Backpacking for dummies features backpacking basics and hiking instruction and guidance for the beginner backpacker and backpacking and hiking equipment requirements.
Many of the backpacking for dummies basics that you will need to know in order to prepare yourself for backcountry adventure is documented in other places throughout this website, so on this page, we'll attempt to fill in missing pieces and tie it all together into a cohesive package.
I have an inclination to say go for it, but I can't, because the backcountry can be a dangerous place, even for those who are experienced. Consequently, I recommend a few backpacking for dummies preliminary steps as you begin your backpacking adventures.
Know your physical condition. Not just the "in shape" or "outta shape" question, but how's your heart? Had a checkup lately? Know as much as possible about your current condition before you even start an exercise program. That knowledge will also minimize potential problems in the backcountry. If you have a health condition, of any consequence, understand the implications and consequences of strenuous exercise and venturing into the backcountry, beforehand. If you haven't already, get a medical check-up, to find out, one way or the other, if you have anything to be concerned about. The backcountry is not the place for medical emergencies!
The Backcountry is Not the Place for Medical Emergencies!
If you exercise regularly, you may already be in good enough shape to tackle day hikes over easy to moderate terrain. However, walking or jogging on pavement is not the same as carrying a pack over a rough trail. My suggestion is to first put on a pack loaded with 5 more pounds than you would be carrying on your hike. Next, plan a short hike to see how you fare on a trail with the pack on. Gradually, in addition to your regular exercise program, take more difficult hikes that keep challenging you as well as increasing your level of conditioning and endurance. This backpacking for dummies method is the least painful because it leverages off of what you already have and gets you on the trail, immediately. What could be better, hiking yourself into hiking condition.
Hiking Yourself Into Hiking Condition
If you're not in good physical condition, you should take the time to set up a regular exercise program. It must be consistent and it must be a priority.
Swimming, biking or walking. It's good to have a variety of activities which exercise a variety of muscles. Machines are okay: Health Rider, Nordic Track, Stationary Bikes, Rowing Machines, or Tread Mill. They all work okay, some better than others. Point is, start a program you're comfortable with and stick to it on a consistent basis.
Anticipate level of difficulty, and train accordingly: You will put yourself and your fellow backpackers at risk, if you think you can wait til the trip and then get in shape on the trail. Years ago, I went on a day hike with a friend of mine who was younger than me. He went on the hike without training specifically for it. He lasted one quarter of the trip and couldn't go on, he was really hurting. We rested at the primitive campsite at a picnic table and then went back to the trailhead. At least he didn't get hurt.
Get in shape to carry your anticipated 40 pound load before the trip. Several weeks before a trip, I anticipate how much weight I will be carrying, then prepare a pack that weighs 10 pounds more than that. That, then, becomes my training pack for the next several weeks, about 3 or 4 nights a week, right up to two or three days before the trip. In addition, I continue with my normal exercising routine. That way, I'm confident I will be successful on the trail and to be strong and healthy.
Get In Shape!
Stretching is important. Stretching muscles reduces muscle tension and allows better, more flexible movement. Prior to your daily workout, whether in the backcountry, or at home, take some time to stretch your lower back, legs, torso, neck, etc. If you're not sure how or what, do some research, there's plenty of material available on the subject. The point I want to make here is that stretching is necessary and will help prevent soreness and injury, both on and off the trail.
Prevent backpack lifting injury. Jerking a 35 pound (or more) pack off the ground and swinging it onto your back is a good way to injure your back. There are several popular, and safe, ways to do it. One backpacking for dummies method is to rest the pack on a tree stump or embankment and squat down to slip into the shoulder harness. Yet another method is to have someone help you slip into the harness.
Common Sense: sound practical sense, esp. in everyday matters.
The backpacking for dummies exercise of common sense is a requirement for the entire backcountry experience, from initial thoughts, through actual planning, transportation to, execution of backcountry trip, and return trip home.
Plan your backcountry trips, thoroughly, before you leave home. Be as knowledgeable about what lies ahead as physically possible, and you will be much better positioned to achieve and maintain a healthy attitude, security, as well as a great time.
Communicate your plans to friends and family. Make a hardcopy of the destination and time table for your trip and give it to friends or family. Draw on a topographical map where you will be, how long you will be there, and when you should be back home. This may be your backpacking for dummies link to survival should you run into trouble in an isolated area.
A Topographical Map
Know when to turn around and go back! Follow your backpacking for dummies knowledge, training, and gut instincts. If you are unsure about a traverse, a climb, a trail, exposure to weather, whatever, back off, live another day, and contemplate your alternatives. Select a different route. Pitch your tent and layover until the storm passes. Wait til morning when the river's water level is lower, before crossing, etc. Keep in mind, ignoring your "gut" and pushing forward into a questionable situation might be challenging and macho, but it can also be called stupid and have deadly consequences.
