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Wilderness backpacking

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Back country heaven, Whistler

Wilderness backpacking is a form of self-reliant travel that affords opportunities to see sights available no other way.

Understand[edit]

Carrying everything you'll need to survive for several days in the wilderness isn't everyone's idea of a "vacation", but if if you don't mind including some physical effort and additional inconvenience in your travel time, it's an ideal way to truly "get away from it all", and hopefully see some truly majestic scenery.

Landscape[edit]

Before taking off on a backpacking trip, assess what kind of territory you'll be traveling through. Distances on a map never look that hard to cover, but once you find yourself staring up at a 400-foot ridge standing between you and tonight's camp, it's a different story. Topographic maps will give you a better idea of what you're getting yourself into, as well as being essential for navigation if you're going off-trail. Unless you have an uncanny sense of direction, you'll probably need a compass. GPS can be nifty, but many feel it takes the adventure out of hiking, and it may not always work as well in actual use as the sales pitch suggests.

Climate[edit]

Find out what kind of weather you can expect at the time of year you're planning to go. When's the rainy season? What's the temperature range? Keep in mind that going up in altitude is like going up in latitude. Daytime temperatures may be pleasant, but how cold does it get at night?

Fees/Permits[edit]

Check with the local authorities if you'll be using a state/provincial/national park to see what fees there are for use of the park, and for the trails and campsites, if any. In some parts of the world, right to access may give you permission to hike on privately-owned undeveloped land, but elsewhere – especially the highly-territorial United States – be sure to get permission (unless you want to risk prosecution – or gunshot – for trespassing).

Get around[edit]

Since "get around" means "walk", footwear is one of the most important aspects of backpacking. You can get a similar experience traveling by canoe, kayak or mountain bike, if you prefer and the terrain allows. Traditional hiking boots could kill a small animal just by being dropped on them (empty) from a few feet up, but modern boots can be much lighter, reducing the drag on every step you take. You don't necessarily need to spend hundreds of dollars on state of the art boots, but odds are that your favorite athletic shoes or street shoes will leave you very uncomfortable and hold up just as poorly. Stiff soles and plenty of ankle support are a good idea if you're going over any rocks.

But buying a new pair of boots just before your trip is an equally bad idea. Break the boots in, first with short walks, then longer ones. Wear them around for a week, and you'll know where they rub, if you want to put soft insoles in them, etc. They should conform to the shape of your foot, so by the time you're ready to hike, your boots are too. The break-in period also helps your feet get used to the boots, building up thin callouses in the spots where they rub a little.

If the terrain is especially challenging, or if your knees aren't what they used to be, you might benefit from using a hiking stick or a pair of trekking poles (like cross-country ski poles, but without the skis). They aren't just for the feeble; they can improve your balance and increase your pace by adding some power from your arms to your propulsion. A sturdy chest-high branch (not pulled from a standing tree) will do, or you can buy a telescoping staff or set of poles. Some of them can double as a camera monopod. And while this usage isn't recommended, you'd probably rather face an angry cougar with a pole in your hand than without one.

Wear[edit]

The type and quantity of clothing to wear depends heavily on the location and season. The key strategy in all but the hottest climates is to layer your clothing. If the temperature is going to vary between night and day (and it probably will), carrying a set of clothing for the warm times and another set for the cool times will take up extra space and add extra weight. Instead bring clothes cool enough for daytime hiking, and bring extra layers to put on over them when it cools off after dark. "Convertible" slacks are handy in warmer weather, allowing you to zip off the legs and turn them into shorts when the day gets warm, or back into long pants for wading through prickly plants.

Packing at least one complete change of clothes ensures that if any item you're wearing gets soaked (by rain, a misstep crossing a stream, sweat, whatever) you'll have another to wear instead. This is especially important for socks, which are both the most likely item of clothing to get wet and the most important to keep dry. Spare boots aren't practical, but a pair of cheap flip-flops or loose-fitting light-weight shoes will give your feet a chance to breathe when you're not on the trail, and give you something to wear after you accidentally dunk your foot in a pond while collecting water.

