Hey, remember when we hiked the Appalachian Trail just north of the James River? Our 4-mile climb ended at this view. We pitched the tent, ate dinner, and watched the sky darken.
Some backpacking novices may want some help when transitioning from car GPS to compass. It’s smart to take every opportunity to learn from an experienced backpacker. This blogpost addresses the second of our 3 ways to learn about backpacking --
- Explorer – go it alone and teach yourself
- Pioneer – find someone who knows more than you, and observe
- Wagon Train – tag along on an organized outing
Pioneer – find someone who knows more than you, and observe
What are some of the backcountry skills you’d like to learn with the help of a trusted guide? One of my goals is to hike in more dangerous regions. I’d like I’d like to learn how to use an ice ax and walk with crampons.
How to start:
Identify what backpacking skills you’d like to learn. Are you new to backpacking and would like to learn the fundamentals (e.g., equipment selection, packing, use)? Maybe you’d like a guide to teach you how to select a proper campsite. Leave No Trace Principles are easy to understand, but maybe you’d like to see Leave No Trace in action.
Find a guide. A trusted friend should be your first option. If none of your friends is an experienced backpacker, you may find one in a local hiking club. Trail authorities (e.g., Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Pacific Crest Trail Association, Continental Divide Trail Coalition) might be able to direct you to experienced backpackers who might serve as informal guides.
Consider bartering, a skill for a skill. There is usually something to learn from everyone. Even an inexperienced backpacker can teach the experienced. On my first backpacking trip, a friend taught me how to filter water and I taught him about the history along our trail. During a subsequent backpacking trip, I taught my friend about hiking and sleeping in AT shelters, he taught me about the geology of the trail.
Identify a specific trip. Tell your guide what you’d like to learn. Reach consensus on backpacking objectives. Select a trail. Put the trip on your schedules.
Reflect on your trip. Upon return, consider how the trip went? How well did you achieve your backpacking objectives? What surprised you? Would you ever go on a backpacking trip with this person again? Did you enjoy your trip to the backcountry?
There are now many online resources to assist a backpacker. I guess we could categorize backpacking videos on Youtube as a form of the Pioneer approach.
How have you learned from more experienced backpackers? What have you learned?
Some new to backpacking have asked how to start. These backpacker novices may be starting from zero, or may be familiar with backpacking, but want to know about backpacking in a new region.
Some backpacking novices struggle with the following topics:
- equipment selection
- equipment use
- camping activities
- land navigation
- dangerous animals
All backpackers have a first backpacking trip. While humans used to live closer to the land, it is now quite a transition to go from escalators and climate-controlled buildings to steep trails and thin tents.
Three approaches to learning how to backpack appear below. I’ve tried each of them. Once a backpacking trip’s goals are identified, selecting the proper approach becomes easier. The three approaches are as follows:
- Explorer – go it alone and teach yourself
- Pioneer – find someone who knows more than you, and observe
- Wagon Train – tag along on an organized outing
This article introduces the Explorer approach. Articles for the other approaches will follow.
Explorer – go it alone and teach yourself
Put yourself out there. Test your grit. Head to the backcountry alone, and don’t come back until you are finished. Prepare for your first backpacking trip and then pull the trigger.
How to start:
- Identify the goals for your backpacking trip. Do you simply want to spend the night in the backcountry, or is there something more specific you’d like to accomplish?
- Perform a literature search. Select a trail. Decide on the time of year for your trip. Identify the necessary equipment.
- Make the first few backpacking trips simple.
- Don’t kill yourself with long distance marches
- Plan to go in reasonable weather. See one backpacker's first trip in video below
- Plan meals using simple campfire or stove recipes.
- Allow time for mistakes. There will be uncooperative tents and meals that burn. Backpacking trips rarely go as planned – they are adventures.
- Build in some relaxation time
- Reflect on the experience once you return to civilization. What worked? What didn’t? What will you change for your next backpacking trip?
Teaching yourself a new set of skills is a wonderful way to learn. It’s all on you. Make sure you tell someone your plans and schedule. Remember, keep your trip simple.
