|Wild Earth Adventures|
|Wild Earth Adventures|
Wilderness Camping & Backpacking
Not everyone is interested in camping in the wild, but many of us love overnight trips that involve hiking and camping in beautiful or spectacular wilderness areas.
To the general public, camping often means car camping at campgrounds, where you're sharing a bit of the outdoors with dozens or even hundreds of other people.
Wilderness camping, in contrast, usually means tenting in a truly wild and often remote area where you might see a few people in a day, and sometimes not a soul.
Wilderness camping trips offer almost unlimited peace, quiet, and solitude -- among the scarcest of all commodities in today's noisy, hectic, and stressful world.
Camping in the wild can also offer great fun and camaraderie when shared with a group. We can really BE with others and enjoy their company, interruption-free. But it's also possible to enjoy as much alone time as we want away from the group.
A wilderness camping trip, by definition, is likely to entail a measure of adventure. We can never predict exactly what we'll experience. Are there risks? No more than at home, many of us believe, if you go with a responsible, safety-minded group.
A backpacking trip involves carrying everything you need in a full-size backpack and camping out for one or several nights. Backpacking can either mean hiking each day to a new campsite, or setting up a base camp for the duration of the trip.
On all Wild Earth Adventures overnight trips we use backpacks to carry our gear and food into the wilderness areas where we'll be camping, usually for 3-4 nights. On most trips we offer optional day hikes each day from our base camp.
Some years we also offer a week-long backpacking trip that involves hiking through a large wilderness area and camping at a different spot each night.
These days most of our camping and backpacking trips take place in New York's 6,000,000-acre Adirondack Park, which has more wilderness than any other park in the East. We also usually offer a Memorial Day weekend trip in May to Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia.
Feedback from most participants on our overnight trips tends to be strongly positive (it's common to see words like "wonderful" and "memorable" used), and occasionally someone says they found a trip to be a truly life-changing experience.
People usually return home in high spirits, feeling much more relaxed and contented than when they departed. Whether you're experienced or not, does the idea of camping in the wild appeal to you? Will you be joining us on one or more trips this season?
Recommended Equipment, Clothing, and Food for Overnight Trips
The summary below is especially relevant to the wilderness camping and backpacking trips that we offer each year, which take place mostly in New York's Adirondack Mountains and also the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Virginia. If you camp in the wild in other parts of the United States or other countries, whether on your own, with friends, or with a group, there are likely to be significant differences in the clothing and equipment you'll need to bring, for reasons that including differences in climate, weather, terrain, etc.
These subjects are addressed in greater detail further below on this page, under the heading "Wilderness Camping Fundamentals." That discussion covers the essentials of wilderness camping and backpacking at some length, for anyone who wants to read more on the subject, and isn't limited to what's necessary for the guided trips we offer.
Unless you're in top physical condition and don't mind carrying a heavy load, an important key to a successful and pleasurable backpacking experience is MINIMIZING THE WEIGHT you carry. Much modern gear is very light and often quite compact (most common items are available in miniature and/or super-light versions, especially suitable for this purpose). Your primary job is to keep the total weight of all equipment and food as low as possible.
Being "weight and bulk conscious" is especially important when preparing for longer trips. One way to help keep your load to an absolute minimum is to bring only the bare essentials, and leave at home anything of questionable use -- EXCEPT for items related to safety and warmth. You may want to bring some extra "luxury" items such as a camera or binoculars, but without restraint you may find your load getting out of hand.
Some of our wilderness camping weekends involve carrying a full pack for a relatively short distance (2-5 miles), and carrying it only on the first and last days. For such trips the above advice is less critical, but still worth considering.
If you haven't worn a backpack before, or in recent years, you might not be aware that modern backpacks are quite comfortable, when properly fitted, and should permit you to carry weight with relative ease. Carrying ANY amount of weight, however, does require extra exertion, especially when you're walking on hilly or steep trails. Ideally, if you can keep the total weight of the backpack with all gear to between 1/5 and 1/4 of your body weight (not hard to do on 4-day trip, more of a challenge to accomplish on a trip that lasts a week or longer, but well worth striving for on any trip), problems will be few or none. If you attempt to carry as much as 1/3 or more of your body weight, walking with the backpack is likely to feel like really hard work.
If you don't have a backpack of your own, you will need to buy, rent, or borrow one. Millions of people have backpacks and sleeping bags tucked away in their closets, so if you don't feel ready to buy equipment, it may be worthwhile to ask around and see if any friends have suitable gear that you could borrow. Packs and other items may also be rented from some outdoor supply and sporting goods stores (call if you need advice about where to rent gear). If you'll be renting, be sure to contact the store to reserve equipment well in advance of your trip.
