How do I go backpacking in the backcountry?
August 4, 2010 11:15 PM   Subscribe

What are the logistics involved in back-country camping / backpacking (CA specific)?

Tell me about backpacking!

I've been an avid car camper for years and have car-camped at most of the National Parks in the southwest...but this just isn't doing it for me these days. I need to backpack. The last time I backpacked I was at sleep-away camp in Maine, 15 years ago and all the logistics were taken care of by the camp counselors. Now that I'm a big strong man, I realize that I will need to figure out those logistics myself if I want to go backpacking...

As far as gear is concerned, I think I am well covered...I have a great pack, an ultra-light tent (around 2lbs), an alcohol pennystove I made a few years back, an ultra-light 3 season sleeping bag and pad, an MSR waterworks II purifier, and years of boyscout outdoors survival knowledge, etc., etc. etc... I have researched food. I have tested and updated my gear. I have tried to keep the weight down. And now I realize I have no idea of the actual logistics involved in proper backpacking...

My romanticized vision of an enjoyable experience involves arriving at a trailhead well researched with a fully loaded pack and map and heading out to camp for 2 or 3 nights...without having to camp at specific sites, but instead right off the trail itself, without a ton of red tape, pitching my tent where I so desire...does it work like this? Or will I have to camp in pre-ordained backcountry camp sites? What type of permits are involved and where do I get them? Obviously it will differ from place to place but I am looking for the general gist of the process and if you have an example I'd love to hear it.

I live in SoCal and would ideally like to visit the John Muir Wilderness (have had my eye on Big Pines) or Yosemite for a first-time backpacking trip. If anyone has first-trip ideas or experiences that might better suit someone in my position I'd be game.

So basically I am looking to get the general gist of how to plan a multi-day back-country camping experience.
posted by jnnla to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
That's pretty much the idea. Whether or not you have to use back country sites depends on who manages/ owns the land. In general: Forest Service and BLM you can camp wherever you want, Park Service is a bit more picky in popular areas but usually just require you to get x distance away from a road or trail before making camp. Everyone in CA has rules about fires, permits needed etc. Just look online and see what they require where you want to go then head out.
posted by fshgrl at 11:40 PM on August 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you have a handle on everything really. As you said it's going to differ from place to place but you laid out the "gist" of it.

If you're going to Yosemite you'll need a bear canister for food. Practice leave no trace everywhere you go. Always bring a topo map with you.

In a lot of the popular National Parks, camping is restricted to certain areas. This applies for Yosemite too (except it's less restricted in winter). You have to obtain wilderness or backpacking permits in a lot of places too.

1. Pick a place
2. Google their rules\find out at the park information
3. Follow their rules
4. Enjoy your trip
posted by zephyr_words at 11:41 PM on August 4, 2010

Definitely check out the Nat Park / Forest Service web page for any location before just showing up at their office. Last thing you want to do is show up without some vital piece of equipment they require, forcing you to buy an expensive one there or make the drive back (bear canister above being an example). And regardless of whether or not you need to get a permit, if there is a ranger office in the park and / or near the trail-head of where you're headed, it never hurts to let them know where you'll be headed and for how long, especially if you're heading out alone.

If you're at all into fish / fishing, you should think about packing some light basic gear - free food that you don't have to pack in, plus its a nice time-passer for the non-hiking days. Have a license before you do this and know local regulations (usually available on the same web pages).
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:59 PM on August 4, 2010

PS. Even in the height of summer there are parts of Yellowstone that can get below freezing at night. Pack appropriate clothing or you'll be stuck in your sleeping bag from sun-down to 10am.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:00 AM on August 5, 2010

Sounds like you know what you are about and will have a grand time. Bring some mosquito netting and duct tape (beats moleskin to prevent blisters). Let someone know your travel plans as specific as you can and when they should contact help. You can pick up a backcountry permit at and a bear-proof canister for your food from the local ranger station. For popular destinations such as Yosemite you may want to reserve in advance.

The farther you get from crowds and the trailhead the more primitive the camping will be. In general you should camp well away from water and choose a spot that will minimize your impact. If an existing site is in the area best to use it rather than disturb the vegetation elsewhere, esp. in the high country. I like a freestanding tent with a sleeping pad on flat granite for comfortable and guilt-free bivying anywhere.

If you haven't seen Yosemite, go. Lots of great little lakes or peaks to hike up to out of Tuolumne Meadows. The Mist Trail is a spectacular, much fun to be had up there but I recommend not staying in Little Yosemite Valley. Thousand Island Lakes out of Mammoth is a great 3-day trip. Definitely pack a rod (and a fishing license from a sporting goods store) if that's your thing.
posted by Manjusri at 12:26 AM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

The best (and most fun) way to get the finer points down is to go with someone who's more experienced. If nothing else, they will remember something you forget, guaranteed!

Random tips from my experience:

- Laminate or otherwise protect your map(s). Nothing like a sudden downpour or unanticiated stream dunking to ruin an unprotected map.

