Getting Started

I have an inclination to say JUST DO IT, but cannot, because the back-country can be a dangerous place, even for those who are experienced. Consequently, I recommend a few preliminary steps as you begin your backpacking adventures.

  1. Knowledge thru Reading
  2. Knowledge & Experience Thru Courses & Clubs
  3. Get in Shape–Stay in Shape

Acquire Backpacking Knowledge thru reading:

Read at least one reputable book on backpacking basics and one on back-country first aid (not the same as Red-Cross methods).

Basic Backpacking

  • Backpacking One Step at a Time; Harvey Manning; Paperback.

First Aid

  • Mountaineering First Aid : A Guide to Accident Response and First Aid Care (5th Edition); Jan D., Phd Carline, Martha J., Rn Lentz, Steven C. MacDonald; Paperback.
  • Wilderness Medicine, Beyond First Aid (6th Edition); William Forgey; Paperback.

Acquire Knowledge & Experience Through Courses & Back-country Organizations:

Mountaineering, Backpacking, Hiking, offered by local governments, schools, and private outdoor groups.
Join an Outdoor Club (Sierra Club, Mountaineers, Hiking Clubs, etc.). These groups provide a fast way to learn proven techniques & make friends who have similar interests.

Get in Shape–Stay in Shape:

I recently heard someone referring to backpackers, in general, as having a T-REX SYNDROME. That is, obsession with exercising only the legs. In fact, it’s important for hiking, and especially backpacking, that we have strong lower back, upper back, and abdominal muscles, in addition to strong legs. Find exercises that strengthen those muscles. For example, a rowing machine–as well as a machine like the Health Rider–will work the back, leg, and ab muscles. For those of us who get bored sitting on a machine, get a bicycle and rowboat.I have found that lifting weights, machine workouts, jogging, etc., is appropriate and very helpful, but for some reason, the only activity that really gets me in shape and keeps me in shape for alpine hiking, backpacking, and scrambling is the hiking itself. You can find my method of staying in shape for year-around backpacking below:

Here are some suggestions for getting in shape, staying in shape, and staying healthy:

Know your physical condition. Not just the “in shape” or “outta shape” question, but how’s your heart–had a checkup lately ? Know as much as possible about your current condition before you even start an exercise program (if not already on one). That knowledge will also minimize potential problems in the back-country. If you have a health condition, of any consequence, understand beforehand, the implications and potential impact of strenuous exercise and venturing into the back-country. If you haven’t already, get the medical check-up to find out – one way or the other – if you have anything to be concerned about. The back-country is not the place for medical emergencies. There’s just no 911 out there !

Already in Shape? If you exercise regularly, you may already be in good enough shape to tackle day hikes over easy to moderate terrain. However, walking (or jogging – not something to which I would subject my knees) on pavement is not the same as carrying a pack over a rough trail tread. My suggestion is to first, at least, put on a pack loaded with 5 more pounds than you would be carrying on your hike, then truck around the neighborhood for a few miles to see how it feels. Next, plan a short hike to see how you fare on a trail with the pack on. Gradually, in addition to your regular exercise program, take more difficult hikes that keep challenging you as well as increasing your level of conditioning and endurance. This method is the least painful, if you will, because it leverages off of what you already have and gets you on the trail, immediately. What could be better than hiking yourself into hiking condition.

Not in Shape? If you’re not in good physical condition, you should take the time to set up a regular exercise program. It must be consistent and it must be a priority (or, guaranteed, you will not be consistent and you’ll always be on the brink of getting in shape–but not quite). Hey, I’ve been there! Also, I’ve seen many folks who want to go hiking but get discouraged when doing so primarily because they did not get into hiking condition beforehand. Hiking is so very rewarding in multiple ways but it is a strenuous activity.

Just Start Somewhere. Swimming, Biking (human powered), Walking. It’s good to have a variety of activities which exercise a variety of muscles. Machines are okay – Health Rider, Nordic Track, Stationary Bikes, Rowing Machines, Tread Mill – they all work okay, some better than others. I use a combination of Health Rider, free weights, and hiking to stay in shape. Some days, I don’t feel like sitting inside on a machine, so I just lift a few weights, then strap weights to my ankles and take a two mile walk. Point is, start a program you’re comfortable with and stick to it on a consistent basis.

