Self Maintenance in the Field

2011, May/June Adirondac Adirondoc

This issue of Adirondac is full of advice on the tools and techniques for healthy and comfortable travel in the wilderness. In the final analysis, however, none of this is helpful if the backpacker is not mentally and physically prepared. Here are a few ideas on taking care of oneself when stepping into the backcountry for a few days or more.

Be fit.
Carrying a pack over Adirondack trails is a major undertaking, requiring cardiovascular fitness and strength. Undertaking a trek for which one is not physically prepared is not only an invitation to disaster; it can make what should be a wondrous experience into a nightmare. There is a lot of information about physical preparation on my Web site (, and a few points deserve emphasis.

Cardiovascular fitness -capacity of the heart and lungs to sustain the rigors of mountain travel—is achieved only by regular vigorous aerobic exercise. “Regular” means exercise lasting 20 to 30 minutes, three or four times a week. There are complex formulae defining “vigorous” by changes in pulse, but a simple rule is that vigorous exercise usually makes you conscious of your heartbeat, causes you to sweat, and makes it difficult to converse. One can get such activity from jogging, speed walking, swimming, cycling, jumping rope, or some games such as tennis. Indoors, there are other options, including treadmills, ski machines, stationary bikes, ellipticals, and stair climbers.

Unless one chooses to lift weights, the simplest way of achieving the leg strength requisite for comfortable mountain travel is hill running, or simple stair climbing.

How does one know if his or her fitness level is ready for backpacking? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer, since there is no other activity exactly like it. Experience tells me that one should be able to do a hike without pack over similar terrain for about one and a half times the hoped-for daily backpacking distance. So, for example, the backpacker who plans to start a trip packing into Panther Gorge from Elk Lake should be able to make a comfortable day hike up and down Dix.

Be ready.
Backpacking isn’t rocket science, but it also is not something one can learn from reading books or watching videos. There is a lot of high-tech gear available today, but none of it replaces the development and nurturing of basic skills, coupled with judgment and decision-making ability. This is not only for the safety and comfort of the user of the wilderness, but also for the preservation of the wilderness itself.

Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to learn these skills for those who do not have experienced friends to mentor them. Many New York colleges offer excellent courses in backcountry technique, and some make these available to non-matriculated students. Local organizations, including ADK chapters, offer guided treks for all levels of backpackers. Finally, three national organizations offer advanced skill training throughout the United States. Anyone really serious about backpacking should consider a course through the Wilderness Education Association (, Outward Bound (, or the National Outdoor Leadership School (

Be warm and dry.
It sounds simple, but keeping warm and dry is one of the most important personal maintenance considerations in the backcountry. Once one has the misfortune of getting clothes, sleeping bag, or tent interior wet, there are few good options in the field other than a couple of 80º cloudless days. Study of some wilderness disasters shows that many begin with an individual getting wet. While there are a host of new high-tech solutions to dampness and cold, none of these are worth anything without knowing how to use them properly—which takes us back to the previous point. Modern four season expedition tents, for example, are simply amazing in their ability to maintain dryness in the harshest conditions. There are, however, tricks to pitching them that cannot be mastered from instruction manuals alone. I would not dream of taking a new tent on a trek without testing it in a couple of driving rainstorms in my back yard.

Be hydrated.
The quantities of water one can lose during backpacking are immense—measured in quarts for the average adult. This is not all sweat; there is appreciable water vapor lost in exhaled air as well as evaporative losses from skin. Within a couple of days of mountain backpacking, most individuals will be a bit behind in water balance. This mild dehydration contributes to fatigue and headache, and substantially increases the risk of both “heat exhaustion” and hypothermia.

You can find plenty of “rules” about the quantity of water to consume on a trek; all are bogus. Differences in individual metabolism make it impossible to cite a specific amount of water consumption as a goal.

A far better option is to pay attention to your own body. Folks who are well-hydrated make large amounts of clear (dilute) urine. If you do not feel the need to urinate right after getting out of your tent in the morning, or if your urine is dark yellow (concentrated), you are not taking in enough water, no matter how many liters you have consumed. Drink until the liquid that comes out is nearly as clear as it was going in.

