It’s easy to forget that a lot of bushcraft and survival skills practiced today, recreationally or as part of a survival/preparedness strategy, were once used extensively by explorers and adventurers on long distance expeditions. These explorers had in turn learned many of those skills from first nations peoples when they realized that their style of exploration and travel didn’t work in extreme environments.
During the era of exploration and empire building travel and exploration often relied on lots of equipment and ‘creature comforts’ carried by massive teams of porters. This meant that expeditions couldn’t move very fast or cover much ground.
Thanks to explorers such as British Hudson Bay Company employee Samuel Hearne, who after two failed expeditions to find The Coppermine River recognized that by adopting the Indian strategy of light weight travel coupled with foraging on the journey he could extend the range of his expeditions and reach his goals.
Likewise 19th Century American outdoors writer George Washington ‘Nessmuk’ Sears, one of the most respected outdoorsmen of his era, was an advocate of a lightweight approach to camping so that porters could be dispensed with in favor of a therapeutic solo experience out of doors.
What they knew, and many others have found over time, is that by packing lighter and relying on their skills rather than their equipment their expeditions were more successful. This is one of the most important thing to remember as we prepare for long distance hikes today.
As we prepare for a long distance hike the need to pack light is dictated first and foremost by our physiology, as much as we would like to think we can carry huge weights over vast distances most of us can’t and even those who can won’t be able to enjoy a hike if they are carrying too much weight.
As a general rule you should aim to keep the weight of your pack to no more than a third of your body weight, and less if you can.
Yes it is true that military personnel often carry significantly more than that with immense loads of up to ninety pounds, remember though on your hiking trip you won’t have to carry spare ammunition for your own rifle and the section automatic weapons or mortars, grenades and other military hardware so there is no excuse for your pack being that heavy.
Carrying more than you need though is a sure way to make your hiking trip a miserable experience. If you have a long hike to your camping spot you will even notice that wearing a pair of heavy leather boots tires you out much more than light weight fabric boots so imagine what carrying a cook pot, frying pan, knife, fork, spoon, chopping board, kitchen knife, plate and bowl would feel like.
Conversely, going overboard with your weight saving can get a little silly, I know of people who have cut their tooth brush in half and drilled holes in the handle of their spoon to try to save a little weight. Sometimes you will need to carry a slightly heavier bag, in winter for example you will need a warmer sleeping bag and heavier clothing but if you can save weight you should, it will save you a lot of sore shoulders, tired legs and discomfort.
So what should you pack?
The kit you pack for your hike will be dictated by the specifics of your expedition, the climate you will be hiking in, the season, the terrain you are expecting, the number of people in your party and many other factors.
The kit list I’ll outline here is based on my experiences of many, many long distance expeditions in temperate, sub tropic and arctic climates. Your kit can be split into a few basic categories; clothing, shelter, food, emergency, load bearing, tools and personal hygiene. Within each of these categories some adjustment might be required depending on the conditions you are planning for.
Backpack; for long distance hikes this should have comfortable shoulder straps and a sturdy waist strap to take the weight off your shoulders. Your waist strap will take anything up to 90% of the weight of your backpack from your shoulders.
This is an important consideration on long hikes as even though you will have packed as light as possible when you add up the weight of your food you could still be carrying sixty pounds for many miles of hiking each day. The waist belt transfers the weight of your pack to your hips rather than your shoulders and reduces the strain on your shoulders and back.
In terms of capacity you need to be looking at backpacks with between a 65 (3966 cubic inches) and 100 litre (6102 cubic inches) capacity. The larger packs will be useful in colder climates where extra clothing and heavier sleeping bags add bulk, but hopefully not too much weight.
How you configure your load will be important, whether you choose a pack with lots of outer pockets or a simple alpine style pack with no side pockets you will need to follow this basic rule; heavy items should go at the top of the pack and as close to your back as possible, this allows the weight to be transferred to the packs harness properly instead of hanging as a dead weight in the bottom of the pack.
