How to Pack the Right Amount of Backpacking Food

Why spend $500 on a 14oz tent and then carry 2 pounds too much food?

This year, I’ve helped over 400 clients prepare for and execute backcountry trips. As a guide, online instructor, and operations coordinator for Andrew Skurka’s education-focused backcountry trips and online planning course, I’ve had the privilege to support clients through the most common stumbling blocks. One that comes up repeatedly both in the planning stage and in the field is uncertainty about how much backpacking food to pack. In most cases, people end up packing way too much food and therefore carrying unnecessary weight. 

For how much time, money, and effort goes into lightening one’s pack, it’s unfortunate to see people negating the payoff by carrying excess food weight. To be clear, a little bit of buffer, such as an extra meal or bar, is a great idea. Carrying a few pounds excess is not.

6-weeks of gluten free backpacking food (Grand Canyon + guiding in WV) at 0.93-1.29 lbs/day

Case Study: 5-weeks of Backpacking Food for the Grand Canyon

As I prepare food for an upcoming 5-week hike in the Grand Canyon, I wanted to share my process and techniques for keeping food weight appropriate for the length of trip I’m on. With longer distances between food caches (e.g. 5-11 day carries) and extra safety gear for this trip, packing efficiently in terms of food weight is critical. 

To keep food weight low, there are two key factors I focus on: packing the right amount of calories and packing the most calorie dense foods.

Determining Backpacking Food Calorie Needs

To determine how much food to take, I take past experience into consideration and calculate calories. You can use a free BMR calculator online, and adjust for activity (see this video). Then test it out and take note of how much food you returned with or whether you ran out. Like most hikers, I get hungrier the longer a trip lasts. For that reason, I generally plan for a higher calorie intake later in the trip. 

For this trip, for example, I’m planning about 2300-2500 calories for the first two weeks, then 2700 for the last 2.5 weeks. Cold temperatures, a high amount of elevation gain, and cross country hiking over uneven surfaces make me hungrier, so I also try to plan for that. As far as macronutrient ratios, I feel best eating about 50-60% fat, 20% protein, and 20-30% carbohydrates. See this video on macronutrients for backpacking. 

Choosing Calorie Dense Backpacking Food

As I discussed in my food planning for the Great Basin Trail, I prioritize trail food that is energy-dense, meaning high calorie per ounce. I aim for >125 calories per ounce, but some foods fall short of that which I’m okay with if it’s a high protein food. At nine calories per gram for fat compared to four calories per gram for protein or carbohydrate, this makes fat a good option for weight efficiency for long distance hiking. For a complete breakdown of the benefits of a higher fat diet for backpacking, see this post.

By focusing on packing the right amount of food and packing about 50% of my calories as fat, my food weight per day ranges from 0.93 pounds at the beginning of the trip to 1.29 pounds toward the end of the trip when I plan to eat more calories. For those interested, my food for this trip is all gluten free, with a high priority on nutrient density and antioxidants, and simplicity.

Hopefully this helps you with your own meal planning for your next backpacking trip. 

If you’re interested in the blueprint I use to plan my recipes and meals for every single backpacking trip I take whether it’s a few days or a few months, I invite you to check out the backcountry meal planning course

I dumped all my knowledge from training as a nutrition coach and my experience from 10,000+ miles of backpacking into this course to help streamline the process for others. We cover how to determine your calorie and macronutrient needs, how to create a meal plan (including templates), creating a resupply plan, creating your own balanced recipes, and much more. 

Join us in the Performance Nutrition and Meal Planning for Backpackers course.

Boosting the nutrition of a trail meal with carrot and foraged swamp onion

How to Plan Your Weekend Backpacking Trip with Ease

Use this free planning template to get yourself organized so you get out on your weekend backpacking trip faster and without forgetting anything.

Is this you?

