10 Skills Every Backpacker Should Have

Whitney Cairns

I started this blog post with the intent of listing the top-10 basic skills that I believe every backpacker should have, but almost as soon as I started putting together my list I thought it would be much more interesting to let you all share what you think are the 10 most important skills to have when spending any extended length of time outdoors.

It’s no secret that I feel very strongly about everyone learning how to properly use a compass, I’ve written about that before on this blog. I was recently asked, and caught off guard, about what I considered to be the ten “essential” outdoor skills. The only reason I hesitated to answer was because I had a hard time narrowing the list down to just ten! When you stop and really think about it, there are so many things that we learn to do in order to be safe and enjoy our time outdoors (pitching a shelter, starting a fire, first aid, navigation, cooking, tying knots, signalling for help, using a knife, etc.).

View Above Trail Camp, Mt Whitney

A Simple Challenge:
Share your list of the top-10 outdoor skills that you think every backpacker should know (and be proficient at) via the comments below. I hadn’t intended to make this a giveaway or formal competition, but as an added incentive I’ll pick the response I think is best and send that person a small gear gift as a token of my appreciation. If you haven’t already figured it out, the more you participate in this blog by sharing your comments and feedback, the more (we) and you gain from it. We’re a community.

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  • Rob B

    Wow, all of the lists cover pretty much what I’d already planned on posting.  But I’ll throw my two cents in:

    1.  Communication–how to get a signal out to the rest of the world if you’re hurt/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.

    2.  How to build and maintain fire–Already covered by everyone else.  Fire’s a huge morale builder and it makes you visible, and yeah, it warms you up too.

    3.  How to obtain and clean water–Note, I don’t say “purify,” ’cause 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.  Risk management–How to avoid unnecessary risks to do what you want or need to do.  Pretty straightforward.

    5.  Navigation–the advent of GPS really ruined map and compass skills for all of us.  People need to understand how to use a map & compass, because eventually, that GPS’ batteries are going to drain out.

    6.  How to 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 gullys or washes, and do it safely.  They should not get lost on their own planned trip.  Same goes for uphill or on flat land.

    7.  Adaptability and improvisation–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.  Pack light, move fast!

    8.  Shelter–you’re going to need it.  Even if it’s in a cave, or an overnight lean-to made with branches and pine boughs.  It’ll make life easier, warmer, and your endurance will be far far better with a couple of night’s good rest.

    9.  How to pack a pack–is it multifunctional?  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!

    10.  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!

    Granted, my list is based off my ‘government-sponsored’ experience.  I’m not one of those Air Force guys that lives in an air conditioned trailer to “rough it.”

  • John Modica

    Brian,
    I believe the largest majority of backpackers crave the outdoor experience, although I still on occasion see some racing down the trail or hooting and hollering thier way through. But thats ok, its what you want to get out of it. I just have to sometimes remind myself to look past the cuben fiber and the 5 to 8 lb base weight as I confess I am a gear nut. I remember thirty some years ago I packed with heavy bulky and sometimes home made junk but had the time of my life. I couldnt start a fire with out several attempts, if it rained I was soaked, it was all very reactive with little preperation as I bumbled down the trail having a blast.
    If all did not go right I would have not been ready.
    I think what most of us are saying is that we also enjoy the woodsmanship skills (and maybe gear) that it takes to take it to another level. A level of comfort or confidence or possibly respect for the places we visit.
    What is it for you, what keeps you going back?

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Thanks for taking the time to chime in with your list Rob. You’ve covered it well especially your #10 which explains how you enjoy poke fun of the Air Force guys :-)

    Your #3 item is a good one. If you’re really in a life or death situation and in need of hydration, what’s more important – boiling water and taking the time and effort to purify it, or getting re-hydrated and dealing with a some of the resulting symptoms after the fact?

    Of course, contracting diarrhea from dirty water will dehydrate you faster than anything and needs to be avoided.

    Good stuff, thanks for sharing!

  • Qz4bhansen

    I think Amy has many useful skills that could be used by Backpackers.

    Bob Hansen
    Host of Survival Woodsmanship
    One and two day classes.

  • John Modica

    As with anything, enjoyment from backpacking can be achieved at all levels of expertise or interaction. A person with a $29 fishing rod can have just as much fun as a person with a $100 fishin rod or one with a $1000 fishing rod.

    All backpacking skills can range in a similar format from all things going fine as it usually does, to I am lost, out of food and water, or someone has fallen and can no longer move down the trail, or bleeding beyond my ability of controlling such a wound.

