How to Prepare for Multi-Day Backpacking Trips

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Short break with a light pack.

A reader emailed several good questions while preparing for a backpacking trip on the Ozark Highlands Trail. I enjoy responding to these type of inquiries and decided to write this post. 

Many trip failures can be traced to the planning process or something overlooked in preparation. Even on the best of trips, I usually learn of things I should have done differently, often related to travel distance, packing, or food.

What follows is not intended as an all-inclusive guide, and there’s no “right way” to prepare and pack, but some of the lessons I’ve learned and resources shared here might inform your preparation. I include links to some items mentioned, but am not endorsing products or sources. I prefer to use my local outfitters, suppliers, and bookstores for most backpacking purchases.

Planning the route: Since a good friend, Bob, and I recently completed 88 miles on the Ozark Trail and we’re presently planning our second outing on the trail, I’ll use it as an example. After determining an overview of the route, usually looking at online resources, I order or print maps. The Ozark Trail Association website is very useful for this. Most long trails have associated websites that are helpful in planning.

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Online overview map of the Ozark Trail

I printed Ozark Trail maps but purchased section maps because of ease of use and durability. To be sure I ordered the right maps I used this map that labels the sections.

Since portions of the Ozark Trail haven’t been built yet, our goal is to walk the finished sections. We began working our way from south to north with the Eleven Point, Between the Rivers, and Current River sections. For this hike, we’ll continue north on the Blair Creek, Karkaghen, and Middle Fork John Roth sections.

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Portion of Ozark Trail Association map

For me, planning campsites involves guesswork and looking at topographical maps. I cut post-it notes into strips and stick them to the map where I think we might camp. I move them around while planning, sometimes even after changes are made while on the trail. I sometimes enjoy not knowing exactly where we’ll stop to spend the night.

Determining when and where water will be available is part of route planning. Sometimes you have to make informed guesses. Monitoring rain in the area you’re going to hike and contacting locals can help you determine if smaller creeks might act as water sources. Last fall when hiking dry sections of the Ouachita Trail, we planted water caches for insurance, but this involved driving to pick up empty jugs after the trip.

How many miles to travel each day is a common question. When in doubt, go short and enjoy the views. It’s easy to bite off too many miles and end up injured and having to leave the trail. With a pack between 18 and 26 pounds, 10-12 miles is a good distance for me, but there’s nothing wrong with a 6-mile day. I occasionally do 14 and might go longer after I correct my foot issue (see the next topic).

The feet: The most common saboteurs of multi-day trips are down at the end of our legs. Feet are so far away that it’s easy to ignore them. Things we hardly notice on dayhikes, become serious problems when walking day after day with 18-35 pounds on our backs.

On our first 88-mile section of the Ozark Trail, the third toe on my left foot was a problem that reared its ugly head beginning about day four of eight. This same toe was a problem earlier on the Ouachita Trail, but I tolerated the discomfort on both trips.

After the Ozark Trail experience, I found a good podiatrist. He used a spacer and small lifting device to correct this wayward toe’s position, the result of a childhood injury. If something hurts, check it out. It might be an easy fix.

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Comparing worn and new shoes

When hiking, doing gentle stretches each morning and evening can avoid problems. Using some lotion on the feet each night after cleaning also helps prevent blisters. Pack a file for smoothing the toenails during your trip.

Wool blend socks help prevent blisters. I use Darn Tough Socks. They last! Comfortable shoes are also essential, and I go light as possible with footwear as in low cut hiking or trail running shoes. No need for heavy boots!

Resource: My favorite (and only) book about this subject is Fixing Your Feet by John Vonhof

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Packed for the John Muir Trail

Packing light: Pack weight is a challenge, especially for multi-day trips when the addition of food increases weight. Looking at the “big three” has helped me. Shelter, sleep system and the pack itself – These three are the big weight items. If you swap a 4-pound tent for a 1-pound tarp, that’s huge! Sometimes I’ll use a tarp, but I have a 2-pound tent I also use depending on anticipated conditions. Moving from a heavy sleeping bag to a down quilt and silk bag liner has reduced weight for me.

