Smooth Operator: How to Maximize Backpacking Efficiency with Garrett Martin
Words and Photos by Garrett Martin
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Superbud, Garrett "Pricepoint" Martin (@somedudewalking), has picked up a thing or two about using time wisely on his thru hike of the Appalachian Trail and this summer's journey up the Pacific Crest Trail. When life is about constant movement, shortcuts and workarounds are inevitably created and implemented to help keep things running nicely in a fluid, forward direction. He was kind enough to punch a few into his phone and send them our way.
DISCLAIMER: These tips will only get you so far; your physical ability and conditioning take time and training to change. This article is purely a how to get more efficient with your day to enable more time for hiking to your own capability. Mileages and difficulty vary from trail to trail, and by no means is this a complete list of ways to do things or techniques to use.
Testing, testing, 1, 2. Is this thing on? Ok. Ladies and gentlemen, I am here today to talk to you about EFFICIENCY.
You don't have to hike faster to hike farther. All it takes is a little bit of trimming the fat on your setups and systems and spending a little less time in camp (duh).
Wouldn't you like to hike a few more miles than you already are? Covering more ground throughout the day gives you more views and time to enjoy the trail, and that's the point, isn't it?
What I'm about to tell you should increase your daily mileage by five to ten miles per day depending on what aspects you choose to employ. Hiking is all about style and personal preference. Don't feel like you have to do everything listed or hike this way to reach some arbitrary achievement. Some of you reading this might even scoff because you hike 40-mile days and don't even brush your teeth before hitting the trail. To those of you, this might be as worthwhile as sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner kid's table to wax poetic about crayons and juice.
First, some context.
Recently, my wife Honeybear! and I were at a dinner with some other hikers talking about how many miles we were hiking per day. When we stated we sat around 25, one couple told me they wanted to do similar distances but didn't know how they could get any more past the 20 miles a day they were doing.
I asked them what time they woke up, got out of camp, and started walking on trail. "Up at 6 am and on trail by 7 am" they said. "That's not too bad," I replied. "What time are you ending your day and getting into camp?" "About 5:30 pm." I couldn't help but laugh as it didn't get dark until around 8:45 pm, and these earnest walkers were actively letting their daylight burn out. In this example alone, you can see how just adding more time to your walking day and utilizing the sun could easily add five more miles.
TIME IN CAMP
Let's assume the couple mentioned above typically hike two miles an hour. Getting up an hour earlier at five instead of six and into camp two and a half hours later at eight instead of five-thirty would net them about seven extra miles per day! From this example, let's also assume they were able to get more efficient with their camp break down in the morning and got it down to thirty minutes. That would get them on trail by five-thirty instead of six. That's another mile! We're talking about eight extra miles per day, turning that 20-mile day into 28 miles. Getting up one hour earlier or on trail one hour earlier per day would net you 300 extra miles over a 150-day thru-hike (assuming you took no zeros). If we look at it as a 25 mile a day average, you're saving yourself 12 days on the total time it could take you to finish the thru hike.
PREPPING ITEMS IN CAMP
Instead of taking the time to do morning routines like cooking breakfast, filtering water, loading your snacks for the day, etc., do it the night before.
I like having coffee in the morning, so part of my morning routine used to include filtering a liter of water, mixing in my instant coffee, shaking it up, and letting it settle before drinking it. Yes, I drink it cold. This was all a lengthier task than you'd realize. This cost me time, so I started doing it the night before when we were already stopped for the day and in camp. I used to sit around in camp while I enjoyed my coffee; now, I just drink it as I'm walking down the trail.
I also used to cold soak oatmeal the morning of and either sit in camp and wait for it to rehydrate (about 10 minutes) or do it the night before, overnight oats style. But I was still sitting around eating in camp. Now I just eat snack bars or breakfast bars while I am walking away from camp. In case you've never realized it, you can eat while you walk. And stopping to eat takes time. The real big miles are made when all of your food is a pocket snack, and you can eat on the go.
A real pro move? Pre-dig a cathole before you go to bed to take the guesswork out of your morning meeting.
WATER AND BREAKS
So, what other ways can we take back some of our time on trail to get more miles in, while not wasting away in camp? Staying efficient with your breaks, like a mid-morning, lunch, or mid-afternoon snack, could be timed to match a water source and give you a break while you filter. This can also help cut down on stops if you typically just shoot from the hip and only rest when you feel like a snack–regardless of water supply and need.