Although cotton is normally comfy, park rangers call it "death cloth". It soaks up water many times its weight and hence its drying time is very slow, making it a less-than-ideal choice for undershirts and underwear you'll be wearing next to your sweaty skin; synthetic fabrics such as capilene will "wick" moisture away from your skin, and can better keep you both cool and dry. Many discount stores will also sell suitable shirts in their sports department if you don't want to drop the money on the specialty brands. Cotton also doesn't keep you warm when it gets wet; wool is a better material for your socks and outerwear. Cotton t-shirts as a middle layer or for sleeping in are fine.

Do with this information what you wish: Humans in many cultures across countless centuries have lived without freshly laundered underwear every morning. Also, keep in mind that the kind of underwear you normally wear may not be ideal for backpacking; women will probably prefer a "sport" bra that provides more support and no hooks in the back, and men may find that briefs provide less opportunity for skin-to-skin chafing and bunched up fabric than boxers.

Carry[edit]

There are two basic kinds of backpacks used in wilderness travel: internal frame and external frame.

The external frame is the more traditional variety, consisting of a metal frame that's strapped to your hips and shoulders, and which your sleeping bag, tent, and the fabric pack itself are strapped to. They're better for keeping your gear organized and accessible, and a bit cooler to wear, because they leave small gaps for air to move between you and the pack. They're the best option for the heaviest loads.

Internal frame packs have become very popular in the last couple decades. They use a flexible plastic frame built into the fabric of the pack itself, which allows you to carry more of the weight closer to your body, improving your balance. One trade-off is the lack of back ventilation. They also tend to have fewer internal compartments, with everything stuffed together inside, making it harder to get at things on the trail.

With either kind of pack, be sure to adjust the straps to put as much weight as possible on your hips, rather than your shoulders. The shoulder straps should mostly be keeping the pack from falling backward, not actually supporting its weight. This will save lots of wear and tear on your back and shoulders, making for a much less painful trip.

Some people prefer to bring along at least one of anything they might need, and others opt to travel more lightly, giving up convenience and comfort for mobility. But if your pack weighs more than a quarter of your body weight, it's too heavy.

Eat[edit][add listing]

You'll want "light" meals, not in the sense of fat or calorie content, but in terms of how much the food weighs in your pack. In fact, you may want to lay off a lot of your "healthy diet" habits for the duration of your trip, because you'll want those extra calories, and fats are a good compact source of all-day energy. Wilderness camping is the very kind of lifestyle that led homo sapiens to develop a fondness for that kind of food. Depending on the length of your trip, food could make up a substantial fraction of your pack weight (figure at least a pound per day). Since water makes up a large percentage of the weight of most foods we eat, and presumably can be found along the way, the obvious solution is to pack foods you can "just add water" to.

  • Breakfast - Oatmeal, crackers, and cereal are good options: inexpensive, lightweight to carry, and easy to prepare. Measure portions ahead of time into zipper-sealed baggies for more convenience. Add a spoonful or two of brown sugar to make it more tasty.
  • Lunch - You might welcome lunch as an excuse to stop to eat during the day, but preparing food on the trail can be a nuisance, so on-the-go foods like trail mix, granola or energy bars, or peanut butter are handy. For short trips, or for the first day or two of longer trips, you can bring semi-perishable foods such as fresh fruit or bagels.
  • Supper - To restore your energy at the end of the day, freeze-dried foods are your most practical option. All sorts of pre-prepared dishes are available, mostly combinations of noodles, rice, chunks of veggies and meat, and sauce. Many can be prepared in the packaging they come in, making clean-up easier: just add boiling water, mix, and wait a few minutes. Especially with the sauce of hunger added, they can be quite tasty.

Some campsites have fire pits or grills available for cooking. If you use these, limit the wood you gather to small branches taken from the ground, not anything broken from trees (living or dead). It's not as folksy, but it's more considerate of the environment to bring a small gas-powered camp stove with you: they're safer, more efficient, and don't require scavenging firewood from the wilderness you're there to admire.