It’s Monday morning and you get a great idea for a backpacking trip to take the coming weekend. You get energized all week just thinking about being out there. In moments between work tasks or before bed, you look up a few route details, maybe pull a forecast. Then suddenly, it’s Friday, but you haven’t packed or downloaded the route or purchased any hiking food. You scramble to get things organized and get out the door. At best, you don’t depart for your trip until 6pm – just in time to sit in rush hour traffic; at worst, you decide to delay your trip for another weekend (hopefully).

If so, this post is for you.

I’ve been back at home since finishing up guiding in the Sierra in early August, so I’ve had time to fit in a lot of 1-3 day adventures in the Colorado high country. This has mostly included 14ers, 13ers, and long mountain days traversing passes, ridgelines, and valleys to create fun loops and link ups. To stay organized and make my planning quick and easy for each of these adventures so that I’m more likely to get out the door, I refined a weekend trip planning template that I started using a few years ago.

This planning template helps me cover all my bases so that as soon as I get inspired for a trip, I can open up the planning template and get the ball rolling. It makes it easy for me to share this information with a trip partner or loved ones at home. It makes it far less likely that I’ll forget an important detail, which means I ultimately feel calmer and more confident heading into the mountains. This planner is intended for short trips, not a thru-hike.

You can download a copy of my weekend backpacking trip planning template here and try it out for your own trips.

Watch this video for a walk-through of how I use the weekend backpacking trip planner:

Related Backpacking Trip Planning Posts:

Plan Your Backpacking Trip Without the Common Mistakes

Backpacking Trip Resources mentioned in the video:

Backcountry Safety Course

Backcountry Navigation Course

Adventure Ready Course

How to Make Healthy Backpacker’s Granola

Grain free, gluten free, dairy free, vegan backpacker’s granola is quick and easy to make before a big trip.

I’m in the midst of preparing my food boxes for a 5-week backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon this fall. I bought a bunch of nuts and seeds, which I was planning to just make into a trail mix, but I decided it’d be a fun treat to turn them into granola instead. So I spent an hour this afternoon baking this tasty, healthy backpacker’s granola that I’ll take on the trail as a snack.

This recipe is quick and easy to make with a handful of simple ingredients, many of which you may already have on hand. At nearly 180 calories per ounce, it’s calorie density meets my needs for backpacking. It’s easy to pack into resupply boxes. And best of all, it makes the entire house smell amazing while it bakes.

What makes this a “healthy” granola?

It’s loaded with healthy fat from the nuts and coconut oil along with some easy to use energy from the carbs in the honey, and a bit of protein. It also delivers important vitamins and minerals, including potassium, iron, and zinc.

This granola is made with coconut oil, rather than the highly refined and inflammatory vegetable oils often used in commercial granola and the sweetener is honey, which is loaded with antioxidants and phytonutrients. It also contains the anti-inflammatory spices cinnamon and ginger.  

This granola not only makes a great no cook breakfast, it’s a great snack any time of day. You can eat it straight out of the bag with a spoon, add coco milk or whole milk, or my personal favorite: sprinkle some in almond butter and scoop it out with a spoon – sounds weird but it’s so good.

You can modify this recipe to fit your tastes and/or add variety to your resupply boxes by changing the types of nuts and seeds you use. For example, substituting in pecans, hemp hearts, etc. Just keep the overall quantities the same. You can substitute butter or ghee for the coconut oil, and syrup for the honey. You could also add in fruit, such as goji berries or dried blueberries after baking. Note that any modifications will change the nutrition facts slightly.

Backpacker’s Granola

Makes 40oz

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Preheat over to 300 degrees F.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnut pieces, coconut flakes, chia seeds, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. Mix thoroughly.
  3. In a saucepan, heat the coconut oil and honey until completely melted
  4. Pour the honey oil mixture over the dry ingredients in the bowl. Stir until all the dry ingredients are coated.
  5. Dump the mixture onto a parchment or foil lined sheet pan.
  6. Spread it out some the it’s in one even layer.
  7. Bake for 25 minutes or until granola is just starting to brown. It’s easy to overbake so keep an eye on. Stir once or twice while baking.
  8. Remove from over and allow to cool completely.

