How to backpack- and enjoy it!
To many people, backpacking reminds them of lumbering elephants in thick jungles loaded down with huge baskets of heavy rocks. But that is not how it is supposed to be. Backpacking gives us freedom to experience places we cannot get to with a car. Through this article, walk with me on my way to Canada and I will share some important lessons I have learned about how (and how not) to hike a trail with your home on your back.
"They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings as eagles;
they shall run, and not be weary;
and they shall walk, and not faint." (Isaiah 40:31)
Walking without fainting! Now there is a promise every hiker likes!
This passage contains three of the best pieces of advice: waiting, renewing, and HYOH—hike your own hike. First, we must be patient in adjusting to travelling with weight on our back. Second, we need sufficient rest and recovery time in between hikes. Third, find your own pace and be content with it, whether you fly, run, or walk.
For twenty years I have backpacked in short weekend loops, but five years ago I whimsically decided to try something new. I got dropped off at Sky Lakes Wilderness and hiked about 30 miles to Crater Lake where I was picked up. I loved it! I hiked through new territory beyond my former reach. I also had a geographic goal. I also hurt my knee.
In my excitement and self-imposed deadline, I pushed myself a bit too hard under too much weight on that first trip and the last day found me favoring my right side because my left knee was twinging. I still remember lightening my load by scattering pounds of trail mix for the birds after my last breakfast.
Yet, that did not dampen my enthusiasm. The next summer I did a much longer hike of 75 miles, and stressed that same knee much greater and for many more miles. I could barely walk when my wife arrived at the trailhead to pick me up. It took two years to fully recover.
The lesson was that I needed to wait. I should have built up miles gradually and not commit to long distances before I proved myself repeatedly at shorter ones. Also, I am now on my third backpack and carrying about half the weight I did back then.
Since that time I have hiked all of the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon and multiple other hikes. As you know from last time, I hiked the PCT in Washington last summer around Glacier Peak to Stehekin. This August, I picked up where I left off and backpacked from Stehekin to the Canadian border, twice. Let me explain.
From Klamath Falls in southern Oregon to northern Washington is a long ways. It is not convenient for my very supportive wife to drive up there and drop me off, then drive back again to pick me up. So I drove to Rainy Pass on highway 20 and walked south to where I ended last year, then turned around and walked north to the border. Then I turned around again and walked south back to my car. That was 162 enjoyable miles in 7 days. I could not have done that without the previous years' practice.
Patiently and gradually ramping up, with rest periods in between, is the way to get into backpacking. Start with day hikes, then day hikes with full packs, then short overnights. It is important to feel comfortable with distance, as well as distance from civilization. Ten miles near town feels safer than 5 miles far from town. Also, the same miles day after day will feel different than the same miles with "zero days" in between. In general, slight soreness can be good, but sharp pains are usually a warning sign to stop and/or slow down.
Even veteran hikers need to ease into hikes after being off trail for a while. Because of my schedule this summer, the border hike was my only overnight hike. So I timed my arrival to the parking lot in time to walk a few miles to my first tent site. The five miles that first night was a warm-up for the next day which was a warm-up for the next day.
Did I say warm-up? It was hot during the back and forth to High Bridge. The trailhead was around 5000' while the turn-around was near 1500'. I descended into a sweat box that hovered at 100 degrees!
I kept drinking water, but that is not enough to avoid dehydration. You also need electrolytes such as salt and potassium. Most packaged foods have salt, but potassium can be harder. Dried bananas, special drink powders, or supplements can do the trick. One other important thing to do is to watch your urine. It should stay clear to light yellow. When it gets dark orange, you are way behind in water intake. It is time to stop and guzzle until it changes.
Because of the heat, and because my sinus issues usually make me breathe through my mouth, I started developing a sore throat by the third day. This is the first time I have become sick on the trail, albeit mildly. Usually I feel better and better as the days go on. (Gum is now part of my first aid kit.)
Talking about water, if you are accustomed to car camping you may also be accustomed to bringing all your water. That is not possible on a long hike. Most backpackers carry 1 to 3 liters at a time in sturdy water bottles you can buy at the store for a couple bucks, like Smartwater. The most popular method of getting safe water is to filter it, such as with a Sawyer filter (my preference) that screws onto the water bottle. There are other ways that have their pros and cons. Experience and preference will lead you to the solution that is right for you.
My first full day on trail gave me the prize I have been seeking for almost twenty years—a bear. I have seen bears before from in or near a car, but I have been wanting to see a bear, a mountain lion, and a mountain goat in the wilderness. I now have one out of three!
The bear was near a well-used backcountry campground with outbuildings. This is the typical place most bear sightings happen. You probably will not see one when by yourself in a small trailside tent site. This one was calmly investigating the structures, and because I kept my distance, decided I was no threat. It sauntered into the woods after a few minutes.
