The next step up from hiking is backpacking, an adventure that blends hiking with backcountry camping.
Backpacking broadens horizons to longer and more remote locations to enjoy a richer, more immersive outdoor experience. Key distinctions from day hiking are the length of the excursion and the size of your pack—a backpack needs to have life’s essentials for sustenance, safety, and fun, all on your back. In order to meet these requirements, your backpack can quickly get too heavy for longer jaunts and needs to be well fitted, carefully loaded and balanced. A typical day pack might weigh about 15 pounds, whereas a typical well-outfitted backpack will be double that, and if you don’t think the extra 15 pounds sounds like much, wait until you are five hours into a hike and perhaps several hundred feet or more uphill.
In my previous blog posts on day hiking, I have emphasized the need for enough water, protein, layers of clothing and safety items such as a first aid kit and a satellite emergency communicator. These and other items are even more important for a backpacking excursion. A water filter was optional for a day hike; it is mandatory for overnight camping, no matter how clear the water looks in a nearby pristine lake or stream.
Physical conditioning becomes even more important since hikes will be longer and more strenuous with a heavier pack that includes such additions as a tent and sleeping bag. As with any strenuous exercise, start with modest excursions and build the muscles specific to the activity. For example, I can say from personal experience that downhill skiing in the winter does not prepare the body for backpacking in the summer, although uphill skiing does.
For building up to a longer overnight hike, choose a hike with some elevation gain. Hiking uphill with a big pack is a whole different exercise than strolling on level ground. It goes without saying that a foray into backpacking should be on routes where the uphill is closer to the outset of the adventure and downhill is the return.
There are nuances to backpacking and camping that can make the experience a bad one, or much better if you go with someone who knows the ropes. Knowledge such as how to string up your food across two the trees at night (avoiding attracting bears to your tent) and how to prepare for a safe campfire are a few examples, and there are a bunch more. I will cover many of these concepts in future blog posts.
It is especially important to research where you are going before you set out, especially if you are planning on camping overnight. Be familiar with natural markers that can help you find your way if you get lost. I always print (in color) photos of natural features from others’ trip reports and bring them with me – I can’t count the number of times they have helped me figure out a route or a return from the wilderness.
Another important precaution is to check weather forecasts. Do not hesitate to cancel or turn back if a storm is on the horizon. If properly equipped, your layers of clothing, a waterproof shell, and a pack cover will protect you from the wet. However, summer storms can include lightning, which is both scary and life-threatening if you are out in the open or up on high locales. This may sound obvious, but it is much better to live to hike again another day than the alternative. There are many stories of dead climbers who had what we call “summit fever.”
Future posts will also have tips on additional preparedness and equipment when you take a dog along on an overnight campout. However, until you are more experienced as a backpacker, I would suggest not taking a dog along. Your focus should be on route finding, hydration, energy use and all the work elements of setting up a camp. Until many of those become second nature, you don’t need the extra complication of looking out for your dog and its reaction to the strange new activity of camping outdoors and in a tent.