Backpacking Skills for a Pandemic

Backpackers are a tribe of MacGyvers, experts at “embracing the suck” and rationing toilet paper. Has anyone else been thinking about all the ways our backpacking skills could become useful during this pandemic?

Here is my list, mostly humorous, a touch of serious. I’d love to hear from all you MacGyvers out there. What backpacking skills are you using during this pandemic? Leave a comment below.

Rationing toilet paper

We’ve all seen the aster in the latrine. Way to adapt, backpackers!

If backpackers earned badges like Boy and Girl Scouts, there’d be one for successfully rationing toilet paper. There is a very specific flavor of panic when you’re halfway through a backcountry trip, still 40 miles from civilization, and you pull out your Ziplock baggy of toilet paper and realize you’re running dangerously low. Engage radical rationing!

Andrew Skurka, famous for his C2C route and route-finding his way through Alaska’s Brooks Range, only rations himself four squares of toilet paper a day. Four!

When the worst case scenario happens, and you forget your toilet paper on the bedside table while packing up your gear, or at the last cat hole five miles back, backpackers learn with a quickness which broadleaf plants to use like large-leaved aster and thimbleberry leaves. There are even those who’ve claimed to have used a rock. Seriously? Ouch!

If this shortage of toilet paper continues, or gets worse, I have no doubt Andrew Skurka will end up hailed as a national hero for demonstrating how to execute a backcountry bidet. You’re welcome, America! The last thing we need during the coronavirus pandemic is a simultaneous epidemic of monkey butt.

Where’s my duct tape?

We’ve washed our clothes in buckets and bathtubs. We’ve duct-taped our broken tent poles. We’ve used safety pins to hold together our pack. We’re experts at sewing up our shoes with humble dental floss, and having it hold for days until we get to the next town. We are a tribe of MacGyver’s. I’m not sure exactly how, yet, but I know this skill is going to come in handy at some point. Already MacGyvered something related to the pandemic? Share your genius in the comments below!

We eat, literally, anything

Mmmm, the same meal for the fifth time in a row.

When hiker hunger sets in, backpackers don’t care how food tastes or looks or even smells. Food is fuel.

We’re experts at eating the same thing over and over and over. I ate tortilla-Nutella-dried apricot wraps almost every day for four and a half months on my North Country Trail hike.

Dang! I really wish I’d gotten some Nutella and apricots on my last grocery run. I did buy a ton of Snickers bars “in case things get really crazy.” They’re my ultimate back-up survivor food, apparently.

Many of us may have a sizable back stock of dehydrated foods too, just in case things get extra crazy. By the way, if you haven’t done so yet, look way, way back in your kitchen cabinets. I promise you there’s a long forgotten bag of dehydrated potatoes or a lonely package of ramen back there. I have a can of NIDO powdered milk that is big enough to last me at least a year. It’s fortified!

Experts at social isolation

I’m pretty sure I had a long, one-sided conversation with this toad about his amazing coloration.

Social distancing isn’t that bad when you’re used to extended periods of social isolation. Anyone who backpacks solo for extended periods of time:

  • Knows just how weird you get after a 10-day stretch in the backcountry without cell phone service or seeing another person,
  • Has had lengthy conversations with squirrels or other animals,
  • Knows how it feels to go so long without seeing another person that, when we finally do see one, we startle like an animal and jump like we’re about to sprint off into the woods.

We’ve spent so much time alone with our thoughts that we’ve come to profound realizations about our character defects that unravel everything we’ve ever known about ourselves. Burn that ego to the ground, baby!

By comparison, I feel wealthy in social connection during this pandemic. My social media network has never been pithier, nor more supportive. I’m video chatting with friends regularly. We even got a game of Cards Against Humanity going online last night. I’m writing this blog, and hope to do an online hiking presentation next week for kids distance learning at home. I’m bringing the field trip to them! The ways in which all of my communities are staying connected is a wonderful thing to behold.

Hand sanitizer hygiene

We’re totally comfortable with trusting hand sanitizer to keep us from getting sick, and also incredibly good at rationing it.

On the topic of hygiene, much of America is probably testing their personal limits for how long they can go without a shower right now. We already know. We know the exact perfume of our own body odor. We can’t even smell it anymore, can we?

Admit it. We backpackers happily stopped showering at a “socially acceptable” level weeks ago.

Mother Nature is in charge, always

The 20-foot tall root ball of a tree pulled out of the ground by a 2016 “Derecho” straight-line wind storm on the Border Route Trail in northern Minnesota.

Backpackers have watched winds bend old growth trees like prairie grass. We’ve lain in our tents with lightning striking all around us. We know the ferocious power Mother Nature can unleash in a heart beat.

Humans have never been at the top of the food chain on this planet; viruses have. And we’re learning just how ferocious their particular power can be right now.

One of the most important backpacking skills is learning to accurately and quickly assess conditions. Insane straight-line wind storm moving in overnight? Time to get off the trail. Twenty-thousand-acre forest fire? Find the next stretch of trail that isn’t currently burning. Extreme risk of avalanche? No crossing that mountain pass for now.

Covid-19 is a viral wild fire, a microscopic avalanche. Conditions have changed. This is our wheelhouse, backpackers. We must accept the current conditions out there, radically and quickly.

Embracing the suck

Putting on a brave face on a miserable, cold, rainy day.

The world sucks right now in so many ways, but we backpackers know how to put our heads down and keep moving through the misery, don’t we? We know the value of grit and perseverance.

Backpackers encourage each other to “embrace the suck,” from brutal weather to difficult trail conditions and even physical pain.

This pandemic isn’t Type 2 fun, something that is miserable while it’s happening, but ends up being a great story later. I fear we have some Type 3 situations coming soon — terrible when it’s happening, and terrible to talk about later — but I hope that if we all embrace the suck, and keep working together, we could be part of one of the most epic hero stories humanity has ever told.

21 Comments on “Backpacking Skills for a Pandemic

  1. I think that the biggest advantage backpackers have is just being able to accept the situation and move on.OK it’s raining but I am moving on. OK the only food I have is some smashed crackers but it’s food. Embrace the positive and ignore the negative.


  2. We have a good supply of toilet paper, but were also pretty excited to find a nearly full roll in the camping gear we are reorganizing. And, as you noted, we also have plenty of dehydrated camp meals!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice! I found a bunch of hand sanitizer too. I was just thinking about you and Jeff the other day. I hope you are doing well. I’m so grateful I got to meet you both on my trek.


  3. Was thinking about your hike today while out walking. Hope you’re doing well.


    • Thank you! So sorry for the delay in reply. Life has been moving fast and furious here in the Twin Cities of late, and I’ve been neglecting my correspondance. I’m doing OK. I fully intended to write a follow-up blog updating people on how adjusting back to regular life has been, but I am dreading writing it because I don’t have much positive to report, which I think is more a reflection of me, my thinking, and decisions I’ve made following the hike than the practice of long-distance hiking mid-career. But it’s been rough. I keep waiting to write the post when I have some good news to share, haha.


      • It’s OK to be less than positive right now. I think we’re all struggling a bit in this current situation. It’s hard to shine sometimes lately.

        Glad you’re doing OK. I did see you got one piece posted, will catch that one later today.

        Be well.



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