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Just A Few Thoughts On Surviving In The Wilderness

September 14, 2016

Maybe I should have been more upset. Heaven knows I don’t have tremendous patience in other areas of my life. But, with these 12 and 13 year old scouters, I was fine going over things again, and again. . .and again. . .and again. Still, when you are hiking miles into the wilderness, there are certain things that are harder to correct for. When we camp at Anderson Park, here in my town of Pleasant Grove, UT, it’s easy to have a parent run by and replace a sleeping bag, or bring another pair of shoes. That’s a little harder when we are camping at Long Lake in the Uinta National Forest. 

As I thought of the advice for the new scouts, I realized it was good advice for anyone deciding to head off into the great outdoors. So, here’s my open letter to the boys’ parents on preparing for a backpacking trip. (All names have been changed because this is my story. The boys can decide to tell their own later if they want.) 


Our Utah mountains are solid granite covered with a very thin layer of dirt. And the dirt moves around. Our trails are rocky. Often filled with boulders. During the hike we go over and around them. The proper shoes can make the trip easier or harder. I have five sons. We never bought them hiking boots. At 12 and 13 years old, they are still growing. Who wants to pay $100 for a set of hiking boots that will only be used a couple of times before they are too small? 

Yes, your boys are going to wear tennis shoes and that’s okay. But, there are some recommendations. Larry had the “what’s old is new again” canvas, high-top Converse all stars. We used to call them chuck Conners. These are actually a good shoe for hiking. The high top design adds support to your ankles. . .except. . .

Larry, I don’t think you’ll trip as much if you lace up your shoes.

I can’t.

What do you mean?

I don’t think the laces actually work on these shoes. I think they are just for decoration.

Larry hiked six miles in tennis shoes that were unlaced. Slippers would have been more form fitting. Kelly’s shoes actually were like slippers. He had Vans. Also called “skateboard” shoes. They are slip on shoes without laces. 

What to bring: Boots or tennis shoes that lace up. 

What not to bring: slip on shoes, or shoes that don’t lace up. (Slippers are definitely out as well, although I’ve never seen them)  


Hats fit into two categories: Day and Night. During the day, it’s a good idea to have some sort of hat with a brim. Especially on the hike we did last weekend, high altitude and Utah’s desert climate makes for some pretty intense sunlight. A hat not only protects from sunburn, but can help prevent heat exhaustion as well. 

The nights at high altitude get cold. A stocking cap will greatly increase the efficiency of your sleeping bag. I keep mine tucked into my bag’s stuff sack so it’s always there. 

What to bring: A hat for shade and a stocking cap

What not to bring: d I wouldn’t recommend a helmet, or a sombrero. But, so long as you are bringing something, it’s going to be better than not having a a hat. 


We do two backpacking trips each year with the boys. In May we do what’s called “The Baldy Hike.” It’s about 13 miles and 8,000 feet in elevation change. (4K up and 4K down.) In September we do the High Uintas. About six miles and a couple thousand feet in elevation change. These are the only two hikes we need to pack in all our stuff: food, tents, sleeping bags, clothes, water (more on that below.) Backpacks are a very personal item. And unfortunately, also not particularly transferable. By that I mean that it’s hard to take a pack that will fit a 6′ tall, 180 lbs man and make it fit a 5’3″ 100 lbs boy. 

On our last campout, my son took a day pack. He’s nearly 14 and he’s been camping dozens of times. 

Are you sure you’ve got everything you need in that?

Yep. I’m going to sleep outside, and I’ve got my bag and a change of clothes.

He did fine. Kory also took just a day pack. Kory is 12 and has been camping with us just a couple of times. He couldn’t fit everything in his day pack, so he brought along a kitchen garbage bag stuffed with his pillow and a blanket. The kitchen garbage bag was as big as the pack. Kory struggled. After the first mile, I used some paracord to rig a harness around his garbage bag. He then slung it over his pack and hiked the rest of the way looking like a peddler with his pack high on his back. 

Alton had a full sized backpack. But, it he had a terrible time getting his gear to stay in it. Several times, we stopped and reattached the bag holding his tent poles, or his sleeping bag. Unlike Kory, Alton’s backpack. was brand new. Well, not brand new.

Is that a new pack, Alton?

Oh, no. We bought it three months ago.

My backpack is 25 years old and I feel like it’s just getting broken in. 

What to bring: Backpacks, either internal or external frame. The boys should be familiar with their pack and how it fits.
What not to bring: Fullsized pillows are definitely out. As is brand new gear. You don’t want the first time you use it to be on a wilderness camp. 


Alton’s backpack was not the only gear he had that was new. We arrived at our campsite about 30 minutes before dark. We quickly set the boys to pitching their tents. It’s a lot more fun setting up a tent in daylight than trying to do it by the light of a head lamp. Most tents have a similar configuration. Each one is slightly different, but they almost all follow a similar pattern. 

