Saturday, October 5, 2013

My Advice to Would-Be, New, and Coverted Backpackers

I have been putting off writing this for some time, because I wasn't really sure how to go about it.  I had grander plans to make fancy flow charts and/or write a three part series of posts, but then I thought I could perhaps capture the most important points in one longer post rather than risk having things get muddled in a project that was larger in scope.  And honestly, just for pragmatic reasons, it would be easier and more efficient to be able to send people a link to this post when novices ask me for tips and such.

Questions and requests for advice from novices comes up fairly often--I have nearly two decades of experience backpacking, I write a backpacking blog, and love talking about this topic along with nature in general, after all.  In emails and in person, the people with the most questions usually fit into three groups: the would-be, the new, and the converted.  All three groups comprise what I would call novice or rookie backpackers.  The would-be backpackers (BPers) generally have little to no experience out in nature or with backpacking, new BPers have some experience, and the converts have a substantial (but often limited) bit of adventures out in the wild under their belts and are hungry for more.  Or put another way:

Would-be BPers would say something like: 
"I think I'd like to spend more time in nature."

New BPers say: 
"I like spending time in nature and want to go out some more."

Converts say: 
"I love spending time in nature and want to go out regularly."

Would-be BPers have never slept out on their own in nature, but have perhaps done car camping and day trips.

New BPers have slept out on their own a handful of times doing legitimate backpacking, usually on marked and well-know trails.

Converts have slept out on their own over 10 times backpacking, and in addition to bigger trails, have also done smaller trails and/or some bushwhacking/off-trail hiking.

If any of these three categories sound like they could apply to you, then my aim here is to give you some general advice and point you in the right direction on your journey as a BPer.  

Now you may have already noticed that I have a few tabs at the top of my blog: "New to this?" and "For Gram Geeks."  Be sure to check them out for more specific information and details.  If you're a would-be BPer, I'd carefully read most or all the posts in the "New to this?" tab; whereas new BPers can pick and choose which ones to focus on and which ones to skim or skip.  Converts might pick up a few things in this section, but should/ought to know a lot of the basics by the time they become a convert, and should move on to the "For Gram Geeks" tab for further reading.  These are just suggestions, of course--read my blog however you want.

Well noobs, this one is for you:


Would-be BPers, here is my advice to you:

Make sure you have a good understanding of what being in nature really means.  There are a lot of romantic ideas about nature from movies and TV, but how it exists in reality might be much different from what you expect and what you like.  There are many hardships, trials, and tribulations--just like there is with traveling anyplace, even a big city.  

Happiness, fun, and contentment do not always involve being completely and totally comfortable.  Nature also means: bugs, rain, sun, jagged rocks, sharp sticks, steep trails, and on and on.  Spend enough time out in the wild, you will eventually get covered in bites/stings, soaking wet, sunburn, bruised/scraped, scratched/cut, and tired/sore.  If you are careless or unlucky (or both), you can get seriously hurt and possibly even die.  This may sound over-dramatic, but it can and does happen, and is worth noting for anyone that wants to spend an extended period of time in nature--even if for only one day and night.

Ordering a pizza delivered to your front door and eating it, and making a pizza (including the dough, sauce, and prepping all the toppings yourself) from scratch and eating it are two very different experiences.  Both can be very pleasurable, and in the end you might like one over the other, but one has more challenges than the other.  Challenges often come with rewards, both abstract and concrete--for instance, the calories burned in kneading dough vs. using the phone, the monetary cost of homemade vs. store bought, the satisfaction of producing your own dish requiring many different skills vs. merely ordering a dish requiring essentially no skills, etc.

Backpacking is a challenging hobby.  It requires a certain degree of physical endurance and strength, as well as mental resolve, patience, and a variety of skills and techniques.  Experience and practice makes these challenges easier, just like a black belt in a solid martial art can make kicking ass look easy.  So decide if you want to engage a challenging activity, or if you are looking for immediate gratification and luxury.  Go out into nature on day trips if you haven't already, and if you have, go a bit more before you decide on going on your first real backpacking trip.  Take a more challenging day trip, maybe hike a longer distance, or spend the whole day out with lunch and dinner packed with you.

Be honest with yourself about how much you enjoy hiking in nature.  It will save you a lot of time, money, and energy should you decide that backpacking is not for you.  And that's fine.  Some people don't like or can't handle the challenges that backpacking has to offer.  Should you want to go further, the more planning and thought you put into it, the better it is likely to go your first time.  For instance, here are some useful yet simple questions to ask while planning:

Where do I go? - Find a place, preferably someplace close to where you live, to go and explore.  A marked trail is a great place to start.

What will I do? - Backpacking is comprised of two aspects: hiking and camping.  So these are a given.  If you only want to hike and camp, that's fine, but plan accordingly.  How long can you hike before you are tired?  How long does it take you to set up camp?  Then there are other activities associated with backpacking, of course.  Do you want to and can you go swimming or fishing, for example?  Plan, plan, plan.

What do I need to bring? - The circumstances of each trip determine what you need to bring.  Check the weather forecasts.  Research the geography of the area you intend on exploring.  For the would-be BPers, I suggest getting mostly or entirely affordable/cheap gear.  If you fall in love with this hobby, you can upgrade along the way. Plan, plan, plan.

Why am I going? - This is entirely up to the individual to address, and is an important and productive existential self-reflection.  Seriously, ask yourself this question and attempt to answer it on your own. 

