Essential Backpacking Skills: Comfort and Safety on the Trail

By Justin Powell

Backpacking is a great way for families to experience the outdoors together. It involves hiking to a destination and camping overnight - sometimes involving multiple nights and multiple campsites.

Backpacking is more immersive than a day hike but also requires certain skills to be done safely and comfortably. You need to have all of the supplies you will need for the duration of your trip. More importantly, you need to be able to handle situations that could arise in the wildness. If an injury occurs, for example, you need to be able to treat the injury without medical assistance being readily available.

Seven Essential Backpacking Skills

Navigation & Orienteering:

Since your family is traveling in a wilderness without street signs, it is important that you have an updated trail map for your trip. It is equally important that you know how to read the map and navigate using it. A handheld GPS unit can be a useful tool, but could get damaged or lose battery power. Being able to use your map to navigate is important and should be practiced before a backpacking trip. Try using a map and compass on a few day hikes before setting out on a backpacking trip. If you have a handheld GPS, you should also practice use that in combination with your map.

Pitching Your Tent:

A tent that has been set up properly is important to your family's comfort. In the event of inclement weather, it could also be important to your safety. Prior to setting out into the wilderness, be sure to learn how to set up your tent and practice in your yard. Ideally, you should be able to pitch your tent in a few minutes.

Starting a Fire:

Campfires can be both a way to cook your food and a source of heat on a cold night. For safety, fires should always be created in a suitable fire pit. You should practice gathering tinder and getting a fire started with a single match, so you can conserve matches in the wilderness.

Cooking in the Wilderness:

Cooking meals in the wilderness provides certain challenges that aren't present in the comfort of your kitchen. When backpacking, you need to carry in all of your food and cooking implements. Hot meals need to be cooked over a campfire or camp stove. When you break camp, you will need to bring all of your garbage and gear back out with you. Planning ahead and a little practice will help ensure success on your outdoor excursion.

Related Article: Basic Camping Cuisine: Good Eats for Beginning Trail Chefs

Situational Awareness:

Backpacking in the wilderness means experiencing an environment that is different from what you typically encounter. Being aware of your surroundings allows you and your family to take in the natural wonders around you, like wildlife, unique plants, geological features and beautiful landscapes. Situational awareness is also important to identifying hazards around you and your family, like unsafe terrain or dangerous wildlife. Taking in everything around is an important part of maximizing your safety and enjoyment while backpacking.

First Aid:

When backpacking in the wilderness, medical assistance isn't as readily available as it would be at home. You'll need to be bring a first aid kit and be prepared to treat injuries in the field until you can get medical attention. At least one parent in your family should familiarize yourself with basic first aid. Ideally, that parent should receive first aid training like the American Red Cross Wilderness First Aid certification. However, any first aid skills will prove useful in the event an injury occurs.

Leave No Trace

There is a saying that backpackers should "take only pictures and leave only footprints." Whenever we enter the woods, we need to ensure we keep the wilderness pristine and wild. Be sure that whatever you pack in you pack back out. You also want to leave whatever you find, respect wildlife and be considerate of other backpackers. Enjoy the wilderness for what it is and be sure to leave it how it is for the next visitor.

A little preparedness goes a long way toward ensuring your family's enjoyment and safety while backpacking. Be sure to plan ahead, bring everything you need and have the skills necessary for a fun and safe outdoor experience.