The Beginner's Guide to Getting Outside—and Loving It

So you’ve never built a fire, brewed cowboy coffee, or pitched a tent. But guess what? It's never too late to get started. Presenting our ultimate guide to outdoor sports, adventure, and camping, with the fundamental skills and supplies you need to enjoy your first weekend in the woods, plus tips from the pros on how to master the art of roughing it.

Mountain Biking 101: Hardtail or Full Suspension?

Before shelling out $1,000 on a bike, first-time buyers should consider a few things

The trail in Canaan Valley, West Virginia, isn’t much of a trail at all. It’s more like a dry creek bed with chunky boulders held together with pasty, chocolaty mud. It takes momentum to roll through this rock-choked ravine on a mountain bike—momentum and a full-suspension rig. Like an idiot, I found myself at the top of this “trail” on a hardtail bike, which handles like a pogo stick in those conditions.

Hardtail or full suspension? That’s the first question new mountain bikers have to ask. Here, we break down the pros and cons of both.


Hardtail bikes have a suspension fork in the front but are rigid in the rear. 

Pro: They’re cheaper.
You can find hardtails that cost several thousand dollars, but by and large, you can get a good hardtail for half the cost of a good full-suspension bike.

Pro: They’re lighter.
Weight differs greatly from bike to bike—the more you spend, the lighter the bike. But generally, hardtails are at least a few pounds lighter than their full-suspension counterparts because they aren’t equipped with hefty rear suspensions.

Pro: They’re more efficient.
Because the frame is rigid, more power from your pedal stroke is delivered to the wheels. “Climbing is easier on a hardtail because the energy you put into the pedal doesn’t get lost in the play of the suspension,” says Chad Melis, marketing director for REEB, a high-end line of hardtails.

Con: They’re limited.
Hardtails don’t handle as well over rocky terrain because there’s no rear suspension to absorb that shock. “There are people who will ride a hardtail in any type of terrain, but I’m not one of them,” Melis says. “On some trails, full suspension just makes more sense.”

Full Suspension

Full-suspension bikes have suspension in the front and back, offering between three and seven inches of travel (how much the suspension gives when engaged), depending on whether you’re riding a cross-country bike, a downhill bike, or something in between.

Pro: They’re more comfortable and possibly faster.
That rear suspension absorbs most of the chatter from small rocks and roots that pepper the trail, saving your nethers from an endless barrage of battering. On longer rides and races, that extra comfort has a surprising dividend: It leaves you feeling fresher and riding faster.

Pro: They’re more versatile.
That travel in the front and rear of a full-suspension bike is designed to handle jumps, drops, rock gardens, roots—whatever you throw at it—which means you’ll be more equipped to handle a variety of trails.

Pro: They’re easier to ride.
The combo front and rear suspension is a really forgiving package, allowing beginners to tackle rocky terrain and water-bar drops with relative ease, so you don’t have to be as careful picking your line through rocks and roots. Add in the general comfort from having suspension beneath your seat, and you’ve got a bike that’s all around more beginner friendly.

Con: They’re expensive.
Cheap full-suspension bikes are saddled with heavy components and an even heavier frame. If you want the full advantage of full suspension, you’ll have to pay for it. Expect to drop $3,000 at a minimum for anything worth riding more than a year.

Bottom line: If you’re a budget-conscious cyclist looking to ride butter-smooth flow trails, stick with a hardtail. If you have cash to spend and are hoping to tackle more adventurous trails, go with a full suspension.

Filed To: Mountain Biking
Base Camp 101: Pick Your Spot

A little due diligence goes a long way in finding a perfectly isolated (and legal) campground before you head out. Photo: Greenland Travel/Flickr

Base Camp 101: Pick Your Spot

Where to camp, how to navigate—and how not to get stuck

A friend and I once drove onto a beach to camp. The sign said it was legal, which was great, but the car got stuck in wet sand, which was not so great. The tide was coming in, and guess what? You can’t jack up a car in sand. We managed, in great haste, to get a tow from another driver, but it was a close call and we felt compelled to hand him a wad of cash, which put a major dent in the ramen budget for the rest of the road trip. And it could have ended far worse.

Just because it’s legal to camp somewhere doesn’t mean it’s advisable. Do your homework before you decide where to camp. Maybe you won’t get stuck in sand, but the site might be dirty, noisy, or like the area at one national monument site I once found myself stuck at with friends—beautiful but as tightly packed as a Japanese capsule hotel.

Here are two apps that will help you avoid the hassle and improve your car camping experience.

Campfinder ($2.99, iOS and Android) provides other campers’ ratings and reviews of campsites. You can search by current or other location and filter by price and amenities. Our recommendation is to start here, and then do some advance Web recon to confirm.

GPS Kit ($9.99, iOS only) is the very best tool we’ve seen for navigating to a site or trailhead via someone else’s GPX track (the digital breadcrumb trail that somebody else has recorded and shared). Not only does it simulate what a $400 GPS unit would do, it also navigates, even without a cell signal, using your iPhone’s built-in GPS capabilities. To do this right:

1. Download the area map at home over Wi-Fi. Do this for where you’re going as well as any adjacent map grids, just in case.
2. Get the GPX track you want to follow, or at least drop a pin for the location where you’re going ahead of your trip.
3. Make sure your phone is plugged into a power source during navigation! Mapping uses a lot of juice.

