17 Best Backpacking Hacks for 2019 & Beyond

17 Best Backpacking Hacks for 2019 & Beyond. Man sits on rock with only shoes visible, overlooking lush, green valley below.

Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Summer 2019

Intro

You're a backpacker. You've gone to REI. You got your sleeping bag, your trekking poles, your first aid kit, and you planned your backpacking trip. Now you want a few backpacking hacks to get you started. Or maybe you've been backpacking for a while: you're one of those thru-hikers who has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and has it all figured out, but you're looking for a few tips or extra ideas you may have missed. Well, here you have it. We don't recommend digging a hole around your tent, making your own DIY fire starters, or any of that nonsense. These are not life hacks that you can brag to your friends about. These are just simple, straightforward backpacking tips that we think you can use because they've helped us tremendously.  Here's what we wish we had known before we knew it.  

What We Recommend

Do not take plates or bowls. Boil water, add it to the retort pouch your food comes in, eat the food out of the pouch, and when you’re finished stow it away. No cleanup. No extra weight. Everything you need and nothing you don’t.  

Buy a long-handled spork. Since you’re eating all of your meals out of a retort pouch now, it’s going to get very annoying that your standard-sized spork does not reach all the way to the bottom of the pouch and that in order to reach the bottom of the pouch you have to places your fingers and sometimes hand inside of the pouch, which will invariably lead to getting food on them. Instead, buy a long-handled spork and save yourself the annoyance.

Take Ziploc bags. These are useful for everything and will be used in unexpected ways. I generally pack my food by day into gallon-sized Ziploc bags as this makes it easier to plan meals / calories before the trip and allows me to just grab a bag for whatever day it happens to be and eat whatever’s in there, rather than having to dig through my food bag, take an inventory of how much of this or that I have, and then make a decision about what to eat when I’m hungry and tired. This saves the thinking and allows me to focus on the hike. Throw a few extra Ziploc bags into your pack for extra storage (primarily trash) that you want to keep separate from the rest of your pack and need to take out. They're much better than plastic bags.

Electrolyte tabs or intra-workout mix. Take electrolyte tabs throughout the day as you hike or, if you want to take it to the next level, an intra-workout mix that contains amino acids and electrolytes, possibly mixed with Gatorade for carbs or you can buy something that contains carbs. This is the best way to reduce soreness and accelerate recovery, and will make your trip overall much more enjoyable as you won’t be dragging the next morning like the rest of your camp.

Trail running shoes not hiking boots. As they say, one pound on your feet equals ten pounds on your back, and we can’t think of a faster way to mess up your hike than to buy the wrong footwear. The shoes you wear are the most important piece of gear you have and we recommend spending as much money as is necessary to get the pair that works best for you. As you’ll recall from our article about why hiking boots are unnecessary, we recommend something trail running shoes as they’re lightweight and breathable, and typically prefer La Sportiva; but if you have a brand you like better, buy from them. The key is, above all else, to not let someone talk you into wearing full-grain leather hiking boots or waterproof shoes, as these will seriously mess up your feet and make you never want to go hiking again. Running shoes are fine if you have an old pair you’d like to wear and don’t want to buy new shoes, but beware of low tread on slippery surfaces.

Camp sandals. Get out of your hiking shoes and let your feet breathe while in camp by packing camp sandals. It’s a bit extra weight – true – and for the ultralight among you, you’ll probably want to cut this out. But most people will use them and we certainly recommend them. Don’t spaz out about which brand to buy, just take what you have or if you want extra light weight you can buy these.

Tabasco. Not a must-have and if you’re doing long days, anything you eat is going to taste at least acceptable, but Tabasco is a good way to spice up an otherwise dry meal and add a little kick to your evening meal.

No socks at night. A lot of people and websites recommend night socks, but we’re not terribly sure why this is necessary unless you have a phobia about socks or some sort of mental condition that prevents you from sleeping without them. Save the extra weight in your pack and let your feet breathe at night so they’ll be as prepared as they can be for the long day ahead.

Instant coffee. They best way to kick start your day is to get on the trail and get your blood flowing; however, if you’re one of these people who must have their coffee, we recommend Starbucks VIA, Alpine Start, or Cafe Bustelo. Truly, caffeine pills are the way to go if you need an extra kick and want to save yourself some time, but we’re generally purists and avoid this sort of thing.