Other options include multifuel stoves. For longer trips, (where you would require more than one gas canister) provide better weight efficiency. They can also be refueled much more places, like a regular gas-station. If it is allowed to make backcountry fires in your area, you may not need a stove for every meal. Back country camping without a stove is dangerous because you may not be able to prepare hot food if the wood is too wet to light a fire. In general, there is plenty of wood in a forested backcountry area which is not heavily visited. A lot of food can be eaten without cooking also (like oatmeal and freezedrieds), if need be. When there has been rain, the only regular way of collecting dry wood for making the fire start is to break off dead branches on the bottom of pine trees. Birch bark is excellent to make the fire going, otherwise paper is a good alternative (do not burn plastic it creates a toxic smoke).

Keep pots and pans to a minimum, both for weight and clean-up reasons. If camping with someone you're in the habit of kissing, sharing a pot of food instead of dishing it out onto plates isn't a hygiene issue (but may become a relationship issue if you don't share equitably). In fact, if you mix and eat your freeze-dried meals in the packages they came in, and your oatmeal in the baggies you packed it in, you can get away with just a single pan for heating water, which won't even have to be washed. Stick to stewy and spoon-able entrés, and you may not even need to bring a fork or dinner knife.

Drink[edit][add listing]

Be prepared to drink more fluids than you're used to. The reason overweight people sweat more than thinner people isn't just because they're well-insulated; it's because they're carrying around extra weight... just like a backpacker. If you're at your ideal body weight but carrying a 40-pound pack, expect to sweat like someone 40 pounds overweight. Walking for miles through the hills.

You might be able to pack all the water you'll need for short trips of a couple days, but not for anything longer. Some areas will have wells that you can pump to refill your water supply. In more remote areas, you'll have to collect water from lakes and streams. Check with the local authorities to find out which water supplies they recommend, and what precautions to use with them. Depending on which micro-organisms are common in the area's water supply, they may recommend using water purification tablets (a dose of poison strong enough to kill many bugs, but not affect humans), micropore water filters (usually pumped by hand), or boiling the water for several minutes. Boiling isn't usually a problem for cooking water, but filtration or chemical treatment are less hassle for water you'll want cool enough for refreshing drinks as you hike. Filtered water tastes best.

Sleep[edit][add listing]

Lightweight synthetic insulating materials have been developed for sleeping bags in the last few decades, but old-fashioned down remains a good option. Down still offers the most warmth for the least weight and it packs up more tightly than synthetic fill. However it loses its warmth-keeping ability when it gets wet and takes longer to dry. Down-filled bags last longer but are also more expensive. Mummy-style bags will keep you warmer than rectangular ones (less space for your body to heat up) and take up less room in a tent, but don't plan on moving around much if your sleep in one.

Sleeping bags are typically rated for the coldest temperature in which they'll keep you warm enough. There are standards for these ratings, but the scale itself is something of a guess, since they don't know what your metabolism is like, how sensitive to cold you are, or for that matter what you'll be wearing to sleep in. Select your bag based on the coldest temperature you can anticipate experiencing. If you can see yourself ever hiking in high altitudes, in high latitudes, or in spring or autumn, get a 3-season bag with a lower temperature rating. And if there's ever a chance you'll see snow when you camp, get something in the 0°F range. Additionally inserting a simple "hut sleeping bag"- made of a single layer of silk(preferable) or other lightweight fabric can really raise the temperature in your sleeping bag.

The fluff in a sleeping bag is only to keep the air inside warm, not for softness. Cold ground can suck the heat out through the flattened underside of a bag as quickly as exposure to cold air would. For these reasons, a thin insulating foam pad will make your nights more comfortable. They won't come close to the softness of a mattress, however. (Inflatable pads compress smaller, but are susceptible to leaks.) Instead of a pillow, try wrapping the clothes you aren't wearing in a towel, or your sleeping bag's stuff sack, and rest your head on that. Or buy a travel pillow, which collapses into a tiny pouch.

