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Leave No Trace: How To Bring Your Books Backpacking

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Nikki VanRy

Contributing Editor

Nikki VanRy is a proud resident of Arizona, where she gets to indulge her love of tacos, desert storms, and tank tops. She also writes for the Tucson Festival of Books, loves anything sci-fi/fantasy/historical, drinks too much chai, and will spend all day in bed reading thankyouverymuch. Follow her on Instagram @nikki.vanry.

backpackingOne of the most iconic scenes in a book I’ve read is from Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Not the shoes one (though that one is also lovely), but that scene where she is sitting next to the fire and slowly burning each page from her book as she reads it.

You have this woman struggling to survive while backpacking, but even then she knows how important books are and is willing to sacrifice them to keep them close to her. To keep her normal. To keep her sane.

It’s beautiful.

But, as Jeremy wrote in an earlier post about the best hiking books, Strayed (#blessedbehername) is not your best source of advice when it comes to actually doing that hiking thing. If you followed her lead, you’d probably be dead by now. Even if you had found yourself on the way.

It is possible, though, to take fantastic books along with you on a backpacking trip, learn something about yourself from them, not be dead (hooray!), and not have to burn them at the end of it.

1. Learn how to actually backpack in the wilderness

You can read a lot of books and articles on this, but the buddy system is your best bet. Learn how to backpack from a trusted friend who knows her stuff. (If you’re fantastically lucky, you’ll have a friend who worked at the Game & Fish Department, knows how to make knots, and can stare down rattlesnakes and bears like a boss.) Pack your bag well, with enough to survive, but not so much that you’ll go over in a stiff breeze. Ask for advice, practice with shorter trips, and eventually you’ll get it right. 

2. Books go in the dry bag

Books go in the dry bag. Books go in the dry bag. Books go in the dry bag.

Even if you’re in the middle of the desert or only wading through ankle-deep streams, don’t you want to be sure that your books are safe? A freak rainstorm could hit! You could fall down into that stream! (I have done both of these things.)

This blue dry bag is the perfect size for a trade paperback, just saying.

3. Leave your library books at home

Every librarian reading this is giving an amen right now. Sure, you could probably keep that book clean, but most likely your hands will be covered in something (dirt, mud, melted chocolate from a Clif bar, or worse) and that something will end up on their book.

And, shockingly, there are no random receipts to use for bookmarks out in the woods, so you’ll probably dog-ear the page, thus spreading whatever was on your hand all over the corner of their page.

4. Paperbacks only, please and thank you

Don’t be a Cheryl here. Go for the lighter books you own. No need to take your hardcover edition of The Goldfinch or War and Peace. While you should never be in a situation where torching a few pages a night will save your ass, it’s still probably best to not load up with unneeded weight either. Trade paperbacks are your friend. And remember, they fit in the dry bag.

5. E-readers for the brave of heart

I always want to bring ten books when I go backpacking, because I’m a very indecisive person and won’t know if I’ll be in the mood for a Scottish romance or a thoughtful sci-fi when I’m on the trail. I never take more than two (except that time I took three), but fantasize about how freeing it would be to take the e-reader along. I am, however, also a very worrisome person and always think of how my e-reader could be crushed by a rock or get little sand bits in the charging hole.

I think it can be done and you’d be down on weight and size, buuut you have to be a braver person than I am.

backpacking doge6. Nothing too scary

Speaking of, remember the books on this list? Yeeeeah don’t bring any of those. Oooor these. That is, unless you’re an absolute masochist who enjoys jumping at every tree creaking and thinking about the raccoon who is most certainly outside of your tent waiting to eat your face off. And it would probably have rabies. Not that I’ve lived that or anything.

Anyways, don’t bring scary books. There’s no freezer to put them in and the outside is a lot larger and darker than you remember it.

(Umm and, yeah, that really is just a random photo of my doge looking brave. Because she goes backpacking and stuff too, mostly so she can save me from the raccoons.)

7. Seriously, leave no trace 

If you haven’t learned it from your backpacking buddy, make sure to always practice the leave no trace principles. That includes double-checking for any stray bookmarks or pen caps and avoiding loud shouts if you decided to read that scary book and a twig breaks or something. (I warned you.)

Besides that, bringing your books backpacking is wonderfully fun. You may love reading thoughtful free-form poetry while swinging in a hammock or find that you can only focus on action-packed genre books while resting in front of the fire. Whatever it is, love the heck out of it and use those books to find a little piece of yourself in all that quiet out there.

Happy trails!

All photos in this post are from @azbackpacking on Instagram, which my fantastic bear-staring and knot-making friend runs to catalogue our trips. 


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