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The Backpacker's Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills Paperback – May 24, 2005

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About the Author

RICK CURTIS is the director of the Outdoor Action Program at Princeton University, one of the largest and most successful college outdoor programs in the country. He lectures regularly on topics ranging from outdoor leadership to risk management. Rick has been backpacking around the world for more than twenty-five years.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1: Trip Planning

•Group Size and Ability
•Location and Weather
•Expect the Unexpected
•Skill Development

•During the Trip
•On Your Return

•Trip Difficulty Rating

•Travel Logistics
•Choosing Campsites
•Estimating Travel Times
•Time Control Plan

•Resupply Issues



Planning a trip requires more than simply deciding where to go and when. Whether it’s a weekend trip with friends, a formal outdoor program, or a major expedition, you need to evaluate your trip across a number of categories and develop a solid plan. One or two people may take on the role of planner, or the process of planning can be spread out among the entire group. I’ve planned and run trips for thousands of people both around the United States and around the world. Here are the elements you should keep in mind when planning any trip.


Whenever you’re planning a trip, you need to determine if the route should fit the group or the group fit the route. The group may have a range of experience levels, physical conditions, and goals, in which case, your goal should be to plan a trip that is appropriate for everyone. Other times, you may have a specific trip you want to do that may be challenging or require special skills. For this kind of trip, you need to select a group that has the right qualifications to participate. Here’s a checklist of questions to ask when planning a group trip:

•What kind of group is it? Is it an informal group of friends or a formal group like an outdoor education program? Are the participants friends, students, volunteers, or paying customers? Formal groups may have specific policies and protocols that must be followed.

•What are the goals of each group member? Are people required to attend? (This factor can have a significant impact on how committed or not the group is to the wilderness experience.) Does the group have collective goals?

•What is the experience level of each member? What is the average experience level?

•Are there people in the group with the necessary skills to lead and manage the group or do you need to find other people to provide leadership? (See Appendix, “Outdoor Leadership.”)

•How big is the group?

•What is the age range of group members?

•What is the physical condition of each member? What is the average physical condition of the group?

•Do people have particular health issues that could impact their participation?

Determine the level of experience, physical ability, etc., as much as possible before you set out. This will enable you to plan a smoother and more successful trip. More important, it will diminish the potential for dangerous situations. (See Chapter 8, “Safety and Emergency Procedures.”) Keep the group’s parameters in mind as you evaluate the other categories, thinking in terms of both optimal challenge and safety. Be aware that you will often have a great range of experience levels and physical abilities, so plan the trip at a level that will be fun, educational, challenging, and safe for everyone. Think about the high end and the low end of the experience level and physical condition, and err in the direction of the low end. Gathering physical fitness and basic health information will help you determine different abilities and experience levels (for a sample form, see page nnn).

Group Dynamics

•How are costs going to be handled—equipment, food, transportation, permits, etc.? If you have to buy gear, who keeps it? It’s really important to work these things out before the trip, otherwise serious tensions can arise later.

•How will leadership be handled during the trip? (See Chapter 8, “Safety and Emergency Procedures,” and Chapter 10, “Outdoor Leadership”).


When planning the activities for a particular trip, you need to consider the following:

•What activity(ies) do you want to do on your trip (backpacking, peak climbing, and/or glacier travel, for example)?

•What are the goals for the trip?

•What skills will people need? Do they already have the skills or do they need to learn them?

•How do you integrate time for teaching skills with time for traveling?

Once you’ve evaluated the group members’ abilities, you can adapt your goals to an appropriate level. Plan activities that will be both appropriately challenging and safe. Be aware of how mileage, elevation change, and time for teaching and learning skills will affect your route (see “Estimating Travel Times,” page 12). Start easily and increase the level of difficulty gradually so that participants can be progressively challenged at appropriate levels, rather than placing them in a situation that is beyond their abilities.


Research Your Destination

•Investigate the availability of guidebooks and maps.

•Contact area rangers or land managers to get more information. Inquire about permits required, safety issues like hunting season, and seasonal hazards like wildfires.

•Talk with other people who have been to the area before. If possible, check their trip logs, which may have important information not found in guidebooks.

Trip Planning Questions

•How long is the trip? Can the trip be self-supporting in terms of equipment and food, or will you need to resupply? How will you do the resupply—cache items ahead of time, hike out, or have someone hike in? (See “Resupply Issues,” page 15.)

