Backpacking in the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Backpacking is a great way to spend time in the great outdoors. Carefully planning your trip is essential for your safety as well as your trail comfort. There isn’t anything worse than getting partway down the trail on the first day of a multi-day trek only to find that you have forgotten an essential piece of gear. Forgetting a piece of gear on a weekend trip is one thing; for week-long or extended trips, it can become a safety issue. Below, we will go over several tips on planning an extended backpacking trip so that your hike goes smoothly.
Plan Your Party
Are you a solo hiker, or do you prefer to hike with others as part of a larger group? If you aren’t an experienced backpacker, you might want to go with at least one other person. Most of us know the story of Aron Ralston, who was hiking alone in a slot canyon in southern Utah and ended up having to cut off his own arm to escape alive. Hiking in a group not only gives you company on the trail, but provides protection from wild animals and safety when emergencies strike. Safety in numbers applies here.
Remember to choose companions that have similar abilities and likes. Some hikers like to hike fast, while others like to take more breaks and enjoy the views. Some like flat terrain, while others prefer rugged mountaineering. If you put different types of backpackers in the same group, one type is bound to be unhappy with the pace, terrain, etc. Keep this in mind while planning your backpacking party.
Plan The Route Details
Planning an extended backpacking trip can be tedious, especially when there are multiple voices expressing their opinions. But that doesn’t mean that you can skip this step. Make sure everyone is on the same page before you start hiking. In this stage, you need to plan the exact route that you will be hiking. This will allow you to determine the total length, the duration of the trip, and each day’s mileage. Think about the geographic location and the time of year. These factors will greatly weigh on what gear you pack. Invest in some high quality topographical maps of the area, and learn how to read them. Also learn how to use a compass, so you can navigate with these maps. GPS devices are nice, but they are heavy and they could fail you at any time. Make sure you have a backup plan to getting around in the backcountry.
Check local regulations for backcountry permits, fishing permits, camping restrictions, campfire restrictions, or other special considerations. Will you be hiking in bear country? If so, remember to follow guidelines about proper food storage.
Gather Your Gear
Once you know the nitty gritty details of your trip, it is time to gather the gear together and pack it all in your backpack. This makes a great pre-trip activity for your group, so get everyone together to assess the gear situation. Remember to think about the weather and temperature conditions of the terrain you will be hiking. There is a significant difference in the weight of sleeping bags, for example, for cold vs. warm weather camping. If you will be hiking in the mountains, the weather can turn at any moment, so it is wise to have warm clothing just in case.
[amazon_link id=”B001BBIMPM” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]For an extended backpacking trip, your backpack needs to be large enough to carry all the gear you need. Food will take up a ton of room on a week-long or longer hike. Expect to use a backpack with at least 4000 cubic inches of internal storage, if not more. Here is an article on the top 5 expedition backpacks on the market, and is a good resource for choosing your pack.
You will generally want to have between 2500 and 3000 calories per day while on the trail. The more strenuous the hike, the more calories, and particularly protein, you will need to replenish your body. For extended backpacking trips of a week or longer, it can be a challenge to pack enough food to last the trip. Remember that dry food is lighter than wet food, and it is a good idea to pack a few days of extra emergency food, in case you get stuck. Here is a more in depth article on planning your extended backpacking trip food and meals.
[amazon_link id=”B005EM37UY” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]Food preparation items can easily be distributed among the backpacking party. Split the fuel, stove, and pots up to even out the weight.
It will be impossible to carry a weeks worth of water on your back, along with the other essential gear items. This is where it is very important to plan your backpacking trip near water sources, such as rivers, streams, and lakes. You don’t have to hike along a river or stream the entire time, but make sure you have stops at several watering holes per day.
[amazon_link id=”B003A1MURC” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]There are several ways to purify and carry water. Backpacking filters such as the MSR Sweetwater and Katadyn Vario are great for large groups. The SteriPen Adventurer Opti is an ultralight portable method for sterilizing your water. You can always boil it on a camp stove, but this will require extra fuel, which means more weight. Water bottle filters are also another way to go, since they incorporate a filter within your carrying mechanism.
Most minimalist backpackers tend to shy away from tents, since they are trying to carry the least amount of weight possible. Sleeping under the stars has its perks, but for an extended trip, you are bound to have a few foul weather nights. There are tons of backpacking tents on the market today. The key is finding a backpacking tent that offers the right balance of comfort and durability, while being as lightweight as possible.
[amazon_link id=”B0036GT87G” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]One of the best lightweight backpacking tents on the market is the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2. There are several other options under the Tents category. The nice thing is that these tents are all 2 person tents, so you can break up your party into groups of two and distribute the weight around.
