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Beginning In The Backcountry: A Guide For No-Timers and First-Timers

by David Jones

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For me, it started on a family vacation to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. To keep me occupied for the eight-hour drive back home, my parents bought me a copy of Harvey Manning's Backpacking: One Step at a Time. By the time we got back to the flatlands I knew, even at 12 years old, that no matter how weird it all got I would always have a place, and it would always be outside.

Tragically, it was almost 15 more years before I made it into the backcountry. But there I was, poised at a Smoky Mountain trailhead with at least 50 pounds on my back for this two-night trip. My pack was the backcountry equivalent of the Beverly Hillbillies' flatbed, with a 10-pound tent right there where Granny should have been. Throw on a pair of running shoes and a dozen bagels, and it was all I could do to hobble four miles to camp.

Though far from a hardened veteran, I've put enough miles on the boots to have picked up a decent sense of fine-tuning the art. My pack doesn't look like a truck anymore, and I don't carry nearly as many bagels. I've discovered basecamping, and I carry a water filter.

Though I wouldn't take anything for my degree from On-The-Trail University, there are a few pieces of information that would have served me well had I gotten them from some other source besides Experience. In that spirit, I would like to offer those who stop at this site on the way to their first backcountry adventures a few assorted bits of advice.

Have fun. Really, it's why you're there in the first place. Take your time. Watch a cloud form. No stress is the rule in the woods, and the way you avoid stress is by following Rule 2.

Be prepared. Too many backcountry disasters and near-misses result from the hiker's own ill-preparedness; inadequate clothing, lack of routefinding ability, bad judgment calls. Life-threatening situations don't just happen -- they are (in most cases) allowed to happen. Know what conditions you're going into, know how to deal with them, and pack accordingly. Park management can give valuable advice on local conditions and permitting procedures, but you have to call them.

Know your equipment. You're not a traildork just because you know which insulation your sleeping bag uses. Your gear may well be called upon to save your life one day; the more you know about your equipment, the easier it will be to avoid situations that would overcome its abilities.

Make sure you know what everything does and how it operates before you leave the house. (And speaking of leaving the house, a friend who will recognize himself once took his trailrookie wife into the bush around Fairbanks for one of her first overnighters. Though I'm sure he remembered his star chart and his miniature pepper grinder, he did forget the fuel pump for his stove. Knowing your equipment also means making sure it comes with you -- make a checklist.)

Know your own abilities. The trail is always steeper and longer than it looks on the map or sounds in the guidebooks. ("After an invigorating climb, you reach the summit.") If you're depending on a shuttle or are restricted to some other timetable, make sure you can finish what you start.

Know the country you're going into. Are thunderstorms common during the summer afternoons? Is water available for the entire length of the trail? Is there a possibility of bear encounters? Preparation, preparation, preparation.

Though you should be prepared for emergencies, it's equally important to practice emergency avoidance.

Important, But Not Life-Threatening

Carry good food. True, I could never have eaten all those bagels. But good food is definitely worth the additional weight. Gary and I met a hiker in the Smokies who claimed to be saving weight by eating only gorp, but he was also carrying a bottle of wine for his last night on the trail. Go figure.

If I'm on a short trip, my first night's meal will usually be a small vacuum-packed steak that's been allowed to thaw in my pack. Dry soups prepared with powdered milk, homebrewed hashes made with store-bought dried pasta or rice, oatmeal with a box of raisins thrown in; the thought of any is enough to propel me an extra mile or two. Don't forget dessert.

Bring antacid. The unfortunate side effect of the above is often a scorching case of heartburn. For me personally, exertion and exhaustion seem to exaggerate the effects. Greg and I would have sold our sisters for a few tablets after tomato-basil soup in the Collegiate Peaks one night.

Pick your companions wisely. Not only will you have to see them 24 hours a day, you'll be depending on them in the event of an emergency. If your companion brings a harmonica, accidentally leave him or her at the next gas station.

Allow yourself plenty of leisure time. A trip requiring you to cover ten miles a day for seven straight days is not a vacation. Don't think that because you can walk ten miles on city streets you can keep up the same kind of time in the woods. It just doesn't happen, and if it does you're probably missing something.

Don't fret over small stuff. Print and electronic backpacking media are full of debates on water filters vs. iodine, leather boots vs. nylon and suede, internal vs. external frame packs, and though proponents of each may make good points, the beginner would do well simply to make sure the basics are taken care of -- boots on feet, shelter over head, pack on back.

Most of the equipment sold by reputable retailers (ask around) is of good quality, and any stove will boil water if operated properly. Though I'm not saying you can't go wrong, I am saying you don't need to sweat over brands and specs.

Read. This article is only the most minimal beginning. The books and magazines available to freshman hikers offer invaluable information and are a blast to read (a winter afternoon, a huge cup of coffee and a good guidebook -- is there anything better?).

Finally, remember you have a responsibility to the wild places you frequent. As visitors, we inevitably remove a tiny piece of wildness from the places we visit. Minimize your impact in every way possible.

By the way, Manning's book is still one of the best available introductions to wilderness travel and ethics. You can find it in almost any bookstore, as well as through numerous mail-order catalogs. Highly recommended.

About the Author

David Jones (ddjones@gvi.net) lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and is admired for his ability to get paid for what he does.


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