Backpacks come in all shapes and sizes. Most suitable for a wilderness camping or backpacking trip is an EXTERNAL or INTERNAL FRAME PACK (a "full size pack" with frame). During the past couple of decades, internal frame packs ("internal" since the frame is hidden) have taken over most of the market. There's a wide range of opinions on the subject, but some of us believe that external frame packs are still a great choice, especially for longer trips. But since they're no longer "in fashion," not all stores carry them (some still do). A big plus is that prices tend to be especially reasonable.
Most important of all, though, is that you bring a pack that FITS you -- the frame, shoulder straps, and hipbelt should all fit your torso appropriately. A poor-fitting pack can be quite uncomfortable. While undesirable, this would be less of a problem on a shorter, easier trip than if would be on a longer one. If possible, the pack should have a PADDED HIPBELT, which will allow you to carry much of the weight on your hips. If you rent or buy a pack, a salesperson in the store should be able to help you make adjustments and get a proper fit.
Also very important to bring is a WARM SLEEPING BAG, preferably a compressible synthetic or down-filled bag. Most old-style cotton bags don't provide enough warmth and are inadequate for trips on which we might encounter cold temperatures at night. Most of our trips are to mountain ranges where we're camping at elevations of 2,000-3,000 feet or more, and in such areas one must always assume the possibility of chilly or cold nights, occasionally even in the summer. This is especially true for the Adirondacks of New York and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where temperatures on summer nights can occasionally drop below freezing. On trips to those areas, in particular, be sure to bring a bag rated to ("will keep you warm down to...") well BELOW freezing. If you already have a sleeping bag but are unsure of how warm it is, call for advice.
Hiking boots are virtually essential for all of our overnight trips. While a bit less critical on some of the shorter, easier trips, they're extremely important for the longer or more difficult ones, where we may be walking on very rough, rocky trails, which can also be wet and muddy. Lightweight or medium-weight hiking boots are most suitable. On some trips, other kinds of sturdy boots or shoes may suffice. Sneakers are totally inadequate, as they provide virtually no support on rugged trails, no protection against a foot or ankle injury, and they'll get soaking wet as soon as you step in some water or mud, which can be bad news in cold weather. If you bring new boots on a trip, try to wear them outside at least a few times beforehand, and also carry some lighter shoes which you could change into in case of a problem.
Just as you'll need a warm sleeping bag on a trip into the higher mountains, warm clothing is also essential on such a trip (don't give in to any temptation to leave the clothing at home just because there's a heat wave the week of your trip!) On fall or spring trips you should always assume the weather may be cold, regardless of the forecast. With sufficient warm clothing you can avoid ever getting seriously cold and uncomfortable. Be sure to bring some clothing made of synthetics, wool, or silk, as these fabrics will give you warmth even when wet -- whereas cotton can leave you dangerously chilled if it gets damp or wet. Always have at least one complete change of clothing made of non-cotton fabrics. At the bottom of this page you'll find a checklist that lists appropriate items of clothing to bring.
Rain gear is another must. It should be made of sturdy nylon or other lightweight material (beware of vinyl or other cheap plastic rainwear, which is likely to fall apart just when you need it most). A nylon rain jacket, parka, or poncho is what you need. Lightweight rain pants are also recommended, especially if cold weather is likely. You may want to have a nylon rain cover for your pack as well (an inexpensive alternative: a large garbage bag to pull over the backpack) -- or you can pack essential items, including your clothing and sleeping bag, in extra plastic bags inside the backpack.
Never trust claims that any pack is completely waterproof. Extra rain protection will assure that you'll always have a dry change of clothing and a dry sleeping bag, and with that knowledge you'll be able to rest easily. Never leave rain gear at home just because there's a "zero chance of rain" during the time when you'll be camping, since forecasts are often wrong, and rain can come at any time in the mountains even during a dry spell.
Tent & Foam Pad
Unless you'll be sharing someone else's tent, you'll need to bring one of your own. The lighter and more compact, the better. These days a number of tents are available that weigh in the range of 2-4 pounds, which is great to strive for if possible. If you already have a tent and would like to share it -- perhaps you'd like the company of a tent-mate, and someone to help carry part of the tent as well -- please let us know.
It's also important to bring a foam pad to go under your sleeping bag. This is partly for comfort, since the ground we camp on is sometimes hard or bumpy -- but a pad will also provide insulation from possible cold. Your sleeping bag will rapidly lose heat to the ground without a pad.
