This past weekend my family and I went on a backpacking trip. The members of our travel party would include, myself, my father Charles, my boyfriend Reid, my sister Erica, my brother-in-law Dustin, Dustin’s brother AJ, and my Australian cousin Steven, all of us at varying levels of expertise.
My dad has been backpacking passionately for as long as I can remember and plays a bit of a game with his buddy Tim: they try to pack the lightest pack with only the necessities. Erica, Dustin and AJ had never been backpacking before, but were interested in trying it out, Steven has gone a number of times both in the U.S. and in Australia, Reid, whose dad is also a passionate backpacker, has gone backpacking since he was very young, and I have gone a few of times, always with my dad, inheriting the gear he replaced with a lighter option. This is our story.
Backpacking for Dummies: A Dummy’s Guide to Backpacking
As any backpacker would know, a backpacking trip doesn’t start at the trailhead. It begins at home with the preparation.
Choosing a date for a backpacking trip can be a very complicated process. Factors to consider:
- Is there a wedding?
- When will your cousin be visiting from Australia?
- Will your uncle be celebrating his 70th birthday?
- Do you have work or school?
- Are you also planning a trip along the Continental Divide?
- What will you have to reschedule?
In addition to scheduling conflicts, especially when travelling in a large group, backpacking is a sport best enjoyed in warm, dry conditions. It is important to follow the weather reports and choose dates that will ensure a happy company.
However, sometimes you will find that the warm and dry dates fall during conflicting events and you are left with the single cold and wet weekend for probably the entire summer.
After deciding on a date you must gather all of your gear.
- Stove and fuel
- Cooking pot and skillet (depending on what you plan to cook)
- Utensils (don’t use your hands, we aren’t barbarians)
- Bowl and/or plate (again… barbarians)
- Mug (hot things are hot)
- Water filter (unless you enjoy the effects of giardia)
- Water holding device (bottle or bladder)
- Sleeping bag
- Camp chair (much nicer than the ground)
- Sleeping pad (cuz the ground is hard and rocks are lumpy)
- Hiking socks (prevent blisters)
- Underwear (I really shouldn’t have to explaint this one)
- Lightweight hiking shorts (move easily)
- Non-cotton lightweight shirts (cotton tends to stay wet once it gets wet from sweat or rain)
- Long underwear pants and shirt (cozy pajamas)
- Fleece (for warmth, dries quickly)
- Rain coat and pants (keeps you dry)
- Hiking boots (broken in)
- Lightweight camp shoes (to relax your feet in after hiking all day)
- Hat (1 to protect against sun, another against cold)
- Headlamp (it gets DARK at night and when nature calls you don’t want to stumble into the lake)
- Trekking poles (nice for steep slopes)
- Toothbrush and paste (for fresh minty breath)
- Hair bands (to tie back your wild tresses)
- Chapstick (cuz chapped lips sucks)
- Sanitation wipes (such as Wet Ones)
- Toilet paper (again with the explaining)
- Sunscreen (sun burns and sleeping outside don’t mix)
- Deep woods bugspray (bugs are annoying)
- First-aid kit (in case of the worst happening)
- Fishing pole and license (cuz it’s fun to catch your own dinner, but don’t count on it)
- Camera with a charged battery (it sucks to get to 11,000 feet carrying your camera the whole way just to find that you can’t take any pictures of the beautiful wildflowers)
- Rope and caribiner (for hanging food in the trees away from camp: bears)
Some things you might already have, you might have to borrow things from friends and family. The important thing is to make sure you have your basic needs covered, shelter and warmth. Sustenance, of course, is another basic need. You have everything you need to store water and to filter it for safe drinking. You also have food preparation and consuming equipment. Now you must decide what food items to bring.
This depends on how many days you will be backpacking, weight and comfort. It is best to go for light items that are filling for their weight. Some good options that I like to bring include:
- Instant oatmeal packets
- Granola bars
- Ramen, macaroni and cheese, cous cous (anything with a dry grain that you just add water and flavoring)
- Cashews, almonds, pistachios, etc.
- Dried fruit such as raisins, or craisins
- Dehydrated veggies
- Candy bars especially chocolate
- Trail mix
- Instant coffee
- Tea bags
- Chicken or tuna in a foil pouch
- Tortillas can be used to make PB&J roll-ups or quesadillas
There are many things you can bring and it takes practice to decide what you like best. These are just my personal favorites.
