Timber Wolf, Lake Superior, Ontario

A lone timber wolf greets
paddlers along the north shore
of Lake Superior, Canada
(Photo by Michael Neiger)


The Indian . . .
stands free
and unconstrained
in Nature,
is her inhabitant
and not her guest,
and wears her easily
and gracefully.
But the civilized man
has the habits
of the house.
His house is a prison.
   -- Henry D. Thoreau
   Journal, 1841


There is
no other
door to knowledge
than the door
nature opens;
and there is
no truth
except the truths
we discover in nature.
   -- Luther Burbank


In nature
there are
neither rewards
nor punishments;
there are
only consequences.
   -- Robert B. Ingersoll


Nature is
man's teacher.
She unfolds her treasures
to his search,
unseals his eye,
illumes his mind,
and purifies his heart;
an influence breathes
from all the sights
and sounds
of her existence.
   -- Alfred B. Street


I derive more
of my subsistence
from the swamps
which surround
my native town
than from
the cultivated gardens
in the village.
   -- Henry D. Thoreau


We talk
of our mastery
of nature,
which sounds
very grand;
but the fact is
we respectfully
adapt ourselves,
to her ways.
   -- Clarence S. Day


while ye have
the light,
lest darkness
come upon you.
   -- The Holly Bible:
   John 12:35


is no sentimentalist--
does not cosset
or pamper us.
We must see
that the world
is rough and surly,
and will not mind
a man or a woman,
but swallows
your ships
like a grain of dust.
The cold,
of persons,
tingles your blood,
benumbs your feet,
freezes a man
like an apple.
The diseases,
the elements,
respect not persons.
   -- Ralph W. Emerson


Fire is
the most tolerable
third party.
   -- Henry D. Thoreau
   Journal, 1853


They [wood stumps]
warmed me twice--
once while
I was splitting them,
and again
when they were on fire.
   -- Henry D. Thoreau


If people
persist in trespassing
the grizzlies' territory,
we must accept
that the grizzlies,
from time to time,
will harvest
a few trespassers.
   -- Edward Abbey


Our greatest glory
is not
in never failing,
but in
rising up
every time we fail.
   -- Ralph W. Emerson


In nature
things move violently
to their place,
and calmly
in their place.
   -- Francis Bacon


Nature always
springs to the surface
and manages to show
what she is.
It is vain
to stop
or try
to drive her back.
She breaks through
every obstacle,
pushes forward,
and at last
makes herself a way.
   -- Nicolas


on intimate terms
with nature,
one inadvertently
becomes different
from other people.
Her silent language
persuades one gently
of the insufficiency
of all human speech.
   -- Jean Rostand



The Rucksack Masthead
By Michael A. Neiger, Marquette, Michigan
Wilderness tripper: backpacking, winter camping, swift-water canoeing
Web site URL: http://therucksack.tripod.com • E-mail: mneiger@hotmail.com
Contents copyright © 1984-2007 by Michael A. Neiger • All rights reserved.


A RuckSack primer on...

Hints and tips
on how to have
a safer, more
wilderness trip

By Michael A. Neiger
Copyright 2002

Last revised October 13, 2004

River Fording
Mary Powell of Flint
fords a deep hole in
the McCormick Tract's
Yellow Dog River,
Marquette Co.,
on a May '01
CUPG Sierra Club
backpacking trip
(Photo by Mary Powell)

Contents of page

   Wilderness travel
      Low impact techniques
      Bushwhacking technique
      Map weatherproofing
      Insect management
      Waterproofing your gear
      River Crossing
   Nutrition & hydration
      Weatherproofing food
      Hanging food
      Stove maintenance
      Use a lighter, not matches
      Prevent stove-ignited forest fires
      Cotton clothing kills--leave it home
      Layer clothing to stay warm and dry
      Hot-weather considerations
      Frozen boots
   Health & Safety
      Waste management
      Water purification
      Emergency signaling

Looking for
wilderness tripping
equipment and
For 100's of sources for wilderness tripping equipment and supplies, visit the sources for gear page on this Web site.

