Monday, March 13, 2017

Q&A: How Can I Get Started Backpacking?

If it's solitude and adventure you're looking for, away from bustling developed campgrounds, you're missing out big time if you haven't tried backpacking. Rewards you'll reap include a unique sense of freedom, constant adrenaline rushes, great exercise and a proud sense of responsibility when it's just you and your pack out in the wilderness. Spring is the perfect time to give backpacking a try and with the increasing number of state properties across Wisconsin offering remote campsites, opportunity abounds.

I took my first backpacking trip in February 2014, spending a few days in the backcountry at Menominee River State Recreation Area, on the border of Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It was freezing and I did it solo. Parking my station wagon at the trailhead, I loaded my pack, strapped on my snowshoes and hiked a few miles in knee-deep powder to a clearing on a bluff above the Menominee River. I set up my tent, cooked dinner and was soon stoking a roaring fire. The natural silence and serenity was unreal, disturbed only by howling wolves and the roaring river below as ice chunks crashed to the bottom of Pemene Falls.

Those few days in the frigid backcountry sent my appreciation for the outdoors skyrocketing. While none was life-threatening, I made mistakes that could have been prevented by proper preparation and research. I should have had an appropriately-rated sleeping bag to provide a cocoon of warmth when temperatures shot down to 18 below zero and I shouldn't have taken two big, one-gallon jugs of water that froze almost immediately after collecting my evening's quota of firewood. When I returned home, however, and reflected on what I should have done differently, I came up with a plan on what to replace or do differently in the future.

