After hiking for hours, soaking in magnificent mountain views, you finally reach the end destination, an immaculate glacial lake. As the sun begins to set, instead of hiking back to the car, you set up a tent and settle in for the evening. Overnight hiking is the culmination of both day hiking and camping. It allows you to experience ultimate solitude, feeling small, surrounded by the larger ecosystem. Overnight hiking involves a long distance hike, carrying enough provisions for 48 hours of survival, and of course, spending the night in the great outdoors. If you feel confident in the ultimate adventure, then this article is for you. I will be discussing how to overcome common challenges, setting up camp, tips for a well balanced meals, and outdoor hygiene.
Finding the Perfect Trail
Before undertaking an overnight hike, be sure you are able to complete a journey of such magnitude. Check out my “Beginner’s Guide to Hiking” for an overview of the best hiking tips.
An overnight hike is not like staying in a hotel, it is an experience that separates you from society. You will be completely self-sufficient, relying only on the gear you brought and the people you are with. Because this style of camping involves a long day hike, your camping site is generally in a remote area. Devoid of cell phone reception, light pollution, and the sound of cars, buckle in for a backcountry adventure.
The first aspect of your overnight hike is finding the right trail. Look for large conservation areas, National Parks, National Forests, and even some local conservation areas will be prime territory. Be sure the space is large enough and allows for overnight camping. Some smaller regional parks may outlaw camping, it is important do your research and discover which areas allow for overnight hikes. Use the park’s official website to apply for permits, if necessary. The official website will also have fire postings, wildlife sightings, and other useful information for your trip. Once the location is verified, the hike begins.
Setting up Camp
After a long day of hiking, it feels good to stop and rest for the night. Having an enjoyable evening is dependent on how camp is set and where it is located. Even if the campsite is predetermined, there is always flexibility to take full advantage of your surroundings. Try to find a camping area with a small stream or spring within walking distance. Hauling water to camp will quickly become a chore, a close water source will prove to be a luxury.
Upon reaching the camping area, your first priorities will be finding the right spot to pitch a tent, light a fire, and do some cooking.
Where to pitch your tent/shelter
Whether you have a tent, tarp, or hammock to sleep in, look for the following features when setting up shelter.
- Stay away from stagnant water and swampy areas. Always avoid low lying areas, especially with damp and moist ground. Insects, particularly mosquitoes, will breed in these places. Even if your tent may come equipped with a bug net, you will be at the mercy of insects during any outdoor activity.
- Find high ground. A good place to camp can be on a top of a small hill, separate yourself from the lowest, wettest areas. If there is a location with a breeze, the wind will keep insects away.
- Look for a flat area. Pitching a tent on flat ground will prevent you from slipping into the walls of the tent. Sliding downhill leads to an uncomfortable night’s sleep and affects the waterproofness of your shelter. Unnecessary pressure against a tent’s wall will allow water to soak through to the interior.
- Be careful of dead tree branches and potential tree falls. Look above your camping spot to scan for timber that could potentially break off during a storm. Dead trees and dead branches are hazards waiting to fall. Move to more exposed areas if the trees above you look dangerous.
- Remove any branches or small rocks from the area. Pitching your tent on top of branches and stones can make your night extremely uncomfortable. It is good practice to clean up the area, removing potential bumps and lumps. It not only saves your back but prevents your gear from needless wear and tear.
- Hang a clothesline. Drying out the socks and clothes you just hiked in all day will make putting them on again a much more pleasant experience.
- Customize your camp. Depending on how much gear you brought, hanging tarps or setting up tables are your next steps. Once the shelter is erected, feel free to customize the camping area.
Fire and Social Space
When creating a social space, using a fire ring as the focal point is probably the best option. If one is not already built, find a flat area large enough to allow for all your camping partners to congregate. Keep the fire at least 90 meters from the tents, this will prevent embers melting the nylon fabric.
Building a campfire ring is a straightforward process. The purpose of the fire ring is to control fire and prevent it from spreading. No need to make it too large, .5 meter x .5 meter is plenty of space for a good sized inferno. Large rocks make the perfect construction materials, build the circle, leaving no gaps between the stones.
