Spending time outdoors tends to spark creative thinking — from big things, like starting a business, to small things, like an idea to improve the immediate situation. This article is about those small backpacking “hacks.” These are the often overlooked tips and tricks I’ve stumbled across that have ended up being tremendously useful. Number one on the list is an Amy original (so far as I know) and the rest were picked up from friends and books.
Make Your Own Ultralight Mug with a Coozie and Talenti Jar
While I backpack often enough to warrant the investment in a titanium mug, I found myself stumped last summer as I prepared gear for a family backpacking trip: What mug should I bring for my husband and daughter? That’s when a flash of creativity struck.
A coozie around a Talenti jar is not only extremely functional, but it’s also extremely lightweight and cheap!!! (Who doesn’t have 13 extra coozies from that one friend’s wedding?)
While I might give a second thought to putting hot liquids in plastic for weeks on end, for the occasional backcountry trip, this is a pretty magical solution!
Bump Up the Warmth of Your Quilt or Sleeping Bag with a SOL Bivvy
I’m a cold person, and by extension a cold sleeper. When I got my first backpacking quilt, I quickly discovered that unless it was July, I’d get cold at night. Rather than buying a brand new piece of gear, I got my hands on a SOL Escape Lite Bivy, which I now put over my quilt or sleeping bag.
For $40 and with the addition of 5.5 ounces, I sleep toasty!
Note: it’s extremely important to use the breathable Escape Lite Bivvy and NOT the emergency bivvy, which builds up considerable condensation during the course of a night! Dare I admit that I learned the hard way!
Use Your Emptied Pack Around Your Feet at Night
Legendary thru-hiker and GGG contributor Jeff Garmire gets credit for coming up with this trick, which he figured out while hiking the AT in winter! If you find your feet are getting cold at night, empty your backpack and put it around the toe box of your sleeping bag or quilt. Much like the SOL Emergency Bivvy hack described above, it’s amazing how the extra liner created by your backpack can make all the difference.
Ditch the Camp Shoes for Bread Bags
I hike in running shoes (versus boots), meaning that my kicks are still pretty comfortable by the end of the day. But however comfortable, they’re also typically wet! (Chalk it up to living in Alaska, I’m the person who often walks right into a stream, shoes still on.)
Both for comfort and to avoid trench foot, when the sun starts setting, I want my feet to be dry! So here’s the hack: carry an extra pair of dry socks, plus two sturdy bread bags. Then, when you pull into camp at night, put on the dry socks, followed by the bread bags, followed by the wet running shoes.
Your feet will be comfy and the Crocs stay home!
(Author’s note: while taking the pictures to illustrate this hack, our dogs ran out of our yard to greet our neighbor. The upshot? I definitely walked up to our 80-year-old neighbor wearing bags on my feet ... and she wanted to take a picture!)
Keep Everything You Need Routinely Within Arm’s Reach
I’m a big fan of pockets, in all of their varied and beautiful forms. I’m talking hip belt pockets, shoulder strap pockets, mesh pockets on packs, fanny packs, and of course those absolutely scrumptious pockets found on both sides of Purple Rain Adventure Skirts.
Don’t get me wrong, like anything, pockets can be taken to an unnecessary extreme, but when used intentionally and judiciously, they can absolutely make everything just a little bit easier and more efficient.
Here are examples of how I build pockets into my systems:
During the day while hiking, I keep my food in hip belt pockets, or the mesh back and side pockets on my pack, so that I can easily reach it when I get hungry. With a background in ultrarunning, I have a particular knack for eating while in motion; but even when stopping to snack, it’s nice not to have to rifle through my pack to get to calories.
I keep my camera/ phone in a shoulder strap pocket. I get a particular thrill and satisfaction out of documenting adventures and finding artistic ways to capture an experience through imagery. Or, as my husband would say, I take a TON of photos! By keeping my camera within super easy reach, I’m often able to capture these images with a simple pause, mid-stride.
- I keep all my in-camp essentials in a fanny pack, which I wear around at night. This includes my headlamp, lighter, spork, tooth brush, tooth paste powder, a warm hat, etc. It saves me from, say, scrambling to find my headlamp when it gets dark, or losing track of a spork when I’m ravenously hungry.
Pack Towel for Condensation
Condensation in ones tent is always annoying. Especially in single wall tents, condensation can simply be one of the most frustrating things on trail. At least when It rains outside, typically you’ve got a raincoat on. When it happens inside your tent, all of your most precious stuff runs the risk of getting soaked!
