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Camping for Beginners

Guide to Camping for Beginners [2019 update]

2019 GUIDE TO CAMPING FOR BEGINNERS

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO CAMPING FOR BEGINNERS

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

Are you, finally, ready to shed the belief that camping is not for you? We understand your concerns. Sleeping on the ground, outside, with no heat or AC is an intimidating proposition, but we guarantee that it’s one worth overcoming. The joy of a simple life, while camping in the woods is, often, enough to reconnect you with nature and the things in life that really matter.

And, hey, we’re not saying that you have to throw all sense of comfort and cleanliness out the window in order to go camping! With the right gear and camp systems, it’s, actually, quite easy to transform your campsite into an oasis away from home. Our helpful guide will provide specific motivation for why you should try camping, along with helpful gear suggestions, packing tips, and meal planning advice.

Looking to Learn About Camping?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

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    What type of camping would suit you best?
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    Where to go, what to bring and what to cook.
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    How to keep yourself entertained at camp.
  • check
    Which beginners mistakes to avoid

Do

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    Plan your gear, meals, and trip goals BEFORE you go
  • Invest in quality gear
  • Choose your campsite diligently
  • Ask experienced campers or family members for advice

Don't

  • Overpack with every possible piece of gear before your first trip - Focus on the basics
  • Expect everything to go perfectly during your first few trips - You will make mistakes!
  • Dispose of your trash and grey water next to your campsite

Why Go Camping?

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Choosing a vacation with purpose is important. Time away from work has proven to be a vital contributor to overall health and happiness. The ability to relieve tension and stress while doing something that you’re passionate about can, often, lead to increased focus and motivation, even upon returning to those less enjoyable commitments.

Dispersed Camping: Free Camping on Public Lands

While the ideal way to relax and rejuvenate the mind, body, and soul will vary greatly from person to person, there seems to be a common theme amongst the happiest folks out there: simplification. It’s hard to think of a better way to simplify what you, truly, need to be happy than time spent camping with friends. Plus, there are some amazing benefits:

Affordability

With an average campground campsite cost of $20 -$35/night and many wild, or backcountry, sites that are free, camping is among the cheapest lodging options available for visiting a new area. Why be limited to 2 nights in a hotel when you could spend an entire week exploring a new city for the same cost, or less?

Connection to nature

It’s hard to explain if you are uninitiated, but there is something rhythmic and peaceful about falling asleep with the sounds of nature. Camping is a great way to reveal the beauty of being outside and bring out your ‘wild’ inner self. Listening to the sounds of birds, insects, a distant howl from a coyote, a running stream, or simply the breeze blowing through the surrounding trees can breathe life into your connection and association with the great outdoors.

Health Benefits

We could write a novel on the many benefits one receives from camping and being active outdoors. We’ll assume, though, that you’d like to know about them in a more timely fashion, so check out some of the articles below for examples of the ways that camping can be good for you.

What Type of Camping Is Right For You?

Backpacking

Fitting everything you need to survive into a backpack and then carrying it for many miles through rugged terrain won’t be for everyone. The added challenge of grocery/meal planning, and the fact that most backcountry campsites have no amenities make backpacking better suited for experienced campers. It is the best way to achieve privacy and connection to nature, however, so it may be worth the trouble if maximum self-sufficiency is what you desire. If this type of adventure sounds more like you then head over to our guide to backpacking for beginners.

Car Camping

Typically, defined as the camping most of us are familiar with at established campgrounds where you can park your car directly next to your campsite for easy unloading. Additional amenities, like running water, electricity, bathrooms and showers, also, provide a more enjoyable experience for those who want to enjoy being in nature but not sacrifice every element of comfort. We feel that car camping is the best way to learn sound camping practices and test new gear before venturing into backcountry terrain and is the type of camping we'll be focusing on today.

Further Reading: To really save money, did you know you can camp at certain locations free? Check out our guide to dispersed camping to learn more. For family adventures learn how to go camping with kids or if you are feeling adventurous, why not try winter camping?

tent in forest

RV’s

Recreational vehicles are growing in popularity, not just for their camping comforts, but as affordable ways to travel the country. Even non-campers are seeing the benefits of having a private apartment with you wherever you go.

Cabins

Ok, let’s be honest. You will, probably, get some condescending stares from your camping friends if you tell them that you went camping, only to stay in a cabin! With a bed, tv, and a kitchen, overnight stays in a cabin are a far cry from the simplicity and comfort sacrifices of traditional tent camping.

Glamping

Glamorous camping, or glamping, may be the fastest growing segment within campgrounds across the country. As a way to overcome the traditional concerns with cleanliness and comfort that keeps many people from participating, campground owners are creating comfortable lodging options that blend the line between camping and staying in a hotel. Remember that Instagram post featuring an exotic looking yurt, perched on a wooden platform, complete with furniture, lighting, and bug netting? Yep, that’s glamping!

How to Choose a Campsite

Selecting the best site for your home away from home can be crucial to an enjoyable weekend of camping. For longer stays, it will be even more important. Having to move all your equipment and gear to a better site, after previously being set up elsewhere, is never a fun task. Avoid the hassle and get it right the first time by following these key steps to selecting a great campsite.

Determine your trip goals BEFORE you pick a campsite

Being honest with yourself about what you hope to get out of your time spent camping is one of the best ways to determine which site will work for you. Consider these factors and how they can affect where you choose to put up your tent:

  • Are you looking for maximum privacy and seclusion?
  • Or would you prefer to share the experience with others, making new friends?
  • How important is convenience to your camp experience?
  • Proximity to bathrooms, showers, sinks, potable (drinkable) water

What are your size/space needs?

Many campgrounds limit the sites available to you based on your equipment (tent vs. camper van vs. RV). Knowing the dimensions of your tent or camper will help you select a campsite suitable for your needs.

Look for level ground

This may be the most important element to a good night’s sleep while camping. Look for gravel pads or grassy areas, on which will be flat and comfortable to lay down. Also, consider the site’s water drainage potential in case it rains.

Essential Camping Gear

Tent

Choosing a tent to suit your future adventures will, likely, be one of the first decisions you make on the path to becoming a camper. Consider how many people (and pets) will be sleeping inside it most nights to help you determine size. Larger, cabin-style tents are great for comfort and the ability to stand up once inside, however, they do take up considerable space during travel and have limited versatility away from campgrounds.

a large tent in the woods

Whatever you decide, we recommend investing in a quality tent made by a respected manufacturer. Cheap tents, often, puncture easily and have poorly protected seams and zipper components. Check out our overview of the top rated tents and brands to help decide which is the right product for you.

Sleeping Pad, Air mattress, or Cot

As with most camping equipment, you’ll have to balance your desire for comfort with your available storage space. Blow up air mattresses, like those commonly used for houseguests, can be a comfortable option for camping as well. Keep in mind that they rely on electrical access to blow up and can be more susceptible to leaks and punctures than camping-specific designs.

An elevated camping cot may be ideal if you prefer to be up and off of the ground while sleeping, although they do lack some of the comfort seen in air pads and mattresses.

Thanks to the technology behind them, it’s hard to go wrong with a modern backpacking/camping-specific sleeping pad, like those by Therm-a-Rest or Exped. Comfortable enough for car-camping, but light enough for convenient travel or backpacking adventures.

Sleeping Bag

This is a great place to apply the 80% rule: Choose the bag, and temperature rating, that matches where you will be camping 80% of the time. Don’t purchase a 0℉ cold weather sleeping bag anticipating one winter trip and then wind up miserably hot for the majority of your trips camping in spring, summer, and fall.

As your experience grows, you’ll likely end up with multiple sleeping bags better suited to different environments. 

Further reading: Check out our guides to the best sleeping bags & sleeping bag liners.

Cooking Equipment

For most campers, a 2-burner, propane powered stove will be more than enough to turn campground dinners into gourmet feasts. Look for pots/pans that clean up easily and retain even heat, which is often a challenge with lightweight, backpacking cookware.

camp food cooking over fire

Stoves that feature piezo igniters make for quick and easy cooking, without the need to light a match. Also, look for features like integrated wind guards, convenient carry handles, and accessory hoses that allow your stove to run off of a traditional 5-gallon propane tank (like those seen with grills).

Toiletries

Whether you’re in a cabin or a tent, your everyday essentials will be key to keeping you feeling clean and refreshed after days spent outside. We like to keep our toothbrush, toothpaste, contact lens solution, face wash, etc. in a separate stuff sack that is easy to grab when walking to a bathhouse.

Bags with multiple attachment points (we love our Patagonia Black Hole Cube) are great for hanging on door hooks. Organizational compartments, also, help reduce the clutter.

Further reading: For more rustic campsites, learn how to dig a cathole latrine. Also know the ins and outs of biodegradable soap for camping.

Extras

We'd also advise taking the following along with you:

Luxuries

For us, the following items may not, always, be classified as needs, but they are pretty darn essential to a good time.

  • Camp chairs - Hard to beat the feeling of leaning back after a long day of hiking and/or lots of time spent bending over tables, into tents, unpacking gear, etc.
  • A good book - Reading a book while cozy inside of your tent is a surprisingly simple joy (Consider a Kindle as a way to bring along lots of reading material without any bulk)
  • Camp pillow - Yes, you can shove your clothes into a sack to save the space a pillow takes up. No, it won’t be as comfortable as an actual camp pillow!
  • Storage bins and/or gear duffels - organization is key when it comes to happy camping
  • For those hot summer months, a portable tent fan can be an amazing investment.

Packing, Arriving & Setting Up

Before you leave

The final days before your first camping trip can be stressful. You’re faced with wrapping up key deadlines from work and life, while, simultaneously, needing to prepare all your gear and clothing for the upcoming adventure. Despite the challenge, preparing for your first camping trip begins weeks before you leave.

Camping Gear inside tent

Early research will help in determining key aspects regarding your trip, like whether you need a reservation, available campground amenities (which may influence some of your gear & grocery selections), and fun things to do nearby. Here are a few other key steps that we always take to help us prepare for a camping trip:

  • Laying out gear on the floor - helps to visually confirm that we have what we need
  • Identify a meal plan and/or menu
  • Make a grocery list (mark which items can be bought in advance and which would be better to buy on the way or the day before leaving)
  • Utilize helpful gear checklists to highlight items you may not have thought about
  • Purchase or view necessary maps for hiking, biking, paddling, or other plans

Arriving at the campsite

At most campgrounds, you will be required to stop at a registration office before continuing on to your site. If the campground allows it, make sure to explore all possible sites before selecting the one you’d like to camp at.

