I recently received a catalog from one of the major backpack manufacturers in the US, and I have to say the images presented backpacking in a way that was, well, misleading. There were no mosquitoes. Everyone was clean and smiling and the weather looked perfect. Now of course they were trying to sell me something, so perhaps they can be forgiven for choosing to emphasize the positive; but what I saw on those glossy pages wasn’t really different from most of the backpacking images on social media. Don’t get me wrong, I have experienced a lot of “perfect” moments as a backpacker and have taken my share of pictures that would tell a false story on their own, but that sweet-smelling, blister-free, easy image of backpacking isn’t real.
Real backpacking is often, to steal the words of the late Patrick McManus, “a fine and pleasant misery.” It’s often uncomfortable. Smoke blows in your eyes and you might develop a stink that can part a cloud of gnats after a few days sweating in the same clothes. Your choices have higher stakes than they do in the front country. A careless movement may mean not having anything to eat for dinner or may turn what would have been a pleasant walk into a very long hobble. You don’t have to enjoy suffering for suffering’s sake, but the challenges are what make those breathtaking sunsets and summits so rewarding. The skills and toughness needed to survive and thrive in wild places, the chance to learn that all you need can be carried on your back, those are the things that make backpacking so special.
(Seth's poor feet after a brutal Alps solo trip. He is resting his feet in his camp shoes between treks)
So if you desire to step out of your comfort zone and experience a simpler way of living, if you want to get away from the buzz of electric lights and see the stars wheeling above the pines, if you don’t mind some bugs, blisters, and the occasional hail storm; then this is a good year to start backpacking.
Seth's Camp Cooking Set Up
If you are considering taking your first backpacking trip, here are 10 tips to help make sure that you get to experience the fine and pleasant parts and not just the misery.
Be Realistic About Your Abilities And Capacity
There has been a concerted effort by outdoor companies to make backpacking more inclusive. One of the big advantages of this marketing strategy is that no matter who you are, you can probably find gear that will work for your body. What “backpacking for everyone” can’t mean in the real world is that you are up for doing anything anyone else can do. As you plan your first trip, you need to be honest about things like your overall fitness and tolerance of pain/discomfort. You don’t need the physique of a Greek god to backpack, but you’ll want to limit your total daily mileage and elevation gained if you get winded walking across the parking lot. You will also want to assess areas such as your capacity for discomfort, first aid skills, and backcountry navigation. It’s okay to be a beginner. Start small. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the epic trip is the only one worth taking and choose the adventure that fits you.
Learn To Assess Risk
Risk assessment isn’t necessarily something that most modern people engage with consciously. In the industrialized world we are surrounded by countless laws and regulations meant to keep us safe; and when something goes wrong, emergency services are only a phone call away. If I don’t dress for the weather and get soaked by icy rain walking home from my office, I don’t suffer any more serious consequence than feeling silly and needing a hot shower. The same poor decision making while backpacking could easily result in hypothermia or a trip cut short because easy ways to get warm and dry just aren’t available. Remember that when you are backpacking you are responsible for your own safety and your resources are limited. Learning to be aware of your surroundings and navigating the potential risks is a necessary and satisfying element of backpacking.
Try It With A Friend Or Two
I love solo backpacking, but it is different than going with people you enjoy. Solo trips tend to amplify the stresses and consequences inherent in the sport. Of course a bad companion can make a trip much worse; but, in general, backpacking with a group is safer, easier, and more enjoyable than going solo. One of the greatest safety advantages of being in a group is having someone who can administer first aid or get help if someone is seriously hurt. Most negative interactions with wildlife (i.e. bears chewing on your legs) happen to soloists. Group backpacking is easier physically because camp chores such as gathering firewood and filtering water are shared and some heavy items such as tents or cooking gear can be distributed among multiple packs. Perhaps even more significant than the physical benefits of going in a group is the mental benefit. For instance, switchbacks are just easier to climb with a partner– it isn’t necessarily rational but it is true nonetheless– and shared memories from an adventure and the stories told around the fire are some of the best experiences backpacking has to offer.
