By: Zach LazzariThree days is the ideal time frame for many backpackers. It fits into a long weekend but allows for enough time to dig deep and push some limits. You can barebones an overnighter, but adding a few days requires extra planning for clothing, sleep systems and food. I sat down with Sam Alexander – a total badass, co-founder of Latitude Six-Six Adventures and a good friend of MYSTERY RANCH – to discuss his system for 3-day backpacking trips.
Sam is a former Army Special Forces Green Beret, born into the Gwichyaa Gwich’in Tribe in Northern Alaska. He was raised in the traditional ways, learning from tribe elders and his father, a traditional chief. Sam’s outdoor experience, wilderness survival, and general navigation skills are world-class. He leads adventure backpacking and canoe trips in Alaska, and loading a pack for long excursions is second nature for him. Here’s how he approaches a three-day trip.
Start with Your Sleep System
Sleeping bags are out for Sam. He uses sleeping quilts and enjoys the freedom to move while still being insulated. An insulated pad also adds to his sleeping comfort. The system is light, compresses down and is more than adequate for summer trips. A sleeping bag remains an excellent option for most folks, but the new quilt designs are worth considering.
He runs a single wall lightweight tent during the summer season but does keep a flexible system to deal with Alaska’s unique environments. His trips run year-round, and winter requires specialized gear to handle extreme cold. For the routine 3-day trips, however, the single-wall tent is comfortable and easy to carry.
Hunting specific backcountry trips call for a different approach to gear. He says, “On solo hunts, I might only bring a tarp to save weight. On regular backpacking trips, a light tent is normal for me.” For him, mobility is often worth sacrificing the comforts of a full tent, but when planning a simple backpacking excursion over a long weekend, the tent is worth bringing along.
Food is Subjective with One Luxury Allowed
Food is constantly debated in the backpacking community, but Sam keeps it simple. He carries a Jetboil system on most trips to make sure he can enjoy his favorite morning beverage. “When I’m hiking, food really isn’t a top priority. Just coffee.” And that’s his primary luxury in the wilderness.
“Pour-over coffee in the morning is a game-changer. That and Werther’s Originals. I also bring cheese when I can and eat plenty of pilot bread. It’s a staple in Alaska. It’s like a big Hardtack biscuit and is delicious.”
His menu sounds more like a John Muir minimalist-style trip with bread and cheese as caloric staples, but the Jetboil system is excellent for dehydrated meals. Instant oatmeal is an easy breakfast. You can purchase or make any number of custom dehydrated meals to have hearty, calorie-dense meals without weighing down your pack. Personally, I enjoy a dessert on most backpacking trips; a dehydrated peach cobbler has a place in my pack on most trips.
It’s counterintuitive, but Sam doesn’t recommend carrying too much water. Instead, he packs a filter or treatment tablets and knows where to find water. “Water weighs around 8-pounds per gallon, and I like to refill on the fly,” he says. This need can change in desert environments where water is limited, but the Alaskan bush is loaded with rivers, creeks, springs and bogs. Make sure to research water sources and know how much you should carry on each individual trip.
Don’t Overcomplicate the Gear
Sam isn’t a gear junkie. His pack is focused, and he packs high-quality clothing.
“I don’t wear waterproof shoes, but I always wear wool socks and gaiters to keep brush out. Rain pants and my wool top are essential. I consider bugs in July and pack extra repellent, but it often snows by August, and I leave it behind. Wool gloves, a warm hat and a waterproof shell are almost always packed. You don’t want to cheap out on clothing.”
The most experienced backcountry folks on the planet will all agree on that point. High-quality clothing is worth the investment. Backpacking isn’t complicated, but dressing in layers specifically designed to insulate, shed water and protect against the elements will make for a more enjoyable trip. When the weather turns nasty, that clothing can become a life-saving system.
One Pack for the Trail
When Sam is hunting, he takes multiple packs. He runs bulk gear packs, and when hunting from an ATV or boat, he’ll bring along his RIP RUCK 32 as his daypack. He also runs a bare-bones system for mobility while tracking and chasing game through the wilderness.
On backpacking trips, however, he runs the GLACIER. “In the military, you knew you’d made it when they issued you a MYSTERY RANCH pack.” He uses a single pack that can handle a range of loads across the seasons.
The three-day trip has a minimal requirement for food. Backpackers can keep things pretty light, although fishing gear, photography equipment and other specialty items will increase the load. Work through the distribution of heavy items by placing them close to your body to distribute the load across the hips and back. A top-heavy pack is difficult to shoulder and MYSTERY RANCH has designed their packs with load distribution in mind, adding multiple access zippers to ensure you can get to your gear quickly. These zippers allow you to reach just about anything without unloading from the top.
Run a Rehearsal
Sam’s military experience has led to an invaluable piece of advice for backpackers. He recommends doing at least one test run – for EVERYTHING.
“Do a rehearsal. Don’t let the first time you use your tent be out in the woods. Set up all your gear, then pack it. Test your gear, cook the food and run preparation ahead of time. Don’t let the first time your pack meets your boots be on a hike. You need to break it in before you go out for an extended period.”
Injuries and gear failures are preventable, and testing your system is the absolute best way to locate breakdowns. Sam also does another re-adjustment on guided trips to ensure everyone is comfortable and ready for the trail. It prevents injuries and leads to a better overall experience throughout the day.
“Many people wear everything in the morning and overheat and sweat. Then you get wet and cold. I recommend getting dressed in the morning, walking for 5-10 minutes, then stopping and readjusting gear. Remove clothing, adjust pack straps and address issues immediately to get comfortable and prevent problems down the trail.”
I’m no stranger to this issue. The mornings are often cold, and I wear layers early. After my heart rate spikes, the sweat starts and I need to remove layers. Without peeling off the layers, that sweat will keep coming and it turns cold after stopping. It also leaves gear wet and less effective.
Lastly, he says, “I spend a lot of time taking care of my feet. That’s the most important thing for me.” When your feet blister and break down, pain and discomfort begins and follows you across the entire trip. Stop whenever necessary to clear debris from shoes, adjust socks and treat hot spots before they blister. Change wet socks, air everything out and take great care of your feet. It will add many miles of comfortable hiking to every 3-day backpacking trip.
Learn more on how to prepare for a three-day backpacking trip from our friends at Backpacker TV.
And check out our newest film featuring Sam Alexander, Niveh T’ah’in (Warrior)