Many never think about the actual weight of the pack, but some are close to 5-pounds. Having a fancy suspension system doesn’t reduce the weight your feet and knees are feeling so go as light as possible with the pack. Most ultra-light packs do fine with loads of 15-30 pounds.

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Next, I go through the pack to see what I can leave at home. Example: toothpast and toothbrush – I don’t need them. I take floss and use a green twig to clean my teeth as I walk in the morning. I’m veering into the “too much information” category here, but this was the first example that came to mind. I consider Wet Wipes a luxury item but worth carrying. Cleaning up before getting in the bag liner reduces the stink and makes sleep easier.

OT small containersI pack needed items in small containers when possible to save weight. No need for a tube of foot cream or sunscreen, so I estimate what might be needed and pack that amount. As you can see from the photo, I still had foot cream, sunscreen, first aid cream, and Dawn Soap at the end of eight days. The floss is for size reference, but I’m looking for smaller floss containers. I despise plastic floss picks when I see them in the woods. Whatever you use should be placed in your trash bag and carried out. I use an empty coffee bag for trash because it’s light and can be folded down to the size needed. At the end of the trip, the bag goes into the trash. 

Clothing: I wear one outfit for the duration of the trip. Layers are added depending on the expected weather. I use a silk weight base layer for cold hiking and an even lighter layer for sleeping. I like to carry a down vest and, if temperatures in the low 20s are forecasted, I’ll add my down pants for sleeping if the quilt needs extra help. A hat for the sun is essential. For a warm hat, I use a stretch-fabric tube (brand isn’t important). Beanie hats work well too, but they tend to be heavier and aren’t as multi-use.

Deciding what needs to remain dry is essential. I pack my clothes and personal items in a waterproof stuff sack, then place that along with my down quilt inside a trash compactor bag. The compactor bag fills cracks and crevices in the pack to utilize space and has kept items dry on rainy days.

OT umbrellaWhen I expect rain, I pack an ultra-light umbrella. This is a personal choice because I’d rather have some wetness on my lower body and not be sweating and cold all over. I sweat under the best of rain shells when hiking hard in moderately cold temps.  The umbrella gives me a little roof to walk under, but it’s not for everybody. I’ve also used a poncho which kept my upper body dry, but I still get clammy.

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Esbit stove, windscreen, cup and pot

Fire, Food & Water: Like most backpackers, I have a varied collection of stoves. My hiking buddy carries an MSR WhisperLite. It’s great, but I need something simpler. I’ve used a PocketRocket when at higher elevations (like the John Muir Trail) but for the Ozarks, I like my Esbit Stove that uses two Esbit fuel tabs per day. Sometimes I’ll build a fire for cooking if there is an existing fire ring.

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Meal in homemade cozy

Food can get heavy! I avoid freeze dried meals because of their saltiness, expense, and packaging. I prefer using powdered soup mixes, instant potatoes, and Knorr side dishes as a base with my own dehydrated vegetables and meat added. I purchase dried chicken from Mountain House and add it to most meals. I repackage all in ziplock bags. Results are best if I place the chicken and vegetables in water when I first arrive at camp to increase their hydrating time.

In the Ozarks, bears aren’t usually a concern. I never carry bear spray and only used a bear canister once in the High Sierras of California where it was required. I use a bag for food and tie it in a tree, but mainly to keep the little critters out.

Water is heavy! One liter is just over two pounds. Its storage and treatment can add even more weight. I avoid Nalgene bottles because they’re heavy and bulky. I use a Platypus 70 oz. pouch for water storage and it doubles as a pillow filled with air and wrapped in fabric. I use one-liter Vapur collapsible bottles while walking. They’re light and fold up when not in use.

OT AquamiraI typically use Aquamira drops for water treatment but carry it in smaller bottles with a tiny bottle for mixing.

Sawyer filters are light and effective. They’re cheap, so I usually carry one in my daypack even though I rarely use it on multi-day backpacking trips.

IMG_0127rrI must interject a note about coffee here as I consider it essential! I sometimes use Mount Hagen instant, but you end up with a small wrapper to carry out. My tastiest morning brew involves using espresso grind coffee and leaves no trash to carry out.

Here is a link to my Backpacking List. It’s a working document that I update from time to time.