While there are a bunch of different tips and tricks for reducing condensation, nothing will eliminate it entirely. A personal favorite for reducing the effects of condensation is to bring a small pack towel. When you wake up (or when condensation is starting to build), quickly wipe down the inside of your tent.
Does it solve the problem of condensation? No, but it provides a workable fix when condensation is particularly bad. Wipe it down, wring it out in your vestibule, and then put it on your pack to dry while you hike!
Use a Boat to Make Your Route More Interesting
I’m just gonna own it … I included this “hack” so I could include this pic, because it totally cracks me up and brings back great memories at the same time. But really, there’s something epically wonderful about multi-sport adventures — I highly recommend mixing foot travel with boats, bikes and/ or skis!
Pack Mini Playing Cards!
Because (cat’s out of the bag) backpacking and most especially ultralight backpacking is fun! And sometimes mini playing cards offer serious adventure enhancement!
What are your favorite backpacking hacks? Leave a comment below!
Amy Hatch is the co-founder of Garage Grown Gear. When not tapping away at the keyboard, she can be found playing Connect Four with her daughter, watching James Bond movies with her husband, and drinking really good coffee.
Instead of a 16 oz. Talenti jar (55 g, 1.9 oz w/ lid), a Ziploc Twist ’N Lock 16 oz. plastic jar weighs less (39 g, 1.4 oz w/lid), and can handle boiling water.
Dive socks for camp shoes and they can also be used for cold water creek crossings
Great hacks. Here are a few more…..
- Pack your food in separate ziplock bags for each day on the trail. Add a paper towel to each bag for clean up.
- Add a 1.2 inch PVC end cap to your tent stake bag. Put it over the end of the stake when pushing it in while setting up your tent. Your palms will thank you and no more bent stakes from bashing them with a rock. if you can’t push it in by hand, you should probably try a different spot.
- Add a few zip ties of various sizes to your repair kit. They weigh next to nothing and I’ve fixed my own and other hikers packs on more than one occasion with them where duct tape wasn’t up to the job.
- Carry a small roll of colored doggie pooh bags to pack out used TP and wipes and put the used ones inside a quart ziplock bag.
- Use an aluminum snow stake as a trowel for digging cat holes. Works well, light weight, costs only a few bucks and can double as an extra tent stake for windy conditions.
- carry 1/2 of an old credit card to open the lid of a bearvault container when it’s cold out and you can’t compress the lid. Slip it between the can stop and the lid tab and rotate the lid to open it effortlessly.
- carry a washer and clip it to your pack if you carry a garcia or bear boxer style bear canister with slot locks.
Putting bags into shoes is an old trick. I use this wapor barrier while ice climbing, skitouring etc. Trick is to keep insulation dry. You wont get trench foot because you can always change dry socks into bags, but drying your shoes is really hard in subzero temp. And about Greywolfs comment, if your shoes are wet, howcome it is worse to use bag and dry socks? I’m not military, but I’ve been hiking over 30 years year round above polar circle, wet, dry and below 40 temp.
Nice set of hacks. As other have said though you can’t put boiling liquids in a Talenti Jar, that plastic melts really easily. I have melted a few Talenti Jars by using really hot rinse water when doing dishes. Probably want to make sure the liquid is just warm for that hack.
I can’t go with the Talenti jar… you can’t put boiling water into it. The plastic deforms with boiling water. Still, I use them for reusable containers all the time at home before I forget about the heat intolerance and mess one up! Would hate to see a backpacker use that tip and be sorely disappointed.
Nice to see the Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear pack. I love mine, and consistently sing its praises. Great pack!
My mom is an expert knitter, and I always carry a pair of Mom socks on my trips. I clean my feet and put on those socks as I’m crawling into my hammock. In the morning, my feet are dry & happy. On a very rainy trip a few years ago, the mornings were the only time my feet were dry. But if I were inclined to switch into dry socks as soon as I got into camp, I’d definitely use the bread bag trick.
Yes Naomi, the Nalgene as hot water bottle is the best!
For games, instead of cards I bring ‘Pass the Pigs’, it’s a blast for any size group and the pigs + pencil nub/paper for scorekeeping weighs nearly nothing.
For cards I take the Air Deck cards…half the width (& weight) but full length so they still feel like real cards. I wouldn’t put boiling water in a Talenti jar, but I do take 2 Talenti jars in my pack since they are relatively light (ok not for gram counters) and waterproof. One with everything first aid kit related, bandaids, hikers wool, ibuprofen, etc. And one with all other tiny items that are then easy to find. And you get to eat the delicious gelato to get a jar :)
Thanks for your other tips!