Anticipate Level of Difficulty, and Train Accordingly. You will put yourself and your fellow packers at risk, if you think you can wait til the trip and then get in shape on the trail. Two years ago, I went on a five-day trip with a group of Mountaineers. One of the people used to hike with his sons carrying 50 pounds of gear. He was fairly active, a skier and such, so thought he would be okay, based on past experiences. Thus, he went on the hike without training specifically for it. He lasted half a day. Couldn’t go on – he was really hurting. He had to go back to the trail-head and wait for us for four additional days (because he was one of the drivers). At least he didn’t get hurt. We were all impacted in a negative way.

Moral: get in shape to carry your anticipated load before the trip. Several weeks before a trip, I anticipate how much weight I will be carrying, then prepare a pack that weighs 10 pounds more than that. That, then, becomes my training pack for the next several weeks – about four or five nights a week – right up until two or three days before the trip. In addition, I continue with my normal exercising routine. That way, I’m very confident I will be successful on the trail and that my fellow packers can count on me to be strong, healthy and happy.

Stretching is important. Stretching muscles reduces muscle tension and allows better, more flexible movement. Prior to your daily workout, whether in the backcountry, or at home, take some time to stretch your lower back, legs, torso, neck, etc. If you’re not sure how or what, do some research – there’s plenty of material available on the subject. The point I want to make here is that stretching is necessary and will help prevent soreness and injury, both on and off the trail.

Prevent “Pack Lifting” Injury. Jerking a heavy – 30 or more pounds – pack off the ground and swinging it onto your back is a good way to injure your back. There’s several popular, and safe, ways to do it. The one I use the most is to place my pack on the ground with shoulder harness facing me; next, I grab the shoulder straps – one in each hand – and with straight to slightly bent back and slightly bent knees, I put my knee into the backpadding of the pack and pull the pack up my leg to the upper thigh. With my leg now under the pack for support, I slide my right arm thru the shoulder harness and then turn and do the same with my left arm. Next, I tighten the hip belt and proceed to secure pack as usual. This may have taken a lot of words to explain, but it’s relatively intuitive, fast and safe. Another method is to rest the pack on a tree stump or embankment and squat down to slip into the shoulder harness. Yet another method is to have someone hold the pack while you slip into the harness.

Stay in Shape During the Winter:

Especially the older we get (I’m 67+), trying to “get in shape for the hiking season” results in significant physiological and psychological stress. Lack of commitment to physical conditioning is probably the main reason that many people, who otherwise enjoy hiking and backcountry activities, give it up. It can be hard work (and painful) especially if you are not in proper physical condition.There are numerous ways to stay in shape, during the Winter. The first requisite, though, is to make it a priority, otherwise you probably won’t find the time, at least not on a consistent basis.

My personal training regimen remains consistent throughout the year. I do leg, back, and neck stretches as well as abdominal exercises at least once and sometimes twice a day. Several times a week I exercise my leg and back muscles on a Health Rider machine (saw it advertised in Backpacker Mag. – don’t regret getting one. I put 50 pounds of weight on it (under the seat) and proceed to do 200 to 400 reps. Let’s see, that’s 50 lbs + my 165 lbs = 215 lbs that my legs are pushing.

I also exercise arms and shoulders with 5 lb dumb-bells. Then, after the stretching & warmup exercises, I don a 30 pound pack, strap 2.5 lb weights on each ankle (in addition to a 2.5 pound Raichle Eiger boot on each foot) and proceed to hike 2 miles up and down the Cascade foothills around my home – again four or five times a week. Oh yes, I also go hiking, year around.

So how about you? Find out what works for you and then JUST DO IT!