Resource: Ultra-Light Backpackin’ Tips by Mike McClelland – I love this book!

Physical preparation: The best way to prepare for backpacking is to walk with a backpack. I put magazines in my bear canister and place it in an extra pack for this purpose. I love my rowing machine, but biking, running, or any similar exercise will be helpful in preparing for backpacking. Lunges, squats and toe raises are going to be helpful but be careful not to start a new activity in the weeks before a long trip because an injury will interfere with preparations. Rest, nutrition and safe stretching are all important to general health and in helping you avoid illness prior to your trip.

Resource: The Stark Reality on Stretching by Dr. Steven D. Stark – This book shows safe stretching techniques and points out the dangers of some common stretches.

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Eleven Point River in Missouri

I’ve shared what I think are important things to remember when preparing for a multi-day backpacking trip. I’ll update this post as questions reveal other areas to include.

Enjoy your planning! If things go well, you’ll gain lifelong memories of indescribable beauty and the satisfying sense of personal accomplishment. If things don’t go as planned, you still might have great memories of your time in the wilderness, but with the addition of new learning to apply on your next trip.

Five Star Trails at REI

Five Star Trails: The Ozarks in REI, Dallas

While I love the long trails, I enjoy a good dayhike! If you need a great guidebook for the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri, check out my book, Five Star Trails: The Ozarks.

A packed pack and John Muir Trail gear talk

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Granite Gear Crown 60 backpack and Keen hiking shoes

There is something beautiful about a fully loaded backpack. I can almost hear it whisper, “Where are we going and what shall we see?”

This pack will soon travel the John Muir Trail (JMT) and may have some stories and photos to share when it returns. I’ve purposely avoided posting anything about our John Muir Trail plans. Maybe it’s my fear of failure, but successful or not, there will be new learning to share.

Many variables work for or against a successful trip. Present physical condition, preparation, weather, and elevation changes are the most significant variables to me. Here in the Ozarks we hike at anywhere from 600 to 2,700 feet. On the JMT we’ll be between 4,000 and 14,000 feet in elevation. Preparation can impact our conditioning but not those areas involving Mother Nature. I hope she’s kind to us.

As often happens, the beginning of our JMT planning can be traced to a book. Elizabeth Wenk’s John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail gave me the confidence to say “Yes!” when asked if I wanted to join some friends on this trip.

A significant task (and possible deal-breaker) is getting a JMT permit. Nick, Bob, and I faxed a different application itinerary each day for five days, receiving courteous “Thanks for trying” emails the next day. I remember where I was when I received an email forwarded from Nick that was different. I stared at the text for several seconds before realizing this message was granting us a permit! We’d “won” the lottery! Our planning was no longer theoretical but for real!

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One day’s applications received at the JMT permit office. Notice the two stacks on the right contrasting JMT confirmations and rejections. Thanks to Justin Gordon (actor/backpacker) for the photo.

For this post, I’ll share some of the equipment changes made in preparation for this trip. I hope to share some food preparation ideas and recipes in a later post.

The John Muir Trail (JMT) came along at a good time because some of my equipment was due for an update. I’ll mention brand names and sources, but have no financial arrangements with these businesses. Some links are to online sources, but when possible, I purchase from area outfitters because they invest in local trails and stand behind their products. They’re also good people to know when you need advice. I’ll list links at the end of this post.

Backpack: Replaced my Equinox Katahdin pack (that I loved) with the Granite Gear Crown 60 pictured at the beginning of this post. It is light, strong, and large enough to accommodate a bear canister. It was on sale, too! When you say 40% off, you have my attention (a good reason to frequent local vendors).

My Equinox ultralight pack was old, and I feared it might fail on a long trip. It will still make overnighter trips in the Ozarks with me. I can’t imagine throwing it away. We have traveled many miles together. I don’t usually form emotional bonds with things, but some items become icons that hold special memories.

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Equinox backpack loaded for OHT thru-hike.

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Enigma down quilt

Sleeping System: I replaced my down sleeping bag with an Enigma 20-degree down quilt by Enlightened Equipment. The workmanship is excellent, but allow 8-12 weeks for delivery because they produce the quilt after you place your order. I’ve been using sleeping bags like quilts for several years. Now I’m not sleeping on top of a zipper, and the quilt is much lighter.