What Explorer tips and ideas would you offer novice backpackers?
Subsequent articles will address Pioneer and Wagon Train approaches to learning how to backpack.
You know about America’s Hiking Triple Crown. The Triple Crown of hiking is the completion of three of America’s long distance trails. The trails included in the Triple Crown are the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Completing this Triple Crown requires a backpacker to hike approximately 7,900 miles.
Do you know about Virginia’s Triple Crown? Virginia’s Triple Crown is a 17.5-mile section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in central Virginia, near Roanoke. This trail section provides three spectacular views and fascinating rock features. The Triple Crown offers some of the best views in the mid-Atlantic states.
There are many ways to hike this section. A hiker could start in the north and hike south, start in the south and hike north, start in the middle and hike both directions, or make it a loop by adding connecting trails.
When hiking south from the northern end, you might start in Daleville, VA. Tinker Cliffs is 10.5 miles from Daleville. Along the way, a hiker will enjoy views of Carvin Cove Reservoir and pass Lamberts Meadow Campsite and Lamberts Meadow Shelter. Tinker Cliffs features a half mile of huge, 450M year old boulders. The cliffs offer views of the Catawba Valley.
McAfee Knob is a 6 mile hike south of Tinker Cliffs. McAfee Knob is supposed to be one of the most photographed spots on the AT. The knob jets out of Catawba Mountain and offers a hiker a 200-degree view of the Catawba Valley and nearby peaks.
Continue south along the Appalachian Trail for 12 miles and you will reach Dragon’s Tooth. Dragon’s Tooth consists of huge sandstone boulders rising from a summit. Reaching the summit requires a steep climb, and use of a built-in ladder. The boulders are white and really do look like teeth. There is an area to camp at the base of the teeth, er boulders. Like Tinker Cliffs and McAfee Knob, Dragon’s Tooth offers spectacular views of the valley below and surrounding ridges.
Do you have 3 seasons to hike America’s Triple Crown? Give Virginia’s Triple Crown a try one weekend. You’ll visit some of the greatest hiking spots in Virginia.
Have you hiked this section? Have you seen the rock formations during sunrise or sunset?
Most backpackers wouldn’t pack mosquito netting for a hike during shoulder season. I certainly didn’t. In fact, my recent section hike along the Appalachian Trail was delayed by two weeks because a ranger in the Delaware Water Gap told me the mountains still had 10”-30” of snow. Why in the world would a backpacker need mosquito netting?
The need for mosquito needing began on this hike during the afternoon of April 11th. The days prior to this day had been warm, but this afternoon’s high temperature reached a critical threshold that hatched and released hundreds of millions of small black insects. Many of them, perhaps most, were attracted to me.
The insects were all over me – ears, eyes, arms. They were relentless.
My pace quickened to outrun the nuisances. The insects found me when I stopped to catch a breath. I prayed for a gentle breeze to drive them away. There was a breeze on only one summit that afternoon. The black insects followed me as far as my tent’s zipper door. Relief!
They waited all night for me. Watching. Listening. Waiting.
The insects rejoined my hike in the morning. I hiked as quickly as I could – my attempt to create a localized breeze. The bugs bugged me during breakfast and again during lunch. In the afternoon of April 12th, the black insects wandered away a few minutes before the rain began. Relief!
The use of mosquito netting is not limited to the tropics. This netting can be used as a barrier to all sorts of small insects.
Mosquito netting can be found in many sizes. The lightweight head net size would suffice on many backpacking trips. It simply covers your head.
A mosquito net haiku
My mosquito net
Rubs my face, irritating
Must get used to it
Preparing for a backpacking outing can be a pain. There is equipment to collect, supplies to check, and meals to plan. What are your hesitations with preparing for an expedition? Do you tell yourself any of the following?
- My gear isn’t ready. I would probably need to run to the store. I might need to replace some items
- I would need to take some time to figure out where to go
- Backpacking is hard. Do I feel like walking up and down mountains all weekend?
A backpacker reluctant to prepare for the next jaunt could adopt the following strategies to enjoy more backpacking this year.
