There is nothing that compares to the experience of being in nature. Feeling the uneven dirt beneath your feet, the sounds of the wind blowing through the tree canopy above, and inhaling the sweet forest air that smells like soil and leaves baked in warm sunlight. In the last year and half, backpacking has been a popular way to restore your sense of calm.
“The silence, beauty, smells, and removal from every day distractions that hold you in the moment.”
Barbara Angell describes what attracts her to this lifestyle: “The feeling of a body working hard and seeing the stars in all their magnificence. California native Angell, who grew up in the midst of towering trees, has been backpacking for 45 year and recalls her first trip 35 miles from Big Sur Station to Arroyo Seco. After finishing, it was time to hitch-hike back home to Big Sur. We were fortunate to be able to get a few rides in Carmel and a truck picked up us. As we traveled down the coast to Big Sur, it was getting dark and the air was warm. It left an impression that will last a lifetime.”
These types of watershed moments aren’t uncommon when backpacking. Angell says that backpacking in the backcountry is a different experience from regular camping. It allows you to get away from the crowds and develop a ‘compassion for the beauty of silence’. Nels Larson, coveteur, says backpacking allows you to go beyond the usual campers and day-hikers. You can find solitude in remote areas, as well as some of the most stunning, unexplored places. It takes effort and time, but it is worth every second. It’ll be a memorable experience if you do your research and have the right gear.
If you’ve never backpacked before, Larson defines it as an overnight or multi-day hiking trip with all of your gear carried in your backpack. There are no cars, coolers, or toilets. You and the unknown frontier are all you need. Here’s a guide for backpackers, including safety tips and where to go.
- Length & Group Size Larson suggests that you give it a trial run to get the hang of things. A good trip for a first time is six to eight miles round trip and two nights. He recommends that you start small with your group. For first-timers, limit your group size to four. For day hikes and lakeside cookouts, save the group chat by not inviting everyone.
- “When I was first carrying a pack to climb Mt. Whitney it weighed more than 70 lbs. Angell states that it now weighs less than 35 lbs with lightweight equipment. “The quality of equipment has greatly improved. The backpacks are lighter and more durable than ever. Your pack holds all your stuff so it is important to choose the right size. Larson recommends 55-65L for weekend backpacking trips. Larson recommends that you bring along a lightweight tent, which is easy to set up. A sleeping bag and pad are also necessary. Larson recommends that you have a stove, fuel, and plenty of food and water. A first aid kit, knife, Leatherman tool, sunscreen, and some kind of navigation device (App with offline capabilities or something similar) will be necessary to keep you on track and avoid getting lost.
- You’ll be more comfortable if you are just beginning to backpack. Consider choosing a spot that has a short route and good water supply. Larson states that the less water you need to carry, the better it is for your back. Breckenridge, Colorado is one of Larson’s favorite spots. He says, “You could camp at Lower Crystal Lake, and then use it to basecamp for Upper Crystal Lake to go on a day hike that day.” It is a stunning alpine lake and a great spot to see bighorn sheep and mountain goats. You don’t have to sleep in a tent on your first trip. Instead, you can choose to backpack to a hut. You can, for example, book the hut right below the lake. It’s one my favorite – it even has a sauna!” The National Park Foundation also recommends other first-timer routes, including the in Olympic National Park in Washington, Redwood National Park in California, and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
First-time backpackers should keep two key things in mind when packing their clothes. Keep your luggage light and pack as much as you can. Remember the old adage, “cotton is rotten.” Larson says that cotton, unlike technical wicking fabrics and clothing, retains moisture. This will affect your body’s natural temperature control. Cotton is basically a blister city, even with socks. He recommends that you pack the following items for a two-night trip: 1 pair quick-drying hiking pants or leggings; 2-3 moisture-wicking and quick dry t-shirts; 1 warm jacket; 1 rain jacket; 3-4 pairs hiking socks; 1 pair hiking boots; 1 pair camp sandals; 2-3 pairs of underwear.
Start small and do a 3-4 mile hike to learn how to use your gear in the best conditions. To get used to how your tent works, set it up beforehand. A map is essential as many trails don’t have WIFI. You should have a water filter system, layers of clothing, and rain gear, even when there are no reports of severe weather. She explains that you will learn what you need on your first trip. “With time you will learn what is important and what isn’t.”
A cooler is too difficult to take along on a backpacking trip. You’ll have to adjust your culinary preferences. But don’t worry! Angell said that the freeze-dried food is now much better than when she started backpacking. There is also more knowledge about the body’s needs for food and hydration on long hikes. Larson recommends that you bring around two pounds of food per person per day. He also suggests that you choose a balanced mix of foods that is high in nutrients. He suggests that you include vacuum-sealed tuna, jerky snacks and peanut butter packets as well as meal replacement bars. “High-carb, high-sodium foods (pre-packaged macar + cheese is the Kelty staff favorite) are great for energy and fluid management while on the trail.
He advises that you be familiar with the weather forecast, and any potential weather changes. Avoid summiting peaks in the afternoon, as storms are likely to hit. He recommends checking the water supply status in your area. You need to drink about half a liter of water per hour to maintain healthy hydration. To prevent blisters, you should make sure your hiking boots are properly fitted before heading out on the trail. Last but not least, you should never keep food or anything fragrant (like toothpaste) in your tent at nights. Anything edible or stale like these items can attract animals and critters. If you are in bear country, make sure to bring a bear container or hang your food downwind in a tree. Bear in mind that if a bear gets into your food it will return to it, becoming more comfortable and aggressive around people. This often leads to the need for you to euthanize the bear.
Backpacking Dos and Don’ts
These are the rules of backpacking. Pack it in, take it out. Larson states that if you bring something into the backcountry, it must be taken out. “Things such as trash and food waste shouldn’t be left in backcountry. It’s not okay to leave that banana peel to “biodegrade”, so bring it with you! A big one is properly disposing of human waste.
“Educate yourself about digging cat holes and plan to dispose of your toilet paper. We bring Ziploc bags to help with trash collection and keeping it separated.” To minimize the impact, make sure you choose a campsite with a sturdy surface or established camp site. Larson advises against camping near water or trails. Larson says that some locations can even give you information about how close you are to the lakes.