Backpacking. You’ve heard about it, you’ve read about it, but you still haven’t ventured away from the campsite. We’re here to help you transition to what is arguably one of the most fulfilling outdoor experiences possible. Our four-part series covers everything from preparation, to location, to gear, with key tips and tricks later in the series. Make sure to check back for Part Two of the series–to be posted on Facebook and EMS.com in a couple days.
Transitioning To Backpacking
Spending a day or more backpacking can turn into an unforgettable journey of self-discovery and exploration. Whether you’re seeking a more authentic connection to nature or you’re looking to experience something the average person may never do, backpacking offers life changing experiences that camping seldom affords. The time in nature and introspection on the trail enables quiet time that’s much harder to come by simply camping.
As you plan your first adventure, knowing the flora and fauna, what weather to expect, and what, if any, permits are needed, can be every bit as important as knowing which trails to take.
We’ve been in the game since 1967 and have helped over 200,000people transcend beyond the campsite. As people come into our stores looking to take that next step, we typically ask four questions:
Question 1: How Long Is The Trek?
One of the first questions that needs answering is how many days/nights is your hike?Answering this question helps focus the gear list andcan be a solid launching point for the planning process.
For beginners, we suggest sticking to one or two nights in order to get the feel for the experience. This first trip should focus on building confidencein your gear and the outdoors. Additionally, we suggest limitingthe number of miles you hike per day. Typically,between five and seven miles per day is a good testing ground for getting comfortable with your gear.
Question 2: Where To Go?
Ultimately, the destination is up to you, but like all other aspects of life, there are factors that limit where you can go–mainly money. If you can afford a trip down to Patagonia or out to New Zealand, by all means go. But for those seeking more reasonable (i.e. affordable) alternatives, there are hundreds of breathtaking destinations of varying difficulty all across America.
We suggest beginners opt for what’s closest and easiest. But that doesn’t mean you should settle for any old trail. Choosing the right trail should center on the experience you’re seeking. Do you want mountain top vistas? Picturesque waterfalls? Rain forest? Every trail offers something unique–and knowing what you want to see and do goes a long way in selecting a destination.
Working our way down the East Coast, here are five trails that are beginner-friendly, while still offering an immersive backpacking experience:
- Mt. Greylock, MA
This 11-mile round-trip trail offers a stunning view of the hillscape of western Massachusetts. With three overnight shelters, the trail is makes it easier for new backpackers. Waterfalls, forests, ravines, and the view of three different states all go into making this trail a can’t-miss for New Englanders.
- Bear Mountain Loop, New York
In addition to the hustle and bustle of The Big Apple, New York features a wide variety of scenic trails just waiting to be explored. Before you become one of the Adirondack 46ers, check out the Bear Mountain Loop in Stony Point. This two-day hike offers gorgeous views of both the Hudson River as well as NYC, without being too strenuous.
- Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Just a few hours’ ride from the Nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park is home to some of the most popular trails on the East Coast, with many perfect for beginners. Loft Mountain and Jones Run, in particular, is a great nine-mile, one-way trail with stunning views and multiple waterfalls that offers a manageable experience for fledgling backpackers.
- Standing Indian Loop, North Carolina
Offering both access to the Appalachian Tail and its own lengthy, yet enjoyable trip, the Standing Indian Loop is a local favorite. There is one very steep climb at Albert Mountain, but it isn’t very long, and the views at the top are breathtaking.
- Buster Island Loop, Florida
With a wide variety of habitats, the Buster Island Loop has been a favorite among backpackers in Florida for years. It offers a level of difficulty perfect for beginners, but also features a natural beauty with orchids, ferns, and old-growth live Oak hammocks–the kind of setting that has to be experienced to truly appreciate.
Question 3: What Weather Should You Plan For?
When planning for any adventure, preparing for weather is critical. This step allows you to take a deeper look at your gear list and answer questions like: Should I take a 20 degree sleeping bag or a 0 degree sleeping bag. You’ll want the experience to be as comfortable as possible, so knowing what to expect from Mother Nature is key when planning.
After deciding location (including elevation changes and overnight locations), we suggest taking a quick trip over to the National Weather Servicewebsite todetermine what to expect. (Quick tip: If you’re headed to a remote destination that’s not on their list, you can type in longitude and latitude coordinates.)
We’ve put together a few tips on different hiking scenarios, including hiking in rain and cold and hot weather.