The ring itself only needs to be 10cm high, maximum. You are not trying to stop flying embers, you are preventing the spread of flames and smoldering coals. Once your ring is built up, remove any brush or dried leaves from the edges as an extra security measure. Once your fire ring is in good working order, it’s time to build a fire.
Begin building the fire by lighting small branches and dry grasses. It is a good idea to collect many handfuls of the smallest, most flammable materials; it burns faster than you’d expect. As the flames grow stronger, slowly add larger diameter sticks, increasing the size of the fuel as the flames continue to grow. To keep the fire hot, stack the sticks in a teepee shape. Fire burns hotter going uphill, this shape utilizes the flame’s maximum potential, allowing for a fast growing campfire. It takes practice but if cavemen could build one, so can you. For a step by step guide on how to build your campfire, read my guide “How to Properly Build a Campfire“.
Understanding how to create your own potable water on an overnight hike is a mandatory skill. It’s simply impossible to carry enough water on a trip of such duration. There are plenty of methods and tools available, listed below are the most common types of water purification systems.
- Water filters. Small, handheld filters that purify water. Some are hand pumped, others are gravity fed, look for a model that fits both your budget and your hiking style. Be sure the filter works well enough to rid the water of both bacteria and viruses.
- A very common method, a couple drops of iodine in your water bottle will make nearly all water drinkable; from puddles to rivers. Having a strong taste and leaving particulates in the water, this old school method of water purification is losing popularity.
- UV light. A neat method to kill viruses and bacteria, a small light, resembling a flashlight, is dunked into a water bottle killing all bacteria and viruses. It runs on batteries and leaves particulates but its speed and lack of flavor gives this method a cult following.
- Probably the simplest and oldest method for making drinking water, boiling your water is always a good option. You can filter water through a bandana or fine cloth to remove particulates before boiling. To properly sanitize, bring the water to a rolling boil and keep it that way for 3 minutes. Waiting for it to cool down, and the fuel necessary for the job are the main drawbacks to boiling. However, the sheer amount of water produced using this method makes it very popular with large groups.
It is tempting to eat hot dogs, drink beer, and live off potato chips while camping. Although not necessarily unenjoyable, it is certainly unsustainable. To really enjoy the outdoors, knowing how to prepare, cook, and then eat a well cooked meal is a skill worth perfecting.
What to bring
Depending on how much time you have to cook a meal, your dinner can range anywhere from dried pasta and beans to fresh vegetables and meat. For the purpose of this article, I will be assuming you are not long distance hiking, allowing us to focus on a more luxurious outdoor meal.
This style of cooking takes full advantage of the campfire built in your new fire ring. Let the fire burn hot adding logs, then let it slowly burn out, turning into logs into hot embers. The evenly burning coals created are perfect for cooking.
Aluminum foil is a great tool to have for cooking. Not only is it lightweight and easy to
carry but it allows food to be cooked directly on coals. Wrapping potatoes in aluminum and sticking them on the embers for 1.5 hours will yield a perfectly cooked spud. If you like corn, simply throw the entire ear onto the flames. Leaving the husk will protect the kernels from burning and although the outside may look charred, the interior will be sweet and juicy.
Using a camping grill is another great way to utilize the campfire. These consist of nothing more than a grate that can be set over the flames. You can build up stones around the edge of the fire to use as the base of the grill plate. Using this contraption, you can feel confident cooking steaks, hamburgers, and anything that tastes better over an open flame.
Even though the fire is being harnessed, it is still smart to bring a separate burner and pot. This allows for boiling pasta, rice, or some other dish that calls for a more controlled cooking environment. Cooking stoves usually incorporate hydrocarbons as a fuel source and can be extremely lightweight.
A Simple Recipe
Cooking a healthy, delicious, and balanced meal is entirely possible, even while overnight hiking. Try this recipe on your next camping trip:
American Style Chicken Dinner
- Baby potatoes
- Brown Rice
- Chicken breast
- Various seasonings
Cook the asparagus, onions, garlic, and baby potatoes together. Wrap them in aluminum foil, feel free to add seasonings and oil to the medley. Place the aluminum packet over hot coals for at least an hour until fully cooked.
The chicken breast can be cooked in a few different ways. Either by wrapping in aluminum and placed on the coals or with a grill over the fire.