Storage

Store in an airtight container at room temperature. If you want it to last longer, store it in vacuum sealed pouches. Keeping pouches in the freezer may also extend the shelf life.

Backpacker’s Granola Nutrition per 1 oz serving

  • 179 calories
  • 8.15g carb (20%)
  • 12.7g fat (72%)
  • 3.5g protein (8%)
  • 3g fiber

Want to learn to make your own balanced backpacking recipes and meal plans at home so you can stop buying over-priced freeze-dried meals?

Check out our Performance Nutrition and Meal Planning for Backpacker’s online course.

Best Apps for the Outdoors 2022

It’s not uncommon to hear discussions about how technology has caused humans to become an increasingly indoors species, disconnected from nature. While there may be some truth in that, technology is part of modern life and it’s not going away. So how can we use our phones to enhance our experience in the outdoors and connect us more deeply to the natural world around us?

This season, in addition to swimming in as many alpine lakes as I can find, one of the things that’s been bringing me a lot of joy is getting to know the plant life around me more deeply. My educational background is in plant cellular and molecular biology and I’ve always had a keen interest in plants. 

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know many of the plants where I live but I wanted to accelerate my learning. I also wanted to learn more of the plants I discovered while guiding in new locations, so I started using the Seek app. I was surprised by how much I loved observing which species came out at different times; who they like to grow around and in what conditions. Observing these details can tell you so much about the surrounding land, such as how much (or little) water is available, whether it was a heavy or light snow year, and even the pH of the soil.

Spending the last several months really dedicated to observing new species, especially around my home, has helped me be more present while I hike, rather than getting lost in thought. It’s also grounding to know with whom I share the land. I also love seeing similar species or members of the same family growing in different places, such as the California Poppy in the Sierra and the Arctic Poppy in Alaska.

In the words of Mary Oliver, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I observed over 100 new species this summer. In truth, many I already knew, but now I’ve officially logged them in my app 🙂 While I’m far from an expert, I’m enjoying the process of more deeply getting to know the land around me, aided by technology.

My clients observed the joy and fervor with which I sought out new observations this year and many asked for a list of apps I use most in the outdoors. Below is that list. Many of these I use regularly; some I’ve only used a couple of times, but I wanted to include them to provide a well-rounded list.

If you have feedback or suggestions, comment below.

Navigation

Gaia GPS, free for Basic, $40 for Premium

CalTopo, free for Basic, $50 for Premium

Digital maps and GPS are an important and powerful part of my navigational toolkit. A GPS device allows me to pinpoint exactly where I am and to do so quickly. I can also see my elevation, my bearing, create routes, record tracks, save waypoints at key locations and much more. Layers can be toggled on and the opacity adjusted so that I can see an incredible amount of information about an area at once, such as trail locations, fire history, topography, satellite imagery, slope angle, and much more. As many maps as you’d like (or that your phone storage will hold) can be downloaded for offline use and organized into folders. Gaia and CalTopo are my two favorite navigational apps and I usually save the same mapset to both apps as some features are better on one and some on the other. I also use the desktop version to plan routes at home and sync them to my phone. 

Weather

I usually check multiple forecasts for a single location when heading into the mountains (and then I refresh those forecasts compulsively until I go) so that I can make informed gear choices and even go/no-go decisions. In addition to the weather.gov point forecast, these are the apps I’ve found give me the most accurate hourly forecasts for precip, wind speed and direction, cloud cover, and more. 

Wildlife and Plant life ID

This is the plant ID app I use. It also identifies animals, birds, amphibians, plants, and fungi. You simply point your phone camera at the object you wish to identify and the app uses image recognition technology to give you an answer. Sometimes it can get you to species, other times only to genus or even just family. Personally, I use the app to help me get close, then use a field guide specific to the area to help me hone things in. 

