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Backpacker & Hiker's Handbook
Owner Review By Bob Dorenfeld
April 19, 2015

Tester Bio
Name Bob Dorenfeld


I'm an active hiker, snowshoer, skier, and of course backpacker.  Home base is the Southern Colorado Rockies, ranging from alpine tundra to piņon-juniper scrub and desert at lower altitudes.  Many of my backpack trips are two or three nights (sometimes longer), and I usually shoulder about 30 lb (14 kg).  My style is lightweight but not at the expense of enjoyment, comfort or safety - basic survival gear plus extras like a camera and air mattress make my trips safer and more pleasurable.

Email geartest(at)sageandspruce(dot)net
Age 57
Location Central Colorado, USA
Gender M
Height 5' 6" (1.68 m)
Weight 140 lb (64 kg)

Product Overview

Publisher:  Stackpole Books 
Date:  2008
MSRP:   US$24.95
Author:  William Kemsley, Jr.
Pages:  304  
Includes: 35 b/w illustrations, 170 color photos 
Format: trade paperback, coated paper
6 x 9 in (15 x 23 cm)
ISBN: 9780811734622  

Book cover

Book Review   

I picked up a copy of Backpacker & Hiker's Handbook almost by accident—I was browsing for trail recipe guides and instantly caught the author's name.  William Kemsley Jr. was the founding editor of Backpacker Magazine, and led it through the 1970s until he sold it in 1980.  Mr. Kemsley hiked a steady trail in those days as a pioneering publisher discussing and promoting backpacking, hiking, ski touring, outdoor photography, conservation issues, and gear reviews.  I had always wondered what became of him, since until now I'd not seen him in print after he left Backpacker.  Now my curiosity has been satisfied, and I'm glad to report that not only in 2008 did he enter the field of hiking and backpacking manuals, but that he did it with the same aplomb and journalistic integrity that marked his tenure at Backpacker.  To that he adds his own very considerable lifelong experience as a hiker, backpacker, skier, and mountaineer, plus husband and father.

So why another backpacker's guide in an already crowded field?  In his own words:

[T]his book is not about any quick success in getting acquainted with the backcountry.

I want this book to appeal to the few readers who already have—or are eager to develop—an intimate, enduring friendship with the outdoors.  I want it to appeal to those who would like to feel as comfortable camped beneath pines on a cool evening in fall as they would in their comfy bed, and happier still eating dinner from camp pots in desert sands among ocotillo, cholla, and saguaro as at their dining-room tables back home.

These ventures have never been the competitive kind, which rather takes the pleasure out of it for me. 

Come share some of this with me.  If just a few of you enjoy it and get hooked enough to tread some of these paths more than somewhat, it would give me the kind of kick I get when one of my daughters, Kate, calls to say, "Dad, could we take a few days' hike in Colorado this July?"

Mr. Kemsley's plainspoken and understated style and sometimes wry sense of humor pervade each chapter, and fortunately he resists the temptation to sort hikers into non-overlapping categories based on their choice of gear or hiking style (for example, "through-hikers" vs. "nature watchers").  He intelligently guides both beginners and experienced backpackers in trail savvy, safety, and how to select equipment, including tips from both his own and companions' experience.  Reflecting his own journalism background, Mr. Kemsley also includes a chapter on outdoor photography and a guest-written chapter about women-only backpacking groups.  Of course, like all of us out there on the trail, he has his own opinions and idiosyncrasies about clothing, hiking companions, cookstoves, etc., but I enjoyed his mostly even-handed and light touch that rarely seemed to judge me just for doing things differently than he does.  In common with most of the classic backpacking handbooks I've read since, say, the 1960s, Mr. Kemsley wisely advises his readers to gather all the data they can from him and anyone else, get experienced on the trail, and use their own common sense to go forth and hike safely but have a great time doing it, no matter what their own style.

Let's look at what's in Backpacker & Hiker's Handbook.  Seven sections are divided into 32 chapters, preceded by a forward and acknowledgments, and concluded with an afterword, bibliography, and an index.  Generously interspersed throughout are many high-quality color photographs (most by Mr. Kemsley) and clearly-drawn black & white illustrations amplifying the text.  The seven Sections are:

   Trail Savvy
   Using the Trails
   Risks on the Trail
   The Hiking Party
   Where to Go
   When to Go

Within Preparations I can read about What To Wear, Buying Your Outfit, or Planning Your Trip.  Trail Savvy has lots of useful information about Where And How To Set Up Camp, Purifying and Carrying Water, or Going Light.  Using the Trails is about Finding Your Way, weather, health and safety, and the notable Getting the Most from Your Trail Photography.  Weather dangers, snakes, and important chapters on bears and cougars round out Risks on the Trail.  If you'd like to read Mr. Kemsley's suggestions for The Fine Art of Picking Your Hiking Companions, pets, or a guest essay on Women-only Groups on the Trail, check out The Hiking PartyWhere to Go, as expected, covers selecting a trail and destination commensurate with the reader's skills and desires, and some specific information on Enjoying the High Mountains, Desert Hiking, and Canyon Hiking.  The concluding Section, When to Go, adds useful tips on Extending Your Hiking Season into Fall and Getting Started Winter Backpacking.

Here's what Mr. Kemsley has to say about boots (footwear is my usual test of whether I'm probably going to like a hiking guide): 

The most important consideration in selecting a hiking boot is fit.  If the boot fits, buy it.  All other considerations are unimportant if your boots don't fit properly. 

