Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Backpacking 101: So You'd Like to Learn to Backpack?

Like lots of people, I’ve always loved to hike in the woods. Though I grew up in Chicago near Wrigley Field, a short thirty minute ride west on the Addison Street bus got me to the end of the bus route at Cumberland Avenue, and across the street from the bus turnaround was Schiller Woods, part of the extensive 69,000 acre Cook County Forest Preserve system. I grew up in the Cub Scout and Boy Scout organizations, and Schiller Woods was our go-to place for hiking. As a Boy Scout, I saved my money to go for two weeks every summer to the Chicago Boy Scout’s Owasippe Scout camp in Michigan’s Manistee National Forest, the oldest Scout camp in the country dating back to 1911. My Troop 808 alternated between two available camps every other year, Camp Dan Beard and Camp Blackhawk, and our tradition was to backpack from whichever camp we were at to the other camp for an overnight stay. That was my introduction to backpacking.

Then life took over -- job, marriage, kids -- and though hiking and camping were included in family life, it was as much to save money while on vacation as it was for pleasure. Then in 1987, we did a 15 mile day hike on the Continental Divide Trail, and I was astonished to see evidence of people camping wherever they wanted to up there in the Routt National Forest. I came to the realization that you could set up camp just about anywhere you desired in a national forest. So I began to read books and acquire the equipment  needed for a family of four to pursue backpack expeditions.

Quite simply, backpacking is an extended hiking trip — extended in that you are hiking whatever number of miles and then spending the night wherever you are at the end of that day’s hike. Obviously, that requires that you bring with you everything that you are going to need to stay overnight and also whatever you’ll need to either return to your car the next day or hike farther into the woods.


Say you want to climb Colorado’s Uncompahgre Peak, the tall 14,309 foot peak seen in the center of this photo above. First you hike two days up the Big Blue River, that wiggly line down in the valley going up the center of the photo.  On that second afternoon, near the base of the mountain, you make base camp. A day hike the next day with an elevation gain of about 5000 feet gets you to the top of Uncompahgre Peak and then it’s back to your base camp for your third night. Two more days of hiking gets you back to your car, either via the same route you came by (called an out-and-back trip), or as we did it, by returning over 12,000 foot Silver Mountain to make a loop hike back to the car, passing Falls Creek Falls on our way.  

In the photo below, I am nearing the base of Uncompahgre and looking up at the peak.

My Dad's cousin, Uncle Jake, was the resident forest ranger here in the Big Blue/Uncompahgre Wilderness. In the 1940s, Dad visited him and they rode horses to the peak so Uncle Jake could change out the sign-in sheets where climbers recorded their presence at the top.

Over the decades the rocky trail has crumbled and the trail for horses and hikers no longer exists, so we had to scramble the final 500 feet or more of altitude as seen here...

...until Len and I achieved the peak...

...and enjoyed this extraordinary view of the Big Blue Valley which we had hiked up the previous two days.

Perhaps this view gives you an understanding of what stimulates us and others to hike in the mountains — the vistas are mind-blowing! 

To spend one or more nights in the backcountry, you obviously would want a tent and sleeping bag. Other necessities are food and water, and since you can’t carry gallons of water ( a gallon weights eight pounds) you’ll have to locate water sources along your route (rivers, streams, or lakes) to refill your water bottles several times each day. To prevent debilitating waterborne diseases like guardia and cryptosporidium, you’ll need a water filter or iodine tablets to purify the water. You’ll probably want at least one change of clothes as well as a rain jacket and rain pants. If you don’t want to eat only snack foods, you’ll want a cooking stove and fuel as well as whatever food you like to eat. And cookware. And utensils. How about a flashlight? Spare batteries? A camera? Mosquito repellant and sunblock? A knife? First aid kit? Toiletries?  Are you getting the idea? There are countless items you may want to bring along.

Of course, you’ll also need a backpack to carry all your gear. As you see in the photo below from Isle Royale National Park, Len, his daughter Laura, Scott, and I are all loaded with our backpacks and we all have additional gear strapped onto our packs. 

How much gear do you need? That depends on how much you want to carry! And that depends on how comfortable you want to be when you set up camp. How prepared do you want to be in case of various emergencies? How much weight are you willing and able to carry on your back? There is no correct answer to these questions — it’s all up to you. I generally carried from 45 to 55 pounds for a four to seven day trip. And since many of my 60+ backpack trips were in the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, Utah, Tennessee, New Hampshire, and Alaska (to name a few states) the terrain and elevation gain had to be considerations when determining pack weight.  Backpacking is one of the most strenuous outdoor activities because of all the weight you carry, and it’s one with the most caloric expenditure.

