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The First 5 Things I Do in Camp When Backpacking

The First 5 Things I Do in Camp When Backpacking

By Michael Lanza

I doubt that I had any typical routine when arriving at a campsite on my earliest backpacking trips; like many backpackers, I probably just dropped my pack, shucked off my boots, and kicked back until motivated to move by the urge to eat, drink, get warm, or go to the bathroom. Over the years, though, I’ve developed a routine that I follow almost religiously when I arrive in camp at the end of a day of backpacking. These five simple, quick, almost effortless steps make a world of difference in how good I feel that evening and the next morning, and how well I sleep. Follow them and I think you’ll make your campsite hours—and backpacking trips as a whole—more comfortable.


Todd Arndt keeping cool in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park.

Todd Arndt keeping cool in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park.

#1 Take Care of My Feet

Task number one: yank off my boots (or shoes) and socks and soak my feet in a cold creek or lake to “ice” achy muscles and wash dirt off my feet and lower legs as well as possible without soap. I often also take a swim—usually after stretching (see #2)—to cool off, get the dust and sweat off my body, and let the chilly water soothe all of the muscles I’ve worked. All of this will help me relax and sleep better.

I sometimes bring light camp footwear, like flip-flops or sandals, to change into if my hiking footwear is boots that are heavier and hotter than I want to wear in camp. If I’ve worn low-cut, breathable shoes hiking, I don’t bother bringing camp footwear. But I’ll wear hiking shoes in camp with the laces and tongue wide open, more like slippers, to keep my feet cool and dry.


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Precipice Lake, Sequoia National Park.

My son, Nate, post-swim, in frigid Precipice Lake, at 10,400 feet in Sequoia National Park.

#2 Take Care of My Body

Carrying weight on your back for miles taxes most people physically. I’ve learned from hundreds of backpacking trips, whether my pack is heavy or ultralight, that I’m going to feel significantly better that evening and the next morning, and sleep much better if I spend about 10 minutes stretching soon after I stop hiking for the day, while muscles are still warm.

You don’t need an elaborate routine, just a handful of stretches focused on the major muscle groups you’ve been working hard: quads, hamstrings, calves, and your core, including your back, sides, plus shoulders and neck. There are plenty of resources online suggesting specific stretches; I also talk about my stretching routine in my story “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb.” Try it on your next trip. You might find it habit-forming.


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Compromise Camp, Whirlpool Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument.

This beach in Dinosaur National Monument is one of my 25 all-time favorite campsites. Click on the photo to see them all.

#3 Change Clothes

After washing off the dirt and dried sweat, I’ll put on the dry base layers I’ve brought. (My story “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun” details what I usually carry for clothing.) Then I’ll dry out my hiking clothes, which I’ll wear again the next day, either by hanging them in sunshine or, if they’re damp but not too wet, pulling them on over my dry layers to let my body heat dry them without having the damp layer against my skin. If it’s cool or windy enough to wear a jacket, it works very well to dry out a damp base layer by wearing it under a breathable shell.

In warm temperatures, I’ll just remain in my damp hiking clothes until my body heat dries them out (often while stretching and pitching my tent), and then change into my extra clothes. On many trips in mild temperatures, my “extra clothes” consist simply of a second base layer top and insulation; I’ll often only have one pair of zip-off pants, so I’ll wear those to dry them and perhaps just zip the legs on.


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Cooking in the backcountry, Glacier Peak Wilderness.

Jeff and Jasmine Wilhelm ready for hot nourishment in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

#4 Replenish Depleted Body Reserves

Dinner may not happen for a while, but I need to replace some of what my body has depleted sooner than that—mostly fluids, sodium, fat, and electrolytes. In warm temperatures, the first thing I often do is add a powdered energy-drink mix to a liter of water to consume over the next hour (beginning while I’m stretching). After I’ve finished steps 1 through 3 above, I’ll eat an appetizer that delivers what I’m craving—fat and sodium. I typically like crackers, cheese, and pepperoni or salami, nuts, maybe some chocolate. In cooler temperatures, I’ll fire up the stove and boil water for hot tea or cocoa or instant soup.

Getting rehydrated and starting to refill my body’s fuel tank, combined with the stretching, make a huge difference in my energy level and greatly help reduce any stiffness that evening and when I hit the trail again the next morning.


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Hell Roaring Lake campsite, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

My daughter, Alex, demonstrating good camp chair technique in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

#5 Set Up Camp

Assuming that foul weather hasn’t forced us to immediately pitch the tent upon arriving in camp, I now unload my pack, set up the tent, inflate my air mattress and lay out my bag to let it loft up, and break out kitchen gear, water filter, and anything else I will need. I often carry a lightweight camp chair (one of my “22 essential backpacking accessories”), which is far more comfortable than sitting on a rock or log—meaning my body will feel better when I’m going to sleep later and putting on my pack again the next morning.


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At some point during the evening, I’ll figure out how much water I need to leave camp with in the morning and fill my bladder or bottles, to help expedite an early departure the next day, because in summer, I usually like an early start to hike in cooler temperatures.

These five steps don’t require much time or effort. But they make my evening, night, next morning—and really, my entire backpacking trip—much more enjoyable.


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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.


  1. Avatar

    My four priorities are shelter, water, food, washing (me and potentially my clothes), and which comes first, second, etc. will vary depending on weather, where I’m hiking, and my personal condition when I roll into camp. Sometimes I am camping near water after a long dry stretch and water is priority #1 as I’m dehydrated. Sometimes it is overcast or actively raining and shelter is #1. Sometimes I run out of snacks in my help belt, and food is priority #1. It all depends on the circumstances, but those 4 are always the first four.

  2. Avatar

    I agree about changing clothes. This summer, I changed into my next-day’s t-shirt and underwear just before turning in, and it really made a difference. I felt cleaner, so I slept better, and then I was mostly dressed for the next day.

  3. Avatar

    The very first thing I do is tent setup, due to unpredictable weather. Next filter 3L of water for dinner & breakfast.

    • MichaelALanza

      Hi Tony, thanks for the comment. As I wrote above, I save pitching my tent until after the first four steps assuming no foul weather. It only takes a few minutes to pitch a tent, so under fair skies, there’s no urgency to it. Also, I don’t filter water for cooking since I’ll boil it, anyway. But as I also wrote above, under #5, at some point during the evening I’ll fill my water bladder or bottle(s) with however much water I need to start hiking the next morning–and the amount will depend on how far I’m hiking before reaching more water sources.


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Hi, I'm Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside and former Northwest Editor at Backpacker magazine. Click my photo to learn more about me and my blog. Sign up for my free email newsletter in the blue box above. Click on Subscribe Now! in the main menu (top right) to get full access to all of my stories on America's best backpacking, hiking, and outdoor adventures. And click on Ask Me in the main menu to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

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