Note that GPS Kit has a user guide and YouTube video instructions to make all of this easier for novice users to follow.

What to Look for in a Campsite

1. Read the ground. If there’s a nice, soft, hollow spot, that’s where a puddle used to be. Better to put your tent on a slope, rather than where water settles.

2. Use shade to your advantage. Use a cliff face or trees to cool your site in the afternoon. Ideally, position your tent where morning sun will warm and wake you.

3. Before pitching your tent, scout the site and poke a few tent stakes into the ground. You want to know if you can’t drive stakes before you’re halfway into the setup process.

4. Bugs bugging you? Seek a clearing. To find a breezier point, walk farther uphill. But remember: Unless there’s a snowfield, ascending usually takes you away from a ready water supply.

5. Always dry out your tent when you get home. (Hanging it upside down from a garage door works.) Even if the camping was dry, condensation funkifies your abode and will lead to permastink if you’re not careful. This rule goes double for sleeping pads and bags.

6. What broke or got grimy during the trip? Fix it as soon as you’re home, whether it’s a small tear in a down sleeping bag or your kid’s muddy footprints in the tent.

7. Once your tent is dry and repaired, stow it loosely in a large plastic bin or cardboard box. Keep it out of the light, which will age the synthetics and waterproofing. Do the same with your sleeping bag.

Packing 101: Pay Attention to the Small Stuff

Even the most experienced campers can benefit from taking the time to write out a packing list in advance. Photo: Isaac Lane Koval/iStock

Packing 101: Pay Attention to the Small Stuff

Few things can ruin a would-be stellar trip like realizing you forgot something really important. With this guide to packing, you won't have to learn the hard way.

Since childhood I’ve prided myself on being a great “big picture” adventure companion. I’ll carry heavy loads without complaint but I can’t remember the finer points like packing sunscreen, TP, or a change of socks. So maybe I shouldn’t have been put in charge of utensils for a little team of three on my first trip to the summit of Mt. Shasta ten years ago.

We hiked a solid half-day up to our 10,400-foot-high camp at Helen Lake before I realized I’d forgotten the utensils. Our group dynamic deteriorated fast when we started discussing how we’d eat boiled foods with our hands as the sun was setting. Just as voices began to rise, a stranger named Haiku appeared with an extra set of plastic ware he had lifted from Taco Bell.

The lesson? I now make a physical list of necessities that I cross off with a pen as they enter my pack or vehicle before heading out on a camping adventure. This is a particularly helpful tip for the new campers because it makes getting ready for your first car camping trips way less overwhelming. Sit by a computer and research what you need to bring and take a good hour or so to put a list together. The time it takes to craft the list will decrease dramatically the more you go camping. 

Pay close attention to the smaller camping accessories because, while you rarely forget the Yeti Cooler or the Coleman Stove, the things you’ll to need to eat the food you cook can be nearly as important. 

Don’t be scared to over-pack as a beginner. My lifeline for efficient car camping is an $8 plastic bin from Home Depot that I keep filled with all of my cookware and accessories that I know I will need. That bin used to be extremely full, but I have culled it down to exactly what I need over the years. No matter what you bring the first time, you can remove things like the specialty S’mores roaster (a stick works great) that you don’t use. 

There are, however, a few items you should take right off the bat. Wrap a lighter in duct tape and throw it in your bin. That combo has proved to be one of my most essential pieces of camping gear. Make sure you bring at least one tarp that is big enough to cover your tent and one that can go under it. They won’t cost you more than $15 and may be the difference between a fun, adventurous rainy camping trip, and a soggy nightmare (literally). Finally, and perhaps most important, a nice multi-tool like the Leatherman Wave will serve you well in a variety of situations, from cutting up salami to fixing your stove. Trust me.

Camping 101: How to Dress

Columbia's Sleeker rain jacket is a key layer that will keep the rest of your layers dry should bad weather strike. Photo: Courtesy of Columbia

Camping 101: How to Dress

Don’t just throw money at the problem. Master layering—yes, even for summer!—and the outdoors will never be the same.

I knew better than to ask my buddy Bryan where he got the brand-new olive-colored, three-layer Gore-Tex jacket that he offered me in lieu of his $80 portion of a three-week Costa Rican car rental. Even 12 years ago, I knew the jacket was worth way more than $80.

Today, scrolling through photos of subsequent adventures, I see that jacket everywhere. It was on my back while I proudly smoked a cigarette at the highest pass of the Inca Trail (I was acclimatized, young, and obviously cocky) as well as every mildly inclement camping trip I took stateside. In many of the pictures, usually during spring and summer months, along with the ubiquitous jacket, you’ll see a pair of rosy cheeks and the glisten of my sweaty forehead.

While that jacket helped me through countless rainstorms, it also caused me to overheat nearly as many times. The problem? It wasn’t breathable enough to expel my heat and moisture. While it was a great jacket for keeping rain off of my skin, it was terrible to wear when I was moving around in warm weather.

The importance of wearing breathable layers is a lesson that took me nearly a decade to learn and is one of the most important things to think about when you dress to camp. For trips in spring and summer—as long as it’s not actively raining or cold and windy—leave your waterproof jacket in the car. Even the most breathable waterproof jackets create a vapor barrier that will cause heat and moisture to build up inside, making you hot and wet. If the weather cools down, that sweat is going to make you cold really fast.

