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Sunday, July 10, 2011

How to Backpack Starting From Scratch - Reshared Knol

Source Knol: How to Backpack
by Ryan Moulton

Why Backpack?

Shall I walk, or shall I ride?
"Ride," Pleasure said. "Walk," Joy replied.

-W.H. Davies

I've been backpacking for most of my life. I'm 25 and started with my family when I was 8, and I've learned a lot over the years about how best to do things. The purpose of this document is to be a collection of everything I think it is useful to know when you are backpacking. You do not need to know all of this. However, the suggestions in here will allow you to be safer, more comfortable, and hopefully to have more fun. If this is your first time backpacking and all this information is intimidating, stick to the one-line summaries, the gear list, and the things in bold. Most mistakes are more likely to build a little character than to put you in real danger. You'll be fine. :)

I've tried in this guide to provide low cost options throughout. Backpacking doesn't have to be and shouldn't be an expensive hobby. Once you have the essential gear, backpacking is the cheapest way of vacationing that I'm aware of.

Over the years I've found that backpacking is one of the most enjoyable things that I do. I count several of my backpacking trips among the best experiences of my life. When you go backpacking you'll get a lot of exercise, see some amazing things, share a lot of great experiences, and make a lot of memories. I hope this document will help people to learn to love it as much as I do.

What to Wear

One line summary: Don't wear cotton if you can help it. Get good boots that fit well and break them in. Wear wool socks and polypropylene liners. For warmth, dress in layers. Bring a knit or fleece hat and something that will keep you dry.
Boots

When allocating your backpacking budget, boots should be your first priority. A good pair of boots is expensive, but there are a few reasons that I advise spending money on them. First off, a good pair of boots is usable in many situations other than backpacking. If you decide at some point that backpacking isn't for you, you can still use them for tramping through snow to work or school, yard work, wood working, construction, camping, hiking, or any time your feet need protecting. A good pair of boots allows you to do a wide range of things safely, and it's good to have one around. Secondly, if you take care of them and don't lose them, a good pair of boots will last you 10+ years. The pair of boots I bought when I was 13 lasted me through my first year of college (when I lost them.) Thirdly, no matter where or under what conditions you are hiking, the quality of your boots will have a big impact on how much you enjoy yourself. If your boots don't work well for you, you're likely to be wincing along with blistered heels, soggy feet, and in danger of spraining your ankles. If your feet are still growing I'd recommend borrowing a pair, or buying them off someone who has grown out of them. There are other things where it is worth it to spend money, but boots are the least borrowable.

Everyone has their own personal taste in boots, but I'll tell you the essential baseline of things to look for and then my own preferences. The most important quality of a backpacking boot is that it fit well. When walking downhill your feet shouldn't slide forward much. If they do, the tips of your toes are going to be hurting from banging into the front of your boots. When walking uphill, your heels shouldn't slide up much. If they do, you are likely to end up with blistered heels from the rubbing back and forth. Secondly, the boots should cover your ankles with stiff material. You should still be able to make circles with your foot, but it should be nearly impossible for you to roll your ankles. Some people prefer a lower top boot, but unless you are also investing in trekking poles I don't think this is safe. Thirdly, the boot should have a thick sole that will keep you from feeling bumps underneath it and will grip rocks. Some of these recommendations are controversial, particularly among a movement known as ultralight backpacking. Briefly, the central idea of the movement is that if you are rigorous about minimizing pack weight, you can get by with much lighter shoes, even tennis shoes or sandals. I've chosen not to cover that in this document because I think it is very difficult for a beginner to do inexpensively and safely. It is also not my preferred way of backpacking because you end up sacrificing a lot of comfort and convenience in order to reduce the weight of your pack. However, some people find that it makes their experience a lot more enjoyable, and it is worth learning about once you have been on a few trips. Eric's Ultralight Backpacking Page is a good resource on the subject.

These days when I look for boots, the primary thing I look for is a boot with very few seams. This is for two reasons, waterproofing and durability. Treated leather repels water well on its own, but more seams make more opportunities for water to get in, and make it more difficult to waterproof the boot. You'll inevitably slip into a stream at some point, and a well waxed boot with a high top will minimize the amount of water sloshing around your feet for the rest of the day. The two things that wear out first on a boot are the seams and the soles. Boots can be resoled, and seams can be glued, but the boot will last longer if there are fewer seams to begin with. Leather can take a lot more abuse than whatever they sew it up with. There are a lot of boots out there that are made porous fabrics, and advertise all sorts of features. These are expensive, and frankly I don't think they last. Your boots are going to get scraped across rocks, soaked in water, caked with dust and mud, pummeled, squished, frozen, and potentially even eaten by wild animals (no joke.) Fabric that advertises being "breathable" just isn't going to cut it long term, and won't buy you much comfort after its first few days on the trail. So, get the sturdiest stuff available. Gore-tex can help on the inside, but make sure the outside is leather. I wear a pair of Lowa Banffs that I bought a few years ago after losing my previous pair. My mom wears a pair of Gore-tex lined Vasque Skywalker leather boots that are over ten years old (similar to these.)

If you can't afford expensive boots, don't sweat it. If your boots fit well you'll be fine.

When you buy a new pair of boots, don't immediately take them out on the trail. The boots will take some time to conform to your feet even if they fit well, so break them in ahead of time. Wear them instead of your normal shoes for the week prior to the trip. If you are going on a long trip with them, take them out for a weekend trip beforehand. This helps to prevent blisters and can also catch any manufacturing flaws early. Six months before my first 10 day backpacking trip I bought a really nice pair of boots, and went on a weekend hike to prepare for the trip. After a few miles of hiking one of the grommets tore out of the leather. I got through the weekend ok, but it would have been much harder to deal with it for 9 days of hiking. (My friends got a hearty laugh out of this, because I was actually bragging about how awesome my new boots were when they broke and sent me flying flat on my face.)

To care for your boots, wipe the dirt off with a wet towel and oil them with a product such as Nikwax.
Socks

Wear a pair of wool socks over a pair of polypropylene liner socks. Don't wear cotton. The wool and polypropylene will keep your feet dry and cushioned. The liners will absorb most of the friction of your foot moving around and help prevent blisters. You'll need 2 pairs each of these for a weekend, 3-4 for a longer trip. If you want to spend money get SmartWools. Otherwise you can find wool socks that aren't as comfy but also aren't as expensive. If you hike a day in cotton socks they'll end up as a moist, pulpy, off-white, smelly mass, and you'll probably have blisters.
Pants/Shorts

Dress for the season here, but don't wear cotton if you can help it. The evenings always get much colder in the countryside than in the cities, and much colder than that when you are up in the mountains. As such, it's good to have a pair of long pants with you even in the middle of summer if you are going to be at any elevation. If you want to spend money, I recommend getting a pair of quick-drying zip-off nylon pants from REI or similar. Otherwise, you can often find pants that are part polyester at cheap clothings stores such as Walmart or Value City. It is convenient that polyester is considered a "lesser" material to make things out of, because it makes durable faster-drying pants cheap to buy. Unfortunately it seems that polyester is now too cheap even for Walmart, and it's been harder to find them. If this happens to you, try a thrift store. Polyester dress pants work better than you would expect. For shorts, a pair of mesh running shorts will do. Shorts are there mostly to provide a little bit of sun protection. Don't bring jeans. They are heavy, bulky, and they will never dry.
Upper Body

Dress for the season, but remember that no matter where you are, it will probably be colder at night than you expect. Bring at least a long-sleeved shirt. Avoid cotton. It dries slowly, and is useless for warmth when it is wet. Fleece, wool, polypropylene, or any synthetic fabric work great. To find non-cotton you can buy expensive stuff at REI or Patagonia, or cheap stuff at Value City or Walmart. For colder weather, the key for warmth is to dress in layers. This allows you to regulate your temperature over the course of the day. The clothes that make you comfortable when you are standing still will be too warm when you are walking. The clothes that keep you comfortable at camp in the afternoon will be too cold once the sun goes down. When I'm backpacking in the winter, I wear a polypropylene T-shirt, a long-sleeved acrylic shirt that I bought at Value City, a fleece vest, a thin fleece coat, and a nylon windbreaker/rain jacket. I usually end up taking off the windbreaker and outer later of fleece just before I start hiking, and the vest later on.

Rain/Wind

The most economical option here is a nylon poncho. They are effective, lightweight, and very cheap. For summer backpacking, I wouldn't use anything else. They are less useful in wind, so find one with snaps along the side. For winter backpacking you're better off with a raincoat and rainpants. With a poncho your arms and calves will get wet, and this is more of an issue in the winter.

What to Pack
Backpack

Packs are expensive. For your first few trips, borrow one from a friend, and have them help you adjust it for your body. If you are looking to buy one I can't give much advice, because I've been using the same dilapidated pack for 11 years now.

When the pack has a load in it, nearly all of the weight should be on your hips and sacrum. The shoulder straps are mostly there to keep the pack vertical and close to you. If the pack doesn't need anything moved around to accommodate you, you can fit it pretty well by just tightening the straps in the right order. Start by putting some weight in the pack and tighten down the pack around the load so that it isn't moving around. There are three main points of adjustment, hip belt, shoulder straps, and load lifters. The load lifters are the two straps that run from the shoulders up to the top of the pack. Loosen up all of these straps so that the pack hangs limply from your shoulders. Lift your shoulders so that the hip belt is at the level of your hips, fasten it, and tighten it around your hip bones. Next, tighten the shoulder straps so that they touch your shoulders solidly around all sides. Your shoulders shouldn't be carrying any of the weight. Finally, tighten down the load lifters until the pack presses up against your back.
Sleeping Bag/Pad

For anything other than middle of summer camping at low elevation, buy or borrow a down-filled mummy bag. It should be rated for at least 30°F. Mummy bags have a hood that extends up over your head and allow you to close off the bag such that nothing but your nose and mouth is exposed. Synthetic fillers work fine but I've found them to deteriorate over time much more than down does. If the night time temperature will be warmer than 60°F you can bring just sheets or a blanket. The tent will keep you pretty warm on its own. When you are packing your sleeping bag, line your stuff sack with a garbage bag. Stuff in your sleeping bag and then fold over the garbage bag before you tighten down the drawstring. This is very important for keeping your sleeping bag dry.

A sleeping pad will keep you from feeling the rocks underneath your tent, and will insulate you from the cold ground. It is essential if it will be chilly at night. Your sleeping bag's filler will be compacted under your weight so it will only protect the top of you. If you have the money to spare, therm-a-rest self inflating pads are great. If you want something cheaper but not as comfortable, ridge rests aren't bad. You can also just try to find a piece of soft eggshell foam from a packing crate and use that.
Tent

Tents are also expensive, but very borrowable. Make sure you've got a rain fly and a ground cloth. Generally you want something small and lightweight. You don't need more floor space than your bodies will take up for sleeping since you'll keep your pack outside. If you are going somewhere rocky try to bring a tent that stands up on its own when it isn't staked in. It will often be hard to find good places to put stakes, and you don't want to have to rely on them if you can help it. I've been using the Half Dome 2 HC tent from REI for the last two years, and found it to work really well. Eventually you can get more adventurous.
Outdoor Essentials

There are a few things that you should have with you every time you are miles out in the woods, whether you are backpacking or not.

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Water

Be able to carry at least 3 quarts, and more in some collapsible container if you'll be without water at night. If you are on a budget you can use empty coke bottles, but carry an extra one or two if you are out for more than a weekend because they are likely to break. Otherwise, Nalgenes are the standard because they're nearly indestructible.
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Food

See the next section.
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Whistle

Yelling is difficult when you are injured or panicked. A whistle is small, lightweight, and can save your life. If you get lost or need help, stop, take a deep breath, and blow your whistle.
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Map

A topographical map is ideal, but you should at least be able to see all of the trails you'll be on, water you'll cross, distances, and roughly where the hills are. You can download topographic maps from the USGS, or order them if you'd like them printed nicely. Bring one for every 4 people.
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Compass

This will make your map a lot more useful. I'll teach you a little of how to use it in a later section. Bring one for every 4 people.
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Knife

Essential in a survival situation and otherwise more useful than you would think. Bring one for every 3 people.
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Matches or Lighter

If using matches, "strike anywhere" matches are best. I've never found waterproof (wax-coated) matches to work at all. When I pack my matches I carry two sets of them, put them in separate ziplock bags, and then put both of those in a third ziplock bag.
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Rain Gear

A nylon poncho is cheap and works well in anything but high wind. Even in high wind it works ok if you tuck it under your backpack straps. If you need to, you can improvise a shelter from a poncho and some sticks.
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Stocking Cap

The single best thing to do to warm yourself up is to put on a hat. That's where you lose most of your body heat.
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Bandana

Bandanas are some of the most deceptively useful things you can have on a trail. You can use them to keep the sun off your neck, keep dust out of your nose and mouth, keep sweat out of your eyes, make a sling for an injured arm, make a brace for a twisted ankle, look stylish, keep your head cool with cold lake water, give yourself a bath, wipe grit off of your hands, clean your glasses, blow your nose, make droopy origami swans, and much more.
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First Aid Kit

Your personal first aid kit should contain moleskin (for blisters), band-aids, antibiotic, pain reliever of choice, antacid, antidiarrheal, and any personal medication.
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Flashlight

A flashlight is essential for backpacking, but take them on day hikes too. Even with the best planning, you can end up hiking in the dark if you lose your way or take longer than expected. Any flashlight will do, but try to bring a lightweight one, and bring extra batteries. If you want to spend money get an LED headlamp. I use a Petzl Tikka, but there are probably spiffier ones now than when I bought mine. LED headlamps use so little power that you don't need to bring extra batteries for a short trip.


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Source Knol: How to Backpack

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