Follow Wisconsin Trails writer Chelsey Lewis as she gets out to explore Wisconsin. Read more about this blog here.
Last week I took my sister to Devil’s Lake for her first backpacking excursion. Since she had never been, and my own experience is pretty limited, we did a mock outing, choosing to spend the night at Devil’s Lake and hiking with our packs throughout the park during the day.
But we packed and planned as if we would were in the backcountry so that when we do head out (hopefully sometime this fall) we know how many miles we can handle and how our gear will hold up.
If you want to get into backpacking, it’s a good idea to do the same — practice somewhere a little closer to civilization to test your physical abilities and your gear. Here are some other tips for beginner backpackers:
1. Buy quality gear, but don’t overspend
The Kelty Salida 2 weighs 4 lbs., 8 oz. and comfortably fits two people.
There is so much gear out there these days, it can be a bit overwhelming to choose, and there’s a temptation to buy more than you need. If you’ve never been backpacking, don’t go out and buy a $500 tent before you know if you even like camping. At the other end of the spectrum, don’t go to a big-box store and buy the cheapest thing you can find. Instead, invest in quality big-ticket items over time.
One of the best ways to try gear is to borrow from friends or rent; in Milwaukee, members of the Urban Ecology Center can borrow camping gear for free.
If you decide you want to buy some gear, do your research. I usually start with reviews on outdoor sites like Backpacker, Outside and Outdoor Gear Lab, and then move to customer reviews on retail sites. Just know that the Internet can be a black hole for advice — one site may say one thing and another, the complete opposite. Try gear out to find what’s best for you.
Invest in a good pack, sleeping bag and sleeping pad. If you’re backpacking with a more experienced camper (which you should be, if you’re a beginner), they’ll most likely have a tent, camp stove, water purifier and any other gear you might need that you can share.
2. Plan, plan, plan — and don’t overpack
Good planning and overpacking go hand-in-hand. Do the first and you’ll avoid the second, saving you lots of pain on the trail.
Your final pack should not weigh more than 25% of your bodyweight, and 20% is an ideal goal.
Plan out exactly what you’ll eat for meals and snacks. Dehydrated foods like pasta, oatmeal, jerky and raisins are all great, easy meals and snacks on the trail. Remove things like ibuprofen from their bulky containers and place in smaller containers or plastic bags. Pre-made first aid kits are nice, but often contain more things than you’ll need on a weekend trip. If you don’t know how to use something, don’t bring it with you.
Pack only necessary clothing. You’re out in nature — nobody cares what you look like or if you wear the same thing every day. One T-shirt, a long-sleeve shirt, shorts and pants, plus rain gear, is sufficient for a warm-weather trip. I pack an extra pair of socks for sleeping, but if conditions are dry, my wool socks could get me through the night, too. Which brings me to…
3. Avoid cotton
Cotton absorbs water — that’s why towels are made from it. Try and wear shirts, pants and socks that are made from synthetic fibers or wool (merino), which wick moisture and dry much faster.
Wool, even in the summer? Yes. Because it wicks moisture and helps evaporate sweat faster, you don’t even notice the added warmth. Plus, I love the extra padding that my wool socks give me.
4. Start easy
Hiking around Devil's Lake with fully loaded backpacks.
Just as you would train for a 5K or half marathon, so too should you train for backpacking. Don’t buy brand new hiking boots and a backpack and head out for a four-day trip hiking 15 miles a day. Even if you’re in fantastic shape, your legs and feet will not be used to carrying 25+ extra pounds.
If you have brand new hiking shoes, break them in around the house and on short walks. Because boots tend to be more rigid than normal shoes, they can take longer to break in.
Shoes broken in, start with day hikes between 4 and 8 miles with your pack loaded with weight. Then move to two-day trips closer to civilization in case something goes wrong. Once you can comfortably hike 10 miles a day for a couple of days in a row, you’re ready for some true backcountry camping.
5. Stay hydrated
Dehydration is one of your worst enemies on a backpacking trek. Hydrate before you head out — it’s easier to carry water inside your body than in your pack — and remember to drink small amounts constantly while hiking.
If you’re hiking near water sources, you obviously don’t need to pack all of the water you’ll need for a trip. I usually carry two liters, and scout out potential sources for refilling before I head out.