Mountain ID

What’s that big peak way over in the distance? Can we see Mt. Whitney from here? If you love identifying the mountains near and far when you get to a summit or an open view, Peak Finder can help. You simply line your phone up to the horizon and the app provides a sketch of the surrounding terrain with visible summits labeled. 

Star Guide

It’s fun to know what’s in the night sky above us. With the Sky Guide app, you can point your phone at the sky and it identifies stars, constellations, and planets. I sometimes find constellations difficult to visualize and this app makes that a breeze. 

Bird ID

Search for and identify hundreds of bird species through song, drawings, and location. Works offline.

Knots

Use the app to follow images that walk you through how to tie over 300 knots. Learn that trucker’s hitch once and for all, and enjoy the world of possibilities that open up to you with a more versatile guyline system. 

How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

trip planning

The summer solstice is just a few weeks away! There’s so much I love about this time of year: the warmth, hiking in a skirt again, and feeling the sun on my skin. The days feel endless, the plants and trees are greening up and budding out, and most of the snow has finally melted from the high country, opening it up for alpine foot travel. I can’t help but get excited by the possibilities, and I know, like every year, that there won’t be enough time for all the places I wish to explore. 

I manage this conundrum by creating a list of everything that strikes my fancy. Then I estimate how long the hike will take (if it’s a multi-day, -week, or -month event) and when the ideal time to hike it would be. I see what fits into my calendar and go from there. 

This is all part of my trip planning process, which involves:

  • Defining the trip parameters – Where? When? With whom?
  • Researching the likely conditions -Temps, precip, weather patterns.
  • Creating an itinerary – Dates, expected daily mileage, potential campsites.
  • Selecting gear – What do I need for the expected conditions?
  • Planning food and resupply strategy – Plan, purchase, and packaging food.
  • Creating a safety plan – What risks will I encounter and how will I mitigate them?
  • Preparing physically and mentally – Training for the rigors of the trail.
  • Doing the final check – Use the checklist below!

Download a free trip planning checklist

This full process is outlined in Chapter 1 of Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency.

Related Resource

Watch this video on my condensed planning template and process to get out on quick weekend adventures feeling fully prepared.

A Guide to Mental Preparation for Backpacking

An excerpt from Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency by Katie Gerber and Heather Anderson

In preparation for my upcoming book launch on June 1, I want to share an excerpt from Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency.

The following passage is from Chapter 8: Mental and Emotional Preparation. It was one of the most fun chapters for me to write because I love the “inner game” of long distance hiking (and endurance, in general). It’s also one of the topics we cover that sets our guidebook apart from others in the same genre.

If you’re preparing for your first (or second or third or…) long walk and you’d like to learn the process co-author Heather Anderson and I use to get ourselves mentally and physically ready for our backcountry adventures, order here to receive a copy signed by me.

Enjoy this sneak peak!

Adventure Ready excerpt:

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
—Mahatma Gandhi

A long-distance hike—or any situation that puts you under pressure—will unearth dormant attributes and highlight both your strengths and weaknesses. Preparing your mind for a long backpacking trip before you step foot on trail goes a long way toward overcoming obstacles and achieving success with your backpacking goals. This mental preparation involves setting realistic expectations, having a rock-solid sense of purpose, and practicing specific techniques that prepare you to overcome psychological hurdles.

Strong Mind, Strong Body

I (Katie) had been hiking as fast as I possibly could for over four hours in an attempt to keep my body heat up in the freezing rain. I alternated between a hunched over, eyes-toward-the-ground posture and occasionally lifting my gaze to scan either side of the trail for suitable spots to pitch my tarp. I was worried, however, that if I stopped moving even for the seven minutes that it would take to set up shelter, my core body temperature might drop to a point from which it would be difficult to recover. My rain jacket and all my layers had soaked through hours prior, and I was chilled to the bone. I was also acutely aware that my hands were cold beyond the point of being functional. I couldn’t even grasp the draw cord to tighten my hood.