While purchasing and subsequently packing your layers, think of how each one is going to move moisture and heat away from your body. For base layers (the ones touching your skin), avoid cotton unless your trip is going to be a really hot one. Cotton grabs moisture and holds onto it, which could make you dangerously cold when the temperature drops. Instead, look for synthetic base layers or ones made of wool or a blend of both. I live in Patagonia’s Capilene 2 top and bottoms year round. Super.Natural’s LS 175 is also a safe bet.

Once you’re set on a base layer, look for a good insulating top that will keep you comfortable in a wide range of temperatures and won’t grab too much moisture. Outdoor Research’s Filament Pullover is a good example. It will keep you extra warm under an outer layer if the weather gets nasty.

Finally, it’s a good idea to have a weatherproof outer layer nearby that will keep you dry if it rains. Something like Columbia’s Sleeker Rain Jacket will work. Just don’t wear it all the time.

Hiking 101: Pick Your Footwear

Let your hike dictate how rugged or lightweight you want your footwear to be. Vasque's Talus UltraDry boots walk the line between both. Photo: Paul Vincent/Vasque

Hiking 101: Pick Your Footwear

A step-by-step guide

I learned how to pick hiking footwear by wearing a lot of the wrong gear. 

Case in point: A few years ago, I was gearing up for a four-week trek in the Everest region of Nepal. We had our sights set on the Three Passes Trek, a 120-mile loop crossing three 18,000-foot passes through the heart of the Himalayas. Imagining nightmarishly icy and rocky trails, I packed my stiffest ankle-height trekking boots—blocky, sweaty, Humvee-like clunkers. As it turned out, the trails were mostly mellow packed dirt winding through sleepy Sherpa villages. I ended up shamefully hauling those overbuilt trekking boots in my pack the entire way like a complete rookie, opting instead for a pair of mellow trail shoes.

Since you probably won’t be packing backup boots on most of your hikes, selecting the right pair is key. For some hikes, that means a pair of lightweight trail running shoes. For others, it means a big, burly boot. 

Here’s how to choose:

What to Wear on the Trail

You may ask yourself: Do I need a meaty hiking boot or just a simple, low-cut trail shoe? As a general rule, you’ll be the most comfortable wearing the boot that’s adequate—not overbuilt—for the conditions you’ll encounter. 

First, consider your climate. If you’re hiking in the desert or dry western climes, ditch the waterproofing (boots with materials like Gore-Tex, Outdry, and other membranes). You’ll rarely need it, and because waterproofing reduces breathability, it will make your feet more prone to blisters and stink. But when sustained storms and boggy trails (or repeated shallow stream crossings) are likely, a waterproof boot is essential. 

Next, think about your pack weight. If it’s more than a quarter of your body weight, you’ll probably need a stiff, sturdy boot, and likely one with a mid- or high-cut collar. You’ll need the stability on descents and on rocky ground. Mostly toting a light daypack? You can get away with a low-cut, flexible shoe, which will be much more comfortable. Look for shoes tagged “light hiker” or those with an EVA foam midsole. 

Then, consider the distance. The longer the trek, the stiffer and more supportive you’ll want your boot to be. Your feet will become fatigued after many miles on soft foam, especially on rougher turf; a stiffer sole lets them relax and let the boot do the work. 

Finally, think terrain. Rocky or uneven terrain calls for a stiff boot with a higher cuff for ankle protection, for both preventing sprained ankles and blocking stony blows to the side of your foot.

Can’t decide? The ultimate hedge is a waterproof light hiker, like the Vasque Talus UltraDry. These lightweight boots come with a higher collar for more ankle support and protection and a soft, running shoe–like midsole made of foam. It’ll be too much boot for some days and not enough for others, but it’ll be just right for most. 

What to Wear in Camp

After a hard day on the trail, all you want to do is take off your boots. You’ll definitely want something else to put on while shuffling around camp. Plus, changing into camp shoes gives your sweaty boots a chance to dry out.  

For summer camping, nothing beats an ultralight pair of sandals. Any old flip-flops will do. If your camp will be rocky or wet, you might consider something a little more substantial, like Teva’s Original Universal.

If camp will be cold, bring a pair of insulated booties—they’re incredibly warm, light, and compressible. Ideally, you’ll want a waterproof bootie with a nylon sole that can handle some shuffling over rocks.

Do It: Predict the Weather (No App Required)

"Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning": True, sometimes. Photo: Zach Dischner/Flickr

Do It: Predict the Weather (No App Required)

You’re deep into a long hike and the clouds start rolling in. This is how you interpret the signs—all on your own.

I was stumbling around in the middle of the night, lost in a wicked snowstorm on the Appalachian Trail and all I could see with my headlamp was a wall of white. I knew an A.T. shelter was a mile through the woods and the interstate was five miles in the other direction, but I was blinded by the snow. I pictured myself hiking in circles, eventually curling up in a ball like the man from the famous Jack London story. 

My death would be humiliating, considering I was only seven miles from the nearest Waffle House. I never should’ve believed the farmer and his bean jar, I thought.