The Most Important Essential–Common Sense

  • “Common Sense”
    One of those abstract concepts that we use when talking to employees, students, and children, with the assumption that everyone understands what it means, when if fact, we don’t. Well, here’s what it means when I use it:

Common-Sense Glossary: (from the Oxford Modern English Dictionary):

  • Sense: (n) …..4.a/ quick or accurate appreciation, understanding, or instinct regarding a specific matter….b/ the habit of basing one’s conduct on such instinct. 5/ practical wisdom or judgement, common sense; conformity to these….
  • Common Sense: (n) sound practical sense, esp. in everyday matters.
  • Practical: (adj) 1/ concerned with practice rather than theory. 2/ suited to use or action…..5/ concerned with what is actually possible.
  • Pragmatism: (n) ……2/ a philosophy that evaluates assertions solely by their practical consequences and bearing on human interests.
    Intuition: (n) 1/ immediate apprehension by the mind or by a sense. 2/ immediate insight.
  • Instinct: (n) b/….propensity in human beings to act without conscious intention; innate impulsion. 2/ unconscious skill; intuition.
  • Sixth Sense: (n) ….facility giving intuitive or extrasensory knowledge.The exercise of common-sense is a requirement for the entire “back country-experience life-cycle”, from initial thoughts, thru actual planning, transportation to, execution of back-country trip, and return trip home.

Plan Carefully. Plan your back-country trips, thoroughly, before you leave home. Be as knowledgeable about what lies ahead as physically possible, and you will be much better positioned to achieve and maintain a healthy attitude, perceived and actual security, as well as a darn good time.
Communicate Your Plans to Friends & Family. Make a hard copy of the destination and time table for your trip and give it to friends or family. Draw on a topographical map where you will be, how long you will be there, and when you should be back home. This may be your link to survival should you run into trouble in an isolated area.
Know When to Turn Around & Go Back. Follow your knowledge, training, and gut instincts (the “sixth sense”). If you are unsure about a traverse, a climb, a trail, exposure to weather – whatever – back off, live another day, and contemplate your alternatives. Select a different route; Pitch your tent and layover until the storm passes; Wait til morning when the river’s water level is lower, before crossing, etc. Keep in mind, ignoring your “sixth sense” and pushing forward into a questionable situation might be challenging and macho, but it can also be called stupid and have deadly consequences, for both you and your mates. Remember, many of the climbers who’ve been killed on Everest were the victims of their own inability to turn around when their gut was telling them to do so.
Listen to Your Body–Undress Before Overheat, Dress Before Chills – Drink Often – Eat Regularly.Not only does our psychological and spiritual being speak to us, but our physiological parts send us loud messages as well.

Hypothermia is a real concern in the back-country. It’s a condition resulting from your body’s core temperature dropping below normal. The symptoms you’d likely experience are lack of coordination, chills & shivering, slow speech, and acting out of character. It’s important to recognize and even anticipate these early warning signs, and respond to them, accordingly. Several of the mild cases that I’ve seen resulted from persons exerting high-energy, getting wet with their own sweat, then getting chilled when they stop. For mild hypothermia, get the person into warm, dry conditions – clothes, tent, sleeping bag and provide and encourage consumption of warm drinks.

Hypothermia is also a problem. It can occur, mainly in hot, dry summer temperatures, when your internal body heat can’t be released fast enough and you overheat.

The Mountaineering First Aid book, suggested earlier, covers in detail, both hypo & hypothermia.

I automatically put on a jacket when I stop, even if the sun is out. Once I dry off a bit and my body temperature stabilizes, I can take off the jacket. The point is this, try to avoid dramatic body temperature swings, one way or the other. When you first start out on a hike, it’s typical that you’ll want to stop after about 15 minutes or so, to take a “clothes break”. Take off your jacket or long underwear bottoms so that you don’t overheat on the trail. When stopping for breaks, either (1) make the breaks short enough that you don’t get chilled or (2) put some clothes on. Repeat this cycle of putting clothes on and taking clothes off, forever.

Drink much fluid, eat much food. Many times, I get so caught up in “trucking down the trail” that I forget to stop and eat and drink. On several occasions, I’ve experienced dehydration and got a little sick. I usually recognize the need to snack on the trail, though, as I start to lose energy after awhile, so I must grab a little snack to refuel. The point here is that it is critical to replace the fluids that are gushing out of your body, as you exercise, as well as a steady supply of nutrition, via snacks & meals, in order to maintain health & energy. Also, keep in mind, if with other packers, remind each other to follow this guidance.