Be on the lookout for level ground (gravel tent pads are ideal if rain is expected) and proximity to other campers and amenities. Also, don’t forget to check out the quality of smaller features within the site, like a fire ring or picnic table.

Setting up

Don’t worry, setting up your campsite as a first-time camper doesn’t need to happen at the speed of a Nascar pit crew! You’ll find that as you continue to camp, you will pick up efficiencies that make the process less daunting. Browse some of our tips for making your first campsite setup a smooth operation:

  • Prioritize - Your tent is, almost, always the most practical item to set up first. Don’t get caught in a sudden shower with nowhere to go because you focused on the tablecloth and chairs first!
  • Be strategic with site layout - Where should the tent go? Where should the food area be? Will you still have room to park the car? Make sure to look for hazards in plain sight like dangling limbs above you, or ant mounds next to your tent door.
  • Laying down on your tent footprint is a great way to test the ground comfort of an area before fully erecting your tent
  • ALWAYS consider rain - Is your tent site elevated? Do you see obvious ground runoffs that will fill with running water in the event of a storm? Keep in mind that grass and gravel will handle moisture better than compacted dirt.

Camp Meal Planning

Planning campfire meals can be a frustrating task for the beginner camper (as well as the seasoned pro!), but it is one of the best ways to save money and create memorable moments. Time spent cooking and eating together, as a family, around the campfire is never wasted!

Remember that your meal options will be limited by the cookware that you bring, so be sure to research the best camping stoves if you plan to step into that camp chef role.

Planning

This sounds obvious, but start your planning by clearly identifying how many meals you need to make. Remember to factor in any plans to eat out into your meal planning. For us, a weekend camping trip (Friday afternoon- Sunday morning) will, typically, consist of two breakfasts, two snack/lunch options, and one dinner. We enjoy eating at a local restaurant one night, a great way to reduce your meal planning prep, while, also, getting to know the area.

Pro Tip: Consider the Clean Up

Consider what the clean up will be like for a given meal during the planning stage, not once out in the field. It’s easy to think ‘oh that sounds delicious and easy to make’ only to realize at your campsite that it leaves a harsh, hard-to-clean residue on everything or requires multiple pots and pans.

Cooking

For simplicity, a deep-sided pot or saucepan will give you numerous meal options while camping. Skillet cooking with a frying pan or griddle, however, opens up another level of gourmet camp cooking versatility (Nutella-stuffed french toast, blueberry pancakes, pizza, need we say more?).

If you are planning to cook over an open fire, make sure you know how to build a campfire safely, and understand the responsibilities that come with supervising it & extinguishing it completely.

Camping Activities

Never fear the infamous ‘What are we going to do?’ question again! The possibilities are, almost, endless for what you can do while camping, but here are some of our favorites:

Common Beginner Mistakes to Avoid

You don’t start out an expert in anything, so be prepared for some frustrating (and comical!) trial and error as a new camper. From your first rainstorm to your first real meal cooked at the campsite, you will pick up on numerous intricacies that, ultimately, make the experience more enjoyable. Here are a few common mistakes that we’ve made ourselves, or watched others make, during their first trip camping.

  • An excessive amount of gear - Overpacking creates organizational nightmares, uncomfortable travel arrangements (best not to lose sight of your child amidst the pile of gear in the back seat!), and frustrating campsite setup clusters. Rather than buying everything that you think you might need in advance, wait until you’ve camped a few times and developed an actual need for something. Your opinions on necessary gear will, often, change after a few trips.
  • Cheap tent - Unless you enjoy soggy living quarters, poor puncture resistance, sticky zippers, and limited structural integrity, we suggest splurging a bit for a well-designed and quality manufactured tent. Not only will it provide a more comfortable camping experience, it is, likely, the more affordable option over the long-term, as you won’t need to replace it as frequently. Check out this article on caring for your tent to get the most out of your investment.
  • Improper disposal of grey water and food waste - If you’re well schooled in the principles of Leave No Trace, it can be a frustrating sight to watch newbie campers, carelessly, dumping their dishwater and food scraps in the trees behind their site, increasing the likelihood of animal encounters, and creating nasty sites for future campers. Follow the rules for proper disposal at every campground you visit. Most will have specific locations for dumping grey water, often sinks near a bathroom or at a gravel drainage site within the campground.

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How Can We Help You Improve Your Camping Adventures?

There isn't many greater pleasures to be enjoyed in this world than camping out under a clear starry sky. This is one thing all campers will agree on. However, that may be the only thing, as camping to one person may mean traipsing 10 miles off-trail with just  a hammock and rain-fly while to others it may mean driving up to the campsite and pitching a behemoth of a tent with accompanying power sockets, fans and lighting. We all enjoy camping in our own way, and our guides try to reflect the many flavors of overnighting in the great outdoors.

Our in-house experts cover a range of camping related subjects to bring you actionable advice to help you improve your skills and knowledge, to make all your future trips that much more enjoyable. Happy Trails!

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If you are looking for some inspiration for your next camping trip, then look no further than our camping trip guides packed with great info!

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How do waterproofbreathable fabrics work_ cover

How Waterproof/Breathable Fabrics Work

HOW DO WATERPROOF/BREATHABLE FABRICS WORK?

HOW DO WATERPROOF/BREATHABLE FABRICS WORK?

Until the latter stages of the 20th century, the term “waterproof/breathable” didn’t get a great deal of circulation in hiking circles. Upon its introduction, it was viewed with suspicion — how, after all, could a fabric let anything out without simultaneously letting other stuff (i.e. rain) in? Fast forward to the enlightened days of the early 21st Century and you can't escape it appearing everywhere in the clothing aisle of your local outdoor store, so much so that a few of us are inclined to wonder how in the heck the magic is done.

Check out our hiking clothing guides:

For most of us, taking the wonders of our waterproof/breathable backpacking rain pants at face value is good enough, but learning a little about their workings and mysterious ways can go a long way towards helping us choose the best products out there for our activity type and MO in outdoors.

Senior Man On Hike Through Beautiful Countryside in fleece jacket

Below, we’ll break down the secrets behind the functioning of the most breathable fabrics that are also waterproof into bite-sized, easily digestible chunks, starting with a brief overview of what these products are and do before delving into a dash of science.

What is a Waterproof/Breathable Fabric?

To offer a broad definition, a waterproof/breathable fabric (abbreviated to “WP/BR”) is one that, to varying degrees, combines both the ability to prevent external moisture (i.e. rain and snow) entering while permitting or actively encouraging internal moisture (i.e. sweat) to seep outward and evaporate on the fabric’s surface. This is similar, but subtly different to water resistant clothing which is usually only uses a DWR coating (What's the difference between water resistant and waterproof you ask?).

The term itself is, in fact, something of a misnomer, with the “fabric” in question most often composed of a duo or trio of very thin layers that would make the plural — fabrics — more accurate.

Breathable waterproof fabrics first hit the shelves in the late 1970s with the introduction of Gore-Tex’s (then) groundbreaking laminate membranes. These days, Gore-Tex no longer rules the roost of waterproof breathable fabrics as comprehensively as is once did and many other forms of WP/BR product — eVent, Sympatex, MemBrain Strata, HyVent — are now making huge inroads into Gore’s one-time monopoly

Waterproof/Breathable Fabrics - The Science

The magic of waterproof/breathable fabrics is achieved by using either a laminate membrane or a liquid coating on the interior of the garment:

Laminates  

The most common forms of laminate membranes are made with either expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (or “ePTFE”, a.k.a. Teflon), polyurethane (PU) films, or polyester films.

This membrane usually measures somewhere between 7 and 30 microns thick and is bonded to the interior of a garment's outer like a second skin. To give you some idea of scale, one micron is one-millionth of a meter and a human hair measures in at around 100 microns.

woman hiker photographer

ePTFE membranes contain a multitude of microscopic pores (W. L. Gore, the maker of Gore-Tex, estimates about 9 billion per square inch) which are responsible for the fabric’s ability to resist penetration by rainwater while simultaneously allowing sweat vapor molecules to escape outward to the fabric’s surface.

It may seem counter-intuitive to make a waterproof garment porous, and the instinctive line of thinking is that this abundance of microscopic holes/pores should make an ePTFE sure to leak, but these membranes work because said pores/holes are far smaller than even the tiniest raindrop but big enough to let water vapor molecules (which are much smaller) seep through.

backpacker wearing 3 layered clothing system

Additionally, ePTFE membranes possess what in scientific lingo is known as “low surface tension," meaning the membrane can only be penetrated by other fluids with an equally low surface tension. Liquids with a “high surface tension," such as rainwater, pool together into beads or globules on the membrane’s surface and slide off instead of penetrating or saturating the membrane.

In the case of Gore-Tex WP/BR fabrics, the ePTFE membrane is attached to an incredibly thin protective polyurethane (PU) film to create what is known as a bicomponent laminate. This secondary layer protects the ePTFE from contaminants such as sunscreen, body oils, or insect repellent, which can cause a membrane’s efficiency to deteriorate with time.

Water vapor transfer is permitted by making the polyurethane film hydrophilic (meaning it attracts water) with water-attracting chemicals or by using other hydrophilic materials such as polyethylene oxide.

Kieran Mugshot

Sweat molecules are drawn to the hydrophilic film in a process known as adsorption and eventually seep through as a result of the differential pressure on either side of the film. In a nutshell, the hot air and vapor on the inside of the jacket move towards the cooler and drier surface of the jacket, jumping from one hydrophilic polyurethane molecule to the next in a microscopic but very intricate and longwinded game of hopscotch. The game reaches its final stage when the molecules reach the outside of the PU film, where they then evaporate and seep through the ePTFE membrane as a gas, leaving the inside of the garment dry.

Liquid Coatings

Liquid coatings are solutions applied to the interior of a garment to provide WP/BR laminate-like properties. Generally speaking, liquid-coated WP/BR fabrics aren’t as dynamic and don’t perform quite as well as laminate membranes, but usually come in at a much lower price. As such, they are most commonly found in entry or mid-level rain shells or those intended for less extreme activities.

