cubic inches one ounce of down will
displace. The higher the number, the better the insulation.
Synthetic Materials
Synthetic materials are basically plastic threads (extruded polymers, to be technical). The threads are most
commonly a continuous filament (a long, single strand). They can also be arranged in short "staples" up to
four inches long. Usually the threads are hollow, reducing their weight and enabling them to trap more air.
The advantages of synthetic fill include:
It still provides some insulation when wet; plus it dries fairly quickly.
It's less expensive than down.
It's non-allergenic.
The shortcomings of synthetic fill are:
It's bulkier than down (so it takes up more space when you're carrying it).
It's heavier (it takes more weight to get the same warmth down provides).
The filaments gradually degrade over time.
The insulating "batts" of filaments are stiffer than down and do not drape over the
contours of your body as effectively.
Which is Right for You?
Down works well for just about everyone except people who frequently find themselves in rainy
Synthetic insulation is a good choice for kids and newcomers to camping and backpacking. It costs less
than down and dries out relatively quickly if it gets wet.
Many women's bags are cut to accommodate a woman's body shape and preference for extra insulation.
Down always wins in terms of weight, compressibility, warmth and durability. Yet the value and
performance of synthetic bags makes them very popular. Synthetic bags are improving each new model
year, and they're champs when rain is a threat or cost is a factor.
What about length? Do you need a "regular" or "long" model? The general rule is as follows: If you are no
taller than 6 feet, choose a "regular" length bag. If you are up to 6-feet-6, you want a "long" bag.
Why You Should Pack a Tarp/Ground Cloth
You already have a tent. So why is it a good idea to also carry a tarp?
Most campers and hikers today carry a tarp as an added layer of protection for their tent floors.
Tarps offer other benefits as well. Here's what's available:
Types of Tarps
Coated Nylon: A sheet of urethane-coated nylon, either taffeta or oxford, a thicker grade. Taffeta
is the material used for most tent floors.
Polyethylene: A woven, laminated, waterproof plastic
sheet that is resistant to mildew and rot. It's tougher than
nylon, but stiffer and a touch heavier — the type of
material often used to cover woodpiles or boats in dry
o Note: Both nylon and polyethylene tarps are
rectangular (starting at 6' by 8') and come with
grommets (small, reinforced metal holes) in the
"Footprints": These are custom-trimmed nylon ground
cloths created by tent manufacturers; each model is cut to
match the precise floor plan of an individual tent.
Footprints usually include attachments (elastic loops, for
instance) that connect to the main tent.
Shop REI's selection of
Uses for Tarps
As low-tech tents: Tarps originally found their way into the backcountry as minimalist
shelters. When combined with some cord and a couple of well-spaced trees, a tarp is
transformed into the chief building block of the venerable tube tent — the original outdoor
home used by hikers and scouts throughout the mid-20th century. Ultralight hikers today
still use tarps in this manner.
As lightweight weather breaks: Tarps are often deployed at backcountry camps
(particularly at multi-night base camps) to shelter the camp kitchen. Rigged by cord to
tree limbs and trunks, they serve as single-wall rain shields, wind buffers or sun screens.
As tent-floor protection: Backpackers began abandoning tarp shelters for fully enclosed
tents decades ago. Tarps, in turn, evolved into "ground cloths" — thin but useful barriers
that separate the bottom of your tent floor from the dusty, irregular earth. Admittedly, a
sheet of nylon or plastic can do little to prevent a jagged object from poking through the
tarp or tent floor. (You must clear away such things when you inspect each campsite.)
But a tarp/ground cloth can take the brunt of any mild tent-floor abrasion caused by
movement inside your tent. A tent floor will simply last longer if given an extra layer of
Additional benefits:
o When breaking camp, a ground cloth offers you a clean surface where you can
fold and roll your tent.
Most ground-level condensation that forms overnight sticks to the tarp (which is
closer to the ground), not the tent. This helps keep your tent dry; you can live
with a little moisture on your tarp.
If it's raining when you want to set up your tent, try rigging your tarp as a
temporary awning over the spot where you want to place your tent. That will help
shield your tent's canopy until you get the rainfly in place.
Tarp Tips
If you're using a rectangular tarp as a ground cloth, fold any extra material under the
tent's floor to avoid collecting rain. This is one of the beauties of footprints — no excess
material to fret over.
Try to keep the wind behind you while you work with a tarp. Otherwise, it may keep
slapping you in the face. If you're rigging it as a slanted awning (to serve as a kitchen
shelter, perhaps), angle the lower end into the wind so the wind blows over it, not into it.
If your tarp loses a grommet, find a small stone, In the corner where the grommet is
missing, wrap a small amount of tarp fabric around the stone, then tie it off with a piece of
cord. You can then use that nub as an attachment spot for a guy line.
Left-behind tarp material has been a discouraging backcountry litter problem for years. If
your tarp gets shredded somehow, do your part to keep the wilderness as you found it —
pick up the pieces and pack them out.
Minimum-Impact Travel
Wilderness lands are special places. Accordingly, they require special treatment from human visitors in
order to preserve the qualities that make them so attractive.
Human intrusions and carelessness can alter a natural landscape for generations. One of the most valuable
skills you can learn is the ability to "tread lightly" as you explore our planet's mountains, coastlines,
grasslands and deserts.
Several articles in the Camp/Hike section of REI's Learn & Share amplify the leave-no-trace principles of
wilderness travel endorsed by the National Outdoor Leadership School. We summarize those points, and
mention a few others, in this list:
Pack out what you pack in. It's not a cliché; it's the first commandment of responsible
backcountry travel. Please don't leave litter behind, not even an orange peel. Please.
