6 Life and Survival Lessons Learned from Backpacking

by Todd Walker

6 Life and Survival Lessons Learned from Backpacking - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

I flipped to “Fat Guys in the Woods” on The Weather Channel last night as DRG was reading her book. She glanced over the pages and asked…

“Is that Fat and Afraid?”

I belly laughed!

After climbing that first mountain, the name fit me.

6 Life and Survival Lessons Learned from Backpacking - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Are we there yet?

My brother’s boys and I drove eleven hours to tackle Eagle Rock Loop in the Ouchita (pronounced wosh-i-taw) National Forest in Arkansas. Our map called the mountainous section of the loop “vigorous”. Understatement of the year! Brutal was more like it for this old man.

This wasn’t a self-imposed survival adventure. We backpacked and camped with modern gear. Here’s what I took away from our journey.

Lesson #1: Fitness Matters

The only way to train for mountains with no switchbacks is to climb mountains with no switchbacks. Baseline fitness is helpful but may not be enough.

6 Life and Survival Lessons Learned from Backpacking - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Jake got the last laugh with his light pack

We parked at 4:30 P.M, strapped on packs and hit our first mountain 50 yards from the truck. Jake, the youngest of our trio, was point man. And perhaps the smartest. His pack weighed 15 pounds! He’d seen what heavy could do to soldiers patrolling mountains in Afghanistan. And his buddies were fresh out of boot camp and physical specimens.


Car camp!?

Had I reduced my pack weight by half, I still would have struggled to climb the mountains. I won’t lie. I secretly contemplated turning back halfway up and car camping. My young, strapping hiking partners were patient with their old uncle with frequent stops for me to catch my breath and cool the burn in my gluts and thighs.

6 Life and Survival Lessons Learned from Backpacking - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Kyle instigated this trip

If you subscribe to the popular bug-out-on-foot theory, have you tested your load out and physical abilities on the terrain you plan to walk?

Lesson #2: Water Matters

Bring more than one method to obtain potable water.


Water Filters: Kyle carried a Katadyn filter which he and Jake used. I used my Sawyer Mini, which weighs 2 ounces, to fill my 2 liter bladder in my backpack. A small 16 ounce Sawyer mylar bag was my backup when I sucked the hydration bladder dry. I consumed about 4 litters per day due to the strenuous activity and summer heat.


Around morning and evening campfires, I boiled water in my 64 ounce bush pot for cooking, hot cocoa, and coffee. Boiling was impractical on the move. Water filters are the way to go on rest stops.

Lesson #3: Feet Matter

When your only means of conveyance is your feet, take good care of them.

We crossed 3 mountains on our first full day of hiking. I noticed a hot spot on one of my toes going down the last mountain. Upon inspection, I had forgotten to trim my nails which turned out to be the source of the toe pain. My Swiss Army Knife scissors quickly solved the issue.

6 Life and Survival Lessons Learned from Backpacking - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

River crossings were unavoidable. At low water levels, we rock hopped. A few crossings ended in wet feet. I carried three pair of wool blend socks. One for wearing, one for drying, and one as a spare.

Cooling off with my Five Fingers

Cooling off in my Five Fingers

Also consider packing a lightweight pair of camp shoes or sandals. I wore my Five Fingers around camp and for protection while exploring the rivers. Even though I run barefoot at home, I couldn’t afford a wound to my only means of wilderness transportation.

Take time to keep your feet dry, clean, and protected. Always break in new boots or shoes well ahead of your journey.

Lesson #4: Sleep Matters

“One of the hallmarks of the veteran woodsman is the way he contrives to make himself comfortable in camp”. ~ Warren H. Miller

Follow the 4 W’s of campsite selection when choosing your spot to bed down… remember to look up. We had to fell a 5 inch dead standing oak on our last campsite. It may not have caused us problems but you never know how the wind may change. It provided ample firewood for us and to the next pilgrims who find our site.

6 Life and Survival Lessons Learned from Backpacking - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

All three of us prefer hammocks to tents. Hammocks not only offer comfortable bedding they also serve as a camp recliner by sitting perpendicularly like a swing.

You need good sleep hygiene to restore the body. Six to seven hours is about all I get at home. For some pleasant reason, I typically sleep a good 8 to 9 hours in the woods… barring abrupt disruptions from wild visitors.

I don’t worry too much about large animals. It’s the little critters that bug me… mosquitos and no-see-ums being the main culprit.

Use bug netting or insect repellent.