Take two stoves and two cans of fuel. As the saying goes, “One is none; two is one.” Take two stoves (MSR or Snow Peak) and two cans of fuel (you can't take this on planes and it's much cheaper to buy in person; so if you're travelling to your destination, purchase it there) in case one of them fails. Is that a lot of extra weight? No, not really, but it is slightly more than is strictly necessary. Is the probability of your stove or your fuel failing extremely low? Yes, absolutely. However, if one of them does go out while you’re in the backcountry and you packed an extra stove and an extra can of fuel, you’re going to want to track us down and thank us personally.

Have a backup water filter.  Same logic as the two-stove, two-cans-of-fuel theory above: two is one, one is none. Food and water are critical and having too little of either one can make for a miserable, potentially dangerous trip. Take the extra filter just in case.

Try your meals before you leave for your trip. What’s nearly as bad as not having enough food in the backcountry? Having food that you absolutely hate, but brought with you on your trip because you didn’t have the wisdom and foresight to test it out before you left. Even if you’re relying on extensive reviews (which are rare for backpacking food), try it before you go.

Take Gorilla Tape. Did your tent or backpack just rip and you need to patch it up so you can get back out to safety or continue along your trip? Did your feet form an unexpected blister? Did your shoelace just break and you need a makeshift replacement (Paracord is probably better; see below) to get you out in peace? Gorrilla Tape is the answer. Better than duct tape and useful in a lot of unexpected and unforeseeable scenarios. Tape some to your water bottles if you don’t want to take the full roll.

Pour hot water or boiling water into your Nalgene on cold weather nights. Wrap this up in a sock or piece of clothing and then put it at the foot of your sleeping back for a nice toasty heat source.

Put a headlamp in your Nalgene. Want some extra light in the tent but don’t like the solid blare of your headlamp? Drop it in a Nalgene and hang it from the center of your tent. It provides plenty of light with a nice hue and minimum glare. Some tents have compartments now built in for this, making the water bottle redundant, but in case yours doesn’t, there’s your hack.

Take Paracord. Again, one of those catchalls that’s good in a lot of unexpected and unforeseeable events. Take it with you. It doesn’t weight much and it could be critical in an emergency.

Take short breaks. We probably could have put this closer to the top, but they key to doing big mileage is to eat while you move and to take shorter 3-to-5 or 5-to-10 minute breaks throughout your hike. I personally like 3 minute breaks every so often to give myself a rest, but if you need a few extra minutes occasionally you can stretch it out to 5 or 10. Although some people enjoy taking longer breaks, I generally caution against it as this will kill your mileage per hour.

 

Here are a few bad ideas we came randomly came across on the internet and think you should avoid:

Making your own hiking sticks. Don’t do this. If you’re going to take hiking sticks, and most people do as they’re helpful on technical trail and reduce the load on your knees during downhill descents, buy a reasonably good pair from Black Diamond or some other reputable establishment. You’ll buy them once and they’ll last a long time. If you want to save money here, and this is a good place to save, buy a cheaper pair on amazon with solid reviews. There’s no need to make your own.

Using dots of toothpaste instead of taking the whole tube. Just pack a travel-sized tube if you want to cut the weight, but a full, probably half-used, tube won’t kill you. Just take it. Don’t skimp on necessary things.

Trying to start a fire with cotton balls or cotton pads and Vaseline / petroleum jelly. Alright, if you’re in a pinch, it’s damp, wet, and you really want to impress the other campers, fine. But a) most locations in the backcountry do not allow fires in the first place as it violates the leave no trace policy, can be very destructive to the natural environment, and, oh yeah, wildfires – have you heard of those?; and, b) it’s the 21st century already, there are plenty of commercially available / better solutions for this. Please don't make your own DIY fire starters or attempt to bring them into the backcountry.

Making a stove out of a used cat food can and alcohol. Why. Just why. Take a normal stove as they don’t weight that much and are very reliable (in fact, we recommend taking two; see above). There’s no need for this.

Final Thoughts on the Best Backpacking Hacks

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

— John Muir

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Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Summer 2019

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