Carry Gear That You Perceive Will Maintain Your High Level of Security: Determine the gear that YOU NEED to maintain your personal level of security and then seek out the smallest, lightest, highest-quality manifestation of that gear.Don’t be overly influenced by “lightweight gear freaks”, but, also, for your own safety, avoid the “everything but the kitchen sink syndrome”. Explore the equipment links below, then decide what makes you feel safe and comfortable, then start out with that as a baseline. As you become more experienced, you will discover that your gear configurations will evolve toward efficiency and, hopefully, lighter weight. Remember, though, as you determine your gear needs, a too-large pack makes a person more vulnerable to falling down as well as to back, leg, knee, and foot injuries, and a too-small pack may compromise your personal security, due to lack of necessary gear.


Strive for a Simple, Light Load on your back. A light, but efficient load, will allow you to have a more enjoyable time with energy left over to celebrate when you reach your destination. Before embarking on a gear shopping trip, have your pockets full of information related to:

What kind of trips you will be taking:

  • How many days?
  • How many miles?
  • In what kind of terrain–on trail, off trail?
  • At what altitude–desert, sub-alpine, alpine?
  • In what seasons–Summer, 3-Season, 4-Season
  • In what kind of weather?
  • How many people–solo, 2-person, etc.?
  • Do you sleep hot or cold?
  • Do you rock & roll in your sleep?
  • Are you a heavy breather, in your sleep?
  • What’s your torso measurement?
  • Do you have weak hips or weak lumbar ? (most packs put majority of weight on hips–some put more weight on the lumbar region (my personal preference).

This information will be critical when talking tents, boots, clothes, backpacks, sleeping bags, and virtually all the other gear items you will need–some of which you don’t even know you need, yet. Trust me, an experienced salesperson will ask about and use every one of the info items I mentioned above, and probably more.
When trying on hiking shoes and boots, take the socks you would wear during your back-country adventures–as well as orthopedic inserts (orthodics). If you don’t know what socks you’ll be wearing, then that’s where you should start. If you change thickness and design of sock subsequent to purchase, that good boot fit you work hard for, may be history.
Shop at stores with reputable, experienced salespeople. This may surprise you, but my advise, if you are just starting out — UNLESS YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU NEED — is to stay away from outdoor chain stores! My suggestion is to go to shops like Marmot, Wilderness Experience, Feathered Friends–all stores I frequent in my part of the world–and get help you can count on from experienced back-country folks. Marmot and Feathered Friends also do mail order. Check your local area for the best outdoor shops. If the chain stores are all you have, then make darn sure you’ve done your homework–for your own good–and get a second and third opinion.

More and more I do my shopping over the internet. A lot of good quality shops on the net – for example, The Lightweight Gear shop. This is a great alternative especially if you have a good idea of your required specifications. Even it you don’t, many online shops will work with you to ensure you get what you really need.

Plan your gear inventory & purchases. Using the information that you just supplied yourself–from above, as well as knowledge you gain from studying the following four links and links on the “Gear Links” page–identify, as much as you can, the types and specifications of the gear you desire. This approach to acquiring gear will reduce your (1) dependence on sales people to figure out what you need and, (2) subsequent need to buy, sell, & buy gear multiple times before you get what you actually, really need.

The Walking Stick

Strive to Lighten Your Load ! You don’t need to be a “lightweight gear” neurotic to know that this makes sense. Here’s some old methods and some new innovations intended to lighten the load. If you don’t already know, every ounce is heavy, therefore, every ounce removed from your back, lightens your load. You might want to explore these pages before purchasing gear–there’s some good weight-reduction to be had via acquisition of specific kinds of gear.
Use a Checklist, like the one below, for (1) trip planning purposes and (2) ensuring that you’ve remembered everything.

Know Your Gear. Acquiring the right gear is the first step. You must then gain a keen knowledge of how each piece of gear works, how it is assembled, and how to maintain it.Practice using each gear item, before you leave home. Visualize having to repair each item in the field (and be prepared to do so). The more you know about your gear and the more comfortable you are with it, the more secure and comfortable you will be while on the trail.

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