Need help
finding a book?
Trying to buy a new or used copy of a book, but can't locate one? Want to find a library somewhere in the country that will lend you the book at no cost? Then visit the handy book finder page on this Web site.

a book, catalog,
or Web site
If you know of a useful outdoor-related book, catalog, or Web site not listed on this Web site, e-mail the book's title, subtitle, author, publisher, date of publication, and short description; or the catalog's address and phone number; or the Web site's URL to Michael Neiger at mneiger@hotmail.com.

** Recommended




Low impact techniques

Always practice low-impact-travel techniques in the wilderness. If it's safe, legal, and adjacent to water, a very small Indian-style fire may be appropriate. In Canada, it's not uncommon for a total fire ban to be in effect during dry periods.

A good way to protect the ground from permanent damage is to build a mound fire--a small fire built on top of four to six inches of sand, gravel, or mud. Never burn twist-ties, which litter the ground with wire, or aluminum-lined food packages, as the aluminum turns into thousands of tiny pieces of shinny litter. Never bury anything--pack it out. Take only pictures, leave only footprints.

For more information about low impact camping and travel, contact Leave No Trace, Inc., at 1-800-332-4100, or point your Internet browser to www.lnt.org.

Several good books on this subject include: Leave No Trace--A Practical Guide to the New Wilderness Etiquette by Annette McGivney (The Mountaineers, 1998); Soft Paths--How to Enjoy the Wilderness Without Harming it by David Cole and Bruce Hampton (NOLS/Stackpole Books, 1995); Leave No Trace--Minimum Impact Outdoor Recreation by Will Harmon (Falcon Publishing Company, Inc., 1997); The Basic Essentials of Minimizing Impact on the Wilderness by Michael Hodgson (ICS Books, Inc., 1991); and Minimum Impact Camping by Curt Schatz and Dan Seemon (Adventure Publications, 1994).


Bushwhacking technique

Off-trail hiking requires a different approach than on-trail hiking. To protect the ankles and knees on irregular terrain, sturdy, all-leather, boots are essential. Gaiters should be used to prevent debris, mud, standing water, rain, and snow from entering the boot.

Since off-trail hiking involves penetrating thick, brushy areas, minimize pack snagging by packing your rucksack so it is both low in height and narrow in width. Consider removing unused pack-frame extensions as they tend to snag on branches. Sleeping pads should be mounted vertically and low to prevent snagging. They should also be enclosed in a stuff sack lined with a heavy-duty plastic bag to keep them dry and prevent damage by sharp sticks. Sticks and brush will tear unprotected plastic bags to shreds.

Note: safety glasses are also recommended to protect your eyes. A walking stick--commercially made or improvised--can help prevent serious injury when you get tired or you're crossing difficult terrain.


Map weatherproofing

Primary and backup topographic maps should be waterproofed with a commercial map sealer, such as Map Seal. Thompson's Water Seal, which is sold by the gallon at most hardware stores, works very well too. Simply paint the sealer on the map until it is wet, wipe off the excess from both sides with a paper towel to prevent it from becoming sticky or gummy when dry, and hang the map from a rope with clothespins to dry.

To further protect a map, cover the backside with clear contact paper or shelf paper. In the bush, maps should be carried in one-gallon-size, freezer-grade, zip-lock plastic bags. Carried this way, the maps can still be read through the plastic and they will float. A zip-locked photocopy of your maps should be stowed deep in your pack for backup.

If your maps aren't waterproofed and protected properly, they'll turn to mush when they get damp.


Insect management

In the bush, many experienced wilderness trippers have found that 100-percent DEET is by far the single most effective strategy for controlling black flies and mosquitoes. Where possible, apply to clothing as opposed to skin. Loose fitting, light colored, tightly woven garments offer the best protection against biting insects. Keep in mind that light-colored clothing is much cooler than dark colored clothing. Avoid black as it may predispose you to hyperthermia in hot weather.

BLACK FLIES--Since black flies tend to crawl under clothing instead of biting through it, pant legs should be tucked in and DEET should be applied to garment openings such as cuffs, collars, front shirt openings, etc.