Your clothing should be suitable for the worst conditions you can realistically expect and must include as a minimum;
- Walking boots; these must provide good ankle support for rocky and uneven terrain. You need to recognize the limitations of boots in very wet conditions, very wet humid environments will be too much for your boots you are going to get wet feet so consider ones that will dry quickly, leather boots are great but in very wet conditions they will stay wet for a long time and over the period of a long expedition the health of your feet will suffer and conditions such as trench foot might become an issue. Consider quick drying canvas boots as an alternative.
- Waterproof trousers and jacket; expensive breathable options are available but take my word for it, if you are hiking a tough trail or are in very humid conditions you are still going to get soaked with sweat, consider something like a waterproof poncho for a bit more breathability and accept the fact that you are going to get a bit wet and will need to change into dry clothes at the end of the day.
- Hat and gloves, yes even in summer, an unexpected cold snap or a tumble into a river or stream might chill you and in particular having a hat might help you warm back up. These items are as much a part of your emergency kit as they are your clothing.
- Warm over layer (a lightweight down jacket or similar, I carry one that packs up no larger than your average can of coke which I use all the time even in the Summer). In cold environments you will have to increase the number of layers you carry and wear, but the layering is important. Layering your clothing is far more thermally and weight efficient than relying on a single heavy layer although if you are heading out into very snowy condition an heavy waterproof insulating layer will be essential too. This will prevent your layers collecting snow which will then melt into your clothes, this outer layer should have the ability to shed that moisture.
- Clothes to wear;
- Pants, these should be hard wearing and flexible, they should not restrict your movements. Consider as well the potential discomfort of a bulky belt underneath the waist strap of your backpack, do you really need belt loops?
- Underwear and socks, these should not be made of material that retains moisture, something that wicks moisture away from your skin, coupled with a good personal hygiene regime will help prevent sweat rashes, fungal infections and unpleasant odours, all very important considerations and very real risks on long distance expeditions.
- base/mid layer; these will be your primary clothing layers in most climates and should be made of a material that will transport moisture away from your body, materials such as cotton might be comfortable but will trap moisture against your skin and will not be suitable for activities such as hiking where you will be exerting yourself. A light layer to wear closest to your skin and a slightly heavier layer such as a long sleeved micro fleece shirt will be ideal.
- Spare Clothes; you should carry spare pants, base layer, mid layer and several sets of spare underwear and socks. You should not need to carry, and will not have space to carry, extra sets of over layers and winter jackets. Your spare clothes should be kept dry, you can change into them at night if you are in a humid environment or in an emergency if you have become saturated. As horrible as it sounds, after you have had a comfortable sleep in your dry clothes change back into your previous days clothes even if they are still a bit wet from sweat or rain and get your spare clothes back into you pack to keep them dry you will be grateful of dry clothes every night and it will make a huge difference to the quality of the sleep you get. If your hike is long enough, then you can wash your clothes with a bit of soap or washing up liquid from your hygiene kit, never carry more than one change of clothes, or three sets of underwear it will be a waste of weight just wash as you go.
Your clothing is your first line of shelter and defence from the elements but next comes whatever you are planning to spend the night in, on and under.
- Carry Mat (therma-rest, foam pad or equivalent); something to keep insulate you from the cold of the ground is vital, to save weight you can build one from spruce boughs, leaves or sticks but on a planned and well provisioned hike rather than a bug-out scenario you can save space for one. If weight and space is a premium though I would always choose to improvise a bed rather than waste space in my pack with one of theses.
- Sleeping Bag; this should be suitable for the worst conditions you expect on your hike, a summer bag in a warm or temperate climate might only weigh a couple of kilos and fold up such smaller than your spare clothes. A Winter sleeping bag on the other hand might take up a third of the space in your pack and weigh three to five kilos. Consider this as you prepare, it is one of the reasons that you will need a larger pack for winter expeditions.