Behave like you're a guest in a good friend's home. You wouldn't leave used tissue
paper on the floor of a friend's house; likewise, pick up after yourself in the backcountry.
Don't snap off branches of living things; don't make a racket; don't trample the flowers.
Make it your goal to disturb your surroundings as little as possible.
Stay on established trails. When traveling cross-country (off trail), choose to walk on
rock or snow rather than soil. Spread out so you don't wear a groove in trail-less terrain.
Never cut switchbacks on trails.
Avoid hiking on muddy trails. If you encounter mud, walk through it, not around it. Your
boots are built to handle it.
If you visit the desert, learn to identify cryptobiotic soil. It looks like dark crust, but it's
very valuable to a desert ecosystem. Avoid stepping on it. In seconds one footprint can
destroy a natural soil-stabilizing process that involves years of imperceptible growth.
Camp in established campsites whenever possible. Choose a location that conceals
your presence from the sight of others.
Dispose of human waste far (at least 200 yards) from water sources and trails.
Use a camp stove rather than building fires.
Keep your food away from wildlife, and never feed animals intentionally; it alters their
natural foraging habits.
Take responsibility for your actions. Think of the overall good of the area, and those
who will follow you. Your decisions will impact how others are able to enjoy the area you
are visiting.
Take time to do it right. Minimum-impact backpacking techniques can take a little extra
time and effort. Just keep reminding yourself that the payoff—a more enjoyable
wilderness experience for everyone—is worth it. Make it your goal to Leave No Trace.
How to Layer Outerwear
Staying comfortable outside is a matter of dressing to outwit Mother Nature. It's a balancing act between
the climate, your activity level, exposure time and tolerance to heat and cold. Choosing the right clothing
and layering it properly can make the difference between a pleasant outdoor experience and an
uncomfortable (or even dangerous) situation.
1. Layering clothing is the best way to ensure
comfort in the outdoors; it allows you to make
quick adjustments based on your activity and the
2. Each layer has a function: the innermost layer
(against your skin) manages moisture; the middle
layer insulates you from the cold; the outer layer
shields you from wind and precipitation.
3. Fabrics that either pull moisture from your skin or
retain warmth when damp are effective at
maintaining your body temperature.
4. A variety of outer layers are available, including
waterproof/breathable rainwear, water resistant
wind shells and those with insulation built in.
5. New single layer outerwear (examples: REI
One™ Jacket, Mistral Schoeller Jacket) has
begun to change the rules of the layering game.
These single layers do the jobs typically
performed by both a shell and an insulation layer
in a traditional layering system.
The Outdoor Mantra: Layering, Layering, Layering
Layering. The concept applies to any outdoor activity. The trick is to keep your core body temperature
consistent no matter what your activity level (vigorous hiking, climbing or enjoying a campfire) or the
outside conditions (rain, icy wind or snow).
There are three basic stages in layering: an inner, moisture-management layer, an insulating middle layer
and a weatherproof outer layer. You make adjustments depending on the degree of exertion and the outside
conditions. The ability to peel off layers as you heat up and add them when you cool off is the key to this
While layering has long reigned supreme as the best way to dress for the outdoors, another option is now
available: single-layer garments. These high-tech garments (examples: The REI One and Mistral Schoeller
jackets) do the jobs performed by both the outer and insulating garments in a traditional layering system. In
addition, they provide exceptional levels of breathability and minimize the need to stop and remove or add
layers. Learn more about single-layer technology.
Your First Layer: Moisture Management
More than any other, the moisture-management layer influences how you regulate your body temperature.
Have you ever worn a cotton T-shirt under your raincoat while you hiked or walked briskly? Even though
you weren't getting wet from rain, you probably felt wet and cold.
Trapped inside your clothing, perspiration can leave you chilled, no matter how well your outer shell fends
off rain and snow. Cotton does an effective job of retaining perspiration where it can leave you feeling
Your next-to-skin layer should be materials other than cotton. Silk, wool and synthetic wicking fabrics such
as REI MTS®, Patagonia® Capilene®, Polartec® PowerDry® and CoolMax® polyester work to transport
perspiration from the skin. Rather than absorbing moisture, these fabrics disperse it on the outer surface,
where it can evaporate. The result: You stay warmer even when you sweat.
Examples: Keeping dry is important for maintaining a cool body temperature in the summer and avoiding
hypothermia in the winter. Base layers can be anything from briefs and sports bras to long underwear sets
(tops and bottoms) to tights and sport shirts. Thermal underwear is available in light-, mid- and expeditionweights. You can select the right weight to match your activity and the temperature.
Some garments are designed to fit very snugly for better performance, range of motion and easier layering.
For hot weather, the wicking layer often consists of a loose fitting, mesh garment.
See all our base layering options.
Your Middle Layer: Insulation
The insulating layer helps you retain heat by trapping air next to your body. Polyester fleece vests, jackets
and tights are good examples of insulation suitable for outdoor activities. They not only trap air but are also
made with moisture-wicking fibers.
Insulating layers keep you warm by holding in body heat. Fibers such as wool, polyester fleece and down
are all excellent insulators. Wool sweaters and shirts offer reliable warmth and insulate when wet, though
they are bulkier than their synthetic cousins.
Polyester fleece such as Polartec® and insulation such as Thinsulate® provide lightweight warmth for a
variety of conditions. For extreme cold, dry conditions, goose down can't be beat. It must be kept dry to
maintain its insulating ability, however.
Fleece is a favorite insulation material because it's lightweight, breathable and insulates even when wet.
Plus, it dries faster and has a higher warmth-to-weight ratio than wool.
