Basic Backpacking:

A Newsletter for Backpackers of All Ages!

By Richard & Kathy Melton

Volume 1, Issue 2: July 1999

Copyright 1999 Melton Publishing, All Rights Reserved.

In This Issue!



Wilderness Navigation: Triangulate What?

Triangulation is using 2 landmarks and a compass to find a third position--where you are! You need a map, a compass and a straightedge (something you can use to draw a straight line). In a pinch, you can even fold the map, but usually you can find something in your pack that will serve the purpose better.

Orient (turn) your map so that it corresponds to the location of the landmarks you will be using. In the illustration below, the drawing above the square shows what you see when you look out toward the horizon from your position on the ground. You see Mountain A at the left and Mountain B to the right. The square represents the section of the map you are using. The (simplified) map is oriented so that the contours of the mountains (irregular, fairly concentric circles labeled Mountain A and Mountain B) correspond to your view of the mountains. You know that you are between the mountains and the river, but you want to find your location more exactly. How?

Use the compass to take one bearing (directional reading) from your position toward the peak of Mountain A. Place the compass on the map and draw a line (lightly with a pencil) along the same bearing. This is much easier if you are using a baseplate compass (see future issues). You are somewhere along that line, but where?

Use the compass to take a second bearing toward the peak of Mountain B, just as you did before. This will give you a different bearing in degrees. For instance, Mountain A is 320 degrees northwest. Mountain B is 40 degrees northeast. Draw a line on the map using the second bearing. The point where the lines intersect on the map is near your position on the ground. Now, you can look on the map to see which direction to go to reach your target (your camp, a road, a trail, etc.).

Triangulation is a handy tool, but it isn't as accurate as a GPS (Global Positioning System). However, a compass is much lighter and smaller, and it will never leave you stranded with a dead battery!

At most locations on the surface of our planet, Magnetic North is not the same as Geographic North. Your compass needle points toward Magnetic North (the pull of the magnetic pole). Your map is oriented toward Geographic North (where Earth spins on its invisible axis). For your compass readings to be accurate, you must take into account this difference. In the next Newsletter, we will give more specifics on declination (the difference between the magnetic and geographic poles). Many maps (especially, topographical maps) give the degrees of declination for the area the map covers, along with a distance scale and other information.

You may not be able to pinpoint your position within a few feet by this method, but you can certainly get a good idea of where you are at any time. Keep the landmarks in sight as you travel and take more bearings along the way. With a little practice, you will find that triangulation is a lot easier than it seems! Check out your local library and outdoor stores for books on navigation.


Trail Safety: Irritating Plants!

No, we aren't talking about annoying the trees! We have all had to put up with irritation in one form or another, but must irritating plants plague us along the trail? Well, maybe not—if we can manage to avoid them!

Kathy is severely allergic to the oil of the Poison Oak plant. Unfortunately, this plant grows in abundance in the Northwest where we do most of our backpacking. It has been many years since she had a problem with this for several reasons. 1) She learned to recognize the plant. 2) She learned to wear long pants just in case she happens to brush up against the leaves without realizing that they are there. 3) She learned to handle her shoes and outer clothing carefully to avoid contacting any oil that might linger there. The oil of this plant is persistent and can cause a reaction hours or days after oil is deposited on clothes.

Some people aren't allergic to Poison Oak, but there are other plants to be aware of. Stinging Nettle comes to mind. Little hairs on the stem and the underside of the leaves of this plant contain formic acid (the same acid that makes a red ant’s bite hurt). Brushing up against this plant can cause painful burning and a rash. It usually goes away in a few hours, unless you have gotten a severe dose of the stuff. In the meantime, it can be miserable!

Most Forest Service Offices offer pamphlets that alert people to these plants. They describe the plants and have pictures to help people identify them. The pamphlets are usually free, and it is worthwhile to study them and look for the plants when you are out backpacking. Soon, you will be able to identify them quickly and avoid them. You can also find books about plants at your local library, bookstore, outdoor store or over the Internet.


Identifying Edible Wild Plants: Leaf Shapes and a Focus on the Wild Huckleberry!

