Friday, July 11, 2014

The Beginner's Guide to Backpacking, Part 1 - Getting Familiar

So, you’ve become interested in backpacking. Maybe you’re reading this because you accepted an invitation for a wilderness trip and want to know what to expect. Maybe you’re an experienced hiker and/or car-camper and want to get a little more wild, spending a night or two in the backcountry, away from big crowds, RV generators, and shrieking children zooming through campgrounds on bikes and scooters. Perhaps you’ve never strayed from climate-controlled rooms for more than a few hours but think backpacking sounds exotic and exciting. No matter your motivation, I think almost anyone can enjoy backpacking and the countless benefits it offers (it is guaranteed to make you look and feel sexier despite the frequent sightings of zip-off pants, the lack of showers, and the abundance of insect repellant.) That said, spending time deep in the wilderness demands a certain amount of knowledge and preparation to ensure safety. If it feels a little bit scary, that is perfectly normal (I admit it was for me on my first couple of trips.) In fact, overconfidence and blind ignorance of potential emergency situations can be a recipe for disaster. A healthy dose of nervousness and anxiety can be great motivators to properly prepare. And once you face those fears and realize that you CAN go out into the wilderness with only a sack on your back and not only survive but have a great time splashing in creeks, standing atop mountain overlooks, or just star-gazing amidst tall trees, you might just find yourself immediately hooked (I was.) As you begin planning or simply contemplating your first trip, you might consider some of these suggestions:

Consider an easy trail/campsite for your first trip, such as
one with a dedicated shelter and plentiful water source.
  • Practice with long day hikes. I once was heading out for a backpacking trip and found myself unusually nervous in preparing because the area was wilder and more rugged than areas I had predominantly explored, I was going alone, and I knew it had potentially "dangerous" wildlife in the area (multiple species of poisonous snakes and black bears.) At the time, I reminded myself that this trip was nothing more than two day hikes with a long nap in between. Getting out for longer day hikes in areas similar to where you hope to begin backpacking is great preparation, both physically and mentally. Day hikes give you an opportunity to become familiar with some of the gear you'll use (the Ten Essentials of Hiking is a good start), and will also offer you the opportunity to evaluate your stamina and what pace and distances are reasonable for your fitness level.
  • Go car-camping. Car camping allows you to get familiar with any or all of the gear used in backpacking without the pressure of being in the backcountry. The benefits of car camping are that you don't have to worry about weight, since your gear can be stored in your trunk or backseat. Consider taming down the "glamping" aspects, however, and bring the gear you expect to use for backpacking. Don't just bring it, of course; use it. Better to realize you don't actually know how to use a water filter at a campground with running water than several miles deep in the wilderness.
  • Find a friend, go with a group, or join a meet up. I was lucky that as I was becoming interested in backpacking, I was dating a woman who had done some backpacking and was enthusiastic to learn and do more. If you're on your own without an interested friend, partner, or spouse, it can be a bit more intimidating. Search on backpacking forums (like this one or this one), search for Meetup groups, or inquire about university/school clubs if you're a student. if those options are unavailable to you or not in line with your disposition, there is no shame in going it alone. Just be aware that learning alone can be a bit slower and you will have no one else to take up the slack if mistakes are made in the backcountry. The flip side is that you are free to indulge your every whim, do things at your own pace, and you might even gain more confidence and prepare more thoroughly as a solely independent backpacker.
  • Find an easy or low-pressure trail to plan your first trip. If you're just getting into rock climbing, you would be foolish to plan an ascent of Everest in those early days of learning. The same goes for backpacking. For your first overnight trip, ESPECIALLY if you're planning to go alone, find a low-pressure trail that isn't too strenuous, has plentiful water sources, and, if possible, is already somewhat familiar. You might even consider a site with dedicated shelters and a water line or certain water source to really take the pressure off. Keep your margins for error low and your consequences for failure modest. Don't go out in sub zero temperatures on a steep, icy trail hoping you chose the right sleeping bag to keep you warm, the right stove to melt snow, and boots that can handle the conditions. Sure, you might do perfectly fine, but what if you don't? Be smart, build a little confidence, and before long you'll be able to enjoy more rugged, wild, and challenging trails if that is your interest.

So, that is a VERY basic overview of some things to consider as you first begin to embark on your journey towards becoming a rugged backpacking expert or just a weekend warrior. In future segments, I'll discuss the basic skills and knowledge you should have and the gear you'll need.

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