Rules for Hiking (with me)

I can’t (yet) brand myself with the prestige of “AT thru-hiker,” but I have developed a set of rules for hiking. Over time, I imagine these evolving into a help sheet for scouts before they attempting something like the Backpacking merit badge.

Rule #1: No Cotton

By no cotton, I mean anywhere for anything. Check your underwear, your socks, your shirt, hat, jacket. No cotton blends, either. NO cotton.

When I was a young scout, maybe 12 years old, I hiked a whole 5 miles up the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. Having come from the flat expanse of Houston, I was in no way conditioned for all the switchbacks that doubled the pull of gravity on me that hike. About 4 miles up the mountain, my Wrangler bluejeans turned into sandpaper, then proceeded to excorticate my inner thighs like a dull, jagged razor.

If Body Glide was a product back then, nobody in my group knew of it or brought it on the hike. I was left to suffer in my own skin.

There was a special problem, specific to blue jeans, I discovered when I got to camp. My hips were bloody! Not only had they punished my legs, the weight of the hip belt had smashed the top hem of the jeans into my skin! I peeled the jeans out of the gouges in my hips when I changed that night.

Cotton is a great textile for bath for towels in your home - bath and kitchen. As we finished dinner, humidity flooded the campsite, warning of impending snow. All that humidity soaked into my clothes, causing me to shiver with no relief. I brought a jacket to keep my warm, also made of two layers of heavy cotton. It failed to do anything but cut the breeze a bit.

Rule #2: No food in the campground

Sometimes when you mention being a hiker, people ask about being afraid of snakes, mosquitos, or bears. I can assure all of you that if you hike in a wooded mountain range, bears are not a remote possibility. At Big Bend, I had a black bear and its cubs wander into our campsite after dinner, looking for leftovers.

This is a hard rule to define. The best case I can see is to stop along the hike path and have your meal in a spot that isn’t the campground, pack up, and camp further down the trail. Pack your food in something you can separate from your backpack - a bear container. After a hard day of hiking the most effort you want to put forward in protecting your food from wildlife is tossing it on the ground. Pick a nice bear container and you can do just that!

Even if you plan ahead, or are fortunate enough to be in a park where you can reserve a campsite, that doesn’t keep it from getting double-, or triple-booked. That’s what happened to us in Big Bend - our campsite in the Chisos was triple-booked thanks to an outage in the phone system between ranger stations. On the Appalachian Trail, you can’t reserve shelters ahead, which means you also can’t reserve bear cables. The best case is dropping your food bag into metal construction box at the edge of the campground. When you’re in a group, you’re only going to go as far as the slowest, weakest, or most injured person. So while you may have planned to stop at the site with the shelter and bear box, that doesn’t mean you’ll get there. Pick anything with a Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee Certification.

Rule #3: Bring at least 2 flashlights

I’m not sure which is more scary - having a bear in the campsite, or arriving to camp at dusk, pulling out your only flashlight, only to find that it doesn’t work. There’s a profound feeling of vulnerability when you’re in an unfamiliar campsite without a light and you haven’t even pitched your shelter yet. It’s bad enough pitching camp with a flashlight. Don’t try it by moonlight.

Rule #4: No more than 30lb pack

I hiked with 3 liters of water once. My pack weighed 32lb. It was absurd. I’ll concede that there may be big, muscular dudes that could carry more than 30lb, but it’s not just about whether you can carry it or not. When you pass 30lb of gear, you probably have either too much gear or the wrong gear.

You may see recommendations published from vaguely cited sources that say you shouldn’t carry more than 15-20% of your body weight. Osprey put a tag on my kid’s pack that recommended a 10-15% of body weight limit for kids. I have already experienced being miserable hiking multiple decimals of miles with 20% of my body weight. 20% is TOO MUCH.

My formula has smaller limits. A base pack weight limit of 10% of body weight + 5% more in food and water. Then you have to write a budget, like you should do with your own finances and allocate all the weights in your pack, and sort them by weight. Sorting will show your biggest offenders quickly, but you should also find a lot of tiny items that each weigh 1-2oz or a few grams, which start adding up to pounds.

Your shelter shouldn’t weigh any more than 13 of your base weight, or around 5lb for an adult. Add your tent, stakes, tarp, hammock, guylines, carabiners together. If it weighs more, it better be a multi-person shelter, in which case you should split carrying the parts with your sleeping partner.

The rest is fuzzy math, but if you might put it in your pack, count it in your base weight. Those trekking poles will usually be in your hands, but they might go on your pack for a while. Add them in, along with your hat, gloves, scarf, jacket, camp shoes, AND PHONE. Your phone is not excluded from the weight budget.

A 150lb person should be able to weigh their final backpack with trekking poles, phone, food, and water at no more than 22.5lb, or 15% of body weight. Let me assure you, that’s an aggressive goal. For a 10 year old kid, that means their parents will probably have to carry extra gear, making it even tougher to figure out.