Trail Mantras & Backcountry Aphorisms

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as telling your friends, “I told you so!” Unless you’re 20 miles from a road, then it’s not satisfying at all.

Here are a few of the sayings that have kept me out of trouble and should increase your chances of a successful trip.

No stupid mistakes!

This is fairly easy to wrap your head around, and it really simplifies your decision-making process once you get it down. I repeat this to myself more frequently the longer I’ve been out.

As the day draws long, you become fatigued and terrain becomes more difficult to negotiate. You may look for shortcuts in your strides and in your foot placement, but the reality is there are none. Nice and steady, now. “No stupid mistakes.”

This is also a lesson in risk mitigation. Don’t stand on the sketchy rock in the middle of that cascade for a sweet picture. Don’t walk the enormous dead fall out to some scenic frame for a photo. It’s just not worth it. Nature doesn’t care about you, and when you’re traveling through the merciless wilds of the world, it’s best not to do so with a fist full of dice.

On that note…

Better over than on.

Super simple, but I feel like this isn’t shared with newcomers. If you’re able to step over obstacles rather than on them—deadfall or roots for example—it’s typically a better move to do so.

Eat before you’re hungry. Drink before you’re thirsty. Stop before you’re tired.

For me, this is the golden rule of backpacking. Be proactive. I love backcountry travel so much because there is a heightened sense of self-care that I don’t apply elsewhere. Every half hour or so, I ask the members of my group, “How are you doing? Are you hungry? When was the last time you drank water? Do you need to shed a layer? What about your feet–any hot spots?” That vigilance is necessary for you to do well in an environment that lacks modern amenities.

We need to constantly be checking in with ourselves. “How do I feel?” We don’t check in that way when we’re relaxing at home. There’s really no immediate need to. We’ve kind of technologically outgrown our self-assessment program. We react to our body’s needs instead of proactively anticipate them.

We need to constantly be checking in with ourselves. “How do I feel?” We don’t check in that way when we’re relaxing at home… We’ve kind of technologically outgrown our self-assessment program…

If you find yourself in a situation where you are thirsty or hungry or tired, you waited too long to take action. Not in a vital sense, but it certainly could develop into that. It takes time and energy to get anything done outside, and you’re at a huge disadvantage if you’re trying to pump water at 10:30 at night cold and exhausted. “Eat before you’re hungry. Drink before you’re thirsty. Stop before you’re tired.”

Speaking of water treatment…

Drink a liter of water every time you’re at the cooler.

What I mean by this is that if you’re purifying water, you should drink as much as you feel comfortable drinking right then and there.

Two reasons for this. First, it’s good for you. I’m admittedly not as diligent at drinking water as I could be, but recognizing that is a good first step to correcting the issue.  Drinking a liter anytime you’re actively treating water is, at the least, a good way of combating dehydration by scheduling routine water breaks. I typically need to re-up on water mid-day and then after dinner/before sunset. (I try to carry only two liters on me at most and then fill up my reserve containers once at camp.) This guarantees I put two liters in my system a day and acts as a good baseline for preventing dehydration.

Secondly, your tummy is a container. I carry two 1L Nalgenes, three if you count my gut.  While you’re filling up, it doesn’t hurt to carry an extra liter in your system so you can save your bottles for the trail.

Wake up early. Very early.

I’m sure I’ll catch heat for this, but GET UP ALREADY, WOULD YA?!

The first rule of any successful expedition is to wake up and get going. Fishing, hunting, backpacking, mountaineering: all these require time to complete your objectives, and that means you’ve got to get going early. Plus, mornings are peaceful, meditative opportunities for you to set the tone for the day. So wake up already!

Did you pack your bag?

A little higher end than the rest of these, but I’ll occasionally have a moment of self-doubt, where just before leaving the trail head, the camp site, or wherever, I’ll stress out and go through yet another last-minute gear check. I’ll ask myself, “did you pack your bag?” Yes. Yes, I did. And I’m a professional—sort of—so I know I’m good to go. I don’t recommend just writing off the gear check, but I think it can often become obsessive, so I ask myself this as a means of reassurance. “Did you pack your bag?”

Don’t pass up dope campsites.

Live and learn, right? I once convinced my party to hike another few miles beyond a very scenic campsite along a stretch of the PCT so that we could stick to our initial plan.  The weather was great and there was no real threat in switching it up by a few miles. The site we ended up at was sub-prime, and I learned to be a little more flexible. When the universe serves up a dope campsite—take it. Fortune favors the advantageous.

You don’t need that.

As a general rule of thumb for those of you going out for the first few times, you don’t need that. If it isn’t a tent, sleeping pad/bag, stove, water purifier, rain gear, or one of the other 10 essentials, don’t take it. You’d be amazed what you can make due without.

Don’t over pack your food either—there’s very little chance you’re going to eat 10,000 calories on an overnighter. Check out our Tips for Going Lightweight for more info.

Big three plus the not so big three. Add some food, an insulation layer, and the 10 essentials and you’re pretty much good to go.

Seriously, “you don’t need that.” Unless…

If you have the option to take a bigger puffy—take a bigger puffy.

You can take a bigger puffy. That’s about the only thing you can go big on because the weight/reward ratio is acceptable. Nobody’s ever said, “man, I wish my jacket wasn’t so warm and puffy.”

While hiking, you’ll obviously be sporting a light-mid weight fleece, but at the camp site, you’re going to throw on your puffy and get into rest and relax mode. If you’re going to be outside—you might as well have a huge puffy jacket to enjoy it in.

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