MOSQUITOES--Since mosquitoes tend to bite through clothing, apply DEET to places where clothing lies flat against the skin--like the shoulders, upper back, inner thighs, knees, etc. Because mosquitoes can bite through some lightweight, loosely woven fabrics, it may be necessary to wear an additional loose layer to prevent through-and-through bug bites.

Green "bug coils" or "Pic" work very well for keeping a tarp free of insects or clearing a tent of bugs. However, a fully-enclosed, fireproof container must be used or these coils will start a fire (Campmor nos. 81316 & 22147). A simple head net or a 4- by 4-foot square of mosquito netting can also make life worth living.

Sprayed on clothing, Permethrin repellent is reportedly effective at repelling insects for two weeks (Campmor no. 56624). However, never apply Permethrin directly on skin. Those particularly bothered by insect bites may get some itch and pain relief with one of the post-bite products available (Campmor no. 82166).

Note: if you're depending on a non-DEET or low-concentration-DEET repellent, make sure you carry a one-ounce bottle of 100 percent DEET just in case your favorite repellent lets you down deep in the bush.


Waterproofing your gear

A good way to waterproof the contents of a backpack is to first line the large compartments with huge, heavy-duty, contractor-type garbage bags. These plastic bags are tough enough that with reasonable care they will work quite well. Punctures can be repaired with duct tape.

The second step is to line each of your nylon stuff sacks with small but tough garbage compactor bags. An even better way to use these smaller bags and prevent tearing them with your fingernails or zipper pulls to: 1) stuff gear into a nylon stuff sack, 2) insert this stuff sack in the garbage compactor bag, and 3) place this unit in another, slightly larger, nylon stuff sack. This way, the compactor bag, which serves as the waterproof barrier, is protected from both internal and external abrasion. Avoid the temptation to use fragile residential garbage bags as they are too prone to tearing and punctures.

A nylon pack cover will offer further protection. It will also reduce the weight of your backpack since a dry pack weighs less than a rain-soaked one. Lightweight, 4-ounce models made of 1.3-ounce silicone-imprenated ripstop nylon are now available (Campmor no. 60858).


River crossing

Nike Aqua Socks are a good option for crossing streams. They weigh half what a pair of Teva sandals do and fewer rocks end up between your foot and the sandal. Most of the off-brand aqua socks don't have a rigid sole like the Nike's which is very important on rocky streambeds. The addition of an ankle tie will prevent aqua socks from being sucked off in mud or quicksand.



Labeling common items--such as Nalgene water bottles--for easy personal identification is helpful in large groups. Different colored tape works well, especially when a tripper's last name is included.



Weatherproofing food

To prevent moisture from destroying your food, use zip-lock bags and plastic bread-type bags to waterproof individual items. These individual units should then be secured in a nylon stuff sack which is lined with a tough "garbage compactor" bag. This double waterproofing technique will also minimize food odors that can create problems with bears and other varmints.


Hanging food

Once your food is weatherproofed as noted above, it should be suspended 10 feet off the ground, 4 feet below any limbs, and 4 feet out from surrounding tree trunks. While a single, 50-foot-piece of 1/8-inch rope will be sufficient in most situations, a second 50-foot-length of rope may be needed in challenging areas where you'll be forced to suspend your food between two trees.

A clean camp goes a long way to preventing problems with bears and smaller varmints. Avoid spilled food and clean up anything you happen to spill. While most people focus on bears, smaller animals--such as mice, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, fox, coyotes, and even wolves--can also create problems and damage equipment.


Stove maintenance

Reduce stove problems by doing the following BEFORE A TRIP. Flush and clean out the fuel tank, all fuel bottle(s), jet, and fuel line. Filter ALL fuel with a Coleman-type filter/funnel. Lightly oil pump leather. Light your stove and test it for proper operation BEFORE A TRIP. Carry a complete repair kit with WATERPROOFED INSTRUCTIONS.

