10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier

By Michael Lanza

When I started hiking, I was like a young baseball pitcher with an overpowering fastball: I hurled myself at every hike with all of my energy. I didn’t think about how far I was hiking, the terrain’s ruggedness, or my pack’s weight. I was young and fit, so my haphazard strategy worked fine.

Now, many years and miles later—including 10 years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and many years running this blog—I’m more like a veteran hurler who’s honed a repertoire of off-speed pitches. I’ve learned various tricks to soften the blow of hard miles, helping me to hike 20, 30, even 40 miles in a day—even in my forties and fifties.

No matter how far you plan to hike, these tips will make your hikes easier.

It’s natural to think that walking is walking and there are no secrets to doing it better—after all, most of us have been walking since we were about a year old. But as with many endurance sports, there are ways to hike a trail more efficiently, conserving energy and reducing the physical impacts that bring on fatigue. The 10 expert tips below will help you do exactly that.

Tell me what you think of my tips and share your own tricks and tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in the North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park. Click on the photo to see my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.”

No. 1 Be Fit

Sure, this seems obvious, but we all know it’s easy to fall off track and find yourself struggling on a dayhike or backpacking trip because you’re in less-than-optimal physical condition.

Maintain a regular exercise program so that you hit the trail with a good base of fitness. If you’ve fallen off a training program, get back on it two to three months prior to a trip. The better your physical condition, the more you’ll enjoy whatever distance you hike—and the less likely you are to get hurt.

See my story “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb.”

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A backpacker above Thousand Island Lake on the John Muir Trail.
Todd Arndt above Thousand Island Lake on the John Muir Trail.

No. 2 Go Light

This tip goes hand-in-hand with no. 1 (above): Keep your pack as light as possible. These first two tips are simply the two biggest and best steps you can take to make your backpacking trips more enjoyable. I’ve hiked all over the U.S. and the world for years, carrying heavy packs and light ones, and that has convinced me that carrying a heavy pack is harder physically than carrying a light pack even twice as far.

There’s a simple reason for that: Most people simply don’t train their bodies for the added pounding and wear-and-tear caused by hauling an extra 25, 35, or 45 pounds or more above your normal body weight in rugged terrain. It naturally takes a toll on our bodies—and that toll only grows with age.

Want to make your pack lighter and all of your backpacking trips more enjoyable? See my story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of that story for free, or click here to download that full story without having a paid membership.

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Backpackers on the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
Backpackers on the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

No. 3 Don’t Kill Yourself

Hiking is an endurance sport, not a sprint: Dial in a pace that you can maintain for hours rather than a pace at your upper limits, which will fatigue you much faster. Hike at a pace—especially uphill—where you’re not pushing your heart or respiratory rates into the red zone; you should be able to maintain a conversation without gasping. On hard ascents, stop for a 30-second breather when you need to; even brief rests can provide a surprising degree of physical recovery.

Similarly, keep most (not necessarily all) of your rest stops—sitting to eat, treating water, bathroom break, or cooling feet (see my tips for avoiding blisters)—to 15 to 20 minutes or less. That allows enough rest time without letting your muscles cool down completely, so you’re still ready to hit the trail at a steady pace.

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Backpackers hiking the Piegan Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
Backpackers hiking the Piegan Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click on the photo to see my e-guide “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park.”

No. 4 Get Out Early

Hike as much as possible of each day’s mileage in the cool hours of morning (or evening), because summer afternoons are typically hotter in many mid-latitude mountain ranges and desert canyons—especially at middle to higher elevations in the U.S. West, but also in eastern mountain ranges—and heat greatly amplifies your fatigue and accelerates dehydration, which prevents muscles and cells from functioning optimally. (On a related note, I always wear a sun hat, and a wide-brim hat protects you better than a ball cap.)

Not everyone likes to wake up early, and your trip doesn’t have to feel like work. Just find a balance between getting adequate sleep and minimizing your exposure to afternoon heat.

Get organized in camp to facilitate a quicker morning departure—eating breakfast and packing up doesn’t have to take two hours. See my “5 Tips for Getting Out of Camp Faster When Backpacking.”

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A hiker on the Tour du Mont Blanc in Italy.
A hiker on the Tour du Mont Blanc in Italy. Click on the photo to see my e-guide “The Perfect Plan for Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc.”