For as long as people have wondered if they should bring an umbrella, there have been folksy ways of predicting the weather. That famous ground hog, the stripes on a wooly worm, the shape of persimmon seeds—all of that folklore we have used to forecast long-term weather patterns. Some farmers insist the number of fogs in August foretell the number of snows in winter. They put beans in a jar for every fog they count, then go on the local news and say it’s going to be a dry winter. 

Take it from me: You should not make backpacking plans based on the number of beans in a farmer’s jar.

“Most long-term weather predictions are just old wives tales,” says Corey Davis, a climatologist with the Climate Office of North Carolina, which studies the validity of weather lore. “There’s usually not much scientific basis for long-term prediction myths.”

However, folklore surrounding short-term weather predictions may be more legit. The shift in barometric pressure that precedes a storm also has an immediate affect on the natural world. You just have to know what to look for. Here are four pieces of weather lore that you should actually heed.

#1. You can tell the temperature by the number of cricket chirps you hear. 
A number of studies have shown this to be true,” Davis says. Count the number of cricket chirps for 14 seconds, and add 40 to the total number and you’ll get the temperature outside. Crickets chirp slower when it’s cold. 

#2. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”
This one’s accurate if you’re in a place where weather systems come from the west, Davis says. A red sky appears when dust particles are trapped by high barometric pressure. If you see the red sky at sunset, a high-pressure system is moving in from the west, so the next day should be dry. If you see the red sky in the morning, the high pressure has already moved east, taking the good weather with it. 

#3. “When a halo rings the moon or sun, rain is approaching on the run.”
According to NOAA, a halo forms around the moon or sun when ice crystals at high altitudes refract light. Those ice crystals are a good indication that precipitation will descend in lower altitudes, particularly in warmer months.

#4. Cows huddle together, seeking comfort before a storm.
The verdict’s still out on this one, but Davis thinks there could be some truth to these animal-based storm predictions: “Animals can sense low pressure systems, which bring storms, long before people can.”

Kayaking 101: Getting In and Setting Out

A quick primer on how to avoid tipping and master the forward stroke

My first major kayak fail occurred during a summer trip in Northern Wisconsin. I figured I didn’t need any sort of instruction before heading out on Big Round Lake—I grew up paddling a canoe, so I strapped on a life vest and shoved off. I was paddling along enjoying the serene surroundings when, suddenly, out of nowhere, a big speedboat flashed by, tipping my kayak right over. I wasn’t in any danger of drowning, but I had no idea how to right my kayak or pull myself back inside, let alone remove water from the boat. Cue the boat rescue.

While more experienced paddlers regularly navigate river rapids and ocean waves successfully, inexperienced ones should stick to flat water like lakes, ponds, and protected ocean bays. A smooth kayaking experience takes some practice, so here are a few tips for entering your boat and getting going:

From the Dock

If you’re launching from a dock, start by positioning the kayak parallel to the dock. Place one end of your paddle on the boat and the other on the dock to keep the kayak from shifting. Sit down on the ledge of the dock and put your feet in the kayak. Turn your body towards the bow (front) while holding on to the dock, then quickly lower yourself into the kayak seat. The key is to get your backside into the seat as quickly as possible. To get out, simply reverse these steps.

From the Shore

Launching from a sandy lakeside is a little easier. Simply hop into the boat as it rests at the edge of the water and push yourself out with your hands. If you don’t want to scrape the bottom of your boat along the sand, walk it out into a few inches of water, straddle the cockpit, drop your butt down in the seat, and pull your legs inside.

Paddle Practice

By first mastering the forward stroke, you can build a strong foundation for learning all other paddling strokes. The key to a good forward stroke is to use your torso in addition to your arms—rotating your body with each paddle stroke will help you paddle longer and with less fatigue. To better understand the concept of using torso rotation to your advantage, practice this rotation drill: Holding the paddle, fully extend your arms and lock your elbows. Without ever bending your elbows, begin paddling. The only thing your arms can now do is raise or lower the paddle blades in the water, which forces you to rotate your torso back and forth, using your core muscles to propel you forward.

The Kit

Some accessories to ensure you have a fun day out on the water? Regardless of your swimming ability, know the importance of wearing a PFD—we like the Astral V-Eight PFD ($120). The waterproof Hummingbird Travel Pack ($48) means you can safely bring along your phone, camera, some snacks, and other essentials without fear of ruin. Highly functional yet comfortable for long days on the water, the NRS Beda Board Shorts ($59.95) will withstand the most serious of adventures. Emanate those endless summer vibes while wearing the retro Sunski Originals ($48). 

Filed To: Adventure
Camping 101: Get Ready for Anything

If you have to improvise during your camping trip, you can at least improvise with the right tools. Photo: massimo colombo/iStock

Camping 101: Get Ready for Anything

Experiencing setbacks in the great outdoors will bring out your inner MacGyver. Make sure he has an idea of what you’ll be up against.

The first time a tent pole broke on me, I was 14 years old and on an overnight hike with my dad in the Cascades. We were camped well above tree line on a vast snowfield. One of us, stumbling around at dusk after dinner, managed to step on the point where one of the crappy fiberglass poles met the pin that attached it to the floor of the tent, snapping off the end of the pole. 

Our shelter sagged as the light wind became a stiff breeze. We tried a few fixes—first attempting to tie the pole to the tent floor, which failed utterly—before we hit upon the best solution: Gutting the inside of a container of lip balm, fitting the hollow balm tube over the end of the pin, putting the pole inside the other end, and fastening it all together with duct tape. That saved the day. 

