Top 10… Or Maybe Top 11 Essential Skills Every Backpacker Should Have!

_Top Essentail Skills Every Backpacker Should Have!

I have always wondered what knowledge people who go into traveling , backpacking or hiking have prior to heading out. Also, I am sure there are people who will have more than a “top 15” type list or maybe less for when they go out to be safe and just be able to enjoy the outdoors.

I have reading around forums and other blogs and have compiled a great list for you here.

Below is my compiled top 10… or 11 “essential” skill every outdoor lover, hiker, backpacker and the like should have!

#1. Starting, Building and Maintaining A Fire:

Fire’s a huge morale builder and it makes you visible, and yeah, it warms you up too. Having a multi-use skill for warmth, disinfection, cooking, signaling,  safety, light, and peace of mind. Knowing how to make one with and without the matches and gadgets is, in my opinion, essential.

You should know how to make one in wet conditions.

Know what kind of wood and tinder to look for and how much you’ll need.

Also, Know how to build your fire small to make your wood last.

Know fire safety.

Know how to bank coals, and how to warm yourself through the night with a fire.

#2. Navigation Skills:

Map and compass are a must but we should all have one or two other methods under our belts. This is a skill towards the top of the list because you need it to stay found, and need it even more to get found.

Have spatial orientation, nurture a good sense of direction, and learn some common sense basics of finding directions with sun, shadows, and stars. Learn that water flow and roads lead to civilization. Map and compass skills are a good idea for remote excursions, but not really basic otherwise.

People need to understand how to use a map & compass, because eventually, that GPS’ batteries are going to drain out. EVEN IF you are only on trails. Even if all you do is get to the unsigned junction in the trails, pull out a compass, look at the map and pick the RIGHT trail. Cannot underscore that signs are not always present and you cannot rely on them.

The limitations of electronics can get you killed. Do not expect things with batteries to work well in subzero temperatures, do not expect your GPS to work magic if you do not know how to use a map and compass, how to calibrate the compass…

Understand that it is merely a tool and the more important part of navigation is what’s in the brain.

Just plan a route and safely follow it, even without a map & compass. Someone standing on a bluff should be able to visualize a way down into the valley below through gulleys or washes, and do it safely. They should not get lost on their own planned trip. Same goes for uphill or on flat land.


#3. Water Purification:

Water is life and most places we camp, there is a supply. We all need to have a backup in case a filter or other method fails. Backup fuel or tablets are a must, but there are other natural ways to purify water if needed.

Knowing how to find the better water in your terrain like springs vs. running water vs. stagnant… water in plants or buried below the waterline, collecting dew or puddles, making a still, is vital.

How to filter it with whatever might be on hand, know that boiling/pasteurizing/distillation makes it safe. Know how much you need, and how to carry some without the gear you brought.

And in some cases, how to obtain and clean water… Note, I don’t say “purify,” because if you’re stranded or in an emergency situation, what’s a little (curable) cholera if you’re going to risk dehydration and death in four days?

#4. First Aid:

Looks like this is a little lower on our list, that is because I feel it should be more of a back up. When you do other things well you won’t need your first aid. It isn’t too common that those freak accidents happen, but when they do you should be prepared.

First aid is what you know, not what you take. Find a wilderness first aid course or read the NOLS book on the subject.

Emergency response, even if you’re acting safely, accidents happen. So 
learn first aid and techniques for signaling for help. Know your fastest
route back to civilization.

Know the symptoms of elevation sickness, dehydration, and hypothermia, and how to prevent them. Plus how to deal with them when others have them. You cannot medicate elevation sickness – take pills for the headache, but if someone is breathing with a crackle in the lungs, get them the heck off the mountain!

Most importantly, foot care.

I include this with first aid since this is a basic essential that is often not well covered in first aid courses and which will cover a high percentage of first aid related issues experienced by most hikers and backpackers.

#5. Safety: Most Important

Even though this list isn’t in no particular order, I will point out that this is most vital. Well, everyone will have their own order so I didn’t create this list in that way. Basically, safety, it is why this list is even made.

Not the same as first aid. Safety includes sticking to the plan, and using common sense to keep yourself out of trouble. Like staying dry, being from the Northwest, this is a skill you are almost born with but it is very important for safety and enjoyment during a trip.

You can leave a trip plan with pictures of you and your gear for a reliable person with instructions on how to call for help. Don’t assume non-backpacking folk (your family and friends) will figure it out.

If you are missing they will panic. Panic helps no one. Leave information on your trail-head and your itinerary guide. Do this NO MATTER WHAT, whether you are alone or in a group, and if your itinerary changes last minute, pop a postcard in the mail before you start to hike.

