April 11, 2018
Ahhhh, spring. Quite possibly my favorite time of the year. As the snow melts and the days get longer, I begin to daydream of strapping a backpack on again, hitting the trail, and spending my nights around a campfire. Spring is a great time to assess what the backpacking conditions for the remainder of the year are looking like, because, at this point, I know how much rain or snow the winter delivered. If I plan on heading into the higher elevations, I can estimate when the passes will be passable; if I am heading into lower elevation areas I can determine whether there will be water available in the streams/rivers. This also goes hand-in-hand with assessing what gear I might need that I don’t already have.
Mother Nature decides
Let’s take 2017 (in California), as an example. Last year, we had one of the wettest seasons on record. When I started planning a backpacking trip to the High Sierra for July, I knew I would need different hiking shoes and gear than what I used in 2016 or 2015 – an average snow year and a dry year, respectively. There was sure to be more snow, more river crossings, more bugs, and overall more gnarly conditions. It was more important to be prepared last year than the year before.
Going over Muir Pass during two different snow years
Gear to Consider
Experience is merely the name we give to our mistakes
Unfortunately, last year, despite knowing about the conditions, I made the mistake of choosing the wrong shoes for my trek into the High Sierra. This mistake probably cost me a broken foot and having to end my trip early. I opted for waterproof shoes, a great choice, but because they were low-rise shoes they did not provide enough ankle support to tackle the more demanding conditions that the heavy snow year brought. If faced with similar conditions on my future treks, I would opt for a more supportive mid-rise shoe that might have prevented a similar injury.
Not everything learned is through mistakes, though, a lot of learning happens by just getting out there and figuring out what works for you. Up until 2015 I had backpacked with a 65 L pack, but after that season, I decided that I didn’t need so much carrying capacity and I decided to convert to ultralight. By 2017 I had downsized to a 40 L, and cut my overall base weight to make the hiking more enjoyable. Understanding what gear you need and don’t need is something you learn through experience and you can decide what you value the most – more comfortable hiking or camping. This will also depend on the nature of your trip – are you limited on time off work but still want to crush all 211 miles of the John Muir Trail? Or are you hoping to spend a few days next to an alpine lake soaking up the sun and views? Having a clear goal in mind will help you be better prepared.
Gear to Consider
For Those Plush Camping Nights
Best way to train for hiking?
Train for backpacking and hiking… by hiking! Unable to get outside? No problem, hit the treadmill. Hiking is essentially just walking but with a purpose. So get walkin’! Not only for the physical reasons of being fit, but also to test out your gear. Even if you are going on a short half day hike, take your full pack and see how it feels. Look for how the pack sits on your back and if it feels too heavy don’t be afraid to cut some weight. Get a feel for your shoes as well! Don’t just break them in. Hike different distances in them. They might feel great after a 10 mile hike, but how do they feel after 15 miles? Or what about 20 miles? Knowing the limitations of your gear will not only better prepare you, but it will also give you more confidence.
Take your backpack, for example. Some backpacks provide enough support to handle 40+ lbs comfortably, but if you opt for an ultralight pack, anything over 30 lbs will begin to feel uncomfortable. Maybe not at first, but considering you might be wearing your backpack for 10+ hours everyday, knowing how well your pack handles the weight is crucial. Take it out on a hike with a full load and see how well it feels after the hike, that will be a good indication of how you will be feeling at the end of the day during your backpacking trip.
Gear to Consider
Do you really need everything in your pack?
There is a famous saying among thru-hikers: Your base weight is, in essence, the sum of all your fears. Do you really need to bring two water filters, three headlamps, and an extra stove? The short answer: No. Gear is extremely reliable nowadays. However, be sure to always test out your gear before hitting the trail to make sure it works properly. You shouldn’t be ripping off the tags the night before your big hike.
Part of preparing for your backpacking trip is understanding your gear and being efficient with everything you will be carrying. Look for gear that can be multi-functional. For instance, you know that heavy bear canister you will be carrying into the Yosemite backcountry? Well, that can double as a stool to sit on! What about that mosquito head net? That can act as a stuff sack for organizing clothing in your pack when you’re not using it! What about that extra pair of super soft and comfy camp socks you are bringing? I like to use those to store my camera lenses and extra batteries! Finding ways to get the most use out of gear is one of my favorite parts of preparing for a trip. Not to mention it makes organizing my pack a lot easier. Whether I am going backpacking for a couple of nights or a couple of months, I find satisfaction in living out of a backpack and finding ways of doing more with less. Give it a try!
Gear to Consider
Preparing for a backpacking trip can be a daunting task but if you manage to follow the basic tips outlined above, you will have a more enjoyable and memorable time. You will remember the amazing sunset you witnessed from a lakeside rather than how much your shoulders hurt that same night from a heavy pack. Remember: prepare for specific conditions, apply previous experience, stay in shape/know your gear, and trim down your pack weight!