I could sense the panic beginning to well up in my chest. Nighttime was quickly approaching. What if the rain doesn’t let up? What if I can’t warm up to at least regain function in my hands so I can set up a shelter? I imagined myself walking through the night until I simply became too exhausted to go on and collapsed into a shivering pile on the ground. I hadn’t eaten in hours because my hands were too numb to open the nutrition bar stored in my hip pocket. I tore at it with my teeth and still couldn’t get to the bar. I wanted to cry. My mind fought to stay rational and focused. It was hard to remember that the day had begun with a leisurely walk around the rim of Crater Lake, snacking on trail mix while photographing Wizard Island, one of the most picturesque landmarks on the PCT.

Circumstances can shift quickly on trail. To say my morale was low in that moment is an understatement. Yet as miserable and fearful as I was, I still wasn’t thinking about quitting the trail (assuming I survived the day). I had mentally prepared for the PCT to be hard. I had imagined myself walking through day after day of cold rain as I had on previous long-distance hikes. I had visualized how I would keep walking toward Canada even in those moments when everything felt awful and the idea of hiking this trail seemed inane. Honestly, compared to what I had mentally prepared myself for, the PCT had been surprisingly pleasant up until that moment. Fortunately, the rain subsided just before nightfall. I was able to dry out, warm up, and regain function of my body. Slowly the panic melted away. After a night of rest, I continued my journey northward.

We know that the mind and body are inextricably linked. This is why elite performers like Navy SEALs and Olympic athletes train their minds as much as they train their muscles. The ability to accomplish impressive feats requires strength inside and out. This is as true on a long-distance hike as it is for any challenging physical endeavor. A resilient mindset is one of the most valuable pieces of gear you can carry and it doesn’t weigh an ounce.

The Psychology of Thru-Hiking Success

It’s commonly estimated that 75 to 85 percent of aspiring thru-hikers on the Triple Crown trails quit before reaching their goal. That’s a staggering number. So, what’s the difference between those who get to the opposite terminus and those who don’t? It’s generally not athletic ability. People of all different demographics and athletic abilities successfully complete long-distance trails.

Backpacking is not a particularly technical sport, though it does require you to learn a particular set of skills. The primary physical component involves walking over natural surfaces with a load on your back. And though good physical fitness reduces the likelihood of injury and can make the experience more enjoyable, a backpacker always has the option to slow down or reduce mileage to ease the physical demand. The challenges unique to a multi-month backpacking trip are exposing yourself to the elements day after day and continuing to move forward when you’re tired of sleeping on a thin foam pad, sick of eating dehydrated foods, and missing your family and friends. Thru-hiking success comes down to the ability to endure when things get hard. There are certainly legitimate circumstances that force hikers off trail, like illness, injury, and finances, but many quit because the going gets difficult and they don’t have a strong reason for being out there. They’re still physically capable, but mentally they’re over it.

“Thru-hiking success is 90 percent mental.” This is a common phrase among experienced hikers. I didn’t fully understand it until I was thirty days into my first long hike, which entailed putting on frozen shoes and soggy clothes each morning and walking through intermittent 40-degree rain. Many of my hiking companions were struggling, but surprisingly, I didn’t find it all that miserable. Not that I was loving every moment of it, but to some degree, I had expected the challenge.

My background of long-distance running provided a strong foundation for a resilient mindset many years before I discovered backpacking. During multi-hour cross-country runs in Ohio’s sweltering August afternoons, I learned that I could be uncomfortable and it wouldn’t kill me. Memories of those challenging twice-a-day practices were fodder I would later draw upon when my body was ready to give up and I needed to rely on my mind to persevere. Like many new backpackers, I went into my first long-distance hike believing that my gear, physical fitness, and backcountry skills were the factors that mattered most. I learned that those things are valuable, but they will not get you to the end of a multi-month journey without the mental mastery to also endure difficult circumstances. So if “thru-hiking success is 90 percent mental,” how does one cultivate the proper mental preparedness?

