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Backpacking 101: On the Trail

What are the best practices for camping in the backcountry? How do you keep bears - or more likely, raccoons and smaller critters - out of your food? What about going to the bathroom? And your dog? This article is designed to give you the knowledge and tools for tackling a night or two of backpacking.

You've reached your destination and now it is time to set up camp. What are the best practices for camping in the backcountry? How do you keep bears - or more likely, raccoons and smaller critters - out of your food? What about going to the bathroom? And your dog?

This article is designed to give you the knowledge and tools for tackling a night or two of backpacking. Be sure you've read Backpacking 101: Planning Your Trip too, and check out our Overnight Backpacks piece for great destinations.

Tent. Photo by Rachael Knudson.
Practice Leave No Trace ethics when choosing where to pitch your tent in the backcountry. In popular areas, concentrate use on existing trails and campsites. Photo by Rachael Knudson.

Setting up Camp

You'll want to leave your camp looking better than when you arrived, so always practice Leave No Trace ethics and pack out everything you bring in. Choose an existing site when possible, or if none are available, camp on a sturdy surface at least 200 feet away from the nearest water source or the main trail. Avoid setting up camp on fragile meadows or right next to lakes or streams.

You’ll also want to find a campsite where you can hang a bear bag (a stuff sack containing your food and scented toiletries). It should be ten feet away from a tree trunk and 15 feet off the ground. Some backcountry campsites have bear wires for this purpose. While in camp, try to minimize your noise and let the sounds of nature prevail so that nearby campers can enjoy them. Make camp close enough to water that you can easily access it, but make sure to be at 200 feet away (unless you find an established campsite closer). Always wash your dishes 200 feet from water sources too, using only a drop or two of biodegradable soap if you need it.

For more info check out: Leave No Trace's Camp and Travel.

Water Filter. Photo by Ben Luedke.
Filtering with a view on the Jade Lake Access Trail. Photo by Ben Luedke

Water Filtering

Gone are the days of drinking right out of the crystal clear stream cascading down the rocks beside the trail. Giardia and Cryptosporidium are simply not worth it, and you never know who (or what) has pooped upstream from you. Bacteria and parasites are commonly found in wilderness water sources and can absolutely ruin a backpacking trip (and the next month!) with various kinds of insidious gastrointestinal distress.

To ensure that your water is safe to drink, you must purify it through boiling, chemical treatment or filtering. If boiling, make sure the water boils for a few minutes to kill the microbes. Alternatively, you can chemically treat water to kill microbes with iodine or chlorine tablets or drops available at most outdoor recreation stores. Lastly, you can use a water filter to remove any microorganisms from the water. Filtering is a popular method used by backpackers and there are many brands and designs of filters available. The designs vary by weight, filter type, filtering method, volume, and flow rate. Choose a filter that suits your needs and read the manual, as each is different.

When sourcing your water on trail, try to choose a water source that is flowing and clear, as this reduces the chance of microorganisms being present. Unfortunately, clear flowing water is not always available. Some filters even use a pre-filter to remove any floating sediment or debris from the water.

Photo by Michelle Piñon.jpg
WTA staffer Michelle Piñon demonstrates how to use a backcountry stove during a youth volunteer vacation.

How to Set Up and Clean Up Your Kitchen

If simmering isn’t required, boil water and mix directly in your meal package, or a lightweight bowl to ease clean up. In addition to a spoon, bowl, and cooking pot, you’ll want a pot-grabber for lifting your pot if it doesn’t have handles. An insulated cup is also handy for hot drinks and soups, but not necessary. When setting up your stove, make sure you find a flat, stable surface well away from dry grass or other flammable materials. To keep animals away from inevitable crumbs and other tasty morsels you drop, you should also try to cook well away from your tent area.

Clean your dishes 200 feet away from water sources. You can either use the scrape-and-swish approach (scrape down, swish with water and either toss or drink the dishwater) or clean using a drop or two of biodegradable soap if you need it. Store all food and scented toiletries in a bear bag hung from a tree. When brushing your teeth, also make sure to keep at least 200 feet away from water sources and dilute your toothpaste (use a biodegradable variety) with plenty of water (or use toddler toothpaste that you can swallow).

How to Hang a Bear Bag

To reduce unwanted bear-human interactions, you need to keep human food away from bears. Secure food, trash, and scented toiletries like toothpaste, sunblock, or hand-sanitizer out of reach. The most common method to do so is a by hanging a bear bag or using a bear canister (a hard sided container which doesn't allow easy access). This also protects from other animals, like squirrels and raccoons.