I can’t imagine Jeff Garmire would put his pack on the outside of his bag/comforter and thus compromising the down, or synthetic. Unless it is not compressing it, I would suggest pack inside the lofted bag.
GrayWolf no way in hell you are going to get “TRENCH FOOT” from wearing bread bags for a few minutes in and around camp. You sure you were military? Trench foot takes PROLONGED exposure to water, like in TRENCHES in WWI for days, weeks, and months. Those trenches is where the term originated. https://www.healthline.com/health/trench-foot#causes
I have no idea what a Talenti jar is, nor a Coozie! Do they mean a cosy? As in a tea cosy? Or is there some sort of commercial product called a Coozie?
I have a question about the escape light bivy. Do you put it on top of your bag/quilt. How do you keep it there?
Incidentally, I can swear by the feet in backpack trick. Used it on the AT on Jan 1.
Naomi, Jimmy, Jim and Don,
Great additions. Thank you for chiming in!
The Talenti jar is referring to the reusable ice cream jar.
For the bag on feet hack, I agree it probably wouldn’t work for someone who gets sweaty feet. And it’s definitely only meant for walking around camp.
Also, FWIW, I’ve never been on the AT, CDT, PCT or JMT. My style is to look at a map and dream up my own routes and adventures.
Great tips, thank you. I carry a piece of shammy cloth to dry my tent. The ones you can buy for cheap at the hardware store for drying your car after a car wash. You can cut them to any size you desire because they are felted so the edges won’t frey. They absorb much better for less weight than any pack towels that I’ve used. Just use a paper hole punch to make a hole in one or two of the corners to clip a carabiner through. This makes it even lighter and allows you to hang it on the outside of your pack to dry it out. You can make smaller cloths out of your leftover cut offs for washing your face or doing the dishes etc…
Great photos to illustrate the tips. Thanks!
DON’T use Talenti jars for boiling liquids!
I’m a huge Talenti (ice cream, for those unfortunate enough not to have tried it) fan and the jars have a plastic screw top making them wonderfully reusable for leftovers etc. In my dishwasher I put all my plastic take home containers and regular plastic Tupperware on the top shelf. Talenti jars are the ONLY plastic that has ever melted in there. It looks all twisted and weird like a shrink dink that had just started. This has happened 3 times (different folks have loaded the dishwasher). In fact, better just not to use boiling water on any plastic. But especially Talenti.
I have no idea what a Talenti jar is………………………………….Talenti gelato in the ice cream department, great containers.
The Old Vermonter
I have no idea what a Talenti jar is. Be careful putting hot liquids in clear plastic. If it’s PET it and the water is hot enough the plastic will soften and may spill scalding hot water on you. If it’s PC (polycarbonate) it may decompose and release toxic chemicals
Fake Crocs are about half the weight of the real thing, and for the purpose of camp shoes they’re equally effective.
For the wet shoes hack I use the Alterra high top boots. They are ultra lightweight and waterproof . Very large footbox and home style comfy. Then I bring my Gore Tex socks ONLY worn at camp inside boots with dry socks if boots are wet . The GT socks add an extra layer of warmth inside the sleeping bag at night as well . It really does work.
For the extra warmth in the foot box of the sleeping bag I use my down jacket zipped up accordingly if needed .
For extra warmth in the shoulder seasons I bring along my Western Mountaineering Vapor Barrier liner sac . Its reflective and goes inside the sleeping bag preventing condensation from sweat wetting out the down over a period of many nights.
Amazingly wearing a seperate down hood and down socks is a game changer for warmth. Add in 1/2 down mitts and you are toasty!
After spending many cold nights in the backcountry Ive learned how to keep warm.
Hope this helps, Jim
Not every backpacking hack is meant for thru hikes :/
Also, you sound condescending as hell. Have lots of backpacking experience? Cool, share your own tips instead of slamming others… 👋🏻
IMHO putting bread bags on your feet is inviting trench foot your feet sweat inside of a bread bag it locks the moisture in but hey im just exmilitary and have walked maybe just maybe a inch or two of the AT ,PCT ,CDT and maybe a 1/2 inch of the JMT having grown up in CA playing in the Angeles National forest and having served on the S&R team for Dean Martins son in 1987 but im nobody do as you wish
I always use a pack towel for condensation. I recommend it to everyone!
Love these hacks! One more to add: if you are using backpacking meals at night when it’s chilly, while the meal cooks in the bag, put it in your jacket so it keeps you warm! Also – if your feet are cold / you are cold and don’t have hand warmers, boil water in your nalgene and put it in your sleeping bag with you. Will warm you right up!