Before my first time backpacking in 2017, 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.
WHAT IS BACKPACKING?
Not a stupid question! Backpacking is when you hike in to a campsite for at least one night. It is different than driving to a state park or other drive-in campground. Without a car, you will need to bring everything you’ll need on your back.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
There’s countless hikes close to Seattle you could use for backpacking. But for a first time, maybe go easy on yourself. For my first time, 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 mileage (three miles the first day, six the second). There’s places in Washington that you can backpack into at less than 2 miles each way, a great option if you’re bringing little ones or nervous about it. Another key thing to look out for when planning your trip 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 and other restrictions. Olympic National Park and the Enchantments are two notable destinations that require a permit for overnight camping. In non-COVID times, you have to pick up your OlyNP permit in person, which adds to the drive time. Many parts of OlyNP also require a bear can–NO HANGING–for food. If you don’t have one, they typically have them available to rent at the station where you pick up your permit.
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. 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!
You will likely need different gear than what you bring on a typical hike, and a bigger pack to store it all. For my first trip, I used a 65+10 L backpack, and needed every inch! If you like backpacking enough to eventually build up smaller, lighter gear, you can eventually downsize your pack, but for the beginning, maybe don’t borrow a friends 45L pack. If going with more experienced people, they might have a lot of gear that can be shared (at least, pre-COVID), but at least one person in your group should have a water filter and a stove.
There are several options for water filters. For my first trip, the boyfriendo handled selecting our stove and filter, but you will need to do your own research to decide what is best. While some people forgo a stove, trust me, after hiking and schlepping all your gear over several miles, you will want hot food and not just cold tuna from a can and granola bars–a stove is necessary! We went with a ‘pump’ water filter that screws onto a Nalgene or other water bottle for easy filling, but I have since switched to a gravity filter (you do get tired from pumping!). 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, but we have also since upgraded to an MSR Pocket Rocket for quick trips. 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. Do your research, and remember REI has a killer return policy. Regardless, don’t forget utensils and a cooking pot for boiling your water!
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. You’ll want a sleeping bag and a pad to put between the sleeping bag and the tent floor–not just for comfort, but for warmth, too. Here’s my sleeping system.
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 for my first trip. While I was able to get by fine without it, I really wanted to break it in! If you do like over-planning, here’s a few tips on how to get your pack lighter, but on a first trip, it’s almost an inevitability–you’ll pack too much.
Despite that, I’m a huge advocate for backpacking luxuries, including camp shoes–shoes to wear to give your feet a break from the tight laces of your hiking boots or shoes. On my first trip 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. 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, they dry fast, and they are somewhat lightweight. Don’t forget desert and a beverage of your choice for that first night–you’ve earned it!
WHAT DO I DO THERE?
Especially if you have a short hike in to your campsite, then what? First, I usually set down my pack and scope out a camp site. At nearly every backpacking site, it will not be super obvious where to set up. Cape Alava it is fairly obvious, as the sites have pretty well-established fire rings (and the rangers do have a map of the 16 sites), but at many places, it might involve some guesswork. Just because you see a flat patch where someone pitched a tent doesn’t mean it’s a good spot–you actually are not supposed to camp too close to water, in many instances. Spruce Bottom Camp was one exception, but generally you should be 200 feet from water–something I admit to having done without knowing.
Once you find a good spot that you have triple-checked is flat with no roots under it, I kick away any pine cones or rocks, pitch my tent, and get my sleeping bag out ASAP. If you have a down sleeping bag, especially if you used a compression bag for it, getting it out and fluffed now (and fluffing again before bed) will help you get warmer quicker. Then, the day is yours. Depending on how early I arrived and the camp site, napping, swimming, exploring, fetching water, reading on a Kindle, and cards can help pass the time. Better to arrive to camp too early and be bored than to have the good spots be taken or be setting up in the dark!
Even with my feet killing me, I loved backpacking and have gone many times since–with something new learned every time. All the while, I’ve been slowly upgrading my gear, looking for sales, used gear bargains, and new recommendations from other hikers. What did you wish you had known before your first backpacking trip?