Hiking In The Rain
Hiking wet can get miserable. To maximize comfort, we suggest a breathable waterproof jacket (with a hood), as well as quick-drying clothing, wool socks, and a good pair of shoes. There are a few key tips and must-knows for hiking in the rain.
- Dry Out Every Night: After a long day of hiking in the rain, give your feet, hair, and gear a chance to dry out. If your feet are cold, you’ll feel cold. It sounds obvious, but it can be harder than it sounds.
- Layer Up:Lightweight wicking layers provide comfort and moisture relief that are critical when hiking in general–but especially in the rain. With waterproof gear comes the tradeoff of breathability, so don’t skimp on the base layers. You’ll want the moisture as far from your skin as possible. Good underwear, tights, and a mid layer will do wonders for comfort. Additionally, tights and hard shells offer better protection for your lower body than traditional hiking pants.
- Dry Sacks Are A Must: On overnight trips, you’ll obviously want a dry change of clothes.A good dry bag is worth it’s weight in gold. Put your clothes in a dry bag and the dry bag inside your pack. This can make or break the experience.
- Keep ‘Em Separated: Avoid bringing wet clothes into the tent with you as this inevitably leads to other items getting wet. There are great solutions that can help you dry out your clothes and gear.
- Pay Attention: It should go without saying, but pay as much attention to your body as possible. Knowing when you’ve been in wet socks too long or when you’re getting a blister is really important. Stop and change what you need in order to stay comfortable and injury free.
Summer months can offer the best time for backpacking. But expect to get HOT. Just like backpacking in the rain, proper precautions must be taken. A solid wicking base layer is a good first step. You should also consider:
- Sun Protection: Whether it’s sunscreen, hats, or UPF clothing, protection from the sun is critical. Heat stroke is a top-five enemy to hiking in warm weather. Check out this article for a deeper look atsun protection.
- Hydrate: Seems self-explanatory, but it’s something that needs mentioning. Bring plenty of water. Bring a water purification system to ensure that you can refill often. Consider bringing foods with healthy sodium and potassium. It’s called Trail-Mix for a reason. (Quick tip: if your lips feel dry, you know you’re dehydrated.)
- Take A Break: Your body needs rest and shade as much as it needs water, so don’t feel like you have to push yourself while on the trail. Take a break. Soak up the surroundings. Eat something. Rest can make the next few miles that much more enjoyable. You know what they say: it’s about the journey…
- Know Your Surroundings:Knowing where to shelter can certainly be useful. Be sure to plot out in advance any shelters on the trail in case of storm or extreme heat.
You don’t have to limit backpacking to just the summer months. Some trails are actually better during the winter. Similar to backpacking in the rain, cold-weather hiking requires additional preparation and can be best left for more experienced backpackers. However, here are a few tips if you’re up for the challenge:
- Take It Slow:Just like Roald Amundsen discovered in his preparation to be the first to reach the South Pole in 1911, sweat is your number one enemy. Amundsen spent time with the Inuit people studying how they survived the extreme cold. He found they moved slow and consistently to avoid sweating, as the sweat would freeze when they stopped moving.
- When The Sun Goes Down, You Go Down:Remember that the sun goes down much earlier in the winter–limiting the time you want to be hiking. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to get to and set-up camp in daylight.
- Stay Dry: This is perhaps the most important tip we can give you. While important in hot-weather, and more so on rainy trips, it’s vital here. Moisture wicking layers are critical. Try to stay dry inside and out.
- Bring The Heat: Sleeping bags and tents designed for winter are a no-brainer, but sometimes not enough. Bring a source of heat. It’s worth the extra weight.
Question 4: Going Solo Or In A Group?
Like every other outdoor adventure, backpacking can be done alone or with friends, and there’s no real wrong answer. Both have advantages and disadvantages. For beginners, we recommend going in groupswith (preferably) more experienced backpackers so you can pick up other tips and tricks and have additional support. Additionally, it is easier to spread the weight of the gear across more people. That said, solitude in nature can be life altering. Again, this decision comes back to what you want to get out of the experience.
The Adventure Ahead
Whatever your reason for transitioning away from the campsite, the rewards of backpacking are well worth it. From stunning views and challenging climbs, to testing your survival skills, to bonding with others, yourself, and nature, the backpacking experience is fulfilling on many levels – and is something you really need to experience first-hand to truly appreciate. We’ve answered some of the essential questions you’re bound to have, and have offered our own expert hiking tips and advice to help make the journey more enjoyable. Stay tuned for the second article in the series coming soon.
Stay safe, but more importantly: Have Fun Out There.