Backpacking into the wilderness is one of the best ways to see the hidden treasures of Mother Nature. You are able to get away from the crowds and the tourists to fully immerse yourself in the trees, mountains, rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. However, backpacking can be quite daunting–yet still exciting!–since you are literally carrying your life on your back for a couple of days to a couple of weeks or maybe even a couple of months. Many beginner backpackers struggle with what to bring and what to leave at home. With the help of our fearless wilderness leader, Tamara Yerkes, here is what we have learned to survive our first backpacking trip.
Every Ounce Matters. The longer you hike the heavier your pack will feel. You won’t need your stick of deodorant — embrace your natural scent and keep the bears away. Leave your extra clean shirt at home and hike in the one you slept in. If you’re hardcore, saw off the handle of your toothbrush to save weight and space. Might sound crazy, but every ounce matters! Bring what you need to survive, nothing more.
Weigh Your Pack Before Setting Off. With all the tools you’ll need for a good night’s sleep and survival, your pack should only be 25% of your weight (33% at most). Don’t try to be super(wo)man and go over this number. You can risk doing some serious body damage.
Bring Enough Socks and Underwear. Have a clean pair of socks and underwear for each day you’re out in the wild. No questions, just trust us.
Have a Bear-Proof Canister. If you’re backpacking into bear country, make sure to bring bear-proof canisters for your scented/food items. This keeps bears out of our human accessories, which helps keep them wild. Also keep this 100 to 200 feet away from your campsite. The last thing you want is to be eaten by a bear as you’re enjoying the beautiful scenery of Mother Nature.
Buy a Compact Water Filter. Even if the water looks clean, do not (we repeat — DO NOT) drink out of the raw lakes and streams. Animals are carriers of Giardia which can give you severe diarrhea-yikes! Keep your water supply abundant and clean with a portable water filter. You can go 3 weeks without food, but you definitely cannot survive more than 3 days without water.
Learn the A,B,C,D of Packing. Packing a backpack is a type of art form. It is amazing how much you can squeeze into the backpack with the correct technique. We recommend heading to REI and asking a staff member on how to pack a backpack correctly. Here our ABCD’s secret to packing:
- A=Accessibility: It is a pain to have to go through your pack just to get one item out of it. Place the items that you will most frequently use at the top and the less frequent ones at the bottom. Our recommendation: pack your sleeping bag in the most bottom compartment, sleeping pad, and tent first. Your cooking materials go next. Then your clothes. And lastly, your food and hydration pack.
- B=Balance: It’s important that your backpack is balanced on both sides to avoid pain and injuries. You don’t want to be waddling like a penguin during your hike and increase your chances of falling off the mountain. The heaviest items should be placed along the back of the pack. In addition, a well balanced pack makes for a less sore back.
- C=Compression: One of the best ways to make room? Squeeze! Don’t be afraid to push down on your clothes and other flexible items; you want to utilize every air bubble in your pack. If you are bringing containers, utilize the space in them to conserve room. We threw a bunch of little items into our empty bear canister.
- D=Dangle: You want to put as many things into the backpack as possible. Avoid dangling items outside your pack; you can lose the item, create an imbalance to the backpack, or hit people and plants.
Accept the Fact that Nature is Your Bathroom for the Weekend. Need to pee? Simply pick a spot in the wilderness, 100 feet away from waterways, trails, and campsites, do your business and go on with your life. Make sure to pee on a rock to not ruin the vegetation around you. Pooping is a bit tricker. First, find a place that is at least 200 feet away from waterways, trails, and campsites. Then, gather smooth sticks, rocks, or leaves to use as your “toilet paper”. We don’t recommend using actual toilet paper because it is messier, more unsanitary, and you will need to pack it out after. With a small shovel, dig a 6-8in hole and do your business. Once you’re done, cover the hole and mark the area with a stick facing up so other hikers don’t dig up your goodies.
Food Needs to Be a Breeze. Bring along foods that are easy to make and easy to clean up. We recommend dehydrated foods and liquids (yay), granola, pasta, bagels, and peanut butter. Trail mix and Clif bars are a great source of energy too!
Scatter Your Dishwashing Water. Only clean your dishes with water — no soap or scrubs! Once done, avoid centralizing your dirty water by scattering it into the wilderness. Doing so will help keep away large animals who are attracted to scent.
Cook Responsibly. Cook 100 feet away from your campsite in case you drop any foods or create any scents that may attract animals to your weekend’s humble abode.
Buy Topography Maps. A topography (topo) map contours the landscape and provides elevation references. Bring a detailed topo map of the area that you are hiking to ensure that you will not get lost on the trail. Your topo map will become your best friend, hold it dear to your heart.
Prepare for High Altitudes. If you’re going to places at high altitudes, bring electrolyte pills or drinks with electrolytes (Gatorade is a great example) to help with altitude sickness. Drinking lots of water can also help. The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to acclimate slowly by hiking up to a moderate level of elevation, then staying for a night or two, and repeat. Know the signs of altitude sickness (e.g. headache, shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue), the only cure is going back down in elevation.
Follow the ‘Leave No Trace’ Rule. Pack out what you take in and take nothing that is not essential to survival. Leave nature better than when you saw it for other hikers to enjoy its beauty too.
Pack the 10 Essentials. Need a quick checklist on what to bring? The 10 Essentials list from REI is a great place to start. Every hiker and backpacker should familiarize themselves with them and get in a good habit of packing them. Click here to see them.
Backpacking is an experience unlike any other. Not only are you isolated in nature, but you also get to meet some of the most kind, smart, and hardcore people on Earth (we even made a couple of cool new friends on the trip!). The experience is definitely liberating. You are disconnected from the outside world with just you, your pack, and the wilderness, without all the extra materials that car camping or ‘glamping’ ensues. If at the end of your trip, you have dirt under your fingernails, dirty oily hair, and you smell like nature have always intended, then you had a successful backpacking trip!
Jennifer and Vivian
Photo Credit: Tamara Yerkes