The photo above shows our campsite the second night on our Isle Royale backpack trip. This was Len and Laura’s first backpack, and Scott and I were teaching them the techniques they needed to learn, such as how to choose a place to erect your tent, how to bear-bag your food, how to purify water, how to safely extinguish fires at bedtime, how to read topographic maps and use a compass, how to cross rivers and creeks, etc. They had camped often with their family, but only in established campgrounds and using their popup trailer camper, so much of this was new to them. 

Our second night, we were atop the Greenstone Ridge which is the mountain ridge that is the backbone of the island and runs most of the length of this 40 mile long island. The night we were there was one of the nights that the Perseid Meteor Shower was on display, and since we were at the high point of the island which is in Lake Superior near Canada, there is absolutely no light pollution from cities. We walked to a spot without  trees and had an absolutely astounding view of the meteor shower. Quite spectacular!

Another fringe benefit of backpacking is all the wildlife sightings. Isle Royale is a “closed system” since wildlife can’t get to the island or off it. A moose population of about 1500 and a wolf population of a couple dozen share the island. This moose was in a pond, and as we hiked the trails and boardwalks, we saw dozens of moose which are used to seeing humans, and since they’ve never been hunted, they have no fear of us. Several times, I had to leave the trail or boardwalk and detour around a  huge moose (they can weigh over 1000 pounds) that was blocking the trail as it browsed on foliage. 

The photo below is of a yellow bellied marmot, a large member of the squirrel family. They live in burrows generally above 8000 feet in altitude and are herbivores. We often had them as guests in our campsites up high in the mountains. I guess I should re-phrase that and say we were their guests since we were the visitors in their habitat.

Bears as well as ground critters are attracted to food smells and other odiferous objects in your pack and also may have an innate curiosity toward things not usually found in their normal environment. The backpacker must take great care never to bring any odiferous attractants into the tent to avoid enticing them to claw and chew into your tent. 

On a backpack in Michigan’s Porcupine Wilderness State Park, Scott and I on our final night were awakened after midnight by a loud sound outside the tent. A bear was muscling through the underbrush and arrived at our tent and began snuffling the tent. Bears don’t brush their teeth or floss, so its breath, which we could smell through the two layers of tent fabric, was horrendously stinky. The critter circled the tent, sniffing the entire time hoping to smell food. Scott and I never brought food into tents so the bear was stifled, and after a terrifying five minutes or so (perhaps shorter but it sure seemed like a long time!) he left. I then heard the bear locate the tree where our food bags were hanging a hundred feet away. We were unable to fall asleep for quite a while, and a couple hours later we had a repeat performance as the bear returned. Again we awoke and I sat up with my .357 Smith and Wesson revolver in my hand in case the bear decided to rip the thin fabric with his sharp claws and endanger us. Once again he snuffled all around the tent, smelled nothing, and left. 

The next morning, I went to the tree where our food bags were hanging. The bags were still suspended high above the ground, but there were numerous claw marks where the intelligent bear had tried to claw the tree trunk to break the parachute cord I used to hang the bags. We heard a neighboring backpacker a hundred yards or so away loudly swearing and we investigated. The bear had managed to get his food bag down, had clawed it open, had then eaten all the cheese and snack and food items, and even had clawed open the foil packets of freeze dried food and licked the contents out! Since Scott and I were on our last day and heading back to the car, we gave the unlucky hiker a bunch of our extra food so he could continue his journey well fed.

Most national forests allow at-large camping — backpackers can set up camp anywhere they want as long as they remain a hundred feet from water sources and a similar distance from trails.  Most national parks, however, require you to stay in designated camping areas and often require you to register for a campsite for each night of your trip. These sites often provide food poles to hang your food as seen in the photo below, or sometimes they provide ground-level bear-proof metal food boxes.

The rangers do not want bears to become habituated to people food because then the bears become dangerous as they try to take food from people. The photo above was taken on my 44 mile solo backpack of Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake  Superior’s shore.

In Glacier National Park, Len and Scott and I were surprised to find five-gallon paint buckets suspended from pulleys for us to store our food high off the ground. I told the ranger I’d never seen a system like that and he chuckled and said it was his invention. It seems they have flying squirrels there, and the squirrels used to climb above the food bags, glide down to the bags, claw them open, and then the squirrels and the bears would feast on the food that fell to the ground. Pretty smart critters — and pretty clever ranger, too!