- Double up on fire starters. Waterproof matches don't necessarily come with waterproof strike surfaces, for example. Don't ask how I know this.

- Raingear doesn't do all that much good if your pack is soaked. Trash bags - cheap pack cover in a pinch.

- Bring more water than you think you need.

- Don't forget to leave a detailed trip plan with a trusted friend or two. And try not to deviate from the plan in terms of location or check-in times. Good way to scare your friends. And possibly trigger a search and rescue operation that ends in a fun and exciting helicopter ride! (Again, don't ask...)

- Make sure you don't leave valuables in your car at the trailhead. Popular targets for theft, unfortunately.

- Habe fun!
posted by charmcityblues at 12:31 AM on August 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

- Bring more water than you think you need.

This. Estimate your water needs, then double that, and plan accordingly. Your purifier is a good start but pack some emergency chemical ones and a nalgene (or whatever your canister preference might be) in case it has problems. Speaking from a pretty much annual experience in Yosemite - its nicer to be the person with too much water helping out some sheepish unprepared person in a slightly more dangerous position than they realize.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:04 AM on August 5, 2010

Bring a small shovel for burying your poop.

I know. You're not going to step in your own poop, because you know where you pooped.

But tomorrow? I'll be coming by to set up my tent, and I don't want to step in your poop while I'm gathering kindling/getting a better look at that bird/dropping trou to pee.

Also, yes to laminated maps, topo maps, friends with check in times, extra water, bear cannister, and a compass. I do suggest getting some ideas about what you can find to eat in a given area, and doubly suggest knowing what your area poisons/do not burns are. Would suck to get lost and make yourself sick/not eat berries in fear of getting sick.

Also pack 'wet' fruits rather than (or in addition to) dried. The dried stuff takes so much gut work to digest.
posted by bilabial at 2:03 AM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yep, the folks above pretty much nailed it.

- Pick a destination
- Get your permits (trail, fishing, etc)
- Let folks know where you'll be
- Call the rangers beforehand and ask about trail conditions & expected weather (Although weather in the sierra is highly unpredictable. But they should be able to give you rough estimations)
- Get bear canisters (i rent them from the rangers station for $5/canister)
- If you are going to be hiking at altitude and have an issue with altitude sickness, get to the destination the night before and spend the night before doing strenuous activity

A good forum I've found for sierra backpacking is High Sierra Topix. There are a ton of helpful really experienced sierra backpackers there.
posted by escher at 7:30 AM on August 5, 2010

Above advice is good, sounds like you're close to as prepared as you can get short of actual practical experience. The actual rules/permit process varies by park. Sometimes you can make a permit reservation online, but usually you have to go the park when you plan on starting your trip and get a permit from the rangers/staff.

The rangers will make sure you have the right gear and are aware of any dangers/regulations particular to the park. For example, you'll probably be educated on human-bear relations and be provided with a bear canister.

The rangers will also be able to suggest routes and camping locations. While you should have some ideas of what you like, the rangers will be experts on the area and provide more accurate information than a guidebook (although they are not infallible).
posted by justkevin at 7:46 AM on August 5, 2010

Maybe you already know all this stuff, but here are a few valuable tips that have been imparted to me:

Bring a back-up method for water purification - something like Aquamira or MicroPur. Filtration systems can break, clog or otherwise fail in the field. Don't get caught without a way to purify your drinking water.

Always, always, always pack rain gear. Hypothermia can strike - even in the summer months - if you get wet.

Don't bury used toilet paper - pack it out in a ziploc bag tucked into a brown paper bag. (the paper bag is really only there so you don't have to look at your used t.p.!) :-)

Like another poster suggested - skip the expensive waterproof pack cover and use a trashbag instead.

Bring a headlamp. It's so helpful to have hands-free light.

I love compartmentalizing my pack with drysacks. (maybe a personal preference). But I always put my down sleeping bag in it's own drysack, even when my pack is covered and no rain is in the forecast.

As someone wise once told me "Purell or Pure Hell" - Bring a couple small containers of hand sanitizer along. Put one with your bathroom bag and one in a side packet of your pack. Use it before every meal/snack and after every restroom break.

Finally, maybe go out on a couple single-night trips before you venture out on a multi-day trip in the John Muir area.
posted by MorningPerson at 8:53 AM on August 5, 2010

As far as suggestions for destinations go, I did a great trip in the Hoover Wilderness Area lsat summer (just outside of Yosemite - you can actually dip into the park or do an overlapping trip with stops in the park). Here are some pictures:

The benefit of being outside of the national park is that you're cutting down on the crowds, and on the associated demand for permits (although if you're doing a trip with stops in the park you'll need the right permits). It's the same gorgeous scenery but with a lot fewer other people on the trail. We did a little loop trip that I can give you more info about if you want. The nearest town was Bridgeport, and the trailhead was at an RV-style campground at the end of a nearby lake.
posted by handful of rain at 9:19 AM on August 5, 2010

I spent about half an hour composing a post and in the process remembered that I always used to recommend the Boy Scout Fieldbook (Former Eagle Scout here). Turns out the BSA has published an updated version for free on the internet, which does a much better job of relating the important issues than I could:

There's a lot of really good info in there for the backpacker and adventure camper. I'd highly recommend perusing it (I have been all morning, so much for productivity). They hit on almost everything you need in a general sense and give you a good idea of where to go from there. The only emphasis I'd add is that you need to take good care of your feet- there's nothing worse than being 15 miles from your car with a popped blister on your foot. I've had to walk myself bloody in the past- an experience I'd go to great lengths to avoid repeating. Carry more pairs of socks than you think you will need, keep your feet dry, air your feet out every few hours and change your socks when you do.