Reduce packing burden by preparing Grab & Go Gear
Pack your gear so it’s ready to go at any time. The thought of packing makes me groan. Who wants to review an equipment list, check the first aid kit, restock food, assemble the 37 items, and put them in the backpack? Packing is not fun.
Pack your backpack now, minus the food. That way, when you start to think about a return to the backcountry, it’s simply a matter of throwing some food in the pack. It’s one less thing to do before you can go backpacking.
Identify the next 3 backpacking expeditions
Always keep some trip options/locations in mind. Map out the details of how you would travel there, where would you park, what would you see, and how long it would take. Perhaps you could answer these questions during a frigid winter night when you are thinking about backpacking, but stuck at home. That way, when you do have a free weekend, you wouldn’t have to perform a literature search, weigh the options, and decide.
Create a list of trip goals
Look forward to trying something new on each outing. A backpacker could try a new piece equipment, prepare a new campfire dinner recipe, or strive to identify 5 new birds/trees/flowers. A backpacker could add a photo element to a trip by capturing sunsets, the night sky, or sunrises. New activities can make an excursion, even on a trail you’ve traveled, more enjoyable.
Build in some down time
A backpacking trip doesn’t have to be a 15-mile a day grind up and down mountains. You could hike 5 miles (or 2 miles) into a spot, set up camp, and then simply experience the backcountry. Go ahead and end the day early and enjoy one or more of the following activities:
- Take photos so that you can tell the story of your journey
- Record the sounds of the wilderness
- Videotape a nearby waterfall
- Enhance your fly fishing skills
- Teach yourself fly fishing
- Write in your journal
- Start a journal
- Practice outdoor skills (e.g., start a campfire with just one match, master 5 new rope knots, navigate from point A to B with a compass)
- Ponder a difficult decision
- Take a siesta
Remove some of the barriers to backpacking and enjoy more frequent outings. Be ready to go. Plan your trip before you need the answers. Look forward to new activities. Remember to relax.
What helps you to get past the burden of planning? What tricks have you picked up along the way to make it to the backcountry more frequently?
Our traditional daily backpacking schedule is well-known. It’s described in books and shown in movies. In the book, A Walk in the Woods, the two main characters meet Mary Ellen while eating dinner in camp. How many outdoor movie campfire scenes show campers eating in camp?
What if you were to switch some of the daily activities around? What if your daily hiking schedule broke up your walking more, giving your legs more frequent breaks? Consider such a schedule.
The benefits to such a daily schedule would be many.
- The main activity of walking is broken up more frequently than a traditional backpacking daily schedule. This alternative schedule means you could start to walk earlier in the day and finish later in the day.
- No longer are morning and evening meals limited to a campsite. You could stop at a lake for breakfast, cook lunch at an overlook, and eat dinner at a waterfall.
- Refrain from eating in camp. This approach is especially important while traveling in bear country, but the rule also helps with rodents and insects. Many backpackers would still choose to hang a bear bag, but the scent of food in camp should be significantly reduced.
- The biggest meal of the day could be lunch. Pull out all the cooking gear and prepare, eat, and stow the gear during the middle of the day, all the time resting your legs for the afternoon’s hike.
- The last meal of the day, dinner, could be light. You could eat, brush teeth, filter water, and prepare your bear bag while resting in the late afternoon.
- When backpacking during shoulder season, the sun seems to set early. The last meal of the day could be eaten in sunlight.
Trailiac describes some elements of this alternative daily hiking schedule in the video bulletin, Stealth Camping Tips.
How have you altered the traditional daily backpacking schedule? What benefits have you realized?
First aid kits should evolve as a hiker learns to backpack. These kits should reflect the risks (i.e., chance of mishap and impact of injury) of the trail.
There are numerous first aid kits available from retailers. These tend to be larger than needed and heavier than desired. Some believe these kits are more expensive than necessary. REI offers a first aid kit checklist. Outside Magazine describes first aid essentials. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) sells first aid kits.
