How to start backpacking even though it is a dumb idea
I know who you are.
You’ve imagined yourself in romantic photos of happy hikers with scenic mountain backdrops.
Or maybe you’ve seen ‘Wild,’ or ‘A Walk in the Woods,’ and pictured your own life-affirming adventure on the trail.
Now you’re ready to make the jump from day hiking to overnight trips, maybe even multi-night trips.
To which I say, you’re an idiot.
I know you’re an idiot because you’d have to be to want to go backpacking.
At least that’s what came to mind during a recent 3,400-foot ascent to Bishop Pass at the edge of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.
It was the final day of a 56-mile trip. My knee hurt. The sun was beating down on me. I was slogging uphill on a sandy trail laboring to breathe above 11,000 feet and lamenting I was still several hours from my first meal in five days that wasn’t an energy bar or dehydrated in a vacuum sealed bag. I smelled. Bad.
It made me think only an idiot would prefer this to other pleasurable and productive things that are easier than backpacking.
There’s taking walk in the park. Or learning to cook fancy dinners in your home. Even watching American football on television.
Yet you still want advice about backpacking even though I just told you it’s dirty, exhausting, can cost a fortune and even be dangerous.
In fact, the very essence of backpacking is getting into an unsustainable living situation on the hope you will eventually extricate yourself.
Does that sound fun to you?
Sure, you’re probably seduced by the romance. Some of America’s most stunning landscapes are only accessible by hiking for days.
And by putting in the effort to get there you can join the tiny slice of the population who has actually laid eyes on some of these sights.
In the Sierra Nevada alone you can watch the sunset and clouds change the color and lighting of the peaks over Evolution Basin before your eyes. You can wake up and see the reflection of Banner Peak in a pond at the top of Island Pass.
And when you’re done every time you drive along U.S. Highway 395 or through Donner Pass via Interstate 80 or around Lake Tahoe you can contemplate the distant peaks and valleys beyond and know that you have the ability to go under your own power and touch them.
It’s why you’re still here and why no amount of discouragement from me will prevent you from trying this.
On that note here’s some grudgingly-delivered advice based on my limited experience on four long-distance backpacking trips in the Sierra Nevada.
Step one: Humble yourself
It doesn’t matter if you were an all-state athlete in high school or cut from the junior varsity cross country team.
The mountains aren’t impressed with your accomplishments nor will they cut you any slack out of pity.
No matter who you are backpacking in the Sierra Nevada will involve carrying 30 to 50 pounds on long, steep ascents, knee-straining descents and through widely varying weather conditions.
And you’ll need to be able to handle the mental and physical strain day-after-day without access to comfortable sleeping, eating or bathing conditions.
If you make bad choices about food, clothing, sleeping gear, boots, or backpack you will pay with pain or discomfort.
If you don’t accurately evaluate your own strength or fitness you will pay with pain or discomfort.
This is why a humble approach is the only approach. Pride or hubris will lead to, you guessed it, pain or discomfort.
Step two: Ask questions
Once you’ve gotten past your own ego it’s time to ask dumb questions. Find people you know and trust who have backpacking experience and start asking them questions. Where do they go? What do they carry? Ask about their personal latrine strategy along the trail. This is important.
You can accomplish this to a certain degree on social media. My experience with social media has been mixed. You might get knowledgeable people with useful advice. But you’re just as likely to find people who don’t know as much as they say they know or who give advice based on their own ability, not yours.
Step three: Test yourself
This is important. No one can advise you on your own body and your own comfort levels.
Take a hike up Mt. Rose or some other mountain. Think about how it feels to ascend 2,000 feet over five miles with a heavy pack.
Now you have a point of reference for your comfort level. This will help you plan trips that are appropriate for your skill and fitness level and find other backpackers with whom you can effectively travel.
Step four: Think about gear and food
Backpacking is not day hiking. You’re going to want a comfortable backpack that can accommodate your tent, sleeping mat, bear canister for food and appropriate layers of base clothing and outerwear.
You don’t have to buy the most expensive stuff at the store but if it’s something important, like a stove or a tent, you don’t want to compromise on quality.
You’re also going to want to think about food. When you’re backpacking, especially at high altitude, it can be difficult for some people to maintain an appetite. But skimping on food can leave your body with too few calories to get you through the day.
That’s why it’s important to pick food you’re confident will taste good and be relatively easy to prepare and eat. Every backpacker has to figure out the menu that’s right for him or herself.
Step five: Make plans
Now that you’ve set aside your ego, gotten input from trustworthy sources, learned about your own body and fitness level and acquired some basic supplies it’s time to actually go backpacking.
Here’s where you hit the internet and start looking for trails and destinations you think will be fun and challenging.
For some people it’s 50-plus miles in five days over numerous high-altitude passes. For others it’s an overnight on a short, flat trail to a nearby lake. Some people might like to hike slowly and take photographs. Others might prefer power hiking for big miles.
If you’re lucky you’ll find other people who would like the same types of trips as you. Or maybe you’ll prefer solo hikes on which every decision is yours alone.
You might even walk through and touch an iconic landscape that most people know only through photos.
And when you find yourself filthy, tired and sore on a 3,000-foot ascent wondering how you will get to the car before dark so you can find a decent meal at whatever restaurant in the nearest small town is still open don’t blame me. I tried to warn you.