- Tent/tarp; I always like to be able to see the sky when I am hiking so sleeping under a tarp or simple fly sheet has great appeal but in severe conditions a tent provides much better protection from the wind and a degree of added privacy if required. Tarps are lighter weight and generally easier to pitch, but this is a decision that may need to be based on the needs of a group rather than an individual if you are hiking with a party. If you are staying in tents it is much more weight efficient to share a three man tent between three people than for each person to carry an entire smaller tent. Someone can carry the poles and pegs, another the fly sheet and another the ground sheet, I’d never carry anything larger than three man though, at that point things tend to get too heavy and too large so if your party is larger than three you will just have to carry more than one tent.
Camp stove and enough fuel for your entire trip. If you can cut back weight by cooking on a campfire on a long distance hike it might be wise as a stove, and particularly fuel is very heavy. Another advantage of the camp fire option is that campfires, unlike camp stoves, are great for morale and for drying clothes.
My choice on expedition is always to have a camp fire if I can, reasons not to have a camp fire might include fire restriction in forested areas in Summer due to forest fire risks, local laws prohibiting fires in conservation areas and national parks, camp site rules regarding open fires.
So if you do need to take a stove go for something that is easy to refuel, on your long distance hike you might be on the trail for several weeks and it will not be possible to carry all the fuel you need from the very beginning. Instead you will have to rely on resupply, as you will with your food, you will need to choose a stove that runs of a fuel that is easy to procure. There are wood burning stoves on the market but if you can’t have a camp fire then can you really use one of those?
A stove that can burn multiple fuels which can be found in even the smallest of villages or settlements anywhere in the world is what I would recommend. There are plenty of very light weight gas stoves on the market but you can’t always get the right fuel canister for them, instead consider something that will burn multiple common fuels including gasoline such as the Coleman or MSR wisperlite range. You can get gasoline anywhere, in any country, wherever you are hiking, and if the stove also burns kerosene, diesel, white spirit and paraffin you should be able to resupply anywhere.
Mess kit; you won’t need anything other than a single cooking pot, mug and spoon.
Water bottle, on hikes in drier climates you should probably carry two, they should each contain at least a litre and I would suggest they have wide mouths, this makes them easier to refill from streams.
Water purification tablets; yes you can boil your water to make it safe to drink but you might not want to stop to boil water at the time you will fill up your bottles so you can rely on puritabs They are very light and convenient to use.
Food; the food you pack is really up to and your tastes but let me give you a few guidelines;
Dehydrated food will save weight but only pack it if you are sure you will have enough water to rehydrate them. In temperate and arctic climates this is never likely to be a problem but if you are going to be hiking in arid regions consider the need to preserve your water and still be able to eat.
Pack calorie rich food that will give you plenty of energy for your hike, on average to hike all day under normal circumstances and not lose weight you would need to consume 3500 calories daily. If you are going to take on any severe terrain or hike in the winter you will need even more calories to sustain your energy and weight.
Do not pack tinned food it’s far too heavy, pack food that comes in foil or plastic packets instead.
Consider military ration packs such as MRE’s or British Army arctic ration packs, not only do these contain the meals you need but all the snack foods you will need to make up the calories that you need to take in.
Hot drinks; pack plenty, whether your preference is for tea, coffee or hot chocolate a hot drink is a great end, or start, to the day and might be life saving if you were to become hypothermic during a winter expedition or take a tumble in to a freezing river.
- Repair tape and sewing kit; being able to carry out basic repairs to your tent, tarp and clothing might be essential to keep your long distance hiking trip a long distance hiking trip rather than having to call it off early due to broken gear.
- First aid kit (minimum contents)
- Plasters (Band-Aids)
- Antiseptic wipes
- Latex gloves
- Pain killers
- Triangular bandage
- Absorbent wound dressings (various sizes)
- Blister treatment
- Compression bandage
- Mobile phone with full charge and spare battery
- Spare batteries for torch
- Space blanket or survival bag; you may have all the shelter you need in the form of your sleeping bag and tent or tarp but could you put that all together if you were injured, a broken arm perhaps? You should be able to get into a survival bag without too much difficulty and the shelter it provides might be enough to save your life. They are generally bright colors too so they should make it easier to spot you if you needed to be rescued.