As for the rice, boil it in a separate pot over a small burner. A good trick is to use parboiled rice, it cooks in minutes. Once the food is ready to eat, serve on a plate and enjoy a campfire cooked meal in the great outdoors.
Wildlife Safety Tips
Because you will be cooking outdoors, the smells will attract animals to the camping area. Feeding wildlife is dangerous for both people and animals. Animals can be very destructive, destroying gear and even biting humans, always avoid wildlife contact whenever possible.
Animals conditioned to human food exhibit problem behaviors. They lose the ability to survive without handouts, leading many to die during winter months and periods of no hiking. Wildlife can also lose their fear of humans, which increases encounters, inevitably ending in the killing of the animal. By following a few simple tips, you can help mitigate animal encounters.
- Cook at least 90 meters from your sleeping location. This distance is important and animals attracted will congregate towards the cooking area instead of your shelter.
- Hang all food. Any food you do have should be hung from a tree to keep it out of reach from animals. Also known as a bear bag, this method prevents raccoons, mice, and other vermin from stealing your food.
- Wash all cooking tools. Any pots, pans, and utensils incorporated into your cooking should be washed thoroughly. Cleaning should be done at least 90 meters away from camp and food scraps need to be buried.
Even if all these steps are taken, there is always a possibility of wildlife entering the campsite. When this happens it is important to remain calm and ultimately chase the animal away. Remember, these are wild animals who are focused on survival, they are looking to steal your food, not hunt you.
As a human, you are the ultimate predator, animals are inherently scared of you. Yelling, making noise, and even throwing rocks will be a successful deterrent. For larger animals like bears, it is sometimes necessary to use pepper spray to scare them off. Do some research on the area you will be hiking in and see if there are reports of problem animals.
Just because you are sleeping outside doesn’t mean you have to smell like it. Staying clean prevents body odor, injuries, sickness, and will make you happier. Because camping brings you to areas free of plumbing and water heaters, cleaning yourself and disposing of waste can be a unique process.
The most commonly asked question is always how to poop outside. Although simple, it is important to dispose of human waste safely to avoid contaminating water supplies. The following steps and techniques will make you an expert nature pooper in no time!
- Dig a hole. This is an important first step and it is crucial you dig the hole before you start to poop. Make sure the hole is deep enough to completely cover the entire process. Find a spot that is off trail and away from the campsite, reducing human waste near high use areas.
- Stay at least 100 meters away from water sources. Even if the fecal matter is buried, it can still percolate into water sources.
- Clean yourself. Cleaning yourself after the fact is an important step of the process that most blogs fail to mention. If you are hiking, many kilometers a day, the last thing you want to do is irritate the friction zone with paper or, shudder, The absolute best material to use for wiping are baby wipes. Not only are they gentle but their cleaning properties will keep you hiking for miles!
- Cover and bury the waste once you are finished. Use dirt, leaves, and finally rocks to completely bury the refuge. This will help keep the woods clean and aid in composting.
Just because there is no indoor plumbing, doesn’t mean running water doesn’t exist. Take full advantage of lakes, rivers, and streams to keep yourself bathed. The water might be chilly but having a cold mountain bath is the most refreshing experience one can have. To minimize time in the water, quickly rinse yourself in the body of water. Lather yourself with soap, and then rinse off. This is a quick and efficient method to bathe in the outdoors. Use biodegradable soap, it still cleans and has minimal impact on the waterways.
Bathing is also an important part of preventing Lyme disease and tick bites. Ticks take between 12-24 hours to completely latch on, giving you time to remove them. Ticks are also dependent on air, if you submerge yourself underwater, they will not be able to absorb oxygen, forcing them to drop off. Even if the water is cold, bathing yourself is an important activity to partake in while overnight hiking.
Tip: Don’t forget to brush your teeth!
Overnight Hiking is for Everyone
Hopefully, after reading through this article, you feel confident and ready for a multi-day hike. Even though it’s outside, it is entirely possible to keep a comfortable and healthy lifestyle. By correctly setting up your shelter, properly building a fire, cooking healthy meals, and practicing proper hygiene, it is easy to become an outdoors expert. I hope to see you out there!