A backpacker could build a first aid kit based on the injuries he or she typically suffers. When have you used items in your first aid kit? I’ve experienced many blisters, mild sunburn, attached ticks, and a dislocated fibula. My first aid kit should meet these needs.
After a good number of trips, I noted which first aid materials were used and which remained. Nearly all the first aid items remained unused. I vowed to take only what I expected to use. The rest of the items would be left behind.
This DIY first aid kid addresses the common injuries, as opposed to all possible contingencies. My backpacking first aid kit is now limited to the following:
- Moleskin (cut)
- Tick removal tool
- Assorted Band-aids (various sizes)
- Burn cream
- Razor for cutting
There’s no need to use a first aid container. Simply pack your material in a Ziploc bag.
Tip: A backpacker can remove a tick with tweezers, a special tick removal tool, or a credit card.
Which (unused) first aid items have you carried for years? Which items are missing from the list above?
Many AT hikers enjoy staying in trail shelters. Many avoid them if possible. I tend to be in the latter group. I will stay in a shelter if it’s raining or rain is predicted. Pitching or packing a tent in the pouring rain can be a miserable undertaking. If it is to be a pleasant evening, I’ll find a flat spot for my tent at the end of the day. The possibility of roving rodents or snoring humans places me in the shelter-as-a-last resort group. Rain drove me into shelters four evenings in row during my April section hike.
Are you in the shelter camp or the avoid shelter camp? Under what conditions would you sleep in an AT shelter?
Near the end of Bill Bryson’s speech in Frederick, MD the other evening, he took questions from the audience. He answered questions about all of his books, but this article addresses the comments regarding his book, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.
Bryson answered a question about his and Katz’s inability to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). He commented that he really admires thru-hikers. He remarked that thru-hiking is tough, tougher than most can accomplish. One only has to look at the number of thru-hiking attempts vs. completions to gain an appreciation for the difficulty of accomplishing a thru-hike. Bryson said he was really bothered by their not walking the whole trail. He didn’t spend many words on it in the book, but Bryson said he was bothered by it for a few months.
Of course, thru-hiking isn’t the only way to travel the Appalachian Trail. One remark triggered an eruption of applause from the audience. Bryson commented that he believes section hiking the trail “seems the most reasonable.” After the applause finally quieted, he added, “for me at least.” It is hard to describe, and difficult to test, but there seemed to be a message in the extended applause. It seemed as if the audience appreciated a person of authority giving them permission to enjoy the AT without committing to a 6-month thru-hike. Finally, it was ok to walk less than 2000 miles.
Bryson added that the Appalachian Trail must be celebrated, whether by traveling nearly 2200 miles or strolling 2 miles.
Any reader who has begun to read A Walk in the Woods will tell you that Bryson was concerned about bear attacks. The author spent much time and quite a few pages describing the dangers of bears and other creatures along the AT. The book’s cover photo reveals Bryson’s main concern for wildlife.
After his book was published, some readers provided guidance on bear encounters in the wild. One letter included a story about grizzly bears out west. Bryson said he shares this story with all audiences. You’ll find the bear story at 25:57 in the video clip below.
What has kept you from completing a long hike?
What is your greatest fear in the backcountry and why?
Bill Bryson knows a lot about writing books, a bit less about producing movies. Last night he commented on the movie adaptation of his best-selling book, A Walk in the Woods, during a book reading event in Frederick, MD.
In answering a question about the movie, Bill Bryson was quick to point out two things – 1) he “liked the movie very much,” and 2) he had nothing to do with it.
Bryson sold the movie rights of his book to Robert Redford. The world waited for the movie as the idea sat for years. In 2014, Robert Redford began filming the movie. Bryson indicated he had little to do with the movie production after he sold the rights. He made it clear that he trusted Robert Redford.
Bryson first saw the movie at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. He sat between Robert Redford and his wife (i.e., Mrs. Bryson). He reports that he and his wife were looking forward to seeing the movie, and hoped that they would be accurately portrayed.
Bill Bryson told last night’s audience that it took a while to get used to Robert Redford answering for him on screen. Bryson seemed very pleased with the choice of Robert Redford to play him in the movie.