Speaking of plants, leaves can be a good starting point for identifying them. In this month’s issue, we have talked about Poison Oak and Stinging Nettle. Each of them has a different type of leaf, but many other plants have similar leaves.

Poison Oak (NOT EDIBLE)

The Poison Oak plant gets its name from the shape of its leaves that look something like an Oak tree leaf. Other plants have oval, heart-shaped, blade-shaped or spear-shaped leaves. The Oak tree and the Poison Oak plant have "lobed" leaves. There are slight variations in leaf shape and size, but all Poison Oak plants have lobed leaves that grow in clusters of 3 leaves. The leaves are dark green and shiny (remember that oil?). In the fall, they turn bright red. The fruit of an Oak tree (the acorn) is edible. The Poison Oak plant is not edible and can cause a medical emergency if eaten!

No part of the Poison Oak plant is edible (It causes a mild to severe allergic reaction on the skin, and it can cause a severe and dangerous reaction on mouth and throat tissues if eaten!!!)

Stinging Nettle

Stinging Nettle is a blessing in a very good disguise! Although its "sting" can be painful, it is a surprisingly useful plant. You can make a strong twisted cord from its stem. Dipping the plant in boiling water neutralizes the formic acid, and the plant can be handled safely. It is high in protein and other nutrients and is probably the single most versatile plant in the wild edible category! You could even make paper from its fibers! Its leaves are shaped like a heart with a long pointed tip. They are medium green with finely to coarsely serrated (lined with small points) edges. The young tender plants can be boiled and eaten as a green, similar to spinach. When the plant is older and tougher, you can still harvest and eat (after boiling) the young, tender new leaves that grow along the stem. These plants can grow from a few inches tall to over 7 feet tall, and they are very common on the North American Continent.

This Month's Feature: The Wild Huckleberry!

The Huckleberry is a relative of the domesticated blueberry plant that most people are familiar with. The fruits can be used like blueberries, but they are usually smaller. The flavor is like a blueberry, and the berries make a thirst-quenching, satisfying and nutritious snack when picked fresh along the trail. (Illustration by K. Meeker-Rouhier)

Leaves appear in early spring. They are small, medium-green and oval. They may be slightly serrated, but this is not always the case.

Blossoms are bell-shaped and white to slightly pink-tinged.

Fruit is medium to dark blue and tasty! The blossom end (opposite the point where the berry attaches to its stem) has a round indention in the center which is surrounded by a little crown that is a characteristic extension of the skin, just as you see in the domestic variety. There is a variety of Huckleberry with red berries (equally edible), but it is not as common in our area (near Portland, OR).

Stems are usually woody, thin and tough. They may have a reddish tinge.

Location: Open areas in the forest, along roadsides, near lakes and rivers in Northwest forests. We often find Salal and Oregon Grape growing in the same areas.

Like Blueberries, Huckleberries can be used in jams and pies, stirred into muffin or pancake batter or eaten fresh. We have even dried them to make Huckleberry raisins that we mix with dried fruit and nuts for a trail snack. The Native Americans used to shape them into cakes and dry them.

Visit your local library or bookstore, your favorite outdoor store or the Internet to find books about wild edible plants.

Before you eat any wild "edible" plant, be sure that you have carefully identified it. This is most important when you are considering eating the mushrooms and fungi that are sometimes abundant in the forests. Many are edible and delicious, but some are extremely poisonous—deadly is not an exaggeration. Even a tiny morsel can kill.


Trivia Question!

What is the universal antidote for poison (except mushrooms and fungi poisoning)? Hint: This can be made from a single common ingredient without using special tools! Answer


Equipment: Upper Body Clothing for Warm Weather Backpacking!

In the last issue, we talked about hats. Moving from head to toe, we come next to upper body clothing. In cold weather, you want to protect this area from heat loss. In warm weather, you want to help the body’s cooling system (perspiration) as much as possible to prevent overheating. Sunstroke and heat prostration happen when the body temperature becomes too high. These can be medical emergencies, with severe consequences if they are not treated properly and promptly. As in most problems backpackers run into, prevention is often the key to not having the problem in the first place. Preparation is the key to handling problems when they do happen.



