Backpacking has many methods: there is ultralight, lightweight, traditional, and base camping styles of packing. Ask a hundred backpackers for their list of gear and there will be one hundred different lists and a hundred more for each different environmental condition. Each list would have a valid rational for each item according to each backpacker. Each rational would have a legitimate caveat from another backpacker. What are the true essentials and how are they prepared, packed and brought on a backpacking trip?

Rule # 1: Know Thyself

A backpacker is an individual; a free personality evaluation (found online with a search engine) can help identify traits which impact backpacking style and teammate selection. Knowing physical, mental, emotional and social strengths and limitations can assist greatly in picking the right style of trip and the right style of gear. Knowing pays dividends, be objective, be prepared to challenge weak points when they are discovered and capitalize on strengths already possessed.

Rule # 2: Know Thy Team

A fast hiker and a slow hiker can hike in harmony if, the faster hiker is patient and slows down; or the slower hiker is ultralighting while the faster hiker is traditional hiking. Balancing the skill sets and hiking styles of the group makes the dynamic better. Bringing an impatient, fast, ultralight hiker and a slow, traditional, newbie on the same trip spells conflict. Too many inexperienced hikers on one trip spells disaster. Balance the group dynamic and the skill sets. Ideally everyone should be first aid trained, know rescue knots, be excellent at navigation, have perfect survival skills, cook like a backcountry chef, have years of experience and be a highly trained athlete; this is rarely the case, make sure the bases are covered with some overlap. Delegate tasks to party members who have unique skill sets because of their occupation, education or experience. (Ie navigation to a professional hunting guide, first aid to a nurse, meals to a chef, newbie orientation to a patient veteran backpacker etc.) Backpacking is not a passive activity or a sport, each trip requires full participation and cooperation from each party member, regardless of level of experience.

Rule # 3: Treat Thy Body Well

The human body is the first piece of gear on your trip: learn how to fuel it, patch it and move it. Apply the knowledge by staying hydrated, nourished, rested, healthy and safe in the best and worst of circumstances. Before a trip, prepare, condition and learn about the human body. Special training is required for hypo and hyperthermia, dehydration, backcountry medical emergencies and care and maintenance of feet and backs on the trail; get the training, at some point it will save a life. Minor injuries in the backcountry are more serious because they have the escalation factor. A minor blister or burn can become a full blown infection because of the required repetitive use and bacterial environment. Infection can come with fever, delirium, nausea and fatigue any of which can be deadly in the backcountry. An unfit and or unprepared hiker is a reckless hiker at risk for injury, emergency and poor decision making at critical points. Enter the backcountry mentally and physically prepared, then pack the right amount of water, food, clothing and first aid supplies to thrive in the backcountry based on the knowledge gained.

Rule # 4: Know Thy Route

Not getting lost in the backcountry is the ideal situation; knowing how to find a route if the trail is lost or obstructed is necessary. When mapping out a route: do the research about the area. Know the rivers, tributaries, water sources, current trail conditions, risk factors and expected weather patterns. Talk to other hikers at the trail head, on the trail or at the campsites, they can be invaluable sources of information on the route ahead or dangers such as washouts, reroutes and predator sightings. Bring a topographical map and a compass, first and foremost, and a GPS as back up as it has a much higher rate of failure due to changes in barometric pressure and satellite drift. GPS technology is getting better but is still dangerously inaccurate in many backcountry applications. Finally, ensure the route is appropriate for the time of year and the participants involved in the trip. Finally document your route, dates of travel (and supporting documentation such as passports, ID, health/travel insurance, permits, emergency contacts, visas, maps, trail guides etc) in quadruplicate: one copy for a responsible person at home if you are over due (or lose a document), one for local authorities, one to leave at the trail head (no need to give them passports/ID copies just route info) and one copy of everything for yourself.

Rule #5: Know Thy Gear

A team brainstorming session about what gear everyone has available can make sure all the bases are covered without compromising safety or overpacking. For instance: on a overnight, three person trip packing three water filtration systems is redundant; one good quality pump will cover the needs of the group and a set of drops will serve as backup. On the other hand, each member of the team should each have (and know how to use well) the 10 Essentials in case they become separated for any reason.

Rule # 6: Prepare Thy Gear

Ultralight gear needs special care and attention, traditional gear is heavy but comfortable. Once the group has established all the required gear, ensure everything is in perfect working order before leaving each trip and a repair kit has been prepared. This kit should include spare buckles, O rings/replacement parts for stoves and water purification, duct tape, zip ties, patching materials (for tents, poles, sleeping bags, clothing and mats based on material types) glue, lighter, cordage and a good multitool. This kit may be distributed throughout the group but the kit must be there. Murphy’s Law is alive and well in backcountry sports as it is everywhere. The repair kit may go many trips without a single use but at some point a vital component will fail and can range from mildly irritating (a compression buckle breaking) to painfully frustrating (a hipbelt buckle breaks) to possibly life threatening (the water purifier breaks a couple days hike from a good water source.)

Rule # 7: Keep Thy Balance

When selecting and packing gear, always maintain balance both physically and mentally. Ultralight hiking is a wonderful idea as long as nothing vital is left behind. Traditional equipment has comfort factors which should not be completely overlooked but must also not come at the risk of violating ‘Rule # 3.’ Do not sacrifice safety for ounces, do not sacrifice well being for comfort. Have the ten essentials, a repair kit for equipment and party members, plan and pack a proper caloric and fluid intake, be prepared for the conditions expected based on route planning and research, and bring common sense, practical knowledge, physical, emotional and mental preparation. Everything beyond those points is optional. 

Rule #8: Consider Thy Neighbour 

Practice ‘Leave No Trace’ where appropriate, make room for other trail users and look out for each other. In the backcountry, a stranger may become a best friend or a lifesaving ally. Be open to possibility but respect the privacy and solitude of other backcountry participants. Share the trail, preserve nature by staying on the trail and safeguard wildlife and other hikers by not leaving belongings and trash behind which may attract predators to the site. Keep cooking and wash sites away from water sources and established campsites. Use bear boxes or bear bags where applicable. Protect pets by preventing them from visiting other hikers, their pets or from having an altercation with wildlife by keeping them on a leash.

Rule # 9: Cool Thy Jets

Backpacking is an enjoyable recreation experience if all party members set out to make it so. However, one party member becoming impatient, irritable or obnoxious can make the trip frustrating for everyone. Everyone focusing on relaxing and curbing poor behavior (no matter how justified being impatient or irritable may be) improves the trip dynamic. Backpacking brings out the best and worst in people, it strips away pretenses and forces people to be genuine. Be aware of how the best and worst in each party member affects the others and deal with it in a constructive way. When on a backcountry trip relinquish the controlled time frame. For a thousand reasons a trip may be delayed; this is an inevitability of any form of travel. Rushing to meet an imaginary schedule is an excellent way to have or cause an accident. There are exceptions to this rule when dealing with tides, loss of light and a few other possibly life threatening situations but if a timeline does not have a life threatening aspect, it is a guidline only and can be altered.

Rule #10: Keep Thy Mind Open

Backpacking is an adventure to undertake, not a sport or an achievement. Adventure is a lifestyle and a way of travelling. To make the most of the adventurers lifestyle, the mind must open to new possibilities. On every backcountry trip a new skill should be learned and honed. To claim the title of a backpacker the learning must never end and the adventures must continue to be planned and participated in. Keep the heart and mind open to all the beauty and serenity the backcountry offers and learn from the wealth of wisdom and knowledge it possesses.

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