    Most of our trips go great: the blazed trail is easy to follow and no one gets hurt or lost. This is by far the average for all of us.

    For those that love to bushwhack, then map and compass become important. It is hard to label basic skills as a priority of 1-10 as any skill can become more important than another as situations change.
    Many of us gear nuts love to perfect the use of our gear, applying skills and knowledge along the way. It is important to be prepared out in any wilderness situation; some will make it important, some may realize it is important when they need the skill.

    1.  Navigation
    2.  Finding and preparing water to drink.
    3.  Fire starting without a lighter or matches
    4.  Finding food
    5.  Signaling
    6.  First aid beyond band-aids: burns, bleeding and broken bones
    7.  Shelter building
    8.  Using your gear as it was designed, for maximum performance and enjoyment
    9.  Woodmanship – camp selection, fire safety, knife use, and plant identification
    10.  Stop to smell the roses.  Most of what we see is wild and has taken a long time to become what it is. There is a lot of detail to take in and enjoy in the outdoors.

    Visit, blend in to the point you become invisible, and the outdoors continues as if your were not there, and shows you even more.

    It is whatever you want to make of it.

  • rambler

    Learn about the symptoms, prevention and treatment of hypothermia.

    Learn what to do if you become lost and that includes learning how not to panic if you become lost.

    Practice using a compass to travel in a straight direction in a thick woods.

    Know who to contact if reporting an emergency.  

    What’s in your day pack?  Could you comfortably survive a night out if you had to in the worst conditions you might expect to find in your area of the hike?  For example, daytime in some hiking areas can be in the 70’s, but nights in the same area can be in the 20’s .

  • John

    Know when you are too tired to make a good decision. (“I’ve been fording streams all day, but I’m SURE I can rock-hop this one!”)

  • Guest

    I’m probably going to make it a blog post on my own blog. But here is my list.
    1. preplanning skills. Map reading, weather reports and research are folded in here, including water sources, any waterless stretches on the route, whether there are class 2 or more passes, snow levels… 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.
    2. Navigation skills – 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 topo map and pick the RIGHT trail. Cannot underscore that signs are not always present and you cannot rely on them.
    3. 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 H3!! off the mountain.
    4. How to build a fire.
    5. The limitations of electronics. Do not expect things with batteries to work well in subzero temps. 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. Corollary: understand how the SPOT is supposed to work beyond the OK and 911 buttons and the ramifications if you push 911 in a panic. LEARN TO USE THE THINGS BEFORE YOU NEED THEM. This includes the judgment guiding when to use them.
    6. What to take. 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.
    7. First aid is what you know, not what you take. Find a wilderness first aid course or read the NOLS book on the subject.
    8. If inexperienced, take a few buddies, hopefully one or two of them having more experience than you. The ideal number is four – no one has to be alone, even if someone is hurt and two have to go for help.
    9. Don’t take risks in snow. Steep snow slopes require skills and gear many backpackers don’t have. Snow bridges over running water are dangerous – water steals your warmth 200% faster than cold air, hypothermia is minutes away if you fall in. Ice axe misuse can be fatal. Take a mountaineering class before spending a lot of time navigating snow.
    10.  Gear failures are frequently failure to use the gear properly. Too much condensation in the tent? Did you pitch it on grass? Open vents, guy out the fly completely? 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.
    11. Most important – leave a trip plan with pictures of you and your gear. Leave your reliable person instructions on how to call for help. Don’t assume non-backpacking folk will figure it out. If you are missing they will panic. Panic helps no one. Information on your trailhead and your itinerary guide SAR in starting to find you. 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.
    Brought to you by just another Search and Rescue volunteer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=676151115 Jan Nerone

    There are some great lists on here! Here is my two cents, in no particular order: 

    1. Water –
    locating it, picking a good source, treating it

    2. First
    Aid – duh

    3. Navigation
    – know more than how to follow a blaze. Know more than how to read a map.
    Know more than just how to use a compass. You may never need it, but that
    one time you do, it will save your life.

    4. Shelter
    – how to pick a good camp, how to set up a camp with or without a tent

    5. Fire – know how to start one, know
    how to use it for warmth & cooking

    6. Improvisation
    – know how to compensate for weather, gear failure, getting lost,
    creatures, etc. Make a good plan, but if the plan fails, MAKE A NEW ONE.

    7. Food –
    know how to select trail food, how to prepare that food, how to gather
    food at need, how to store it (including in bear country), how to pack it.