No. 5 Step Lightly

Walking straight down a slope’s fall line magnifies the strain on your feet, knees, leg muscles, and soft tissue in joints. To lessen that impact, especially on steep trails, make your own little, zigzagging switchbacks within the trail when going downhill, so that you’re landing with each foot at a diagonal angle to the fall line rather than stepping straight down it.

It can be a little tricky in narrow, rocky paths, but work on it. You’ll notice the difference once you get the knack of it. After years of doing it, it has become a mindless practice for me, and I can feel the difference in fatigue certainly over the course of a hike, but also, often, with each step.

How hard is it? See my five-level difficulty rating system in “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

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17 thoughts on “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier”

  1. 70 yr old backpacker who agrees with all your comments, but have developed the strategy of 45 lb winter backpack, base camping with my chair and naturally frozen fresh food and day hiking light. Mostly Joyce Kilmer /Slickrock Working for me smelling the roses.

  2. Another one I use is to try to keep my eyes forward when going uphill and spot a path with the smallest increases in vertical. In other words, I try to avoid the rocks, which require steps up, when the dirt terrain will gradually take there. While it may be a few more steps, I find, like you, it’s a lot of little things.

  3. Morning Michael. I am a 62-year-old retired Navy Officer and USFWS law enforcement officer; I “hung up” my uniform for the last time this past July. As I enter my 4th childhood, I am prepping to complete a lifelong dream of mine: thru-hiking the AT next spring. As a result, I spend no less than an average of an hour a day online researching equipment, techniques, etc., and I happily stumbled across your website. It is simply out-freaking-standing!

    Reading your article on “10 tricks…” I was particularly surprised to see your recommendation to do “mini switchbacks” when transiting downhill. I used to do significant trail-running, and that was something I used to do to save what is left of my knee cartilage. I still do that when hiking (though it does unnerve my Aussie when she is with me!). I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else mention that!

    Anyway, looking forward to delving deeper into your site! Thanks much, amigo!

    • Hi Gary, thanks for the kind words, and let me say it’s always nice to hear from an old sea dog. (My dad was one, long before you.) You learned one of my tricks from experience. I hope some of the others are new to you. Good luck pulling off your AT thru-hike, and with your fourth childhood and however many more follow (hikes and childhoods). I hope you’ll keep in touch.

  4. Great tips, Michael. I can totally relate to the first two points, be fit and go light. These are the two mistakes I did on my very first hiking trip. I wasn’t fit but I was too excited and din’t want to miss the opportunity. And, my backpack was very heavy which made the things even worst. Somehow I was able to enjoy the trip but I learned a lot from my first trip. Wonderful article, thank you for sharing useful tips.

  5. Hey, i’d be up for another Pemi Loop ? Nothing like a good old beat down! Love to tag along. Let me know when.

    BTW my Presi Traverse was over well over 70,000 steps according to my Fitbit ?

    Jeff in MA

  6. Great advice! Some should seem somewhat obvious I would hop but #3,5,6,7 I believe are extremely good tips, especially if your dealing with very technical terrain….like my home turf the White Mountains.
    While not for everyone for me I enjoy to also turn hikes into almost little science projects. Quick trail analysis for good lines through techy terrain and those steps above to be safe, effeciant, and conserve energy. Since I live in extreme rock country one game I play when hiking with a slow group is practicing to see how far I can go staying just on top of rocks and not touching the ground. A good skill to practice IMO.

    At 58YO this past June I completed a solo 12 peak Presidential Traverse going south to north in 14 hours flat with breaks. 24 miles, 9,300 feet of elevation. (Longest hike I’d ever done until….)

    “The Pemi Loop” also late June done solo. 32.5 miles (including West Bond Spur to bag that peak for my 4,000 footers) over 9,000 feet of elevation again and just shy of 14 hours with breaks.

    EVERYTHING Michel listed 1-10 had to come into play for me to do these hikes in those times. Fantastic advice that absolutely works!

    Jeff in MA

  7. Great tips! I carried way to much weight on my first solo hiking trip, and i was knackered with sore knees at the end. I’ve now learnt to pack light, and I totally agree that it’s easier to carry a light pack twice as far as carrying a heavy pack half the distance.
    I think it’s also important to walk at your own pace. I’ve been hiking in groups when I’m one of the fastest, and one of the slowest, but trying to walk faster to keep up with a group is also really tiring, it’s better to go at a steady pace, and keep going for longer. After all, it’s a hike not a race. Refueling regularly certainly helps, although when it’s cold i get less hungry, I think it’s because I don’t want to stop and get cold!