Seth in the Swiss Alps on a Solo Trip
Research Your Location And Know The Rules
Your first backpacking trip will probably happen on public land. Whether it is managed by the National Park Service, the BLM, National Forest, or the state there are probably some rules you need to follow. Many trailheads post the rules for the areas to which they provide access, but you should learn as much as you can before leaving home. In some areas of my state fires are prohibited without a fire pan or fire blanket and ash has to be packed out (i.e. no fires for me). Some areas require special gear such as a bear barrel for overnight trips. Increasingly, some very high use areas are requiring that backpackers pack out their poop. If you insist on going to such an area, you need to be prepared before you leave home to avoid – shall we say– awkward solutions or being fined.
While I am not going to try to defend every regulation, knowing and following the rules set down for public land use is critical to protect the wild places we enjoy as backpackers. It only takes a few careless or selfish individuals to have lasting negative impacts.
Are Critters A Concern?
You’re probably thinking about bears now (When was the last time you read about a hiker being mauled by a chipmunk?) but depending on the location there are other animals that are worth thinking about too. In most of North America, if you travel in a group and avoid traveling in low light conditions, you probably aren’t going to be attacked by an animal on the trail. The majority of negative interactions with wildlife on the trail come from an animal being surprised, and most groups make enough noise without special effort to clear the trail of critters.
If you are hiking in an area where surprising a bear or moose is more likely, it is worth making a little extra noise. Some hikers attach bells to their backs or clothing, but having a conversation or groaning under the weight of your pack should be sufficient. Bear spray may be worth investing in, but practice is required in order to effectively use it.
Mosquitos and other biting insects are the critters that have had the biggest impact on my backpacking. If you are going into the high country during the summer, do yourself a favor, bring the Deet. There are other options, but my experience is, use Deet or get eaten.
Various camp robbers should also be on your radar. Whether it is a field mouse or a black bear, the best way to avoid issues is to keep all food and food adjacent items (anything a stupid dog might try to eat i.e. chapstick, scented sunscreen, toothpaste…) isolated away from where you are sleeping; and, when possible, hang your food in a tree. Rodents will chew through the wall of a tent or through a backpack to get at food. Bottom line, don’t eat, cook, or store any food like substance any closer to where you are sleeping than you are comfortable with having a bear trying to eat it.
What You Should Have In Your Pack
The following gear list is meant to be a starting point for a summer backpacking trip in the Rockies. There is gear that is marked as optional that you may consider essential and you can do without some of the “essentials” too. I usually take a camp chair and a collapsible cup on my trips and those items didn’t make the list at all. One of my favorite parts of backpacking is trying to be smart about making the choices of how much weight I want to carry vs how comfortable I want to be in camp. I would advise a beginner to avoid trying to go too light or too heavy until they figure out what style suits them best. A total pack weight of between 30 and 40 lbs for a 3-4 day trip (including food and water) is a good goal.
(Optional gear marked with an asterisk)
Boots (already broken in)
Camp shoes or sandals*
quick dry shorts or pants and shirt
set of warm clothes (light gloves and a warm hat are super nice)
extra socks and underwear
rain jacket or poncho
Sleeping bag rated 20 degrees or lower
Tent or tarp (8x10 or bigger)
silverware of your choice
2 32oz water bottles or hydration bladder
bag you can hang food and 30 ft of paracord
Toilet Paper or flushable wipes
Headlamp or flashlight
first aid kit
backpacking stove with fuel
matches or lighter
walking stick or trekking poles*
Rent Gear/Use What You Have
Like any other specialized pastime, quality backpacking gear can be spendy. Rather than dropping hundreds of dollars on gear that will just sit in storage if you determine that backpacking isn’t your thing, consider renting some of the more expensive items like a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, and pack. Some outdoor retailers like REI rent out gear. Many colleges and universities have outdoor programs that provide rentals to both students and community members. As an added bonus these rental facilities will probably have staff who can help you make sure that you get gear that fits properly and is suitable for your adventure. In addition to renting some of the more expensive pieces of gear, you can keep the cost of your first backpacking trips down by using what you have. Other than light weight rain gear, my backpacking clothing consists of clothes I already own (exercise and hunting clothing can make excellent backpacking layers). Instead of an expensive backpacking camp pot, I use a cut down coffee can. Be creative and you can give yourself a chance to try out backpacking without breaking the bank.
