The little things that get you further.
Backpacking is really about the learning experience – there’s only so much someone can tell you to prepare you. The rest you just have to learn by doing. But, a few pointers might make your experiences a bit smoother and prevent some major issues that might turn you off of backpacking.
Planning a backpacking trip takes, well, planning. Doing thorough research to gather information about the trail (length, elevation, hazards, regulations), where you’ll camp each night, where you’ll fill up on water, and the elements you may be exposed to are all essential basics. Planning these parts of your trip can inform what gear you need, how much food, how many miles you’ll hike each day, etc. No one should just go out into the woods and hope for the best. Utilizing some online resources, updated hiking books, and talking with others who have ventured into the areas you’re interested in can get you started in the right direction.
I often call the local forest service where I plan to go within a couple days of the trip to make sure 1) the trail is open and clear of major snow, and 2) to double check on water sources (especially later in the summer). These local offices can also have ideas for what trails to take, good spots to camp, and other information you might find useful.
Looking online for maps is also a big one. I don’t like to buy maps for every hike I do, so if a map isn’t in one of my books I can usually find something online with a bit of digging. I typically download a pdf of the map and send it to my phone, where I then save it to my pictures. Depending on the trip, I’ll also print a copy in case my phone dies. I like to get a good idea of the entire area where I’ll be hiking – not just the trail I plan to do – just in case I need (or want) to change plans mid-trip — take a different route, camp elsewhere, etc. It also helps me get oriented (the actual direction the trail goes, like north or east), which has saved me a couple times when the trail has been ambiguous or I’ve gotten off track.
Tips & Tricks
1) Setting up Camp
Avoid wind and rain runoff. If there is wind make sure you’re not directly in it, or try to set up where there are some obstacles blocking you from it (like trees). You’ll get cold at night and potentially woken up a lot from the wind blowing your rainfly if you’re in direct wind. Also, don’t setup right under trees if there’s a chance of rain — it’ll drip off the branches and/or slide down the tree and pool at your tent.
Don’t be right next to a body of water. Water levels change, which could put you in danger, but the morning dew will also get ya good if you’re too close to big bodies of water. Plus, bugs tend to hang out closer to water sources (rivers, lakes), so try to distance yourself at least a little if possible. Not too far though – you’ll need the water supply.
Protect your food. If you don’t use a bear canister (because you’re not in bear country, otherwise you should), either have your food in another protected container, keep it in your tent (with tent closed) or keep it on you (if you’re out for a day hike, for example). I’ve had countless squirrels and other critters plow through clothing, baggies, and other material to get to my snacks. Cleaning up after yourself and not spilling food will help prevent attracting critters to your campsite.
2) Loading the Pack
Ditch the stuff sacks. Stuff sacks create odd bulky shapes and can prevent you from getting more gear in your pack, plus they add weight. Backpacking packs often have a separate lower compartment where you can stuff things like your sleeping bag, towel, and other easily stuff-able items.
Soft gear around hard gear, create even weight. Packing soft things around harder things (e.g., clothing around cooking pot) helps you get more in your pack and helps the pack to be more evenly weighted. Having all the heavy items in one side of your pack will cause you pain while hiking. That being said, try to put heavy items in the center of the pack, and lighter items around the outside, to keep your gravity centered.
Method of order. I put what I’ll need last in depths of my pack, and have what I may need access to first on the outers. So, my sleeping bag goes in the bottom, followed by my hammock setup, then I zip that pocket. This allows me to access my hammock first, get it set up, then throw in my sleeping bag. For the main pocket of my pack, I put in my cooking gear and warm clothing first, followed by food and lightweight clothing. I won’t need the cooking gear until camp is set up, but I may need to change hiking clothes or get more food. Further, I put whatever snacks I’ll need while hiking that day in the top, outermost pocket of the top flap – along with the map, chapstick, and any other small items I may need while hiking. Water filter, bug spray, and toilet paper also go in one of the outer pockets. I also hook sandals to the outside for easy access in case of a stream crossing where I may not be able to wear my boots.
Tuck it all in. I am not a fan of having extra stuff (like a sleeping pad) strapped to the outside of my pack. I find I get caught on branches or risk ripping / putting a hole in my gear. So, get it inside if you can. If you can’t, strap things on in the same direction of your pack (if possible). So with a sleeping pad, try strapping it vertically to the side of the pack rather than horizontally on the bottom, where it is likely to stick out.
3) Duck Tape
Duck tape can fix anything. Duck tape can fix a tent, a water filter tube, a broken shoe, ripped clothing, and can even help with blisters (my stepdad swears by putting duck tape over blisters while hiking). But, don’t go throwing a whole roll of the stuff in your pack. I wrap some around my hiking poles, and I’ve seen other folks wrap some around their water bottles. Find something to wrap it around as if you’re creating a new roll of duck tape – it’ll hardly add any weight that way, so long as you don’t actually wrap the entire roll around your hiking pole.
4) If you get wet…
Don’t get wet. It sucks. Sleeping in a wet sleeping bag and hammock, and hiking 14 miles out the following day with wet gear weighting you down and in sopping wet boots (I ended up hiking half of that in my socks and sandals because the boots hurt too much) is just really not fun. It happened to me, and it sucked.
My first mistake was with my poncho. It started to rain so I put it on. But then I got too hot and needed to ditch a couple layers, so I took it off – and accidentally set it on the ground inside-out, and the inside got wet. Then, when I set up camp, I was too exposed to the wind and sideways rain, and proceeded to get more wet. Also because of this, my pack and boots got soaked. Safe to say the next morning I was dripping, freezing cold, called the trip quits, and hiked out. The trail was rocky, and that last seven miles in my socks and sandals was the most miserable seven miles of my life. Never again will I hike with a chance of thunderstorms.
More tips will follow! Feel free to ask specific questions if you have them 🙂