Remember, many of the backpackers who've been killed were the victims of their own inability to turn around when their guts were telling them to do so. (3 people were killed recently at Vernal Fall in Yosemite National Park by climbing over a railing to get a better picture. Don't ever take these warnings lightly!)
Vernal Fall In Yosemite National Park
Listen to your body. Undress before overheating, dress before chills set in, drink often and eat regularly.
Not only does our pyschological and spiritual being speak to us, but our physiological parts send us loud messages, as well.
Hypothermia is a real concern in the backcountry. It's a condition resulting from your body's core temperature dropping below normal. The symptoms you'd likely experience are lack of coordination, chills and shivering, slow speech, and acting out of character. It's important to recognize and even anticipate these early warning signs, and respond to them, accordingly. Several of the mild cases that I've seen resulted from persons exerting high energy, sweating, then getting chilled when they stop. For mild hypothermia, get the person into warm, dry conditions: clothes, tent, sleeping bag and provide and encourage consumption of warm drinks.
Hyperthermia is also a problem. It can occur, mainly in hot, dry summer temperatures, when your internal body heat can't be released fast enough and you overheat.
I automatically put on a jacket when I stop, even if the sun is out. Once I dry off a bit and my body temperature stablizes, I can take off the jacket. Try to avoid dramatic body temperature swings, one way or the other. When you first start out on a hike, it's typical that you'll want to stop after about 15 minutes or so, to take a "clothes break". Take off your jacket or long underwear bottoms so that you don't overheat on the trail. When stopping for breaks, either make the breaks short enough that you don't get chilled or put some clothes on. Repeat this backpacking for dummies cycle of putting clothes on and taking clothes off.
Put On A Jacket
Drink plenty of fluid, eat plenty of food. One time, I did not bring enough to drink and I got very dehydrated. It took me a couple of days to feel normal. I usually recognize the need to snack on the trail, as I start to lose energy after awhile, so I must grab a little snack to refuel. The point here is that it is critical to replace the fluids that are gushing out of your body, as you exercise, as well as a steady supply of nutrition, via snacks and meals, in order to maintain health and energy.
Strive for a simple, light load on your back. A light, but efficient load, will allow you to have a more enjoyable time with energy left over to celebrate when you reach your destination.
Know your needs. Before embarking on a gear shopping trip, have your head full of backpacking for dummies information related to: What kind of trips you will be taking? How many days? How many miles? In what kind of terrain - on trail, off trail? At what altitude - desert, subalpine, alpine? In what seasons - Summer, 3-Season, 4-Season? In what kind of weather? How many people - solo, 2-person, etc.? Do you sleep hot or cold? Do you rock and roll in your sleep? Are you a heavy breather in your sleep? What's your torso measurement? What side of the bed do you get out of in the morning? Do you have weak hips or weak lumbar? (most packs put majority of weight on hips)
This backpacking for dummies information will be critical when talking tents, boots, clothes, backpacks, sleeping bags, and virtually all the other gear items you will need, some of which you don't even know you need, yet. Trust me, an experienced salesperson will ask about and use every one of the info items I mentioned above, and probably more.
When trying on hiking shoes and boots, take the socks you would wear during your backcountry adventures, as well as inserts. If you don't know what socks you'll be wearing, then that's where you should start.
Shop at stores with reputable, experienced salespeople. This may surprise you, but my backpacking for dummies advise, if you are just starting out, unless you know exactly what you need, is to stay away from outdoor chain stores!
My suggestion is to go to shops like Marmot, Wilderness Experience, Feathered Friends and get help you can count on from experienced backcountry folks. Marmot and Feathered Friends also do mail order. Check your local area for the best outdoor shops. If the chain stores are all you have, then make darn sure you've done your homework, for your own good, and get a second and third opinion.
More and more I do my shopping over the internet. There are a lot of good quality shops on the net - for example, look at some of the gear I recommend on my site. This is a great alternative especially if you have a good idea of your required specifications. Even it you don't, many online shops will work with you to ensure you get what you really need.
Plan your gear inventory and purchases. Using the backpacking for dummies information that you just supplied yourself, from above, as well as identify, as much as you can, the types and specifications of the gear you desire. This approach to acquiring gear will reduce your dependence on sales people to figure out what you need and subsequent need to buy, sell, and buy gear multiple times before you get what you actually, really need.
Using hiking poles and walking sticks will save your bacon when traveling in the backcountry, as it has mine, many times and, in addition, will prolong the life of your legs, feet, and especially, knees.