On my return trip from High Bridge, I camped here that night and there was no more sign of him. The next morning, however, on the switchbacks out of camp, I came across another bear. Rather, another smaller bear came across my path and down the hill in front of me. Maybe it saw me before I saw it, but it continued without turning around to look at me.
Two bears in two days! Then no more. I think it may be another 20 years before I see another one.
What was more common than bears in that area was grouse. Mothers walked their babies on the trail, across the trail, and in the brush. The parents were calm and slow, but the babies scurried. I think this was the only picture of a baby I could get.
I have no landscape pictures because I was in a thick, overgrown river valley the entire time. Thursday afternoon I returned to the car on my way north to the border. I ate some food I left in the car, and stocked up on more food for the longer leg. Why carry all the weight all the way?!
So what did I pack? I'm glad you asked. I will finish this article with packing tips. Any products mentioned are just examples. I receive no commissions.
In backpacker terms, a hiker's load is divided into base weight + food + water. Base weight includes all those things that you would bring with you on trip after trip, such as tent, sleeping bag, stove, clothes, hygiene stuff, first aid kit, etc… A typical base weight for longer hikes is between 15 and 20 pounds. Calorie needs are roughly 2 pounds per day, so 5 days of food is about 10 pounds. Water is 2 pounds per liter/quart, meaning you carry an average of 2 pounds (4 in the desert) as you continually fill up then drink. Adding all this up at the start of your trip means you will start with 25 to 30 pounds, then eat yourself to a lighter weight.
This is a much better situation than the 40 to 50 pound loads I shouldered in the "good old days" while wearing stiff heavy boots. Considering I weigh under 130 pounds, I am much happier!
You can follow my (poor?) example and start with trips carrying everything and the kitchen sink, then learn to pare down. Or, you can start with short overnight trips carrying the minimum and then add to it. Either way, expect to learn and change a lot. (Did I tell you I am on my third backpack?!) It is part of the challenge and part of settling into your own style.
I consider this the most important item. Shoes can make or break your trip because they are literally the foundation of your hike. If they do not fit right or cause blisters, you will be limping constantly and clouding even the sunniest of days. Strengthen your ankles and break in your shoes with your many practice hikes.
Contrary to my previous habits of tying my feet up tight in sturdy boots, I now wear loose to slightly snug trail runners. If you want blisters, wear tight inflexible shoes. Most hikers I've seen wear running shoes from Brooks, Salomon, Keen (great for wide feet!), and Altra.
One more note, don't let a salesperson talk you into supposedly waterproof-breathable shoes. I gave up on them years ago. They make my feet sweat more. They take longer to dry if I step in water or mud. Water invariably enters from the top. And a 30,000 mile hiker has definite opinions and experience.
Next in importance to the shoes you walk in all day is the gear you sleep in all night. You definitely need a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. If you are a beginner, I would recommend going first for comfort over weight. You might also consider a free standing tent over one that requires stakes. Free standers can be moved around as you learn to judge the flatness of ground.
You will quickly learn that a Wal-Mart sleeping bag is not small enough or warm enough for backpacking. This is where REI and their unbelievable customer service and return policy can help you. For the same warmth, down can pack smaller, but synthetic is not as susceptible to dampness.
I see many hikers with foam pads, but I never slept well until I got an air mattress. I will never camp without my Therm-a-rest!
It is just a bag on your back to hold all your stuff, but there are lots of considerations from waist belt to shoulder straps to where the water bottles are held. Again, I would recommend working with REI. Be sure to check out the Ospreys that have a unique in-store heat-forming waist belt. I have an Arc Haul Zip from Zpacks because they have a double adjustable belt, two way access, and a shoulder strap system that lets me carry my DSLR in a quick-access bag on my chest.
You must carry moleskin because even if your shoes are perfect, you can get blisters from pressure or from wet feet. Band-aids and/or liquid bandage is good for almost anything. Duct tape is good for repairing bodies (line with gauze) as well as equipment. I also carry a small all-in-one tool with scissors as well as tweezers. I should probably carry more, but so far so good and I am still observing and learning. To make your own kit consult a doctor and/or Andrew Skurka's comprehensive lists.
Unless you plan on hiking for weeks at a time, you should be able to pick your weather. I have never had to deal with rain for more than hours at a time or at night. So my rain gear needs have been light. I always keep a $10 Frog Togs jacket in the bottom of my pack. Later on I might need to upgrade, but I won't spend money until I really need to.
Trekking poles save my knees and help me go faster easier.
Most people cook and a few do not. I usually don't, but warm water on granola on a cold morning is heavenly.
Never forget the TP, and wipes are often handy. And please please please dig and bury. Leave no trace is the unbreakable law of the backcountry.
This has been only a little introduction. It is nowhere near comprehensive or authoritative. I will let more experienced people give their input.
Andrew Skurka - a National Geographic hiker with over 30,000 miles under his feet
Erin Saver (aka Wired) - substitute teacher who is a prolific blogger and hiker
Dixie - down to earth video blogger
by Ed Lyons, 12/15/17