By Jim Burch
John Muir once said, "The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” And there is no better way to see America's wilderness than to strap your gear to your back and walk. But it's not that simple, is it? Backpacking, while fun and rewarding, is sometimes difficult and requires real preparation.
Get in Hiking Shape
Even at no grade and low altitude, hiking for 10 miles and 25 plus pounds on your back takes a toll on your body. If you're a beginner hiker or you spend most of the day sitting in an office chair, there are a few simple exercises to get your legs and core into prime hiking shape.
- Core - Deadlifts are crucial to back and core strength. Learn to do them safely and properly.
- Legs - Squats and lunges target both the front and back muscles all the way down the leg.
- Mobility - The "Limber 11" is a great series of stretches to make long hikes safer and more comfortable.
Get the Gear
The toys needed for a backpacking adventure into the wilderness are minimal, but you should still invest time and research into these key items before exploring the backcountry:
- Backpack - A good backpack should carry 35-45 liters of gear and have an internal frame to distribute the weight off your shoulders and onto your hips.
- Tent - The giant tent you use for family car camping won't do for this excursion. Backpacking tents are light, small and only big enough to fit the exact number of people in your group (usually 1-3). Make sure it has a rainfly and consider the additional footprint if you'll be camping on rough ground.
- Sleeping Bag - If there is one item to splurge on, it should be the sleeping bag. Down feathers pack down and loft out better than synthetic material. You should also find one with a temperature rating below the coldest night of your trip.
- Sleeping Pad - Most people think the primary function of a sleeping pad is to give cushion, but it's actually to separate you from the cold ground below. The best sleeping bag does nothing if it's pressed up against the cold ground, but a sleeping pad offers a buffer between your body and the dirt below. It also just so happens to be more comfortable.
- Water Filtration - When you're more than a day's hike from the nearest clean water source, you need a method to filter your own from a stream or pond. Water filters filter out impurities from any water source so you can have safe, clean water to drink and cook with.
There are dozens more items to consider, such as headlamps, a knife, and first aid, but any good backpacking checklist will help ensure you have everything you need.
Get Your Itinerary
You've got the gear, you're in great shape, now it's time to prepare for the actual trip. Controlled land, such as National and State Parks, will usually require backcountry permits for wilderness camping. Popular parks such as Grand Canyon and Yosemite are very difficult to get permits for, so you should sign up for them the moment they're available.
Even if you're backpacking through a national forest or wilderness area, which usually does not require permits, it's a good idea to have an itinerary and share it with someone before you leave. National parks use permits to control crowds on the trail, but also to know where you are if something happens (a fall, an animal attack, etc.).
Make an itinerary, share it and stick to it and you'll be just fine.
Focus on the Journey
Multi-day backpacking trips can be physically challenging, but try to enjoy each moment — even when your body is tired — instead of just thinking about completing your journey. After all, you're off the grid and among nature to savor every step and take in every sight.
About the author:
Jim Burch studied creative writing and journalism while working as an editor for the Murray State News in Kentucky. These days, he writes diverse copy -- from sports and movies to tech and health.