Setting Realistic Expectations

The foundation of mental preparation for a difficult endeavor is to set realistic expectations. Having a grounded understanding of what accomplishing your goal entails is essential to preventing you from being thrown off course when things get difficult, as they inevitably will.

Consider what makes the idea of a long-distance hike enticing to you. Perhaps it’s the stunning landscape vistas, being on your own schedule, and experiencing a deeper connection with yourself via immersion in nature. Whatever it is, it’s likely that those are the elements that are top of mind as you prepare for your hike. And while you’ll likely experience those rewards and more, it’s important to keep in mind the range of experiences and emotions you’re signing up for when you embark on a long-distance hike. At one end of the spectrum, you will have days where everything feels right—your body feels strong, you make new friends, and you discover your own strength as you hike through incredible landscapes. At the other end of the spectrum, you will have days where you walk through cold rain from sunrise to sunset, feet blistered, lonely, with only a packet of tuna to get you the remaining 50 miles to town.

Mentally preparing for optimal performance doesn’t mean you expect to be at your peak the entire time; it means that you set yourself up to do the best you can in whatever circumstances you encounter. Mental preparation begins with the expectation that your hike won’t all go smoothly. Whether you are able to endure depends on how you respond. Will you let an obstacle ruin your day (or your entire hike), or will you find your way through the situation, recover quickly, learn the lesson, and keep moving forward? Essentially, it’s expected that you will “fall off the horse.” How quickly can you get back on? This is largely influenced by your mental resilience. This section covers mental preparation techniques to enhance fortitude, but first, let’s explore potential challenges you might encounter—because expecting adversity is half the battle in overcoming it.

Excerpted from Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency by Katie Gerber and Heather Anderson (June 2022) with permission from the publisher Mountaineers Books.

Order a signed copy here. In addition to mental preparation, we discuss trip planning, trail nutrition, physical preparation, safety, navigation, gear selection, and more.

How to create a healthy backpacking meal plan in < 1 hour

backpacking meal planning

I put together a few trip planning resources to share with you as I’m wrapping up preparations for my first trip of the season in Escalante, Utah this spring. 

Last month, I broke down my gear list for this trip and how the location specific conditions are influencing my selections. 

Today I want to share my process for creating a fast, healthy backpacking meal plan. This process is essentially the same whether I’m planning for a trip that’s 5 days or 5 months. It allows me to know that I’m meeting my calorie goals and macronutrient goals so that I feel my best on trail. It also ensures I’m fueling my body with the right foods for optimal energy and recovery.

Plus it allows me to know I’m carrying enough food, but not way too much. On a 5+ day trip, my food bag is often the heaviest single item in my pack, so it’s worth the time to do some planning to make sure I’m packing efficiently.

I breakdown my process step by step here:

Hope this helps you create a healthy backpacking meal plan for your own backcountry trips this spring!

If you’d like to replicate this process for yourself, this is all laid out step by step in my performance nutrition and meal planning for backpackers course. This template, along with several others, are included. 

The course walks you through figuring out your calories needs, macro targets, choosing a cooking style, how to create a balanced meal, how to create your own easy, healthy recipes, where to shop, and how to put it all together in a meal plan. And much more.

Learn more and enroll here.

Questions? Do you have a process for meal planning for your backpacking trips? Share below.

Escalante, Utah Gear List & Reason for Selections

Later this month, I’ll be guiding three week-long trips in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area as part of Andrew Skurka’s guided trip program.

For me, preparations for these trips began months ago, working with clients on conditions assessments, gear lists, food planning, mapping exercises and more. My own preparations began in earnest earlier this month with inventorying and repairing gear and creating a gear list.

The beginning stages of getting organized… pull everything out and put it in a pile

Below I’m sharing my gear list and a brief rationale for my selections, which is primarily correlated with the conditions we expect to encounter.

