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Five Letters Re: The Art of Humping a Pack

Hello Mr. Rawles,
Blake’s recent post on the fine art of “humping a pack” [1] is much appreciated. I’m a bit of a backpacker, but have never been subjected to the rigors of “forced humping” for Uncle Sam. I’ve found that I rapidly become an unhappy camper when my pack weight exceeds 45 pounds. Thanks go to Blake for his service to our Country!

The magic (but painful) blister remedy to which he referred is Tincture of Benzoin (sometimes abbreviated Tr. Benzoin). This mixture of specific tree resins in alcohol, and it’s cousin, Compound Tincture of Benzoin, are used in health care as a skin protectant when applying adhesive devices to skin. It has the added benefit of enhancing the tape’s adherence, so the bandage stays on longer. Some in the hiking community have used it as Blake described, when the blister has already formed ,and you have no choice but to keep going (other hardcore folks use duct tape. I guess that’s okay, until removal time!) As far as I can tell, there is little science available to confirm the “skin toughening” property that some attribute to Tr. Benzoin. Most probably it kills, or anesthetizes the superficial sensory nerves responsible for pain generation.

If you don’t have a drill sergeant breathing down your neck, the best way, by far, to deal with blisters on the trail is prevention. As soon as you feel a hot spot, sit down, take off the boot and sock(s), rub your feet, let them dry out, find the hot spot, and plaster it with moleskin or one of the transparent bandages like New Skin (Tegaderm will also work). It is also critically important to stop and remove any pebble or debris in your boot as soon as you feel it. I’ve pushed it just a few more hundred yards, only to be sorry when a blister or abrasion occurs.

Once a blister has formed (again, if you have the luxury of tending to it without being shot or court-martialed) your primary focus should be prevention of infection. Try to protect the skin over the blister – as long as it’s intact, bacteria have no access to the denuded dermis. A donut of moleskin covered with an adhesive bandage may help take the pressure off and preserve the skin. If there’s just too much fluid in the blister to stand, clean the blister with an antiseptic (you do have alcohol pads or povidone iodine in your med kit, don’t you?), insert a hypodermic needle near the edge (but still into the dead skin), and aspirate the fluid. Re-clean the blister and cover with a sterile bandage. Perhaps a little antibiotic ointment would help prevent infection and reduce friction.

At any rate, use your head. If you have the freedom to stop and prevent, then stop and prevent. If not, do the best you can, but always trying to prevent infection. One other thing that Blake said that bears repeating – sock liners are great! I like the thin, white ones that you can buy cheap at outdoor stores. When used with good hiking socks, the friction is reduced dramatically. They’re so light you can take multiple pairs and stretch the smelly expiration date of your hiking socks, while keeping something clean against your feet. They’re also easy to wash and dry quickly. I highly recommend them!

One more thought about on-the-trail foot care: be sure to trim (and file smooth) your toenails before a backpacking trip! I forgot this once, and a toenail attacked the adjacent toe! Trimming toenails with a survival knife is an adventure, at best! I now remember this prep duty, and have allocated 1 oz. in my pack for nail clippers (yes, I know I’m a weenie).

Best to all, and, as always, thank you for all you do Mr. Rawles. – Pharmacist S.H. in Georgia


This is a well written article full of excellent information – my thanks to Blake!

I have never been in the military but have been backpacking most of my life. I agree that moleskin is a waste of time and will do more harm than good. But one item I always carry in my first aid kit is a Second Skin Moist Burn Pad [2]. These not only work well on burns but blisters as well. To apply, first clean the area; cut out a section about twice as large as the blister; peel the covering off one side; apply the peeled side to the blister; then carefully tape it on. The pads are sterile, so they are fine on open blisters as well. Just make sure you put the remaining portion in a Ziploc and squeeze out the air so that it doesn’t dry out.

Blisters can incapacitate you quickly and lead to some nasty infections, so treat those feet with respect! Make sure you put on those boots and that pack and hit the trail at least once a week so that if the SHTF, your equipment and your body are ready. – C.W.B.


