Backpacking Basics

Erin “Wired” Saver started backpacking when she moved to the Northwest US in 2009 after growing up in the Midwest. Her passion for long distance running quickly transferred over to the trails. She found herself running less and hiking more as the time passed, now having completed over 10,000 miles, including hiking’s Triple Crown, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail.

Her knack for blogging, energetic personality, and little need for sleep earned her the trail name Wired. Her detailed daily trail blog, Walking With Wired, has become widely followed and is a reputable resource in the backpacking community for planning, gear and general trail beta and advice.

She plans to continue challenging herself on other long distance trails, heading out for 4-6 months each year. Other trails she has completed include Vermont’s Long Trail, the John Muir Trail, the West Coast Trail, the Tahoe Rim Trail, the Hayduke Trail, and the Great Divide Trail.  Read more articles like this in Totally Active Magazine.


CDT (5)
Credit: Rob Wisnouckas

I try to hold back at the beginning of a long hike. For the first week, I let my body adapt and check it’s okay. You can easily injure yourself that first week, so I set myself slightly lower targets for each day. I try not to push the pace but will take advantage of feeling good. If I’m having a good morning, then I’ll keep hiking and have a later lunch or, if it’s a beautiful evening, I’ll press on knowing it could well rain the next day. Don’t over plan the number of miles you’ll manage each day, it’s better to be conservative as you never know what might happen. A lot of thru hikers work to a theory of ten by ten, so, if you’ve done ten miles by ten o’clock, you’re doing well. I’ve found twelve by twelve is more realistic. It’s great to be in the lower teens by lunchtime and know the bulk of the day is behind you.

Pre-trip physical preparation

Before my first big hike I was concerned about injuries, especially shin splints, my knees and hips. So, I went to the gym and focussed on strengthening my core, thighs and calves. After that first hike my body seemed to adapt to the demands of hiking and I don’t really need to do extra training anymore as I do the hikes so soon after each other.

The best way to prepare for hiking is to put on a backpack and go and hike. I put water weight in my pack so, if I feel I’m overdoing it, I can ditch some weight. In training, I tend carry the full weight uphill and drop some water on the descents to ease my body, especially my knees, into hiking again.

Don’t assume you’ll just get fit during the early stages of a multi-day hike. You’re more likely to get injured and should always do some training hikes in preparation. Training hikes are also a great time for testing out and getting used to your kit.

Packing and Weight Saving

Make a gear list so that you’re sure you have everything you should have. I  am known for losing things and leaving stuff so it definitely helps me, as long as I remember to look at it! Once you start hiking day in day out, you get into a routine with your packing and it becomes second nature.

When you’re loading your pack it’s a combination of weight versus usage. So, most people have their sleeping bag on the bottom because that’s the last thing you’re going to need. In the centre of the pack towards your back and working up to the top, you want more of the weight. So, this could be food and other kit that you don’t need while actually hiking. Don’t have a water bladder in the mesh on the back of the pack as it’ll pull you backwards, have it on the top or close to your back. I’ll put my rain jacket and clothing towards the top.

People make the mistake of carrying unnecessary clothing. You only need one set of day clothes and a set of sleeping clothes. For sleeping bag and jackets, down will always be lighter and less bulky than synthetics. For your tent, look for cuben fibre rather than silnylon as it’s lighter and absorbs far less water. Be ruthless and only bring absolute necessities. Keep your water system simple. A basic plastic bottle is a lot lighter than a solid Nalgene one. Water is heavy, so learn what you can get away with and try not to carry too much.

Getting going in the morning

My alarm is normally set for about six and I’m normally out between half past and seven. I try to do everything possible in the tent as I get cold easily. My routine is centred around staying in my sleeping bag until the last possible moment. I have trouble eating in the morning so I’ll just take a few bites out of a bar as I get ready. I’ll then have a more substantial bar an hour or so into the morning’s hike. The last thing I pack is my tent which will either go in an outside pocket if it’s wet or on top. The most difficult days for me to get going are when I have my period. There are two days in a row when my body feels it’s sunk into the ground and I just want to stay in my bag. Those are the hardest days but I know what’s happening and staying in my bag an extra hour won’t help. I know I just have to get on with it.


Hiking diets don’t tend to be healthy diets, it’ll mostly be bars and packaged dinners. The core of my diet is energy bars, such as Clif, regular candy bars and protein bars. Lunch is normally a tortilla wrap with cheese and tuna. Lots of cookies and crisps to nibble on. For dinner I’ll have a Mountain House meal. Off the trail, you’d think they were disgusting but, as a hiker, they’re just what you’re looking for. Many hikers also use instant noodles, pasta and couscous. It is possible to eat healthier on trail, but it takes more effort and can cost more.

Staying connected

Wired in action high in Colorado on the CDT.
Credit: Christy Rosander

I have a couple of devices to allow me to blog and stay in touch. The core one is an iPhone with an external Anker battery. I also have a personal locating device, a Delorme inReach. It’s on the Iridium satellite network and, as well as allowing people to track and locate you, it allows you to send and receive text messages from almost anywhere. It’s brilliant for arranging meet ups and, because you can get confirmation back, it’s so much better than other personal locators. I’ve never really got on with solar chargers, they just don’t reliably deliver enough power for me. I use the majority of my power at night to blog and then I’d be reliant on it being sunny the next day to have power.

Keeping warm and dry

John Muir Trail
Credit: Marcin Zanko

I get extremely cold when wet. My number one tip for preventing this is my Euroschirm Swing Liteflex umbrella. You attach it to your pack, keeping my hands free and my core dry. To have your head and neck area dry makes a huge difference. If it’s cold and wet, you’ve got to layer up well under your waterproofs, just keep moving and have your dry night kit to put on at the end of the day. If your head is warm, the rest of you will feel warmer so always have a beanie. If it’s really cold, use a buff too to cover up your neck, face and ears. No shoes will keep your feet dry, so I opt for lightweight and breathable trail shoes that’ll dry quickly when the sun does come out. Surgical gloves over your regular gloves make a big difference to keeping your hands warm in the wet.


A super moon night cowboying on top of Camel's Hump.

In general, unless it’s super wet and there’s no way of keeping it dry, opt for a down sleeping bag as it gives you more bang for your buck in terms of weight versus warmth. For a sleeping mat, I use a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Women’s Sleeping Pad. It’s a bit crinkly because of the heat reflective layer in it but it doesn’t bother me. Some hikers use a more minimalist pad but I prefer a bit more comfort, warmth and a good night’s sleep.


I try to harden my feet as best I can before I get on trail. The only way to do that is to hike. Then, especially during the first week, as soon as I feel something, I stop and deal with it, such as putting some tape on the area. Everyone has their own strategy, but if it is already a blister, I tend to pop it and completely remove the skin. If you just pop it and leave a hole, you can guarantee dirt will get in. Use medical tape and gauze to cover it and it’ll heal enough overnight.

Mental Toughness

On a lot of the trails I’ve hiked, the fear and driving force for me has been avoiding the snow on the latter stages, which can prevent you finishing. Me laying in my tent for another half an hour, I know it’s another mile I’m not doing and, over a month, that really adds up. I would rather hike now in good weather than have to do it later in poor conditions. Break the trail down into sections rather than considering it as a whole. Instead on one long trip, look at it as lots of short trips one after another. I also always make my schedule much slower than I know I’ll probably go as it’s always a mental boost to be ahead of schedule.

Featured image credit: Christy Rosander

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This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.