Venturing into the backcountry, be it a nearby weekend in a state park or a trek across the Himalayas, requires a special kind of competence. The wilderness is, by definition, wild, lacking the basics conveniences of civilization we take for granted — food, shelter, doctors, road signs.
The key to surviving and thriving is understanding just how far out you’re going and bringing the skills, knowledge and equipment you’ll need.
Although there is no substitute for direct outdoor experience under the tutelage of a experienced mentor, books written by knowledgeable experts can be a great source of information and instruction on backcountry skills.
Here are a few time tested favorites that offer a comprehensive approach to wilderness skills:
The National Outdoor Leadership School’s Wilderness Guide
By Mark Harvey
Since it was started in 1965 by mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, NOLS has trained more than 75,000 people on remote wilderness travel. The organization publishes a range of books, but this 272-page handbook, written by a long time NOLs instructor, remains its classic guide to backcountry skills. The NOLS book weighs 1.8 pounds and is small enough to pack away, in case you need to recall how to build a fire in the rain or take a compass bearing.
Chapters titles include: Expedition Planning, Equipment Primer, How to Dress for the Backcountry, Camping Technique, Travel Technique, Leadership and Expedition Behavior, Maps and Compasses, Emergency Procedures, Cooking in the Backcountry and Our Responsibility to the Land.
The Backpacker’s Field Manual
By Rick Curtis
This comprehensive manual on wilderness excursions, published by Three Rivers Press, comes in at 448 pages. It offers step-by-step guidance on planning outdoor excursions, focusing on hiking and camping. It covers everything from choosing the right backpack to understanding group dynamics on the trail. The author is the director of Outdoor Action, an outdoor education program at Princeton University. The books comes in under a pound.
Chapter titles: Trip Planning, Equipment, Cooking and Nutrition, Hygiene and Water Purification, Leave No Trace Hiking and Camping, Wilderness Travel, Weather and Nature, Safety and Emergency Procedures, First Aid and Emergency Care and Outdoor Leadership.
Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills
This hefty book (575 pages and 2.4 pounds) published by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based alpine club started in 1906, sets the standard for mountaineering and climbing manuals. Written by a team of over 40 experts climbers, it was first published in 1960 and is currently in its sixth edition. While it focuses on climbing skills, it includes a 130 pages on outdoor fundamentals.
Chapter titles: Outdoor Fundamentals; Climbing Fundamentals; Rock Climbing; Snow, Ice and Alpine Climbing; Emergency Prevention and Response; and The Mountain Environment.