Lodging[edit]

Some backpacking areas have shelters along the trails, spaced at intervals a typical hiker can cover in a day. If these are available, and the park authority lets you reserve them, you may be able to dispense with carrying a tent. This doesn't mean you can use a lightweight indoor "slumber party" sleeping bag, though; even if these shelters are fully enclosed, they probably won't offer much protection from cooler night-time temperatures.

Camping[edit]

Tents are available in many shapes, sizes, and levels of protection. Some models (especially domes) can be free-standing, requiring no stakes to hold them in shape. But they tend to be heavier, and trickier to set up. Unless you're sure you're never going to get rained on, a tent with a "rain fly" – a water resistant raincoat for your tent – is essential.

At the small end of the scale is the "bivy sack", which is little more than a raincoat for your sleeping bag; the most spacious ones are just big enough inside to carefully roll over. Important: a bivy bag is usually almost airtight and can cause suffocation if closed completely. Additionally, a bivy bag does not allow for drying anything, like a regular tent. Since it is so small condensation from your breath will build up. As a consequence humidity will build up if you don't get the chance to dry anything. Such as in the case of prolonged (2 days) rain. Bivy bags are therefore great for shorter trips or if you are comfortable that the weather or area will provide some opportunities for drying, and are significantly lighter than even the smallest tent.

A typical "1-person" tent might give you enough room inside to actually hunch over and maybe even scrunch up and turn around, but no more. A "2-person" tent is going to be big enough for just that: two people, lying right side-by-side. Depending on just how close you and your camping partner want to be, you might prefer a "2-to-3-person" tent (otherwise big enough for two adults and a child). If you're thinking of a larger tent so you can keep your gear with you (whether for easier access or to keep it out of the weather), a tent with a vestibule or an extended rain fly might be all you really need. By the time you get to a "4-person" tent, you're generally talking about something spacious enough that one or two people can sit upright in it, but heavy enough that you'll want to distribute the components among the people in your hiking party.

Although tents will keep most of the wind out, and usually trap air well enough to keep it warmer than outside, don't count on them to keep you warm; that's your sleeping bag's job. The difference between a 3-season tent and a 4-season tent isn't their warmth, but the latter's ability to stand up to stronger winds and snow. Using a gas- powered lamp can also help to warm up your tent, but beware of setting fire to your tent and/ or melting something as the lantern casings get extremely hot.

Backcountry[edit]

If you're travelling in an area without established campsites, you should always follow leave-no-trace camping principles for making and breaking camp, as well as your other activities in the wilderness.

Stay healthy[edit]

Take care of your feet: they're what's getting you home. If you start feeling "hot spots" on them, take care of them quickly before they develop into blisters. Moleskin offers the best protection, but if you don't have that, adhesive bandages or even tape will help protect these spots from friction.

Protect your exposed skin as well. You don't need to be sunbathing to need sunscreen. You'll be sweating, so apply waterproof "sport" sun lotion to anything that's going to be in the sun. A light-colored hat with a brim reduces the UV exposure further, and is essential if you have thin hair.

Mosquitoes, flies, and other insects can carry various unpleasant diseases; they can also be detrimental to your mental health. Mosquitoes in particular are most common around water (where they breed), in the evening twilight, and in heavy woods that resemble twilight. Liberal application of DEET-based insect repellent is your first, best line of defense. But even this won't stop them from swarming around you and in your face; a head net (best worn over a hat with a brim) provides a small DMZ that may help with your peace of mind, and is small and light enough to be packed "just in case".

You don't want to go overboard with medical supplies, but some first-aid gear is a worthwhile precaution. If you're lucky, it'll be the one thing you brought that you didn't "need", but if you're not, you'll definitely regret leaving the essentials behind. Adhesive bandages, moleskin, disinfectant, and aspirin/Ibuprofin are the bare essentials. As makeshift bandages (and dozens of other uses) hankies are worth the extra ounce in your pack.

Even if there are maintained outhouses along the trail (again: don't assume there will be), you shouldn't count on them having toilet paper; bring a partial roll from home. If you're unsure about the availability of facilities, bring a garden trowel so you can dig and then cover your own single-dump latrine (well off the trail and far away from any water supplies).