Mr. Rawles,

I wanted to make a few comments on this Blake’s Art of Humping a Pack. Having been in Special Forces I have spent more than enough time ‘humping’. Most things I read here I can only agree with, now I feel I have something to add.

Taking care of your feet, Blake is right on. Changing socks often is critical. Dry feet are happy feet. I have found problems with cotton socks, I recommend wool or synthetic. Always powder your feet when putting your socks on. If you feel a hot spot, stop and fix it before it becomes a blister. My worst blister came from a short ruck march when I didn’t want to stop and fix what I knew was becoming a blister.

With regards to Tincture of Benzoin, it really does work! If you are going add this to your kit be advised that most tincture of benzoin that you find at your local drug store has an aloe mix and does not work. You need to go to a medical supply store to get the pure tincture of benzoin! I have found that if you put a hole on one side of the blister, inject the tincture from the other side, until all the pus is flushed out, and then push the skin down to stick it together. “Painful” is an understatement but it does work. If you don’t have tincture of benzoin, another solution is to use needle and white thread (colored threads will cause infection) and run it through your blister leaving the thread in your blister. The thread will act as a wick to allow the pus to drain. With this method there is a higher risk of infection but if you have to get somewhere and you feet aren’t cooperating, this will work.

Waterproof bags in your pack is critical. Water is weight, the only water you want in your pack is the water you can drink. I have seen soldiers come out of a creek with their pack weighing much more than when they went in. Painful and unnecessary.

I recommend layering your equipment. I would always carry a survival kit (built out of a M16 [3] Ammo Bandolier, under my shirt which contained some food, a water packet, small candle and matches, space blanket, simple medical kit, small knife and flashlight. Then I had my pistol belt with butt pack which is your fighting load which includes food, water, ammo, a couple pairs of socks and whatever basic cold weather gear might be needed. Last comes the pack with everything else; more water, more food, more socks, more ammo, … . That way if you have to dump your gear you can still get by.

Lastly, as much as good physical conditioning can allow you to carry a lot of gear the Marines did a study of the soldiers load and determined that 4/5ths of 1/3rd of your body weight is the optimum load for sustained load carrying. (The rule of thumb for pack animals I understand to be 1/3rd of body weight). So optimum load for a 200 lb male comes out to 53.3 lbs. Again, this is for optimum sustained load carrying.

Keep up the good work. – Steve T.

James Wesley;
I’ve only recently started reading your site. I’m enjoying both the current posts and the archives.

The article on humping a pack is consistent with my own experience. I’d like to add two points for your consideration.

First, the issue of how to carry a handgun when carrying a large pack. You get over 30 pounds pretty quickly when loading a pack. Any weight that high demands a good hip belt. You then carry most of the weight on your hips, not your shoulders. With both a hip belt and shoulder straps, all of the usual places to carry a hand gun are occupied. Neither belt holsters nor shoulder holsters work. You can do a thigh rig if you don’t mind open carry. I never liked them. I much prefer concealed carry wherever legal. The best solution is a thing called a Safepacker, which you can find at The Wilderness web site. It was designed and made by a guy who needed to carry a large handgun on mountain search and rescue operations. It pads and conceals most any size self defense handgun you might carry. I hang mine on my hip belt. Looks just like any other part of the pack, is quick to access, is very secure, lasts a long time. You can hang them most anywhere on the pack. They come in both left and right hand models and have room for spare ammo and a nice velcro pocket for paper or ID. One tip – go with a larger size if in doubt which one to get. In most jurisdictions, carry in a Safepacker is regarded as concealed, not open carry.