Happy trails!
posted by Pachycerianthus at 9:27 AM on August 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thousand Island Lake is one of the prettiest places I've ever been. This trip took me 4 days & 3 nights -- one night at Waugh Lake and two nights at Thousand Island Lake.

In general, like a lot of people have already said, you do need a backcountry permit, but you don't have to camp in some numbered spot next to a bunch of other numbered spots like you do in a car campground. I look for fire rings and flat spots -- no need to trample another place -- and pitch my tent. You do need to keep back a certain distance from the water -- this is so you won't pollute the water supply. You do need to bury your poo and pack out your tp -- I use plastic sandwich bags for each "batch" of tp. This is also so you don't pollute the water supply. Make sure to carry a bear canister and put not only your food but also your trash in it (yes, the poo paper too -- this is the reason for one or more plastic bags!). I did a lot of backpacking in the Sierras in the 70's and ran into bears everywhere. I was very surprised to spend 7 days over 2 trips in 2008 and didn't see one bear. I can only assume the requirement to use bear canisters has drastically cut down on "problem bears". Bear canisters protect your food, sure, but they also keep bears from being shot/relocated/etc... due to interactions with humans.

Stay on trails, at least for your first trip, and you should be fine. If you decide you like company, the Sierra Club runs organized trips -- they have trips specially for beginners as well.

Have fun! Backpacking will let you see some truly awesome places.
posted by elmay at 11:30 AM on August 5, 2010

Take some bear-spray with you - it's not heavy, and good insurance for that unhappy one-on-one encounter... if nothing else, it'll give you peace of mind, which is important, because even if nothing ever happens, who needs the anxiety. Take some small led light with you (even keychain one). Also, this may add weight, but depending on who you are, it may be a fantastic thing - bring some kind of recording device (small camera, recorder for your thoughts, even notebook). Always check in with rangers if possible - they will have up to date info on specific conditions to anticipate or look out for. Secure your sunglasses with a lanyard, or carry an extra pair - should you drop them in some kind of accident or lose them somehow and are far from civilization, it'll suck.
posted by VikingSword at 12:30 PM on August 5, 2010

These are just the sort of suggestions I was looking for. Great advice. I will look into that BoyScout Fieldbook and will definitely do some single-night stuff to handle the basics before I head out for multi-day trips. Anyone know any good places within a few hours of LA to do some single night pack-ins / pack-outs?

I have also considered some organized trips but I am always anxious that they will expect or require people to have very specific gear. I have spent a great deal of time and money making a system that I think will work for me and would like to avoid having to buy more stuff. That being said, I will look into it...

posted by jnnla at 12:58 PM on August 5, 2010

When cooking, pick a spot away from your tent. You don't want animals wandering into your campsite because they can still smell the food. If you have any leftover food and for some reason cannot eat it/save it for later, then bury it away from the campsite, do not just pour it out. If you don't already have one, buy one of those small light weight mess kits with a pan or 2 and pot that also double as plates/bowls. Also don't forget utensils!

Also some places will say you can only make fires if there is a pre-existing fire ring and certain conditions (it's not too dry out, etc) so make sure you check on the fire rules before setting out.
posted by Deflagro at 5:33 PM on August 5, 2010

"Anyone know any good places within a few hours of LA to do some single night pack-ins / pack-outs? "

Lots of great places in Los Padres accessible from Ojai, Santa Paula and Fillmore. For example. That's a good website to explore btw.
posted by Manjusri at 5:59 PM on August 5, 2010

Start making yourself a checklist that you use for every trip. On the list should be every single item you carry -- toothbrush, lip balm, clothing items, first aid, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, utensils, cup, water bottles, food, stove, fuel -- everything. Because if you don't you will forget something. I know someone who even forgot their sleeping bag once -- true story. Each trip when you return debrief and refine your checklist before you forget and always use it when packing up. It's very easy to end up at the trail head and discover you didn't put your hiking boots in the car.
posted by JackFlash at 10:21 PM on August 5, 2010

Oh yes, absolutely go over your checklist with a fine tooth comb. I have gone without a groundpad on a rock riverbed, not a night of sleep I wish to repeat.

And if your tent has a rainfly, check that it's returned to you if you ever lend your tent to a friend. (ahem)
posted by bilabial at 6:13 AM on August 6, 2010

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