Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I Want To Go Backpacking For The First Time

There was a post on Hammock Forums a couple of days ago:
Moving from car camping to backpacking
I'm looking to make the move from car camping to backpacking, but I really have no idea where to start. I love to do hiking, but I've never really trekked longer than a day hike, or very far away from the safety of a base camp.

Looking at all the vast array of gear, hearing all the talk of weight weenies, and figuring out what I actually need makes my head spin. Where did all you guys learn the ropes? Is there a backpacking forum that is as informative and supportive as hammock forums?

I know I have a far way to go from my current setup for it to be backpack friendly, as I'm currently using poncho UQ/TQs. I figure this will give me something to obsess over as I save up some money for gear.

There followed a couple of pages of very good advice---all of which missed the point. The guy didn't know where to start.

I'll have to confess right now that I really can't remember the first time I went backpacking, or camping for that matter.  My Grampa gave my Dad a half acre in the woods as a wedding present and he dragged an old line shack onto it, then built onto it until he had a fairly decent little cabin that we lived in during the summers.  I literally lived in the woods while I was in diapers.

My earliest memory of car camping is a trip my Dad took my brother an I on.  We slept on a mattress in the back of an old Nash Rambler Beachwagon.  I was probably 5 years old.

I remember a frying pan, eggs sunnyside up, and bacon.  We were camped at the base of a mountain in southern NH where Pawtuckaway State Park is now.  At the top of the mountain was a Fire Tower.  When my Dad was a boy he used to hike up there and visit the Ranger.  I remember that before we could eat breakfast Dad said we had to hike to the top of the mountain to watch the sunrise.  It wasn't a long trip, we were parked in what was the parking area for the tower.  It was in that time of the day called "the gloaming," just before the dawn.  My brother and I were hungry and complaining a bit, but Dad told us we'd like the tower.

The sky was just turning purple when we got to the tower and climbed the stairs.  Dad was hoping to get into the observation room, but there was a padlock on the trap door, so we sat on the last couple of steps and I watched the sun rise for the first time in my life.  I remember Dad making a sound like "poop" when the last bit of the sun crossed the horizon on its way up and the sun formed a full circle.  The tower has now been refurbished and is a popular hiking destination at the Park.  I was surprised to find so many pictures of it on the web.  The one below is exactly the view I remember.

We went back down to the Rambler and Dad pulled out that frying pan and some eggs and bacon and made us breakfast.  I remember my brother and I saying that the eggs looked just like the sun rise.  I still think of that when I eat eggs sunny side up.

Now I'm straying off the subject, but Old Men are allowed to do that aren't they?

Here's my advice to folks who want to go backpacking for the first time:

Ignore all the advice you're going to get regarding equipment.  Don't worry about being a noob, and don't worry about going out in the woods looking like a noob.  Here's the ugly truth on that:  you're going to look like a noob no matter what you do gearwise, so don't even bother trying to find the "He doesn't look like a noob." gear before going out.

One of the most famous hikers of all time was a lady named Grandma Gatewood.  The first time she ever took a hike was when she just one day up and decided to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.  She was 67 years old and her equipment consisted of an old Army blanket, an old shower curtain for shelter, and a raincoat---she carried that stuff in a canvas tote sack.

She carried canned and fresh food, and wore tennis shoes the whole length of the trail---several pair.  Then she went and did it one more time before she died

Now I'm not saying you should do what Grandmam Gatewood did.  Its actually pretty insane, but I mention her just to make the point that the equipment is not the secret.  Its not about the gear, its about the journey.  You're going to be dissatisfied with the first gear you get anyway.  Once you get hit with the bug, you'll always be looking for improvement on gear, technique, destinations, and all sorts of variables impossible to think of ahead of time.  I've been hiking and camping since climbing that fire tower 55 years ago, and I still don't have my gear the way I want it.

So here's what you do:

Set an achievable goal: one night in the woods.  Let's plan for that, OK?

The watchword is KISS:  Keep It Simple Stupid.

First, we're going to go out in Summer.  We're keeping it simple and cold weather camping takes experience in using and selecting your gear for safety.

You will need one lunch, one supper, and one breakfast.  To keep things simple, lets not cook anything.  Lets go to the store and get one of those pre-packaged Lunchables for lunch, make a couple of sammiches for supper, plus maybe a can of mandarin oranges for desert, and some Pop Tarts for breakfast.  Bring about a half gallon of water, and a cup to drink out of.  If you want you can bring some Tang or other drink powders to flavor the water you drink with your meals.

Get a sleeping bag, almost anything will do.  You could get a cheap tent, but keeping it simple really means checking the weather and making sure there's little to no chance of rain.  You could also get a small tarp to put on top of you or to lay on.  You should get a small First Aid kit and a flashlight.  Get a good book.