Select a tree at least 200 feet away from your tent that has a sturdy branch about 15 feet off the ground. Ideally, the bear bag should hang ten feet away from the trunk and 15 feet above the ground.There are several methods for hanging a bear bag. The basic method is to put your food in a nylon stuff sack with drawstring cord and tie it (or connect it with a carabiner) to a roll of lightweight 50 foot nylon cord. Tie one end of the cord to the stuff sack and the other to a rough edged rock that easily fits in your hand. You can also use a very small stuff sacks to hold the rock.

Hold the loosely coiled rope slack in one hand and throw rock above the sturdy branch. Once you've got the cord over the branch, hoist your food bag up with the free end. Tie off the free end to the tree trunk.

Established backcountry camps with a history of bear problems are sometimes equipped with bear wires, which allow you to clip your bag onto a metal wire and hoist it to the required height. Other camps have bear poles or bear caches.

You can also use a bear canister, which is heavier, bulkier, and more costly than bear bags. Some areas that require bear canisters offer them to visitors for free or a small fee. These are usually available at the nearest ranger station if so. Call ahead to check on availability and requirements to get a loaner bear canister.

For more bear hanging techniques see:

Smores. Photo by Molly Halverson.
If you must have a fire, use an existing fire ring and make sure you extinguish the fire when you are finished. Photo by Molly Halverson.


Minimize fire impact. Cook on a lightweight stove rather than a fire. Oftentimes campfires are prohibited above a certain elevation or near certain bodies of water. In general, avoid having a campfire all together. But if you must have a fire, make sure to check and follow all regulations. In some areas, regulations change depending on the season because of fire danger. Use only established fire rings, keep your campfire small and never leave a fire unattended. Use small pieces of wood gathered only from the ground and never break branches or cut down trees for a campfire. After a campfire is completely out, cool to touch, and all the wood turned to coal, scatter the cool ashes.

For more info check out: Leave No Trace's Minimize Campfire Impacts.

How to "Do Your Business" in the Forest

If you only need to pee, simply make sure you are at least 200 feet away from the trail, water source, or campsite.

For “number two,” know the regulations of the park you are traveling as some differ from others regarding human waste. The most common method is to use a small, lightweight plastic shovel to dig a cathole at least 200 feet from water. Catholes should be about 6-8 inches deep and big enough in diameter to accommodate a “deposit.” Do not bury toilet paper, as animals sometimes dig it up, and never burn your TP, as this has started forest fires in the past. To pack out toilet paper, use a pair of double-bagged Ziplocs which should then be stored in your bear bag (as it certainly is a scented item). If packing out your toilet paper doesn’t appeal to you, then use natural TP (leaves, snow, sticks, smooth stones). When done correctly, this method is as sanitary as regular toilet paper, but without the human impact problems. Make sure to fully cover and disguise the cathole to keep the forest looking like it did before. It is also considerate to place a pile of sticks or a rock over the hole to deter people from stepping in a covered cathole.

Depending on where people are traveling (e.g. narrow river canyons, some alpine and desert environments), some parks require human waste even be packed out. There are several methods to tackle this heroic deed.

For more info see: Trailspace's Human Waste Disposal in the Backcountry.

Dog. Photo by Raechel Youngberg.
Dundee, the Aussie Shepard's first backpacking trip. Photo by Raechel Youngberg.


Keep in mind that dogs have their own hiking etiquette, and are expected to be on leash when in camp or on a trail. They also need to be trustworthy among new people, dogs and wildlife, and should be trained to not bark. Dogs also need to Leave No Trace, so you'll have to pack out all your furry friend's "presents" and make sure they stay on the trail, just like you do. Minimize their impact at the campsite by keeping them on a leash (you can bring a longer lead of 20 feet or so), and don't let them run around on their own.

For many dog owners, backpacking seems like the perfect way to give Fido some much needed fresh air, exercise and owner-doggy bonding time. Taking your dog on the trail isn't like a walk in the dog-park, though. First of all, dogs aren't allowed on all trails, and many trails where they are allowed may not be dog-friendly due to terrain or conditions. For instance, dogs are not allowed on any trails in national parks.

Always make sure you bring the Ten Essentials for Dogs, which includes obedience training, a doggie first aid kit, plenty of food and water, plastic bags for picking up after your dog and a leash and collar.

For more information see: Hiking with dogs.