It's necessary for each participant to bring food on all of our trips. Mealtimes are social times, of course, and we usually eat together as a group, sometimes sharing food as well as stoves (for those who don't have a stove, we have a small number available to be shared). But everyone is responsible for bringing sufficient food for themselves and doing their own cooking (sometimes two or more participants decide to share cooking on a trip).
Your guide is there to assist anyone who needs help with cooking or anything else, and others in the group are often more than willing to help less experienced participants. On a 4-day trip you'll need to bring food for 3 suppers, 4 lunches, and 3 breakfasts. Have some additional food along "for the road" on our first and last days (sometimes we also stop for a meal or at least refreshments along the way, especially on our return trip when a long drive is involved).
As with everything else, your food should be AS LIGHT AS POSSIBLE. The lightest foods are freeze-dried and dehydrated (dried) foods, which have most or all of their water content removed. Freeze-dried foods are especially light, very quick to prepare, and found mainly in outdoor supply stores. Dehydrated foods are widely available in health food stores and supermarkets, generally require some cooking, and tend to be less expensive.
Neither kind will quite compete, taste-wise, with fresh foods, but many dried foods are nutritious, and on average they're tastier than they were 2-3 decades ago. The savings in weight and bulk make them invaluable, especially on longer trips. Dried foods come as pre-packaged dinners, and also in the form of such well-known supermarket items as rice, pasta, instant potatoes, and powdered milk.
On shorter trips it's feasible to bring SOME fresh foods (vegetables, fruits, etc.), but beware -- many of these foods are heavy! Avoid foods that are quickly perishable, except to be eaten the first day (meats, fresh dairy products, soft fruits, salad greens, and certain other vegetables). It's wise to steer clear of cans as much as possible, of course, since they're so heavy -- although some of us do bring smaller-size cans of salmon, tuna, sardines, or chicken to help meet our protein needs.
For cooking you should have a minimum (and possibly a maximum) of a single, small, lightweight pot. The simplest kind of meal to prepare is a "one-pot meal," consisting either of a pre-packaged meal or a concoction of your own. Anyone who likes fancier meals is welcome to be more elaborate, but the cost will be the additional weight and trouble of carrying and cleaning extra pots and pans.
Supper/dinner is our main cooking meal, and there's usually some cooking done at breakfast as well. Lunch is usually eaten in transit during the day, so be sure to BRING LUNCH FOODS THAT DON'T REQUIRE COOKING OR OTHER PREPARATION (a fairly common error is to not bring enough ready-to-eat foods).
Try to measure out amounts of food in advance, and avoid bringing a lot more than you'll eat (on the rare occasion someone doesn't bring enough food, others who have more than enough are usually quick to offer it). Eliminate any cartons or other excess packaging and re-pack foods in sturdy Ziploc or other double plastic bags to minimize the possibility of spillage. It's highly recommended that you keep all your food inside one medium-size nylon or (extra sturdy) plastic bag, so that the food can be easily removed from your pack and hung from a high tree branch at night (which we do to keep it out of reach of wildlife -- you'll learn how on the trip if you don't already know).
There are lots of possible menus using dried foods. Here are a few simple suggestions. Breakfast: granola or oatmeal with powdered milk, dried fruit, crackers. Lunch: cheese & crackers, sardines or small can of salmon, dried fruit. Snack food: "trail mix" or "gorp"-- varied mixture of nuts, raisins, goodies. Dinner: dried soup, pre- packaged dehydrated dinner, or one-pot stew using dried vegetables, rice, canned fish/meat if desired. Many drinks are also available in powdered form.
The issue of what food to purchase and bring on an overnight trip can be a bit daunting to a beginner, in part because there are so many choices available (the same sometimes goes for camping gear in general). Once you've reserved for a trip, if you have questions or need advice about food and other items to bring, we're happy to offer phone assistance.
Preparing & Packing
Preparing and packing for a trip may seem like quite a task the first time. Trust that everything will fall into place on the trip itself! Call if you could use some help. If you're having trouble organizing your gear in the pack, just do the best you can, and we'll be happy to help you get it together on the trip. Try to pack everything a few days in advance. Then put on the pack, and if the weight seems unmanageable, you still have time to exercise self-discipline and weed out some less-essential items.
Most of our wilderness camping and backpacking trips involve walking in just a few miles the first day before setting up camp, and the initial hike doesn't usually include steep trails or difficult terrain. Once we've set up camp, day hikes are available each day. All hikes are optional, and those who wish may choose to spend one or more days resting, swimming, etc. On longer backpacking trips we often hike with full backpacks to a different campsite each day.
