Sage Wisdom for Backpackers Who Prefer Not to Learn the Hard Way
by Gabrielle Garrett
(Scotts Valley, CA, USA)
Rainy weather tentsite, Big Basin SP, October 2010
My Top 5 Backpacking Tips Are:
1. Choose your hike wisely. Who is going and what is your primary objective? If you are not conditioned for a long hike, or have beginners along, you might be happier with a shorter, lesser elevation gain hike for the first time. You can always set up camp and do more hiking from trail camp, without the heavy packs.
If hiking is not your main interest, what else are you planning to make it worthwhile? Does your group desire an awesome destination? Some trail camps are really nice and some are just places to rest for the night and are not at all special. Do your homework and know the difficulty of the hike and what is available at the trail camps you will stay at. Many trail camps have no running water, no table, no food locker, and possibly no outhouse. If you want to have a campfire, is it allowed at your chosen trail camp and will firewood be available?
2. Use your backpack essentials checklist. Most commonly something is forgotten when you are sharing the load with someone else, so do the checklist together and reduce the occurrence of finger-pointing and unhappiness at trail camp.
It is easiest to follow a checklist when it is broken into categories. For example: 1. Shelter 2. Cooking gear 3. Food and water 4. Personal items: Bedding gear, clothing, first aid, medications and toiletries 5. Illumination 6. Extras needed for photography, reading, fishing, geocaching, or whatever.
Items that seem to be the easiest to forget are stove or fuel, matches, cook pot, tent poles, random food items (possibly left in a refrigerator), adequate water or water containers, poncho or other rain protection, fresh batteries, trail map and compass.
3. Bring lightweight comfort items. The common wisdom is to pack light and bring just the essentials. This is true. However, if you do a good job packing light you shouldn't have any problem adding an extra comfort item or two.
Some examples: Backpackers do not need to bring a pillow. To save weight, you just wrap up your jacket in a stuff sack for a pillow. This is fine. However, bringing a backpack pillow in a stuff sack is a nice luxury. A backpack chair or stool may be nice to have, to avoid having to sit on wet logs or the ground. As we get older having a loftier pad under our sleeping bag is a nice treat. Why bring a 1" self-inflating pad when you can be so much more comfy on a 2" self-inflating pad?
A 30 degree mummy bag is typically lighter weight than a 20 degree bag and a 0 degree bag will be the heaviest. Oddly enough a 20 degree bag will only keep you warm if the temperature doesn't get below freezing and a 30 degree bag will keep you warm if it doesn't get below 50 degrees. Bring the warmest bag possible for your comfort and adjust your load accordingly. A backpack sleeping bag of any size or type should ideally weigh less than four pounds. You can make your current mummy bag warmer by adding a bag liner. Don't even think about bringing a heavy, non-compressible sleeping bag. Those are meant for car camping only.
4. Be prepared for rain. Nothing is more miserable than rain on a backpack or camping trip and not being prepared for it. Being prepared can change all of that so why suffer needlessly? Always have a rain poncho per person and some kind of rain cover for each pack so the items in your pack can stay dry in case it rains.
Backpacks are not rain proof. Some backpacks come with a rain cover included. If not,you can buy a special backpack rain cover, or you can cover your pack with a poncho or large garbage bag. Is your tent rain proof? No matter what the manufacturer says, the only way to know for sure is to test it out before the trip, making sure the seams are not going to leak and perhaps spraying the outside of your tent and fly with a layer or two of Scotch Guard or other rain protector.
Check the weather report before leaving home. If there is even a slight chance of rain, bring an extra tarp, rope and stakes to make a shelter over your cook area. You do not want to be stuck in your tent the whole time and not be able to light your stove. Being under an outdoor shelter to cook, eat and socialize in the rain can be a very fun adventure. Hiking in the rain can also be very enjoyable with the right preparations.
5. Be nice to your feet. Unhappy feet can ruin an entire trip. First, you want to obtain some nice, proper-fitting light weight hiking boots. If you are going to spend a little extra on any item, this would be it. Read the reviews for different boots before buying a pair, and walk around in the boots awhile to be sure they feel comfortable. You should be able to wear two pair of hiking socks in them and still have room for your feet to swell, as they often do on long hikes. This may mean choosing a half size larger than you normally wear.
Preferred boots are waterproof yet breathable, with linings that will wick moisture away from your feet, and have some ankle support. How long is needed to "break in" boots? The longer the better, but you can also soak the boots in water and let them dry before wearing them, to speed up the breaking in period.
Always wear clean, non-cotton hiking socks. They are made of differing thicknesses for all types of weather conditions. Wearing a thin inner liner sock with a thicker outer layer reduces the chance of blistering during a long hike. Wool and synthetic socks have the ability to wick away moisture from your skin so feet are kept drier and less likely to suffer. Also if your feet should get wet from rain or landing in water, they will stay warm with wet synthetic or wool socks but can get very cold with wet cotton socks.