Where To Go
Most of the time you’ll probably be backpacking on public lands. The most common are those found on State Parks, National Parks, and Wilderness Areas (sometimes called “Wildlife Areas," “Wildlife Management Areas,” or just "Natural Areas.") Certainly, private lands also exist in some regions, but they are less common. You’ll want to make sure the area you choose actually allows backcountry camping. Many parks and public lands have hiking trails and campgrounds for RV and car camping, but fewer have designated backpacking campsites or allow backcountry camping. As mentioned in Part I, you should strongly consider that your first trail not be overly strenuous, has easy access to water, and, ideally, is somewhat familiar. Be smart and well-prepared, but get out there! Here are some resources to help you find a suitable trail.
- National Park Service
- Backpacker Magazine
- Local/Regional Guidebooks
- Local/Regional Outfitters and Independent Retail Stores
- Local State Park Website (here is Tennessee’s)
- Local Wilderness/Wildlife/Natural Areas Website (here is Tennessee’s)
Many of the public lands will require that you get a permit to camp in the backcountry. Other areas simply have a trail register for visitors to sign before heading onto the trail, and campsites are determined on a first come/first serve basis. Often permits are free in state parks and wilderness areas. National Parks might cost a few bucks or more. You might also need a separate fire permit to build a backcountry fire, or this will be checked off on your general permit. This is to help prevent forest fires during dry seasons; always be sure to ask. Also be sure to call in advance when possible to make certain the campsites are available for the night you intend to stay. Don’t simply assume you can show up and grab a permit or site. Most backpacking trails have designated campsites or shelters which have a finite number of visitors allowed per night. Also, some areas will not have dedicated campsites and will allow you to choose your own site. You should choose a place that is near a water source if possible, has a nice place to safely make a fire ring from rocks, is flat, and you should avoid setting up camp where you will permanently harm local foliage and flora (look for dirt, short grasses, sand, etc.) More on this a few paragraphs down...
You should ALWAYS leave a trip itinerary with someone – a close friend or family member. Let them know where you’re going, the trails you plan to hike, where you’ll be camping (if known), and when you’ll be returning. I usually send an email with this information. I often include the phone number of the park or ranger station when applicable, and sometimes I even attach a map to the email. In the event of an emergency or accident, this information could prove life-saving to a rescue team. It is also wise to keep the information for an emergency contact on your person or at least in your pack (just a name, phone number, and relationship will suffice.)
Protect Your Valuables In Your Car
Unfortunately, there are assholes in the world. One breed of asshole is the thief who is smart enough to know that an automobile parked by a backpacking trail will likely be unoccupied for many hours. Try to limit or omit any valuables you plan to keep in the car. Any valuables you do have should be locked out of site in your trunk, behind the seat of a truck, or in a glovebox.
Leave No Trace /Good Stewardship
The last thing to cover before heading out into the backcountry is one of the most important. If you are not familiar with the Leave No Trace principles of responsible outdoor ethics, get familiar with them. The Seven Principles are the best place to start. In short, you should be respectful and leave any wilderness area just as you found it – this includes how you deal with trash and waste (pack it in, pack it out), how and where you set up camp and build a fire, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other campers. Food storage is an important component of these principles as well. Some areas require a dedicate bear canister, but you should learn to properly store (hang) your food and scented toiletries in any environment. Here’s a good place to start learning those techniques.
So, this concludes a very quick and general primer for those interested in getting out for their first backpacking trip. By no means is this an exhaustive guide; it is intended to be a broad overview. An excellent resource for detailed information about all things backpacking is The Complete Walker IV by Colin Fletcher and Chip Rawlings. This book is beautifully written and provides a wealth of information from expert hikers with many, many years of combined experience. The more you learn about backpacking, the more fun you will have and the less likely you are to suffer unpleasant or emergency situations. Now get out there and enjoy!