What You Should Eat
One of the key concerns for backpacking food is weight. In general the lighter your pack the happier your body is going to be on the trail. The other side of the coin is that you will probably be burning more calories than normal unless you have a very active job. Freeze dried meals are an excellent option for meals that are light, easy to prepare, and calorie dense; but they are expensive. If your budget doesn’t allow for $10- $15 dollars per meal, you can prepare your own dehydrated meals in advance . There are hundreds of recipes available for free online. Find a few that look good to you and make them far enough in advance that you can try them before your trip. While food generally tastes better when you’ve been working hard, it can be a real blow to morale if your dinner is vile. If you are less ambitious or more pressed for time, Idaho instant mashed potatoes are available at most grocery stores and make a great emergency ration or side. Knorr meals aren’t fine cuisine but they cost less than $2 a meal. I prefer to eat food that doesn’t require cooking for lunches. Trail mix, especially those that are heavy on nuts, are calorie dense and help replace the salts lost to sweat. Jerky and dried fruit are good to provide variety to your diet and don’t spoil in summer heat. If you are expecting high temperatures, consider taking a supplement to add to your water to replace electrolytes. Gatorade powder is cheap and works well, but there are options like Nuun tablets that contain less sugar. Instant oatmeal makes a lightweight, easy breakfast; but if you need more protein in the morning, consider freeze dried eggs or supplementing the oatmeal with a protein bar.
Plan Your Poop
Sorry there isn’t a delicate way of talking about this, but if you go out into the woods for days you are going to have to give back to nature. From field observations taken in my backpacking haunts over the last 3 years, a significant percentage of new backpackers (at least I hope they’re newcomers) don’t know the basics of how to poop in the woods. There is nothing that destroys the enjoyment of a campsite quite like settling down to cook dinner and looking over to see toilet paper protruding from under a rock 10 feet away. It only takes a season for a pristine spot to become a latrine. Don’t be the person who pooped in camp. When it comes time to commune with nature, pick an isolated spot WELL away from camp and at least 200 ft from water. Dig a hole, preferably at least 6 inches deep. You can take a small trowel or use what is on hand. Once you have done the deed, fill the hole back in. Increasingly areas are requiring that any toilet paper used be packed out, because it bio-degrades slowly. Check the regulations before your trip. The goal is to avoid water contamination and to hide what you’ve done so no one has to interact with your feces at any level.
Practice Trail Etiquette
You may want to backpack to get away from other people, but more people are spending time in the backcountry than ever before, and you are going to run into them on the trail or be camped at the same lake as them. Here are a few simple rules to follow when on the trail and in camp.
Yield right of way to stock animals and to hikers working uphill.
When yielding to stock, get off the trail on the downhill side. Stock animals may perceive you as an ambush predator if you are lurking above them. Often a hiker coming uphill wants a break and may yield to you, but that should be their choice. Climbing is more physically and mentally demanding than descending, and uphill traffic should be allowed to maintain momentum.
Be considerate of others with your noise. This should be a no-brainer, but it isn’t. The majority of backpackers are out in the wild because they want to experience nature. While this looks different for different people, it is safe to assume that the other people you encounter on your adventure did not drive hours from their homes and then labor under a pack beneath the hot sun to experience you.
The couple camped on the other side of the lake doesn’t want you to be their adventure DJ with your portable speaker no matter how excellent your taste in music is. No one came to the mountains to hear the buzz of your drone, or hear your shouted conversations. The point is not that you can’t have a good time, or that you have to be silent in the woods– far from it – but DO be aware of the impact that your noise might be having on your neighbor’s ability to enjoy the wild place you have all worked hard to get to. Whether it is how you interact with others on the trail or in camp, trail etiquette boils down to an extension of the rules that govern not being a jerk in the front country. If all of us take the time to respect our fellow adventurers, we will all ultimately have a better experience.
There is a lot more to backpacking than can fit into a single blog post but these tips will give you a good foundation for your first trip. All that remains is for you to lace up your boots and make it happen. Happy trails!
Article Authored by Seth Ewing and posted by Patrick Edwards