Most good sporting-goods shops stock several brands of boots because manufacturers use different lasts to make them, and brand of boot therefor fits feet differently.  A knowledgeable sales person can tell you which brand will more likely be appropriate for your feet — whether it has, for example, a wide or narrow heel, a high or low arch, and other particulars to fit your feet.  It is you, however, who is the final judge....Don't let anyone try to tell you differently.

Mr. Kemsley continues in the same friendly way to give his advice in greater detail about boot fit, boot soles, waterproofing, breaking in boots, and socks.  There is one succinct and short paragraph concerning boot weight, and I like the way Mr. Kemsley cuts through the cruft and without rancor gets to the sole of the matter in this footwear chapter:

Back in the 60s and 70s....the heavier the better.  Today most manufacturers have gone for lightness in weight.  Good thing, too.  The significance of this is old hat.

If two model boots fit equally well, choose the lighter one....So at least a thicker-soled boot will be more comfortable, especially on rocky trails. 

You want a sole that is thick enough that your princess-and-the-pea tender feet do not feel every pebble you walk over, yet flexible enough to bend under pressure of your hands.  Stiff soles are for mountaineering, so as to affix crampons.  They may look macho but will be hell on the feet after a few miles of trails.

LayeringLike myself, Mr. Kemsley likes gear that works, and a lot of what works for him is either tried-and-true in the backpacking community, or he lets you know that he's a bit different.  For example, he doesn't care for synthetic-material clothing, and tells us that "my first choice is natural fibers whenever possible".  His boot discussion does not explore leather vs. fabric or plastics.  But he goes on to nicely summarize how both natural and synthetic clothing will work in the layering principle of backpack dress, accompanied by this useful diagram illustrating how layered clothing can work in practice.

There's a good discussion of how to lighten one's load in the chapter Going Light, which Mr. Kemsley manages to pull off without either intimidating the reader with too many details of gear specs and cost.  I enjoyed following the details of the author's 3-day experiment backpacking part of the Grand Canyon where he "went light"—there's even a complete gear list for me to see how he did it and to compare with my own gear.  As elsewhere in the guide, Mr. Kemsley leaves final choices to the reader based on their own needs and preferences.

As noted, Backpacker & Hiker's Handbook does not delve too far into the technical specifications of gear in Going Light or elsewhere, nor do I find gratuitously dropped brand names everywhere in his text.  However, when the author has found a particular tent or a cookstove that works for him, he doesn't hesitate to tell us why he thinks highly of its quality.  I enjoyed reading his evaluations and found them helpful as a guide to my own evaluations of gear.  But when it comes time to purchase gear, I think most brand research is best left to the reader's own resources and to the special-purpose and separately-published gear guides, and Mr. Kemsley seems to agree.

photo+captionFound throughout Backpacker & Hiker's Handbook and organized along the page corners (every 10 pages or so) are quotes and pictures from some of Mr. Kemsley's friends, colleagues, and family, commenting on hiking gear, trail etiquette, personal preferences—whatever they wanted to say!  They add an interesting counterpoint to the author's narrative in each chapter.  Copious photographs by Mr. Kemsley and others lend color and interest to all chapters of the handbook.  There are also many text boxes set apart from the main narrative that illustrate and expand on the narrative. Fortunately Mr. Kemsley does not forget his old magazine when he refers his readers to several older articles published in Backpacker after his tenure there.  I found two of them (one on the effectiveness of water purification devices, the other on boot leather waterproofing), and although both date from the mid-1990s, they are as relevant today as they were then, and I definitely learned much about both topics.

While excellent in most regards, a close reading of Backpacker & Hiker's Handbook reveals a number of copyediting mishaps (swapped images or incorrect captions, incorrect word usage), but overall they don't detract very much.  (If there is ever a second edition I'm sure they'll be addressed.)  Editorially I also found omissions and lengthy digressions, which I think Mr. Kemsley could have fixed for a better book overall.  For example, he probably didn't need to devote quite so much space to promoting his personal preference for always wrapping everything in his backpack in waterproofing plastic—some of us hike in very dry climates!  There is a glowing recommendation for one particular Made in America gear manufacturer, but when I went to their website I found mostly military-oriented products and a lengthy diatribe on what's wrong with everyone else's gear.  In his chapter on trail foods he barely mentions the excellent alternative of dehydrated meals and foods (purchased or self-prepared).  One of the author's "essential gear" lists contains a can-opener (!), but two pages later he tells us that "cans are also heavy".  In the cookstove discussion he mentions gas and cartridge, but not the very useful alcohol alternative.  Curiously, I could find no explicit mention of Leave No Trace (LNT) principles anywhere in Backpacker & Hiker's Handbook; nonetheless Mr. Kemsley helpfully included a number of suggestions and tips throughout that nudge his readers in the same direction as LNT.  I found the book's index adequate but not as complete as I would have liked.

But on a positive note, and last but not least, the closing bibliography contains any number of useful references to both books and websites.  Although since the book's publication in 2008 the web has moved on, I didn't find it difficult to find websites' new locations or other sites with similar information.

If I had to give just one book to a friend who was a backpacking beginner, it would be a toss-up between Backpacker & Hiker's Handbook and perhaps one or two other excellent classics in the field.  Maybe I'd give both of those other guides with this handbook, since as a rule no one book is adequate for all topics.  But for all-around practicality and balance, and a low preachiness factor, I highly recommend Backpacker & Hiker's Handbook.  Mr. Kemsley's thoroughly-researched and well-written hiking companion gives sound advice with a sense of humor while trusting his readers to discover their own good judgment in their choice of gear, techniques, trail destinations, safety, and hiking companions.

In closing, perhaps he'd agree with me:  be safe, practice Leave No Trace, and have fun!

 Reviewed By
Bob Dorenfeld
Southern Colorado Mountains

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