When Len and I backpacked part of the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we slept in three-sided shelters called huts as seen above. The fourth side at that time was a chain link fence with a gate, though the fencing was removed a few years later. All the hikers’ food was hung from string attached to the ceiling rafters. One morning we awoke to a bear outside the fencing looking in at us eight or so hikers inside, and I joked that it was a reverse zoo, with the animals outside and the people inside!

One of the most scenic campsites I’ve ever found was in Grand Teton National Park as I backpacked up Paintbrush Canyon. It was the first night of my trip and as the afternoon wore on I began to look for a place to stop for the night. I noticed a small trail going uphill off to my left and on a whim turned onto it. A few hundred feet later I came to a ridge top with a large clearing and immediately knew it would be perfect for my home that night. The view overlooking Jackson Lake and the Gros Ventre Mountains in  the distance was breathtaking as seen in the photo below. The dead, barkless tree in the center of this photo provided a place to hang my backpack and food bag, and a convenient boulder near the edge served as a backrest as I sat reading or just gazing out at the scenery. I wandered over to the other edge of the ridge (to the right of the photo) and down in the valley below was a moose browsing on flora growing in a pond. And once again, a cute and inquisitive marmot was sharing his home with me for the night, which was why I also hung my pack from the dead tree. 

The next night I was up above snow line at Holly Lake in a park service campsite area, and a backcountry ranger was also spending the night there. He came over to check my permit and I told him about the magnificent campsite I had found the night before. He began smiling and then said that he had discovered that area last year and had constructed the little trail up to the ridge and created a level place for a tent. I got up, walked over to him, shook his hand, and profusely thanked him for one of the finest campsites I’d ever used!

The next day I hiked up to the pass and encountered this snowfield blocking the trail. Look closely and you’ll see the footprints marking the trail going across the center of the photo. I had been warned that snow was still in the high country so I had purchased a snow-axe and watched the movie showing how to stop your body if you began to slide downhill while negotiating a snowfield. I was glad I had the tool and was able to get across safely!

Below are a couple of other scenic campsites I found over my years of backpacking.The first is at Hidden Lake in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness in Idaho's Targahee National Forest.

The photo below is in the Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington's Pinchot National Forest. You may be seeing a theme here: Yes, I prefer camping each night alongside a bubbling brook or roaring river or calm lake, both for the ambience and the convenient water source. Len used to tell our colleagues at work and his wife that after returning from a backpack trip with me, he had to sleep at home with the bathtub water running so he could get to sleep with the sound of running water as he'd become accustomed to each night!

My solo backpack of 32 miles around Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone National  Park required a free permit from the backcountry office, which entailed filling out an application form declaring the campsites I would use each night, and then watching a brief safety video. As the ranger noticed my vehicle outside, she saw my license plate seen below and chuckled, “Well, you probably don’t need the video!” 

But I told her that even though I’d backpacked over 50 times across the country at that point, I’d still watch the video, because every trip I took I learned something new. And that was the truth -- as experienced as I had become, I still encountered new situations and developed new skills and techniques on every backpack.

When I asked her what I’d be encountering on the hike, she told me I’d have five or six places where I’d have to ford rivers. Despite all my prior experience, I’d seldom had to ford a creek or river. I’d always been able to cross water either on a bridge built by a trail crew, or by stepping on rocks in the creek, or by locating and using a downed tree upriver or downriver from the trail crossing, or with shallow water, simply walking through the water since my GoreTex waterproof boots kept my feet dry as deep as six or eight inches of water as seen below...

I asked her why there weren’t bridges in Yellowstone and she said their annual spring melting of all their winter snow created huge flash floods down all the rivers which would destroy trail bridges, so there were no bridges on backcountry trails.

The first creek I encountered was shallow and only four feet wide, so one boot went into the creek and I easily stretched to reach the other side. Next I hit a wetland area that was still flooded from the spring melt off but it also proved no problem. Shoshone Lake and my first campsite came next seen below.  And I indeed learned something that first afternoon in Yellowstone. Upon reaching this campsite, I took off my pack and leaned it against the post with the orange marker on it, which gave the number of the campsite. Unfortunately, the sharp corner of metal rectangle with the number punctured my air mattress seen at the bottom of the above photo, and even though I carry a repair kit, the puncture was across a seam so the patch wouldn't hold, so for the next three nights, I was basically sleeping on the ground.

On day two, I reached Shoshone Lake Geyser Basin, seen below. Unlike other geyser basins in Yellowstone such as Norris and Old Faithful, this one gets little traffic since it requires a nine mile hike to reach this secluded area. It has no boardwalks, just a meandering gravel trail leading you past many of the 110 thermal features, some of which have animal skeletons in them. One person died here in 1988.