Like thermal underwear, fleece garments are available in three weights for different uses:
Lightweight for aerobic activity or mild climate
Midweight for moderate activity or climate
Heavyweight for low activity or cold climate
Examples–For high-energy activities such as Nordic skiing, biking or running, choose lighter-weight
fleece to avoid overheating. Tights or tops made of Polartec® 100 (such as REI Teton) or Polartec
PowerDry® are excellent for this. For very cold conditions, try thicker fleece such as Polartec® 200 or 300
and those with a wind-blocking membrane, such as Windbloc® and Windhibitor®.
Shop our assortment of fleece layers.
See all hats, gloves and mittens.
Your Outer Layer: Wind and Water Protection
The shell layer protects you from wind, rain or snow. Properly designed, it holds in your body heat while
allowing water vapor to escape. If wind or water is allowed to penetrate to the inner layers, you begin to
cool off. Without proper ventilation, perspiration can't evaporate. Instead, it condenses on the inside of your
For anything more than light activity, your shell needs to be breathable or well vented to keep perspiration
from collecting and chilling your body. The shell layer should also be roomy enough to fit easily over other
layers and not restrict your movement.
Examples–Tightly woven fabrics, waterproof coatings or laminated, technical membranes act as wind and
water barriers, while features such as stretch fabrics, vents and zippers add to the garment's overall
function. Shells are available in the following constructions:
Waterproof/Breathable–These keep you comfortable in any weather and just about any activity, and are
especially suited to wet, cold climates and alpine activities. Fabrics include Gore-Tex®, REI's Elements®,
Marmot's MemBrain™ and Mountain Hardwear's Conduit™ membrane laminates.
Waterproof/Non-Breathable–Typically made of a durable, polyurethane-coated nylon, which is waterand windproof, these economical shells are ideal for light activity in heavy precipitation.
Water Resistant/Breathable–These are breathable outer layers for mild weather, light precipitation and
high activity level. They're made of tightly woven fabrics (such as mini ripstop nylon) that block the wind
and treated with a durable water-resistant outer finish to make water bead and roll off.
Some outer shells have a layer of insulation built in, making them suitable for cold conditions, but not as
versatile for layering in a variety of temperatures.
How to Pack Your Backpack
You've planned, shopped and prepared. Now it's time to load up and head out. What's the smartest way to
get all that gear into your backpack?
It depends on what you're carrying (internal-frame pack or external?) and where you're going (on-trail or
Internal-Frame Packs
Whether you're traveling on- or off-trail, keep your heaviest items close to your back, centered
between your shoulder blades.
For on-trail travel, keep heavy items higher inside your pack. This helps focus more of the
weight over your hips, the area of your body best equipped to carry a heavy load.
For off-trail exploration, reverse the strategy. Arrange heavier items lower in the main
compartment, starting again from the spot between your shoulder blades. This lowers your center
of gravity and increases your stability on uneven terrain.
Stuff your sleeping bag into its lower compartment first. Squeeze in any additional lightweight
items you won't need until bedtime (pillowcase, sleeping shirt, but nothing aromatic). This will
serve as the base of the main compartment, which you'll fill next.
Tighten all compression straps to limit any load-shifting.
External-Frame Packs
As with an internal, keep your heaviest items close to your back, near your shoulder blades.
Externals are recommended for on-trail travel only. Load heavier items high inside your pack
and close to your body. Doing so centers the pack's weight over your hips and helps you walk in a
more upright position.
Pack your sleeping bag in its stuff sack. Finish loading your main packbag, then strap the bag to
the lash points on the bottom of the packbag. If rain seems likely, consider stuffing your sleeping
bag inside a second stuff sack or wrapping it in plastic.
Tips for Either Pack Style
Women and people of short stature often find they prefer to pack the weight low whether they're
traveling on- or off-trail, regardless of which pack style they're carrying. You are the ultimate
judge of what feels comfortable to you. Experiment with different load arrangements to determine
what feels best.
Make sure some items are easily accessible, packed in places where they can be reached with a
minimum of digging:
Snack food
First-aid supplies
Insect repellent
Water bottles
Don't waste empty space. Cram every nook with something. Put a small item of clothing inside
your pots, for example. Smaller items, such as food, pack more efficiently in individual units
rather then when stored loosely inside a stuff sack.
If you are part of a group, split up the weight of large items (a tent, for instance) with other group
members. Don't make 1 person become an involuntary packhorse.
Cluster related small items (such as utensils and kitchen items) in color-coded stuff sacks to help
you spot them easily.
Minimize the number of items you strap to the outside of your pack. Gear carried externally may
adversely affect your balance. Secure any equipment you carry outside so it doesn't swing or rattle.
Tips: How about long tent poles, for example? Stow them horizontally
with your sleeping pad across the top of an external pack; with an
internal, carry them vertically, secured behind the compression straps on
one side of the pack with the ends tucked into a "wand pocket" at the
pack's bottom. A daisy chain and ice axe loops are designed for
specific mountaineering gear; feel free to improvise with them, but don't
get so creative that you jeopardize your comfort or stability.
Make sure the cap on your fuel bottle is screwed on tightly. Position it below your food inside
your pack in case of a spill.
Carry a packcover. Backpacks, though made with waterproof fabric, have vulnerable seams and
zippers. After a few hours of exposure to persistent rain, the items inside your pack could become
wet—and thus much heavier.
Quick repair tips: Wrap strips of duct tape around your water bottles; in case a strap pops or
some other disaster occurs, a quick fix could keep you going. Take along a few safety pins in case
a zipper fails.
Do you aspire to be a truly organized adventurer? Then before you reach the trailhead you should:
Evaluate what equipment is needed for this specific trip. Click here for details.
