I’ve trekked the Adirondack and Catskill mountains in New York, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand and have hiked about a thousand miles of the Appalachian Trail. These days, I’m exploring the mountains of Gangwon-do, South Korea. I’ve learned all I know about backpacking through visiting and living in the woods. You don’t need to be an expert, rich or in optimum physical shape to go backpacking. These tips are my best advice for beginners.
1. Hike Your Own Hike
“Hike your own hike” is the golden rule of any adventure. When choosing a journey, challenge yourself, but choose a realistic hike. Start small and train for your expedition. Discover what pace and distance are comfortable for you. Some people approach backpacking like a sport they want to win. Others backpack for the chance to be close to nature and other outdoorsy folk. Why do you want to go backpacking? Keep your intention in mind and appreciate your unique journey. People less daring than you may admire you or think you’re crazy. Hikers more hardcore than you may have a superior attitude, but who cares, hike your own hike, man.
2. “OMG Shoes”
From bare feet to heavy boots, there are a variety of ways to walk in the woods. Ultralight everything is trendy now, but I believe sturdy boots will endure. Find a shoe that is comfortable for you and break it in before your trip. Bring a pair of lightweight camp shoes. Your hiking shoes will grow gnarly, and camp shoes are great for letting your feet breath. The wilderness is the one place where Crocs are the height of fashion, but flip flops work, too.
Sock liners and foot powder prevent blisters. Keep your feet as dry as possible. Take off your shoes and socks during breaks and soak sore feet in cold streams. A sturdy shoe, insoles and trekking poles minimize the stress of hiking on your knees and feet.
|Cynthia and her gear.|
3. Gear Talk
Interior vs. exterior frames, lumbars, Gore-Tex, even the metric system! Don’t let gear jargon confound you. Read blogs of people who’ve hiked your intended trail or in a similar region to find what equipment is relevant. If possible, borrow gear from a friend or an Outing Club for your first excursions. Don’t splurge on gear until you know you enjoy backpacking and understand what you need.
If you decide to buy gear, have an idea of what you want before you go shopping. Read product reviews and choose brands with good reputations. Some outdoor companies have excellent warranties and will happily replace damaged gear. Invest in some quality items, but scrimp when you can. Beware of $12 dollar glorified Pasta Sides and $40 dollar polyester T-shirts sold at outfitters. Exercise clothing from department stores are excellent for backpacking. Choose clothing with synthetic material that will dry quickly to help prevent hypothermia when sweat or weather happen. Remember, “cotton kills” and if you wear denim in the woods, you may be shunned.
I bring a backpack, trekking poles, hiking boots with orthopedic insoles, camp shoes, synthetic socks and sock liners, a synthetic T-shirt, convertible pants, a thermal shirt and pants, a fleece sweater, dirty red bandana, warm hat, rain gear, a tent with a rain-fly and ground mat, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, a small propane stove, a spork, a first aid kit, a bladder and nalgene. For me, these items are necessities, but some backpackers camp without shelter and forage for their food. Other backpackers prefer a little more glamour in the wilderness. Start with the basic necessities and discover your own style of backpacking.
|On the Appalachian Trail|
4. The Shake Down
Examine your gear before you embark. Set aside everything you don’t absolutely need. Do not bring extra cardboard, plastic or wrappers.Take the cardboard tube out of your toilet paper roll. Repack items in smaller bags like zip locks. Some backpackers even cut their toothbrush in half. Luxury items should be kept to a minimum, but do bring stuff that will make you happy. I once hiked with a foldable light-up hula hoop; it was worth it. Weigh your backpack before your trip. Your base weight is the value before food and water. Have a friend or a seasoned backpacker look over your gear and offer advice. Post adventure, go through your gear and consider what you didn’t use so you can better prepare for your next trip. The lighter your backpack, the happier your hike will be.
|Hikers Welcome in New Hampshire|
5. Listen to Your Body, not Your Brain
Backpacking is a physical and mental challenge. Expect to have good days and bad days, especially on longer trips. Keep your outlook positive and listen to your body. If you feel thirsty, drink. If you are craving salt or sugar, eat the corresponding snack. If your body says, “there is no way I’m climbing this hill if you don’t feed me a candy bar,” eat a candy bar. Take breaks when you’re tired. Address pain and blisters immediately. Your body will adjust to the trial, if you keep your attitude positive. This means sometimes telling your brain to shut up. Your brain may say, “I hate hiking.” Don’t listen. Know your limits, but continue challenging yourself. Reward yourself for departing from your comfort zone. Hike, but also hang out in the woods. Enjoy nature and talk to strangers. After your trip, you will feel accomplished and your brain will be like, “I’m so happy we did this, I never doubted you.”
|Cynthia, gazing at her accomplishment on the Appalachian Trail|
6. “Water, I Need It!”