Next I came to the trail’s end, or so it looked. The area ahead of me was a huge wetland with Shoshone Lake visible in the distance (photo below.) This was overflow from the lake created by the large snowmelt from the huge winter snows of 1996-97, and I just had to hike through the morass until I reached solid ground. That was one heck of a lengthy “fording!”

The toughest water crossing was next, Moose Creek. The creek was only 25 feet or so wide, but the water was rushing, and because it was dark water, I couldn’t gauge how deep it was on the far side. I took off my pack and scouted both directions to see if there was a better place to cross, hoping to find a downed tree I could use as a bridge. Nothing was available even though I went many hundreds of yards upriver and downriver. Nor could I locate a fallen tree branch to use as a staff for a third point of contact with the river bed as I crossed. So I realized I just had to do it. Going back was not an option. I unclasped both my hip belt and chest strap so I could jettison the pack if I was knocked off my feet by the current, because a pack could wind up drowning you. I took off my boots and strapped them to my pack and put on my camp shoes (old running shoes) and began crossing. The water was knee deep, then waist deep, but then as I neared the other side, it became chest deep and I felt the current pushing me downriver and off my feet, so I lunged for a tree trunk  that was on the bank and wrapped both arms around it and pulled myself up the riverbank, safely on the other side but with my heart racing from fear and excitement! It was near the end of the day, so I set up camp nearby and relaxed the rest of the afternoon. Then the worst catastrophe of the whole trip occurred. I finished the book I was reading and I hadn’t brought a second book with me!

The next day I hit Lewis Channel seen below which connected Shoshone Lake with Lewis Lake. It was the crossing I had been most concerned about because it was nearly a hundred feet  across, but it turned out to be the easiest because it was shallow the whole way and had a nice gravel bottom.

Speaking of bridges over creeks, I’ve helped build about a dozen bridges on various volunteer trail projects including this one we built up at 10,000 feet in Utah’s Manti-LaSal National Forest. I'm on the far left. (My 30 volunteer trail projects can be found here.)

Most hiking trails are well defined dirt paths that guide you through tunnels of trees or through picturesque meadows of tundra in Alaska’s Denali State Park as seen in the next two photos.

But sometimes you encounter boulder fields as in the next photo, also in Denali. You may notice that we are all using hiking poles to give us a third and fourth point of contact with the ground to help us negotiate this treacherous terrain which is unforgiving and can easily give you a twisted ankle or wrenched knee with a misstep. You might also notice that we are all wearing rain gear and even our packs have rain covers. The rain made all of these rock surfaces even slipperier and more hazardous. While backpacking, you take whatever the trail gives you! 

You may have heard of the famous Appalachian Trail that runs about 2160 miles from Georgia to Maine, passing through 14 states and a dozen national forests, state parks, and national parks. Completing the trail means you have gained and loss 464,500 feet of elevation, and the hike takes from six to eight months.

I never attempted a thru-hike of the entire trail because I had a job and a family and could not dedicate over half a year to the hike. But I have backpacked or day hiked a  number of sections of the trail in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire.

I mention this because the roughest backpacking I’ve ever encountered  is a section of the AT that I hiked in the Pemigewasset Wilderness of New Hampshire’s White Mountains National Forest. I arrived at this massive jumble of large boulders and tried to figure out where the trail had gone. I had been faithfully following the white blazes (paint marks on trees and rocks showing the trail’s path) and the blazes seemed to end at the foot of this massive accumulation of rocks seen below.  I puzzled about his for a few minutes. There was nowhere the trail could have gone except up this rubble, and then I noticed a white blaze painted on a rock high up the pile. Apparently I was supposed to scramble and climb up and over these fallen boulders! As I eventually got to the top of this mess, my legs were abraded and bleeding and blood had run down and stained my knee-high hiking socks. It was even worse than the hiking we did in the Denali photos above, and I was glad when I’d finally struggled my way to the top. And remember, this is all being accomplished with a heavy pack on my back! Again, you take what the trail gives you!

According to the guide book, I was then atop Bond Mountain and the views were called the finest in the entire White Mountains! Well not that day. The fog was so thick I couldn’t see more than fifty feet in front of me. This photo below doesn’t really do the fog justice though you can see that the magnificent mountains in the distance are completely obscured. I figured it was just my luck. In the spring, Len and I had backpacked in the Smokies and run into fog when up high, and Scott and I had run into fog earlier that summer when we had returned to Isle Royale to backpack the entire length of the island. 