I updated to the Sea to Summit Comfort Light sleeping pad and silk bag liner to use on top of the air pad. I’d just about destroyed my old silk liner with all my squirming around over the last ten years or so.

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Sea to Summit air mattress

Tent: I studied this purchase for several months and considered some very technical (and expensive) ultralight tents. I decided to go with something familiar (and freestanding) in the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 2. I’ve enjoyed my earlier Big Agnes 2-person for several years and will still use it for overnighters. Using a 2-person tent is my nod to backpacking extravagance. I like the extra space for my pack, well worth the 9-ounce difference in weight.

Water bottles: Added a couple of Vapur 1-liter water bladders instead of bottles. They fold up when not in use and are light at 1.5 ounce compared to 6.3 oz. for a Nalgene bottle.

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Vapur water bottle full and folded

Shoes: Loved my Oboz, but was ready for a larger toe box and went with the Keen waterproof Koven (pictured at the beginning of this post). I’m not brand and model conscious because I had to look up these shoes to remember the name. I will not purchase shoes online or by brand. The shoes’ fit is the most important factor. I’d prefer trail running shoes, but for extended backpacking, I need something a little beefier without being a heavy boot. For camp shoes, I’m using Crocks. They’re good for creek crossings and comfortable camp shoes.

Electronics…. I have a love/hate relationship with electronics on the trail. My preference is to leave the stuff at home (or in the car). Since we’ll be out of cell range most of the trip, I’ll carry my inReach and a cell phone that allows me to text using satellite. The downside of electronics is weight! I have a solar panel for backpacking but opted to leave it at home due to weight. I’ll carry a small battery pack and a dual USB wall charger to speed things along with the limited outlets at JMT resupply points. Everything stays turned off until needed.

My camera must always travel with me. I don’t think of it as part of “electronics.” since it’s for capturing memories, not communicating with civilization. I’m not very brand-conscious, as long as the camera has manual settings if needed and is small and light. Right now I use a Canon G7x. It is fragile so I try to handle with care. The lens cover malfunctioned in my first one, but the fine folks at Bedford Camera exceeded expectations and replaced the camera. I carry three fully charged camera batteries in hopes they’ll last between resupply stops. A small flex tripod is a light-weight addition but more often a tree or rock serve the role of a tripod.

Maybe/maybe not items… 

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Yaktrax ICEtrekkers and gators on a snowy Lake Alma Trail

Yaktrax ICEtrekkers: These are great because they grip in snow and ice, but allow you to walk easily over patches of bare ground or rock. I’m taking them so I can decide whether to carry them or not once I’m on location.

Gators: I don’t like my gators, but they are nice to have when snow gets deeper than three inches. They’re heavy if not used, so I’m taking them and deciding once on location.

2015 John Muir Trail Survey Take/Leave Report:  A resource for gear decisions unique to the JMT. It can also inform decisions about backpacking in general. John Ladd and George Greely collect and compile this annual survey of JMT hikers asking two questions. “What type of item did you leave at home, that you would bring on the next similar trip? And why?” and “What type of item did you bring but would leave at home on the next similar trip? And why?” John Ladd provides a nice narrative at the beginning sharing general impressions from the survey results. The John Muir Trail Hiker Survey Facebook page provides updates on snow levels, etc. Good reading!

Outdoor outfitters that I frequent on a regular basis: All good people here!

Pack Rat Outdoor Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas: This business began in a garage in the 1970s. They have a strong history of supporting trails of Arkansas! Owners Carolyn and Scott are charter members of the Ozark Highlands Trail Association and long-time trail volunteers. Employee owner and store manager, Rick Spicer, is a hardcore outdoorsman with great experience and knowledge.

Lewis and Clark Outfitters in Springdale, Arkansas

The Woodsman in Fort Smith, Arkansas

Ozark Outdoor in Little Rock

Bedford Camera and Video in Fort Smith and other towns in Arkansas: They’re not outfitters, but Bedford’s is my camera store due to the way they’ve stood behind their products.