With global travel on pause, the world has seen a major shift in travel trends. Outdoor recreation is by and large Covid-friendly, and more people are heading into the great outdoors. Data collected by the Outdoor Industry Association shows an increase in outdoor activities across the board, especially running, cycling, and hiking. A rise in recreation means more people are getting active during a time when health is paramount. But what if your favorite park or hiking trail is now packed? More importantly, what if you’re itching to cover new ground? Perhaps it’s time to discover the magic of wilderness backpacking. This self-sufficient mode of exploration opens up a world of hidden destinations, long-distance trails, and immersive experiences amidst pristine nature. Planning a backcountry adventure can seem daunting, especially for first-timers. If you’re interested in an off-grid adventure but not sure where to start, this backcountry hiking guide will point you in the right direction.
“Of all the paths you take in life,
make sure a few of them are dirt.”
Planning and preparation begin long before you pack your backpack. Much like planning any trip, taking care of logistics well in advance can lead to a smooth and enjoyable experience.
- Choose an easy destination close to home. Select a popular and well-traveled trail to increase the chances of support along the way, if needed. Popular sites are also more likely to have established water sources and amenities such as shelters and outhouses.
- Check the travel distance and elevation gain required. Since you’ll be traveling with a fully-loaded pack, start with a shorter distance and lower elevation gain than a typical day hike for you.
- Plan a trip for the summer season to benefit from warmer weather, longer daylight hours, and comfortable conditions.
- Find out whether you need to make a reservation or purchase a park pass. If you choose a first-come-first serve destination, have a nearby backup option ready.
- If possible, make plans to go with a friend or small group with prior experience.
- Leave your trip plan and intended return date with a friend or family member long before you lose reception.
Pro tip: If you’re having trouble choosing a destination, consult experienced backpackers for suggestions and advice. If you don’t know any personally, check out online groups or ask the nice folks at your local outdoor store.
“They who fail to prepare
prepare to fail.” —Idiom
Physically: Whether it’s your first-ever backcountry trip or the first of the season, you’ll want to ensure that you’re physically prepared for the endeavour. To ensure that you can manage the distance and elevation gain for a given day of your backcountry itinerary with a heavy backpack in tow, test yourself on a day hike with a weighted pack first.
Mentally: Ensure you’re mentally prepared to step out of your comfort zone and set yourself up for success. Familiarize yourself with your destination and gear. It is good practice to check and test your gear (even brand new gear) before you go. It is also highly recommended to learn basic navigation, wilderness survival techniques, and wilderness etiquette.
“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back.
And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it.” ― Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Wilderness Etiquette & Best Practices
- Leave No Trace: This ethos ensures that we leave the wilderness in the condition we found it. Principles include packing out whatever you pack in; travelling and camping on durable surfaces; leaving what you find; and respecting wildlife. According to the National Park Service, there are seven Leave No Trace Principles in total.
- Respect Wildlife: Do not feed wildlife and maintain a respectful distance. If you are camping in bear country, follow rules regarding bear-proof canisters, bear caches, or bear poles.
- Triangle Rule: Pitch your tent, cook/eat, and store food/scented items in three separate locations, each at least 100 yards apart unless otherwise designated. Ensure that your tent is upwind of the places you cook and store food.
- Bathroom Etiquette: Use toilet facilities whenever they are available. Otherwise, use a trowel, rock, or stick to dig a hole 6-8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, trails, and campsites. Cover and disguise the hole when finished. (Believe it or not, this can be more pleasant than the average outhouse.)
- Play By the Rules: If a permit is required, be sure to obtain a permit and follow established protocols. This may mean carrying a copy of the permit and registering at the trailhead or closest visitor centre.
“A good traveler leaves no tracks.”
While specialized gear brings a level of convenience to backcountry camping, the cost of these products can also be a barrier for newcomers. You don’t need brand new, top-of-the-line equipment to enjoy a backcountry experience. In fact, borrowing gear and packing household items can do the trick while you gradually invest in specialized gear.
- Tent: Get your hands on a small-packing, lightweight tent designed for backpacking, if possible. A three-season tent should suffice in most cases. If borrowing a tent, double-check that you have all the pieces (including the fly and enough stakes) while packing.
- Sleeping Bag: Make sure that your sleeping bag’s temperature rating suits your itinerary. If possible, choose a small-packing sleeping bag with a stuff sack. While down bags generally offer a higher warmth-to-weight ratio, synthetic bags tend to be more versatile, affordable, and effective while damp.
- Sleeping Pad: In addition to comfort, this essential piece of gear provides insulation from the cold ground.
- Backpack: Choose a backpack with padded shoulders and hip straps. Keep in mind that an adjustable bag that is properly fitted to you will provide the most comfort
- Stove: There are several types of stoves suitable for the backcountry, but canister stoves are an easy-to-use and reliable option for beginners. Be sure to pack enough fuel and account for factors that affect fuel efficiency, such as altitude and cold temperatures.
- Cooking Supplies: Lightweight and packable cooking supplies are handy but chances are you can scrounge up a decent setup from your kitchen or local thrift store. You’ll need a pot with a lid, cup or thermos, plate or bowl, utensils, small cleaning brush or sponge, and biodegradable soap.
