Traveling through the wilderness alone or in a group is a dangerous undertaking. Make no mistake – backpacking is an extremely rewarding experience, but it can quickly bring us to our knees and even threaten our very survival if we don’t take the time to plan for our adventure.
Walking long distances requires cardiovascular fitness (unless, of course, you want the memory of your trip to be nothing more than a pounding heart and lungs gasping for air). This doesn’t mean we need to join a gym and start an intensive workout routine. Rather, simply walking with a pack on is enough training to ensure our bodies are ready for the stress and strain often encountered during a backpacking trip.
This is known as specific training because it trains the body in the very thing you want to accomplish. If you want to condition your body to climb long distances earning a heavy load, what better way to train than to climb long distances with a heavy load. This is good news because it means you don’t have to live near a wilderness area to get into shape for backpacking.
Many times when training for an adventure I simply throw on my pack loaded with gear and walk around town. Even just a few miles a day is enough to prepare your body for the strain of backpacking. If you already walk or jog for exercise you’re halfway there. Just throw a backpack on with some weight in it and work out as you normally would.
The additional weight helps strengthen your legs and condition your cardiovascular system for the conditions likely to be encountered on the trail.
You should start exercising now. You can’t expect to get fit for backpacking in a couple days or a couple weeks (although lots of people try). In fact, some people think they will get into shape with the first few days on the trail. The reality is that these individuals often struggle with aches, pains, and cramps throughout the entire trip and fail to enjoy the experience as they should. Don’t be one of those people!
Even if you haven’t exercised in years, start small but start now.
Walking is an Art
We don’t often think about walking. It’s just one of those things we learn at a young age and do throughout our lives without giving it much thought at all. A successful backpacker, however, has mastered the art of walking. Although this concept may seem foreign to you now, believe me when I tell you that there are few7 things that feel better on the trail than finding that perfect stride.
The perfect stride is when walking requires seemingly no energy and the miles simply melt away. When you find the right stride (which often varies based on pack load and terrain among other factors) it’s like you become part of the trail; effortlessly gliding along the terrain.
The wrong stride, on the other hand, can be torture. Whether it’s because you are trying to walk too fast to keep up with others in your group or you are carrying too heavy of a pack, the wrong stride is guaranteed to make your trip unenjoyable and even worse… it could lead to injury.
Finding the proper stride is simply a matter of practice. Take it easy: backpacking is not a race. It’s about enjoying your surroundings and taking in the natural beauty’ all around you.
Walking is a dynamic activity. By that I mean that one day the perfect stride could net you 15 miles per day and the next day it could be cut in half. The key is to listen to your body and learn from it as you go.
A word of warning: There are sure to be days on the trail when finding that perfect stride seems impossible; when no matter how hard you try every mile seems like an eternity. It’s OK and it happens to all of us from time to time. On days like that it’s usually best to take it easy, relax a little and remind yourself that the adventure is found right where you are, not at some imaginary finish line.
One tip that often works when you are having trouble finding a rhythm is to chant (out loud if you have to) any words that come into your head. It could be a song, a poem or some nonsensical gibberish as long as it has a steady rhythm. Moving your feet to this chant can often lead to finding an economical walking stride when all other methods fail.
Planning without overthinking it
Like so many other things we do in life, a backpacking trip requires planning. Some of the details may be hard to figure out exactly without experience such as how much distance you can cover in a day or exactly how much food you should bring, but there are some general rules to follow that are pretty accurate.
Obviously, you can adjust these figures as your experience and confidence grow. Probably the most important concept to understand when planning a backpacking trip is to give yourself enough time to complete the journey comfortably. Deciding on a hike that requires you to make 25 miles every single day just to make it back to your car in time for work on Monday isn’t the way to plan an adventure.
If anything, plan on making worse time than you can possibly imagine. That allows more time for sightseeing, enjoying the trip and any unforeseen circumstances like inclement weather, injury or a trail detour not found on any of your maps.
How far can you go?