Some examples of brands that use coatings instead of (or as well as) laminates are Marmot, Rab, and Mountain Equipment.

Father and Son Hiking in the Rain

Liquid polyurethane coatings can take one of two forms: microporous coatings and monolithic coatings.

Microporous Coatings

These work much like the laminate membranes mentioned above — by using a microscopic network of channels that are too small for exterior water to penetrate, but large enough to allow vapor from sweat to escape.

The porous quality to these coatings is made in one of two ways: either with a foaming agent that forms gas bubbles that expand inside the coating, or with microscopic particles that are mixed into the coating solution in order to allow the formation of minuscule cracks and openings. During the process of drying and solidification, both methods create a network of tiny conduits in the coating through which water vapor molecules can escape.

Monolithic Coating

This form of coating works by creating a solid, hydrophilic (water-attracting) layer that conveys moisture by a trio of processes known as adsorption, diffusion, and desorption.

In brief, these processes work as follows:

Adsorption: The monolithic coating draws water molecules to itself owing to its hydrophilic properties

Diffusion: The liquid seeps through the coating owing to differential pressure. High pressure seeks low pressure and vice-versa, so the high pressure inside the jacket naturally gravitates outward to meet the lower pressure on the jacket’s surface.

Desorption: The vapor molecules evaporate and escape through the outer layer as a gas, completing the process of "water vapor transfer" that is measured in the WVTR, or "Water Vapor Transfer Rate," now found in the product descriptions of some WP/BR products.

The video from GoOutdoors above provides an insightful, and quirky overview of WP/BR fabrics and how they work.

Check out our hiking clothing buyer’s guides:

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what to wear hiking title banner

What to Wear Hiking: The Foolproof Guide

WHAT TO WEAR HIKING: THE FOOLPROOF GUIDE

WHAT TO WEAR HIKING: THE FOOLPROOF GUIDE

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

One of the great many blessings hiking offers its followers is the absence of those bothersome formalities most of us are forced to adhere to in our workaday lives. When out in the wild, for example, such hassles as deadlines, meetings, dress codes, bosses, and paperwork are thankfully in short supply.

Sadly, however, this liberation from societal and professional strictures doesn’t mean taking a willy-nilly, devil-may-care approach is always the best way to go — particularly when it comes to hiking wear. In the outdoors, the “boss” is no longer that miniature dictator in the office at the end of the hallway, but the somewhat mightier proposition that is Mother Nature.

But just what does the grand matriarch of our planet demand of our attire when we head to pay her a visit?

In this article, we’re going to take you through the A-to-Z of suitable and practical apparel for your future appointments in the Great Dame’s domains, starting off with a look at a few simple pre-hike and pre-purchase strategies before delving into the finer details of material types and clothing choices per body part.

Looking to Learn to What to Wear on Your Next Hiking Trip?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

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    A quick cheat sheet
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    How to dress for hiking stratigies
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    Pros & Cons of various Fabrics
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    Fabric Properties to Look for
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    What are the best clothes for hiking in various weather conditions

Do

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    Do read up on and familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of the layering system
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    Do your research before buying your threads. User reviews are a great way to learn how any product performs out in the field and usually offer a few insights not included in the specs and boasts of the marketing departments
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    Do buy the best gear you can afford
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    Do anticipate weather conditions and dress and pack accordingly, making sure to allow a buffer for any unexpected changes
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    Do make sure every item in your getup is breathable — if just one garment fails in this respect, it will bring down the rest of your layering system with it

Don't

  • Don't wear any cotton garments whatsoever. Cotton Kills!
  • Exclamation Circle
    Don't scrimp on the biggies. While a $120 fleece and a $20 fleece may not have too much difference between them barring a fancy logo, with other items — baselayers, waterproofs, footwear — a few extra $ could mean the difference between a happy hike and a hellish one
  • Exclamation Circle
    Don't give one single hoot about fashion — it’s very hard to look cool when you’re shivering with hypothermia, vomiting from sunstroke, or squeezing rainwater from your very trendy but otherwise inappropriate threads

What to Wear When Hiking: Cheat Sheet

If you are simply looking for a quick rundown or reminder of what to wear for hiking, then we have put together a quick cheat sheet below. Please take the following recommendations as a general hiking clothing guide based on our experience and personal preferences. 

The four scenarios below are fairly generic, which in addition to the infinite number of potential weather/trail conditions and combinations of appropriate apparel, we highly recommend reading through to the end of this article and doing some research of different products yourself to ensure you develop a clothing system that works for both you and your environment

What to wear hiking cheat sheet

Clothing Strategies for all Conditions

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A little bit of know-how with regard to pre-hike prep is the first step to becoming a true all-weather hiking warrior. Below, we’ve compiled a list of the fundamental need-to-knows that will guide you around the various pitfalls in store for relative novices to hiking and let you hit the trails with confidence in your backcountry couture.

Layer up

If there were ten holy commandments for hikers, using the layering system would surely be in the top three. This system, described in more detail in our definitive guide to how to layer clothing, is now all but universally accepted as the benchmark for backcountry habiliment.

backpacker wearing 3 layered clothing system

The layering system works by utilizing, as the name suggests, multiple strata of clothing items instead of only one or two bulkier items, thus creating air pockets between each layer and allowing interior moisture (sweat) to evaporate as it passes outward through the layers. It also offers a great deal of versatility in changeable weather by allowing you to take gear off and put it on with the minimum of fuss as temperatures rise and fall throughout the day.

Anticipate Weather and Trail Conditions

Before preparing your pack and getting dressed, study weather forecasts and allow a buffer for temperature variations and any forecaster whoopsies, particularly if your hike is taking you far afield.

Pro Tip: Elevation Gains & Temperature

An old-school, surprisingly reliable rule of thumb is that temps can drop roughly 3.5°F per 1,000 ft climbed (6.4°C/km). Using this simple calculation will allow you to estimate trail temps where forecasts are given for valley but not mountain locations.

Other factors to take into consideration pre-hike include conditions underfoot, humidity, the presence of bugs, trail aspect (in sun or shade), and the duration of your hike. These variables may require you to take along, respectively: gaiters or boots instead of shoes; quick-drying garments; facial bug nets; warmer individual layers; and, extra items (particularly if on a multi-day excursion). 

Embrace Your Fugly

Mountain-goers are not renowned for their style, and for good reason. Out in the wild, factors such as comfort, weight, functionality, durability, performance, and price trump fashion every time. While the odd backcountry fashionista is occasionally to be found, the chances are they’ve paid a pretty penny for their fancy togs and will almost certainly be that one, ever-present group-member imploring you to part with your spare sweater when the weather takes a turn for the worse.

hiker in the mountains, Iceland

Treat Your Feet

Whatever your budget, be sure to pick a pair of boots or shoes that are fit to task. Ill-fitting or poorly made boots or trail shoes can not only be a source of great pain or discomfort, but can also lead to injury by causing you to walk with an unnatural gait or skipping on important features such as ankle support, grippy soles, adequate cushioning, waterproofing, protective toe rand and/or ample bridge support.

There are many opinions on whether boots that cover your ankles are a must versus wearing a pair of lightweight hiking shoes, or even hiking sandals. In the end it comes down to the type of terrain you'll be covering, your own walking style (injuries) and preference.

To avoid going through a long (and costly) process of trial and error before finding the boots or shoes that work for you, be sure to research the options thoroughly, read user reviews, and spend plenty of time trying out your would-be new footwear in the store before heading to the checkout.

Cheap Hiking Boots Title

While many top-of-the-range, technical hiking or mountaineering boots will set you back enough $ to sponsor a small war, there are plenty of more wallet-friendly options out there for those who have no intention of scaling the Eiger’s north face or traversing the Himalaya in winter. Check out our guide to the  best cheap hiking boots to see our top affordable picks.

Bright colors

A bit of a wild-card entry here. Some old-schoolers are apt to lament the visual impact of hikers who look like technicolored candy wrappers out on the trail, but the benefits of wearing slightly garish garb far outweigh the traditionalists’ interests in defending their delicate sensibilities. If injured, lost, or otherwise in need of assistance, colorful threads will make you far more easily discoverable than more natural tones.

Know Your Fabric Choices

The success or failure of your future hiking trips depends largely on the choices you make when purchasing your gear. These days the number of options at our disposal is mind-bogglingly high. So much so, in fact, that novice hikers could be forgiven for grabbing the first decent-looking garments they lay their hands on to spare themselves the cognitive overload. To help you avoid this temptation, below we’ve listed the most popular hiking fabrics along with their benefits and drawbacks.

Fleece

Fleece is a great, low-cost insulator that dries quickly and offers an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio. Ideal as a midlayer, soft against the skin, and quick drying, the only drawback to fleece is a lack of wind-resistance when worn without a protective outer shell.

Senior Man On Hike Through Beautiful Countryside in fleece jacket

Polyester/nylon

These synthetic fabric types feature in everything from shoes and gaiters to baselayers, shirts, jackets, and hats. They come in many forms and with varying specs, and most big brands offer their own trademarked variation such as Air Tech (Mountain Hardwear), Capilene (Patagonia), and Polartec (various).

Although polyester/nylon baselayers, shirts, and midlayers aren’t always as comfortable or stink-free as, for example, merino wool or bamboo products, they are usually a cheaper option and dry much quicker.

Most outer, shell layers also use polyester or nylon (or both) with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) finish to provide protection from the elements.    

Wool

Wool has undergone something of a revival in recent years, mainly thanks to brands such as Icebreaker and Smartwool. Modern wool-made hiking garments are far more high-performing than those of yore and offer a slightly pricey but otherwise cozy, soft, stink-free, breathable, and high-wicking option that insulates even when wet and works particularly well in baselayers, as explained in the video below.

The only downside to wool is that it offers little wind resistance, is often pricey, and, particularly in meatier layers, can take a long time to dry.

Down

The perfect insulator in dry, cold conditions. Down garments use different ‘fill powers’ (usually between 400 and 900) which refer to the amount of insulation offered by the garment’s feathered contents. In short, the higher the fill power, the more body heat a down product can trap.