In warm weather when you are exercising (yes, backpacking is exercise!), drink plenty of fluids. Rest (in the shade if possible) occasionally to let the body cool. Make shade if you can when there is none. Wear clothing that helps evaporate perspiration and cool the body. We'll be talking a lot more in future articles about hyperthermia (body temperature too high) and hypothermia (body temperature too low). The style of clothing and its fabric are important considerations for backpackers.


Your basic choices are wool, synthetics and cotton. Wool, an excellent insulating material, is great for cool weather, but it can be absolutely miserable in warm weather. Even in warm weather, we like to wear heavy woolen socks, but we prefer not to wear wool shirts. Synthetics include nylon, rayon and other man-made materials. These don’t draw perspiration away from the skin to help it evaporate quickly. Many garments combine synthetics with natural fibers (wool or cotton), and we look for garments with the highest percentage of natural fibers. Cotton draws moisture away from the skin and helps it evaporate much better than the synthetics. It is much more comfortable in hot weather than wool is. Cotton is the type of fabric we like to wear during warm-weather backpacking. In really cold weather, though, cotton draws heat from the body, so it is not the best choice in that case. Some people find wool fabric irritating to the skin. Wearing a cotton garment (especially, shirts and socks) under the wool can solve the problem and it doesn't change the insulating properties of wool enough to matter.

Shirt Styles:

Here again, you have several choices. Tank tops, short-sleeved pullovers and long-sleeved button-up shirts are all available in cotton.

Tank Tops:

A tank top may be just fine for hiking—if you don’t mind exposing your skin to so much sun—but it has drawbacks for backpacking. For one thing, it doesn’t protect your skin from the constant rubbing of the backpack straps that can cause nasty blisters. Also, it doesn’t protect your arms from scratches, insect bites or contact with those irritating plants we mentioned earlier. We sometimes wear a tank top as an undershirt, but we always wear another shirt over it.

Short-sleeved Pullover:

Compared to the tank top, this gives a little more protection from the sun and protects better from the straps. Your arms are still exposed to the sun, insects and irritants, and they are vulnerable to scratches. Like the tank top, we sometimes wear a pullover as an undershirt, but we always wear something over it.

Long-sleeved, Button-up Shirt, Cotton Fabric:

You can’t beat this for warm weather! It covers all but the hands and gives good protection from the hazards we mentioned above. Because it buttons up the front, it is easy to adjust how much skin you expose. During rest periods in the shade, you can easily remove the shirt. You can even use it as shade. Even in mildly cool weather, this is a good choice. Worn in combination with an undershirt and a windbreaker, you might be surprised how warm it will keep you! In really cold weather, even heavy cotton is not warm enough. You can wear it under a wool shirt to prevent itchiness, but as the main protective garment, it just won't give you the same effect as wool.

Here in the Northwest and even in desert areas, days may be sweltering, but nights and mornings can be cool. You can wear a wool sweater or light jacket over your cotton shirt. A sweater or light jacket doesn’t weigh much, and either can be rolled into a tight little bundle and stuffed into your pack when you don’t need it. Because the weather is so unpredictable here, a sweater or light jacket is a standard item on our backpacking list.

Wearing the right clothing can make a big difference in comfort and safety! In future issues, we will talk more on this subject.


Trail Etiquette: Bury It!

Some garbage is non-biodegradable (will not decompose). This includes glass, tin, aluminum (beware of hidden foil in commercially packaged food wrappers!) and plastics. All of this type of waste must be packed out! Other garbage is biodegradable. This includes food, some kinds of paper and human waste. You might be surprised to find out how long it takes to decompose some of these things when they are left exposed on the surface. The picture at the left is of a high mountain lake. The water is so clear that the rocks and mud on the bottom show through and make the water look brown from this angle. This lake swells from rain and snow melt in the fall and winter, but over the warmer drier summer it shrinks from evaporation. Such a lake can easily become polluted, and the pollution will remain for a long, long time.