    8. Gear –
    know how to pick good gear, how to use it, how to repair it. This includes
    the ability to choose clothing to keep you warm, dry or cool as needed.

    9. People
    skills – maintain good relations within your group, make good group decisions, get along with other
    hikers, respect landowners, have no trouble with law enforcement, cadge a
    ride when needed, etc. Positive attitude is a must for this skill to work.

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

  • Taedawood

    1.  Proper Conditioning.
    You don’t have to be an athlete to hike but you need some level of physical conditioning and the understanding of your abilities and limitations.
    2.  Navigation Skills.
    This includes map and compass, spatial orientation, and ability to analyze natural signs, such as the sun and stars.
    3.  Foot Care.
    I include this separately from 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.
    4.  Thermalregulation.
    This includes knowledge of what clothing to bring, what to wear at any given time, layering, protection from sun, rain, and cold, and improvisation skills.
    5.  Basic First Aid.
    6.  Gear knowledge.
    So many folks don’t know how to use the equipment they bring, including a tent, stove, fire-starting equipment.
    7.  Proper campsite selection.
    8.  How to throw a bear bag.
    9.  Water Treatment.
    10.  Ability to remain cool and collected in an emergency/high stress situation.  This skill is often assumed but not always attained.  It is partially determined by one’s personality but can also be honed with lots of experience, particularly in high stress situations.

    This list is not necessarily in order and mimics a lot of previous lists with a few different emphases. 

  • toots

    Dave Hahn of RMI said something along the lines of “wanting to learn the Earth” as a reason why he has chosen the path he has taken and how he has become a living legend in the mountains. All of the “skills” listed above are great, but very few of them are dire necessary for the bulk of people who hike. When folks determine what trails or wacks they will take for their trip it is more important to look at the surrounding topo than the direct route. Stop and smell the roses…… be aware of your surroundings and be aware of who you are as a climber and outdoorsman and the rest will fall into place.

  • Hikepurchase

    This is all good. We do a lot of off trail packing, but I think there is some skills that apply to all. My basic skills are as follows:

    1. pre-planning a trip and having at-least one backup plan. bring gear/cloths that can be used for multiple things and changing climates. Stay flexible and willing to consider others suggestions.

    2. generally be in good condition and accept your skill level limits, not the limits others think you can do (learned that one from my wife). I have seen multiple times were people were put into bad situations thanks to their friends.

    3. map and compass reading are a must. Finding trail junctions or the right canyon to follow or the right pass to go over, finding water, getting to a place to meet other people, finding a remote ranger station for help, finding a alternate way out, etc. Yes, this is a big one for me.

    4. when thing do not go as planned, tell yourself to stop, calm down, rethink and consider multiple options before continuing (if the situation allows).

    5. fire starting is important, but if you are backpacking you probably have the gear you need to survive outdoors. Eating cold freeze dried meals sucks, but you can do it.

    6. water preparation is important and you should always have a back-up like a filter straw (pills are not that affective on Giardia). But in all reality, unless you are close to a trail head or high use area, the risk of getting Giardia is low in the mountains. dehydrate at altitude or any outdoor environment and you are putting your life at great risk.

    7.I liked the comments about pacing yourself. fore the sake of safety, mental and physical state, this should be on the list.

    8. learn to use the equipment you have well. then learn what else it could be used for in a pinch. versatility is the name of the game. I myself have tried out new things on the trail rather than at home first, bad idea. the thing that made it not so bad is I always have a backup plan.

    well I am sure there is more stuff but this looks like a good start for now. Be safe out there and have fun…….

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    All very sound advice for sure. It’s important to pack for what you will need and know what is in your pack. Thanks for leaving your feedback :)

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    John, that has to be a classic. Knowing your limitations. Thanks for pointing this one out.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Excellent in-depth feedback! Thank you for taking the time to write this up and share it here with all of us. With both SAR/NOLs experience combined, you know it has to be a worthwhile reading list.

    If you do share this on your blog, and you should, please share a link with us so that we can point to your blog too. I don’t know your name so I’ll just say – thanks lorister!

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Great list Jan, thanks for taking the time to share it. I especially like your #10!

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    You’re right that some of these have already been mentioned, but that’s fine. I wanted to get as many points of view as possible. For those that aren’t sure, this serves as a great laundry list to choose from.

    I see so many people who have not ever considered the importance of #7. It blows my mind that people will buy great gear and take the time to hike for miles and then pitch a tent in a really stupid location.

