Hiker How-To

Dear Trail Angels, Trail-Magic Providers, and Anyone Aspiring to Give Generously to Hikers,

In the past seven years, since I first set foot on the Appalachian Trail, I’ve come to think of trail magic as an exciting and heartwarming experience. I love trail magic, and what hiker doesn’t? Finding someone with a cooler of soda and snacks at a remote forest road, being invited into a stranger’s home for a hiker feed with joyful company, coming upon a roadside cookout with homemade chili and burgers– strangers helping strangers. What better affirmation of the goodness of humanity can there be?

A bucket of candy on the PCT

A bucket of candy on the PCT

But I want to give you a few examples of trail magic that I’ve seen in the last few years that I hope will give you pause.

Exhibit 1– An Appalachian Trail shelter in Maine, ten miles by trail to the nearest road, but on the shore of a remote lake. I came upon the shelter to find half a dozen plastic grocery bags hanging inside, filled with packages of hot dogs, hot dog buns, bottles of ketchup and mustard and relish, six-packs of soda cans, and various Hostess cakes. A couple from Boston had come up for the weekend, driven on remote logging roads to the other side of the lake, and paddled across to deliver a feast to hikers. Then left for home. By the time I arrived, a few of the soda cans had been emptied, crushed, then put back in the grocery bags. The hot dogs, buns, and condiments were untouched.

Exhibit 2– A road crossing on the Appalachian Trail, one hundred yards from a Forest Service trailhead. Just into the woods was a large cooler sitting on the ground, full of Hostess cakes, candy, and other treats. Next to the cooler were two 24-packs of beer and soda cans (cardboard cases, sodden with rain), and a shredded trash bag with crushed cans and empty wrappers strewn about. A note on the cooler said it had been left for through-hikers by someone who had hiked the AT last year. There was a bear-proof trash can in the parking lot about 100 yards away. Judging by the shredded trash bag, nobody had noticed it.

Exhibit 3– Another road crossing on the Appalachian Trail, this one more remote. Sitting on the ground in the middle of the trail are two boxes– one of Hostess cakes, one of granola bars. No note, nobody nearby.

Exhibits 4 through 87– Any given road crossing on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail. Sitting on the ground just off the road is a small, battered, styrofoam cooler with a note saying “enjoy, thru-hikers! Courtesy of [local business or trail angel]”. There is no indication of how long the cooler has been there, but there is no food or drink in it– only empty cans and wrappers from what had been inside.

Do you notice something about these examples? Here is my message to current and potential trail angels:


No matter how close to a road, no matter how well protected, no matter how soon you plan to come by and pick up the trash– you’re still leaving trash on the trail, attracting animals, and leaving a mess that someone else will likely feel the need to clean up.

I’m not saying you should give up on the idea of helping hikers. But if you don’t have time to stay with the food that you plan to give to hikers, find another way to give back to the trail. Giving food to through-hikers in person is a far more rewarding experience for you and for the hikers than leaving it in hopes that more people will find it. If you don’t have the time to sit and wait with the food, try something else:

  • Offer rides into town.
  • Pack trash out from a campsite.
  • Volunteer to do trail maintenance.
  • Listen to hikers’ stories.
  • Share local knowledge.

And if what you really want to do is feed hikers, just take all of the leftovers and trash with you when you leave.

Thanks for listening, and please spread the word.

Last month, I heard from a fellow 2010 Pacific Crest Trail through-hiker who was putting the finishing touches on a video and eBook series to to introduce others to lightweight backpacking. Dave Collins of Cleverhiker.com sent me a pre-release copy of the entire set for review. As you can see, the series has already been released now, and I’m finally getting around to writing about it. How’s that for punctual?
Dave North Cascades

CleverHiker’s lightweight backpacking series was crowdfunded through indiegogo, and has at its center a ten-part, one-hour video series. The eBook is a very useful companion to the videos, but my guess is that the videos were the bulk of the production. And the question most likely on many people’s minds would be, why should I pay cold, hard cash for a set of videos when I can just go to Youtube? In a word, quality.
Dave Forest Park Stream

Before any of the content pops up, you can tell that the videos weren’t some backyard afternoon project. The videos are shot in high definition, with professional editing, crisp sound recording, and serious filming know-how. There are scenes at night in a tent, or during a bright day on a snow field, with no lighting issues. The background music is skillfully edited into the background where it belongs. All of the narration is smooth and well-rehearsed, with no stalling and “uh, uhm” to fill the space. This is something you wouldn’t think is out of place on a TV show.

