June 11, 2019

An introduction to backpacking

Near Lake Marjorie

Backpacking is simply hiking that involves one or more nights spent camping out. If you enjoy hiking and the outdoors, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. The main obstacle of course is the gear and expense involved in making the experiment. You may have friends from whom you can borrow gear (and better yet go with). You may have camping gear that can be pressed into service (but be aware that you may enjoy it a lot more with lighter backpacking specific gear). You may be convinced already that you want to take the plunge.

These pages will hopefully be of use to the absolute beginner as well as the traditional backpacker making the transition to lightweight backpacking.

My interest in backpacking has experienced a recent renaissance with the discovery of ultralight backpacking. I have done a lot of heavy weight "traditional" backpacking, but had begun to wonder if the suffering was worth it. Then I did a trip with some guys who were doing the ultralight thing and have never been the same. I will absolutely try to convince you that lightweight backpacking is the only game in town.

As I began to write this, I asked myself why I enjoy backpacking, what I enjoy about backpacking, and why I do it, and even whether I enjoy it (clearly I do). I don't think I am all that unique. Above all, I enjoy being in the outdoors. I enjoy day hikes, and I also enjoy primitive "car camping". I came dangerously close to a career in geology because I thought it would be a way to earn a living working outdoors.

Styles of Backpacking

I do lots of different kinds of trips that involve backpacking, and rub elbows with all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts. It is worthwhile to examine different sorts of trips and different approaches.

-- Week long backpacks

I have found a week to be an ideal long trip. Longer trips require resupply, and in general after a week I am content to head home. It is possible to do week long trips starting with a 30 pound pack -- or less!

-- Weekend trips and quick overnight jaunts

I do lots of these and enjoy them a lot. It is possible, but unwise to be sloppy on such a trip and not pay close attention to weight. I like to use weekend trips (and quick overnights) as an opportunity to experiment with gear and get my methods dialed in.

Quick overnight jaunts are a lot of fun and are easy to squeeze into a busy schedule. If you already know an area, it is possible to work all day with your pack all ready in the truck, drive to the trailhead, hike to a chosen spot (with possible flashlight aid), spend a night outdoors, then be back at work the next day.

-- Traditional versus Lightweight

The break really lies around 30 pounds. The traditional hiker is using a frame pack (internal or external) that probably weighs 5 pounds or more, carries a gas stove and is packing a 7 pound tent with a rainfly and has not yet discovered that there is a better way. This used to be me.

Lots of good times can certainly be had doing this. A mark of the traditional backpacker is that the highlight of the day is getting that doggone pack off your back! Traditional backpacking fosters a mindset of hiking to a basecamp and then spending several days there doing day hikes, fishing, exploring, or climbing peaks. Lightweight backpacking is the realm where you are perfectly happy to have the pack on your back all day long, you enjoy being on the move every day covering ground, and dropping your pack to go "check something out" never even enters your mind.

-- Thru Hiker

This is a game I have never played. Here the idea is to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (2650 miles) or the Appalachian Trail (2184 miles) or some other epic trail. These are multi month efforts that require resupply. Lots of issues arise on a long trip like this that do not affect shorter trips. You pretty much have to make major life decisions to allow yourself to hike one of these.

-- Competitive backpacking

Birthed perhaps in the age of reality TV shows, we suddenly have this, which is the last thing I would ever have thought of.

-- John Muir Trail

You could perhaps call this a thru hike, but it is "only" 211 miles and takes most people three weeks to do it. I put it into a class of its own: more than a week long backpack (unless you are an exceptional individual and endurance athelete) but not the giant undertaking that a big thru hikes like the PCT or AZT is. It is possible but uncommon to do it without resupply.

-- Mountaineering trips

For the mountaineer, backpacking is just one of many skills that is essential to "get the job done". For the mountaineer, backpacking can become a means to and end rather than an end in itself. These days I work mountaineering into my longer trips as a sort of highlight activity - and find I am enjoying hiking more and climbing less. A true mountaineering trip though is one where the prime goal is climbing. Carrying technical gear pretty much requires phenomenal heavy packs, so this becomes a unique game of its own.
Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's backpacking pages / tom@mmto.org