So I continued, and as seen in the fog photo above, the trail seems to just end at a cliff. And the top of the cliff had an overhang so I couldn’t see what the cliff face below looked like. It was 20 feet or more down to where I could see the trail continuing, but there was no obvious way to get down. I took off my pack and tried to scout to the left and right to find a safe and easy way down, but no luck.  I was on a peninsula of ridge that ended right there. I was due back at the motel that evening and couldn’t retrace my two and a half days of mileage to return to my car. I was in another quandary, perplexed as to my best course of action. 

Finally I realized I had to try to climb down the cliff face. It was too far down to jump or to even drop my backpack. I could get out my parachute cord and lower the pack, but first I decided to investigate what the cliff face was like below the overhang of the cliff -- the part I couldn't see. I loosened my pack, and facing the cliff face, I carefully and nervously lowered myself over the overhang a bit, chest and belly to the cliff, with my feet dangling until they thankfully found purchase. There was a rock step unseen from on top. A bit relieved, I put my entire weight on the step, and then was beyond the overhand that had blocked my view, and I noticed that there were lots of places to step and my descent was actually simple, safe, and pleasurable. Below is the photo I took after climbing down. A hiker coming the other way would have no qualms about climbing up. It was actually quite easy. But being blind at the top, there was no way of knowing what was below.

So I finished the final few miles to my car and began the several hour drive to the hotel. A dozen miles down the road I passed through a small community with a McDonalds so I pulled in to have lunch. I parked in the lot and began to get out of the car and my whole body froze up. The three days of strenuous hiking and all the boulder climbing, followed by 20 minutes or so of driving, had caused all my muscles to tighten and walking was very painful. I also discovered that I had developed some bad blisters on my feet from the rough terrain. So I went back into my car, drove through the drive-thru, then back into the parking lot, where I ate the meal in the car.

When I arrived at the hotel a few hours later, my body had frozen again during the drive, so I slowly limped into the hotel like an old infirm senior citizen instead of the strong vibrant backpacker who had just tackled what the guide book called the hardest section of the Appalachian Trail. I went up to my room, ran the hottest water I could stand into the bath tub, and relaxed in the water for over 30 minutes!

My backpacking had began as a youngster in Scouts and then resumed in 1989 and continued until 2010, at which point I realized that my aging body was no longer capable of that kind of abuse. But I didn’t feel cheated because I could no longer backpack. I’d had a great run,with over 60 backpack trips in 52 different locations across the country (all my adventures are found here, with photos and info.) I’d seen lots of wondrous sights, sights that comparatively few people would ever see because the places were so tough to get to. I’d also had countless wonderful wildlife encounters and met lots of interesting people.  

Finally, speaking of interesting people I’ve met on backpacks, these guys are the most unique. While backpacking up the Vallecito Creek Trail in Colorado’s Weminiuche Wilderness, Len and I came upon these four gentlemen as we crossed the long bridge over the creek. 

They were standing at the far end of the bridge, each holding a long rifle and looking pretty scruffy and daresay even menacing. It was pretty intimidating because you seldom run into people with open-carry firearms while backpacking. (I carried a gun, but it was always in my backpack or my fanny pack, never obvious.) 

We stopped and talked to them and wound up camping near their camp, and they invited us to share their campfire that night. These four friends (Cricket, Lodi, Hopi, and Flip) had all left their jobs for a month-long trek through the mountains, reenacting a mid-1800s trip to the “Rocky Mountain Rendezvous” where mountain men met and sold furs and hides and replenished supplies. All their gear was either original or replica equipment used by the mountain men. In fact, they proudly told us that the only modern gear they carried were their eyeglasses, medications, and topographic maps for their trip. 

They had started out with over 80 pounds each, mostly foodstuffs such as grain and flour and beans, supplemented by small animals they hunted along the way. They were about 25 days into their adventure and were tired and dirty but not anxious to finish the trip. And they told us they were staying there for a few days because their friend Deer Runner, a nearly full-blooded Sioux Indian, was coming from the other direction to meet them and finish the trip with them. As luck would have it, a day later as Len and I ascended to and over Columbine Pass (elevation 12,648), we ran into their friend on his way down to “ambush” them. He kindly allowed us to photograph him, seen below. An hour or so after meeting him, we heard whooping and hollering from behind us as well as a few rifle shots, as the friends obviously played out a mock battle back down the mountainside.

So that's what to expect if you want to try your hand at backpacking. Get your body into condition, get the necessary gear, and begin with easy hikes short distances into the woods so you aren't far from your transportation if you run into a problem. Enjoy!

No comments: