Backpacking: A “Tough” Girl’s First Time

After writing about my first camping trip of 2010, I figured I’d continue with a report from my first-ever backpacking trip from July 2010.  As I started writing, I realized I had some explaining to do first – if I were reading this blog a year ago, what would I want to know?  I’m not an expert at backpacking, and I couldn’t imagine going on a trip without Shaun (yet!).  But I’ve learned a few things in the last year, even on the four short trips I have taken.  I’m hooked on it, and I think backpacking will be a life-long healthy hobby for me.  But, as a disclaimer, I consider myself an athletic girl.  I played sports growing up, joined my college rowing team and worked in food production doing manual labor for over 4 years.  A self-proclaimed “tough girl”… which in my opinion is an essential quality for us wannabe-backpacker-women.  And so begins my rant about backpacking from a girl’s point of view:

What is backpacking?  It’s all the gear you would normally take camping, stuffed inside (or outside) of a backpack.  Then you hike with it all through the wilderness, where you then camp out and enjoy your time in nature.

Why go backpacking? For the glory. To reach somewhere remote. To see spectacular views unreachable by vehicle. To connect with nature. To get exercise. For the fresh air.  There are numerous motives for backpacking.  For me, camping has always been fun.  Backpacking just ups the ante, making you work harder until you reach your destination.  It’s a weekend getaway at a much lower price.  You won’t hear the neighboring Winnebago generator running.  You only have what you need, unless you carry the extra weight for frivolous things.  You live a simpler life, just for a few days.

What do you pack? Google “backpacking list” and you’ll find tons of sites with great equipment and gear lists for various circumstances.  My list includes a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, clothing, food + stuff sack, rope, water treatment, stove + fuel, cooking/eating/drinking utensils, toiletries + TP, trowel, camera, daypack and never forget the “10 essentials”:

  1. Navigation (map and compass)
  2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
  3. Insulation (extra clothing)
  4. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
  5. First-aid supplies
  6. Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
  7. Repair kit and tools
  8. Nutrition (extra food)
  9. Hydration (extra water)
  10. Emergency shelter

Where do you get gear? First of all, if you do not have any gear, make sure your first trips are alongside an experienced backpacker who has all the necessary gear!  For my first trip, Shaun offered to let me borrow his older backpack: an Osprey 70-liter men’s Medium backpack.  We are very close in size/height… except Shaun doesn’t have hips and his torso is much longer than mine.  The backpack dug into my hips the whole time and left me with some pretty irritated skin after my first trip.  But even with the pain and scars of an unfitted pack, I still had fun and wanted to do it again.  If you don’t have someone to borrow a backpack from, check out your local outdoor store for rentals.  Gear is expensive and the cost adds up fast.  Make sure you are in love with this seasonal hobby before you start throwing money into it.  There are tons of neat gadgets and gizmos in the backpacking world, but you can decide the necessity of these things.  My favorite places to shop are Altrec, REI, and Backcountry Gear.

What do you wear?  Initially, just wear comfortable work-out clothes that seem rugged.  You’ll be sitting on rocks/stumps/etc, getting dirty, and most likely re-wearing clothes.  Running shoes will work but won’t give you much ankle support if you’re carrying a heavy load.  I found a cheapo pair of hiking boots (about $20, Sports Authority) and haven’t had a blister yet – but they aren’t comfortable.  I’d love to get some real nice hiking boots but price is a setback.  Use a carabiner to clip some flip-flops (or Teva-type sandals if you’ve got them) on the outside of your pack to use as easy camp shoes.  Being a fashion-conscious young lady, I care about the way I look (even in the wilderness)!  Unfortunately, many outdoorsy clothes are made more for function than style.  So once I buckled down and got serious about this outdoorsy style, I eventually found some pants I liked: Mountain Hardwear Women’s Yuma Pant, comes in sizes short/regular/long (I needed the long at 5’9) and STRETCHY for a tighter fitting pant with the ability to move/crouch/stretch my legs easily.  My new favorite shirt is the REI Traverse Tech T-Shirt. Cute v-neck fit, dries fast. I even bought 2 colors.  For x-mas, Shaun’s parents got me a pretty, light, embossed, hooded fleece from The North Face.  Form fitting and a great layer for backpacking.  For the colder trips, I’ve got my Montbell Alpine Light Down Jacket – super light weight and packable, but has a great warmth rating and keeps me toasty.  And for the warmer trips I like the Paramount Moraine shorts from The North Face – not too long like most outdoor shorts, but not too short either.

Where are the trails? This is an area that requires some research, planning, and experience… and I am still learning.  Many people write up trip reports online, giving details on the date, hike, time, views, intensity, and conditions.  These are very helpful.  Maps will also be necessary to help you decide where you want to hike.  Shaun usually focuses his hikes on lakes – for fishing opportunities.  Ranger stations are also a lot of help – call in or stop by to chat with the most knowledgeable people in the area you are interested in.  Do not skimp on your research!  Many trailheads are reached by several miles of dirt road.  A normal car will most likely make it through, just take it slow and watch the roads.  Also, hiking with a heavy backpack can slow your walking speed down to 2-3 miles per hour, which includes breaks along the way.  Take breaks, have a Clif Bar handy for energy, and stay hydrated.

How long is a trip?  I have a day job.  This means a “normal weekend trip” includes getting out of work Friday at around 4-5pm, driving to the trailhead, and hiking in before dark.  We then have all day Saturday to spend in the wilderness (or hike further on), and Sunday we have to eventually pack back up and hike out.  This is sufficient for beginners, but longer trips can be more fulfilling and increase the size of your pack.

Where do you camp? Most common backpacking camps will have something noticeable: fire rings, seating areas, etc.  You can camp anywhere you’d like, but these places are generally there for a good reason, they are more comfortable.  Camp at least 100 feet away from the water’s edge.  Some places require bear canisters for your food.  Otherwise, hang your food/toiletries from a tree limb 15-ft high and 15-ft away from the tree to keep it safe from animals.

What do you do? Once you’re to your destination, do whatever your heart desires!!  Day hike, swim, take pictures, take notes, draw pictures, nap, eat, drink, sun bathe, enjoy the scenery and relax!

How do people know this stuff? Experience.  So jump into this amazing hobby and start getting some!

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