How about the content, though? The video series does a great job at introducing the concepts of lightweight backpacking skills and gear, happily leaving out most opinions (some did creep in there) and keeping things brief and informative. Rather than delving deeply into specialized techniques, or talking about specific brands and models of equipment, Dave highlights general reasons for lightening your load, pros and cons of certain designs of equipment, and the basics of going light. The generality ensures that a certain piece of equipment going out of production won’t make the information outdated right away, although it will hopefully lead people to explore equipment choices in more detail (the eBook companion basically serves this purpose, but for the obsessive gear researcher like me, it will only scrape the surface).

Since the current video series and eBook are aimed toward introducing hikers to lightweight backpacking, I’m hoping they also serve as an introductory series for CleverHiker. Once the current series takes off, I can’t wait to see how the brand grows– if the high-quality production for an introduction to lightweight backpacking moves on to more advanced techniques and discussions of hiking, it would be to the great benefit of the hiking community. But for now, I’m pretty happy to kick back and enjoy the first (of hopefully many) videos. Head over CleverHiker.com and check it out!

Any device that uses a battery will die. When you’re on the trail, you can expect that battery to die when you’d really rather it not. With more and more hikers using smartphones as navigational tools or for photography, communication, journaling, or whatever else you can imagine, it’s a little surprising you don’t hear of phones dying at inopportune times, though. There are many good ways to keep that device juiced up while you’re out on the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail. Here are some of my favorites so far.


Really, the easiest way to make that battery last is to use it less. Turn it off when you’re not using it, or at least turn airplane mode on so that the phone isn’t looking for a cell signal all the time. I keep my phone in airplane mode while hiking, and only turn that off when I need to check my location or messages. Just by doing that on my last trip, my phone charge lasted five days before recharging. Nothing fancy.

On the other hand, I write apps that people use in the backcountry, so I shouldn’t be telling you to put the phone away, right? Adventure Alan has the most thorough guide to getting the most out of your iPhone’s battery, which I think all iPhone users should read if they plan on taking their phones out on the trail. It’s iPhone-specific, but a lot of the advice could easily work for Android as well.

Spare Batteries

On my latest backpacking trip, I figured I would use my phone a little more than usual, so I brought a spare battery. For Android phones, this is a bit easier than iPhones, but a friend pointed me toward the Anker Astro battery, a rechargeable power pack for various USB devices.


With the charging cord and wall plug, the whole thing weighs just over 6 ounces, and I measured 2.74 full charges of my iPhone 4 from the pack. The USB cord that comes with the battery has interchangeable tips, so it charges the phone from the battery pack, the battery pack from the wall charger, and the phone from the wall charger. It could also charge my Petzl Core battery for my headlamp as an extra bonus.

Renewable Energy

There’s been a slew of new hiker-portable power generators in the past few years– solar panels, kinetic chargers, wood burning generators, and who knows what else. I’ve never seen one that’s really worth checking out. Everything is either too heavy, too inefficient, or both. But the technology is improving.

A PCT hiker who uses my iPhone apps recently told me about his Suntastics sCharger, and it looks intriguing. Check out his solar hat, and this mini-review by Stumpknocker. It seems the technology for portable solar chargers is getting better, to the point where it may even be practical for use by backpackers. Obviously, solar is far more viable out west than it is in the east, where direct sunlight while hiking is a rare luxury, but Patches Pal’s solar hat or Stumpknocker’s solar backpack-lid don’t seem nearly as inconvenient as the “old days” of backpackers carrying solar panels. They may look silly, but you can bet you’ll see more of them in the future.

There’s plenty more to discuss on the matter of smartphones in the wilderness, but on a purely functional level, it seems they are becoming more and more viable as backpacking tools. It will certainly be interesting to see where things stand in another year or two, as technological progress marches onward.

Talking about backpacks recently, my buddy Tom mentioned something about backpacks that claim to be waterproof not actually holding up to heavy rain. For some reason, I’ve heard a lot about people expecting their backpacks to be waterproof recently (rather than using a rain cover or pack liner). This seems to me like wishful thinking. I gave up on trying to keep my pack dry years ago, and I think the conversation about waterproof packs should change. Here’s why.

Waterproof all over except for the backpack.

Waterproof all over except for the backpack.

When hiking, you have a lot of gear that will get wet anyway, and eventually goes into your pack. Rain jacket, tent, cooking gear, a food bag that’s been hanging in a tree overnight as a bear-bag– some things just get wet and there’s not much you can do about it. If your equipment is wet, and you put it inside your pack, that ability of the pack to repel water is useless. The water gets inside one way or another.