    Your #3 is near and dear to my heart :-) Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    This is the first official Dave Hahn reference :) I don’t disagree with what you’ve said at all, but also consider the skills listed here in the context of most hikers and backpackers, many of whom have little or no experience being in the outdoors. Having a simple list to remind them is an essential tool to assist in their safety and enjoyment.

    And remember I asked, what are 10 skills every backpacker should have? Not, what are ten survival skills… That would have been a very different list I’m sure. Thanks for you comments, everyone’s opinion counts.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    That was making for a great list, why did you stop short of the last two? Don’t leave us hanging! Regardless, the skills you’ve listed are spot-on. Thanks for taking the time to share them.

  • Jadedad

    1   Dick Tracy jr detective decoder ring
    2   A copy of medical directives and signed Will
    3   half a tube of Brylcream hair tonic
    4  Odor eaters shoe inserts
    5  Solar powered dvd player with built in screen
    6  Copy of Grizzly Man dvd
    7  Boy Scout code of honor and manual booklet
    8  four cliff bars per day
    9  Invisibility cloak
    10 Bernzomatic propane torch
     

     

  • ManiacJWJ

    Great list.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Dick Tracy and Brylcream? You’re showing your age…

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    I believe you are the first person to suggest that carrying out your poop AND your pee is a core skill. That’s a little too extreme for me and I’ve had some experience with carrying out my own poop. I certainly do appreciate you going into detail, you’ve certainly thought about it.

    You have two number 5s and the second one is actually the same as your number 2.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    MACGYVERISM – that’s awesome!

  • peabody3000

    he is only suggesting carrying out the toilet paper. if people wonder why its because in dry climates it can surface and blow around largely intact for years

  • Amytys

    In no particular order…

    1) Packing for the expected, and unexpected, weather.  If you take the right combination of shelter, sleeping bag, and clothes you don’t need any fire-starting skills.  I’d really like to hike with the person who could make a fire when it was raining for 3 days straight.

    2) Water intake.  So many people carry 2-3 liters of water and hike by water source after water source.  It’s rare that I carry more than 16 oz.  I do, however, rest and drink 32-48 oz if the distance between water sources is going to be 8 miles or more before setting out with my 16 oz.  I also carry powdered Gatorade.  No issues with dehydration, and man is my pack light.

    3) Awareness.  It’s great to know how to use a map and compass, but if you left over-confidence get the better of you and don’t check your bearings against a map you can get turned around in a hurry.  Protect that map in a Ziploc so you can use it in inclement weather.

    4) Stretching.  If you’re going to be doing 20+ mile days, knowing a few yoga poses and stretching in the morning, at the end of breaks, and at the end of the day can really help to keep the stiffness away.

    5) Taking breaks.  Taking breaks is indeed a skill.  Way to many hikers just keep walking, when they should be applying Glide to problem areas, shedding a layer to keep from over-heating, stopping to tend to a hot spot, stopping to eat, or just taking a needed rest.  Ignoring what your body is telling you can lead to problems.  On a 22 mile day, I might take 2 90 minute breaks, and a few 30 minute breaks.

    6) Double-checking that you packed everything.  Geeze – you wouldn’t believe how many hikers I had to bail out with fresh batteries, Imodium, moleskin, and the like.  I hear, “Oh, I forgot that at home” way too often.

    7) Patience!  It’s not a race – enjoy your hike.  Don’t be too fixated on the end-goal.  If it happens, it happens, but remember that the worst day on the trail is better than the best day at work.  Patience is especially important when hiking with a group of people, particularly if there are new faces in the group.  Patience will minimize issues with conflicting personalities, stress, and frustration.

    8) Experimentation.  Don’t be afraid to try new things, particularly when it translates into carrying a lighter load.  Use weekend overnight trips in familiar trails to experiment with things like tarps, sandals, combining summer-weight bags with clothes, and other ultralight techniques.

    9) Taking the right amount of food.  25 years of backpacking, and I still take twice as much food as I consume on any given trip.  This is the hardest skill to learn, IMO.

    10) Keeping gear clean and dry.  As an ultralight backpacker, I need to make sure whatever I’m taking for insulation stays in top condition.  Choosing the proper shell materials, making sure a sleeping bag never leaves the pack unless a clean and dry ground sheet is ready, taking puffy layers off before I start to sweat, etc. is second-nature to me.  I wash my gear between trips.  As a result, all my gear looks, and performs, as new.

