Have you ever had a backpacking trip that was a disaster - even though you brought everything you needed? Maybe you had matches, but couldn't get that fire going. You need more than good gear to assure a safe and enjoyable wilderness experience. You need to know how to do a few things, and the following list will get you started.
1. Learn firemaking. Practice in your yard if you have to, but try to start that fire with one match. Try it the next time it's raining too.
2. Learn to pitch a tent. Do it wrong and the rain will come in, or the the wind will tear the seams. Tents should be pitched tight, and you should be able to set your tent up in a few minutes.
3. Learn how to stay warm. Practice camping in the yard, to see how blocking the wind, wearing a hat, and eating fatty foods before sleeping can keep you warmer.
4. Learn to cook over a fire. It's not as easy as it seems. Block the wind, cover the pan, keep the fire small and concentrated. Practice, and time yourself. Faster is better in a jam, and it's always possible your stove will break.
5. Learn about edible plants. Knowing how to identify cattails and three or four wild edible berries can make a trip more enjoyable, especially if you ever lose your food to a bear.
6. Learn how to walk. Learning how to pace yourself and how to move comfortably over rocky terrain means you'll be less tired, and less likely to twist an ankle.
7. Learn about animals. Can you tell if a bear is "bluff charging" or stalking you? If it's the latter, playing dead will make you a bear's supper. Hint: lots of noise usually means he just wants to frighten you, but you need to read up on this one.
8. Learn to watch the sky. Is that a lightning storm coming or not? It might be useful to know when you're on that ridge. Learn the basics of predicting weather, and you'll be a lot safer.
9. Learn basic first aid. Can you recognize the symptoms of hypothermia? Do you know how to properly treat blisters? Good things to know.
10. Learn navigation. Maps don't help if you don't know how to use them. The same is true for compasses
You don't need to be an expert in wilderness survival to enjoy a safe hiking trip. It can help to know a little more though. Use the backpacking skills list above, and learn something new.
Steve Gillman is a long-time backpacker, and advocate of ultralight backpacking. His advice and stories can be found at http://www.TheBackpackingSite.com