- Whistle; for signalling in an emergency, the internationally recognised distress signal is six blasts of the whistle, repeated every minute, the same signal can be flashed with a torch.
- You could also consider carrying pocket flares and other emergency equipment but I wouldn’t normally carry these when I am hiking but possibly if I’m travelling in a canoe or kayak, especially at sea.
- Lighter or matches
- Pocket knife
- Head torch (a head torch is a must for pitching a tent after dark and keeping your hands free to perform tasks at night)
- Map and compass; I always navigate by map and compass on hikes but if you do choose to use a GPS always pack map and compass anyway, electronic devices have a habit of breaking and running out of batteries and you should not rely on them.
- Toothbrush and paste
- Wet wipes
- Microfiber towel
- Liquid soap in a SMALL container, do not carry a whole bottle of shampoo.
There may be some circumstances where you will need to carry additional equipment for a specific environment but these are the basics and I would never normally carry less than this for any reason.
Having all this kit won’t do you any good though unless you learn to use it and develop your camp craft.
Becoming a Master of Camp Craft
Practice and experience make a huge difference to the success of your camping trip, make sure that when you unpack your tent at the camp site it’s not the first time you have ever had it out of the bag.
In heavy rain you can’t afford to take an hour to work out which pole goes where, you need to get that tent up within a few minutes and with a bit of practice there is no reason that you shouldn’t be able to get a two man tent up within ten minutes.
This is the kind of practice you need to be getting. The same goes for your stove and cooking arrangements, make sure you know how to attach the fuel and how to put it out properly whether or not you can store it with the fuel canister detached.
Learn how to cook in one pot so you can save weight when you are hiking and so you can save on washing up afterwards. Make do by eating out of the cooking pot and just using a spoon, if you’re going the whole hog and cooking yourself a steak on a camp fire cut it with your pocket knife don’t carry a steak knife with you on your trip.
Understand how to make your camping place comfortable, understand how to use your equipment to insulate yourself from the ground and stay warm, that’s what your carry mat is for.
Develop a routine for pitching and striking camp, these routines should be automatic and practiced so that you can keep you and all your kit dry in bad weather and be able to get into shelter as quickly as possible should you need to in an emergency.
Route Planning and Preparation
Although a significant part of your preparation will be the packing of your kit remember too that rather than relying solely on the equipment and technology at your disposal you will need to research the area you are going to, plan your route and become familiar with the area. This knowledge that you gain in the preparation stage of your hike is what makes the difference between a failed and successful hike.
Make sure you have a precise knowledge of the route you will be traveling and leave those details with someone when you head out on your hike. These details will help a search and rescue team find you if they need to and telling someone when to expect you back will allow them to alert the authorities if you don’t return, this simple step has saved lives in the past, and failing to do so has cost lives.
Just telling someone where you are going isn’t enough. If you don’t get back when you say you will how will they know exactly where to direct a search and rescue effort? You can leave something as simple as a map with your route drawn on it but it needs to be detailed enough that should something go wrong whoever you leave it with can pass it onto whoever becomes responsible for your rescue.
You should include on this map potential route changes that you have predicted and thought about in the planning stage; such as changes you might make under certain weather conditions, rivers you won’t cross if the water is too high or ridges you won’t walk along if the wind is too strong.
I always leave a copy of my route map with my wife if I am hiking and camping alone, or with another family member if I am camping with my wife and children… with my route and camp sites marked on it and any additional details that might be useful, such as other places I might camp if I can’t walk as far as I wanted in a day or details of my equipment to help a search and rescue team identify me, for example the fact that I carry a bright red rucksack might help them find me.