Bryson shared that the only uncomfortable time during the movie screening was when his character (Robert Redford) and an innkeeper (Mary Steenburgen) began to flirt. The Brysons were afraid the flirting might lead to something less innocent. The movie quickly moved on without either character engaging further. Bill Bryson leaned over to his wife during the Sundance screening and said, “That didn’t happen!” He has told his audiences since the movie’s release, “That didn’t happen!” He told last night’s audience in Frederick, “That didn’t happen!”
If not Redford and Nick Nolte playing Bryson and Katz in the movie, who? I would have liked to have seen Jack Black attempt to play a Katz. Who would you have casted for Bryson and Katz?
Bill Bryson, frequent author and occasional backpacker, entertained an intimate gathering of several hundred this evening in Frederick, MD. He held a book reading and book signing event. I arrived 45 minutes early because I knew there might be a crowd. Forty-five minutes early was not early enough. When I arrived, the line of those waiting to enter the venue went down the block, around a corner, and into a nearby parking garage.
Bryson read from four of his books, including A Walk in the Woods. He noted that he hadn’t read from A Walk in the Woods for a long time, but had to this evening because Frederick is so close to the Appalachian Trail (AT).
Bryson chose to read the passage about his and Katz’s first encounter with Mary Ellen in the southern mountains. I must have read this account a dozen times, but thoroughly enjoyed his reading tonight. Bryson seemed to genuinely enjoy the audience’s laughter. Can you imagine how many times he has read that passage and heard an audience laugh since the book was published in 1998?
Bryson did not hike the AT in Maryland, where Frederick is located. He spent some time in nearby Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He also hiked sections of the AT in Pennsylvania. He advised tonight’s audience that they should skip the trail in Pennsylvania.
If you have read the book, what passage would you have asked Bill Bryson to read? Flinging necessary supplies in Georgia? The middle-of-the-night discussion of defending themselves against bears with the only weapon they packed -- toenail clippers? The suspense of hiking in dangerous weather in the White Mountains?
Bill Bryson will remain in Frederick and be speaking tomorrow at 11 a.m.
Here are some little-known and seldom-considered rules of the trail. Most are based on personal experience in the backcountry. Many online resources suggest trail etiquette. You will find some guidelines listed at the end.
To avoid being remembered as THAT hiker, there is only one rule – consider others. Consider why those you encounter on the trail have come to the backcountry. Their reasons are probably similar to yours.
I have found that most people go to the backcountry to escape the world and enjoy the beauty. Hikers simply need a break from everyday responsibilities and demands. Some need to get away for a few hours or days, others need six months. Many hit the trail for the peace it offers.
Some hikers are on a mission and pass quickly and quietly. Others are more talkative. If you are sharing a campsite with others, conversation is bound to be part of the evening.
As you consider topics of discussion, remember people may have come to the wilderness to escape and find some peace. Refrain from speaking about politics and religion. Most strangers don’t care what you think about the former or current U.S. president. While discussion about religion is usually interesting, it can quickly turn contentious. No one goes to the wilderness for a fight.
Some hikers may enjoy hearing about current events reported on the news, but others left the 24-hour news cycle to escape. Refrain from reporting the latest news from Washington or the Middle East unless your hiking acquaintance asks about it.
Most parents try to protect young children from profanity. It seems like parents are in constant fear of a young child repeating her latest profane vocabulary word to grandma. In this modern era, profanity has become a part of everyday language and can be found throughout t.v. programming. Refrain from using profanity around children. Many parents don’t expect to fight this battle in the wilderness.
Trail etiquette is simple. There isn’t a list of 15 or 21 rules to memorize. Simply consider why others may have come to the backcountry.
What guidelines would you add to interacting with other hikers while on the trail?
Many of us have asked, could I be a thru-hiker? Could I hike most days, all day long, from spring to fall? Would I have the physical endurance to climb endless mountains? Would I have the mental toughness to go on even when my heart tells me to stop?
The only true way to answer these questions is to attempt a thru-hike.