If you're not in good shape, you'll need some prior conditioning before coming. Exercising on a regular basis at home makes a trip easier for anyone. Especially good for preparation are walking (as much as possible), hiking, jogging/running, and cycling. Any exercise that strengthens leg muscles will be helpful. Also, including hills or stairs as often as possible is important.
For participants who live in the New York City area, transportation is available via mini-van and car and arranged in advance (at no extra cost). Others meet us at our trip destination or along the way. Bring some extra funds for snacks and a possible meal in transit, especially when longer drives are involved. We don't usually have time to stop along the way to shop for any forgotten items, so be sure to have everything you need for the entire trip when we meet.
Wilderness camping and backpacking trips go in ALL weather. As you probably know, weather forecasts are unreliable and frequently wrong for mountain areas. Although dry weather is more common than wet weather in the northeastern US, precipitation is always a possibility (as are cold temperatures, even in the summer) -- but with proper clothing and rainwear, a trip can be fun and rewarding in any weather. An attitude of acceptance of "whatever comes" will serve well.
Checklist of Recommended Equipment & Clothing
___1. Backpack (internal or external frame)
___2. Sleeping bag
___4. Hiking boots
___5. Waterproof nylon rainwear (rain jacket, parka, or poncho)
___6. Plastic water bottle(s) or canteen(s) or hydration system -- two 1-liter/quart containers are recommended, one of them filled at home
___7. Small flashlight -- with spare alkaline batteries & spare bulb
___8. Foam pad
___9. Toilet paper
___10. Small cooking pot, plus drinking cup, eating utensil(s)
___11. Food (for the duration of the trip)
___12. Nylon (or heavy plastic) "food bag", plus 50 feet of nylon cord for hanging food
Other Recommended Gear
___13. Small stove (bring if you have one, or can borrow one; otherwise we'll provide)
___14. Plastic litter bag, plus a pack raincover (or garbage bags to go over/inside pack)
___15. Small day pack (for day hikes from the campsite)
___16. Insect repellent (in summer or warm weather)
___17. Sunscreen/lotion and sun hat (in summer)
___18. Small whistle (in case you should somehow get lost)
___19. Personal items: soap, toothbrush, etc. (keep to a minimum)
___20. Paperback book, notebook, etc. (optional)
___21. Light shoes for camp (optional)
___22. Swimsuit (from late spring through early fall)
___23. Camera or binoculars (if either is important to you)
___24. Long pants (1-2 pair)
___26. Long-sleeved shirt
___27. T-shirts (2-3 maximum) -- to wash out on longer trips
___28. Underpants (2-3 maximum) -- " " " "
___29. Heavy wool or synthetic socks (2-3 maximum), plus liner socks (optional)
___30. Wool/synthetic sweater(s) or shirt(s) (1-2)
Additional Clothing for Spring & Fall Trips, or Summer Trips in the Higher Eastern Mountains
___31. Shell parka or windbreaker
___32. Synthetic or down jacket or vest (or equivalent in warm clothing)
___33. Thermal underwear
___34. Knitted cap (wool or synthetic)
___35. Warm gloves or mitts
PLEASE DON'T BRING: radios or CD players -- and if you carry a cell phone, make sure it's turned off for the duration of the trip (it's unlikely you'll be able to get a signal anyway in most of the wilderness areas we visit). Be aware that iPods and other audio devices with earphones are often surprisingly audible in the quiet woods, and sometimes disturbing to others. Also, they'll keep you from enjoying the sounds & silence of nature! If you regularly use such devices, try doing without for a few days, and instead enjoy a wonderfully restorative dose of "nature therapy!"
And we're unable to allow pets on any of our trips.
PLEASE DO BRING: good feelings and positive energy!
Wilderness Camping Fundamentals
This section addresses the essentials of wilderness camping and backpacking at some length, and isn't limited to what's appropriate for our guided trips -- it's for anyone who wants to read more on the subject. For a briefer discussion, including recommended equipment and clothing for our trips, go to the top of this page.
The wilderness is obviously quite a different world from the one most of us have been brought up in. Assuming you're someone who's new to this realm or relatively inexperienced, there are obviously things to be learned before embarking on an overnight trip. The better informed and prepared you are beforehand, the more likely your trip will be a success. This section offers a look at some fundamental concepts and considerations involved in wilderness camping and backpacking.