To prevent the introduction of dirt into MSR-type stove orifices, cover the fuel bottle pump and exposed end of the stove hose with tough baby-bottle-type plastic liners secured with rubber bands. Practice field stripping and cleaning your stove at home--read the directions.


Use a lighter, not matches

Avoid using matches as they inevitably create litter and they've started many an accidental fire. Instead, reserve matches for backup use and rely on an adjustable-flame butane lighter which will last all season. A lighter with an adjustable flame will function much better in colder weather than one without, especially if it's kept warm by taping it to a loop of shock cord hung around your neck.


Prevent stove-ignited forest fires

MSR-type stoves and solid-fuel Esbit pocket stoves have started numerous ground fires in the past. DO NOT USE THEM ON SURFACES COVERED WITH COMBUSTIBLE MATERIALS such pine needles, leaves, small twigs, or grass.

To prevent scarring the ground or starting a disastrous ground fire, gather some mud, dirt, gravel, or a flat rock and then build up a one-inch-thick layer of this material under your stove. Stream banks and overturned trees are good sources for this type of noncombustible mineral soil. On top of this mound, place a small, lightweight square of 1/8-inch-thick plywood, fiberboard, or balsa wood.



Cotton clothing kills--leave it home

Because damp or wet cotton clothing has killed many an unsuspecting wilderness tripper in the past, cotton garments should not be worn or carried in the wilderness. Instead, rely on garments made of wool and synthetic materials.


Layer clothing to stay warm and dry

Ideally, all of your clothing should be roomy enough so that every piece of clothing can be layered together in the worst of conditions. As you warm up, or cool down, you'll simply remove or add layers as needed. Keep in mind that three 1/4-inch layers are warmer than one 3/4-inch layer since the multiple layers create additional pockets of trapped air.

Avoid down and cotton as when they're damp or wet, they're useless at best, deadly at worst. Instead, wear polypropylene underwear against your skin and use synthetic or wool garments for insulation and wind protection.


Hot-weather considerations

Loose fitting, light-colored garments are much cooler than dark- colored items. Avoid dark colors--especially black--as it may predispose you to hyperthermia in hot weather.


Frozen boots

During colder weather, sweaty or damp boots should be stored in the foot of your sleeping bag to keep them from becoming frozen iceboxes in the morning. To keep your sleeping bag clean and dry, simply brush your boots off and insert them in the sleeping bag stuff sack, which you've turned inside out. Putting the boots in a plastic bag can further protect your sleeping bag. Once stuffed, stow the boots in the foot of your sleeping bag.



--Knotted pull-cords on zipper pulls makes them easier to grasp. Nylon boot laces work very well for this purpose.



Waste management

Feces should be buried in a six-inch-deep cat-hole located at least 100 feet (25 right-foot paces) from trails, campsites, and surface water. Since animals frequently excavate these cat-holes, sometimes it helps to obstruct their efforts with a few well-placed logs, rocks, and other debris as long as it looks natural and does not draw attention to it.

Never burn toilet paper during snow-free periods as numerous, disastrous fires have been started this way--either bury it or pack it out. Use RV-type toilet paper as it disintegrates easier. Look for it in the camping departments at K-Mart and Wal-Mart.

To learn more about this subject, read Kathleen Meyer's How to Shit in the Woods--An environmentally sound approach to a lost art (Ten Speed Press, 1994). See the Low Impact Techniques section above for additional resources.


Water purification

For more information about this subject--especially on how to use iodine tablets--visit the water purification page on this Web site.




Emergency signaling

The universal distress signal in the wilderness is 3 of anything: 3 bright night fires, 3 smoky daytime fires, 3 whistle blasts, etc. If you're waiting to be rescued, position yourself along a trail, in an opening in the forest canopy, or at the edge of a waterway--in other words, move to a place where rescuers are likely to recon first.


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In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.
— John Muir 1838-1914, Alaska Wilderness, 1890

Content Copyright © by Michael A. Neiger
All rights reserved.
Comments? Suggestions? Dead links? Inaccurate info?
Contact the WebMaster at mneiger@hotmail.com