So, you’ve done some day-hiking and you’ve even done some car camping and maybe a little walk-in camping but you’re now ready to lace up your boots and do your first backpacking trip and you’re wondering where to start. Hopefully this will help you get out of the house and onto the trail.
The first step is WHERE. Where are you going? Research is everything in setting up for a trip, especially if you’re headed off the beaten path (though I’d suggest that if this is your first trip then off trail, bushwhacking and route-finding may not be your best idea).
You need to decide where and you should be basing that, the skill level and fitness of those in your group, biting off more than you can chew is the surest way to having trips that aren’t fun and could be potentially life-threatening. Also consider what you’d like to do while you’re out. Know your limits and respect them, backpacking is an act of enjoyable masochism and shouldn’t result in injuries!
You’ve settled on Where and now the research begins! Some of the most important parts of this trip will happen before you even wander out the door. Nowadays with the internet we have access to up-to-date trail reports, we can download free topo maps, get gps coordinates and tracks, and all of this information is incredibly handy in getting there and back again. But, there is more to research before you go then just the trails/routes you want to do.
Do you practice Leave No Trace? The first principal of Leave No Trace is the pre-planning of your trip, figuring out your goals/objectives and matching them to the people you’re travelling with, this ensures an enjoyable trip for all. During this planning stage it’s a good idea to do some research on the history of the area you’re going to be in, the ecology, geology, etc. There may be some incredibly interesting things to see/learn that you could miss out on by not learning about the areas you’re travelling through and in the case of environmentally sensitive areas, this advance knowledge will help you mitigate some of the harm you may cause.
Leave a Trip Plan behind with people you trust! “PLAN YOUR HIKE AND THEN HIKE YOUR PLAN!” It’s important that you let people know where you’re going, what you plan on doing when you’re there and when you’re planning on returning. It’s also important that you ensure they know what to do if you haven’t returned on time. Do they know who to call? Do they know when they should place that call? Leave them with clear instructions on your emergency contacts so they can be your lifeline if all else goes wrong.
Now, you know where you’re going, you know who you’re going with, and you’ve taken the time to map out your route, researched the area, left a trip plan with people you trust and now you’re ready to move onto the next stage, GEAR.
Do you have the equipment to safely and enjoyably do this trip? Backpacking is a sport and like any sport it requires properly fitted equipment to get the most out of it. When it comes time to round up my gear, I do it by order of importance, based on those things that would likely make the trip either safer or at least more comfortable.
What is the largest killer of people in the outdoors? Exposure. So my first consideration is packing my shelter, the tent, or tarp, or bivy sack, whatever it is that is going to provide you protection from the elements should be your first consideration. Make sure you have your tent packed and it’s complete. Do you have all the poles, pegs and guy lines you need? The last thing you’d want to discover when you’re already out and about is that you’re missing the poles to your tent or missing the tent entirely.
Sleeping bag and insulated mat (thermarest, closed cell foam, whatever). Remember that a goodnight’s sleep will do much for your morale and for your enjoyment of the day’s activities, so invest a bit and make sure your sleeping system is going to provide you with warm, comfortable nights. The old saying is, “One inch of insulation below you is better than six inches above you,” so don’t ignore the importance of having a good mat underneath you.
There is a thing called the “Rule of 3s”, a person can die of exposure in 3 hours, can die of dehydration in 3 days and starvation in 3 weeks. So since we’ve taken care of exposure with our tent and sleeping bag, it’s time to talk about water. You MUST have a means of treating water when travelling, either with a filter pump (and if viral contamination in your area is an issue iodine/chlorine drops), or boiling or Pristine or whatever your treatment of choice is.
Be aware though that water filter pumps are filters and to ensure proper water treatment of bacteria and protozoa you need to have a filter that is 0.2 microns or smaller, larger than this and you may end up with an issue in the backcountry. You’ll also need to be aware that these are not water purifiers (though you can buy purifiers as opposed to filters for backcountry use) and if viral contamination is an issue you WILL need to do something extra to ensure safe drinking water.
Part of your research should also involve the water sources themselves. Are there sources for water? How common are they? How much will you need to pack/carry to ensure you have enough? You’re going to need access to close to 4 litres (one gallon) of water a day for drinking, cooking, washing, so you’ll need to do your research on this one as well.
Depending on where you’re going and how long you’re going to be out food may/may not be the heaviest thing you take with you. Part of your planning when it comes to food, isn’t just what your menu is for the trip but also involves removing any excessive packaging and trying to ensure your caloric intake covers the amount of exertion you’re putting out. I try to shoot for between 1600 – 2000 calories per day while doing backpacking trips and have still been known to lose about a pound a day for the entire trip.
When calculating food I usually find that if I budget $12-15/day I eat really well and best case scenario usually brings the food weight to about 1kg (2lbs)/person/day.
Part of this, of course, involves how you’re going to cook your food. Do you have your stove? Is it working? Do you have enough fuel? How about a pot to cook in? How about dishes? Fork, knife and spoon? What are you going to do about clean-up? A small sponge and a bit of dish soap will help to ensure clean dishes, clean hands and hopefully will help avoid food poisoning.
We’ve talked Leave No Trace once already, but properly dealing with waste water, garbage and food particles are something that definitely needs to be considered. DO NOT do your dishes in lakes, streams or rivers. This isn’t the proper way to handle clean-up. Dishes should be done away from the water, biodegradable soap isn’t designed to biodegrade in water and besides it adds extra stress to the fish. Your food particles are also a form of pollution/contamination of the water source.
Soap should be used sparingly and the dishwater should be taken and either spread out though a large area, or preferably drained through a grey water bag which is added to your garbage and then the water dispersed at the end.
ALL THE REST
The big 4 are covered, shelter, sleeping, water and food. The rest comes down to proper clothing, rain gear (if you need it), proper footwear, etc. I’m assuming that we all have learned how to dress ourselves, have an idea of the amount of clothing needed and know the importance of layering and avoiding cotton (at least in certain seasons) so I won’t go into a great deal of detail on this.
Do your research though, take a look at weather forecasts and ensure that you have packed the proper gear, remember there is no such thing as bad weather just bad gear!
Boots should be something you’ve owned for awhile, breaking them in on the trail will not be an enjoyable experience. Always go to buy boots as late in the day as possible, it gives you time for your feet to swell up so you’ll get a proper fitting pair of boots. Try on every pair that is in your price range and pick the pair that feel the most comfortable.
Hiking boots should be almost one full size larger than your “normal” shoes, you should be able to unlace them all the way, slide your foot as far forward as you can, and be able to fit your middle and index finger between your heel and the back of the boot. This will make sure your toes don’t “knock” when coming downhill and will make for a much more comfortable experience.
The last thing you really need to be aware of is weight. Be weight conscious, every kilo you add is one more you have to carry. The lighter your pack the further you can go and the more rested you’ll feel at the end of the day.
This post already has a few “sayings” in it, but one more for you, “You take care of the grams and the kilos will take care of themselves.” This means that even little bits of weight removed from your pack will eventually add up. If you take care of the big 3 for weight (the big 4 include food but it’s hard to do much on that front), backpack, sleeping bag/system, and tent by starting off as light as possible there, you’ll be well on your way to lightening your load. The “old rule” was you never want to carry more than 25% of your body weight but I say you should try to get that down to about 12-15% of your body weight if you can. You’ll really appreciate it if you do!
Take some time to familiarize yourself with the principles of Leave No Trace, lace up your boots, grab your pack, and I’ll see you out on the trail!