Yes, backpacking is more physically demanding than traditional car-camping at a public or private campground, but with the right equipment and research it can be done easily, safely and enjoyably. Before lacing-up those hiking boots, remember these three aspects of backpacking as you venture into the backcountry: gear, preparation and confidence.
The Right Stuff.
There are four essential pieces of gear when it comes to backpacking:
  1. Tent. Don't get thrifty on this buy. It is, after all, your home in the backcountry. A backpacking tent is smaller, more durable, lighter and easier to compact than a standard car-camping tent. Purchasing a three- or four-season backpacking tent with a vestibule allows for a covered place to store your gear outside the tent or to cook a meal if it's raining. It's smart to practice setting up and taking down your new tent before heading out on the trail. Home is where you pitch it, therefore I spend tons and tons and tons of nights each year in my Eurkea Taron2, which has been unbelievably reliable, effortlessly strong through stormy weather and set-up all over the world. I absolutely adore this tent.
  2. Sleeping Bag. The first thing to consider when buying a sleeping bag are the conditions you will be trekking in. If you're planning on fall and winter backpacking, a sleeping bag made of duck or goose down will keep you warm as temperatures plunge below zero at night. They're also lightweight and compress to a surprisingly small size, allowing for more room in your backpack. The downfall? Most down sleeping bags are pricey and you can't get them wet. For summer backpacking, a sleeping bag made of synthetic materials works great.  My winter bag, the Outdoor Vitals Summit is rated to zero degrees while my spring-summer-fall bag is an Alps Mountaineering Desert Pine 20.
  3. Sleeping Pad. Nobody wants painful aches in the morning that put a damper on the new day's hiking plans. Sleeping pads are essential for backpacking for two reasons: comfort and warmth. A sleeping pad will provide a full night's rest and keep you lifted off the ground to help retain your body's core heat at night. Pads come in two forms: inflatable and foldable. Both types have their pros and cons. For example, an inflatable sleeping pad, if not filled properly, could deflate in the middle of the night or pop if punctured. They also take time to roll out, inflate, deflate and roll back up again; yet, they provide a glorious, comfortable cushion of air. Foldable sleeping pads don't require inflation, are durable and quick to throw down and lay your sleeping bag on. However, they don't provide as much cushion, are bulkier and you'll have to carry them on the outside of your backpack. I use a Klymit Static V, it's not the most insulated for Wisco cold temperatures (there's an actual insulated version available) but it keeps you off the ground and comfy.
  4. Backpack. The pack is probably the most important piece of gear you'll buy. Backpacking packs are measured in liters. The smaller the capacity of the pack, the fewer number of days you'll be out on the trail. For example, those looking to do just a one- or two-night trip may opt for a pack that holds 30-50 liters, whereas if you're heading into the backcountry on a multiple-day excursion, strap something over your shoulders that will hold more than 60 liters. Don't run out to your local gear shop or online outlet and buy any pack, though, because you must get fitted first. Backpacking with a loaded pack that isn't fitted properly is like walking in a pair of shoes three sizes too big. Most major outdoor retailers have trained sales staff that will measure your waist size and torso length. Your backpacking pack needs to sit comfortably on your hips, not your shoulders. Once you know your size, shop around for desired features that may suit your needs. Some backpacking packs have camera pouches in the front hipbelt, others have built-in rain flies or bottom-access doors so you can easily pull out your sleeping bag. Exterior gear loops and straps to hang things like your tent or water bottle are other crucial elements to look for. My gear? the Gregory Baltoro 65, a 65-liter glorious backpacking pack that snagged a pretty prominent 'Editor's Choice Award' last year from Backpacker Magazine. 
Prepare For Success.
After picking out the right gear, the next step is to do your homework before hitting the trail. Backpacking requires planning, research and decision-making to be fully prepared. First decide where you want to go and for how long. If it's your first trip, aim for a state park or forest property close to home with an easy hike, say half-an-hour to an hour's hike to the backcountry campsite from the trailhead. With more experience, you can opt for farther state and national parks that require day-long or multiple-hour hikes, or even paddles on water to very remote backcountry campsites. Study maps and if you're in a large wilderness area, purchase a topographic map and learn how to read and navigate it with a compass. Look for nearby water sources and check to see if the trail to the campsite crosses precarious terrain. Plenty of helpful tutorial videos can be found on YouTube. Think twice about everything you pack and anticipate what you can make use of when you get there. Don't carry a bundle of firewood or gallons of water. Remember, water equals added weight. Consider purchasing a small, backpacking propane stove and a water filter. Learn and experiment with what you're going to eat and how to stow it into your backpack. Before heading out on a backpacking trip, I watch the weather reports closely and prepare a rough itinerary with set times for leaving from the trailhead, arriving at the backcountry site and returning to my vehicle post-trip. Make sure you share your itinerary and location with family members or friends so they're aware of your off-the-grid adventure. I also try to check-in before and after with the park office or ranger and ask them about conditions or any advisories of which I should be aware. Last fall, when backpacking in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, a ranger cautioned that black bears had been spotted nearby a few weeks before my arrival. You may also need to purchase a backcountry permit so make sure to inquire about that. Preparation doesn't stop once you tighten-up those hiking boots. When out on the trail, keep your head up and observe your surroundings. Watch out for wildlife, poisonous shrubbery and unexpected changes in terrain. Is that wall of dark, storm clouds approaching you? Do you have a plan if lightning strikes? Is your tent pitched in an area where there could be a flash flood? These are all things to take into consideration when out on the trail. Another important thing to prepare for ahead of time is your fitness. Find a local spot with a lot of stairs or a big hill and start walking up and down in your hiking boots. After a few visits, bring your backpack and add some weight or speed up the pace. You don't want to succumb to painful shin splints, three miles away from your vehicle with a 30-pound pack on your back.

Know Your Strengths- and Weaknesses!
You have assembled your gear and nailed down the details of the trip, but are you ready? Your first backpacking excursion will test how good you are at breaking out of your comfort zone. You'll probably be nervous, feel unprepared, scared or anxious to get out on the trail. These are all normal feelings but the fears will quickly erode. Be confident and believe in yourself. Trust all the preparation and pre-trip research you spent hours doing. Know your abilities, strengths and weaknesses. You might have tremendous strength to haul your gear to your backcountry site but your weakness is impatience. That won't help when trying to set up your tent in treacherous winds. Don't overestimate your skillset and knowledge by thinking you're invincible. Confidence gets you far while cockiness could get you killed. Don't lose that confidence when precarious situations arise, however, especially if you're by yourself. If you can't get a fire going or encounter a large wild animal, don't panic and get discouraged. Take a deep breath, keep your composure and brainstorm solutions. You'll be faced with many variables that can change in an instant. Your confidence and self-esteem are what can make the difference between a memorable expedition and a hectic nightmare.

We've covered what gear you should purchase, some basic steps in preparation for a backpacking trip and emphasized how important it is to be confident when outdoors- now get out there, have fun and be safe. And speaking of safety, invest in a personal locator SOS beacon to keep track of your trip's progress and activate a search-and-rescue if you run into serious trouble. I bring a SPOT Gen3 on every adventure I go on.