Review a checklist before you leave home to make sure you have everything you need. Click here
for a list of REI's trip-planning checklists.
Double-check your older gear to make sure it's in good working order.
Pre-load your pack the night before your hike begins. Or, a few days before your departure date,
rehearse packing for this trip. If you're missing something, it's better to discover this fact early.
Planning a Menu
What's for dinner?
As an outbound backpacker, your answer to that important
question was made days, maybe weeks in advance. When
you finally make camp after a full day of vigorous exercise, you're going to want to be happy with
the decision you made. You want food that will nourish you, strengthen you, revitalize you and
taste really good.
How Much Food Is Enough?
The National Outdoor Leadership School estimates that backcountry travelers burn between
2,500 and 4,500 calories per day, depending on their individual physiology and their activity. That
translates into roughly 1.5 to 2.5 lbs. of food per day.
In a diet-conscious society, that may sound like a huge caloric intake. But food is the fuel your
body burns as it powers up and down wilderness terrain. Finicky eaters typically morph into
indiscriminate chow hounds after a few high-output days on the trail.
Anticipate that you will feel hungry often and that much of your quiet time on the trail will be spent
thinking about food. It's true! Plan ahead for this stomach-gnawing reality.
If you're facing a borderline decision about how much or little to carry, take a little more. Feelings
of unsatisfied hunger can distract you from the other sensory joys of a great hike. One of the 10
Essentials for an overnight trip, in fact, is a supply of extra food. One day's worth of food is a
smart emergency backup.
On the other hand, don't overdo it. A common beginner's blunder is to bring too much food on a
trip, forcing you to lug unwanted bulk and weight in your pack. Experience will teach you what
amount of food works for you. Consider a few basic guidelines:
Factors to Consider
Taste—Eat what you like. Don't try and convert your taste buds to new types of food
deep in the backcountry.
Calories—Don't inaugurate a diet program during a multi-night hike. You'll need ample
calories (and water!) to fight off fatigue and headaches.
Nutrition—It's fine to tear into a candy bar during a trip, but for the long haul you want to
rely on complex carbohydrates and proteins. Intelligent quick-eats such as nuts and dry
fruits provide a stable flow of energy to your muscles.
Weight and Bulk—Stick to lightweight and low-bulk foods as much as possible,
especially on long journeys.
Ease of Preparation—Unless you are an experienced gourmet, keep things simple. It's
smart to be well-supplied with no-cook food items in case your stove malfunctions.
Cost—Convenience has its price. Freeze-dried meals and energy foods can be
expensive, but at the end of a long day when your weary body only has enough energy to
boil water, such luxuries seem justifiable.
Refrigeration is one of those civilized luxuries you leave behind at the trailhead. Thus
fresh foods are good for 1 day inside your pack, maybe 2. Carrots can sometimes last
Canned foods sometimes have a place in your pack if the trip is short and your hunger
for grocery store food is high. Tins of tuna or other canned meat products can be a nice
toss-in item for a pot of rice, for instance. But skip foods packaged in traditional 15-ounce
(or larger) cans. The weight and bulk just aren't worth it. Don't even think about toting
glass bottles.
Dry foods (pasta, noodles, instant rice, soup mixes, drink mixes) are light, take up
minimal volume inside a pack and offer you some decent taste alternatives.
Freeze-dried/dehydrated foods have improved considerably in taste, texture and
appearance in recent years. They cost about the same as a meal at a modestly priced
restaurant, but they won't taste quite that fresh and savory. Still, put into perspective, they
deliver above-average taste sensations in far-flung places.
Spices can be crucial to boosting the appeal of backcountry food. Consider bringing your
own spice kit, which could include pepper, garlic powder or salt, basil, cayenne pepper,
lemon pepper, cumin, crushed red pepper, cinnamon or whatever else is essential to
your home kitchen.
Flavored beverages can taste mighty refreshing after a few days of nothing but water.
Powdered drink mixes are a nice mid-trip treat. Take note that the caffeine in coffee and
tea is a diuretic, which counteracts your efforts to keep yourself hydrated.
For winter camping, bring extra food to help keep your internal fires stoked and rebuff any
chance of hypothermia. Carry your ready-to-eat items close to your body during the day
so they are not frozen solid when you want to eat them.
Thinking Ahead
Backpacking breakfasts can range from something fast and basic (an energy bar) to a lavish
spread involving pancakes, eggs, meats and coffee. A hot meal can give you an extra boost, true,
but a quick snack means no cleanup and a quicker start to the day.
Ideas: Instant hot cereals, dehydrated eggs, pancake mix, breakfast bars, granola, dry cereal,
instant tea, coffee, powdered milk, juice, fresh fruit, dried fruits.
Rather than take a prolonged break for a midday meal (involving unpacking, preparation, cleanup
and repacking), a smarter strategy is to eat a series of modest energy-boosting snacks
throughout the day. Such gradual calorie consumption is known as "grazing."
Ideas: Dried fruit, fig bars, bagels (which you can lug along on a shorter trip), energy bars, jerky
and nuts.
The evening meal is your reward for a full day of exhilarating exertion. If you possess elevated
culinary skills that translate well into a backcountry setting, you're set for a powerful sensory
treat—great food amid great scenery. If you don't mind the expense of packaged, freeze-dried or
dehydrated food, the simplicity of a tasty, just-add-boiling-water meal is a relaxing treat.
Ideas: Packaged meals, pasta, instant rice, ramen noodles, instant soups and sauces, instant
stuffing, instant potatoes and tuna. Consider bringing along some favorite spices (onion and garlic
powder, basil, oregano).