Now put all that stuff together, look at how much room it takes up, then go to WalMart and buy a backpack that will fit all that stuff.  One good way to figure that out is to put it all in a box, calculate the cubic inches of the box, and buy a pack of roughly the same capacity.

Now.  Stuff all that stuff into the pack, go to a State or National Park that lets you camp on the trail, or has a parking area a mile or so from one of their developed campsites.  Sling the pack on your back and start walking.  If you're camping on the trail, don't go too far from your car, just far enough away that you can't see it, maybe out of earshot of the road. 

Toss your sleeping bag on the ground, lay down on it.  Eat your lunch.  Read your book.  Close your eyes and listen to what's going on around you.  Eat your supper.  Go to sleep.  Wake up.  Eat breakfast.  Walk back to the car and go home.

Congratulations. You've gone backpacking for the first time.

Now come the most important part:

Evaluate your experience.  Think of what you needed and did not have.  Think about what you liked and didn't like.  What mistakes do you think you made?  What did you do that you think you can pat yourself on the back for?

Now, do your research.  Google Andrew Skurka and Ray Jardine. Join Whiteblaze or Hammock Forums.  Look for meet-up groups in your area.  Get gear that will address the results of your evaluation.  One of the great things about hiking and backpacking is that it is an intensely personal experience and each individual tailors his gear to his own needs and desires.  If you really think that pink fur anklets enhance your experience, get some pink fur anklets and wear them on the trail  Criminy, you'll become a frikkin local legend.  (I'm not recommending anklets of any sort here, just making a point, OK?)

If you're like most people, you have set yourself up for a lifetime.  You will never be in want of something to do with your weekend.  You will meet wonderful people and you will see wonderful things.  You will be intensely uncomfortable, and will thank the Lord for the experience.  My worst night in the woods was better than my best day at work.

I'll leave you with two bits of advice that are probably the most important words of wisdom I could impart on you as a first time backpacker:

Get out into the woods.

Hike Your Own Hike.

See you on the trail.


  1. Speaking as someone who has never gone backpacking before, thanks for this! It's the perfect tone to inspire me to actually *do it* rather than continually feel "not ready".

    1. Glad to hear it, Justin. Just carry some stuff far enough into the woods so you can't see the car, eat a meal, and go to sleep. The gear will come later. You'll find what you need and what you like. Make mistakes, we all do. Just take small steps with small goals at first and you won't make BIG mistakes later. Its when we try to do too much at first that we make the big mistakes.

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  2. Perfect. Finally some common sense for those of us who haven't done this since Girl Scouts - you know with a Mom leader and that cute little canteen thingy you could buy in the Scout store. Most "how to"s for beginners are overwhelmingly loaded with waaaay more info than we can truly begin with. This actually sounds doable and may be just the confidence builder I need.

    1. Folks are really trying to be helpful when giving advice. They are trying to impart knowledge they've gained through experience. That's OK, I guess, but that knowledge came by making a thousand small mistakes, none of which will kill you, so go ahead and make them.

      Backpacking is a learning experience, in matters both practical and spiritual. I'm 60 years old and still learning about backpacking, and I am still amazed at what it does for my Spirit and the way it serves to reduce the distance I sometimes put between myself and God. I doubt I would enjoy it if it weren't that way.

      Go out in the woods. Make some mistakes. Make little ones. If you choose your destination and distance in relationship to your experience, you should be OK. If you go to a State Park for your first couple of outings, you should be alright, if you try hiking the Appalachian Trail on the first day, things might be different.

      Good luck with your Girl Scouts. You'll have fun. You'll make mistakes. You'll get drenched with rain, bitten by bugs, burn food, fix boo boos and sleep badly. None of that will matter after you've had some special moment with your daughter or one of the other girls---or when you step out onto a scenic overlook, or suddenly come upon a pond in the forest or a brook laughing its way over mossy rocks on its way to the ocean. I hope you come back in a bit and let us know what some of those experiences were.

      You and your daughter will have the time of your life and both of you will smile about all of it years later.

      Hike Your Own Hike

      See you on the trail.

  3. SargeVining,

    Followed your link from the Hammock Forums. (I'm SemperFiGuy on that site). Great advice and simple to follow. I've got a few years on you, (age 65) and have spent inordinate amounts of time in the woods over my liefetime and the best advice you could give, you already have....... KISS.

    When you follow the threads on the HF, it becomes pretty apparent that well intended folks, (myself included), tend to over explain or provide so much info that the person asking will either never retain any of it, or, as you aptly put it, won't know where to begin.

    Great job! You have a gift of writing and keeping things simple.

    All the best and Semper Fidelis to God and Country!
    Western Massachusetts