Planning an epic hike begins with the collection of trail information. There is plenty of advice out there. Joe Brewer, a triple crown hiker, provides some insight into what a typical day of thru-hiking looks like.
Joe Brewer completed his hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2012, the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014, and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in 2015. His video below shows his final full day on the CDT. We can see the typical beginning of a thru-hiker’s day, the difficulty of finding some sections of the trail, a windy lunchbreak, the big sky of the afternoon’s hike, and dinner at the end of the day.
All long distance trails are different. A hike changes each day. Yet, many of the day’s activities remain the same. A hiker must eat, filter water, take breaks, and set up camp.
If you enjoyed watching Joe’s video, you’ll find more videos on the Joe Brewer Youtube channel. Joe’s blog, Backcountry Banter, provides more information and insights about backpacking long distance trails.
What online resources have you found to be useful when planning your long distance hike?
In recent blog posts, we’ve been investigating the Wild Effect and how we might be able to test whether such a phenomenon exists. We’ve identified books and movies related to the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the Camino de Santiago.
There is some difficulty gathering the number of thru-hikers who have completed the PCT each year. Before 2013, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) counted the number of permits issued. A single permit could list anywhere between 1 and 8 hikers. Unfortunately, the number of permits prior to 2013 provides an inaccurate gauge.
The PCTA admits that no one really knows how many hikers finish the PCT each year. The measures available from the PCTA rely on self-reporting. Our findings are dependent on the honor system.
The graph of self-reported PCT completions shows fewer hikers in 2013, a year after The Wild (book) was published. There was a strong increase from 2013 to 2014. Maybe readers took some time to ponder and plan a trip scheduled for two years after the book was published. The strongest increase in numbers can be seen from 2011 to 2012, in the time leading up to the book’s publication.
The Wild (movie) was released in 2014. As you can see in the graph above, there is an increase in PCT completions from 2014 to 2015. However, the increase from 2013 to 2014 is greater. Please also note, growth in PCT completions from 2015 to 2016 is relatively flat.
If the graph were shifted a bit, and the bump shown in 2012 were seen in 2013, I would declare, “There it is. There is the Wild Effect.”
Like the PCTA, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) relies on self-reported trail completions. The ATC’s website provides numbers of completed AT hikes for the years 2008 to 2015. Unfortunately, this date range does not address either potential Bryson Bump (i.e., book publication in 1998 or movie release in 2015). We’ll have to return to this investigation after the ATC releases the 2016 AT completion numbers.
If you are interested, here are the number of AT completions by year from 2008 to 2015. The number of section hikes completed each year has been removed to better align these numbers with the number of PCT completions listed above.
Hiker completion numbers for the Camino de Santiago are available for the years 1985 to 2015. The movie, The Way, was released in 2010, so we are interested in looking at the trail completions following 2010.
Unfortunately, the only hiker completion numbers available are from Wikipedia.com. There may be some metrics available in Spanish language online resources, but I didn’t find any.
The number of hikers finishing the Camino de Santiago since 1985 has been ever-increasing. It is a steady march. There is not a significant increase in the number of hikers following the release of the movie.
Holy years, or Jubilee years, are declared in years when St. James’s Day (July 25) falls on a Sunday. The numbers of hikers in Holy years far outpace the numbers in other years.
In this end, during a review of the number of long distance trail completions, I could not see effects or bumps based on related books or movies. The increases in PCT completions did not really align with the release of the book or movie. Unfortunately, the Bryson Bump, while interesting, could not be assessed because the numbers of hikers for relevant years were not available. Finally, the release of the movie, The Way, did not seem to have an effect on the number of hikers completing the Camino de Santiago.
However, let’s remember how we selected our measurements. While we could have evaluated a few metrics, we chose to review the number of completed hikes. There is no way to tell how many people visited the trail, hiked on it for a week or a day or a minute, based on their reading of a book or seeing a movie. These numbers are not collected, so they cannot be assessed. The number of completions seem to be the one thing that trail authorities do collect.
Do you agree with this conclusion? Has a key component been left out of this investigation? Would you have approached this study differently?