How to Stay Clean in the Outdoors
Staying clean is an important part of staying healthy in the wilderness. Good personal hygiene
protects you from sickness and infection, and it makes you far more popular with your traveling
Soap in the Backcountry
All soaps, even biodegradable ones, can damage fresh water supplies, so keep your soap use to
a minimum whenever you visit the wilderness. Be sure to follow the general rules below whether
you're bathing, washing dishes or washing clothes:
Make sure that any soap you use is biodegradable. Biodegradable products break down
into non-toxic substances and are easier on the environment.
Be sure to use your soap sparingly.
Do all of your washing at least 200 feet away from all fresh water supplies. This will limit
the amount of soap (and other debris) that makes it into the water. Pour soapy waste
water out where you wash, so the ground can filter it before it returns to the water supply.
Consider your alternatives - unscented baby wipes can be great alternative to cleaning
up with regular soap. They're also lightweight, compact and easy to pack out with other
garbage. Rinsing with water alone may also work in some situations.
On short trips, focus on keeping your hands, face and feet clean to stay comfortable and keep
germs at bay.
Hands—dirty hands can transfer germs to your food and to your mouth. A quick wash
before every meal will lower the risks considerably.
Teeth—For your traveling companions' sake, as well as your own, use a toothbrush and
toothpaste on every trip.
Feet—Keeping your feet clean reduces the risk of blisters and bacterial and fungal
growth (which can occur quickly inside your warm, moist boots). Make sure your feet
(and your socks!) are clean each morning before you put your boots on, and each night
before you go to bed. If you prefer sleeping in socks, pack a clean pair just for sleeping.
Washing Dishes
Wash all dishes at least 200 feet away from fresh water supplies to keep contamination
to a minimum, and use as little soap as possible.
If your waste water contains food particles, either strain it with a fine cloth (pantyhose
works well) and pack the food residue out with your other trash, or pour the waste water
into a 4-6 inch deep cat hole and cover it well.
Rinse your pots and utensils thoroughly after each meal and leave them to dry in your
kitchen area. Remember to use treated water when washing your dishes.
Washing Clothes
Chances are, you won't have to wash any clothes on your first several backpacking trips. But if
you choose to, wash them well away from the water's edge (like your dishes). Just a few drops of
soap should be enough for a handful of items.
A Note on Disposing of Human Waste
Use established latrines whenever they're available. When they aren't, dig a small "cat hole" (at
least 6 inches deep) no less than 200 feet away from all water sources, campsites and trails. Be
sure to cover these holes up completely and pack them down tight. The practice of burning toilet
paper, performed carelessly, has sometimes resulted in wildfires and is thus not recommended.
In popular areas that attract frequent visitation, toilet paper should be packed out in doubled
plastic bags that feature a "lockable" closure.
NOTE: A few wilderness areas now require that visitors pack out all solid human waste. Check
with the ranger or wilderness manager in the area you are visiting.
Keeping your campsite clean
Don't forget to keep your campsites clean during every backpacking trip. Think about things like:
Visual impact—Keep your gear and clothing off of branches, bushes and rocks, and
keep your equipment organized and packed away as much as possible. When you can,
choose gear items that use natural, subdued colors rather than bright, easy to spot ones.
Keep all trash stored in refuse bags.
Auditory impact—For the sake of other campers (and any wildlife in your area), keep
noise to a minimum, especially after sunset. Talk in a normal voice at all times, and leave
your radios at home. If you're camping near a lake or river, remember that noise carries
very well across water.
Understanding Water Treatment
You just don't know.
The water tumbling along in a clear-flowing mountain stream could be
some of the cleanest, purest water on earth. Or it may carry a stray
microscopic pest that, if it finds its way into your intestines, could leave
you weak, nauseous, cramped, bloated or vulnerable to diarrhea and
vomiting for weeks.
It's a fact of modern wilderness life: Any backcountry water source, no
matter how high or remote, is susceptible to contamination due to unsanitary practices of the
creatures that visit it — from birds and bears to possums and humans. Experienced wilderness
travelers recognize the need to play it safe with backcountry water and thus treat every drop
before they drink.
What are the risks of drinking water in the backcountry, and how can you protect yourself? Here's
an overview:
The Enemies
Whenever animal or human fecal material connects with a water source, it's possible 1 or more pathogenic
(disease-causing) microorganisms could invade the water. They fall into 3 categories:
Protozoan cysts — These are hard-shelled, single-cell parasites, including
the well-known Giardia lamblia (ranging in size from 5 to 15 microns) and
the resilient, lesser-known Cryptosporidium parvum (2 to 5 microns).
Giardia infection occurs in the small intestine, where cysts
"hatch." Symptoms (diarrhea, gas, nausea, cramps) appear
within 1 to 2 weeks and last 4 to 6 weeks or longer.
Symptoms of crypto (diarrhea, loose stool, cramps, upset stomach, slight fever) appear
in 2 to 10 days and typically last 2 weeks.
Giardiasis can be treated with prescription drugs; so far, cryptosporidiosis cannot.
People with weakened immune systems could be at risk for more serious disease,
particularly with cryptosporidiosis.
Cryptosporidia are highly resistant to iodine and chlorine.
Portable filters and purifiers with fine pores (capable of trapping particles as small as
0.2 or 0.3 microns) reliably capture these bugs. Units should have an "absolute pore
size" of 1 micron or less. (Absolute pore size indicates the largest possible opening in a
filter or purifier's straining element.)
Bacteria — These are smaller organisms, most of them commonly
associated with food poisoning: E. coli, salmonella, cholera (common in
some developing countries) and others. Campylobacter jejuni has
appeared with some regularity in wilderness settings.