It proved to me at a very young age that a little MacGyvering is often necessary in the camping experience. Have I broken tent poles since? You bet. But I’ve never failed to make a decent field repair—and because I learned what essentials to pack, I’ll never have to destroy another lip balm. Throw this stuff into your pack and you’ll be ready for anything.

Lighter: Matches, smatches! Yes, there are times when matches are handy (lighters break), but a cheap gas station Bic is a superb tool for emergencies (need fire for warmth!) and nonemergencies (need fire for s’mores!).

Cordelette: This isn’t string. Cordelette is nylon line that is considerably stronger. You can buy it in lengths at REI, a good climb shop, and some better hardware stores. It comes in handy for splinting broken tent poles; the above lip-balm fix can be emulated with a sturdy stick or an extra tent stake tied around the busted pole end. Cordelette has myriad other uses, from guying out a tarp between trees when you’re car camping and it decides to thunder on your site to something as simple as hanging a lantern high enough to bathe the entire plot in light.

Headlamp: This isn’t an emergency item, but it’s an emergency (or nearly one) if you forget to pack it. Also, check the batteries before you leave, and just in case, pack a brand-new spare set.

Benadryl: From bee stings to spider bites to a tent mate who snores and snores and snores, an antihistamine is a must-pack. Friendly tip: Don’t give the snorer the drugs—take a dose yourself to konk out through the din.

Aspirin: QED.

Pill bottle wrapped with nonstick gauze: This should be a plus-size pill bottle from the drugstore. Inside, stuff some bandages, self-sealed antiseptic wipes, and sterile pads. The nonstick gauze on the outside should be long enough to wrap a sprained ankle. Put a couple wide rubber bands around it to secure the gauze in place.

Duct tape: It mends holes in tents and jackets, and even blisters in your tired feet that aren’t quite used to that new pair of boots you didn’t break in.

Three gallon-size Ziplocs: The plastic bag becomes an improvised water bottle, a cold compress, a dry bag for your puffy when the afternoon desert shower decides to squat overhead for 18 hours, and a leftover food storage satchel. Ziplocs weigh nothing and take no space, and if you have them, they’ll always go to good use.

A folding knife with extras: A multitool is fine, but it typically leads to handling imbalances (too much weight in the grip makes for an unwieldy knife). We like folding blades like SOG’s Escape—the handle incorporates a line cutter for slicing through cordelette, the blade locks full and firmly, and it’s partially serrated, so you can use it to both cut and saw.

Compass: When the batteries die in your mobile or GPS, a compass keeps working. And, yes, that means you should know how to use it.

Emergency blanket: A “space” blanket is like a giant foil wrapper that packs to the size of a sandwich bag and is very light—and it can save your life. These bounce back a ton of heat: If you’ve underpacked for a campout, when spread over two sleeping bags in a tent, they’ll add 10 to 15 degrees of overnight warmth.

Mini playing cards: You never know when you might have to kill an afternoon waiting out the weather. A junior-sized deck of cards won’t save your life, but it will help lighten the mood.

Filed To: Adventure, Camping
Stand-up Paddleboarding 101

Stand-up paddleboarding is really just a matter of balance and form. If you can master those basics, you'll be golden. Photo: Michael Dawes/Flickr

Stand-up Paddleboarding 101

SUPs are a great way to explore your nearest lake or coastline. Just don’t get caught off guard when the tides change.

The first time I ever took a stand-up paddleboard on the open water was eight years ago in Clearwater, Florida. The idea was to paddle a quick mile from the coast to the white sand beaches of Caladesi Island State Park. The way out was a relaxing paddle, but by the time I needed to head back in the tide had changed and the offshore winds picked up. It took me hours of prone paddling—lying on my stomach and paddling with both arms—to make it back to the beach. When I did, I flopped over, panting and exhausted.

Don't repeat my mistake. Before you hit the open ocean, hone your skills on flat, calm water such as a lake or marina. Make sure you select a stable board that is at least 30 inches wide and 11 feet long. If you start with a board too small, you’ll fall a lot and spend most of your time in the water, disheartened.

Here are some tips to help you perfect your balance and form. Once you have that down, everything else will follow. 

  1. Stand in the middle of the board with your feet parallel and spread shoulder width apart. 
  2. Paddle with your whole body, not just your arms. Straighten your arms, bend your knees, twist your core, and engage your back. Always grip the paddle with one hand on the top and the other on the center of the shaft.
  3. Get the stroke right. Once the paddle passes your feet, you're essentially just shovelling water. The most power is attained by having a long forward reach, then finishing the stroke just past your feet.
  4. Focus on the horizon in the direction of where you want to go. Your body, and in turn the board, follows where you look. 
  5. When you’re standing on your SUP, you act like a sail. If the winds pick up and the water starts to get choppy, simply drop to your knees, sit, or even lie down on your board and paddle with your arms.

The Kit

Have the basics covered?  The Yeti Hopper 20 ($299.99) soft-sided cooler easily transports up to 12 cans with sturdy carrying straps and tie down points to secure it to your board. Unlike other soft-sided coolers, the Hopper is puncture-resistant, leak proof, and sports an anti-microbial liner that resists mildew. Plus. it keeps your beverages cold for days thanks to an inch of closed-cell foam insulation on the sides and 1.5 inches of on the bottom.