For lunch, you can cold soak your meal instead of taking the time to cook. I will usually stop at a water source an hour out of the designated lunch spot to start my cold soak, so my food is ready to eat when we stop.
Where filtering water is concerned, make sure your water filter is clean and at a steady flow rate. Nothing kills efficiency like a dirty filter with a slow flow. Anytime you have a chance to do some maintenance and back flush your filter, go ahead and take advantage of it.
Some people, myself included, carry two Smartwater bottles–one for dirty water, one for clean. With that set up, I can only filter one liter at a time before I have to take the filter off, refill the vessel, and then filter a second liter. Compare this to using a two-liter bag which requires only one fill and one removal of the filter. This is handy on trails where there are longer water carries, but if you have plenty of water available, drinking straight from the filter on a bottle is the quickest way to get rehydrated.
Sending yourself resupply boxes is another way to maximize efficiency while in town, or, even better, to post offices or businesses that are walking distance from trail and don't require a shuttle or hitch into town. Now your Zero Day (zero trail miles hiked) can turn into a Nero (a smaller number of miles hiked with a night spent in town) since you don't need as much time to handle town chores, or even better, your Nero Day becomes a Hero Day where you're able to get into town, handle your chores, and get back on trail in the same day. This enables you to hike more miles and spend less money on a hotel room.
Fewer things to charge, like a battery bank and phone, as opposed to stuff like a Kindle, camera, spare camera batteries, etc., can cut down on time needed to recharge. As I mentioned before, everyone has their own style and preferences where battery banks are concerned, but I'll give you two schools of thought. One is that a smaller battery bank requires less time to charge and is, therefore, more efficient. The second is that a bigger battery bank charged one time could last you a couple of town passes, decreasing the need for full town stops entirely.
Carrying more food for fewer town stops is another fork in the road for hikers. On the one hand, you're able to last longer on trail with fewer stops. On the other hand, you're carrying more weight than normal, leading to fatigue and a slower pace.
Time in town is the great equalizer. As disciplined as you think you might be, the temptations and amenities of town will make you weak AF.
Eating, selfies, and walking at the same time? No sweat.
TYPES OF FOOD (COLD, COOKED, DRY)
The general consensus on food efficiency is sort of a hierarchical model where-in cooked food is the most time and energy-consuming (I know some of you are screaming at the monitor that your JetBoil could cook a ramen in 30 seconds, and boy howdy, I'd love to see that puppy in action). It needs additional resources outside of what comes in its packaging to make the food edible. Fuel, lighter, stove, water, time, energy, millions of minutes throughout the world spent looking at a little blue flame go "shhhhhhhhhh". This type of food installation requires you to stop and set up, and that takes time.
Cold soaked food is less time-consuming and more energy efficient in that it requires no cook set up and can be put into the oven (cold soak jar) to "cook" while walking (it's multi-tasking!)
Dry food like bars or jerky is the most time and energy-efficient in that you do not need any additional resource or tool to get those calories into the hole in your face. They can be eaten on the go and don't need a lot of maintenance to keep you fueled up throughout the day.
SHELTER SYSTEMS: TENT VS TARP VS COWBOY CAMPING
The benefit of the trekking pole shelter or tarp over a free-standing one is the number of things you have to put away.
A tarp and bivy can be easily torn down and stuffed into the backpack to hit the trail, while a free-standing tent has a bug net, a skeletal system to be deconstructed, a rain fly, and sometimes even a groundsheet. That's a lot of stuff!
Trekking pole-based shelters are sometimes single-walled shelters meaning they're all one piece sewn together, while others are just two pieces between a rain fly and bug net (similar to a tarp and bivy but roomier).
Single wall shelters are easiest to set up and take down since there is only one piece that you're dealing with, while double-walled shelters offer more modulation and less condensation in wet terrain. Being able to set up the rain fly without the entire system in a flash mid-afternoon thunderstorm is a total game-changer.
Cowboy camping instead of pitching your tent can save extra time. If you're in an area that has low bug occupation and the forecast shows clear skies, go ahead and sleep under them. Cowboy camping is essentially just camping without any kind of bug net or rain fly set up. Just you and the stars, not only will it make camp chores at night a breeze, but you won't have to tear down and pack up anything in the morning—a big win-win.
Most hikers that are going all day aren't going as fast as you might think; they're just walking long hours at a comfortable pace. If you're trying to cram more miles in the same amount of hiking time, it's very easy to start feeling fatigued early on and cause you to lose motivation and start slowing down. You may also wake up sorer in the morning. Settling into a comfortable walking pace can make walking long hours more bearable.