Bacteria range in size from 0.2 to 10 microns. Symptoms of
infection (diarrhea is common) may appear within 6 hours or 3 to 5 days out. They may
last 4 days or longer. In healthy people, campylobacteriosis symptoms usually vanish
within 5 days. Antibiotics could be used if needed.
Filters and purifiers are also effective in straining out these
Viruses — The tiniest (0.004 to 0.1 microns) of organisms. Examples:
Hepatitis A, rotavirus, Norwalk virus and polio. (To this point, hantavirus
does not appear to be a waterborne disease.) Viruses are the least
common pathogens found in the wilderness.
Viruses that afflict humans usually only reach backcountry water
sources via human fecal matter. Animals and humans, meanwhile, are common carriers
of protozoa and bacteria.
Once exposed to the environment, viral particles exhibit a short lifespan and do not
reproduce in water as some bacteria do.
Viruses can slip through filters but can be inactivated by boiling, by contacting the
chemical component found in purifiers, or by chemical treatment either before or after
Chemicals and toxins — This fourth category includes agricultural runoff (pesticides,
herbicides) and industrial runoff (metals, mine tailings). Some toxic bacteria can spawn algae in
warm, shallow water and turn it green.
Filters that include an activated carbon element offer some protection against such
materials found in water. If you believe a water source has been tainted by chemicals or
toxins, either boil the water (which offers limited benefit) or, better, move on.
A Microscopic World
None of the organic microscopic critters described above is visible to the human eye. All are measured in
A micron is 1 millionth of a meter, or .0000394 of an inch. A period at the end of a sentence is roughly
500 microns. The unaided human eye cannot see anything smaller than 50 microns. The straining ability of
the pores in filters and purifiers is typically measured in microns. Often you will hear friends and
salespeople recommend that you seek out a "0.2-micron" filter. In a simplistic way, this is basically sound
Treat Your Water Right
You have 3 options for treating "raw" water found in the backcountry:
Boiling water is considered 100 percent effective against protozoan cysts, nontoxic bacteria and viruses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends bringing water to a rolling boil to kill
microorganisms in water. At elevations higher than 3,000 feet, the CDC says boiling time should be
extended to 3 minutes.
Sounds like the perfect water-treatment solution. Yet some drawbacks exist:
Boiling takes time (stove setup; heating time; waiting time for the water to cool).
Boiling drains your fuel supply.
Sediment in the water is not removed.
Note: Water boiled for meal preparation needs no additional treatment (chemical or
mechanical filtration) before it is combined with a packaged freeze-dried meal.
Still, boiling is an ideal last resort if your filter clogs or you run out of chemical pills.
Chemical Treatment
Exposing water to halogens such as iodine or chlorine is believed to kill bacteria and viruses,
but not all protozoan cysts. Hard-shelled cryptosporidia, as mentioned previously, show strong
resistance to iodine and chlorine. You should not expect halogens alone to be 100 percent
effective against this cryptosporidia.
Note: Some manufacturers and water experts recommend combining chemical
treatment with filtration for maximum effectiveness.
While simple and inexpensive, the use of halogens, particularly iodine, includes some additional
potential drawbacks:
Iodized water presents a taste some people find objectionable.
Iodine can be unhealthful for some people, particularly for pregnant women, individuals
with thyroid conditions or people who use it for periods of longer than 14 days.
Follow manufacturer instructions closely when using iodine or chlorine. Generally, 2 iodine
tablets (such as Potable Aqua) purify a quart of water, though 1 tablet can be used to treat a
quart at 50°F or warmer (basically, room temperature).
Wait 10-15 minutes for pills to dissolve; very cold water or cloudy water requires a waiting period
of 30-60 minutes. Don't introduce powdered drink mixes (to camouflage the taste) until the
waiting period is complete. (Potable Aqua offers optional neutralizing tablets.) Water treated by a
saturated solution involving iodine crystals (from Polar Pure) also requires a 15-minute (or
longer) waiting period to assure efficacy.
Adding 2 drops of household laundry bleach to a quart of water can also do the job. The bleach
should be 4 to 6 percent sodium hypochlorite and should be soap-free. Some experts
recommend first treating "raw" water with chlorine, then filtering it, or filtering first and then
adding chlorine. Chlorine is effective against bacteria and viruses.
Mechanical Filtration
Cleansing water via a mechanical process — forcing it through a finely porous internal element
housed within a filtering unit — has emerged as the most popular method of nonwinter water
treatment among wilderness travelers.
Portable filters and purifiers are compact, hand-pumped units that draw in water
via an intake hose and physically strain out solid materials, including fine sediment
and most (though not absolutely all) microorganisms.
Filtering water from a lake or stream is a relatively speedy and efficient process,
though it is never as fast and easy as turning on a tap back in civilization. Filters
and purifiers, in fact, can sometimes be a chore to operate, particularly when they show signs
of clogging.
When shopping, be mindful of a filter's ratings for output and pump strokes per liter, and its
"pump force" (how much oomph it takes to work the pump; beware of high numbers). Ratings
are supplied by the manufacturers, so be aware that "your numbers may vary." Prices range from
$35 to $250.
If portability and speed are not a factor, you have another option to consider: a gravity-fed "drip"
filter. Here you pour water into a large reservoir, then let it slowly trickle through one (or more)
filters to remove protozoa and bacteria. Such units are a good choice for car camping in remote
What's the difference between a filter and purifier? Both are microbiological water-treatment
devices. A filter removes protozoa and bacteria from contaminated water. A purifier does the
same, plus it eliminates viruses in 1 of 2 ways:
Through the use of an internal disinfectant (such as iodine) which inactivates (or kills)
viruses — though it does not physically remove them.