  • Temperature & Precipitation: Historical climate data from nearby weather stations indicate that we’re expecting mid/high-60’s during the day and mid/high-30’s at night.  The average precipitation in April is 0.55 inches; for May, 0.61. Average snowfall for April is 1.0 inches; in May, it’s zero. Expected temperature ranges impact my choice of clothing, including a mid-layer and insulated jacket, as well as my decision to opt for a 20-degree sleeping bag and 3-season sleeping pad. Since we don’t expect much precipitation, I’m bringing an UL rain shell rather than a heavy duty jacket.
  • Sun Exposure: We’ll be traveling at 5,000-6,000′ of elevation through areas with little shade and the sun will be intense. Sun protection, including long sleeves and pants, a hat, and sunglasses will be critical.
  • Footing: Slickrock and sand. Shoes that are sand-resistant and have sticky soles are a must.
  • Vegetation: Canyon bottoms will be likely be brushy, including willows, tamarisk, cottonwood saplings, and poison ivy. Long pants will be appreciated.
  • Water Availability: We’ll be near several perennial waterways, so 3-4 liters of carrying capacity is sufficient. Cattle graze nearby and some sources may be stagnant, so I’ll definitely be treating my water.
  • Wildlife and Insects: Bears are not common in this area and we’ll be camping in low-use areas where mini-bear activity should be minimal, so I’ll be using a Loksak Opsak for food storage. Bug pressure is expected to be low, so I won’t be carrying a headnet or bug spray. My shelter does have a built-in bug net, but I’ll probably cowboy camp since setting it up in sand or on slickrock is fussy.

See my Escalante gear list here

Questions? Thoughts?

The Adventure Ready book is here! (PreOrder)

In August of 2020, Mountaineers Books reached out to Heather and I with the idea of writing a holistic guidebook to long distance hiking.

Today, after many hours of writing, editing, and waiting, it’s awesome to finally hold the finished physical book in my hands (see happy photo above) – AND for it to be ready to go out into the world.

Adventure Ready is a prescriptive guidebook to long distance hiking. It’s designed to maximize your enjoyment of your hike whether you’re a beginner who’s aspiring to complete your first long trail or a seasoned thru hiker who wants to improve your preparation, health, and overall experience on your next long walk.

In addition to providing our take on the traditional topics of trip planning, safety, navigation, and gear, we dive deep into the lesser explored areas of trail nutrition, physical training, and mental preparation. We also talk about how to take care of your body and mind during the challenge of transitioning back home after the trail.

The Adventure Ready book will be released in June 2022.

When you pre order using the below links, you’ll receive a SIGNED COPY from me as well as a DISCOUNT CODE to use on the more in depth Adventure Ready online curriculum so that you can get started learning today!

PreOrder Here.

Access the online curriculum at KatieGerber.teachable.com.

Backcountry Water Basics: How to find it, assess it, and treat it

odt water

I was recently interviewed for a project with a popular outdoor magazine about my favorite methods for purifying water, how to find water in the backcountry, how to stay on top of hydration, and the effects of dehydration. I ended up not moving forward with the project after seeing the contract, but the interview had already been done and we covered some important topics, so I wanted to recreate it for this post. 

For context, this is based on my experience backpacking the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, Oregon Desert, Colorado, and Great Basin Trails, in addition to dozens of shorter trips. I’m not a water expert, but I do have a lot of personal experience with this topic, and that’s what I’m sharing here.

Water is essential for survival and finding it and treating it can be a concern for many backpackers. Learning this information gets you one step closer to feeling more confident on your next backpacking trip. 

How do you find water on a backpacking trip?

Above all, I believe that knowing how to read and interpret a topographic map is an invaluable backcountry skill. You can learn the basics by reading articles online or taking a course, and best of all, practicing in the field.

