How should I prepare for lengthy backpacking trips?
January 24, 2014 4:14 PM   Subscribe

So I've decided to get into backpacking. I've set some goals of backpacking part of the PCT, Acadia, and the Olympic Peninsula as my must-do hikes. So, here's the Ask. What kind of preparation should I do before undertaking say, a week to two week hike at each of those locations? I live in Texas, which is very flat and relatively boring by comparison, so access to varied terrain will be a little difficult for me to come by. What kind of "practice trips" should I go on before trying for one of these more ambitious hikes? And what's a realistic amount of time to prepare for a hike of that magnitude?
posted by doogan nash to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Unless you're going to be aggressive about miles, the terrain/physicality might not be the hardest part. It can be a little mentally challenging. Have you done any single overnights yet? If not, start with that. See how you like being bored and kind of worn out all day and sleeping out there by yourself. And find out what you're going to need physically and mentally in terms of food. If you're the type who can eat nothing but clif bars without killing yourself, there you go, if you need 3 hot meals a day, then you can plan for that too.

I would also find out how little shoe you can get away with. If you can go out with trail running shoes you're going to be a lot lighter on your feet than in hiking boots, but if you need the hiking boots, you need the hiking boots.

Also, use a single or double overnight to figure out what you want to do about water. There's different ways to treat depending on your tolerance for risk, effort, bulk, and chemical taste.

If you're in typical shape, what you're going to need most in terms of preparation is just figuring out what's going to work for you so you don't get caught 20 miles from nowhere with a blister and the raging shits and no food and a snakebite. This is more about miles than time.

Oh, and take a read of "A Walk In The Woods" if you haven't. He takes some license but also covers some things well as far as being a guy that isn't Edmund Hillary but just a guy who wants to hike the AT.

I'm not a pro but I've done a couple 80-100 mile thru hikes and that's my $0.02.
posted by ftm at 4:34 PM on January 24, 2014

Before anyone can give you a decent answer, we should probably know how old you are, how fit you are, and how ambitious you plan on making these trips (total distance planned for a given trip, how far you intend to push yourself each day, if you plan on going ultralight vs. "regular light", etc.)

The specifics of where you intend to go as well as the time of year are also big factors to consider. The PCT is ~2650 miles from end to end, but traveling in the desert is very different than traveling above 12,000 feet.

So, I hear you want to go backpacking? Tell us about yourself and your backpacking goals, and please be specific. ;-)
posted by mosk at 4:35 PM on January 24, 2014

I've done a lot of backpacking along the PCT/JMT and in Yosemite, and I don't know that much preparation was really necessary beyond making sure I was in good enough shape and knew what gear to pack. It would certainly help to know how to read a topo map, but that's pretty easy to pick up. I'd also recommend taking a first aid class, especially if there's one near you focused on wilderness first aid. You could also practice hiking at elevation to see how you're going to react. As you mentioned, Texas is flat and these mountain ranges are not.

I probably wouldn't start with a full week long trip my first time out, or if I did, make sure you're on a trail where you can leave early if you must. That's definitely not possible on sections of the PCT.

Anyway, have fun! Backpacking is awesome.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 4:40 PM on January 24, 2014

where in Texas? If you think all of Texas is boring either you're in Lubbock or you haven't done enough research. I'm in Austin and currently training for a multi-day trip in Big Bend where the total elevation change over several days will be ~10K feet. The park is easily big enough for a week-long excursion, although it's not exactly close to anything even by Texas standards. I'm training in the small, flatter, but very scenic parks that can be reached within a few hours drive of Austin: Colorado Bend, Lost Maples, Pedernales Falls, etc. If you're in Dallas or Houston, the Davy Crockett and Sabine National Forests are a couple hours away and have miles of trail. If you are in the panhandle, New Mexico is probably closer than Big Bend or anything interesting in Texas.

The hard part around here is water and heat - there is no treatable water to be had half the year, you have to carry it, and it really does get dangerously hot in the summer so your water needs will be double whatever you think you need.

step 0 - get a baseline level of fitness via weight-bearing walking and running around your town, stairclimber at the gym, etc. get your basic gear; pack, tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad. don't go too cheap on those because every extra dollar you spend gets you something lighter and more durable, and you don't want to find out on the trail that your crappy tent isn't quite waterproof. But also don't buy too much more than that until you're more experienced (don't spring for the $200 Jetboil kit yet)

step 1 - weekend overnight in whatever small state park looks best close to you. hike 5-10 miles, sleep, go home. decide what about your gear and shoes needs to change for next time to make it more comfortable. mess around with the adjustments on your pack to get the weight in the place that feels easiest. practice with a map and compass

step 2 - Big Bend, at least 4 days, up to a week. more difficult terrain, more elevation change, will require you to be more careful about food and water, very scenic.

step 3 - PCT, et al.
posted by slow graffiti at 4:57 PM on January 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ah yes, details. I'm a 35YO male, in relatively decent shape. I'm not a total couch potato, and probably do a moderate amount of cardio and weight training. I don't typically find it difficult to ramp up my activity to meet a fitness goal if i really want or need to. I am a critical care nurse and spend 12+ hours on my feet lifting and turning sedated patients at least 3 days a week.

