So You Want to Get Into Backpacking?

The age-old sport of backpacking has recently started to gain some popularity. With Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling book “Wild” chronicling her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail as well as plenty of new documentaries depicting the profound beauty and sense of accomplishment that comes with traveling the countryside, it is no surprise that many city folk and urban natives are developing the desire to experience the great outdoors.

Backpacking certainly is a rewarding pastime, but before you hitchhike to the nearest forest, make sure you are prepared for what’s really in store. It seems simple — throw your supplies in a bag and start walking — but if you want your trip to be fun and fulfilling, not to mention safe, you should make sure you’re well-versed in backpacking basics.

Know What to Pack

Unlike camping, where you’ll have a base of operations to leave most of your necessities while you traipse around the wilderness, backpacking requires you to carry every single thing you need, meaning everything you have should be absolutely essential as well as relatively lightweight. As a general rule of thumb, your backpack (and everything in it) shouldn’t weigh more than 30 percent of your body weight, meaning if you’re 130 pounds, you shouldn’t be walking around with more than 39 pounds strapped to your back.

The easiest way to pare down is to stick to the essentials. Clothes are surprisingly heavy, and if it’s just your first backpacking trip, you probably won’t need more than two or three days-worth anyway. The key is first to choose items that will keep you alive (satellite phones are an oft-forgotten key item) and keep you relatively comfortable.

Know Where You’re Going

Instead of pulling on your pack and walking into the forest, plan ahead. Get a guidebook and do some research of your surrounding trails to find the most appropriate trek for your level. Once you decide on a destination, tell some people where and when you’ll be there. An even better idea is to ask a more experienced friend to guide you — not only will this well-traveled individual be able to help you find the most worthwhile locations, but he or she can teach you heard-learned backpacking tips to make your first time more enjoyable.

The worst mistake any first-time backpacker can make is not having access to help should a dire situation arise. Having a friend on the trek with you will certainly help, as will letting at-home friends and family know where you’ll plan to be. However, if tragedy strikes on the trail and it will take too long to reach aid, you want to be able to contact emergency services immediately. Satellite phone rental is a cost-effective way to ensure your safety on your trip. Though it’s unlikely you’ll need it, you’ll never be able to predict every obstacle on a backpacking trip, so any extra insurance is reassuring.

Know Your Limits

If you’re like most city dwellers who barely walk a mile a day, you probably shouldn’t plan your first trek as a weeklong affair. Experienced backpackers can cover 20 or more miles in a day and go for weeks or months at a time. You, on the other hand, will probably need to limit your time in the great outdoors to one to three days, covering 10 or fewer miles per day.

Ideally, you’ll start training for your excursion before you start hiking out that first day. Try to take walks in the evening and increase your walking stamina. Make sure you wear your full pack for a while before you’re in the woods so you can become accustomed to the weight on your hips and shoulders. If you know what to expect in terms of weight and distance, you’ll find you’re less likely to tire and give up while you’re on the trail.

Know the Backpacking Etiquette

If you’ve been camping before, you might be used to organized campgrounds with bathrooms and trashcans. Backpacking trails generally provide very few of these, if any at all. Instead, you should practice good manners on the trail to make the experience enjoyable for everyone out there. Here are some fast and hard tips:

  • Set up camp at least 100 yards from the trail.
  • Bury your bodily waste.
  • Understand local fire regulations, and don’t violate them.
  • Respect the right of way. Hikers heading down the mountain should step aside for those headed up, and slower hiking groups should yield to faster ones.
  • Pack it in, pack it out. Don’t leave trash of any kind behind you on the trail.

If you’ve caught the backpacking bug but don’t know where to start, you’ve come to the right place. Backpacking can be as fun as it is simple, but if approached the wrong way, it can be disastrously dangerous. Keep yourself safe, keep wild spaces pristine, and enjoy your backpacking adventure by keeping in mind these basic backpacking principles.

Written by Steve Manley