Strive to lighten your load! You don't need to be a lightweight gear neurotic to know that this makes sense. Here's some old backpacking for dummies methods and some new innovations intended to lighten the load. If you don't already know, every ounce is heavy, therefore, every ounce removed from your back, lightens your load. There's some good weight reduction to be had via acquisition of specific kinds of gear.
Use a backpacking for dummies checklist, like the one below, for trip planning purposes and ensuring that you've remembered everything.
Know your gear. Acquiring the right backpacking for dummies gear is the first step. You must then gain a keen knowledge of how each piece of gear works, how it is assembled, and how to maintain it.
Practice using each gear item, before you leave home. Visualize having to repair each item in the field and be prepared to do so. The more you know about your gear and the more comfortable you are with it, the more secure and comfortable you will be while on the trail.
Maintain an efficient posture, while walking on the trail. First of all, you need to make sure your backpack is packed correctly. Assuming your pack is relatively lightweight and properly packed, you should be able to walk only slightly leaning forward under the weight of the pack. Try to maintain the posture you would normally have while walking, head up, shoulders back, relaxed, swinging arms, in order to reduce muscle strain and make you a more efficient backpacker.
Discover your hiking pace! This is very important. Everyone has a preferred pace, and to deviate from that pace is somewhat annoying, uncomfortable, and even injury producing. When first starting out, don't concentrate too much on your stride and pace, just do what comes naturally and comfortably. It's important that you hike at your own pace to maintain that comfort level. You're out there to have fun and achieve enjoyment, not to keep up with someone else. If you hike with a group, most groups, if properly guided, will allow for this, and even encourage this. Eventually, you may want to concentrate on quickening your pace or even slowing down. Over time, I have learned to comfortably quicken my pace or slow my pace, depending on the situation.
Finding a hiking partner. You may have visions of yourself and your spouse or best friend trucking up a storm through the mountains. If your goal is to hike with your spouse and/or best friend and still be friends when its all over, then you must conform to the pace of the slowest person. That's the potentially annoying, uncomfortable part I previously mentioned. If your goal is to hike at your own pace, for as far and as long as you like, you, most likely, will need to seek out a hiking partner with similar, if not identical tendancies. If that's your wife or best friend, then lucky you. Hiking partners can be found thru hiking club activities and newsletters, acquaintances, and even over backpacking bulletin boards.
A Hiking Partner
Watch where you're going. Especially nowadays, many trails are in a bad way, roots, ruts, wash outs and rocks. Keep your eyes and mind on the trail in front of you. Plan each step, carefully. Your eyes, mind, and foot placement must be in coordination with your feet. That is why its important to travel at your naturally comfortable pace. If you go too fast, your foot placement may become uncoordinated and accidents can occur, and do. Even on well kept trails, footing can be treacherous when wet. Be careful going downhill on wet trails. Use your trekking poles for added support and stability.
Many Trails Are In A Bad Way!
Rest occasionally. Whenever you or someone in your group gets weary, it's important to stop and rest. It's actually best if you rest before anyone gets weary. A tired backpacker, is a backpacker who is more prone to injury. When planning your daily mileage, be flexible. Be prepared to stop for the day when you and/or your group gets weary and wants to stop, rather than pushing on to a predetermined goal and risk someone getting injured.
Protect yourself from sunburn. Carry and use hats with wide brims which protect the eyes and face and with shrouds that cover ears and neck. Frequently apply sunblock, at least, spf 15, in the mountains, try spf 25 or higher.
Protect Yourself From Sunburn!
Prevent and treat blisters. If your boots fit correctly, you'll be less likely to encounter blisters. A good boot fit will be snug in the heel area and long enough that toes don't jam up against the front of the boot when going downhill. Also, if you're wearing socks like Thorlo Hiking, with padded bottoms. Those are the three areas in which blisters occur the most. If you have a history of blisters, then apply moleskin or 2nd skin or whatever to that area prior to hitting the trail.
If already on the trail, stop immediately upon feeling a "hot" spot. When you feel the hot spot, the blister is already forming. If you stop right away and apply moleskin to the reddened area, you'll most likely have little more than a sore spot for a couple days. If you don't stop and take care of it, it could develop into a condition too painful to walk on.
Prevent And Treat Blisters
If a full blown blister does occur, you can drain it by lancing it at its base and then applying first, an antibacterial gel, and second, a cushioned, adhesive bandage. Another backpacking for dummies solution, is to leave it, as is, undrained, and cover it as follows: cut a section of 1/8" thick molefoam which is larger than the blister by 1/2" on each side.
Then cut a hole in the middle of the molefoam a little larger than the blister and place it over the blister. Next, Cut a piece of moleskin the same size as the molefoam and place over the top of the molefoam. You've now encased and protected the blister from further abrasion. You should be able to continue on your journey.