•How remote is the trip from “civilization” and help in case of an emergency?

•What are the trail conditions?

•Are there special places you want to see?

•Are there places you want to avoid like high-use areas?

•Are shelters available on a daily basis, or do you need to bring your own?

•Where is parking and trailhead access?

•What is the water availability and water quality on a daily basis?

•Are there safety issues—hunting season, off-road vehicles, etc.?

•Are there any special natural hazards—flash floods in desert canyons, wildfires, etc.? (See “How Accidents Happen,” page 225.)

•What Leave No Trace practices will you need to implement to safeguard the environment? (See Chapter 5, “Leave No Trace Hiking and Camping.”)

Regulations and Permits

Each location can have its own unique set of regulations and requirements. It is important to check these out in detail before you go.

Here are some of the possible issues to research:

•Are permits needed, and how do you obtain them?

•How far in advance do you need to apply for a permit?

•Is there a cost for the permit?

•Are their any special regulations about rescue? (Some parks, like Denali in Alaska, require that you pay for your own rescue.)

•Are there limitations to group size?

•Where is camping allowed and not allowed?

•Are there any restricted areas, hazardous zones, protected areas for endangered species, and such?

•Are fires allowed? If fires are allowed, will wood be available? Or will you need to bring a stove?

•Are there special regulations about Leave No Trace practices such as disposing of human waste?


•How many hours of daylight will there be? Check the Web at sites like the Weather Channel (www.weather.com) for sunrise and sunset times and average high and low temperatures.

•How will the season determine the weather? Are storms or particular weather patterns likely? (See Chapter 7, “Weather and Nature.”)

•How will weather affect trip activities? How might it affect the safety of the group?

•Will altitude changes during the trip have an impact on weather or temperature?


When planning a trip, remember that the ultimate goal is for people to have fun. Here are some tips to planning a trip that everyone can enjoy:

•Make a plan that can be modified during the trip. All sorts of factors—bad weather, changing trail conditions, broken equipment, ill-prepared participants, an injury—may require you to change your itinerary.

•Don’t plan long or difficult hikes on every day of the trip. Vary the mileage so that you have some days when you can get a later start or get to camp early.

•On longer trips, schedule a rest day every five to seven days.

•Make sure that people have some time during each day to kick back—to read, watch the sunset, or write in their journals.

•When hiking at high altitudes, people acclimatize at different rates. You may have to adjust your trip to give people time to properly acclimatize before going higher, especially if people are coming straight from sea level to a high altitude. (See “Altitude Illnesses,” page nnn.)


Once you have determined your trip activities and location, you need to put together an equipment list. Sample equipment lists are are provided in Appendix A, but remember that they should be used only as guidelines. Each trip and each person may have special requirements.


It is important to have food that is both nourishing and edible. On longer trips, with specialized activities, or in different climates (e.g., cold-weather trips), it may be necessary to plan a menu that supplies a specific number of calories per day and stresses certain food groups over others. On any trip, it is essential to be aware of special dietary requirements for each trip member—food allergies, vegetarians, and kosher eaters—and plan a menu accordingly. Check this information on the Fitness and Health Information Form for each person on the trip (see page nnn). For complete food, nutrition, and menu planning guidelines, see Chapter 3, “Cooking and Nutrition.”


Before going on a group trip, talk about how costs will be distributed. This includes food, fuel, travel expenses, and first aid supplies. You’d be surprised how many friendships get strained because people did not work out the finances beforehand.


Depending on the type of group you’re traveling with, people may have varying levels of experience. There are specific skills that people need before the trip, such as how to pack a pack, and some that need to be taught on the trip, such as how to set up camp or how to use a backpacking stove. There are so many different skills I use on a backcountry trip that I find it hard to remember them all—many I just do automatically. Take the time to make a list of these skills so you don’t overlook anything (a sample Teaching Plan is included in Appendix A). If you are the trip leader, or if you’re just traveling with friends who are less experienced, plan time to cover the important subjects both ahead of time and on the trail.