If heading into high alpine environments, down is a great choice, but in more humid conditions synthetic fabrics are a better option — when wet, down loses most of its insulating ability and can take a small age to dry out.

Well built young man relaxing drinking hot drink and holding metal vacuum flask

Silk

Silk, really? Yeah, really. Though fairly rare these days, silk was once the fabric of choice for the world’s mountaineering elite, mainly due to its ability to provide superb insulation at an incredibly low weight. On the downside, it costs a small fortune, wicks about as well as your average sponge (i.e. terribly), and tears very easily.

Cotton

Cotton is the junk food of the world of outdoor attire. It’s cheap, easy to get your hands on, looks and feels good for a while, but ultimately contains the capacity to be downright deadly.

Famous for soaking up sweat, failing to wick, and lacking in breathability, cotton is not only liable to cause fairly minor discomforts such as soggy undergarments and chafing, but can also lead to hypothermia and, in extreme cases, death — as explained in more detail in our article Why Cotton Kills. To be avoided at all costs.

Hiking Fabric Properties & Qualities 101

Whatever fabric type you end up choosing for any garment, the label or product description will most likely boast one or more desirable properties or functions. But just what are these properties and when or where do we need them?

Wicking

The term “wicking” essentially refers to a fabric’s ability to transport moisture (i.e. sweat) from inside to out, thus moving it from your skin or internal layers to the outer surface. This property is important for two reasons: one, so you don’t feel like the resident of an otter’s pocket while working up a sweat; two, you greatly reduce your risk of hypothermia, the chills, death, and other such nasties when your sweat cools down — a real possibility with fabrics that don’t wick so well.

Pro Tip: Research Marketers Claims

Nearly all baselayers and t-shirts will claim to be “high-wicking” (“low” and “middlingly” just don’t feature in the advertisers’ vocab), so before buying be sure to read a few user reviews or to pick the brains of a knowledgeable shop assistant.

Insulating

In order to stay warm, you need to create a buffer between yourself and the ambient air and elements. A good insulating layer may take many forms — wool, fleece, down, polyester down substitute — but all of these do one thing well, namely keep in the heat produced by your body.

Generally speaking, the thicker the layer, the more insulation it will provide, but be wary of sacrificing breathability if opting for especially heavy midlayers, particularly those using synthetic materials inside a wind or water-resistant shell.

Waterproof

Shell layers may boast a number of desirable facets, features, and extra frills, but the undoubted “must-have” of these is their ability to keep out the elements. The most important thing to note when buying an outer shell — whether pants or jacket — is that nearly all garments will fall into either the “water-resistant” or “waterproof” category. What is the difference between waterproof and water resistant? The distinction is an important one. While the latter are made to keep you totally dry, the former are designed to shed only moderate precipitation, such as light drizzle or a short-lived shower.

A second point of note is that any garment that is entirely waterproof will also be windproof — handy given that wind can be as effective as cold ambient air and saturated clothes at spiriting away your body heat.

Finally, thanks to Hydrostatic Head testing (a.k.a. ‘Pressure Head’ testing), there are now degrees of waterproofing. Given in a measurement of mm, these ratings refer to the amount of liquid a garment’s material can withstand before allowing droplets to seep through. At the lower end of the scale, a jacket with a 1,500 mm rating will keep you dry if caught in a spot of drizzle, while one boasting a 20,000 mm rating with do the job even when things take a turn for the biblical and your neighbors start building arks.

For a more detailed guide to waterproof hiking duds, check out our guide Hiking in the Rain.

Breathable

Perhaps the most important item on our list, “breathability” refers to a garment’s ability to transfer moisture from inside to the outside, rather than trapping it within any given layer. This is particularly important in the performance of your base layer, as it allows the moisture wicked through to the outside of the baselayer fabric to dry more quickly and takes the moisture away from your skin.

Hikes on top of a mountain

That said, if any garment in your layering system doesn’t breathe well, the rest of them are unable to fulfil their function. This can result in an accumulation of moisture trapped inside your layers and, at worst, the perfect environment for a significant loss of body heat, and potentially hypothermia, when you stop moving or temperatures drop.

Waterproof and breathable

A completely waterproof and breathable outer shell has long been considered the Holy Grail of outdoor attire, and these days the R&D departments of the biggest brands have just about delivered the goods. There is, however, a catch: the price. Yep, you can get your hands on a jacket or the "best rain pants" on the market that will fend off small tempests and monsoonal deluges, all while letting your body and inner layers breathe, but only in exchange for a tear-inducing portion of your savings.

More affordable options usually feature a compromise on either of these two above features, with the most breathable fabrics being less waterproof and the most waterproofed being less breathable. 

At the economy end of the scale, there are coated non-breathable shells, which may look like they will do the job but a short way down the trail are likely to make you feel like you’re wearing a spacesuit in a steam room due to their lack of breathability. A happy medium, however, can be found in many mid-range Gore-Tex jackets such as the Marmot Minimalist, which breathes well, boasts a healthy 28,000mm waterproof rating, and also won’t break the bank.

Windproof

As mentioned above, hardshell waterproofs will also tick the windproofing box and can be worn on top of even the lightest baselayers to ward off the windchill. If conditions are dry but cool enough to demand some degree of insulation, midlayer tops such as the Rab Focus Hoody feature a tight enough weave to resist the worst of the wind’s efforts while providing more insulation than thinner outer shells.  

Stretch and Mobility

When out hiking, mobility is a big deal. Not only should clothing be sufficiently loose fitting to ensure you can move freely, avoid chafing, and allow for some air-flow between layers, but can be made all the more comfortable if it contains an element of stretch and/or added material in key areas.

mature backpacker on a mountain ridge in hiking tights

Features like a stretch waistband, gusseted crotch, softshell inserts on hardshells, or fabric containing some percentage of lycra, elastane, or similarly stretchy materials can greatly enhance comfort levels and allow you to move without restriction.  

Sun protection

Unless you happen to be a night-hiking enthusiast, choosing a fabric that boasts an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating is never a bad idea. The perils of skin cancer need no introduction here, but the added risks to hikers of this and other sun-induced illnesses are well worth noting. Hiking at altitude, on snow, and/or spending far more hours exposed to the sun’s UV rays all make hikers a particularly at-risk demographic in need of extra protection from the big yella fella.  

group of hikers

In a nutshell, UVF ratings run from 15 to 50+, with the higher numbers offering superior protection (a UPF rating of 20 indicates the fabric of a garment will allow 1/20th of available UV radiation to pass through it, a rating of 50 will allow 1/50th, and so on).

From Top to Toe - Hiking Clothing Choices

The following overview is designed to provide a nuts-and-bolts guide for all-season hiking, working on the premise that you only need to add or subtract layers according to the temperatures you are hiking in.

Tops

Whatever the weather conditions, the fundamentals of the layering system up top remain applicable. We recommend starting with a breathable, high-wicking baselayer, varying the weight or thickness depending on temperatures. If you’re out in very cool conditions, this can be supplemented with a thicker fleece or down midlayer before being topped off by that all-important shell or water and windproof layer.

hiker tourist travels to green mountain forest in the fog with the red backpack in rainy weather

In warmer weather conditions where the outer shell is not necessary but you need more than a t-shirt, an outer layer with some wind resistance will serve you better than anything made of fleece or wool, both of which tend to have sieve-like qualities in anything more than a light breeze.

Bottoms

In very hot temperatures, you can either opt for a pair of lightweight trousers such as The North Face Paramount Trail Pants, or a pair of shorts or skorts — just be sure to check you won’t be wading through thorny or nettle-riddled brush before plumping for the latter. The ideal solution is to get your hands on a pair of light hiking pants with zip-off bottoms and ankle zips that allow you to remove the lower sections without taking off your boots.

Pro Tip: Remember to Buy a Bit Baggy

When buying outer shell layers, be sure to leave room for the layers you’ll have underneath.  

In colder temps, a good idea is to start with a pair of softshell pants with some degree of wind resistance or to wear a baselayer pant or hiking tights below your standard trekking pants. If conditions are wet or particularly blustery, throwing a pair of lightweight waterproof rain pants directly on top of either your baselayer or standard hiking pants will keep your pins toasty and dry.

Footwear

Your choice of footwear will depend largely on where you plan on doing your hiking and the conditions you’re likely to find there.

It goes without saying that in muddy, boggy, or snow-covered terrain a pair of backpacking boots will serve your purposes better. If you foresee doing most of your hiking on well-maintained trails and aren’t a fan of wet-weather wandering, however, a pair of waterproof hiking shoes could save a bundle of cash and offer a much more nimble, and often more comfortable, alternative. To help you choose, check out our guide to The Best Hiking Footwear of 2018.

Extras

  • Sunhat — Spending hours on the trail under even a moderate sun can make you vulnerable to heatstroke, sunstroke and, of course, burning. As such, choose the best hiking hat you can find - this 50-100g addition is well worth its inclusion in any backpack on sunny days.
  • Sunglasses — An optional extra that becomes all but imperative when in snow-covered terrain, where snowblindness and headaches become a real possibility for unprotected lookers. For glasses that give your eyes complete protection, we’d recommend a pair featuring protective side shields, such as the Julbo Vermont, which also happen to look, quite frankly, awesome.
  • Gloves — Conditions will dictate just how serious a pair of gloves you need, but a general rule is that if it’s cold enough to have one pair, it’s cold enough to have two. A second liner glove can serve as an emergency backup and prove very useful for limiting exposure when performing more delicate tasks such as taking pictures, tying laces, putting up your tent, or taking readings from a map and compass.
  • Gaiters — A very handy addition to help keep your feet dry when hiking in boggy, wet terrain, and also for keeping small stones, twigs, snow, and bugs out of your boots.
  • Buffs — This very lightweight, versatile little piece of gear is a worthy addition to any hiker’s kit. It can be used as a hat, neck warmer, and a substitute bandana to provide sun protection
  • The best socks for hiking? — Again, avoiding cotton is essential. Breathable wool socks such as Darn Tough’s Micro Crew Hiker Cushion Socks or tech variants like Wrightsock’s Escape Crew are the best way to avoid soggy soles, blisters, and, of course, stinky feet. Check out our guide for a more thorough analysis and buying choices.
  • Underwear — As with other garments, steer clear of cotton. Perhaps more than any other body part, your intimates need to breathe and shed excess moisture. Merino wool and quick-drying “tech” undies such as ExOfficio’s Give-N-Go Sports Mesh Boxer Briefs are high-wicking and far more breathable than standard cotton items. For females, the Under Armour Heat Gear Sports Bra is a winner.