Some ways to achieve that are:
- Shorter steps with a higher cadence - this will help to keep you from putting too much weight down on your knees and ankles from long or unconcentrated tromps and stomps while walking.
- Try not to step on or kick rocks and roots. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised to know many hikers do not consider how much this can wear your feet and ankles down. Imagine how jarring the feeling of kicking something or the sharp pain of focused pressure a single rock can put on your feet. These accidents could also lead to injuries that cause you to get off trail or cause physical discomfort to slow you way down.
- Walk at a pace that enables you to continue breathing into your nose and out from your mouth. This will enable you to keep a steady heart rate and a more comfortable breathing pattern. If you feel yourself constantly breathing through your mouth, you might be working a little too hard. If you're having trouble while going uphill, be sure to take smaller, shorter steps that enable you to keep momentum.
I hope this was at least a stepping stone to help you better achieve your goals, increase your ability, and experience what you want out of your hike and time out there in the wilderness.
There are endless ways to build a kit and multiple routes that can scratch any itch or turn you on outside. With the ever-growing exposure of hiking through social media, a lot of us can feel pressured to do certain things or buy certain gear to fix a problem we don't have. This is a lifelong journey, and some systems might change over time. Don't be afraid to try something new or find what works best for you. Following some of these principles can help you achieve more than you might have thought possible.
We met a guy named Skyler during our PCT hike who was attempting to finish the trail in 90 days. That's fast! He would have to average around 30 miles per day every day to achieve that. That's hard living right there, folks. However, he did indeed complete his hike–in 94 days–and I got an opportunity to ask him a few questions about how he was able to take on such an incredible feat. Check out his Instagram for some recaps of the places he camped.
What did your time spent hiking and hiking speed look like?
I did not hike fast, but I spent the majority of the time on my feet. I would try to be on the trail by seven, and I would go until dark on an average day. I would maybe take an hour-long break but usually would only stop to filter water. At least twenty of my 94 days, I hiked until midnight and very few nights later than that. My average day was 28 miles, and my longest day was 42 miles. I was only hiking about two and a half to three miles per hour for most of it.
What was your strategy for town stops and resupplying?
I only took one zero on the entire trail. I would normally get into town around sunset and would either find a place to sleep or at the very least an outlet to charge overnight. I would hit the store when it opened in the mornings and got right back on the trail.
What was your camping setup while on the trail?
Half of the nights, I cowboy camped. That saved time setting up and packing up in the morning. It was also easier to get up in the morning since I was already outside and not in the comfort of my tent.
What types of food did you eat on trail? Did you cook, cold soak, or eat dry foods like bars?
As far as nutrition goes, I usually ate something every hour and did not stop for lunch often. My pack had accessible pockets, which I loaded up in the morning with everything I ate that day. I did not make hot coffee in the morning. Instead, I cold mixed instant coffee with protein powder. That got me on the trail quicker in the morning. However, I did make a hot dinner most nights. If I was hiking at night, I would stop at sunset to make dinner and get some more miles later.
What was the most challenging part of attempting the PCT in 90 days?
An enormous sacrifice I made was hiking alone. I started this trail by myself, and I did meet amazing people along the way. I spent a day here and there hiking with others but knew I had to push on to keep my pace. The surprising benefit was that I was able to meet more hikers and valued all the short elevator conversations I had along the way.
What was the motivation to finish your thru hike so fast? Most people take 4-5 months or more for their thru.
Somewhat arbitrarily, I decided to finish on my birthday. I could not get a permit until 20 days after the earliest date I could start, which cut my duration from 114 days to 94 days. Along the way, I was worried about hitting the deadline but knew I could still go sub-100. This was my first long hike, but I came from ultra-running. The endurance, pain cave, and type-two fun aspects came naturally.
*At the end of each post on Garrett's YouTube channel, he mentions Veteran's Point, a peer network for veterans based in Denton County, Texas, that provides resources to any area veteran in need. It's a great organization, and we were stoked to make a donation. Hyperlite Mountain Gear offers any Armed Forces Service Members access to our Pro Program for discounts on all our products. Head HERE to learn more.
Garrett Martin is just a normal guy from Texas who takes on any opportunity that comes his way to do cool shit. From working a hot dog stand in Seattle after college, to summiting Mount Fuji while living abroad, to meeting his wife on The Appalachian Trail, his adult life has been a testament to following your own compass and making sure your obituary isn't a boring read. You can follow along with his current PCT thru hike on his YouTube channel, "Some Dude Walking"