5 Tips To Go From Dayhiker to Backpacker

Rebecca Backpacking
Rebecca on the John Muir Trail

Today I welcome Rebecca as a new Guest Blogger to the site. Rebecca is the Outdoor Travel Ambassador for Evernote and has kindly agreed some of her many tips about travel and backpacking on my blog. Getting outdoors is one of my favorite ways to use my fitness, so I hope she can inspire you to do the same! Rebecca, the floor is yours:

Hello Everyone! Fellow Evernote Ambassador and outdoor blogger Rebecca (a.k.a. Calipidder) here. I live in California and am an avid backpacker, hiker, climber, and runner. Chad has asked me over here to share some tips about getting started with backpacking. These tips assume a reasonable experience with and understanding of the basics of dayhiking (such as nutrition, hydration, navigation, personal care, and first aid).

The problem with day hiking is just that: a day. Have you ever wanted to explore further, get away from the crowds, or enjoy a sunset miles from the nearest vehicle? These are the kinds of things that drive people to throw on a heavy pack and start backpacking! As a frequent day hiker and backpacker, I want to share some tips to help you make the jump from day-adventurer to overnight-adventurer.

Rebecca Backpacking
Locations like this are worth the extra effort!

1. Get Smart about your Destination

Rebecca Backpacking
I have a large stack of maps that I use to study potential trips.

When choosing a location, consider the kind of things that you enjoy about day hiking. Do you enjoy wildflowers? Lakes? Waterfalls? Bagging Peaks? Fishing? Long days on the trail or a short hike to a swimming hole? Are you looking for peace and quiet or a fun time around a campfire with friends? Find a location that will offer the same kind of things you enjoy when day hiking.

Consider the typical weather and conditions for the time of year. Does it make sense to backpack Yosemite in January? Only if the answer to the first question was “lots of snow”. Make sure you are prepared and don’t get taken by surprise!

Once you’ve settled on a destination, research the land manager. Is it State Park? National Monument? Become well-educated on any rules that apply to you. Many places require a permit, and some even place quotas on those permits and/or require a fee. Make any reservations necessary, and also inquire about additional regulations such as campfires, parking, fishing, campsite selection, and food storage requirements.

2. Set Reasonable Expectations

Even the most fit people can have trouble with backpacking due to inexperience with carrying a heavy pack. It throws off your balance and you’ll expend a lot of extra energy. Imagine that you suddenly gained 40 lbs and went on your favorite hike. It would be a lot harder! This is all to say: underestimate your capabilities the first few times you go backpacking and be conservative in your mileage planning. This way you will understand how your body reacts to the additional load and can adjust your expectations accordingly.

Expect to be uncomfortable. Your pack might not fit right – learn how to adjust it before your first trip. Sleeping on the ground isn’t the Ritz. You’ll have sore muscles at the end of the day that you didn’t even know existed. But, like anything, the more you do it the stronger you get and you learn how to accommodate and even eliminate these pains. But it takes time to understand what works for you. A quick tip: Load your backpack up with everything you’d carry on a backpack and go on a day hike to get a preview of how you’ll feel.

Rebecca Backpacking
Sometimes discomfort is inevitable – like this rainy day where we had to dry out gear over a campfire.

3. Face Your Fears

Photo http://www.flickr.com/photos/b00nj/ Benjamin Dumas Flickr creative commons
Photo Copyright Benjamin Dumas via Flickr creative commons

When I ask my day hiker friends what has kept them from backpacking, I hear the same fears over and over again. But for each fear, I think there is a reasonable way to deal with it in the beginning so that it can be overcome. Is your fear sleeping out overnight in a tent? Try a campground closer to civilization first. Is it the critters and noises? Understand how to scare a bear away from your dinner, keep your food safe, and general safety techniques. Bring earplugs! Is it being far away from civilization? Do a really short backpack the first time so that you can easily bail back to your car if you get uncomfortable. Taking baby steps to accommodate your biggest fears will help you overcome them and be able to get out on longer, further trips.

4. The Big One: Choosing the Right Gear

Many people march into REI with their credit cards and spend thousands of dollars gearing up before they’ve ever set a foot on the trail. Instead of going into debt for an overnight backpack, I recommend borrowing and renting if possible for your first few outings. You’ll understand what works and what doesn’t so that when you do finally get that big bonus check you will get the right things. I’ve seen far too many people throw away their initial gear after one season and spend the money all over again the next year to replace the wrong things they bought the first time around! Borrowed and rented gear won’t be as comfortable or ‘personal’ as your own kit, but it will help you in the long run.

When you are choosing gear, carefully consider weight. Remember, everything will go on your back! Do you already car camp? Combined with your day hiking gear, you probably have a lot of what you already need. Check out some recommended equipment lists like this one from REI and fill in the gaps, tailoring it to your specific needs. You might need water treatment, or a bigger backpack, and maybe a sleeping pad. Consider the weather conditions you expect to experience and refine your packing list accordingly – do you need a pack cover for the rain? If you’re going out for an overnighter and the weather forecast is 100% clear, you can probably leave that at home and save the weight. Tailoring a packing list comes with experience, understanding comfort levels, and learning different skills.

Rebecca Backpacking
Loaded up for a cold backpack in the snow = heavy packs!

Lastly, when it comes to gear, make sure you learn how to use your equipment first! Run the stove in your backyard and cook a dehydrated meal, set up and take down your tent a few times, run your water filter or UV purification device, and learn how to pick up and properly adjust your pack. You don’t want to find out you don’t know how to do these things when you’re miles from your car.

5. Things I wish I knew before my first backpack

The more you backpack, the more you’ll learn about being comfortable and safe in the backcountry, either through hard-earned experience or learned from other backpackers. I’ve slept out in the backcountry for hundreds of nights and still learn something new nearly every trip. Consider this a ‘starter’ list of some my favorite tips that I wish I knew before my first backpack!

  • Advil: Known affectionately among my hiker friends as “Vitamin I”, Advil (Ibuprophen) can provide some welcome relief to those sore joints and muscles that you aren’t used to using. Although I don’t generally use ibuprophen on a regular basis, it helps to get over the initial soreness.
  • Camp shoes: Your weary feet will appreciate getting out of those boots at the end of the day. Give them something comfortable and light: flip flops, water shoes, even Crocs (don’t worry, no one will see you but the bears). If you expect to be crossing water, choose a shoe that will perform double-duty.
  • Sit/kneel pad: A small square of closed cell foam can be luxurious when all you have to sit on is dirt, logs, and rocks. When you’re busy blowing up that sleep pad or pumping water from a stream you’ll have something soft to kneel on. Trust me on this one. Just make sure to drop a rock on it when you walk away – I’ve lost a few to wind in the past.
  • Cook out of the wind: it will save fuel, heat your water faster, and keep your stove from blowing out. Often a little cove built by rocks is sufficient.

Spending the night in the backcountry is a tremendously rewarding and exciting experience. I hope these tips encourage you to get out there and explore deeper into the backcountry than is possible in a single day. It has taken my enjoyment and appreciation of nature to a much deeper level. I think John Muir said it best:

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

Rebecca Backpacking

Moments like this are what make life worth living!


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