It is very important to stay in contact with those who will be travelling with you. They are your support system and prior to the trip everyone should be on the same page as to where you are going, for how long, the hike distance, elevation etc. This can easily be done through email so long as you send emails to the correct address.
Finally all your preparation will be rewarded; the day of the trek has arrived. Have a big breakfast at IHOP and drive to your trailhead, because things are about to get real.
It’s been said that your brain will quit a hundred times before your body will have to. The thing to remember with backpacking is that you must trick your brain. Encouraging it with phrases like, “We’re almost to the top,” or “You can carry yourself and 40 extra pounds up this steep section,” will help. Another thing to remember is that you can’t stop too often or for too long, your muscles will have to warm up every time you stop and it’s best to just keep going.
I find that after about 20 minutes I get into the zone: the weight and constant pounding of my feet keeps me centered. Other may experience different findings. Whatever works for you, channel it. (Also make sure to eat snacks and drink LOTS of water)
When you find an area that looks nice to camp (with a water source nearby), it’s best to set-up camp before doing anything else (except maybe following nature’s call, which I will not be getting into in this post. If you would like information on using the world as your toilet and leaving no trace please read the 5th subheading in this article.
To set up camp first, set up your tent (and a rain tarp, since the clouds will be rolling in at this point). After setting up the tent, pull out your sleeping pad and bag inside the tent to get fluffy and cozy before bed. Then as the first drops begin to fall on your head, put on your raincoat and pants and set up your camp chair. Duck under your rain tarp, hunker down, and try to laugh away the misfortune: play games, drink alcohol, DON’T check the time, and hope for some sun.
When the rain calms a bit and it’s safe to walk around in the tall wet grass snap a few pictures of the beauty that surrounds you.
It’s good to have some activities prepared between meals, to pass the time: day hikes, reading, drawing, photography, fishing, writing, talking, laughing, card playing, and sledding are all good ideas.
As the sun sets, find a good place to hike up to (careful of the slippery wet rocks) and enjoy the view.
When the tarp begins to collect water, engineering must come into play.
When all else fails and you are feeling lost in the wetness, make new friends.
After cooking and eating dinner, playing a few silly games about what you can take to the moon, and passing around a few communal beers it’s time for bed. Brush your teeth (with a bottle of Jack), strip off your wet clothing and snuggle into your sleeping bag as you listen to the creeks flowing all around you (don’t forget to use the natural toilet before getting in bed, it is the absolute worst thing to have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night on a camping trip, especially when there are streams flowing in every directions and marshes just beyond the streams and tall wet grass everywhere you step).
In the morning you will wake up to the babbling brooks and songs of the birds (and your urgent need to urinate). You will hope that the sun is shining and poke your head out of the tent warily. You see that it is and your heart will flood with joy. You get dressed and let yourself fully out of the tent, joining your party under the big blue tarp. You start preparing your breakfast just as the sun shyly hides its face again behind the clouds.
You resign yourself to another chilly and cloudy day and the company decides to finish breakfast, pack up and head back down the mountain.
Hopefully you remembered to clip your toenails before the trip because the constant jamming of your toenails into the front of your boots can be quite painful. Just ask those who have decided to have their toenails removed completely. Lacing your boots tightly around your ankles can help with the downhill hike.
Some people say hiking down is the hardest part, yes hiking up is more strenuous and breathing is much harder, but hiking down takes finesse and concentration. Constantly trying to stop your body’s potential energy from turning into kinetic energy is tough work, but still usually takes less time.
That is, of course, unless your boyfriend is chased down the mountain by a mountain line, which he fights off by punching it in the face, which is seen by pirates who think he is bad ass and want him in their troop, but first they have to initiate him by locking him in a mine in Idaho Springs, which he only escapes because Gandalf (LOTR reference again) shows up blinding them with his staff, and he crawls to safety through a tunnel which leads to the basement of Beaujo’s where he is picked up by his girlfriend and her dad, or so the story has been told.
Further (more practical) information on backpacking:
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What do you think of our experience? Do you like to backpack? Tell me about your past trips.