As far as ambition...I'm more interested in the amount of time I can spend out in the woods rather than hiking a ton of miles. I think I know my physical limitations pretty well and don't feel like I need to clock X number of miles per day or anything like that.

I plan on making all the rookie mistakes of packing too many things I won't need, and so I feel like by the time I undertake any of these ambitious hikes (especially the PCT), my goal is to have my gear pared down to at least "regular light." I don't plan on doing any winter hiking, as the gear is just way too intense and expensive for me at this early stage. I have an extremely flexible schedule, and so I'd like to do most of my hiking in the spring and fall to avoid crowds or what passes for crowds.

As far as the PCT goes, my initial interest is in Section G of the Oregon part of the trail. It passes through the Columbia River Gorge, which is really one of my biggest goals. The other two I mentioned are wide open, as it all looks good to me.
posted by doogan nash at 5:03 PM on January 24, 2014

Spring will be early for the Olympic Peninsula if you're looking at elevation over, say, 3500'. Although we haven't had much snow this year.

You don't mention anything about your camping skills. There's a lot more to backpacking than walking with stuff on your back.
posted by humboldt32 at 5:24 PM on January 24, 2014

I've done car-camping road trips in Colorado where I hiked up to ten miles a day with a forty-pound camera pack, plus other gear. The best thing you can do is get your back in shape for carrying your pack. Wear a fully loaded pack, maybe even overloaded, on shorter hikes nearby. If you don't feel like packing, textbooks are great. (I used to hike with 80 lb of textbooks for fun.)

That, plus run 3-5 miles every other day for the few weeks leading up. If you're going to altitude, you might consider a day or two acclimating. If you're me, that means go from 491' ASL to 14,000' ASL in 14 hours, going crazy, taking a nap and some NSAIDs, drinking a couple quarts of water, and being ready for anything.
posted by notsnot at 5:31 PM on January 24, 2014

Oh, and break in your shoes; if necessary, do a couple skyscraper stair climbs in your hiking boots. And take tape and foot powder.
posted by notsnot at 5:33 PM on January 24, 2014

Cool, it sounds like the physical aspect of backpacking won't be any sort of hindrance for you -- the actual act of hiking with a pack on your back isn't really a barrier here. So with physical ability as a given that, what DO you need to consider?

Well, one thing is the general learning curve, which you've clearly thought about. Your first trips should be local and low risk, as slow graffiti says.

Leaving the destinations aside for the moment, let's take a look at the general gear you'll need. Gear decisions are both fun and vexing, depending on how much you enjoy sweating these sorts of details. With that in mind:

What are you going to do for boots? This is an incredibly important decisions, maybe the most important, and one you should make early so you have plenty of time to fully break in your selection. Like all backpacking gear, there are many options to consider, but you probably need to try on a bunch of pairs before you can decide what you like. Also, boots for a weekend jaunt with a 30-40 pound pack may be different than the boost you might choose for a two week trip with a 70 lb pack. So this is something to think about.

What type of pack do you want or need? Internal frame? external frame?

How much and what type of clothing will you need to bring to feel comfortable in the weather you will encounter?

What type and weight of bedding, typically a sleeping back, do you want to use? How cold will your nights be?

Do you want to sleep in a tent? A bivy bag? A ground cloth and a bug net?

Does the area you plan on camping in require you to use a bear canister? If you have to use a bear canister -- or two! -- it will affect how much food you can carry, which in turn will play a role in limiting the length of your trip. But the trade off is well worth it if you are in bear country, and indeed, they are all but required in many areas, so it is definitely something to consider.

There are many more gear considerations lurking past the ones sketched out above, but I think, in terns of gear, these are probably good questions to start with.
posted by mosk at 5:35 PM on January 24, 2014

I like the answers you've already gotten. A couple of things I would add, and a question. First the question: you don't explicitly say, but are you planning to do these trips solo? I ask for two reasons. One, I think it is mentally harder to do long trips solo - the stakes for making a mistake are much higher. Two, you don't have the opportunity to split up common gear like a tent/poles/groundcloth or cooking gear, so the loads can be heavier. OK, having said that, here are a couple of observations.

Natch, if you haven't done some overnight hikes, that is where you need to start.