Few places on earth are more beautiful, more exciting to visit, more awe-inspiring than wilderness areas. Here nature runs wild and free, undeveloped and relatively untouched by humanity. Spending an extended time in this environment can provide a rich experience for anyone.
Most areas of wilderness are largely or entirely without roads, phones (and often without cellphone reception), buildings, bathrooms, and other facilities or conveniences. Some of us consider this to be a major part of the attraction. Among the many positive rewards of wilderness travel is that it's gratifying to be able to get away from everything for a time -- even some of the things we love or truly enjoy.
You're obviously more or less on your own when in the wilderness -- less so, of course, if you're with an organized group or experienced friends. There may be marked trails or an occasional sign to direct you, but this won't always be the case. Finding the way and staying out of trouble is totally up to you. You might not cross paths with someone else who could assist if you should get lost or otherwise run into difficulty.
Not all wilderness areas are remote. Some relatively wild parks or forests do have networks of roads, meaning you may not be far from a possible escape route, should there be a need for one. In popular areas the trails are so well traveled that help might be quickly available in the event of a mishap. Still, it's wise to be prepared for anything and proceed with caution.
Among other skills, it's necessary to know how to use a map and compass, and ESSENTIAL to have those items along, or to be with others who do. If you have a GPS, it's important to be aware that these and all other devices are capable of failing -- and also that GPS systems have errors that are sometimes especially common in wilderness areas. It's important to never stake your life on a device working properly. Map and compass skills remain vital.
Some people enjoy taking on challenges or setting ambitious goals, seeking for instance to hike or paddle long distances, or perhaps climb rugged mountains. While it can be worthwhile and gratifying to stretch oneself at times in the wilderness, it's also important to avoid losing sight of our limitations as human beings. We are mortal, after all.
Excessive confidence, ambition, and/or carelessness can lead any person into trouble -- in circumstances which could include exhaustion, an accident, or getting lost. Since your life could be at stake, surely it makes sense to take the best possible care of yourself out there.
A substantial amount of equipment is normally required for an overnight wilderness trip -- much more, of course, than is needed on a day trip. Major items generally include a backpack, sleeping bag, and tent. Other appropriate items include a pad or mat to sleep on, a small stove, cookware, and a flashlight.
Each piece of equipment fulfills a particular function or purpose. If you'll be doing much walking or hiking, a backpack is by far the most efficient and comfortable way to carry everything. Other types of packs are designed for activities like canoeing, kayaking, rafting, and cycling. At night a sleeping bag furnishes insulation for warmth while you're sleeping, and a tent provides protection from the elements and from insects.
In earlier times people camped out with much less, and some so-called primitive peoples have long been able to make do with relatively little. You could do so, too, if you really wanted to. One way to learn how would be to train at a school which teaches wilderness survival skills.
Most of us, however, are somewhat soft from the ways of civilization. Camping equipment makes outdoor living easier, safer, more comfortable. It eases the transition for us.
At the same time, there's a risk of going overboard with equipment. Unnecessary gear can get in the way. There are hundreds of useful and/or gimmicky items available on the market that are supposed to make camping easier or better. Without restraint you could end up knee-deep in gear, creating numerous distractions and barriers between you and nature.
A good practice is to bring only those things that are indispensable to your safety, well-being, and comfort in the wilderness. Leave at home less important items that you won't use very often. A detailed discussion of recommended gear follows in another section below.
Beginners often find the subject of equipment to be a little intimidating, and for some it borders on being overwhelming. If that's the case for you, consider going first with an outfitter, guide, club, or other organization which will furnish most or all of the gear, or advise you in assembling what you'll need. This will save you the trouble of having to deal with it on your own at the start.
Shopping for wilderness-oriented gear isn't the simplest task these days, given the many available brands and designs and models, which can change from year to year (the same issue exists, of course, for untold numbers of other products we need to choose from in everyday life).
If you find the process at all frustrating or difficult, keep in mind that equipment is A MEANS TO AN END. With experience, the use of gear becomes easy and automatic. It won't remain a constant focus, or require much attention or expenditure of energy on your part, and you'll be free to enjoy yourself in the wilderness each day as you wish.
If you're not sure you're ready to buy, or uncertain of your commitment to wilderness camping, renting equipment is another good option. Some outdoor specialty stores rent gear at reasonable prices. Inquire at your local store, if there's one nearby. In renting you'll get a better feel for what's involved, and afterward will probably be more clear about what you want to buy, should you decide to get your own equipment.