Stay calm.

Know your personal limits. Don’t get stranded by misjudging how far you can walk before dark, how much you can carry, how much water or food or firewood you’ll need, how reliably you know the route, how dependable your skills or gear or companions are.

Be aware. Are you still on the path? Is that stick a rattlesnake? Do those clouds look like an imminent storm? Would this be a good site, or is there a problem? Are you doing something dangerous? Could that stick or rock or plant or bed of leaves fill a need? You don’t need a forest encyclopedia as much as common sense and a resourceful approach.

#6. Shelter and Weatherproofing: you’re going to need it.

Even if it’s in a cave, or an overnight lean-to made with branches and pine boughs. Stay warm, don’t get wet from rivers, rain, or sweat.

Know how to use your surroundings to add insulation and make shelters. Know camp craft which includes knot tying (gives you more options for shelter, repair, toolmaking, carrying things, traversing obstacles, storing food, etc. Learn some basic knots, and pick up some ideas for natural cordage just in case.), efficient tent pitching, camp layout, food storing, gathering/cutting wood, etc.

Know that it’ll get a lot colder at night!

It’ll make life easier, warmer, and your endurance will be far far better with a couple of night’s good rest.

#7. Bring and Know How To Use A Knife:

Learn to use the most versatile tool, it can help you make other tools… Or it can be a danger if you lack control, experience, or safety sense.

Adaptability and improvisation are key with a knife. Not every tool is limited to its most obvious function. Knives can be used as hammers, pans can be used to scoop or dig, soup cans can be used as cups.

#8. Communication:

How to get a signal out to the rest of the world if you’re hurt or stranded. This would include basic signalling with a panel, mirror, fire if you’re hurt or stranded.

Got a radio, where can you tune in for weather information? Got some way to call out, make sure you’re radio is set up before you leave.

Bring a satellite phone if you know you will be alone and no service or population will be around.

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#9. How And What To Pack:

What to take, a common question. How to use everything you take in multiple ways. Trekking poles can be part of a stretcher, just add a jacket. Bandannas can be slings, tourniquets, towel, washcloth. Sleeping pads can be chairs, splints.

Is it multi functional?  Keep it.  If it’s one use only?  Pitch it.  Weight is speed is life.  Also, learn where to place stuff!  Seriously, why are you digging into the bottom of your rucksack for your rain gear in the middle of a downpour?  You could’ve had that on the top of the bag!

Use your gear properly and store your gear properly… gear failure can be catastrophic.

Is there too much condensation in the tent? Did you pitch it on grass? Tents are not to keep you warm, that’s what the sleeping bag and clothing you have are for.

Ventilate your tent. If you think trekking poles are useless, you are using them wrong – I can list a dozen uses for them. It’s ego-saving to imagine that a tarp is less functional than a tent, but people use tarps in all kinds of weather and stay dry.

Site selection and knowing what gear is appropriate for where and when you are going is a skill. Learn how to use your gear.

Make sure to properly store your gear, this applies to on and off the trail. Protecting gear properly will ensure it is ready when you need it.

#10. Over-All Pre-planning Skills:

Map reading, weather reports and research… including water sources, any waterless stretches on the route, whether there are class 2 or more passes, snow levels…

Don’t take risks in snow. Steep snow slopes require skills and gear many backpackers don’t have. Water steals your warmth 200% faster than cold air, hypothermia is minutes away if you fall in water in the snow.

Ice axe misuse can be fatal. Take a mountaineering class before spending a lot of time navigating snow.

Understand your local threats. Recognize common poisonous plants and dangerous animals in the area. Learn the relevant precautions and treatments.

Knowing all this ahead of time helps you know what to take.  And whether it is beyond your current skill set. It will help you to avoid crossing a snow covered pass in Vibram Five Fingers.

#11. Leave NO Trace and Have Fun!

Leave no trace and respect the land and the creatures. Make a small footprint. Encourage others to do the same.

Having fun, if it isn’t fun why are we doing it. All the other skills lead to this one so the argument could be made it should be first on the list. My logic is that the other skills can save your life and therefore make them a little more important.

A sense of humor, seriously, even if you’re not having fun, why are you out there?

Why do you want to be the sour grape on an outing in a group, you’ll just bring everyone down. Even in an emergency situation, a sense of humor about things will greatly enhance the chance of survival. I mean, think of the movie deals!

Of course don’t forget to take pictures!! Photography
! I am an amateur photographer and taking a log of the trip in photo format is very important to me. This also allows me to enjoy the trip for years and years to come!

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