How Can We Help You Improve Your Outdoors Wardrobe?

What duds you choose to wear in the outdoors can make the difference between a happy, wonderful experience to one of abject misery or even worse, a dangerous one. Always remember the Scandinavian saying "Der findes ikke dårligt vejr, kun forkert påklædning" which translates to "There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing". If you learn to dress correctly, you'll be able to tame any outdoors adventure, no matter what mother nature throws at you.

There are multiple myths and misunderstandings around what is good (or not) to wear. As such, our in-house experts cover a range of clothing related subjects to bring you actionable advice to help you improve your skills and knowledge, to make all your future trips that much more enjoyable. Happy Trails!

Woman hiking in winter cold dark winter forest

CLOTHING GUIDES

Possibly the most critical gear to determine the success (and safety) of a trip is the choice of clothes on your back.

hiker in the mountains, Iceland

CLOTHING GEAR

Not sure which jacket to buy? or what makes for a good pair of hiking socks? Don't fret! We test & review so you don't have to.

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GEAR GUIDES

INDIVIDUAL PRODUCT REVIEWS

RELATED GEAR REVIEWS

GEAR GUIDES

INDIVIDUAL PRODUCT REVIEWS

how much water to take on a hike featured image

How Much Water Do You Need On a Hike?

HOW MUCH WATER DO YOU NEED ON A HIKE?

HOW MUCH WATER DO YOU NEED ON A HIKE?

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

Your body’s cells need water during every hour of every day. This natural, metabolic need is only amplified with activity outside. Despite its importance, I continue to pass large numbers of hikers on the trail who have forgotten or chosen not to carry any water.

Don’t risk your health and enjoyment while venturing into wild places. Check out our tips below for calculating the correct amount of water to take on a hike, as well as the best methods for carrying it. Ensuring that you will stay hydrated should be a primary planning concern for every adventure.

Looking to Learn How Much Water to Take on Your Next Hike?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

  • check
    Some 'rules of thumb' to calculate your water needs
  • check
    How best to transport water
  • check
    How to find water on your route

Do

  • check
    Plan for your expected water intake before every hike
  • check
    Hydrate consistently - smaller, frequent drinks every 30 mins.
  • check
    Practice different methods for carrying water - discover what works best for you
  • check
    Familiarize yourself with the ways to purify/filter/treat water

Don't

  • Assume that every stream on a map will be a good water source
  • exclamation-circle
    Drink water straight from a stream or lake
  • exclamation-circle
    Ignore the signs and symptoms of dehydration

How Much Water to Take?

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This is akin to asking someone how much it costs to buy a car or a house, where the only reasonable answer is ‘it depends’. How much water you will want to bring along for a hike will depend on the length of your journey, weather, your level of exertion, water availability along your route, and your body’s personal hydration needs.

A young traveler man kneels by the falls and washed his face. Start of the day in the camping, morning water procedures of the tourist

Familiarize yourself with these factors and accept the reality that your answer to the above question will, likely, be different for every trip. This is the best way to ensure that you stay properly hydrated.

How long will you be hiking?

This should be your first consideration in determining your water needs for an upcoming hike. Remember to address, not just the overall mileage of your intended route, but your expected time to complete it. Some hikes may be short in mileage but still require a long time to complete because of their rugged terrain or steep change in elevation.

A good starting point for your time calculations can be 30 mins/mile plus 30 mins/every 1,000 ft. of elevation gain. For example, you could reasonably expect a 5-mile hike that climbs 1,500 ft. to a mountain summit and back to take you 3 & ¼ hours to complete.

Keep in mind that any standardized method for calculating pace while hiking is only a generalization and that your actual pace may be, drastically, different based on your experience and current level of fitness. If you’d like a bit more detail about estimating your hiking time, check out ‘How to Calculate Hiking Time’ on Trails.com or enter your details into this handy hiking time calculator.

mature backpacker on a mountain ridge in hiking tights

1 cup/hour rule

Once you’ve calculated a good estimate for how long you’ll be on the trail, consider bringing at least one cup of water for every hour you will be hiking. Warm weather and/or a high level of exertion are, both, good reasons to increase this amount.

Level of exertion

The harder you work, the more you sweat. The more you sweat, the more water you’ll need to replace it. It’s a simple formula that gets overlooked far too often. If you will be pushing your physical limits, say on a trail run or a rugged hike with a time goal, consider adding to your standard water needs.

For example, I carry less water when guiding a slow group of beginner hikers than I might for the same route with more experienced friends who will be pushing harder. Ultimately, listen to your body’s needs on the trail and plan ahead with extra water if you are inexperienced or attempting any hike that you expect to challenge you significantly.  

Weather

Always check the weather forecast before deciding how much water to bring. Typically, our bodies will need more water in hot and dry conditions, where sweat is quickly lost to evaporation. These conditions are responsible for numerous dehydration and heat illness instances every year. It can be easy to forget about hydration when you don’t have the constant beads of sweat on your skin as found when hiking in humid areas.

Best Hiking Boot

Your personal metabolism and absorption rates

Everybody is different. Learn to recognize when your body is dehydrated and accept the reality that your fluid intake requirements might be different than the friends whom with you are hiking.

The Dangers of Dehydration

It’s so easy to get lost in the beauty and fun of a good hike that we, often, forget to drink as much as we should. Proper hydration is key to our bodies ability to manage heat, altitude, and cold, and the consequences of dehydration go far beyond feeling thirsty.

Not only does dehydration bring possible, severe complications itself, but it is frequently listed as a contributing factor to numerous other ailments. Familiarize yourself with the following signs/symptoms of dehydration and be sure to, always, listen to your body:

Signs & symptoms of dehydration

  • Thirst
  • Headache, fatigue, weakness, irritability, lightheadedness
  • Diminished urine output
  • Dark or smelly urine
  • History of inadequate hydration
  • May, also, display signs and symptoms of shock

Carrying Water While Hiking

Once you get a feel for how much water your body needs for a hike, you’ll have to choose how to carry it with you along the trail. There are numerous strategies and gear options for carrying water. Thanks to our many miles on the trail, we’ve used them all at some point. To help you better determine which strategy is right for you, we’ve summarized the key differences among popular water carrying strategies below.

Nalgene (hard-sided, plastic bottle)

woman taking water from forest spring on hiking trip

Just as the brands Kleenox® and Chapstick® have become synonymous with describing tissues or lip balm, Nalgene® has become the outdoor aficionado's way of describing any hard-sided, plastic bottle. These are a popular option for folks spending time outdoors and a great way to carry your water.

Advantages

  • Easy to refill
  • Measurement indicators are helpful when cooking
  • Incredibly durable!
  • Easy to clean

Disadvantages

  • Bulky - can be difficult to fit inside a fully stuffed pack
  • Weight - A hard-sided, plastic bottle will always outweigh its collapsible counterpart
  • Size of the bottle does not adapt to the changing quantity of water within it

Buying Advice

We love our Nalgene bottles on moderate hikes where we don’t feel like dealing with the cleanup required of collapsibles and where the weight penalty is of little concern. We’ll, also, bring it on trips where we’ll be using our Steripen for water treatment since the agitation of the water is easier with a wide-mouth bottle. Match your bottle to your personality with over 71 color and design options and, of course, be sure to plaster your bottle with only the coolest of stickers!    

Hydration Reservoirs & Bladders

Hydration Bladders (check out our guide to the best hydration bladder), are likely, the most popular option for carrying water inside a backpack while out hiking or backpacking. Many versions feature an attached hose and mouthpiece, which make drinking while moving especially convenient.

hydration_bladder_title

Advantages

  • Best system for drinking without having to stop or take off your backpack
  • Increased capacity - most can hold between 1.5 & 3 liters
  • Convenient pack storage thanks to their flexible casing and compatibility with purpose-built hydration sleeves seen in most backpacks designed for outdoor use

Disadvantages

  • Difficult to refill from natural sources - You will, often, need another bottle in order to pour water into the reservoir
  • Water in the hose is more susceptible to freezing if hiking in cold temperatures
  • Extra care must be taken during transport and anytime your pack is set down to avoid accidental compression of the mouthpiece and the subsequent draining of a full reservoir
  • They are a pain to clean and dry out

Buying Advice

A hydration bladder is my preferred strategy for carrying water during most hikes, backpacking trips, and trail running adventures. I find myself hydrating more frequently when I can easily sip from the mouthpiece resting right at my chest, than when I must stop and remove my pack. For backpacking trips, I will usually combine a 3L reservoir with, either a Nalgene or collapsible bottle.

Collapsible water bottles

Small forest river

These are the newest options for toting water in the backcountry, and they have quickly become one of my favorites. Insanely lightweight, easy to pack, and only taking up the space that is necessary (they get smaller as you drink the liquid inside) make collapsible water bottles perfect for just about any adventure outside.

Advantages      

  • Lightest weight option for carrying your water
  • Easy to pack and cram in tight spaces within a backpack, kayak, canoe, bicycle pannier, etc.
  • Adaptable to the amount of liquid inside - easier to store as you continue drinking from it

Disadvantages

  • Can be difficult to drink one handed
  • Durability
  • Difficult to clean/dry

Buying Advice:

I, seriously, love these things and they are my go-to whenever I need to carry only 1-2 liters of water. I’ve been blown away by, not just their performance but their durability, which has far surpassed my expectations.

They are less durable than a hard-sided bottle, thus the classification as a disadvantage above, but I could just as easily argue that their durability is a positive. I’m still going strong with the same three Platypus collapsible water bottles more than three years after, originally, purchasing them.

Finding Water Along Your Route

Mapping your intended route

Get into the habit of referencing your intended hiking route on a quality topographic map before finalizing your plans for carrying water. If your hike crosses numerous streams or other bodies of water, you may be able to carry less water, saving noticeable pack weight and space.

Maps and Compass

Do your research

The internet is an amazing tool. Take advantage of it! Whether it’s through your smartphone, your laptop, or at your local library, finding internet access is not a challenging endeavor these days. A basic search on the area you will be hiking through is, often, enough to glean critical information regarding water access along your intended trail.