Make the most of those cold ones with the SUP Buddy Water Bottle Holder ($25), a removable koozie for cans and bottles. Suction cups and rip-and-stick straps make for easy mounting to the front of a stand up paddleboard. And finally, turn your lake paddle into a party with the EcoPebble ($59.99) waterproof Bluetooth speaker that pumps out up to seven hours of tunes, can be strapped to your board or pack, and, best of all, floats. 


Backpacking 101: Choosing Your Gear

For the sake of your back, put as much thought into balancing your pack as what you're stuffing in. Photo: Danka & Peter

Backpacking 101: Choosing Your Gear

Scrutinizing what kind of tent, sleeping bag, and pack you need for a multiday trip can be difficult. Here’s a comprehensive overview of how to find exactly what you need and assess it with confidence.

I’ve never been colder in a sleeping bag than on a hike-in campout in Washington State on the beach during one summer in college. Throughout the night, it likely never dipped below 50 degrees, but I was sleeping in a down model in the Pacific Northwest. The fog rolled in and soaked the bag, and I woke up freezing. 

Had I known that down and water don’t mix, I could have avoided a case of mild hypothermia. The takeaway here is simple: When you’re planning a backpacking trip, even if it’s just a one-nighter, doing some homework up front will save you major headaches when you’re on the trail. The rainy Northwest is a different experience altogether than the arid Southwest, for example, and understanding how to prepare and pack for various adventures is critical. Here are the five backpacking essentials you’ll need to take with you into the backcountry, and how to scrutinize them, starting with the ol’ sleeping bag:

1. Bag

Humidity and rainfall are perhaps the biggest factors in choosing a sleeping bag. Down is durable—a good down bag will be a warm bag for a decade or more—but it’s pricey. Water-resistant down will prevent the goose feathers in your bag from losing their loft (and therefore, warmth) in the wet. However, synthetic bags are far better at coping with moisture and remaining warm, and when you’re battling inclement weather or humidity, synthetic is the best bet. 

2. Sleeping Pad

Try to buy the pad at the same time you buy your bag. Ideally, you want the pad and the bag to work in tandem (some come fixed together as a unit). Why do you need a pad at all? Two reasons: The ground is hard, and rocks and roots will do mean things to your spine. Also, the ground sucks heat out of your body, so you need a buffer. Most pads use both air and foam to create a barrier your body can warm, then reflect that warmth back to you. If you’re going someplace cold, consider two layers of insulation to keep in even more heat.

3. Pack

The same considerations in picking a sleeping bag are relevant here: rainfall and humidity. Out east (and in the Pacific Northwest) you want a built-in rain cover. If you’re hiking in the drier West, you should be thinking about maximum cooling qualities, like a suspension system that keeps the body of the pack off your back. Go to a store and test several packs and ask the shopkeeper to weigh the pack down. Retailers like REI are experts at this.

4. Tent

What are the conditions where you’ll set your tent down? Mud? Snow? Sand? Will it be windy or rainy? These fundamental variables should dictate what kind of tent you get. You’ll be looking at descriptors like “three-season” and “four-season,” which indicate the robustness of a tent’s respective build and whether or not the thing was designed to battle 40-mph winds. For example, a four-season rig is meant for year-round use and tends to be more durable, but also heavier and burlier. Cooler options, however, often let you remove the rainfly (the outer shell that protects against rain). This means that, on those warm summer trips when there's nary a raincloud in sight, you can leave pieces behind and reduce weight on your back. 

Note: Always set up your tent at least once before you hit the trail—in your yard, your living room, wherever. There’s nothing worse than trying to set up a new tent on a dark, windy night.

5. Clothes

Cotton kills in the backcountry. Once it gets wet, it stays wet, which will make you cold and miserable. Instead go for synthetic or wool baselayers. The former are lightweight and durable, while the latter has a superb warmth-to-weight ratio and will fight odors for days. Which type you choose depends on the conditions you'll be hiking in.

Also, a down vest is a critical piece of gear for warmth. It weighs almost nothing and can be compressed to fit into a gallon Ziplock bag, which will keep it dry. (More about dressing in layers here.)

These are by no means the only considerations for aspiring backpackers, but they are the key pieces that make multiday trips possible. For more detailed notes on backpacking essentials, check out our notes on footwear, packing, and how to read the weather on the go.

4 Ways to Eat Better While Backpacking

S'mores are obvious. The rest of your meals are where things get tricky. Photo: mediaphotos/iStock

4 Ways to Eat Better While Backpacking

Nothing beats campfire cuisine, if you know what you’re doing

We’d pitched our tents on Assateague Island’s sandy shores, gawking at the wild ponies on the horizon and grilling hotdogs over an open flame. As night rolled in from across the Chesapeake Bay, we retired to our sleeping bags. 

Suddenly I awoke in the middle of the night to shrieks from my friend in the adjacent tent: “The ponies! They’re eating everything!”

“Ponies don’t eat hotdogs,” I replied, groggy and reluctantly unzipping myself from my cozy cocoon.