Adhesive Bandage, Ace Bandage, Moleskin, Safety Pins,
Knee Brace, Band-aids, Blister Band Aids
Bugs. You'll have to deal with bugs, one way or another. Especially biting black flies and mosquitoes. There are many backpacking for dummies bug off solutions, juices, creams, gels, sprays, most of which are DEET based. You can also purchase bug net clothes. This is probably the main reason that I carry a tent. If there were no bugs in the world, I'd be happy carrying a bivy for many of the outings I go on. There's no magic solution, you just have to discover a way to deal with it.
Ticks and Lyme disease. Lyme disease has become a serious problem and one of the main ways it is transmitted to humans is by Ticks. In tick country, make sure feet, legs and arms are covered with clothing. Wear light colored clothing so ticks will be more visible. Check often for ticks on clothes and in hair and on exposed skin. If you do find a tick embedded in your skin the Backpacking for Dummies recommendation is to remove it immediately by pinching your skin with special tick removing tweezers just below the head of the tick and lift the tick straight up and out.
It is very important to not squeeze or twist the tick during the removal process since this can cause the tick to regurgitate germs into the wound. Also, do not try to burn or otherwise harrass the tick because it may burrow deeper. After removal, apply first aid to the wound, and it wouldn't hurt to save the speciman and take it and yourself to see a physician, upon your return to civilization.
Carry and know how to use map and compass. Even if you always stay on the trail and have no intentions of leaving it, it is important to carry a map of the terrain that you're in. For a brief moment, you may not be paying attention or may get distracted and, consequently, take an incorrect fork in the trail, the trail of which gradually fades away. You turn around and see no trail, you're disoriented and probably lost. In my opinion, the map is the most important tool you have because even if you don't know the intricacies of using a compass, the map will allow you to get reoriented.
You can climb to a high place, pick out some outstanding land features, then find them on the map or vice versa in order to approximate where you're at. With this backpacking for dummies knowledge you'll have an easier time finding your way back to the trail. If you know how to read the compass, which you should, you'll have an even better chance of finding your way back. No matter how careful you are, if you're out there long enough it will happen to you, too. Be prepared.
Map And Compass
Be familiar with and Pay attention to, the terrain you're in. Before you venture into an area, become familiar with the terrain by studying your map. As you travel, pay attention, stay aware of where you are, don't just blindly follow the trail. Periodically, stop, turn around and look behind you. See if you can approximate where you're at on the map. Stay alert and you'll stay found.
Stay on the trail! Use your map to become familiar with the trail, including intersections with other trails. It's not uncommon to come across side trails which are well traveled by wild animals, climbers, fisherman, and soon to be lost hikers. Again, pay attention to the map, pay attention to the trail. Stay on the right one. If you have a backpacking for dummies question about which way to go, refer to your present location on the map, pull out your compass, take a bearing and follow the appropriate trail. Not all trails are well defined, be prepared to use map, compass, and common sense to validate the direction you travel.
Stay On The Trail!
Keep track of each other. If in a group, the Backpacking for Dummies rule of thumb is don't lose sight of the person in front of and/or behind you. If each person has this attitude and practice, persons will have a better chance of staying found. Those who become lost can be retrieved before they become "too lost" and injured individuals can be quickly located and administered to.
If lost, don't panic. Once you realize that you're lost, stay calm, relax, and evaluate the situation. Stay where you are, continuing on may just take you farther from help. Use your emergency whistle to signal distress, or if you don't have your whistle, make loud noise however you can. Get to the highest place in the immediate area, and using your basic map and compass skills approximate your location, and begin working your way back to the trail, continuing to make noise, until you are found.
Backpacking is really a 4 season activity. My observation is that there are 3 seasonal categories of backpackers, those that go out only in Summer, those that go out in 3-seasons, and those that go out all year round. A person can backpack in the same locations, for the better part of 3 seasons, with pretty much the same gear.
In Winter and, potentially, in early Spring and late Fall, there are other backpacking for dummies considerations in terms of gear, technique, and places to go.
Whenever snow and ice is present, a hiker/backpacker needs, at a minimum, an ice axe and the backpacking for dummies knowledge of how to use it. From late Fall, through much of the Winter, snowshoes are a necessity. From late Winter through early Summer, the snow pack generally hardens and snowshoes are no longer required, but the ice axe and sturdy boots continue to be a requirement.
One needs to know how to kick or chop steps in hard snow, how to stop yourself from sliding down the mountain with the axe and for your own fun, how to slide down the mountain on your bottom using the ice axe as a rudder/brake. If you want to become a successful year round backpacker, you must become skilled using snowshoes and ice axe.
Snowshoes And Ice Axe
I know Backpacking for Dummies is a lot of information, but it will help you to become more familiar with the basics of becoming a good backpacker. Good luck and have fun!
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