  • Katt Camps

    I cannot agree more about the common sense.  I taught my hubby to backpack and after the first night out car camping he thought he was Bear Grillis.  Thankfully he is really athletic but we all need to know our own limitations and be keen of the limitations of those in their group.

  • http://twitter.com/janwillembol Jan Willem Bol

    I like your number 7. Patience. (Most of the time) it´s not about reaching your goal, it’s about the journey getting there.

  • Kamptroll

    Hey nobody is putting how to get along with campmates on the list??

  • Gareth

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  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Email sent – thanks for leaving a comment!

  • Elio from Italy

    Well, for Toilet Paper problem, instead of bringing it back with you, wasting a lot of ziplock bags and gloves (creating unrecyclable waste and so helping destroying the environment!) i just burn the used toilet paper with my bic lighter. It burns fast, leaving back just a little amount of good old cinder.
    If you love hiking in the woods, respect the Earth and stop acting in the classic consumistic way.

  • ptoddf

    Burning TP is a bad idea. First, it doesn’t all burn. The part that is wet with feces will not burn. Second, big risk of starting a fire in the dry High Sierra where I hike. Much better and more respectful to carry out TP. Note that TP is NOT pee! I do not carry out pee or crap!

  • ptoddf

    NOWHERE did I even suggest carrying out poop and pee. For one who proofreads for numbers, you sure don’t read closely!
    I’ve thought about it because sanitation for me and care for the environment and others is important. I have a proven solution that works for me. Sorry if it seems a bit “anal” to you!

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Listen: I have a “be nice” comment policy on my blog. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even you. I do not want to have to censor or delete any comments unless they are SPAM or offensive, but I will. Please be positive and constructive with your comments or risk being banned from leaving future ones. My blog, my rules!

  • http://www.facebook.com/monica.willis Monica Willis

    In response to #3…I usually tie my cord to a rock. Then I sling that baby onto a limb and viola!

  • Kevin

    Absolutely I would add this as a single item to my list – understanding group dynamics is an essential skill. The people with you are your most versatile and valuable asset.

  • Brian W. Fullford

    Read through a good number of these. The word “skills” definitely has a broader meaning, and it should. “We” tend to think of skills as physical tasks, when in truth the mind itself needs to be trained as does any muscle in our bodies. That being said this is my list (5 years after the fact). I’m sure I’ll offer nothing new to the thread, but a nugget will trigger something in a reader.

    1. Organization – The hike starts here. There is a reason why we do pack checks. There is a reason why we defer to “locals”, or those familiar with the region, to help us plan appropriately. Organization is a skill that, if not practiced, will lend the hiker to assume preparadeness. A bag too heavy, the wrong clothing or a failure to know weather conditions puts one in a potentially deadly situation. ALWAYS HAVE A TRAIL PLAN, AND ALWAYS GIVE IT TO SOMEONE NOT HIKING WITH YOU!

    2. Orienteering – This is one that has been mentioned, but it should be on everyone’s list. When Geraldine Largay’s body was found in the Maine woods the news report was heartbreaking. Something as simple as leaving trail to go to the bathroom is revealed to not be simple. One must be able to navigate by nature. When all else fails the hiker is not out of options.

    3. Compass – The perfect segue. If orienteering is one’s last resort, the compass should be the first. I had read Geraldine did have a compass. Maybe she lost it. Had she set her location, and known here direction, she might have made it back on trail. What she thought was four miles from safety was actually two. Sadly she was known to have a bad sense of direction. Cairns and blazes are gifts from the mindful stewards of our land, but things happen. Weather. Vandals. DO NOT EVER HIKE WITHOUT A COMPASS! KNOW HOW TO USE THAT COMPASS!

    4. Self Awareness – I’m leaning heavily on Geraldine because we can learn from her. Geraldine was hiking alone. She was prone to anxiety attacks. As noted her ability to know her direction was poor. First and foremost take hikes that are short, well traveled and give you access to resources. Make sure the hike has cell coverage. Get a satellite phone, or GPS locator. Know how you handle yourself on trail before putting yourself in situations of stress. Don’t think you’re ready, know you’re ready.

    5. Basic First Aid – Not much detail needed hear. Know how to mend a cut, alleviate bleeding and stabilize broken limbs. Know what can harm you, plant or animal, in the area you’ll be hiking. Talk to outfitters, or park rangers, about the types of injuries they normally see prior to hiking. This will allow you to update your skill set.

