Before my first time backpacking this September, I had many questions, most of them regarding the idea of carrying everything I needed and how much it would hurt. Luckily the boyfriendo was not a novice, but for those of you who are, here’s my tips.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
There’s probably over 50 hikes close to Seattle you could use for backpacking. But for a first time, maybe go easy on yourself. We specifically chose a hike that was fairly flat. Your balance and weight dispersal is going to be way thrown off–would you rather be on a flat boardwalk, or a rocky cliff? Even then, we maybe overdid it on length (three miles the first day, six the second). Another key thing to look out for is a fresh water source. You will need a ton of water for hydrating but also cooking, and each liter of water weighs over two pounds–do you really want to be lugging 10 liters of water for 22 pounds of weight when a water filter typically weighs less than a pound?
Once you’ve found a suitable hike, check for permits. Olympic National Park and the Enchantments are two notable backpacking destinations that require a permit for overnight camping. I had to try over 30 times to get my fax permit request to go through the second Olympic accepted them! Lastly, plan for weather. Setting up a tent in the rain is the worst, especially if you’re not used to this particular tent and didn’t bring seven tarps with you. There’s no shame in cancelling if there will be rain!
If your selected trek has a pit toilet at the camping area (like our selection at Cape Alava, Goat Lake, or Monte Cristo), great! Otherwise, read up on proper bathroom etiquette on the trail. I could not believe despite two pit toilets at camp there was unearthed toilet paper RIGHT BY the freshwater source at Cape Alava–that’s two mistakes, one of which with fairly serious consequences. Pack out toilet paper, and don’t go anywhere near a fresh water source.
I already mentioned my massive pack, but you”ll need more gear then a bigger pack compared to a dayhike–the above mentioned water filter, and a cooking stove. Trust me, after hiking and schlepping your gear, you will want hot food and not just cold tuna from a can and granola bars–a stove is necessary! The boyfriendo handled selecting our stove and filter, but you will need to do your own research to decide what is best. We went with a ‘pump’ water filter that screws onto a Nalgene or other water bottle for easy filling, but a lot of people like gravity filters (you do get tired from pumping) or even bottles with built-in filters. Do your research, and remember REI has a killer return policy if you’re thinking you’d prefer a different filter after time on the trail.
For a stove, again, you have choices. The two most popular brands are Jetboil and MSR. The boyfriendo chose to shell out for a MSR universal stove that takes all kinds of fuel, which will be super useful and environmentally friendly if using a refillable fuel bottle. If you use a brand that takes isobutane-propane canisters for fuel, don’t forget a tool to compact the empty canisters to be able to recycle them. Many municipalities do not accept these cans for recycling even when crunched though, so keep that in mind if you want to be eco-friendly with your purchases.
After purchasing (or borrowing) a stove and filter, if you choose to upgrade any existing equipment for backpacking, make it a tent. Backpacking tents are ultra-lightweight compared to their car camping counterparts, and the price reflects that. It will be worth every ounce saved, but if you’re unsure if you’ll like backpacking enough to commit to a purchase, you can rent or borrow one.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
At REI, they will load up your pack with sandbags for you to walk around the store with, but the employee assisting me highly recommended loading up the pack at home and taking it around the block a few times as well. As dorky as I thought I’d look, gear all dispersed about does feel very different from sandbags lumped at the bottom of your pack. It also appeared to help my gear settle a bit to jostle the pack a bit as I walked around, allowing more room.
TRY BEFORE YOU DEPART
We practiced with both the stove and the water filter in the week before we left–one, to check for any defects or missing pieces, and two, to be confident we could use them when we needed them at camp. If we had been unable to use either product, we could have been in a pretty dire situation. Can you imagine fumbling with a stove, racing before night falls to get some food in your belly? It also ensured we remembered to bring a lighter for the stove! Do NOT practice indoors with your stove–even if you open a window or door, CO poisoning can happen fast and fatally. Try to practice outdoors at least 25 feet from any doors or open windows.
MAKE A LIST AND CHECK IT TWICE
Every ounce will count when backpacking. The ultra-serious thru-hikers will take into the account the weight of everything to maximize comfort (seriously–they own scales and will weigh everything). For your first time backpacking, you might not be weighing every thing you intend to bring, but do plan carefully and think about listing what you’re packing and how useful it will be. Some items are more important than others, and some items can easily be shared. I thought I’d excel at this with my strong desire to over-plan everything (including typed checklists), but I still managed to forget my brand-new headlamp on the coffee table. While I was able to get by fine without it, I really wanted to break it in! One super-important thing to not forget is camp shoes–shoes to wear to give your feet a break from the tight laces of your hiking boots or shoes. I wore my Tevas to dunk my feet in the ocean, but this turned out to maybe not be smart–the straps got soaked and then I *still* had to wear my boots all night and in the morning. Maybe next time I’ll bring Tevas for the ocean and something else for camp? As ugly as they are, Crocs are beloved by many for wearing in the backcountry camp–you can still wear socks with them for warmth and to prevent the ‘skeeters from biting, and they are lightweight.
Even with my feet killing me, I loved backpacking and cannot wait to try it again–with a few lessons learned. What did you wish you had known before your first backpacking trip?