Backpacking Tips

“I turned 50 recently and I’m grateful to still enjoy outdoor activities that I picked up in my youth. Following are lessons I’ve learned over the years. This installment, the fourth of five, focuses on backpacking tips.”

When the bear wandered by my camp, I grabbed my camera and shot pictures like mad. Unwisely, I followed the bruin, which snarled and bluffed a charge. My heart nearly leapt out of my chest and I backed off, wiser than before. Fifty years of outdoor experiences have taught me a few things which I hope are worth sharing. Through this series, I offer you 50 tips to judge for yourself. This column, the fourth of five, focuses on backpacking. 

  1. Start easy and build up gradually. Hiking out for a single night will help you learn to make a longer trip more comfortable. Exercise before a backpacking trip, especially a long one.  
  2. Travel light. The less your pack weighs, the easier and happier your hiking becomes. Shoot for a base weight of 20 pounds or less.
  3. Hiking poles take pressure off your knees. Break in your footwear before your trip. Sandals let you take off your shoes in the evening and give your feet a break.
  4. Learn to use a map and a compass. Don’t rely only on electronics to navigate. Phone apps and GPS work great, until they don’t. When batteries die, signals disappear or gadgets break, you need a backup plan.
  5. Water weighs more than anything else. Carry the right amount of water and plan ahead. Guidebooks, maps, apps and fellow hikers can all provide information on finding water.
  6. Avoid mosquito bites and don’t let the bugs bug you. Time your outings to avoid the pesky blood-suckers, which hatch during spring in the lowlands and then work their way up the mountains through summer. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to guard against them.
  7. Leaves of three, leave them be! Learn to recognize poison oak. The enemy’s leaves are green in spring and summer, red in fall, and fall off the plant in winter. Thankfully, the oily plant doesn’t grow above 5,000 feet. When in doubt, touch nothing suspicious.
  8. Bring fishing gear. If you camp near backcountry lakes and streams, you’ll have better action than more easily-reached fishing holes. Fish bite best in morning and evening hours. Landing a few will make you a hero in camp.
  9. Be realistic about your schedule. Mountain miles take more time and energy than lowland ones. The trail doesn’t care if you’re in a hurry. Take enough time to enjoy yourself.
  10. Finally, leave wildlife alone! Don’t stalk a bear like I foolishly did. In bear country, carry a bear can. Clean your camp and don’t leave out food for animals to access. Dependence on human handouts means death for our furry friends.

I try to hit the trail for a few weeks every year. Every trip produces special memories. When I look back at some years, my backpacking trips are the events I remember best. 

Spotting wildlife always delivers thrills, too. I’ve been fortunate to spot bald eagles, California condors, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, and quite a few bears. I love taking pictures of them, which I happily shoot from a respectful distance.

Read more of Matt Johanson’s articles here and check out the other tips he has learned over 50 years here

 Matt Johanson recently released a new guidebook “California Summits,” available at