There is a difference between an overnighter and a one to two week trip. It feels to me personally that the dividing line is about four or five days. So I would also make sure that you do at least one longer (4+ day) hike as a shakedown before you buy a plane ticket and blow all of your vacation on one of your dream hikes. Example: on two day and three day hikes, I just don't see people filtering or boiling water. You can get away with just carrying the water you need. Once you get to four or five days, you are thinking a lot about things like carrying a water filter or whether you are going to hassle with boiling it or using iodine.

On a one or two week solo hike, especially if you can't figure out a resupply, you are going to start with a very heavy pack (extra food and fuel). I get your concern about the Texas terrain being flat, but the thing I would be more worried about is being in shape to carry a very heavy pack. On overnighters or long weekends, you could get away with a 40 pound pack, but for your dream trip, it might be more like 60 or 70 at the start. You might consider carrying extra water or just intentionally loading your pack down for your shakedown trips to get used to carrying a heavy load. I've given up on heavy hiking boots and now hike in trail running shoes - but I'm not carrying 70# packs anymore, either. There can be a little bit of a chain reaction there on your footwear - you may find you prefer more support to carry heavier loads.

I don't know much about Texas, but dealing with rain and wet weather is a big part of long distance backpacking. Again, on an overnighter, no big deal, but for a longer trip, it can really be a trip-killer. I don't have any suggestions on simulating that.

Navigation/route finding is one of those things that I think makes solo hiking more stressful. Some areas just have an ethic of marking their trails less than others, so even on something like the PCT it won't be obvious.

Cooking is another thing that you can kind of fake on a shorter trip, but becomes a big deal after a week.

You mentioned that you are planning to make the mistakes of packing too many things. That is good - the more you hike, the more you realize how little you actually need, it just comes with practice. I think about my gear in three categories: must have always, nice to have, and luxury items that I don't really need. When you go longer, and weight becomes a real issue, you are going to be veering for somewhere between must-have-always and nice-to-have.

No one has mentioned "The Complete Walker," by Colin Fletcher. He was sort of the godfather of long distance backpacking. His book will impart a lot of wisdom about what to carry and what to think about for long hikes.

Good luck with the trips, sounds like fun. The too long; didn't read summary here is: go for a four day hike in Texas and you'll learn a lot.
posted by kovacs at 5:40 PM on January 24, 2014

> [bear canisters] are all but required in many areas

I should have written that sentence that way.

> No one has mentioned "The Complete Walker," by Colin Fletcher. He was sort of the godfather of long distance backpacking. His book will impart a lot of wisdom about what to carry and what to think about for long hikes.

x2! I can't recommend "The Complete Walker" highly enough as a general text, and would have mentioned it myself, except that I read it 25 years ago and didn't want to presume that it was still relevant. But it covers all of this material very well and very conversationally, even if the gear specifics have evolved since it was last revised. For that matter, I'd recommend everything Colin Fletcher wrote. I will always have a special place in my heart for his first book, The Thousand Mile Summer, but most folks seem to prefer The Man Who Walked Through Time, which is also quite good.
posted by mosk at 5:52 PM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Go on a couple guided group trips, like with Outward Bound or similar. All my friends who've done long backpacking trips say the hardest thing at first is not the physical but the organizational. Go with people who know what they're doing and learn from them.
posted by rtha at 5:52 PM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd do some shakedown hikes with a local hiking group. Your local REI should have a group or two that does big hikes and also does intro overnight hikes for newbies, around Austin, say.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:41 PM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't have time to check all the other answers right now, so hopefully this isn't completely redundant. I will assume you can figure out from the multitude of online guides which gear you need, how much food to bring, etc. Here are some tips.

-Consider your knees. I have lived in mountainous areas with a hiking-obsessed family my entire life, and I never had even one SECOND of knee pain until I did longer backpacking trips. Even if your knees have never bothered you (I'm a super healthy late 20s person, I thought it wouldn't happen to me!), consider getting hiking poles and reading up on how to make long descents easier on your knees. Muscle pain from being out of shape is not even close to as painful or debilitating as knee pain that builds and builds over days and just does not go away.

-Make absolutely certain that you have waterproof stuff. If your food bag has to hang overnight, make it waterproof, unless everything inside is watertight. Your pack needs a properly-fitting rain cover. You need waterproof boots. Nothing ruins a hiking trip like wet feet, a wet sleeping bag, or wet food. All 3 of those things can actually be major deal breakers. Wet feet can get majorly torn up and infected in short order, a wet sleeping bag won't keep you warm, and wet food could be inedible, spoiled, or too disgusting to eat, and you'd be in trouble.

-Take your first backpacking trips with other people. The distributed weight of the gear you need is WAY less per person. It's much easier to set up camp. You'll have people to share your experiences (good and difficult) with. You can do solo hiking later.
posted by Cygnet at 6:10 AM on January 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

« Older Fit bit...body media arm band or other option?   |   Please help me accomplish absolutely nothing this... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.