[amazon_link id=”B0034HTDAY” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]The sleeping bag you pack really depends on the time of year and expected weather of your backpacking location. If you plan on cold, inclement weather, opt for a synthetic bag rated at least 20 degrees below the expected temperatures. Synthetic sleeping bags will keep you warm even if they get wet, but are typically heavier than their down counterparts.
Many beginning backpackers fail miserably when it comes to packing the right clothing for their trip. Here is what you need to think about:
- What is the weather like?
- What time of year will I be hiking?
- How cold do the nights/early mornings get?
- How warm are the afternoons?
The answers to these questions vary immensely depending on where you decide to trek. But generally, you want to remember a few things when packing clothing:
- Avoid cotton
- Use clothing that will keep you warm even when wet (think wool and synthetic fleece)
- Pack clothing that layers well (synthetic base layer, insulating layer, and outer layers)
- Pack extra high-quality hiking socks – these are vital to keeping your feet healthy and comfortable
- Don’t forget rain gear
As for how much clothing you should pack, this is really up to you. You will be dirty in the backcountry; there just isn’t any way around it. If packing a few extra shirts and undergarments helps you stay comfortable, then do it. Otherwise, try to get the most use out of each article of clothing that you can. The less clothing you pack, the more space you have for other gear items.
[amazon_link id=”B002LH40EC” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]The hiking boots that you use are very important to your comfort and ability to hike rugged terrain. Take your time choosing the right boots. Go to an outdoors supplier, and talk to an expert on the right fit. Make sure they are comfortable with the socks you have, as most wool-blend hiking socks are extra-thick. For more on choosing the right hiking boots, read our 2 part series here.
The following list is not all inclusive of what you should bring, but is a good starting point for you rounding out the gear you might want to bring along.
- First aid kit
- Personal hygiene kit
- Fire starting kit
- Fishing kit
- Flashlights (headlamps, lanterns)
- Trekking poles
- Pocket knife
Camp comfort items – the following are a few comfort items, only if you have the space to carry them.
- Small camp chair
- Swimming suit
Trim Excess Weight
As you start to narrow down the gear you want to pack for your trip, get a scale and weigh everything. Tally up the total to see where you stand. At this point, you will want to start trimming excess ounces. Ounces add up to pounds, and too many pounds equals an unpleasant backpacking trip. For each item, ask yourself this question:
- “Do I absolutely need this item?”
If the answer is no, leave it at home. If the item is a comfort item that you are not ready to live without on the trail, do your best to find the lightest alternative on the market. Another way to justify an item is to make sure it serves more than one purpose (the Jetboil cooking system utilizes a synthetic lid that also doubles as a throwing disc, for fun at the base camp).
As a group, distribute any gear items that serve a group function, such as tents, cooking items, etc. There might be more able backpackers in the group that can carry additional weight. If so, see if they would be willing to shoulder more of a burden to help out smaller framed hikers or novices.
Pack And Practice
It might be worthwhile to plan an overnight or weekend practice run for the group. Pack up your bags and gear as if you were trekking for the duration of the extended trip, but just spend a night or two on the trail. This is a great way to make sure you have everything you need, as well as to test the load and weight of your pack. You might have packed too much, or maybe you feel like you can shoulder more weight. You also might find that the load is distributed incorrectly in your pack. All of these insights will help you have a more enjoyable time on the real extended trip.
Before you leave, make sure everything you need is in your pack. A checklist is a good way to accomplish this, and also have a buddy look over your list and gear. This is also a good time to make sure everything is in working order. Test your water filter, camp stove, GPS (spare batteries), flashlights, and other items. Replace filters or batteries if you need to.
Before you take off, make sure you leave a detailed itinerary with a friend or relative that isn’t going on the hike. Include the route and location, the duration, where you plan to camp, who is hiking with you, and when you expect to return. If there are any problems in the backcountry, they will be able to get a hold of search and rescue to come find you and your party. Just don’t forget to contact them when you get home!
Bear Country Hiking
If you are planning on hiking in bear country, don’t think that your large group will keep a hungry bear from snooping around your campsite. Be smart and use bear-proof canisters for food. Also, don’t use a tent that has previously had food in it. This can cause dangerous encounters while you are sleeping.
Hang ALL of your food (snacks, meals, ingredients, even sealed energy bars and gels) from a tree. DO NOT bring any food inside your tent. This also goes for anything scented, such as shampoo, hair products, lotions, toothpaste, deodorant, gum and candy.
[amazon_link id=”B002E6VAHK” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]Pepper spray has been proven to be one of the best deterrents of an attacking or charging bear. If you are hiking in bear country, at least a few members (if not everyone) should have a canister of bear spray.
Remember that backpacking is a great way to spend time in the great outdoors with family and friends. It takes a lot of work to plan and put together an extended backpacking trip, but the effort is well worth it to get away from the cares of the world. Good luck and have fun!
What did we miss? Leave comments below to add to these tips.