Second a large pack makes you an unsteady bipod. In anything but swamp, a walking stick or two is a great tool. It makes you more stable, is handy for discouraging dogs and snakes, allows you to rig an effective bipod to steady a rifle or use as a monopod for the rifle if you give some thought to the handle end of the thing, gives you a handy way to poke at anything suspect, and gets your arms working a bit, defeating the dreaded “sausage fingers” that happens when you hump a pack with your arms dangling down for a few hours. The only down side is that you cannot do this if conditions demand you carry a rifle or shotgun at the ready. You can take your pick of many available walking sticks marketed for backpackers. Look for light weight. You don’t need or want ones with built in spring shock absorbers. Too noisy. You do want to be able to pick your “basket” so you can get a big one if needed to stop from sinking deeply into snow or mud. You can get ones that telescope into small sizes so you can strap them to your pack. You can get ultra light carbon fiber ones that are maybe too fragile for most folks to use. You can get a rubber tip to use the sticks on pavement. You can also forgo commercial ones in favor of something more stout you can make yourself out of wood or metal – makes for a better weapon, but ounces count, so I like light ones. When I first saw walking sticks, I scorned them as trash for urban tree huggers. Then, I sprained an ankle and learned to love the things. On ice or scree, they can save your life. – JEJ


Greetings Jim,
I hope this Email finds you well. I would like to respond to the art of “Humping a pack”. Some regard me as a bit of an expert, I have been backpacking the Northwest Cascades and the Pacific Crest trail for the last 20 years, including climbing a few of the more well known Mountains and have week-long excursions down to a science in terms of needs and weight. One of the misconceptions that people have with regards to backpacking is focusing on the military as a general guideline for equipment. Things like ALICE [4] packs, MREs [5] and camelback hydration systems work fine when you are backed up by [logistical] support, But these Items will only prevent you from truly being totally sufficient in a time when there is no support.

High quality internal frame backpacks with compression straps and gear are designed specifically for the task of self sufficiency and comfort, this includes climbing mountains, rock scrambles, and traversing uneven ground and doing this while hauling enough food for a week, plus gear.

MREs – Fine for a few days, but if you won’t be around a food source for a week or longer, Lightweight Mountain House is a much better choice you can haul a weeks worth of food, and perhaps more if you are willing to eat late, and small, with their pro-paks.

Camelbak hydration systems – Guesswork is your only option here as to how much water is left, because you cannot see your consumption level because it is buried in your pack. Not a good thing when water is a primary concern. a better choice is two common water bottles, one packed inside at center-pack close to your back, the other rides topside for convenience.

Clothing, and this includes Socks – Clothes with any cotton are a giant no-no. We have a couple of sayings in the backpacking world, “Wool is worse” and “Cotton Kills!” all clothing should be synthetic, and wool blends only if you have to, with wool being around 35 to 40%. you only need two pair of socks: one to wear while the other is drying, synthetics dry fast, cotton absorbs, takes a long time to dry and clings to skin. Wool takes forever to dry. The objectives are to wick the moisture away from your skin, evaporation, and fast drying. Backpacking outlets carry clothing that is designed to keep you warm/cool, and wick moisture, soaking wet clothes can dry in minutes.

Moleskin – Only works in conjunction with rubbing alcohol, the area must be thoroughly free from oils and dirt before applying. if done correctly Moleskin can last for up to four days with a single application. if you have been fitted with right boots, moleskin probably wont be needed

Foot powder – We avoid it, as it only makes a mess of your feet, socks, and boots. The right socks make foot powder un necessary. Clip your toe nails short to avoid problems with the added weight and to save your socks from holes.

Boots – Spend the money. (Do web searches on Asolo and Vasque,) All feet may be different, but if you have to backpack across the country, or just across town, in the rain, snow, or blistering heat, these two companies make the boots that can do it.

Packing – Heavy items go center-pack against your back.

Packing enough gear goes hand in hand with packing the right gear, and knowing how to use what you pack. If you do it properly, some Items can serve more then one purpose, and you can be self sufficient for seven days or longer with as little as a 38 pound pack, this includes tent and sleeping bag, food, clothes, with rainwear, water filtration, stove. – Larry