Each Spring hundreds, if not thousands plan a backpacking trip somewhere. Whether it’s in one of our National Parks, or a Wilderness area, or maybe just a State Park. Preparing for your trip can make it enjoyable, and safe. I’ve put together some tips for preparing for a backpacking trip. No matter where you end up.
- Learn camping skills. Just reading about camping skills is not enough. Actually learn from a knowledgeable outdoorsman or outdoorswoman. If you are new to backpacking trips, consider joining a backpacking group or tour and ask for help. I suggest a practice run (even if it’s your own backyard) so you can get to know your gear.
- Learn to read maps and use a compass and GPS properly. Buy a good compass and a map of the area in which you intend to immerse yourself, and study the terrain carefully before you set out, so that you have some idea of what awaits you. Get in the habit as you hike of looking around and checking your map so you always know where you are. Keep track of landmarks and trailside scenery and make notes as you go on the map. Put the map into a clear plastic bag and seal it if it is not already waterproof.
- Learn about your area. This is extremely important if you are going someplace very different from your own locality. Research what sort of weather to expect, what types of creatures (i.e. bears) and vegetation that you are likely to encounter, terrain, and possible dangers. A guide book can be useful, if it is high-quality.
- Tell someone your itinerary. Before leaving for the hike, be sure a trusted person will be alerted to your trip. If a disaster befalls you, and you don’t come back on time, he or she can alert the authorities, give information on your intended whereabouts, and so on.
- Dress for the environment and the weather. Temperatures and weather can vary wildly; be prepared for a range of conditions. Learn to dress warmly for cold temperatures or protect yourself from heat.
- Get used to your pack. Two days into the back-country is notthe time to find out you aren’t able to carry your own pack. Carry it around fully loaded for a few hours every day. Take walks whenever possible with it. If your backpack is too heavy and unwieldy in the middle of civilization, it will to be impossible to carry in the wilderness. Do not try to carry more than 30% of your own body weight on your back–and even that might be too much.
- Consider where the water source will be. Don’t assume you can drink the water unless told by an expert–a crystal clear mountain stream can be swimming with illness-causing bacteria. Water may not be potable, or essentially inaccessible. In a dry or hot season, springs, rivers, and streams may dry up. In some dry areas, like deserts, you may have to bring in all of your water. Remember that water is 8 1/3 pounds a gallon; this adds up quickly.
- Bring your first aid kit. What you will need to bring will depend on where you are hiking, when, and how long you’ll be out. But a basic kit will contain:
- Bandages, both gauze and ACE bandages(for sprains and strains)
- Pain-killers (ibuprofen, etc.)
- Anti-bacterial cream
- Diarrhea relief
- Adhesive bandages
- Foot care items: athletic tape, blister bandages, “moleskin” patches, etc
- Know your tents. For backpacking, you need shelter that is proper for the terrain and season, lightweight but strong, and relatively easy to manage. “Pop-up” tents are very popular for the beginner, although be sure to select the tent that will fit your needs.Be sure to assemble your tent before heading to the wilderness, to know how to set it, inspect for damage, and replace any missing parts. Always have a repair kit. Avoid packing wet tents if you can. If you can’t, don’t forget to dry them out later.
- Prepare your sleeping gear. A sleeping bag is the typical way to keep warm at night. Be sure yours is rated in the recommended temperature range of your wilderness area, as you don’t want to be too hot or cold. Buy a compression bag to help reduce bulk. You may want to buy a sleeping bag liner to keep your bag in its best shape. You also will likely want a sleeping pad, either blow-up or self-inflating. All of these items will be among your heaviest, bulkiest items, so choose wisely. A zero-degree bag should not weigh more than 3 pounds if you shop carefully. A sleeping pad should not weigh more than 2 pounds. Added together and on your back, that’s still a heavy 5 pounds. Try find gear well below these weights.
- Pay attention to your footwear. A foot injury will turn a wilderness journey into a crisis in moments. Choose supportive, rugged footwear appropriate to the terrain. Hiking boots are the usual best choice, with hiking shoes or sandals also possible good choices. ‘Always break in your footwear before your backpacking trip.’: a simple blister can cause big difficulties.
- Consider your food. Backpacking in the wilderness requires lightweight, shelf-stable, high-calorie food. Avoid food that needs refrigeration or is fragile. Most outdoor stores, catalogs, and websites offer freeze-dried, or ready-to-eat meals that are easy to heat. American-style MRE’s (military rations) are available in a commercial version. You can also find foods at the grocery store that are in camping-friendly form. In addition to snacks, two or three meals a day, be sure you bring a bit more than you think you’ll need. In bear country, you will need to learn how to hang a bear bag or have a bear-resistant container and secure it properly.
Go through the Trip in your Head. One of the things I do before I go out into the Wilderness is I think about each day I’m out there. What am I doing? What will I want to eat? How do I get my water? What kind of campsite will I be camping in. I try and visualize everything I may need. It really helps me bring what I need.
- Always be willing to turn back if your trip is threatened by bad weather, injury, or the like. The journey is the point, not the destination. Bad things can happen if bad decisions are made out of stubbornness.
- Carry spares wherever possible: things break and get lost; bulbs burn out and boot laces break.
- You can buy foldable stoves that burn solid fuel bars and fit into a pocket: a marvellous saviour when everything is too wet to burn and you are in dire need of a hot beverage.
- Rope always finds a purpose. Polypropylene rope is light and very strong and can be used for washing lines; storm-setting your tent; hauling people out of holes in the ground; crossing rivers; dragging your rucksack up a cliff face and hanging your kit out of the reach of animals.
- Whenever possible, start pitching camp at least an hour before sunset. Setting up camp at dark is much more difficult.
Don’t forget to HAVE FUN! That’s why you went out there in the first place. Enjoy and be grateful to be with Nature.