No discussion of hydration is complete without mentioning water treatment. Suffice it to say that the most current scholarship in the medical and wilderness education literature suggests that fears about backcountry water safety have been vastly overblown. My friend Tod Schimelpfenig, risk management director for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), recently told me about a chap in New Mexico who became lost on a trek. His water filter broken, he was nearly dead from dehydration when finally found— despite being around plenty of water sources. While there may be disagreement about the dangers of consuming un – treated water, there is no controversy about the risks of not drinking any! If you feel compelled to treat some water, don’t rely on expensive, cumbersome technology—simple halogen-based systems (e.g. Polar Pure or Aquamira) work fine without moving parts!

Be fed.
Backpacking burns a lot of calories. In fact, it burns a lot more calories than you are used to consuming in a typical day. Most folks develop a slight mismatch between caloric expenditure and intake, at least during the first few days of a trek. After a point, however, if one is not taking in enough calories to replace what is being burned, the body begins living off fat stores, producing a condition called ketosis. While ketosis is not too harmful, it can contribute to a generally unpleasant feeling, and may even depress appetite, worsening the situation.

Choosing a diet for backpacking is the ultimate in “personal decision-making,” but there are a few general guidelines. The foods with the greatest caloric density (medspeak for “bang for the buck”) are those with fat content. This means nuts, seeds, cheeses, and the generous use of cooking oil.

A nutritional item too infrequently considered in planning backpacking menus is fiber. The typical American diet is already low in this nutrient, and the highly refined items favored by a lot of campers (e.g. pasta, rice) are largely devoid of fiber. Why does this matter? For a trek of a day or two, it probably doesn’t. Beyond a few days, however, low fiber is a set-up for, eh, irregularity. The most common reason I find for abdominal pain among folks I take into the wilderness is constipation. Making sure that the diet has plenty of fiber (e.g. dried fruits, dried beans, whole grain cereals, dark breads) is a good way to avoid this problem.

Finally, if you become serious about backpacking, move beyond the specialty “food” items in gear stores. Learn to cook with and carry basic ingredients, and enjoy the mastery of turning flour, cornmeal, couscous, and dried nuts, fruits, and beans into hearty meals. Beyond cost, environmental impact, and health, there is a very practical reason for this change in the high peaks. One can get a lot more food into a bear-resistant food container using bags of basic ingredients than with those over-packaged backpacker meals!

Be clean.
No question about this one. Diseases are spread easily in the backcountry. They are not spread by contaminated water but by contaminated hands. Unless one is on a solo trek, there must be an expectation of careful handwashing or the use of alcohol-based gels before all meals and after defecation. This is a group safety issue, which requires the buy-in of everyone on the trip.

Be centered.
Morgan Hite, a well-known NOLS instructor, refers to “mental hygiene” as a set of competencies that go beyond skills and gear. These competencies are central to the safe enjoyment of the wilderness, and they only come with experience. “Centeredness” begins with a sense of geographic awareness. At any time, one should be able to place oneself precisely on a map and know. the cardinal directions from the location, the nearest water, upcoming topography, and time remaining until darkness. Early in one’s wilderness career, this awareness comes from rote repetition; at some beautiful moment, however, it becomes intuitive.

Centeredness also includes self-awareness: the mild tingling in the heel that presages a blister or the many hours since urination that signal mild dehydration. Paying attention to these signals requires conscious effort early in one’s backpacking career—an effort sometimes reinforced after experiencing the consequences of signals ignored. The centered wilderness traveler processes and acts upon these signals almost unconsciously.

The centered backpacker lives simply, eventually settling on a very limited selection of gear, and then comes to know that gear inside and out—precisely where it is at any given moment, how it works, how to maintain it, how to fix it—coming to see gear as an extension of the self, approaching Wendell Berry’s notion of becoming a “true materialist.”

Have fun.
Life has enough trials and tribulations -enjoying the backcountry should be an antidote to these, not another one of them. Good planning, solid skills, and appropriate gear should provide the satisfaction of enjoying anything the wilderness can throw at you. The experience of enjoying the backcountry without it harming you (or you harming it) is profound.

~Tom Welch, MD, is professor and chair of pediatrics at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. He is a licensed New York State guide and a certifying instructor for the Wilderness Education Association. He regularly teaches field courses and guides groups in New York, Montana, and Alaska. Detailed information on the material in this article can be found on his Web site,

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Topics: Readiness