There are numerous instances where a trail will appear to cross a stream on a map, yet be dry and unreliable for many months of the year. This is the exact kind of information that can be gleaned online from locals or others who have visited the area before you. Also, don’t forget about local guides and outfitters who can be a great resource for your planning.

Drinking water from natural sources

In many environments, you will pass an opportunity to drink and refill your water supply at some point during the hike. Natural springs, streams, and small lakes are all examples of that opportunity.

Pollution of water

Be warned: Regardless of how clean and clear that mountain stream water appears, the possible consequences of drinking straight from the source are almost never worth the risk.

Even clear water can contain harmful bacteria, viruses, and protozoa that can quickly ruin your trip. Outside of an emergency, you should always treat water retrieved in the backcountry before you drink it. This can be done with water purification tablets or some of the other methods below.

Ways to filter/treat/sterilize your drinking water

Additional Tips

Keep your reservoirs and bottles clean

Bacteria loves moisture. If you never clean out or fully dry your hydration reservoirs and bottles before storing, you’re asking for mold issues. Nobody wants to drink water through a moldy mouthpiece so keep your containers clean!

Easy clean-up trick: Using a small, electric aerator (you can find these in a pet store near fish tank supplies) is a great way to dry out your containers in ¼ of the time compared to hang-drying only, where it can be tough for air to reach the far corners of your reservoir.

Keeping your bottles and reservoirs insulated

Consider an insulated sleeve (I use this one from 40 Below) if you are planning to hike and camp while in extreme cold. You can, also, purchase insulating sleeves for the hose of your hydration bladder, which is most susceptible to freezing.

Remove the air from reservoir tubing

Once you have finished sipping water from the mouthpiece on our hydration reservoir, blow back into it. This will push any remaining water back into the bladder and reduce the likelihood of any freezing within the tube. This is, also, a great way to avoid those warm water sips that you get during summer where water left in the tube is significantly warmer than what is in the bladder.

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waterproof vs water resistant cover

Waterproof vs Water Resistant: What’s the Difference?

WATERPROOF VS WATER RESISTANT: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

WATERPROOF VS WATER RESISTANT: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

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When the backcountry boffins first started differentiating between water resistant and waterproof a few decades ago, many of us suspected a trick, or at least an over-fussy and finicky distinction that could, for most of us, be politely ignored.

Well built young man relaxing drinking hot drink and holding metal vacuum flask

In the interim, the boffins have been exonerated, and their fussiness revealed as symptomatic of the huge strides that have been taken in outerwear technologies in recent years. We slowly, and some of us with tails between legs (this writer included), realized that the distinction made was not only a valid one for scientific reasons, but also one that was pivotal to getting our hands on the correct clothes to wear hiking

Read Our Clothing Buyers Guides:

  • Looking for the best hiking leggings? Look no further!
  • Picking the best hiking socks for warm weather can really improve your trip experience
  • Don’t get caught out in the sun without the best backpacking hat!

To help you do the same, this article will bring you a short-and-sweet guide to the difference between water-resistant and waterproof garments.

Water Resistant Clothing

Water-resistant fabrics do precisely as their name suggests, that is, resist water to lesser or greater degrees. Compared to waterproof varieties of garment, these products are less capable of preventing saturation from rainwater.

Senior Man On Hike Through Beautiful Countryside in fleece jacket

Unlike waterproof jackets, the ability of water-resistant varieties to repel moisture relies entirely on a durable waterproof repellent (DWR) coating that is applied to the outer fabric during production. This coating prevents water absorption by a process described in more detail in our guide to DWR waterproof coatings. In a few words, this coating (sometimes also referred to as a “lining”) causes water to bead up on the garment’s surface and run off before saturating the fabric.

  • Suitable for light rain showers
  • Generally less expensive
  • Don’t have taped seams
  • Treated with a DWR finish but don’t have a waterproof membrane

Ratings

DWR ratings are determined by the percentage of fabric with no water sticking to it following a simple spray test. For example, if the DWR rating is 80, then 80% of the fabric was water-free after the spray test. A second figure indicates the garment’s performance in the same spray test after a number of washes. For example, a rating of 90/20 tells us that the fabric maintains a 90-point rating (being 90% water-free in the spray test) after 20 washes.

  • 80 points/10 washes — The bare minimum for classification as DWR in most outerwear
  • 80 points/20 washes — The typical DWR rating for most water-resistant garments
  •  80 points/50+ — Exceptional water repellency, usually used in either very high-end waterproof products or garments which lack a waterproof membrane and rely only on DWR for water resistance

As you may have guessed, after so many washes you will have to reapply a DWR coating with a DWR detergent such as Nikwax.

Waterproof Clothing

Waterproof garments usually combine a DWR coating on the outer fabric, fully taped seams, and a built-in membrane lining such as those described in our article on waterproof and breathable fabric (Gore-Tex, eVent, HyVent are a few of the most popular varieties).

backpacker wearing 3 layered clothing system

A membrane lining is an incredibly thin film or sheet of material with literally billions of microscopic holes which are too small for rainwater to penetrate but large enough for water vapor molecules (from sweat) to pass through in an outward direction. This membrane assists breathability and forms a second, more impermeable barrier after the DWR outer.

  • Suitable for heavier rain
  • Use a waterproof fabric membrane (such as Gore-Tex, eVent, or HyVent)
  • Outer layer treated with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) finish
  • Taped seams
  • Generally more expensive

Ratings

The waterproof capacity of any garment is quantified by hydrostatic head ratings, which are covered in more depth in our guide What is Hydrostatic Head? The legal minimum hydrostatic head rating for classification as a waterproof garment is 1,500mm, which we’ll take as a starting point for the summary below.

  • 1,500mm — 5,000mm = Can deal with only very light rain and, at that, not for sustained periods. Most commonly found in jackets intended for “casual”, everyday use than in performance models.
  • 10,000mm = Suitable for light rain showers but liable to leak at pressure points where the straps of your backpack are in contact with the jacket (the shoulders, back, and belt area). Jackets with this rating often focus more on breathability than on waterproofing, as exemplified by Polartec Neoshell.
  • 20,000mm = Capable of dealing with heavy rain showers and seen by some manufacturers as the max waterproofing capacity required.
  • 30,000mm = Garments with this rating provide solid waterproofing in even the heaviest downpours, but occasionally at a cost to breathability. This HH rating is used in jackets and rain pants for hiking in extreme conditions, such as eVent’s DV Expedition models.

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How to Care for DWR cover

How to Care for DWR

HOW TO CARE FOR DWR PRODUCTS

how to care for dwr products

Even if you've done your research, and have bought the best rain pants for hiking, or that expensive Gore-Tex jacket you'll still need a little bit of TLC to keep your outdoor gear in top shape for the long run. This is never more true than in the case of products with a DWR finish, which of all items in out backcountry kit are liable to deterioration with time and frequent use but can be restored to factory-like efficiency with just a minimal outlay of attention and effort.

Check out our other clothing guides:

In this article, we’ll show you how it’s done with a short, practical guide on to how to get the most out of your DWR product.

Potential Performance Issues with DWR Products

The water resistance in DWR products can deteriorate and lose effectiveness with time owing to repeated washing, abrasion, weather exposure, and contamination by things like dirt, grease, and sweat.

To check if the effectiveness of your DWR product has declined, simply spray or pour a few drops of water on its surface at various points. If the water beads up and rolls off, or drops off after a gentle shake, then your DWR coating is healthy and not in need of reactivation or restoration. If, however, the water spreads on the surface and darkens the material, then it’s treatment time…

Maintenance & Care Measures for DWR

A number of measures can be taken to reduce the deterioration of a DWR coating and perk up its water-repellent properties:

Senior Man On Hike Through Beautiful Countryside in fleece jacket

Regular Washing

Many hikers are apt to think that washing a breathable waterproof fabric product a will somehow damage it. In reality, regular washing of your waterproof jacket is the single most important factor in keeping the garment healthy and maintaining DWR performance.

To wash your DWR product, follow these instructions:

  1. Wash the garment with an additive-free detergent like Nikwax Tech Wash (not liquid detergents or anything that contains fabric softeners as these can impact the effectiveness of the DWR finish). 
  2. Before washing, read the care label inside the jacket and follow any specific instructions provided.
  3. Machine wash your garments on a full cycle.
  4. Repeat the rinse cycle to make sure all soapy residue is removed.
  5. Machine dry on a low/medium setting or leave to dry on a radiator.

How to Re-Waterproof a Jacket

While the above measures (tumble drying and washing) are preventative in nature and can be used to slow down the deterioration of a DWR coating’s effectiveness, after a number of washes you may notice that washing alone is not enough to revive the water repellency of your jacket. If this is the case, you most likely need to take the more pro-active measure of re-proofing your garment.

Well built young man relaxing drinking hot drink and holding metal vacuum flask

Reproofing is a simple process that restores the durable water repellency in your jacket as closely as possible to its factory levels of waterproofing and is fundamental to the longevity of your jacket’s effectiveness. How often you need to re-proof your jacket will depend on how regularly you use it and how often you wash it. A ballpark figure that can be applied to most products is to reproof every 15-20 washes.

Wash-in Reproofing

To reproof your jacket with a wash-in treatment, use the following instructions:

  1. Preparation - First up, wash your jacket using the instructions given above. Once dry, double-check that you have the right treatment for reproofing your jacket: for DWR finishes, products like Nikwax Softshell Proof, Nikwax TX Direct Wash-In, or Gear Aid ReviveX will all do the trick.
  2. Wash - Machine wash your garment as advised on the label’s care instructions.
  3. Dry - Tumble dry your jacket on a low setting or hang to dry on a radiator.
DWR reproofing

Spray-On Reproofing

Reproofing your DWR garment with a spray-on treatment is a more “time-efficient” option that produces similar results to using a wash-in product. To do so, wash your garment as instructed above, leave to dry, and then cover it thoroughly with the spray, taking care not to miss any portion of the material (as seen in the video above).