    6. Climbing Skills – Having hiked Knife Edge in Baxter State Park I can’t stress enough one should know how to climb. While how to climb might seem obvious, there are techniques to optimize your strength, limiting fatigue. Knowing proper foot and hand holds are critical, along with body positioning. If you live near a climbing gym I recommend joining. Even working auto belay routes can improve both your physical strength, but your minds ability to see solutions. If you’re really limber bouldering is a great resource, and honestly how many of us hike with rope, harness, carabiners and cams. :)

    7. Gear – We buy the gear because it meets our needs. But do we know how to use it? Your GPS watch, your hiking poles or your water filtration system. And if it breaks, or malfunctions, how do you get it back to order? I’ve seen many people frustrated because “it just doesn’t work”. Never expect something to just work. Expect it to fail. Expect to get confused. And more importantly, have a backup to the gear if possible. Do you know how your glasses can be used to help start a fire (more about fires later)? Maybe even catch fish? Gear is anything you take with you.

    8. Maps – Which leads to map reading. Do you know how to read the elevation lines? Where to find water (don’t get me started on folks who don’t plan hikes based on known water supply sources)? Much like the compass the map is CRITICAL to your survival. True story. My first attempt to hike The Foothills Trail was a failure. My dog and I started at Table Rock because I wanted to knock out the elevation gain first. I only had the minimal map. No bigger map. No book. Those first 9 miles were awful. More humid than expected. I spilled my Platypus so we were low on water before even reaching Sassafras Mountain. The dog was spent. I did not have enough trail detail as all but one water supply source on the minimal map was dry. Lesson learned.

    9. Fire – Another obvious one. Cotton balls. Dryer sheets. Petroleum jelly. Flint. Situating wood. Fire safety. Not much needs to be said about fire.

    10. Meteorology – Going back to gear failing, and overcoming it. Always check the sky. Are clouds rolling in? What do they look like? What could it mean? This may be a very minor skill, but anytime I’m hiking above tree line, in New Hampshire for example, I’m always aware of what’s rolling in. Weather conditions can change quickly, and if you’re only looking down you may lose valuable minutes.

    Thanks for reading.

  • reid

    i might be late to the party but ill throw my list in.

    1. mental strength/endurance- wilderness adventuring isn’t easy and im sure most of us agree thats a good thing. you can be in marathon caliber physical shape with Everest grade gear but if you dont have the mental strength to sleep through a night with wolves howling or start a fire in windy weather, or know when its unsafe to have a fire in windy weather all your in for is a miserable/dangerous time.

    2. navigation- navigation is imperative, especially for the more ambitious backpackers. if you go 10 miles into the wilderness and have no idea how to get out that is not going to be fun. my favorite technique is the good old map and compass. i always have a backup small compass on me in addition to my more advanced nav compass. GPS systems are great but in my mind unreliable due to all the things that can happen, the battery can die there can be technical failures but a map and compass never run out of power. but whatever works.

    3. physical conditioning- to be perfectly honest you should meet basic physical standards if you are backpacking. you can burn up to 8000 calories a day.

    4. water- water is critical. you have to have skill sets with water. its almost impossible to carry more than a few days supply. you have to know where to find water, what the reliability of that source is, how to treat it to make it safe. here in new england water isn’t much of a issue but you still have to be able to find it. then theres treating it and having the ability to treat it. boil, iodine, filter whatever but having backups never hurts.

    5. shelter- you need to know you are safe and protected for the night even if that means making a bush shelter. i like hammocks and in NE thats no issue with the trees but you have to know how to set up your shelter. if you have a tent you need the room to set it up.

    6. trip planning- you have to have a solid plan. where are we going, where are we going to spend the night, wheres the water, what are the threats, what gear should we bring.

    7.survival skills/first aid- i am lumping these together because the end goal is the same and that is to be ok when things go wrong. some people get advanced and learn how to make fire with a bow drill and things like that but a lighter is still way better. survival and first aid are very in depth and im not going to go to deep but you should always know the basics.

    8. know your limits- rome was not built in a day. no one just walked up Everest. learning difficult things can take time and being over ambitious does no one any good. it took me 3 tries to climb mt Washington and it might take me 3 tries to climb Denali when i get that far.

    9. food- i dont think this needs any explanation

    10. ingenuity- as the army says improvise adapt and overcome, i myself am not a veteran but that does not mean that i cant appreciate the truth of that statement. the ability to improvise come up with quick solutions and overcome problems with limited assets is never a bad thing.