- Water Treatment System: Despite how clear a stream or river appears, it’s important to purify the water you drink. The things that can make you sick (bacteria, protozoa, and viruses) are invisible to the naked eye. Pay special attention in areas with possible agricultural use or upstream human activity. There are various ways to clarify, filter, and purify water, including filtration devices, LED pens, and purification tabs, all of which are available at your local outdoor store. Don’t forget to pack a water bottle or hydration bladder.
- Navigation: If you’ve chosen an established trail, it’s likely you’ll have a well-marked path and clear signage to follow. With that said, it’s good practice to carry a topographic map and compass or GPS device. Depending on your destination, downloading a route description or offline map may do the trick (just be sure to conserve your phone battery by keeping it warm in cold weather or packing a portable charging device). To maximize your time on the trail, be sure to study the map and get a lay of the land before you embark on your adventure.
- Additional & Emergency Gear: Pack a headlamp with spare batteries, knife or multi-tool, toilet paper, and leak-proof bags for packing out waste. It’s also essential to pack a first-aid kit (consider adding blister pads), fire starter or spare lighter, emergency blanket, and whistle.
Helpful tip: Going with friends? Split the load! Plan to share gear like tents, stove, water treatment systems, and cooking supplies before you pack your bags.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather,
only bad clothes.” —Norwegian Phrase
When it comes to packing for the backcountry, less is more because you’ll be carrying everything on your back. It’s also important to choose clothing carefully. If you do other sports or activities, chances are you already have suitable clothing and don’t need to splurge on hiking-specific clothes. Look for quick-drying and moisture-wicking materials (anything dry-fit, nylon, polyester or wool instead of cotton). To adapt easily to changing weather conditions, ensure that the layers you pack fit over one another in the following order:
- Base layers: These warm next-to-skin layers are essential, especially when you stop moving to make camp and temperatures drop at night.
- Hiking layers: Worn during the most active parts of your day, it’s important to choose breathable layers that wick away moisture and offer protection from the sun.
- Warm layer: A puffy vest or jacket (down, synthetic down) or fleece pullover for cool weather and nighttime. A warm hat and gloves are also useful in cold conditions.
- Rain layer: it’s essential to bring a waterproof and breathable jacket. Rain pants may also be helpful depending on the forecast.
Helpful tip: Pack a rain cover for your backpack or keep essential clothing in a waterproof stuff sack (budget option: large ziplock bags). Having a set of dry clothes and socks to sleep in if you’ve been wet all day makes all the difference.
“Hiking and happiness go hand in hand
(or foot in boot).” —Diane Spicer
There are various types of footwear suitable for hiking. While it often comes down to personal choice, consider the terrain you’ll be crossing and be sure to break footwear in. Some options include:
- Hiking boots: With thick, wide soles and a sturdy exterior, hiking boots offer stability on rough terrain. Available in low, mid, and high-rises for various levels of ankle protection, hiking boots also offer warmth and the ability to stand up to wear and tear.
- Light hikers: A light-weight option that offers a mix of support and breathability. These boots are better for warm to moderate climates and are generally easier to break in.
- Trail running shoes: This light-weight option is ideal for moving fast and light over long distances while still offering grip and traction. Better for warm to moderate climates and generally easier to break in.
Pro-tip: Choose waterproof footwear if possible and pack a lightweight pair of waterproof sandals to aid in any river crossings or wear around camp.
“Look for the bare necessities.” —Baloo
Dining in the backcountry is easier than ever. Various brands produce all-in-one dehydrated backcountry camping meals — just add boiling water, let it “cook” for 15 minutes, and voila. Dinner is served. The hardest part is choosing between all the tasty options!
While highly convenient, the cost of these dehydrated backcountry meals can add up quickly. Budget-friendly dinner alternatives include instant noodles, rice entrees, and pre-cooked packs of curry paired with minute rice. Be sure to check cooking times to save fuel and go for products that call for water rather than milk (as many boxed pastas do). For lunch, consider jerky, bagels, and bars. For breakfast, power up with hot oatmeal pre-mixed with protein powder and chia seeds.
Helpful tip: Pack a generous amount of high-protein, high-calorie snacks. You don’t have to splurge on fancy protein bars or energy gels either; granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit, nuts, fruit candy, and chocolate bars from your grocery store bulk section can do the trick! Save space by packing instant coffee. If you’re expecting cold weather, consider bringing extra quantities of spicy instant noodles, tea and hot chocolate to keep warm and hydrated!
Backpacking can be cold, wet, and challenging at times. You might find yourself panting for breath with aching shoulders and tired feet, wondering why you’ve chosen to walk into the backcountry with a pack that far exceeds all carry-on baggage restrictions. But as you delve deeper into nature’s wonders, you’ll find awe and inspiration. Being in the wild inexplicably stirs something powerful and elemental buried deep within. So go on, reconnect with your wild side. Somewhere along the way, you’re bound to rediscover how it feels to be in the wild, to simply be, and transform those hard-fought miles into poetry.
“It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild…
The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”
― Cheryl Strayed, Wild
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