Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Back Country Camping 101: 8 Essential Tips for your first trip

So you have finally decided to take the plunge and go on your first back country camping trip. However, as a backpacking newbie there are many pitfalls to avoid. These mistakes range from minor inconveniences to death march inducing calamities. Since it seems like making lists for success is all the rage these days I decided to make my own 8 step to get you pointed in the right direction.

Pick a suitable beginner trip
While hiking the entire 2,663 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail may seem like a great first trip to some, you should focus on a shorter trip your first time out. Ideally, pick a trip lasting no more than 2 nights and covering no more than 10 miles total in case something goes wrong and you need to bail early. This will give you a good first exposure without the risk of being 40 miles from help when you accidentally feed a bear all of your food. I highly recommend laying your hands on a guidebook to help you know which trails will be good for beginners.

A great option for a two night trip is what’s called a basecamp trip. The first day you hike into your destination and set up camp. Day two is then spent relaxing, eating all your food or hiking around and exploring the area before returning to camp. Then you pack up and hike out to your car the next day.

Trip planning
How do you plan for a trip like this?  Take a page from NASA and make yourself a handy checklist.  Do you actually know where you are going to camp? Do you have all the appropriate permits for the area you are visiting? These are the type of things you need to make sure you have figured out in advance. Your pre-trip checklist should include all the food and gear you plan to take, any documentation you need as well as campsite locations and trail information. Also, be sure to actually take the necessary maps and trail guides with you; there is no sense in hiking way out into the wilderness only to realize you have no idea where the campsite is. Check the weather! You don’t want to lug around rain gear for no reason or leave the rainfly at home in monsoon conditions. Lastly, ALWAYS leave an itinerary with someone at home along with the phone numbers for the local ranger station. If you have a problem that prevents you from walking back to your car, it is much easier to find you if the search and rescue teams have an idea where you will be.

Get in shape!
Being out of shape is probably the leading cause I see that keeps newbies from having fun when backpacking.  Let’s be honest; even at the best of times hauling a huge pack full of junk up a mountain pass is an arduous task. Do yourself a favor and hit the gym or your local trails beforehand. Not only will this reduce your suffering but will allow you to make better time on the trail, leaving more time for relaxing or exploring when you reach your campsite.

Pack just the right amount of gear
One of the most difficult things when transitioning from car camping to backpacking is deciding how much gear you need to take. Do you really need that Dutch oven or an entire chocolate cake for 1 night in the wilderness? (Full disclosure, I have been on trips with people who have brought both of these items).  Reducing weight is one of the biggest favors you can do yourself. While you can of course go out and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars buying the lightest gear available, it isn’t always the best thing for a beginner to do as you simply don’t know what you need or prefer. I find the best way to reduce weight without taking out a bank loan is to share as much gear with your hiking partners as you can. Besides your clothing, sleeping bag and toiletries you can pretty much share all the other gear you will need. This will let you split everything between multiple people and reduce your individual load. Also, don’t bring a guitar; just don’t do it.

The Pack
Choosing a pack is probably the most daunting gear choice for someone new to backpacking. It is pretty easy to tell when someone is buying their first pack. They tend to walk into their local gear store with a “deer in the headlights” look when they see the endless wall of packs to choose from. Save yourself an ulcer and do your research beforehand and try to narrow down your choice to at the very least a couple of brands to try out. There are really only 2 factors that are really important when choosing a pack: Fit and capacity. You want a pack that fits you well or you could get a visit from the dreaded hip blisters or have sore shoulders the entire time. The best way is to have a store clerk help you adjust everything correctly and then walk around the store with some weight to see how everything fits. You want the pack to feel like it is a part of your back as opposed to something on your back. Capacity is also really important as it determines how much or how little you can take. A good rule of thumb is that for 1-2 nights you want a 45-60 liter pack. Any more than that and you will be tempted to cram it full of extra stuff. Any less and you will probably be leaving a lot of gear at home or strapping tons of things to the outside of the pack.

Beyond these two factors, most major brand packs are very similar in price and bells and whistles and I caution most new hikers to avoid choosing based on anything but the two major factors I mentioned above.

You are what you eat
Meal planning and preparation is a huge part of a successful backpacking trip; and yet it also one of the areas where there is a huge range of opinions on what method is the ‘best’. The options available range from beef jerky and trail mix to dehydrated commercial backpacking meals on to more elaborate gourmet home designed meals. There certainly is a time and place for each type of meal and I have done trips where I have eaten beef jerky for 3 days and others where I ate pretty well. However, for your first trip you will want to focus most on ease of preparation and taste. A good rule of thumb I tend to use is, “If I would eat it at home, I will eat it on the trail.” I generally like to test out my food before I go as there is really nothing worse than getting to camp after a long day only to find out you brought a terrible dinner with you. For this reason I tend do make up my own meals and tailor them to my specific trip. Several good resources to use for some beginner meal ideas of your own are the Sierra Social Hub or Backpacking chef.

Step one for backpacking cooking; ditch the heavy camp stove. You really don’t need to lug a huge stove and fuel bottle around to cook with. There are several cost effective and very easy to use options on the market today that will save you a ton of weight. For a beginner, I usually recommend going with a canister stove over a white gas set up because it is a lot simpler and lighter, not to mention the stoves themselves are less expensive.

Dress for success
So since you will be outdoors getting dirty you should throw on an old pair of jeans and a ratty T-shirt and head out into the wilderness, right?  Wrong again! You want to stay away from cotton fabrics as they do not breathe well and dry slowly when wet. Once wet, cotton also offers minimal insulation and so you can get very cold even in warm weather.  A much better option is one of the multitudes of polyester or wool “tech” fabrics available. In warm weather a single layer works great and on cooler weather a base layer and outer layer will keep you warmer.  Zip off pants are a popular option, despite being kind of (ok, REALLY) dorky looking when worn around town. Fortunately, you won’t be attending any red carpet premiers in the wilderness so go with what you prefer. I generally use a single lighter weight pair of pants unless it’s really hot.

And that's it! Really beyond that the best way to learn how to backpack is to do it!


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