By capturing them in a filter medium that carries an electrostatic charge, a nonchemical
approach taken by the First Need purifier.
Does this always make purifiers superior devices? Not necessarily. For a detailed discussion of
the comparative merits of water filters and purifiers, please refer to our separate clinic, How to
Choose a Water Filter or Purifier.
Tips for Selecting Safer Water
Avoid filtering water in area where animal activity is obvious. Are you near signs of beaver impact? An
area where the deer and the antelope have played? A meadow dotted with cow patties? Find another
place to draw water.
The same principle applies to human impact. Is a heavily used campsite nearby? Are you near a trail
crossing? A mine? If so, go further upstream for water.
Try to select water from still, clear water sources. Many microorganisms, particularly giardia, tend to sink
in still water due to the weight of their shells; turbulence keeps them suspended.
If your only water option is melting snow or ice, choose ice. Ice supplies greater water content, but keep in
mind many bacteria are impervious to freezing. Thus while boiling can kill pathogens in water, freezing
cannot. Clean snow, though, is still a good source for water. Beware of pinkish "watermelon snow,"
however. This is a toxic algae that filtering will not remove. If you see it, look elsewhere for ice or clean
Backcountry Health Topics
This brief list of common outdoor health problems, preventative measures and possible remedies is
intended to help you stay healthy while you explore the backcountry.
Sunburn, caused when our skin is exposed to too much of the sun's ultraviolet light, is the most common
problem experienced by backpackers.
Prevention: All wilderness travelers, regardless of skin color, should wear sunscreen with an SPF
(sun protection factor) of at least 15. The American Academy of Dermatology and the Skin Cancer
Foundation recommend an application of sunscreen every two hours, even on cloudy days. The
groups also offer these tips:
Within the continental United States, minimize your exposure to
the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Potential for skin damage is
greatest at noon (or 1 p.m. during daylight savings time). At these
peak-intensity hours, a fair-skinned person could suffer skin
damage in less than 15 minutes.
Always shade your head, neck, ears and eyes, particularly at high
elevations, where a thinner atmosphere allows more UV rays to
reach your skin. Sand, brightly colored clothing and snow can all
intensify the sun's impact. Some outdoor clothing comes with SPF
ratings. Fabrics with tighter weaves help keep the sun off your skin.
o Lenses of sunglasses should block both UVA and UVB rays.
Examine product information tags or spec sheets to verify that the lenses offer this
o Check with your doctor to determine if any medications you are taking increase your
susceptibility to sunburn.
Remedy—If you do get burned, soothe damaged areas with an aloe-based skin cream, and keep
them covered for the remainder of your trip (either with clothing or with a strong sunscreen) to
avoid further damage. If sunburn is serious and you experience persistent nausea, chills or fever,
seek professional medical attention.
One little blister, the product of friction that rubs skin back and forth in a concentrated area, can ruin an
otherwise wonderful backpacking journey.
Prevention—Blisters are easier to avoid than they are to fix. Make sure you start every
backpacking trip with footwear that is broken in and fits you well. Also wear clean, properly sized
socks. Consider wearing two pairs of socks—a lightweight wicking liner and a thicker cushioning
sock—to lessen the chance of abrasion.
Tip: On the trail, address foot discomfort as soon as it develops. A quick response can often stop a
blister before it becomes serious. At the first sign of irritation, put a small patch of protective
material—moleskin, 2nd Skin or even duct tape—over the affected area to minimize abrasion.
Remedy—If you're undertaking your first backpacking season and know you are prone to blisters,
consider applying moleskin to your typical "blister zone" before you hit the trail.
If a blister develops and walking becomes too painful, you could drain the blister by lancing it
along its base with a clean razor blade or knife. Once this is done, sooth the area with some
antibacterial ointment, then cover it with a patch of 2nd Skin (or similar product) plus a small
adhesive bandage to keep the blistered area clean.
If the area is still sensitive, cut a doughnut-shaped cushioning patch out of Molefoam or duct tape
and encircle the injured area. You may need to bulk up your circular pad with a number of layers
to hold your sock and boot out away from the damaged area. This cushion will protect the area
from further damage.
General Aches and Pains
General aches and pains (sore muscles, headaches, joint pain) are a common factor of many beginning
backpacking trips.
Prevention—After a modest warm-up (say, 10 minutes of walking), take time to stretch. Stretch
after your hike, too. Your muscles and joints will thank you.
Tip: Don't attempt to exceed your physical limits early in your hiking season.
Remedy—Most muscle aches can be fixed with a little rest and gentle massage. For headaches,
take a couple of pain reliever tablets—aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen—and a short rest. Joint
pain is typically caused by overuse, though it can be the result of twists or unusual compressions.
Again, rest is usually the best remedy. Elevating the sore joint might help alleviate pain. Taking
glucosamine, a cartilage-repairing nutritional supplement, can also help joint pain and expand your
range of motion. To learn more about glucosamine, read How to Choose Nutritional Supplements.
Poison Ivy, Oak, Sumac
Wherever you travel, you may run into troublesome plants.
Prevention—Learn how to recognize the dangerous plants that are common in the area you'll be
exploring. Remember that poison oak and ivy leaves grow in clusters of three, so if you see
"leaves of three, let it be." Be wary of touching anything foreign to you. Keep in mind that the oily
rash-causing resin found in poison oak and ivy, urushiol, remains present in the plants even during
dormant winter months. Contact with a leafless stem in January can still spawn an itchy rash. Preexposure lotion can be helpful. If traveling in unfamiliar territory, consider carrying a lightweight,
compact field guide to help you recognize plants.
