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A Guide to Backpacking: What’s Essential

Catherine Andrews

Advance Planning Is Key to Backpacking SuccessPlanning a backpacking trip requires more than a determination to travel light. A lot of the planning will revolve around specific destinations and the kind of trip. Time on the trail is a major factor, as well as terrain, fitness level, weather, and individual goals.

That being said, there are many ways to backpack, and those who do it regularly offer sage planning advice:

Planning for All Needs

Whether trekking through the wilderness or backpacking across a continent, this type of travel involves, essentially, carrying—on your back—all that is necessary for health and wellness, no matter if the journey is for a few days or for more than a few months. For anyone used to stuffing as much as possible into a suitcase, the “freedom” of traveling with only a pack can be almost incomprehensible.

Veteran backpackers insist that the quality of the pack itself is vital. A good internal frame backpack offers a traveler between 2,000 and 5,000 square inches of space. Packed properly, that can be a lot of gear. Lightweight packs are preferable, even though they are more expensive, and how things are stowed matters every bit as much as what is brought along, in terms of comfort and safety.

After that, planning for the specifics of each trip should be the primary consideration. Choosing a spot will depend on the season, the type of trail, the distance and the trip’s duration. Study up on local regulations and possible hazards, including wildlife. Obtain up-to-date trail maps and site data.

A Backpacker’s Four Essentials

Clothing: No one would list style as an important ingredient of a backpacking trip. What is important is comfort, serviceability, seasonal appropriateness, and layers that can be added or subtracted based on the weather. As important as socks and hiking boots are, it is equally important to include flip-flops or slip-ons for off-trail comfort. Gloves, head-covering and rain gear are a must, and it is not unusual to find long underwear along with shorts in a pack!

Food: Hiking—especially with a pack—is hard work. It burns up a lot of energy; backpackers always carry snacks and water, and wilderness camping requires making plans for cooking and eating, as well as for washing and clean up. A light backpacking stove and fuel, water purification tablets, a pot, a bowl and a cup are minimal needs. Menu planning comes with experience, but simplicity rules. Plan ahead, consult with hiking buddies, and pack wisely.

Rest: Being comfortable camping out means having a foam or inflatable pad, a comfortable sleeping bag, and some sort of tent, windbreak or shelter. Each individual must find the combination of comfort and austerity that will work. A word to the wise: Always try out new gear in the backyard before setting off on a trip!

Niceties & Emergencies: While many things are nice to have, in an emergency those nice things can become essential. A good pocket knife, a whistle, a compass (if not a GPS), first aid supplies, matches or a working lighter, flashlight or headlamp, camera, journal or miniature recorder are just some of the items to have. Some of them take up space, but leaving them at home could spell disaster. The others will help to preserve the memories of good times.

A backpacking excursion to Europe is in no way equivalent to a back-country hike or a wilderness trek. And setting out with a group will most likely require more detailed plans than a weekend getaway with a spouse. So, even though backpacking can be done in many places and in many different ways, goal-setting and advance planning should always come first.

The only other important thing is to enjoy it!

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