But I was mistaken. Ponies do eat hotdogs. And ketchup packets. And anything else they can get their oversized lips around. By the time we’d chased the carnivorous herd away, our supplies were all but gone. It was a painful way to learn what I consider to be the most important rule for eating in the great outdoors: Never trust any critter with your food—not even your camping companion.

But there are a few other important guidelines for enjoying a quality meal while on the trail. Eating real food, as opposed to freeze-dried kibbles—requires some foresight and planning, but it’s totally doable. For advice, we talked to Jen Smith, a pastry chef and avid backpacker and bicycle traveler, who breaks eating on the trail down into four simple steps:

Step One: Plan, Plan, Plan

First, figure out what type of trip you’re taking, how many miles per day you plan to cover, and how much weight you want to carry. The tips here are geared toward two-to-three-day backpacking trips, so we’re going to advise you against bringing your favorite 15-pound skillet. For more on packing light, check out Step Two.

Next, figure out how many calories you’ll need. According to the book Backcountry Nutrition, if you’re planning a “very active day” (think more than three hours of hiking with a pack on), take your body weight and multiply it by 25 to 30 calories. That should give you a good general estimate of what you’ll need—then plan to have an extra 500 calories on hand just in case you end up going longer or farther than planned.

Finally, figure out your “bonk” food. Sure, almonds and beef jerky may be what sound good while you’re packing in your living room, but have something you’ll want to scarf at the ready just in case. (Personally, I always have a snack-sized bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in the bottom of my pack.) Smith’s calorie-bomb go-to is a mixture of peanut butter, seeds, nuts, and honey in a plastic bag. “It doesn’t look pretty but it’s an amazing energy food ration.”

Step Two: Gather Your Gear

You can go overboard with camping cookware, especially if you’re car camping. But all you really need to enjoy a solid meal on the trail is a knife, a piece of cookware, a means of heating water, and a container to keep your food out of reach of animals.

For heating: The biggest questions here are what size stove you need and what kind of fuel you want to use. There’s a wide range, but the simplest system consists of an integrated canister stove, like JetBoil’s Group Cooking System ($119).

For eating: I thought I was so cool when I showed up on a trip in the Grand Canyon with a titanium spork. “It’s practically unbreakable!” I boasted to my dad. But when I reached in to stir my supper I realized the spork had a design flaw: metal gets very, very hot. Smith has a better idea: “I really like the old-school utensils that have wooden handles because you can stir without burning yourself.”

For cutting: A pocketknife is good for many things, but cutting carrots isn’t one of them. If you’re car camping, swing for the luxury of a real knife and a real cutting board. You’ll save yourself a ton of sawing and possibly even a finger. If you’re in the backcountry, use the knife on your multi-tool, but if at all possible go for a multi-tool that has a longer-than-average blade. The longer the blade the better leverage you’ll have when chopping things.

For storing: If there’s not a bear box nearby, you need to at the very least bring rope to hang your bags out of harm’s way when it’s time to hit the sack.

Step Three: Spice It Up

Last year, Smith and her husband biked around Newfoundland. There were stores along the way, but the pair arrived with a tube of curry paste and a few packets of dried coconut milk stashed in their bags. With a bit of water and the addition of a protein, the pair was able to make a bold coconut curry.

Likewise, spices don’t weigh much and can add a ton of interest to otherwise humdrum food. Consider bring a small packet of granulated garlic, smoked paprika, or cumin. 

Step Four: Don’t Forget Breakfast

Cramming a granola bar while breaking down camp is efficient. But if you’ve got extra time before your summit attempt, a hot breakfast will get you farther before you need to refuel. Smith likes cream of wheat mixed with an egg (or egg substitute), a bit of brown sugar, and roasted, salted sunflower seeds. “It’s the perfect sweet and salty mix,” she says. Oatmeal is great too—but make sure you add some sort of protein or fat to it (like peanut butter) to keep you going for more than an hour.  

As far as caffeine goes, Starbucks’ Via instant coffee packets are surprisingly acceptable—especially after a few days in the backcountry. If you need the real stuff though, a lightweight pour-over coffee filter is your best bet. Just remember to pack out your grounds. 

How to Drink in the Woods

Pick your vice and pack it intelligently. Photo: Pekic

How to Drink in the Woods

From beer to bourbon, here’s how to cut loose (safely) while camping

Stashing a cold beer in the bottom of your pack at the beginning of an outing always seems like such a good idea. I’m going to really want this, you think as you squish it between your real trail necessities.

But by the time you arrive at camp after a long day hiking, that beer will undoubtedly have lost its luster, having warmed up and been shaken around all day. Suddenly, you feel foolish for hauling that extra 12-ounce weight up a mountain.

There are drawbacks to backpacking with booze. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it causes your body to produce more urine. That, in turn, dehydrates you. The more you drink the more water you’re going to need to drink to compensate. In fact, if you’re in a place where water is scarce, it’s smart to skip the booze completely.

But gathering around a campfire is obviously much more fun with an alcoholic beverage, and we’re here to show you how to do it in the best way possible. Since powdered alcohol isn’t set to hit shelves on a wide scale until sometime later this year (and when it does it will likely be heavily regulated), you’ve got to be smart about how you want to get silly. Here we recommend the best ways to backpack with booze, whether you’re thinking of bringing a can of beer, a bottle of wine, or a handle of the hard stuff:


It performs well even after a long day in the knapsack and keeps you warm at night. But if you’re thinking of schlepping liquor, skip the glass bottle. Pack plastic flasks (yes, I said flasks plural) or mini bottles. “The mini bottles keep you from going overboard,” says Mike Stevens, a former chef, avid outdoorsman, and man of incredible self control. Liquor also has the added benefit of giving you more bang for its weight than beer or wine, and every ounce counts on the trail.


