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 10 years as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and many years 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 and tongue wide open, 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

Click here now to plan your next great backpacking adventure using my downloadable, expert e-guides.


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. 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.

You may also want to see my review of “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 my “Review: 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.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.

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 “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.

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.

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

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.

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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip,” “10 Tricks for Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier,” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” 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 “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip,” the 10 tricks for making hiking and backpacking easier, and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.

You may also be interested in my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be,” which you can read in its entirety as a subscriber or click here to purchase separately.


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