A final option is to borrow gear from a friend or acquaintance. Even if you don't happen to know any backpackers or campers, it never hurts to ask around. Millions of people have camping equipment in their closets. While there's no certainty that someone else's gear will be appropriate for your needs (the pack might be too large or the tent much too heavy), then again it might be just right for you.
Common Concerns and Fears Among Beginners
In spite of the many attractions of nature and wilderness, the idea of sleeping outside brings up concerns and fears for many people. A significant number of those who love outdoor activities never camp out, and for some it's in part because of fears. These include the fear of being seriously uncomfortable, of wild animals (especially bears and snakes), of the unknown.
It's normal to feel anxious or experience fear when we're trying something new, or venturing into an environment that's strange to us. It also seems to be the case that inexperienced people often project all kinds of fears onto the wilderness.
It's easy enough to imagine threats to our safety and well-being out there. The truth is, assuming we know how to take care of ourselves, the wilderness is safer and healthier in most ways than the polluted and sometimes violence-prone world we live in back at home.
Anxieties about the wilderness are undoubtedly intensified by the books and movies and stories we've been exposed to. Those often portray nature in a distorted way: as a place of constant adversity, of dangerous animals, of an unceasing array of hazards.
Many wilderness-related fears have a very minimal basis in reality. This is not to deny that there can be real dangers, but even those of us who spend a lot of time in wilderness areas rarely encounter them.
Most wild animals, for instance, have no desire for contact or conflict with human beings. As long as you respect their space, they'll generally give you a wide berth. Much of the time you won't even be aware they're around. Unprovoked attacks are rare in the extreme (contrary to the impression one sometimes gets from the media). Millions of Americans camp out safely each year without a problem from animals or other presumed dangers.
Then there's the matter of comfort. We live in a society where many people seem to be obsessed with comfort, and advertising encourages this. Some non-outdoorspeople imagine that camping involves considerable discomfort, and to go camping must mean deliberately courting hardship and turning your back on the benefits of civilization. With such beliefs it's no surprise that many avoid giving wilderness camping a try.
There's no doubt that some people have had bad experiences while camping out, but this is usually the result of inadequate equipment and clothing, and/or a lack of appropriate skills. In fact, there's no reason to be seriously uncomfortable in the wilderness these days. There are thick foam pads or mattresses to sleep on, and other items of equipment available today are designed for maximum comfort and ease of use.
Of course, a good many everyday conveniences aren't available in the wilderness. The level of comfort won't necessarily be equivalent to that at home, and you're potentially much more exposed to the elements. At the same time, it's possible to find perfectly adequate protection and warmth during the day using raingear and proper clothing, and at night you can sleep cozily and comfortably inside your tent and sleeping bag.
Other sources of concern involve the possibility of getting lost (totally avoidable if you're careful and know how to use a map and compass), having to go to the bathroom without facilities (not at all difficult to learn), and cleaning oneself without taking a shower (you can wash up by hand, take a dip in a lake or stream, or use a portable "solar shower").
Outdoor living does require a change in some habits, including learning a few simpler methods that don't depend on conveniences like plumbing or heating.
The ways of camping are easy enough to learn and surprisingly gratifying. It's satisfying to be self-reliant. Among other things, if you've camped in the wilderness you're likely to be able to weather such back-at-home crises as power failures, blackouts, and plumbing problems much better than those who are addicted to modern conveniences.
The simplifying that takes place on a wilderness trip ends up being one of the most refreshing elements of the experience. Nothing is complicated. Rarely do you have to do more than one thing at a time. Not only is that appealing and relaxing, but you also return with a sharper perspective -- including on what we've gained as well as given up by living in our culture with its endless array of conveniences and complexities.
You may start to appreciate some things more through their absence. At the same time, quite a few of us also come to realize that our lives are overly cluttered -- that we might be content with fewer of the things we normally consider important, or tend to surround ourselves with.
One of the delights of a camping trip is that at the end of the day, you don't have to return to your vehicle or the highway. There's nowhere to go but to your tent, which more often than not is pitched amid beautiful surroundings. A real feeling of vacation begins here.
On a longer trip you may even forget what day of the week it is. The world of civilization feels remote. There are no phones (and usually no cellphone service), newspapers, or TVs, no Internet, no world news, and none of the other usual sources of stress.
It takes time to unwind, which rarely if ever happens in a day. After several days or more, some people find themselves experiencing a deep and profound feeling of peaceful relaxation, more complete than one might have imagined possible. And as long as you remain, you'll be immersed in one of the most healing environments imaginable.
