For me hiking, camping, climbing or whatever is not to see how much discomfort you can endure but how high you can raise the comfort level with the least amount of stuff. What "comfort" is to me may be different to what it is to you and may vary from trip to trip.
               —B. M. Dyleski,


Psychological well-being is important too. You need to have confidence in the gear and the skills to maximize your use of everything in your pack.
                    —Mike Clelland, NOLS Instructor,
                    “The Leader Online,” Spring 2006

Central Questions Addressed in This Article

  How important is maximizing comfort and minimizing discomfort on wilderness adventures? In the frontcountry? What is the best way(s) to deal with the discomfort and adversity experienced in the wilderness? What is my philosophy of comfort in both the front and backcountry? How important is it to get out of my comfort zone? 

Important Distinctions and Clarifications

  The following five distinctions are important to think clearly and effectively about the subject of comfort and discomfort in the wilderness.

Camp vs. Trail: When thinking about this subject, we often think about the comforts of camp (or lack thereof) after putting in a hard day on the trail. Consider that comfort on the trail might be even more important. Does my pack fit? Is it too heavy? Are my feet sore and blistered? Is my body sore and tired? Will I become exhausted before reaching my objective? Will I be so tired as not to enjoy camping?

Discomfort vs. Misery: There is a big difference between experiencing some pain and discomfort and experiencing real misery and suffering. Just so there is no misunderstanding, this article is not dealing with those who are masochistic, who enjoy pain and suffering on some level for its own sake. Also not at issue are those irrational folk who attempt trips well beyond their skill and experience level—becoming miserable in the process. Put even more strongly, this article does not deal with the notion of survivability where the suffering and misery turn out to be so great as to threaten one’s life.

Comfort and Luxury Are Relative: One distinction conducive to much debate is between comforts and luxuries. For one person, a comfortable sleeping pad in the mountains might be 1.0-1.5 inches of thickness. For another, it might be a pad or mattress two or more inches in thickness. To the ultralighter, both of these might be seen as luxuries. A true luxury for most would be a portable camp chair, but others might see this as necessary for a comfortable camp.  One person’s comfort is another person’s luxury.

Beginners vs. More Advanced: Another distinction is between the comfort levels of beginning, intermediate and advanced backpackers. Consider that beginners often have a much lower tolerance for discomfort because of their lack of knowledge, experience and skill. They might become extremely upset (i.e., might suffer emotional discomfort) in situations to which the advanced packer would give little thought. As we gain more experience and skill, we usually expand and broaden our comfort levels. The focus in this article is on the more experienced hiker and backpacker, not on beginners. 

Physical vs. Emotional Comfort Levels: Most comforts on the trail and in camp are physical in nature, but what about psychological or emotional concerns? Will I get attacked or hurt or lost? Do I have the skills and experience and gear necessary to achieve my objective? Will my backpacking friends find me good company? Will I be able to get back home in time to fulfill my frontcountry obligations?

Common Physical and Psychological Discomforts

Common physical discomforts in the wilderness include being too hot or too cold, too thirsty or too wet, too sweaty and dirty, too sore and achy, or too tired and exhausted. Sometimes the pack is too heavy, the feet too sore, the sleeping bag too confining, the ground too hard. Sometimes it is dragging yourself out of a warm bag to pee on a cold night. Other times it is the smoke from a campfire that is hard to get away from. Still other physical discomforts involve insects: being attacked by mosquitoes, flies, bees, ticks and ants. The fundamental problem is not getting away from physical discomfort, but deciding how much to put up with. Each of us will come to different conclusions. Often these conclusions change with age and experience.  Another factor is the distance from the comforts of the frontcountry; the further away the easier it often becomes.

  Even though emotional or psychological discomforts are not always easy to separate from the physical, they also come with the territory. Common emotional or psychological discomforts are fear of falling in the river, twisting an ankle, getting lost; or in some parts of the country of getting hit by lightning or attacked by wild animals. Another more subtle type of emotional discomfort is experiencing uncertainties about a new route or a new piece of gear. Even subtler are the discomforts of being forced to stay in a small tent for too many hours or being surrounded by too many people or being around a disagreeable personality. Another potential for emotional discomfort can be my knowledge, skill and experience levels relative to the type of trip I have chosen. How much psychological or emotional discomfort am I willing to put up with? One unknown writer came up with the following: "Get psychologically comfortable with the expected; be safe even though not comfortable with the unexpected."

Philosophies of Physical Comfort: Thumbnail Sketches

  Comfort and discomfort is not an either/or, but a full range—a continuum. Following is one breakdown of this continuum starting at the maximum comfort end and progressing to those who learn to tolerate extreme discomforts. Where do you fit? Which of the following styles or sketches (stated in first person) ring most true?

Day Hiking While Sleeping and Eating in Town: I really like my creature comforts. I pick trails that are close to towns or trailheads where I can get a lift to town. I eat most of my meals in restaurants and sleep in real beds at hostels, bed and breakfasts or motels. I am super comfortable on the trail carrying little more than a snack, water and a rain jacket. [Note: click on the following link for more information on this philosophy and style of hiking: Slackpacking and Slow Walking.]

Day Hiking out of Comfortable Base Camp: I like my comforts both on the trail and in camp. I am willing to carry a heavy pack into a base camp and then day hike out from there. For day hiking, I carry a very light daypack and keep the distances relatively short. For camping, I bring camp shoes, a portable chair, a good book, two full-length sleeping mats, and an extra warm sleeping bag. I carry an extra set of clothes for sleeping. I like a good fire. I wear high top boots to keep out the snow, rain and dirt. I have a full storm suit for when the weather turns bad. Sometimes I take fishing gear. I will usually take a camera, binoculars, cell phone, AM-FM radio and a GPS. I carry a full set of emergency and repair gear for the unexpected. For example, my first aid kit weighs over two pounds and will be adequate for most accidents and illnesses. You get the picture.

[Note: in the full-length version of this article, eight additional and distinct philosophies of comfort and discomfort are identified in this section.]


The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 12 pages) available as a free download.  Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.

Maximizing Comfort and Minimizing Discomfort in the Wilderness – Word Format

Maximizing Comfort and Minimizing Discomfort in the Wilderness —PDF Format

The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:

Important Distinctions and Clarifications

Common Physical and Psychological Discomforts

Philosophies of Physical Comfort: Thumbnail Sketches

Reader Participation: Philosophy of Wilderness Comfort

Getting Out of One’s Comfort Zone: Reasons and Motivations

Reader Participation: Experimentation and Getting Out of One’s Comfort Zone in the Wilderness

Author’s Philosophy of Wilderness Comfort

Additional Issues for Reflection


Maximizing Comfort and Minimizing Discomfort in the Wilderness