Collect water from flowing sources. Treat water with chemicals and filters. Know the water sources on your trail. Water sources are sometimes unreliable and may dry up depending on the season. Have a backup plan.
I recommend having a 2 to 3 liter bladder with an accessible hose you can drink from without stopping on the trail. Water is necessary, but monotonous. Drink mixes are a fantastic treat. I carry a separate container like a nalgene bottle or reused plastic bottle for flavored drinks. Hot cocoa, coffee and even iced coffee mixes go well with camp meals.
|Some of Cynthia's trail munchies|
While backpacking, I eat three meals a day with snacks in between. Snacks are very important to me in the woods because they inspire me to keep hiking. I cook a hot breakfast and dinner and have a cold lunch on the go. I use a camp stove that boils water over propane. You can also cook over a campfire, but check if fires are allowed in the area.
Backpacking food is anything that will last without a refrigerator. Dehydrated food like pasta or rice, hard fruits, preserved meat, hard cheese and sealed snacks work for backpacking. Plan enough food for your trip. Don’t over pack, but expect to eat more than usual. I like to have a backup food like peanut butter for hunger emergencies. Bring food you enjoy eating in real life and get creative. Sharing food in the woods is an easy way to make friends. Just don’t feed the animals.
|On the trail in New Hampshire|
8. Respect Nature
You are a guest in nature, so do not leave a mess. Carry out what you’ve carried in. Take precautions in bear country, but understand that humans are a bigger threat to bears than vice versa. Many state parks have a low tolerance for bears and will exterminate one that is spotted too many times or approaches a human. Minimize the danger for humans and bears by cleaning up after yourself. Food or scented items should be placed in a bear bag or bear canister at night. Brushing your teeth and spitting over a fire will burn off the smell. Minimize your potential garbage during your shakedown. I like to store my trash in a plastic bag that seals to contain the smell. I keep my garbage Ziplock in a colored plastic shopping bag, so I don’t have to look at it.
Leave the deodorant at home, it’s just a placebo at this point. Use wet wipes and hand sanitizer to clean, especially before meals. Do not wash your hands, dishes or go to the bathroom near a stream. Carry stream water to another location with a plastic pouch.
Some trails have privies that will decompose your waste. Privies are usually for #2. Most nature conservancies want you to pee in the woods. Do not dispose of feminine products in the privy or you will ruin the decomposition and an unpaid intern will have to carry out the mess. I recommend a reusable silicone menstrual cup for the environmentally concerned backpacker lady. You can boil your cup in a separate container over your camp stove to sanitize it during your trip. Even if there are privies, learn to go in the woods. Find a private spot, especially if there are a lot of boy scouts on your trail. Watch out for spots that are too good, particularly if there are white flags on the ground. Do not go to the bathroom above the tree line or you may damage unique alpine species left over from the ice age. When you use the nature toilet, bury your waste like a cat. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.
|From one of Cynthia's recent hikes in Korea|
10. Safety and Bravery
Know what danger to expect and be prepared. Let someone know where you’re backpacking and when you expect to return. GPS tracking devices like the Spot Satellite messenger can contact help in an emergency. Do not depend on cell phone service in the woods. Know if your trail is well marked and what color blazes to follow. Use a map, guidebook and possibly a compass. Prepare for injuries with a small first aid kit. A blister kit, Vitamin I, aka Advil, and duct tape are essentials. Check for ticks in infested areas. Consult the weather report if possible. Stay below tree line during storms. Summit mountains early in the day to avoid dangerous weather. Night hiking is fun, but prepare for the dark with a flashlight or bright moon. Be safe, but don’t let fear keep you from your adventure. Backpacking means being brave. Old fears you may have overcome while in civilization, like fear of the dark, may revive in the wilderness. The woods may feel unfamiliar at first, but after backpacking you’ll learn that you are no less safe in the woods than you are in the suburbs or cities. Don’t be afraid of hiking alone, either. I’ve backpacked solo and found that being by oneself in nature is wonderful. But whether alone or with friends, backpacking is an enchanting way to become better acquainted with nature and yourself.