A backpacking trip is basically an extended hiking trip that involves camping in the wilderness. Everything needed for the duration of the trip is carried in a full-size backpack.
The words "backpacking" and "hiking" have been used loosely over the years and are sometimes confused. Some people use them interchangeably, but they're not quite the same thing. Hiking doesn't necessarily include camping. Millions of Americans hike for a day at a time without camping out.
As most of us use it, the word "backpacking" always implies camping -- although the same word has long been used as well to refer to low-budget world travel, carrying everything in a pack, but sometimes staying in low-cost accommodations rather than camping out.
With a modern backpack most of the weight should actually ride on your hips, rather than on your more vulnerable back and shoulders. This is possible because of a hipbelt system that's rigged up to the pack frame. The weight of a properly-fitted pack will be felt primarily in your thighs and legs, just as if you'd gained some body weight.
This is not to say that carrying a full-size pack is necessarily easy. Backpacking does put some added demands on the body, and it'll provide a challenging workout when you're hiking steeply uphill or downhill. It's not recommended for those who are seriously out of shape.
Hikers and other active people in reasonably good condition should have little difficulty in adjusting to backpacking. As with other activities, it's best to ease into it gently. Start with a short, unambitious trip -- at least one where you're not covering significant distances -- and avoid taking major changes of elevation at first. You can find plenty of challenges later on if you so desire.
The most important principle for successful backpacking is to keep the weight and bulk of everything to an absolute minimum. On first glance this should seem pretty obvious, but it's far too often ignored, especially by beginners but also by quite a few seasoned backpackers. Weight is the most critical factor by far. Attempting to carry an overly heavy pack is to risk spoiling a trip, or at least turning it into an arduous experience of physical endurance.
The weight of the pack will matter less, of course, if you're only going to walk a short distance with it. When you'll be hiking a few miles or more it's vital to keep that weight down. This is perhaps your most important task in preparing for a trip. What's a reasonable maximum will vary from one person to another. Backpackers who are in top shape will obviously be able to carry more than those who haven't been exercising on a regular basis.
An old rule of thumb suggests that if you're a so-called average person in good condition, carrying a pack that weighs between one-fourth and one-fifth of your body weight should be no problem at all. It's possible to work up to heavier loads, but trying to carry much more than that at first may be asking for trouble. Keeping it within this range may not be easy on a longer backpacking trip, but with effort it can be done.
As with any kind of travel, going light with a backpack increases your feeling of freedom. For some people it takes real self-discipline to leave behind all but the bare essentials, which is what's often required to keep the pack light enough. Such "luxury" items as a camera, binoculars, or comfortable camp shoes may seem important enough to bring, but without considerable restraint the load can get out of hand.
What's the special appeal of backpacking? For some of us, it's being able to carry everything we need and roam freely along wilderness trails for days at a time -- communing with nature and camping where we wish (in those wilderness areas where unrestricted camping is permitted). Backpacking offers a freedom on foot that's unheard of elsewhere in today's world.
There's a real thrill involved in backpacking deeply into a remote and unspoiled wilderness area, which might be days from the nearest highway -- the kind of splendid place that relatively few people are likely to ever set eyes on. It's also a delight to view new scenery each day and camp and a different site each night (although you can also set up a base camp and take day hikes from there if you like). To backpack through a mountain range brings those mountains remarkably to life. Our knowledge of an environment becomes deeply ingrained in a way that's unlike to leave us.
Many people who lead busy lives tend to limit their excursions to weekends, perhaps taking a longer trip every now and then. A weekend of backpacking or other wilderness activity is certainly sufficient for a person to experience a feeling of refreshment and renewal. Spending a week or more in the wilderness can provide a more profound impact.
It's also possible, if you have the time and inclination, to go out for weeks or even months on end. The relatively small number of backpackers who do so -- including those who hike the entire 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail or other major National Scenic Trails each year -- often find such a backpacking trip to be a truly life-changing event.
Finding Your Way in the Wilderness
Staying oriented in the wilderness isn't always a simple matter. Your ability to find the way should never be taken for granted. Awareness and considerable skill are sometimes required.
Following well-marked trails can be easy, but some trails are poorly-marked or unmarked. The route may be unclear at times. Those who choose to bushwhack off the beaten path face even greater challenges in staying oriented. Using a GPS can be extremely helpful, but it won't always get you to where you may want to go in a wilderness area. It's essential to have route-finding skills.
However you travel in the wilderness, attentiveness is always in order. Even on the best-marked trails it's wise to periodically check map and compass to verify your location. An assumption that you know where you're headed could be mistaken.
