Even as an experienced hiker, backpacking can seem like an intimidating leap into a realm with many unknowns and risks. Even as someone who now spends most of her summers backpacking, I still remember contemplating if backpacking was something that was feasible for me. Was I capable of carrying a heavy load on my back for miles at a time? Were the day hikes I was doing sufficient enough to prepare myself for what I’d endure while backpacking? In retrospect, taking the plunge into backpacking was one of the best decisions I ever made because it led me to my passion and built upon the love I already had for the outdoors. Besides, day hiking and backpacking aren’t actually that different from each other and, when you think about it, backpacking is essentially just an extended day hike that results in staying overnight (i.e. adding camping into the mix).
I’m here to break down the reservations people may have about backpacking and to assure you that if you’re a day hiker, there’s no doubt that you can become a backpacker in a few easy steps.
Acquire your gear
Aside from actually backpacking, this might just be the most fun and exciting part of the process. But how are you supposed to know what to bring, especially when everything has to fit in a single backpack? A good place to start is with what’s called “The Ten Essentials”, which are ten items you should always bring into the wilderness to keep yourself safe and prepared. These essentials are as follows:
- Navigation – map, compass, GPS
- Sun Protection – sunscreen, sunglasses, hat
- Insulation – jacket, gloves
- Illumination – headlamp, lantern, flashlight
- First Aid Supplies – first aid kit
- Fire – lighter, matches
- Repair Kit and Tools – knife, duct tape, scissors
- Nutrition – food, salty snacks
- Hydration – water, water treatment supplies
- Emergency Shelter – tent, space blanket, tarp
Next, you’ll need to develop your sleep system. A typical sleep system consists of a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and a pillow. The main factors to consider when acquiring these are weight, temperature, compression, and (most importantly) comfort. Trust me, your body will thank you for a good night’s sleep after a long day of hiking with a heavy load on your back. One of my favorite pieces of gear that hits the sweet spot for all of these factors is the Therm-a-Rest Hyperion 20 degree sleeping bag. I’ve spent years of relentlessly searching for the perfect sleeping bag for backpacking trips and the Hyperion has the warmth and comfort I need while also packing down small enough to leave ample room in my pack and light enough so that I barely know it’s there.
Aside from sleeping, other gear items you should consider when building your stockpile is a cooking system, toiletries, and “luxury” items. A luxury item is anything that is not crucial to your survival but beneficial to you, like books or a fishing rod. Accumulating the right gear can be a lengthy process that sometimes ceases to end, as it can take time to learn what works best for you. But remember, the most effective way to figure that out is simply by trial and error. So get out there and put your gear to the test!
If you are looking for ways to lighten up the ten essentials, check out another post on the subject.
Let go of your fears
Many people consider backpacking a risky endeavor based on the idea that the unexpected could be lurking around any corner. Granted, trusting a process with so many unknowns can be difficult, and the unknown is scary, but living inside of your comfort zone for eternity is an even more terrifying thought. So if you’re a worst-case scenario thinker (like me), don’t fret because there are a number of ways to mitigate these fears and prevent mishaps from occurring in the backcountry.
The more common fears associated with backpacking involve getting injured, getting lost, or encountering wildlife. So if you’re concerned about you or someone you’re with getting injured and not having the knowledge or resources to provide the right treatment, get a fully loaded first aid kit (one of those Ten Essentials) and become familiar with what’s inside before hitting the trail. You can also bring along a first aid guidebook or build your confidence by taking a wilderness first aid course.
For those of you who might be a bit more navigationally challenged and worried about losing your way, the best piece of advice I can give (in addition to bringing along a GPS or map – another Ten Essential) is to do your research beforehand. This research should entail not only getting familiar with the correct route and landmarks for the area you plan to hike, but also reading recent reports about the trail conditions. Usually these reports will offer valuable information and notify you of any hazards on the trail or if additional gear is recommended.
Since going into the wilderness usually means entering into an animal’s territory, wildlife encounters are a very real possibility. Before you start channeling your inner flight response, try learning about the wildlife species in the area and inform yourself on what to do if you encounter one. Rest assured, you’ll find that animals are more scared of you than you are of them most of the time. If you’re still not convinced, you can take extra precaution and pack sprays, whistles, or horns designed to deter specific kinds of wildlife.
It’s important to know that the information you bring on a backpacking trip can be just as vital to a wilderness experience as the collection of gear you carry on your back. We all have a responsibility to understand the impact we have when we step foot onto a trail and Leave No Trace principles should be kept in the forefront of any backpacker’s mind. These are seven principles established by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics that provide guidance on minimizing our impact when spending time outdoors. These principles (listed below) are especially important for backpacking, as extended time spent in the backcountry can have a negative impact on the surrounding environment if these practices are overlooked:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
In addition to Leave No Trace, you should also become familiar with the specific set of rules and regulations for the forest, park, or wilderness area you’re backpacking in. Often times, these regulations will be listed on your permit, which you can use for reference during your trip. The big one to pay attention to is food storage. If you’re in bear country or if those pesky marmots are around, you’ll want to store your food properly (usually in a canister or bag of some sort) to protect yourself, your food, and the local wildlife.
Aside from the official rules, hiking etiquette is an informal set of guidelines to take with you on the trail. Most of these are fairly common sense practices, like saying hi to passing hikers and taking snack breaks away from the trail. Those etiquette tips that might not be as obvious include yielding to uphill traffic while hiking and not pitching your tent near others to preserve both theirs and your intimate experience.
Have fun and reap the benefits:
Backpacking once is like trying to eat a single potato chip. Why? Because an enjoyable and profound wilderness experience removed from the hustle and bustle of city life makes it easy to get hooked. With your only obligations consisting of hiking and simple tasks like setting up camp and cooking food, it’s impossible not to live in the moment, connect to your surroundings, and focus on the bigger picture themes in life. Backpacking is also a great way to strengthen personal relationships, as conversations are usually more impactful when distractions are eliminated and teamwork is built on the problem-solving circumstances that are bound to occur. And yes, while it’s a bit more involved than day hiking, backpacking gives you an undeniable sense of accomplishment. Carrying everything you need to survive on your back while also exerting energy is no easy feat, but I can guarantee it is a worthwhile one that will give you all the confidence in the world.
If all of this still seems overwhelming, remember that you don’t have to dive straight into a week-long backpacking excursion. In fact, a quick overnight trip can be just as satisfying and allow you to gradually get comfortable with the process before really immersing yourself into a longer and more intense adventure. In any case, backpacking is an experience that belongs to YOU. Go at your own pace, travel as far as you’re comfortable with, break when you feel like it, and create your own memories. It’s all out there waiting for you, so don’t be afraid to reach for it.