Before heading out for a trip, use a paper or digital map to locate water sources, such as lakes, rivers, creeks, etc. However, keep in mind that just seeing a blue line on the map is not enough. It’s important to think about when the map was created, how reliable the water source is, and whether it is likely to be flowing at the time of year you’ll be there. For example, sources are generally more likely to be flowing in the spring versus the fall. Satellite imagery, such as Google Earth and specific layers on mapping apps, such as the US Hydrography layer on Gaia GPS, can also be helpful for locating sources. Contacting locals and/or land managers can provide further insight into whether sources are flowing when you plan to go on your trip. 

In addition to the above research, when you’re hiking a more established trail, such as the PCT, you can reference crowd-sourced water reports, such as sites like pctwater.com and on apps like the FarOut app (formerly Guthook). Be sure to note the date of any information you’re reading and take that into consideration.

How do you assess water quality in the backcountry?

I’ve hiked in a lot of dry places, such as eastern Oregon, the Great Basin, the Mojave and other parts of Southern California, southern Utah, the Red Desert in Wyoming, and southern New Mexico. Water sources are often questionable and it’s not uncommon to need to collect water from cow tanks, potholes, and other less-than-ideal sources. That said, I always assess water quality, and choose the least disgusting source possible. 

Some factors I use to assess water quality include: 

  • Considering how far I am to the source – the closer to the source I can collect, the better.
  • Considering what’s upstream, such as livestock, wildlife, and other hikers.
  • The turbidity of the water – the clearer the better since sediment can reduce the effectiveness of certain purification methods, such as UV and chemicals.
  • Is there a chemical film and/or dead animals, such as cows, mice, or birds in the water? Dead animal water and chemical water is a no-go for me.
  • Does the source smell bad?
oregon desert trail water
After pushing aside a layer of green, this source was clear and cold, but we avoided floaties all together by collecting right at the spout.

What is your favorite method for treating water?

There are several methods for treating water, including boiling, chemical, filtration, and UV light. My personal method of choice is an inline squeeze filter, such as a Sawyer Squeeze, which is compatible with a variety of water containers including hard-sided bottles and collapsible pouches. 

I also use chemical filtration, such as Aquamira (aka chlorine dioxide) drops or tablets when it’s below 15 degrees Fahrenheit. 

If I’m drinking from a particularly gross source, I might use multiple methods, such as filtering through a bandana or shirt to remove sediment, then treating chemically, then filtering through an a water filter.

When selecting your filtration option, it’s valuable to know the likely water contaminants in the area you’re traveling and what your chosen treatment method is, and is not, effective against. For example, most filters don’t filter out viruses, though viruses aren’t that common of a contaminant in most backcountry water sources in the U.S.

What do you look for in a water filter?

When selecting a water filter, I look for one which removes bacteria, parasites, and most chemicals and microplastics. I also want something lightweight, ideally less than 4-5 ounces including the bottle or pouch. The higher the flow rate the better as the time really adds up when you’re filtering 4-6 liters per day for months on end. I also want something compact so it doesn’t take up much space in my pack, and I want something that’s durable and made from high quality material so that I don’t have to constantly replace it and I can avoid creating more waste that will go into a landfill.

I spy water!

How do you stay on top of hydration during long days in the backcountry? What is the effect of dehydration? How do you avoid overhydration? 

Staying hydrated is important for optimal functioning of your mind and body. As little as 2% dehydration can have impacts on your performance, including increased fatigue, muscle cramping, and a decline in cognitive function. I make sure to balance my water intake with electrolytes, such as potassium, magnesium, and sodium to avoid hyponatremia. 

To ensure I stay hydrated, I know where my water sources are and I make sure I carry enough water with me to get from one source to the next. That amount varies based on the temperature, sun exposure, wind, and intensity of the section, but generally I carry enough to drink about 1 liter per 5 miles. I carry more if my next source is questionable, especially on a route where I have no one hiking ahead of me to provide beta. In addition to carrying enough, I make sure to keep water in an easy to access location, such as my side pockets, so that I can drink on the go without needing to take off my pack. 

Any hydration or water tips you’d add to this? Share them below.