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.

These tips derive from habits I’ve gradually adopted over more than three decades and innumerable backpacking trips across the U.S. and around the world, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. These are practices I’ve followed in every type of environment and on every type of trip, from easier outings with my family when our kids were young—although it didn’t always feel “easier” carrying much of our children’s gear and food—to extreme adventures backpacking 20 to 30 miles per day.

Follow these tips and I think you’ll make your campsite hours—and backpacking trips as a whole—more comfortable.

Click on any photo to read more about that place and please share your thoughts on my tips, or any tips or regular practices you have when you get into camp on backpacking trips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker cooling off in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, in Yosemite.
Todd Arndt cooling off in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, in Yosemite. Click photo to read about that trip.

#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 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 untied and loosened and tongue pulled up, more like slippers, to keep my feet cool and dry.

By the way, taking care of my feet demands all-day attention. See my “8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking,” including the great tips and suggestions from readers in the comments section at the bottom of that story

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Teenage backpackers cooling off in Hidden Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.
My teenage son, Nate, and buddies Elias and Sam cooling off in Hidden Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho. Click photo to read about that trip.

#2 Take Care of My Body

Carrying weight on your back for miles taxes most people physically. I’ve learned from scores 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, (definitely) 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.”

I know it sounds like an effort you don’t want to bother making but try it on your next trip—once you start, you may like it enough to just continue. And like me, you might find it habit-forming.

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Backpackers in North Puyallup camp on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm and Todd Arndt in North Puyallup camp on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park. Click photo for my expert e-guide to the Wonderland Trail.

#3 Change Clothes

After washing off the dirt and dried sweat, I’ll put on the dry base layers I’ve brought. (My story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking” 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 only damp (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.

See my picks for “The Best Base Layers, Shorts, and Socks for Hiking and Running,” “5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking,” and “How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking.”

Which puffy should you buy? See “The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
How You Can Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is.”

Backpackers cooking in the backcountry of the Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.
Jeff and Jasmine Wilhelm ready for hot nourishment in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Click photo to read about that trip.

#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.

As a side note, in some parks with grizzly bears, like Glacier National Park, the first thing I do when reaching a campsite is actually required by park management: Hanging food properly as a precaution against bears.

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A hiker on the summit of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park.
“The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite” is my most popular downloadable e-guide. Click on photo to see them all.

#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 almost invariably carry a lightweight camp chair (one of my “25 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.

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.  See my “5 Tips for Getting Out of Camp Faster When Backpacking.”

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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BONUS TIP: You won’t feel good the next day without a good night’s sleep. See my “10 Pro Tips For Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag,” plus all of my reviews of sleeping bags and air mattresses.

Do you have any regular practices you have when you get into camp on backpacking trips? Please share them or your thoughts on my tips in the comments section below.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”


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Leave a Comment

14 thoughts on “The First 5 Things I Do in Camp When Backpacking”

  1. Michael,
    Since your posts frequently contain good advice, I’m reviewing some of your skills posts in preparation for an upcoming trip into California’s Sierra Nevada. I’m always trying to learn from others like you with more trail wisdom. Many sources of trail advice discuss staying dry and avoiding hypothermia, but I don’t see much about handling heat beyond the basics of “stay hydrated.” While it may repeat some of the tips in this and other posts, how do you manage hot temperatures when you’re out on the trail?

    • Great question, Karen. I’m heading to the High Sierra in August and I’m sure we’ll see some hot afternoons. In the Sierra and many higher Western mountain ranges, I like to get an early start hiking, during the cooler temps of morning and before the sun gets high overhead; it’s much less draining and exhausting hiking in cooler temps and, of course, you sweat much less and need less water. The alpine sun is also much more intense at higher elevations in the Sierra than farther north. Wear a sun shirt and/or wide-brim hat to keep the sun off your head. Take advantage of shade for breaks as much as possible and cool off in water, even just splashing it onto your face and head and soaking your hat while hiking. Anytime I stop for more than a few minutes, I pull off my shoes and socks to let them and my feet dry out and cool off. As you can surmise, my overall strategy is minimizing the total hours of direct sun exposure. Good luck and enjoy your trip.

  2. New to backpacking but traveling with a very experienced backpacker. Your suggestions will help immensely in order to feel help me feel more comfortable all around. Looking forward to my adventure in southern Utah!!

  3. Awesome, thanks for sharing!! Stretching seems like it should be obvious, but now I’ll be sure to add it to my backpacking routine next trip!

  4. Totally agree that taking care of one’s feet begins during the hike. So important to head off foot problems before they become problems.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    • 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.

    • Amen Tony, those are my priorities (Pacific Northwest). I may first put on my wind/rain jacket to get ahead of inevitable cool-off, and get my headlamp into my pocket, and pull on my bug net.