Even if you keep all wet things outside the pack, there’s still the imperfect outer layer of the pack. The outside of the pack can protect your gear from abrasion on rocks or snagging branches, but most people will eventually put holes in their pack from some kind of encounter. What good is a waterproof pack when there’s a hole in it? Most packs come with lots of holes in them anyway, from the stitching necessary to sew the pack. Water will eventually get in there, too.

But when you look at all the equipment you carry, how much of it really needs to stay dry? For me, it’s only my spare clothes, my sleeping bag, my down jacket, my first-aid kit, journal, phone, toilet paper, and some food. My cook kit still works when wet. My tent is made to get wet. My sleeping pad doesn’t absorb enough water to make a serious problem, and most of my food is packaged tight enough that it can handle a rainy night or two in a bear bag.

Not everything in your pack needs to be waterproof, and the things that do need waterproofing can easily be stored in plastic bags, trash bags, or dry bags inside the pack. Being a backpacker in New England, I’ve learned time and again that staying dry is only a certainty if you stay indoors. But with some cautious packing (plus one trash compactor bag and one silnylon dry bag), I can keep my down equipment and electronics dry through days of pouring rain. Hiking on the PCT, the New England Trail, and countless weekend trips, I’ve had to, and it has worked fine.

So why bother with trying to make a completely waterproof pack?

For the final part of my Long Trail end-to-end trip report, I wanted to write a followup to the planning posts earlier on– specifically about how the food plans went. I’ll try to keep this short and to the point. But we all know I get long-winded all too easily. For reference, here’s a link to the earlier food planning post, and to the actual lists of what food went into my supply packages.

Food Variety:

A few things stood out really well on this trip. These were the foods that, even by the end of two weeks, I always dug out of the food bag without hesitation.

  1. Larabar was a sure winner, and their new Uber bars are a fine addition to their flavor lineup. The Uber bars add more nuts and salt to the bars, which makes them easier to chow down on a hot day.
  2. Trader Joe’s pound-plus chocolate bars are one of the best backpacking foods around– inexpensive, calorie dense, and delicious. A few squares of the 72% cocoa version worked better than any energy bar to give me a quick and lasting boost.
  3. Whole fat milk powder is absolutely amazing! A bit of that with a bowl of granola and berries in the morning kept me going for hours. Simply put, it actually tastes like milk, rather than the swill that you find at most supermarkets.
  4. Dr Kracker crackers are also fantastic, if a little pricey. I should have brought more stuff like those, because after too many nuts and seeds, a wheaty snack feels great to eat while on trail, especially with some chocolate peanut-butter or Nutella spread on top.

A few things went less well, and will need a bit of a change on my next big trip:

  1. I need to remember that raw nuts can be a little hard to eat in large quantities. The raw hazelnuts and brazil nuts, as much as I enjoy them, could have been easier to eat if they’d been candied in one way or another.
  2. Speaking of candy, I would probably bring more simple sugars for quick energy during the hiking day. My energy levels throughout the day were generally consistent, but on some days I really needed a boost.
  3. I could have replaced some of the seasonings in my dinner foods with more protein, in the form of tuna packets, or freeze-dried meats from Packitgourmet.com.

Food amounts:

The plan of two pounds of food per day was a pretty big success. Here’s what I had left in my food bag at the end of each supply period:

  1. Small amount of dehydrated veggie mix, potato flakes, garlic, and onion. Handful of nuts.
  2. Almost exactly the same as the first resupply.
  3. More nuts, some seasonings.

As you can see, it looks like I overpacked on nuts (see above in the food cons section), as well as dinner seasonings and dried vegetables. I was well-fed throughout the trip, and my diet was nutritionally balanced compared to many long-distance backpackers.

Changes I would make in amounts for next time, aside from what I mentioned in the cons section above, would be to take less dried vegetables and seasonings, since a small amount of those goes a long way. I’d replace that weight with freeze dried meats, and a little more seasoning variety for dinners. I’d replace some of the nuts with sweets and cookies, or at least honey roasted, maple glazed, or praline nuts, just for some quick energy fixes.

Finally, a note about cooking. I started the hike with 12 fluid ounces of denatured alcohol, which I hoped would last the entire trip. I cooked one meal per day, which ended up being about 14 meals (since I didn’t cook dinner while at the Inn at LT or on the day I finished the trail). The Caldera Cone stove system is incredibly efficient, and so I walked out of the woods with about two fluid ounces of fuel left. Less than an ounce of fuel per boil? Not bad at all!