It's impossible to overestimate the value of a map and compass. These items should be with you on any wilderness trip, period, GPS or no GPS. If you don't know how to use them, go with others who do. You won't usually need to consult the compass and map constantly, but it should be done every now and then, to confirm that you're indeed where you think you are, and are going in the right direction.
In any park or natural area, whether large or small, there's always a possibility that you could somehow get turned around, disoriented, or lost. This happens on occasion to even the most experienced outdoors-people. Beware of subscribing to a belief that you're immune to such difficulties. If you're conscientious and stay alert, however, you should have very little to worry about.
There's really never a good reason for getting seriously lost. It doesn't ever have to happen to you., and it probably won't, as long as you pay adequate attention and can keep from getting careless about staying oriented in the wilderness.
The key is to ALWAYS STOP AT THE FIRST SIGN that you're off the track, or that something is amiss. Respond immediately to any hunch that things don't look quite right. Check map and compass, and if necessary consult your guidebook. Look around.
Never continue ahead if there's some indication that you may have gone astray, and that you aren't where you thought you were, and perhaps could have somehow gotten onto a different trail. Only proceed if you're sure of your orientation.
The safest bet is to go back to the last trail marker you can find, or to any other indication that you were on the correct path or headed in the right direction. If necessary, retrace your route all the way back to where you started.
Continuing on when you're uncertain of your whereabouts is a perfect prescription for getting seriously lost. This could mean big trouble, especially without a map and compass (and/or GPS) along. In a small park the odds are fairly good that you'll stumble across a road and find your way out, but then again maybe you won't. In a large wilderness area your life could be at risk.
If you were to get lost while carrying or transporting your gear, at least you'd (hopefully) have food and shelter, and would be able to keep yourself well and even comfortable for days, if necessary. You could either systematically search for a way out, or wait for others to locate you. If you should happen to be separated from most or all of your gear and extra clothing, however, and the weather is cold and wet, you might not survive for very long.
It isn't necessary to waste energy worrying about these things, but try to keep it all tucked away in the back of your mind whenever you venture away from your campsite. Know that your life might be at stake if you couldn't locate the site again and had to spend a night or more without shelter and extra clothing.
By being careful you'll never have to deal with such an event. Most people who get seriously lost are poorly equipped, often without a map and compass, and usually aren't adequately skilled, or have been inattentive or careless. Some of those who get into trouble in wilderness areas have also been drinking or using drugs -- always foolish while one is on the move, just as it is while driving a car.
Taking a course or reading a book on the subject of wilderness survival also wouldn't hurt, just in case you should ever find yourself in a situation of being lost and separated from your gear. Ways of getting through a night without adequate clothing and gear might include making a huge pile of loose, dry leaves and crawling into it, or doing intermittent calisthenics to stay warm.
For a moment let's assume that an unlikely, unwanted even has indeed occurred. You've reached a point where you're clearly lost and can't find the way back. First sit down and rest. Take some deep breaths. Do your best to remain calm (never move or take action if you're feeling panic). Think through recent events and try to remember how you came to be where you are now. See if you can sense or see which is the right way back.
If you've been traveling with others but are now separated from them, and you're pretty sure they'll be searching for you, stay put right where you are. Above all, don't rush off aimlessly in any direction. You could be relatively close to the trail, and heading the wrong way would make matters worse.
Since other people might be within earshot, use your whistle, blowing a series of three short blasts, which is widely known to be a signal of distress. Try shouting as well. If you get a response, move slowly and carefully in the direction of the voice, carrying all gear with you.
If you've registered your estimated return time at a ranger station, or others at home are expecting you back on a certain date, a search party may be sent out when you don't return as scheduled. This might not happen for a number of days, of course, especially if you're not due back yet.
Consider building a large smoky fire (with great care) if you have reason to believe others may be searching for you. Keep an eye out for low-flying aircraft, which you could attempt to signal if you have a mirror (which is far from a sure thing, of course).
The risk of getting lost is especially high when bushwhacking (traveling off-trail). Don't bushwhack unless you really know what you're doing, and feel absolutely confident that you can avoid losing your way. While bushwhacking, keep that map and compass handy and check them constantly.
In going with an organized group on a well-run trip, your chances of getting lost are minimized, of course. Some participants on Wild Earth Adventures trips -- and trips run by other clubs and businesses -- choose to go with a group for just such reasons, since there's added security in numbers. If someone gets temporarily lost on an organized trip, the odds are high that they'll be found within a short time.
[More material will be added to this page soon]