Check out our Clothing Buyers guides:

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Universal Edibility Test: Practice Caution When Eating Raw

THE UNIVERSAL EDIBILITY TEST: PRACTICE CAUTION WHEN EATING RAW

THE UNIVERSAL EDIBILITY TEST: PRACTICE CAUTION WHEN EATING RAW

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

I spent my childhood eating weird things (didn’t we all?), but from the earliest ages I can remember a fascination with edible plants. Hopping into the woods and returning with a sizable portion of roots, berries, and leaves was a delightful way to spend the day, but I would never have made it very far without knowing the universal edibility test.

The lessons I was taught were very hands-on, but in the many years since I harvested my first wood sorrel, I’ve learned the specific tools and skills you need to know when collecting wild plants for food.

Looking to Learn about the Universal Edibility Test?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

  • check
    How to tell if a plant is edible
  • check
    How & when to apply the test
  • check
    Why educating yourself is preferable to needing to use the test

Do

  • check
    Familiarize yourself with plants of your local area and your destination
  • check
    Follow the universal edibility test as a system, not a suggestion
  • check
    Practice caution judiciously

Don't

  • NEVER eat anything you can’t identify
  • exclamation-circle
    NEVER skip steps in the universal edibility test
  • exclamation-circle
    DON’T feed plants to pets (toxins can affect them but not us)

What is the Universal Edibility Test?

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A skill taught in the United States Army Survival Manual, the universal edibility test is a technique for systematically assessing various parts of an unknown plant to determine if it is edible. It’s a skill that can be useful in dire emergency situations but is one that requires great caution and experience.

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"Edible? or Not?"

I was raised in a rural area and eating wild plants was a natural progression in my journey to adulthood. Popping a few berries and tasty leaves is a regular part of my hiking adventures, but it’s never something I do without caution. A single misidentification can have fatal consequences, or at least give you a case of diarrhea you do not want to have.

Why Eat Wild Plants?

The reasoning for eating wild plants is multifaceted.

If you’re on a hike and looking to capitalize on whatever resources are around you, edible plants can supplement your diet (hello, ultra lightweight hikers). Fresh, sun warm berries are incredibly delicious, and a few pieces of the aforementioned wood sorrel can add a bright and tangy taste to your campsite cooking.

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“Sorrel adds lemony tang to your food”

If you’re in a long-term survival scenario, having the survival skills such as knowing how to eat wild plants can literally save your life (or alternatively eating bugs safetly).

But before you start sampling the greenery…

Heed My Warning!

Eating wild plants is never a light-hearted and flippant decision to make. Even a few bites of the wrong plants can be fatal or incapacitating. Many plants have mimics that are almost impossible to distinguish between each other.

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“Mushrooms are not plants! Do not use the universal edibility test on mushrooms!”

Positive identification is absolutely necessary before you start chomping on plants for sustenance. DO NOT experiment with the universal edibility test casually, and ALWAYS err on the side of caution.

It can take a fit adult almost 30 days to starve to death. If you’re a few days out from rescue, hold off on eating wild plants until it becomes a do-or-die scenario.

Also, understand that mushrooms are not plants and therefore are not suitable for the universal edibility test.

Even with proper identification, individual parts of a plant can be fatally toxic (like the case of Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild fame).

Please refer to this guide (PDF warning) to understand how dangerous toxic wild plants can be. 

The Universal Edibility Test

Follow these steps to determine if the plant in question is edible. Remember a cardinal rule of the universal edibility test, Test Only One Part of a Plant At a Time.

You should also test the plant parts as you intend to prepare them (raw, boiled, fried, etc).

Divide the Plant Into Leaves, Stems, Roots, Buds, and Flowers

The basic structures of a plant should be divided up. In general, if the plant produces a milky sap it should be avoided. You should smell the plant for strong odors; if they are present, discard the plant and do not consume it.

Plant Anatomy

Try to abstain from eating for 8 hours before starting the universal edibility test to ensure your system is reacting to the plant in question. In this 8 hour period place a leaf or stem on the inside of your elbow to test for contact poisoning. If there is no effect after about fifteen minutes, you’re probably in the clear.

Only drink clean water while testing the plant parts.

Rub a Small Portion of the Plant Part on Your Lip

This is an important step to take. Many toxic plants will not cause a skin reaction to your interior elbow but will cause your lips to swell and tingle.

If there is the slightest sign of discomfort after touching the plant part to your lip, discard the plant part entirely. You’ll only need to wait about 5 minutes to know if it’s bothering you.

Place the Plant Part on Your Tongue

Hold the plant part on your tongue for 15 minutes. Discard immediately if it produces an uncomfortable feeling (tingling, numbness, burning). If there is no reaction to this test, move onto the next step.

Chew a Piece of the Plant Part

Chomp down and chew on the plant part and then hold it in your mouth for about 15 minutes but do not swallow it until 15 minutes have passed.

Wait 8 Hours

I know, I know; the waiting is the hardest part, but stand true and wait 8 hours after chewing the plant. If you start to feel any sort of ill effect during the period make yourself vomit and drink plenty of water. Discard the remaining portions of the plant.

Prepare More of the Plant Parts

No ill effects? Great! But before you jump too far into things, cool your jets and prepare ¼ cup of the plant as you intend to prepare it for consumption.

Ingest it, and if you feel no ill effects after 8 hours, the plant is probably safe to eat and has passed the universal edibility test.

Educate Yourself

The best way to identify what plants are edible is to learn about them before chowing down using the universal edibility test.

A few hours of reading, study, and in-depth research can provide you with a list of plants you can positively identify in the field. It’s a heckuva lot safer to know what you’re looking at that experiment with what’s going to happen after you eat it.

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Learning about plants adds an entirely new facet of appreciation and understanding of the places you’re spending time outdoors. Those funky grasses are actually horsetails, and that crazy-looking flower that is shaped like a spaceship is a columbine.

In the eternally wise words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle”. Possessing an educated understanding of the plants in your environment can eliminate the need for the universal edibility test.

But for those times when you’re in an unknown area and have nothing familiar to rely on, a strong grasp on the basic rules and guidelines of the universal edibility test can be a lifesaver.

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how to whittle featured image

Backcountry Skills: How to Whittle

BACKCOUNTRY SKILLS: HOW TO WHITTLE

backcountry skills: whittling for beginners

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

At the campsite, in the backyard, and in the sunroom on a rainy day, you’ll find me whittling. I’ve been whittling off and on for going on ten years now and admit I was initially attracted to the skill because of how awesome it is.

I mean, you get a sharp knife and some wood, and you get to work and carve away until you wind up with a finished product in your hand. That’s about as simple and old-timer as it gets. You can shape decorative items like tiny flowers and designs into your walking stick, or you can focus on producing functional and practical items likes knives and tent stakes.

If you like to work with your hands, you’re guaranteed to find something worthwhile when learning how to carve. It’s as good a past time as you’re going to get, so read on and grab a knife, some wood, and let’s get to work.

Looking to Learn to Whittle?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

  • check
    How to perform the basic whittling techniques
  • check
    The best type of wood to whittle with
  • check
    The best types of knives to whittle with & how to keep them sharp
  • check
    how to carve wood safety tips

Do

  • check
    Jump into whittling with some excitement and willing to learn by error
  • check
    Always use a sharp knife when practicing how to whittle wood
  • check
    Practice safety first with any whittling project; sharp blades and impatience do not mix!

Don't

  • Don’t worry about investing lots of money; whittling is a hobby you can pick up with a few basic tools
  • exclamation-circle
    Don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

Whittlin' the Day Away - Knives for Whittling

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The simplicity of wood carving is a big draw. All you need is a knife, some wood, and an idea in your head to bring into being.

Collection of knives on a table

“Almost any knife will do, but some are better than others for different projects”

It’s important to start a conversation about ​wood carving for beginners with some attention to using the right tools for the job, and that means a good, sharp knife.

The Pocket Knife

That trustworthy knife you’ve got at your side is perfect for almost any wood whittling need. As long as it’s sharp, it’ll cut wood; the result might not be pretty, but it’ll work.

pocketknife

Using your pocket knife is the ideal option because you don’t need to carry any specialized equipment. It’s one less piece of equipment to maintain and become familiar with, and it’s the one most likely to be at your side when learning how to wood carve.

On the other hand, because pocket knives tend to be general purpose, they’re less capable of performing the specific cuts some objects require. The blades of pocket knives also tend to be on the larger side for easy whittling projects, and using your trusty knife means it goes through more stress. Not a big deal, but extra use means extra maintenance!

Using more substantial camping knives can be useful for the more significant projects like a fishing spear.

The Whittling Knife

Designed and purposed for one task, the whittling knife is typically a very sharp tool used for a variety of different cuts. Most knives in this category will have multiple blades for different uses and feature a handle that’s comfortable to grip in a variety of methods.

knife3

Using one of these bad boys when practicing how to carve is beneficial because you’ve got multiple blades for different purposes at your immediate use. Because the knife is designed for this one task, you’ll only use it when whittling, and that translates to less wear and tear on your main blade.

On the other hand, it’s another piece of gear to carry and maintain. Its limited uses are because of the focused purpose of the tool; focus is proper when you have one task at hand, but that also makes the knife a niche tool in your bag.

Keep Your Knife Sharp

What good is a knife if it has an edge good for slicing butter but nothing else? Sharpening your blade is of vital importance to a functional tool.

But sharpening knives for many people is a taboo action. Isn’t this an exact science demanding precision?! Well, it is and it isn’t.

thickslice

During the day I use a pair of Felco F-2 pruners extensively (they’re a solid purchase to make, whether you’re a gardener or not!), and I keep those babies as sharp as I can. I’ve learned a thing or two about what works when sharpening a blade you’re going to use in any weather condition.

Use the Right Stone

In the toolshed, we use this Multi-Sharp tool for our pruners. Our pruners demand a precise edge that can be sharpened easily and quickly, and this tool is fool-proof. Just lock the sharpening tool onto your knife blade and attach the stone at one of the pre-designated angles.

That’s great for a lot of people, but I’ve been sharpening blades since I was a very young man. I need to use something that allows for maximum freedom and precision. A traditional whetstone is the tool for the job, like this one here.

Using a stone like this requires some practice to get it right, but when you’ve got it down, you’ll be happy you spent time practicing. Your blade’s edge will be sharp and clean, and you’ll have that dash of pride knowing you did something the old-fashioned way.