For advanced-level trips, you may need to do a more formal skill assessment. For example, if you are going to be traveling across glaciers, does everyone have experience traveling on snow, handling an ice axe, and being roped up? Will people need to know special techniques like self-arrest or crevasse rescue? Sometimes this assessment is done by reviewing people’s previous trip experiences, or you may have the group go out on a supervised practice trip to review and test special skills.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Three Rivers Press; Revised and Updated ed. edition (May 24, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400053099
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400053094
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (107 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #31,829 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Martin Doege on July 25, 2007
Format: Paperback
A distinction must be made between "outdoor" books that assume that your trip into the wilderness happens in the context of a working civil society, i.e. you buy food at the store, you have your tent, your map, maybe a GPS, and if you are in trouble a competent attempt will be made to rescue you. Then there are the "survival" books which assume that if you don't do "it" (gather food, build a shelter, find water, etc.) yourself, it ain't gonna happen. Maybe you can get help, but maybe other humans even pose a danger to your life, perhaps because of violent behavior, stupidity, clumsiness, or for whatever reason.

This book falls mainly into the first category, but makes interesting forays into the second. Perhaps the strongest impression is left by the First Aid section (which is also the longest). If you are really in an emergency, in which case you will definitely not have the time to read five pages on the Heimlich maneuver or whatever, this is probably the book you should pick up in a hurry. Of course ideally, you should know the content of the section by rote, but the descriptions are short yet detailed enough that they can be read quickly and confer all the vital information. A variety of more obscure illnesses are included that you will probably not find covered in other First Aid texts.

The nutrition section is quite short and the recipes are probably not something you would want to eat every day -- burritos, pizza, pesto. Don't expect any information on game, edible berries or the like...

A number of good sections cover such things as crossing a river or bearproofing your camp. These are well-written and stress the importance of understanding the situation first before acting.
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Format: Paperback
This book is crammed full of information on a wide variety of backpacking topics, from weather forcasting to group dynamics, however it goes into very limited detail about each one.
It is in my oppinion a good resource for the inexperienced.
Anyone that already has a good deal of backcountry savy would be better off getting more specialized information on select topics they wanted to know more about.
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The Backpacker's Field Manual is probably one of the better introductory books out there. Not only that, but it has valuable information for even the most experienced backpacker. It is layed out fairly well, and written in a fairly straightforward manner.

The biggest downside I see is the author's ideas of Leave No Trace camping, which seem to be taken to an extreme (the author says that one should scatter sticks, pinecones, and such over your campsite after you break camp so as to look like no one has been there). While this is, in my opinion, a backpacking style difference, it was enough of an issue for me to drop it down from a five star to a four star.

Not only that, but the author is primarily interested in sharing tradional (heavy) backpacking advice, with little to offer the lightweight of ultralight backpacker. Still, some of the techniques mentioned are excellent advice for any backpacker and the section on first aid is very detailed.

While this book is called a field manual, I would leave it at home due to the weight of this book. That said, it's definately one I feel every backpacker should have at home!
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It's portable reference for everything backpacking. I can't imagine heading out into the wilderness without it. It covers everything from first-aid to a few sample recipies. The only thing I would change is an unexplicable change between the last edition and this one. Before the front and back covers were laminated which gave the book more survivability in your backpack. Since they bill it as a portable reference I'm at a loss to explain why it now has a standard cover. Obviously that has nothing to do with the info inside the book and that is, as I mentioned, invaluable.
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In the early 1970s, Princeton University launched a program where incoming freshmen would hike together in the wilderness to get to know each other before classes started. This quickly became popular among American universities, and over the years a large body of collective experience arose. THE BACKPACKER'S FIELD MANUAL was conceived as a compendium of advice for guides leading hikers through America's state and national parks. It was written by Rick Curtis, director of Princeton's program for many years.

When I first heard of this book, I imagined it would be a survival guide, but in fact, the book generally covers the mundane aspects of walking a trail instead of what to do if something goes horribly wrong. The sort of advice you'll find here is what food to bring along to cook for a group of people with diverse diets (including vegans and Jews who keep kosher), how to use a camping stove, where to dig latrines and how to avoid bears. There's exhaustive guidance on Leave No Trace hiking. But even if you aren't leading a big group, there's plenty of information to interest you. The explanation here of how to use a sighting compass is the most clear of any of the guides I've read to date, and the comparison of down and synthetic fabrics has more information to help you choose than some other resources.

As the guide was written for an American audience who were hiking within the US, all measurements for e.g. food are not metric, which limits a bit the usefulness of this book for people traveling internationally.

It's still good to go on and read a real survival manual after this, like the SAS Survival Handbook, as Curtis stops short on many useful tips. For example, he only briefly mentions the building of shelters and does not even describe how to make a snow shelter. Still, this book is full of practical advice and budding trekkers are sure to learn something from it.
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