To New BPers:

Okay, so you "get it."  You've officially been there, done that--yet you want some more.  Now is when you begin to dial in your trips and your gear based on your preferences.  By now you should have a good idea what works well, and what could use improvement.  The internet has a wealth of information, so use it, but also be critical--not everything you read is accurate or applicable to you.  

Sleep systems and shelters often get a lot of improvements, changes, and modifications as one evolves as a BPer, so ask yourself how well you sleep out there.  A good nights sleep is a very important part of all this, so give it proper attention.  You ought to be sleeping almost as well as you do at home, if not just as good.  This does not mean that your sleep system can be or ought to be just as comfortable as your bed at home, of course.  There are inherent compromises in having a portable home, just as there are the inherent benefits of being able to get shelter from the elements and sleep just about anywhere.

Do you sleep warm or cold most nights?  How effective was your shelter system at keeping you dry?  Keeping the bugs out?

Listen to your body, not just with sleep, but with hiking.  How are your feet?  Do you get lots of blisters?  Could you use better shoes for your needs?

Also, what is next for you aside from weekend trips?  Few people jump right into a long section hike or thru-hike without first doing shorter trips, and with good reason.  Once you feel like you both are able and willing to spend more than a few nights out in nature, it's time to start planning a section hike (or a thru-hike if you are really ambitious and/or foolhardy).  This will probably mean upgrading at least some gear, doing even more planning, and being ready to face even more challenges that backpacking life can throw at you.

Be critical of all of your gear and your skills.  Ask yourself of each piece of gear or skill: Is this working?  How can I improve it and is it worth improving?

To the converted:

So you just can't enough enough, huh?  Yeah, I know the feeling.

You just gotta have that fix of wandering around in the wild.  Maybe you feel somewhat like an adventurer, or a nomad, or an explorer--or at least deep down you want to be one, and respect those that are.  You've read backpacking websites other blogs and drooled at pictures and videos of other trails and nature that just begs you to be there.

You've perhaps splurged on some sweet gear after reading lots of good reviews, and you know about the alternatives and might be experimenting with them.  You probably have some opinions about the ground sleepers vs. hammock, the tarp vs. tent, and the boot vs. sneaker debates based on some experiences, but you're not entirely sure about all the nuances either.  You have developed your own pace and routines for life on the trail, and are curious about how other people do things too.  Yet maybe being out there still feels somewhat "new" to you, and you sense room for improvement and to feel more at ease or comfortable, both mentally and physically.

Well, you might as well go all in, and make things as nice as possible for yourself, seeing as you're going to be spending a lot of time out there anyhow.  

More involved athletes generally need higher quality and more customized gear to perform better, and to aid them in practicing their technique and theory more often and with smoother transitions.  So yeah, gear is going to look all the more alluring and shiny and cool, and you'll probably crave more and more of it; but always remember that you can't buy experience or knowledge, you can only buy fancy gear. Participate in a community of other veteran and convert BPers, online or in real life.  Ask more questions, spark more debates, read more articles and reviews, and odds are if you enjoy all of this then you are well on your way to becoming a life-long BPer.  And of course get out as often as you can!  This is the best way to get better and really test out your gear and skills.

Odds are you probably have one season of gear dialed in pretty well--maybe summertime when a lot of people go backpacking the most--but if you want to get that backpacking fix year round, you're going to have to dial in an all season gear closet.  Yes, this will take more money, but you can save a lot by doing your homework.  Buying used, for example, is a great alternative.  Or combine gear to solve issues while you are doing research and/or saving up for new gear.  You can use your summer sleeping bag in combination with a blanket, a bag liner, or another sleeping bag when it is colder out, for example.  You can make DIY gear, too.  Don't let money hold you back from getting out there, this is a relatively inexpensive hobby.  Use what you have that works before buying fancy, custom made gear.

You have probably already gone on a section hike, so some goals now are to perhaps finish an entire trail with a combination of section hikes.  Or do a thru-hike if you have the time and money to spare.  Or do more bushwhacking/off-trail trips and get to experience an even more raw and untouched nature.

I would also suggest keeping in good (or at least better) shape to streamline your hiking.  Working out while you are not out there makes it easier to hike.  Work your cardio and your core strength, that way you can tear up the trail without getting as sore and tired.  Eat healthier and this will be all the more potent.  And while we are on the subject of health, by this point, you ought to know more advanced first aid and and how to deal with potentially dangerous animals and plants you might encounter where you plan on hiking.

At least consider the idea of going ultralight if you haven't already.  If you are okay with hauling a 25kg base weight, that's fine.  But if you love to hike and be in nature, the simple fact is that it's easier to do this with a lighter load, and you will have more energy to spend as well.  A backpacker with a light load can decide if they want to spend this extra energy hiking, thus being able to travel longer distances, or doing something else, like take a swim or read a book in camp.  Most of what backpacking is, is simply glorified walking, and at the end of the day, you are the only one in charge of what you bring and what you do. 


I hope that this post is able to help out any novice BPers that read it, and now at parties and other social events when people that are interested (or pretend to be interested) ask for advice, I now have a handy link to send them.

*Update 12/08/2015: If you'd like to read more about how to deal with some of the more difficult challenges that you will have to deal with as a regular backpacker, I wrote about dealing with the hard times of backpacking in this text.

As always, feel free to ask questions or give feedback via email or in the comments below.