A Dab of Oil

Oh, boy! This is an area of much contention and a million different opinions. I’m going to detail what I’ve found works for me, and it works quite well.

When sharpening a blade I apply a dab of regular motor-oil to the blade itself, not the stone, and draw the stone in a smooth pull over the edge of the blade. Using machine oil or 3-in-One oil is another option, but simple water works as well.

What the liquid is isn’t important; the function of the liquid is to reduce friction and to carry away bits of debris that hamper sharpening.

How to Sharpen

I love the use of a two-sided whetstone like the one I mentioned above because of its simplicity and ease of use. Using specialty tools works well, but they lack the fine-tuning a simple whetstone offers.

A few quick swipes of your knife blade held at about a 45-degree angle on each side is all it takes to sharpen a knife. The sharpening process can seem incredibly challenging, but the mystique of it all minimizes after a bit of practice.

Every knife blade is different and might require a slightly different angle to sharpen, but the process remains the same.

The Best Wood for Whittling

What kind of wood is best for whittling? That’s a matter of some debate, but a few clear choices stand out as superlative. But before we look at the types of wood to practice on when learning beginner wood carving, there are other key notes to learn about first.

Dried Wood versus Green Wood

Chances are most of your whittling will be done on green, or uncured/fresh wood. The moisture content is higher in green wood and makes it much easier to work with than dried wood. It’s also far more readily available than specially dried wood, especially when you’re in the field.

As a disadvantage, most green woods are too soft and won’t stand up to abuse for long. But you can add much more detail to green wood carvings if you want a level that type of ornamentation.

Dried woods are much more challenging to work with but produce material that is ready to go for some harder jobs. It’s also more difficult to find in the field and is a project to work on when you can procure the materials from a reputable source.

Go with the Grain

The best woods for whittling are the ones with a straight grain. Anything else is just too complicated to work with and usually results in unattractive products and handfuls of splinters. Watch out for knots, also; they can be a significant pain to work with.

Find lengths of wood when learning how to whittle that are straight, with the fewest branches possible. More extensive projects like a bow need to be whittled from the best material to prevent them snapping during use.

For a more detailed look at finding the correct green wood when you learn how to whittle, .

Cuts that are made going with the grain will cleave off smoothly, and if you have soft wood and a sharp knife, it’ll look like a delicate ribbon of butter. But cuts made against the grain results in splits and breaks and way too many headaches. Sometime you’ll need to cut against the grain, and that’s okay, but the majority of your project should be done with cuts going with the grain.

Types of Wood to Use

There are plenty of options out there for learning how to whittle, but these listed here are easy to work with and readily found.

Pine

A trusty and reliable wood to whittle, pine is also cheap and soft. It’s an easy tree to identify when in the field, too, but beware the dripping sap of a fresh pine branch. Do yourself a favor and use the dying, dry branches of pine for your whittling project.

pine tree

​Apple/Cherry

A wood with plenty of moisture and a delightful smell. This material is excellent for making cutlery and bowls. These trees are easily found growing on the borders of forests; they are easy to work with and their tendency to send out “whips” and water shoots means there’s plenty of great material to be found for learning how to whittle.

Apple tree

“Apple wood is great for whittling”

Ash

A common tree spotted in the field, the ash tree has relatively straight grain and is pretty dry even when it’s freshly harvested. That makes it ideal for heavy-duty projects tent stakes and knives.

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Balsa

Remember those cheap airplanes we got as kids, the ones where you insert the wing through the body and toss ‘em into the air? They were made of balsa wood, a light, soft, and flexible wood. That makes it great for whittling, especially when you’re starting out. You can buy chunks of it for next to nothing

Birch

My personal favorite, birch is readily found in most areas, it is soft and pleasant to work with, and it drops branches and limbs readily so you don’t need to kill a tree to get some material. It’s easy to work with when it is green or dried, so you really can’t go wrong with this wood when learning how to whittle. As a bonus its bark is an excellent fire starter.

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Random Sticks and Branches

As long as it isn’t a hunk of something poisonous or pokey, just about any piece of wood can theoretically be whittled. Remember that you’re looking for something easy to work with, with a straight grain and as few knots as possible.

For a more detailed look at finding the correct green wood when you learn how to whittle, check out this awesome resource for harvesting wood.

Woodworking Safety

For any project where you’ll using a sharp knife, some safety protocols need to be addressed.

Ouch! That Smarts!

If you injure yourself while you learn how to whittle, it’s almost definitely going to be with the knife blade. Whatever the cause (an inept or careless hand or maybe a straight-up accident), an accidental slice to your skin can be a big problem.

I’m in a career path where I cut my hands almost daily, usually because of exhaustion or carelessness. Focus on the object you are whittling and don’t carve at random. Plenty of pictures litter the internet of guys smiling all care-free around a fire while they have a knife in one hand and a stick in the other, whittling away without looking at what they’re doing.

Not only are they going to wind up with a butchered project, they’re also likely to cut themselves up because they aren’t paying attention.

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That’s the biggest safety tip you get when learning how to whittle; pay attention to the project at hand.

Use Protection

Splinters smart, and a good pair of gloves that allows your hands to move freely while providing protection is an excellent investment. A single errant swipe of the blade can make you wish you put on that leather glove.

Gloves aren’t your thing? Me neither, but you can bet I wear them when I need to.

Another reference for your whittling instructional suggests wrapping a piece of duct tape around your knife-hand thumb to function as a sort of thimble. It’s a good idea if you can’t do gloves!

But for me, the best safety practices are in proper technique.

Technique: Types of Whittling Cuts

You’ll utilize three primary cuts when whittling, but pay attention to the pressure you’re using and the force being applied.

You aren’t carving a turkey (unless it’s a wooden turkey) and you aren’t pouring all of your strength into each swipe of the blade. Whittling is a hobby of precision, patience, and “tension”; that is, you feel the cut you’re making and only give it so much oomph.

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A close comparison would be pulling out a weed from the garden. If you grab it and yank, you’ll pop the stem off and leave the roots behind. But if you hold onto that weed and slowly pull, you can literally feel the roots releasing from the soil and then popping out all in one piece.

Most common sense and knife safety infomercials will tell you to never cut towards yourself. But in whittling, most cuts are down towards you! There’s no way to understate that this is potentially a dangerous hobby, so your attention and caution is utterly necessary.

You aren’t in a race when wood carving. You’re taking your time to produce something, so use patience when you’re cutting and don’t try to force your way through it.

I Don’t Know What to Do With My Hands

Hold the knife in your dominant hand and the wood in your opposite hand. You need all the dexterity you can get!

The Straightaway Rough Cut

Ever hear the quote from Michelangelo (the artist, not the turtle) about how he carves his statues? He said, “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”

That’s the approach you have when straightaway rough cutting. Make long, thin slices to the wood. Your goal is to create a rough shape of the object your whittling.

Don’t slice down and into the wood or it could crack. You’re carving thin slices and chips off to reveal the shape of your project.

whittling a branch

“Don’t make deep cuts like this unless you’re whittling a point to an object such a tent stake”

The Pull Stroke

Also known as the pare cut because it’s just like paring an apple or potato.

You’ll hold the wood in one hand and make small, short cuts with your knife facing towards you. Your knife hand’s thumb is braced against the wood to allow maximum precision and control of your cuts (this is where that improvised thumb pad comes in handy if you slip).

whittling a branch 2

“It’s just like peeling a very woody potato”

The trick here is to squeeze your fingers on the knife hand, slowly and with the right amount of tension. Feel the blade sliding through the grain and you’ll start relaxing over how darn meditative whittling is.

The Push Stroke

This is the jackhammer of your whittling repertoire.

When using the push stroke, place your thumb against the back of the knife blade and push through those stiff and uncooperative areas where the pull stroke is ineffective. Again, you’re not trying to hack off chunks at a time. Feel the knife working and you can tell when the wood is about to yield.

whittling push stroke on a branch

“Focus on the feel of the wood giving under the knife blade.”

Whittling Projects

We’ve got a few useful things to whittle that are fun to put together. Learning how to whittle embraces creativity, but start with some of these until you have a foundation to build from. These projects below are also helpful around the campsite and in the wild, so that’s a big plus too.

The Tent Stake

The best project for learning how to whittle, putting together a tent stake is an easy task that teaches you knife control.

The Fishing Spear

Not for the catch-and-release fisherman, this fishing spear is a nice project for an extended stay in the field.

Knife

The tried-and-true wooden knife is a must for when you’re learning how to whittle, it can be a bit tricky at times but is a straightforward project.

Bow and Arrow

The ultimate whittling craft, carving a bow and its arrows is a lengthy process that demands your attention for this challenging project.

Spoon

If you forgot your spoon, it’s no problem; just exercise the utmost caution when whittling the spoon.

Whittling Gear & Resources

Suggested Knives

A sharp blade is vital, so consider picking up one of these knives for when you’re learning how to whittle.

Swiss Army Pocket Knife

When it comes to multi-purpose, the Swiss Army Pocket Knife has got the lion’s share of the market. While some of the higher-end models have tools you didn’t even know existed all conveniently crammed together into one unit, the Camper versions are a more lightweight alternative.

This camper models features two blades perfect for practicing how to whittle, but sports a handful of other features that could be helpful; the corkscrew and saw come to mind as helpful for whittling.

My only complaint with Swiss Army Knife model is that it needs to fit in my pocket like a lumpy little thing. I prefer knives with a pocket clip that be quickly put to use; the compact design of the Swiss Army Knife is one of its best features, but it’s simply not a feature for me.

Morakniv 106

A specialized knife for whittling and woodcarving, the Morakniv 106 is a serious bargain for its price. The blade is sharp and has a consistent narrowing of the blade for fine tuning your cuts.

Although it’s a specialized knife for woodwork, it can serve other functions with great skill. Some reviewers have used it as a hunting knife for skinning animals, while others have great success utilizing the Morakniv as an all-purpose knife around the campsite.

The only consistent complaints are the symmetrical handle and the blade’s tendency to rust easily. Although the handle feels great in your hand, you’ve got to double-check that the blade is facing away from your thumb every time you pick it up. The rust-prone blade is a minor annoyance that can be solved with a regular coat of oil or beeswax, but these materials can be hard to find in the field.