6 Life and Survival Lessons Learned from Backpacking - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

All Natural BugShot

I’ve just discovered a natural bug repellent called All Natural BugShot that kept the biting insects and ticks away. If you’re not crazy about applying DEET based repellents to your skin (or melting your plastic gear), check BugShot out. I shared my thoughts in a short video review on our trip. I recommend it!

Lesson #5: Bears and Bacon Matter

I was flip-flopping about whether to bring the dry cured bacon into bear country.

On this special trip with my brother’s sons, I went with bacon. One and a half pounds in fact. That amount gave us 2 thick strips each morning to get our day started. We also cooked a dozen dehydrated eggs in bacon grease over two days. We were smoothing it over the campfire kitchen!


We never sighted actual bears but did walk over scat on the trails. Carry bear spray.

Here are a few bear precautions to take. I found this research site, North American Bear Center, interesting and informative in addressing commonly held myths about bear-human encounters.

A bear’s sense of smell is over 2,000 times better than humans. Knowing this, take precautions and practice good camp hygiene. Place all food and cooking utensils in a bear bag and hang it at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from the nearest tree trunk.

My bear bag system contains the following:

  •  30 liter dry bag, 50 feet of paracord
  • One carabiner
  • Finger size stick off the ground

All food and cookware go inside the sealed bag and is hung 100 yards down wind from camp. I use the PCT (Pacific Coast Trail) method to hang the bag. I’ll show you this trick in a later blog.

I know this about my body but I over packed food anyway. When hot from physical exertion, I don’t eat much. We stopped for lunch breaks but never ate a meal just a few snacks of dried fruit or trail mix. And very little of that. Our largest meals were in the evening after cooling off.

Lesson #6: Family Matters

Though I’ve known Kyle and Jake since their birth, I never had the chance to connect with them as I did on this wilderness adventure. We connected by being disconnected.


Kyle made slate name tags for us

We lost all communication with the outside world miles before we reached the trailhead. No phone calls, texts, social media stuff, or blog reports. And not one among us frowned.


Welcome to Camp Walker!

We embraced being off-line and soaked in all nature could offer. We ate snake pan-fried in coconut oil, dined on homemade bacon, told campfire stories, laid still watching moon beams pour through leaves overhead, dried our wet bodies on rocky sandbars warmed by campfires, found the richness of life in our adventure, and confronted our fears and fatigue to discover how little it takes to make us happy.

6 Life and Survival Lessons Learned from Backpacking - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Going primal, gig in mouth, in search of bullfrogs

That, my friends, was the most valuable lesson of all!

Get out there, and, as always…

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


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Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Doing the Stuff, Potable Water, Preparedness, Self-reliance, Water | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

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18 thoughts on “6 Life and Survival Lessons Learned from Backpacking

  1. Sandy

    Sounds like a wonderful trip! I want to take my young adult nieces on a backpacking trip to introduce them to the woods.


  2. I live just outside of Talihina, OK that is mere miles from the Ouachita National Forest. 🙂 We do a lot of our fitness stuff there to become better preppers. BTW, it’s Ouchita and not Quachita. Might want to fix that to be found in search engines better.


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  4. Caroline Cooper

    Sounds like my kind of trip! I’m glad you had the time to get away.


  5. Thank You and your Nephews!


  6. Jim

    Becoming acclimated to rough mountain terrain is critical. Even in low elevation mountains a hiker can get altitude sickness. The only
    cure is to lose elevation.. Equally, many trails go seemingly straight.
    up a mountain without switchbacks. In the North Cascades which
    average 6000-8000ft elev., I almost always switchback whether
    on trail or not. This helps the body acclimate. Very good article-I
    don’t envy the summer heat and humidity in the SE mountains.
    Toward the freedom of the hills…


  7. What a nice adventure! I’m very happy to follow this super blog! Ciao Mattia!!


  8. Hey Todd,
    Thanks for sharing.

    I 100% agree with tip #3 “Feet Matter”. You only have to experience hiking with wet and blistered feet once to learn that lesson the hard way.

    Plus, there’s nothing that gives you a boost in the morning quite like a fresh pair of high-quality clean wools socks.

    I don’t mind wearing the same clothes for multiple days if necessary but only if I get to start off each morning of the backpacking trip with fresh smart wools (or something similar in quality).



    • You got that right, Jack! I’m going to have clean socks to move in. For winter camping, I keep a separate pair just for sleeping.🙂

      Gotta take care of those dogs!
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, bud!



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