See also: Altitude sickness.

Stay safe[edit]

If there's mobile-phone service in the area you're hiking (and don't assume there will be), bringing the phone along (turned off, to preserve both the battery and the atmosphere) is a reasonable precaution in case of emergency. If you get a signal in a remote area, the dispatcher that happens to pick up your emergency call may have no idea where you are, so explain clearly.

Nothing is more likely to save your life or someone else's in a remote area (or on the water) than a 406 MHz GPS Personal Locator Beacon. A lightweight, waterproof, strobe-equipped unit a little larger than a cell phone will cost around $300-$400 and can instantly send a universal emergency signal on a dedicated international frequency directly to first responders nearest you. Genuine 406 MHz beacons are not toys or gimmicks, there are no subscription fees, and hopefully you will never need to use one. But if you require life-saving emergency assistance, rescue from a remote area because of serious injury, or you happen across someone on the trail who does, all that is required is a somewhat clear view of the sky and activation of the rescue beacon. It is no substitute for caution and common sense; but it is excellent preparation against the unexpected and can save a life.

Wild animals in many places pose little real threat to backpackers, but some – a human-fed bear in a national park, a cow moose protecting her calf, a hungry panther, or a venomous snake – may be quite dangerous. Check with local wildlife experts about what to be wary of, and how to protect yourself.

It is very important to be well prepared for your wilderness travels and hikes. You should pack the correct clothes, sleeping gear, food and drinks, safety equipment and first aid kit in case something happens in the wild. Do all you can to avoid going "freestyle" and heading into the wild without letting others know your plans, your destination, your expected return time, and a "hot" deadline at which your absence should be considered an emergency by a trusted friend. If parking at a trailhead, hide a spare key nearby and conceal a folded note above a visor indicating your identity and expected return day & time.

Bear encounters[edit]

Here are some simple tips to remember before heading into areas of known bear activity:

  • Research bears before departing on your journey. Learn about their behavior patterns and characteristics.
  • Know your bears: Grizzly bears are identified by the hump behind their neck. This is the highest point on their body. The area above the hind legs is the highest point on a black bear. Grizzly attacks on humans are mostly defensive, while black bear attacks on humans are often predatory (though they are rarer).
  • Be aware of bear behavior. A bear standing on hind legs is usually doing so to get a better look. Swinging its head from side to side or turning its side to you usually implies it is seeking a way out. If a bear pops its jaws aggressively, it may charge. Bears often make several bluff charges, before actually trying to knock down the threat.
  • Carry bear pepper spray and keep it on hand.

To avoid encounters:

  • Do not cook near your camp.
  • Wrap all food in plastic and store away from the camp.
  • If you come across bear tracks, bear cubs or a partly eaten carcass, assume that an adult bear is not far away. Leave the area immediately.
  • Make noise on the trail. The worst possible way to encounter a bear is to take it by surprise.

If you encounter a bear:

  • Don't run. Bears are like dogs and will follow a running person.
  • Do not stare into a bears eyes as this is sign of aggression.
  • Talk to the creature in a calm voice so you can be identified as human, not prey. Do not imitate bear growls, shout or wave your arms around frantically.
  • Slowly back away from the bear.
  • If the bear follows, stand firm, but act in a calm non-threatening way.
  • If there are several people, group together to present a single unit.
  • If you're carrying bear spray, get it ready. Ensure that the the nozzle is pointed in the direction of the bear, and check that the wind direction will not carry the spray back onto you.
  • Finally, if a bear attacks and you are sure it is defensive, play dead. Lay face down and place arms tightly over the neck. Keep legs together. The bear may still charge, but with a diminished threat it is less likely to persist. Stay perfectly still until you are sure that the bear has left the area.
  • If a bear makes a silent attack without first displaying signs of stress, assume that it is a predatory attack. Immediately use a pepper spray, but if this fails, fight back aggressively using anything at hand, such as a stone, a sharp object, a pan or a stout piece of wood. For extra effect, target punches and strikes at the nose and eyes.





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