Orange Peels, Toilet Paper and (Well, You Know):

Orange peels can remain intact for more than a year when they are carelessly dropped beside a trail or at a campsite! Ordinary toilet paper is just as persistent when it is left on the surface. If you don't pack these things out, bury them deeply (6" or more). All human waste (dung, to put it indelicately) must be buried at least 6" deep. All biodegradable waste must be buried at least 6" deep. This gives the bacteria in the ground a chance to go to work on the waste before it dries and is harder for the little critters to digest. Left exposed on the surface, human waste and garbage are not only smelly and unsightly, but they are health hazards. Unfortunately, it has become such a problem that several popular trails in the Northwest are now restricted. Only limited numbers of backpackers are allowed on those trails each season.

Locate the burial site away from your camp so that it doesn’t attract unwanted critters. Bury all waste at least 100 feet from a water source. This is most important when you are camping near a lake. Some of the lakes are closed systems that don’t have a regular supply of fresh water to flush out pollutants. The water level rises due to rain or snow melt, and it falls due to evaporation. They are extremely vulnerable to contamination!

Bury biodegradable waste at least 6" deep. Burn what will be completely consumed in a fire (if open fires are allowed in the area). Be aware that some plastics give off toxic fumes when burned. Carry out the rest. Bring a small shovel. You can find small, folding shovels at an outdoor store, but a simple garden trowel works just as well. We carry a shovel in one of our packs in a sealed pouch. We keep this in a separate part of the pack, away from the food and dishes. You can buy biodegradable toilet paper, but bury it, too.

We once had the unpleasant experience of coming across a fresh pile of human waste covered with soiled toilet paper. It was in the middle of the trail! Now, that is really bad backpacking manners!


Cooking & Recipes: Spaghetti, Anyone?

Check the grocery store and outdoor stores to see what is available for ingredients for making this dish on a backpacking trip. There is a lot of stuff available commercially, but we like to dry our own foods and package them for backpacking meals. (Go back to Melton Publishing's home page to check out the authors' book, Dry Foods at Home.) The ingredients for this meal are simple. The cooking method is simple. The results are simply delicious!

A Recipe Using Dried Foods!

Ingredients: 1/4 cup dried tomatoes, 1 Tablespoon dried onion, 1 teaspoon dried green pepper, 1/4 cup dried zucchini (hard to find commercially prepared), 1 Tablespoon cheddar cheese (shredded), 1 teaspoon dried Oregano, 1 clove fresh garlic (more if you like it as much as we do), salt, pepper, Parmesan cheese (in a shaker can or freshly grated), 1 cup cooked pasta (we like to use a quick-cooking type), water.

What Equipment You Need:

To Cook The Spaghetti:

Variations in the Recipe:

More recipe ideas are coming in future issues!


Drying Your Own Foods: Beef Jerky!

Commercially prepared jerky is far too salty and otherwise bland for our taste buds. It also contains unnecessary preservatives. We like to make our own, and it is sooooo easy!

What You Need:

Appliances:1) A food dehydrator or 2) small electric smoker or 3) oven (inefficient and costly and hard on the heating elements, but it will work)

Ingredients: Very lean beef, a marinade (enough to cover the beef)

To Make the Jerky:

Watch Out! The only problem with making your own jerky is that it tends to disappear at an alarming rate! It makes just as good a snack at home as it does on a backpacking trip!


Wilderness Survival: Shelter!

So, a chipmunk ate your tent, and the temperature is below freezing! What can you do to make a warm place to get out of the wind and cold? Oh, a squirrel ran off with your matches, too. Okay. Hmm. The likelihood of this happening is remote, but it is always good to know how to survive under adverse conditions.

Building A Simple but Effective Shelter without Tools:

Our ancestors knew how to make a quick and easy shelter from the materials at hand. You can learn how to do the same. Train yourself to look around for possible shelter-building materials whenever you are out hiking or backpacking. There is lots of stuff around, and the more you practice looking, the more you will see for making a debris shelter.

What Is a Debris Shelter?

Actually, the name says it all. This simple shelter is made from anything and everything you find in the area. It will insulate you from the cold, and it can even help shed rain. It is a very small, one-person structure, but it can be comfortable.

What You Need:

The whole purpose of learning survival skills is to keep you alive and healthy until help arrives or until you find your way back to civilization. Keep alert while you are backpacking and see how many shelter materials you can find. You will read more hints on building emergency shelters in future issues!


Where to Get Information: The Forest Service--State & Federal!