Don’t even think about taking that 750ml glass bottle into the backcountry. The alternative, as you may have guessed, is packing a bladder pouch. But maybe a bellyful of Franzia Refreshing White at the end of a long day doesn’t sound appealing. No worries. Boxed wine is experiencing a surge of interest, and a corresponding uptick in quality, so you should be able to find a quality boxed cab. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, seek out canned wine. Yup, it’s now a thing. Denver’s Infinite Monkey Theorem winery, for example, offers a white, a red, a moscato and a rose all in Red Bull-sized cans.  


It’s often the least attractive option because of its poor weight-to-drunk ratio, but new innovations are making beer a viable option on a backpacking trip. Backcountry Beverages, for example, makes a beer concentrate which, when mixed with water in a water bottle and left to carbonate, makes a pretty convincing pale ale or stout. You’ll need to buy the company’s special carbonator bottle ($39.95) if you want your hops with bubbles, but the end product is actually pretty good.

How to Start a Fire

Don't toss all your logs on at once when the fire starts burning more steadily, or you'll destroy all you've built. Photo: Mathias Erhart/Flickr

How to Start a Fire

From survival strategies to kindling tricks to impress your friends, we’ll cover it all so you can make sure you’re warm and well s’mores-ed

Every great campfire is built using three materials: fuel, flame, and air. Simple enough, right? But in spite of the fact that we had a lighter, a large metal fire pit, and an Eagle Scout on our camping trip, our group of five seasoned outdoorsmen couldn’t get a fire started on a cold December night near Death Valley last year.

Our resident scout had the right idea: He piled a mound of dry grass in the pit, then built a tiny log cabin-style structure of chopstick-sized kindling he’d gathered around the mound. He had a stack of slightly larger pieces of dried wood at the ready to toss in once his framework caught fire. He lit the grass with a lighter. We all held our breaths.

It worked! Until it didn’t. An overeager member of our group dropped in too-large cuts of wood, smothering the nascent flame. In spite of the ample kindling around us, stubbornness trumped logic and we decided to blow on the weak embers for the next 30 minutes—a futile exercise. The fire never returned. Smores dreams ruined. We went to bed cold and grumpy.

Not allowing a fire to grow to a substantial size before throwing in the big stuff is one of the most common mistakes that new campfire-builders make. Whether you are a complete novice or a seasoned fire starter, below are some tips and best practices to make sure you can get a fire going when it counts.

For Beginners: 

Step 1: Gather wood. You’ll need small, medium, and larger pieces of wood. You’ll also need a few handfuls of small kindling—think toothpick sized twigs and dried pine needles. It’s better to have too much than too little of the small stuff.

Step 2: Place something that will burn well, like balled-up newspaper, at the center of the fire pit, then build a small structure of your kindling around it. There is an age-old debate over whether the log cabin (twigs stacked in an ascending square shape) or the teepee (twigs leaned against each other in a cone shape) is more effective. The short answer is: They both work. Just make sure whichever structure you create offers plenty of space in the center to give the fire air. 

Step 3: Light the material inside the structure, then sit back and be patient. Blow on the flame a bit to stoke it if need be, and add a few of the smaller sticks in your firewood collection, but give your creation at least a couple of minutes to grow before adding larger sticks. Blowing too hard on a small flame with extinguish it, as will tossing on the larger logs. 

Step 4: Once your fire is consuming forearm-thick sticks, drop one or two larger logs on there, gently, one at a time. Don’t throw them on there or you risk destroying all you’ve built! 

Step 5: Sit back and enjoy. Once the fire is going it doesn’t need constant maintenance. 

For Experts: 

You’ve got 100 successful campfires under your belt and you’re ready to take it up a notch. You want to get good enough to be able to strike up a fire on a backpacking trip without newspaper or a lighter. But while starting a fire with a bow-drill or another friction method sounds really sexy, it takes real training and a great deal of practice to become proficient. Unless you plan to learn from a professional survival instructor and plan to up on the skills, we don’t suggest depending on them. 

Instead, start by practicing the one-match fire, which is pretty much what it sounds like: confining yourself to a single match to start your next campfire. If you can consistently build fires using only one match, it is a great indicator that you will be able to make a potentially life-saving fire when it counts. Make a ton of them—safely of course—and when it gets easy, add little challenges like using wet kindling or less starter material. Learning how to coax a fire out of sub optimal fuel is fun when it is in your fire pit and the stakes are low, but you can take that knowledge and use it in the field when you are cold and potentially desperately need the heat.

Pro Tip: As a contingency plan, when you’re preparing for a wilderness trip, pack a Ziplock with cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. They work as starter material in a pinch. Simply pick out a cotton ball, pull it apart so it has some loft, and light it. They’re surprisingly robust. I have had one burn for more than a minute in a rainstorm, which made the difference between us going to bed warm or going to cold that evening.

Filed To: Outdoor Skills, Camping