Remedy—Carry a small supply of hydrocortisone cream or another soothing, anti-inflammatory
lotion to lessen the discomfort caused by skin irritations. Fluid from a rash-induced blister will not
spread the rash. However, if the resin is not cleaned from clothing, boots, skin or tools, you can reinfect yourself or another person. It's the resin, not the rash, that spreads infection. A good first-aid
manual will provide other useful tips on limiting the spread of the rash.
Biting Insects
Mosquitoes, flies and other biting insects are an unavoidable part of many backpacking trips. Happily, bug
bites are usually more of a nuisance than a health hazard.
Prevention—The easiest way to deal with bug bites is to avoid them altogether. This means
identifying and avoiding the worst locations and times of year for bugs. It also means packing the
right kinds of clothing (light-colored long-sleeve shirts, long pants, bug shirts, bug-net hats and so
on) and using some form of topical repellent if necessary.
DEET-based products are effective, though natural alternatives are available for individuals who
prefer to avoid synthetic chemicals. DEET is not recommended for pregnant women or small
children, especially those less than 1 year old. DEET will not hurt cotton, wool or nylon, but it can
damage plastics, synthetic fabrics, furniture, walls, watch crystals, and eyeglass frames.
Remedy—First-aid products like After Bite help relieve the swelling and itching caused by bug
Tip: Some people are allergic to certain insect stings. If you are, protect yourself by avoiding
risky situations as much as possible and by carrying whatever medicines you need to counteract
the reactions. Make sure everyone in your backpacking group knows about your allergy and what
to do if you get stung/bit.
Stinging Insects
Bees, wasps, hornets and yellow jackets are additional winged threats a backpacker may encounter.
Prevention—If you come upon a beehive or wasps' nest, leave the area quickly and quietly. In
campgrounds, avoid brightly colored clothing, shiny jewelry or belt buckles, and scented
cosmetics. If you or someone in your group is allergic to bee or wasp stings, make sure to visit a
health care professional for preventative injections.
Remedy—For a normal reaction to a sting (itching, redness and slight swelling) the following
first-aid items may be useful: ice, baking soda, oral antihistamines (such as Chlortrimeton and
Dimetane), epinephrine inhaler (such as Primatene), topical steroids (such as Cortaid or Lanacort),
and local anesthetics (such as Benzocaine, Lanacaine or Solarcaine).
Not all ticks transmit Lyme disease. Check with rangers about potential danger before you explore an area
unfamiliar to you.
Prevention—Lyme disease is one of a number of potentially serious conditions that can be passed
to humans through tick bites. The best way to avoid trouble is to avoid bites altogether by
avoiding areas where ticks are prevalent and by checking your hair and skin for ticks frequently.
Permethrin-based insect repellents can be applied to clothing to repel or kill some ticks.
Remedy—If a tick is discovered, remove it immediately by pinching the skin just below the head
of the tick with tweezers and lifting the tick straight up and out. You may lose a small piece of
skin in the process. Be careful not to squeeze the tick body or twist it during removal, since this
may cause the tick to regurgitate more bacteria into the wound. For similar reasons, burning or
covering a tick in cooking oil is not recommended as a method of removal.
While many snakes are harmless, some have potentially lethal bites.
Prevention—Avoid areas prone to snakes. Check your trail guide or ask a local forest ranger or
guide. Stay in well-groomed, open areas. Watch where you're going and listen. If you see a snake,
don't antagonize it.
Remedy—If bitten by a snake such as a rattlesnake (a pit viper), first back away from the snake.
Calm yourself or the person bitten. Rinse the wound. Apply a mechanical extractor pump for three
minutes following the bite. Make no additional incisions. Mark the time so you can check the
progress of swelling. Remove jewelry. Get to the hospital as quickly as possible for an anti-venom
serum. Try to identify the offending snake to help medical personnel.
Hantavirus is spread by the droppings and saliva of contaminated rodents, particularly the deer mouse,
cotton rat, rice rat and the white-footed mouse. Hantavirus, a relatively new backcountry malady, can cause
severe sickness and even death. Early symptoms include fatigue, fever, muscle aches and headaches.
Severe coughing and shortness of breath may follow in four to 10 days.
Prevention—Stay away from any areas with excessive rodent activity: barns, old cabins, or dusty,
enclosed trail shelters. If you see any rodent droppings, cover your mouth and leave. Don't attempt
to sweep an area where rodents have left droppings. The disease can be carried in the dust.
Remedy—If you suspect that you or someone in your party has been infected with hantavirus,
seek professional health care immediately. Treatment usually includes antibiotics, oxygen and
other treatments for respiratory problems.
Altitude Illness
Altitude illness is a state of unease a wilderness explorer feels when traveling at high elevations.
Traditionally, 10,000 feet is regarded as the height where altitude symptoms—a sluggish sensation often
accompanied by a headache—kick in for most people, but they can afflict others as low as 6,000 feet.
Acute cases of this illness can be debilitating, even fatal.
Prevention—Avoid abruptly changing elevations from one day to the next. If you're spending
your pre-hike day in a low-lying valley, you could be asking for trouble if you take aim at a 9,000foot pass the next day. It is better to acclimatize, meaning you gain elevation gradually, or you
camp at a high elevation for a day or two before undertaking your hike. A general rule: Ascend no
more than 1,000 feet per day.
Remedy—Descend. If you sense the symptoms are overtaking you, seek out lower elevation
quickly before your condition deteriorates and you are unable to walk unassisted. Aspirin can be
beneficial for any head pain you experience.
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