Although backpacking isn’t a race, it is important to account for speed while planning a trip. You need to know approximately how much terrain you can cover in a day (on average) so you can plan the trip according to how much time you have available for backpacking and any other commitments you have outside of the wilderness.
While many factors affect how far you can walk on a daily basis including physical ability, pack weight, terrain, etc. you can estimate your speed per day using some generic figures that work well for most people.
Play it safe and assume that on an average day you will walk 10-12 miles. As your experience and fitness level improve you can probably walk this far before lunch assuming relatively easy terrain, but these numbers represent a good baseline for any novice backpacker. Please feel free to adjust these numbers according to your personal fitness level and experience walking long distances, but it’s better to arrive at your destination a day early than it is to be three days behind. People back home may start wondering where you are and there have been many instances where a hiker is thought to be missing (think Search & Rescue teams combing through the forest) when in fact the individual was perfectly fine but behind a few days from his or her original hiking plan.
Know where you’re going
Travelers in the old days didn’t have the luxury of perfectly scaled maps that detail every twist and turn of the trail. In many cases, these people used the sun and stars as their primary navigational aid; often cutting trails through virgin land as they went.
Today, we don’t have to worry about such things. There are multiple sources for excellent quality maps specifically designed for backpackers. These maps often include useful information such as designated campsites, secondary trails and other invaluable resources.
High-quality maps and other information are available for most popular areas. A good place to start is Google. Using Maps you can hone in on a specific area where you would like to hike and from there contact local resource centers for up-to-date information and maps specific to the area. The National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service are all excellent resources more than happy to share information with backpackers.
Another often overlooked resource is other backpackers. If you are thinking of hiking in a specific area, try to find others who have also hiked the area. Often these people are an invaluable resource that can share local knowledge not found on any map. A trail obstruction, for instance, won’t be on the map and could theoretically add half a day worth of hiking to your route. Someone who recently hiked this trail can provide you with this type of information.
As a novice backpacker you may have trouble locating other hikers to discuss your proposed route with (but don’t worry – you will meet plenty of new friends on the trail). Modern technology comes to the rescue. There are countless online discussion forums dedicated to backpacking and membership is almost always free. Take a few minutes to set up an account and talk with some of the hikers online. Most of these people are more than willing to share information with a fellow outdoor enthusiast. Just make sure you are honest about your inexperience and usually someone can steer you in the right direction with helpful tips tailored to your proposed trip.
Also, don’t forget about your vehicle. Many trails meander around before eventually coming back to where you started. Others – especially popular long distance trails like the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Appalachian Trail – leave you thousands of miles from where you started.
Make sure you have a ride if you plan on exiting the woods from a different location or arrange in advance to leave a secondary vehicle at your planned exit point. Few things can be more frustrating than trying to bum a ride after a tiring week spent hiking in the high country.
Most places you are likely to hike do not require a permit but some of the more popular destinations such as National Parks do. In some cases, availability of these permits is extremely limited; often requiring you to apply months in advance.
If you plan on traveling through an area where permits are required, reach out to the local office responsible for managing the land (i.e. BLM, NPS or NFS) to apply. Permits can even be applied for online for many popular destinations.
You’re not a pro… yet
Even the best planning cannot prepare you for many of the challenges typically experienced on the trail. The best way to learn is through experience and one of the best ways to get yourself into trouble (or at very least have a horrible trip) is biting off more than you can chew in the beginning.
In other words, don’t plan on making your first trip a complete trek of the PCT (2,600 miles) because it’s not gonna happen. Instead, start small.
Take a weekend trip or two followed by successively longer adventures. This allows your body time to acclimate to the backpacking life while teaching you many valuable lessons along the way.
Don’t worry, it won’t be too long before you’re itching to tackle the big three National Scenic Trails – otherwise known as the Triple Crown – which includes the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. The important thing is to learn while you build up to these extremely challenging (but totally gratifying) adventures.
Backpacking is like that. Once you’re hooked, you always want to keep pushing yourself to see new places and experience new things. It’s certainly a lifestyle worth pursuing as long as you take the time to prepare before heading onto the trail.