Since this was a backpacking trip, the boys had teamed up on their tents. Typically two, sometimes three boys per tent. That way, they shared in the task of hauling the tent. Alton was working with Kramer to set up his tent. It wasn’t going well. The tent was brand new. Alton had never set it up before. And, of course Kramer wasn’t familiar with it. I wandered by and gave some encouragement. And they finally got all the poles in the right places and climbed inside to start setting up their sleeping bags.

I looked at Alton through the mesh screen on the top of his tent.

You should put on the rain fly. It will be cold tonight and it will help keep the heat in your tent.

We don’t have a rain fly.This is how the tent is supposed to look.

I’m pretty sure there’s a rain fly. The fact that I can see you from the outside of your tent shows that there is supposed to be more to it. It will look like a big piece of nylon. 

He found the rain fly and when the temperature dipped, he was glad he had used it.

What to bring: Tents that are not too heavy. Split up the weight between multiple people. Typically, one person carries the poles and the other carries the tent.

What not to bring: You should not bring a tent that you’ve never set up before. Also avoid tents that are too big, or too heavy. A good one-man tent weighs about 4 lbs. Double that for a two man. 


Typically, on our campouts, we supply instant oatmeal and hot chocolate for breakfast. The boys are on their own for the rest of the food. You would think that Ramen noodles, or Cup O’ Noodles would be great choices. They are quick and easy to fix. You would be wrong. The problem with noodles is that they just don’t provide enough calories. A package of Top Ramen includes two servings, each of which is 190 calories. During a hiking trip, it’s not unusual for boys to expend 3000 or 4000 calories. Our most ambitious trip, the Baldy hike, probably burns about 5000 calories. Ramen noodles just don’t provide enough energy. 

It’s hard to ask parents to go and buy expensive freeze dried meals for a hike. And yet, those meals are specifically designed to provide the amount of energy needed for hiking all day. 

The problem with not eating enough calories doesn’t show up at the meal. The boys may be full and feel satisfied. It’s the next day that the problem shows up. After the body consumes all the available energy from the food they’ve eaten, it goes looking for additional energy. Typically it will take it out of fat or muscle. None of our 12 year olds are very fat. That means at the end of the hike, when they are already tired, they will also be nearly drained of energy. We’ve become much more conscious of what the boys are eating, especially on these hiking trips. 

What to bring: High energy foods that include complex carbohydrates. They don’t have to have freeze dried meals, but their meals should be substantive. Oats, grains, proteins.

What not to bring: Avoid food that is high in sugar or low in calories. Skip the noodles.


Our campouts are typically only one night. We are out in the wilderness for less than 24 hours most times. So, we can survive a boy forgetting a tent, or the proper food, or even poor shoes. The one thing we cannot survive without is enough water. Camping in the desert, we are constantly aware of water, how much we have, how much we need, where to get more. It becomes especially important on a high altitude hike. The Uintas are in the 10,000 foot range. The peaks are higher, but even the hiking trails are two miles avove sea level. At that altitude, a couple of things happen. First, the sun is more intense. Ironically, it doesn’t translate into hotter temperatures, because the altitude and the wind keep it mild. But the sun is blazing away. Also, the air is very, very dry. That means that as your body sweats, the sweat almost immediately evaporates. This also tends to make you feel cooler. As you breath dry air, you also lose moisture. You are pulling in bone dry air and breathing out moist breath. Really what it means is that you lose a lot more moisture than you do at lower levels and a you don’t notice it as much. 

I have a friend who runs ultra marathons. You might have seen him in the news. He’s a firefighter who runs regular marathons in full firefighter gear. He also runs 100 mile races for fun. I asked him about keeping hydrated.

You have to start early. If you wait until you feel thirsty, you can never get enough fluids into your body to make up the difference.

We have a similar issue when we are hiking. We are constantly reminding the boys to drink more water. As we were headed back down the trail to the parking lot, I noticed that Kurtis was looking more tired than normal.

Do you have a water bottle?


Where is it?

It’s in the bottom of my backpack.

I just shook my head and pulled out my “emergency” water bottle.

Here, drink half of this right now.

But, I’m not thirsty.

I don’t care. Drink down to there.

What to bring: The boys need to bring water bottles that are accessible. They should plan on drinking 1-2 quarts per day when it’s mild and up to a gallon per day when it’s hot and we are hiking.

What not to bring: Don’t bring a water bottle that is too small, or that can’t be attached to the outside of their pack.

I never tire of teaching boys how to not just survive, but enjoy their time in the wilderness. It’s not a skill that we are born with. Just a little forethought can mean the difference between a great experience and a miserable one.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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