Read an excerpt from Andrew Skurka’s ‘Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide’

Editor’s note: In his new book, Andrew Skurka, National Geographic Adventure and Outside magazine’s Adventurer of the Year, shows readers how to efficiently and effectively plan for an adventure. The book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Tools and Techniques to Hit the Trail, is available now from National Geographic Books ($19.95, paperback, 224 pages). Click here to order, and click here to read the Scouting feature about Skurka.

Below is an excerpt from The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide:

Tried & True: How to find a good campsite

Out of desperation I have camped in some awful places, including a vault toilet in Montana’s Purcell Mountains, a six-foot-by-two-foot bench that I chiseled from a 25-degree slope in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, and a rodent-infested lookout tower in New Brunswick. But usually I am very deliberate and selective about where I camp. A good night’s sleep is critical to enjoying tomorrow.

Select a general area

As the end of the day draws near, I identify several potential campsites on my map. I look for general locations that are:

  • Flat, where my odds of finding a level campsite are best, though as a soloist I can often find suitable ground on suboptimal gradients, where there would not be enough spots for a group;
  • Near natural resources like firewood and water;
  • Off-trail, to avoid infringing on another backpacker’s wilderness experience;
  • Not in the bottom of a valley or canyon, where on a calm night the air will be colder and where dew/frost will be heaviest;
  • Not near animal trails or prime habitat, which might lead to an unwanted midnight visitor;
  • Not in danger of natural hazards like avalanches, flash floods, and incoming weather; and
  • If the bugs are intense, breezy and far from breeding grounds like swampy meadows and stagnant lakes.

Identify a specific location

Once I select a general area, I try finding a specific campsite that is:

  • Covered in natural materials like pine needles, leaves, moss or sand, which will be more comfortable and which will be less thermally conductive than hard-packed dirt;
  • Under and next to something — like trees, bushes, or large rocks — that will keep me warmer by serving as a natural windbreak and as a radiant heat reflector;
  • Dry, because wet ground is more thermally conductive;
  • Not at risk of being flooded by groundwater during rain, as moisture can easily seep through a lightweight floor or an older, heavy-duty floor; and
  • Naturally contoured for my preferred sleeping position. I’m a back-sleeper, so I like a raised area for my head, a slight depression for my butt, and a short knoll for the backs of my knees.

Once I have identified a potential spot, I lie down to make sure that it is comfortable. If it is, I mark the location of my feet and head with small rocks so that I can pitch my shelter over this exact location. If it’s not, I will try different positions or a different spot. Given the importance of my campsite to my sleep, it’s worth being fussy.

Tip: So that all people in a shelter can sleep well, I have them all lie down on the proposed spot and ask, “Are you comfortable?” If yes, we pitch the shelter.

Tried & True: How to pack a backpack

On solo trips I aim to be walking down the trail within 15 minutes of waking up. To do so quickly I can’t just stuff everything into my backpack randomly, however. It must be packed so as to minimize the load’s effect on my center of gravity and maximize organizational efficiency.

Maintain your center of gravity

The location of one’s center of gravity depends on gender and body type. For a normal adult male, it’s around the sternum; for a normal adult female, it’s above the belly button. A backpack of any weight will affect my center of gravity (and a heavy pack much more so), and I will need to compensate for that with an unnatural walking form, hence the forward lean. My goal is simply to minimize the effect, specifically by:

  • Placing the heaviest items (e.g., food, water, and stove fuel) against my back, so I don’t have to lean forward as far.
  • Cinching the pack’s compression straps, which help to pull the weight closer to my back. (Removing compression straps is a classic “stupid light” move.)
  • Keeping all or most of the weight below or level with my sternum to prevent swaying, which would make me less nimble and could possibly be dangerous on technical terrain.
  • Centering the weight along my spine so that the pack does not tilt to the left or right. This can be achieved by packing the heaviest items against the spine or by counterbalancing the weight.

Keep your pack organized

An unorganized backpack is frustrating and inefficient: I can’t find what I need, and I waste time looking for it. To organize my pack I keep:

  • Oft-needed items within easy reach. In my hip belt pockets I keep my water purification, DEET, head net, camera, lip balm, and/or sunscreen. In my side pockets I keep my water bottle(s), maps and perhaps a beanie, bear spray, and/or gloves. I attach my insulated overmitts to my shoulder strap with a small carabiner, which is more secure than my side pockets. And I keep my sunglasses atop my visor when I’m not wearing them.
  • Occasionally needed items inside my pack, at the very top. These include my accessory pouch (which contains my LED light, fire starter, toiletries, chewing gum, etc.), a quart freezer bag with my day’s rations, layers of clothing (e.g., wind shirt, rain gear, and puffy jacket), and additional bottles of water if I’m in a dry stretch.
  • Items I won’t need until camp or during future days I like my sleeping bag and my food for the rest of the trip – at the bottom.

Reprinted by arrangement with the National Geographic Society from the book Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide. By Andrew Skurka Copyright ©2012 Andrew Skurka.

To read more great tips on clothing, footwear, shelter, sleep systems, hiking efficiency, and much more, pick up a copy of The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide by clicking here.

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