A backpacking checklist is usually about the “stuff.” Good equipment is nice to have, but even with the best gear you can get into trouble in the wilderness. You might have matches and the latest fire starters, but still not be able to get that fire going. It takes more than good gear to assure a safe and enjoyable trip. Towards that end, then, this is a list of skills you should have or learn.
1. Navigation. Contrary to what many novices think, a compass doesn’t tell you where you are. For that matter, a map doesn’t either, if you don’t know how to use it. Practice close to home if you can’t yet use both of these easily. Do the same with your GPS unit.
2. Staying warm. There are tricks to staying warm. Shed layers as you get warm, for example, so you don’t have sweat to chill you later. Use wind-blocking shell clothing, and wear a hat. Eating fatty foods before sleeping can keep you warmer.
3. Pitching a tent. Pitch your tent or tarp wrong and the rain will come in or the wind will tear the seams. They need to be pitched tight, and you should be able to do it in a few minutes. Practice in the yard.
4. Cooking over a fire. Making soup over a small fire is not as easy as it seems. Cover the pan, block the wind, and keep the fire small and concentrated. Time yourself when you practice. You don’t have to rush normally, but speed can be important in some situations, and it’s always possible your stove will break.
5. Identifying edible plants. Learning to identify three or four wild edible berries can make a trip more enjoyable. Learning to identify cattails and one or two other good survival food plants can be very helpful, especially if you ever lose your food to a bear.
6. Walking. If you pace yourself and learn how to move comfortably over rocky terrain, you’ll be less tired, and less likely to twist an ankle. Tighten those laces, too.
7. Understanding animals. Is the bear “bluff charging” or stalking you? The latter means you’ll be the bear’s supper if you play dead. A clue: making a lot of noise usually means he just wants to frighten you (a “bluff charge”), but you need to read up on this one.
8. Sky reading. Are those just clouds, or a lightning storm coming? It would be good to know when you’re on a high ridge. In the Rockies, afternoon thunderstorms are the norm in summer. Learn about the weather patterns of an area, and the basics of predicting weather and you’ll be a lot safer.
9. Basic first aid. What are the symptoms of hypothermia? Stumbling and slurred speech are a couple of them. How do you properly treat blisters? You can use duct tape if you don’t have moleskin. These and other basics are good things to know.
10. Firemaking. Start practicing in your yard. Try to start that fire with one match. Also try it the next time it’s raining. Get in the habit of collecting dry tinder before the rain comes. Learn what things burn even when wet, like birch bark and pine sap.
This last one can be one of the more important skills in an emergency. Experts can start a fire in almost any circumstances, but you don’t need to be an expert in wilderness survival to enjoy a safe hiking trip. For a safer, more enjoyable trip, just do the best you can, and start checking off the skills on this backpacking checklist.