Wow! Do these people have a lot of information! Just go to a Ranger Station or the local Forest Service office and see what maps, brochures and publications are available there! Ask them about trail and road conditions. Ask for a copy of the current fire regulations. Did you know that open fires are illegal on many wilderness trails during the hot summer months when fire danger is high? That’s right. A little butane stove comes in handy at those times, but even those should be used with great caution and only when necessary.

Information—The 2-Way Street:

Budget cuts have severely reduced the number of people overseeing the forests, parks and trails. You can help the Forest Service by telling them when you see problems. This helps them keep current on conditions and problems when they lack personnel to go out to the remote areas.

A Few Examples from Our Own Journals:

We were just starting down a trail from one of the high lakes near Mt. Hood, OR, when we spotted smoke. We couldn’t see any tents, and no people were around, so we went to investigate. Someone had built a campfire over the shallow roots of a tree, and the fire had spread to an area about 5 feet in diameter. It was smoking and we could see live embers creeping their way up the root toward the tree and into the smaller roots around it. Enlisting the aid of several other backpackers who happened to show up, we dug and poured water until the thing was out. As soon as we reached the bottom of the trail, we went to the nearby Ranger Station and let them know what had happened so that they could check it out.

Hiking down another trail, we had to make a rather long detour to avoid a slide area. This had slipped less than a week before during the heavy rains. Since it was early in the season, wet and not very warm, we were the only backpackers who had been down the trail since that had happened. After our hike, we dropped by the Forest Service Office in that area and told them what we had seen. For hiker safety, they closed the trail until they could assess and repair the damage.

We were camped at another lake when we noticed a man who was obviously not a hiker or a camper. He was carrying a large bundle of Bear Grass in a bag. Since this was a wilderness area where plant collecting isn't allowed, we explained to the man that what he was doing was illegal. We also informed the Forest Service later so that they could monitor the area for illegal activity.

The Onus of the Tattletale!

Most of us learned as children that being a tattletale isn’t socially acceptable. We carried that lesson into adulthood, and this sometimes makes us reluctant to be the ones to inform the authorities when we see a problem. Just as the Forest Service is a good source of information for us, though, we are a good source of information for the people who work there. What you say or do not say can make a difference, as you have seen in the examples.


Readers' Forum!

I am not connected to the Internet, and I am always jealous of my friends who are. They tell me all the interesting things they can find out. Now I have the Basic Backpacking Newsletter! I stumped everyone at work with the trivia question from the last issue! Andy—Oregon

Nice to hear from you, Andy. Hope we see you out on the trail sometime! Richard and Kathy

I would like to go backpacking, but I don’t know where to go in my area. Can you give some suggestions? Dave—Oregon

Hi, Dave! Thanks for writing! Oregon is a really special place for backpacking. It offers just about any kind of terrain you want, from desert to ocean to mountains to river valleys. Get some Forest Service maps of campgrounds and trails in your area. Many of these list the difficulty rating of each trail. Visit a Ranger Station or Forest Service Office in your area and ask them for recommendations. It depends on how far you want to go and what kind of scenery interests you. We suggest that you start with a trip of no more than 2 or 3 days in good weather over a low-difficulty trail. We strongly suggest that you take a buddy. The companionship is nice, and having 2 people on the trail (even if they are both beginners) is better than traveling alone. Remember to let someone know where you are going and when you will be back. Be sure to let them know as soon as you get home! Have fun! Richard and Kathy

Send in your letters! We would love to hear from you! Questions, comments, suggestions for Newsletter articles and tales of your backpacking adventures are all welcomed! Send e-mails to or snail mail to Melton Publishing, 55141 Columbia River Hwy., Scappoose, OR, 97056.

Answer to the Trivia Question:

The universal antidote for almost any poison (except mushrooms or fungi) is finely ground charcoal! Take a good handful of this along with just enough water to wash it down, and you have made your own medicine! It may not taste good, and it may have an unpleasant texture, but consider the alternative!


In the Next Issue!

All portions of this newsletter copyrighted 1999 by Melton Publishing. All Rights Reserved. No portion may be electronically or physically reproduced without express written permission of Melton Publishing.