A Return to Backpacking

It has been far too long since I’ve been backpacking.

You would think that as someone who runs a hiking and backpacking website, that I would get out far more than I have in the past year, but the universe has conspired against me and kept me from overnight backpacking adventures. It wasn’t totally my fault. For much of this summer, we have been waiting for snow to melt in the high country and since we have been quite busy with work, we decided to work more during the early and middle summer to save up time for getting out and backpacking when we could actually get into the mountains. We have had a couple of close calls – we had packs ready to go several weeks ago, but the rain had moved in and put an end to our plans. Family obligations and some crazy work schedules put the end to any trips over the past several weeks.

But alas…we were able to make it out this past weekend, and it served as an opportunity to see backpacking fresh and from the perspective of being out of shape and out of the backpacking routine. It was an opportunity to see and think through some of those things that I normally give little thought to, and which may be helpful to those just starting out with the whole backpacking thing.

Frequent breaks and rest periods are essential, at least for me. They help to sustain a happy demeanor and I think that they actually allow me to hike further during the course of a day. They also help to enhance the time when I am hiking, making the entire trip more enjoyable.

During our long distance hikes, and which we have adopted for most of our backpacking adventures, we had been in the habit of taking at least a half hour break every couple of hours and generally at least an hour break for lunch. During these breaks, I would take off my shoes, lean against my backpack, and put my feet up.

With this outing, we abandoned our normal break schedule, instead trudging twelve-and-a-half miles with only a short break of about fifteen minutes, which we spent snacking on a log. We made it well enough, but, as I laid in my sleeping bag fidgeting from tired and sore muscles that evening, I wondered if I would have felt it as badly if we had stuck to our normal break schedule.

I have no idea how I ever backpacked without trekking poles
During last summer’s backpacking trip in the snowy Sierra Nevada’s, my trekking pole sunk a little too deep into a snow patch. Unaware, I continued on, as two sections of pole pulled away from one another, exposing the connecting screw, which of course then snapped (lesson: when using trekking poles in snow, make sure you have baskets on them!). One would think it would be easy to replace the screw, but after substantial effort, I’ve learned it’s not. It’s currently on it’s way back to the manufacturer to be fixed.

Because of unfortunate occurance, and my slow attempts at actually taking care of the problem, this backpacking trip was sans trekking poles. It may be that I am just out of shape from my lack of backpacking, but because I didn’t have trekking poles:
1. My posture was terrible, slightly hunched over to compensate for my pack.
2. I never really got into “the flow”, where my body is working together to move me forward.
3. I didn’t know what to do with my arms. I tried them crossed in front of me, gripping at my backpacking straps over my shoulders, swinging them at my side, and I may have even tried flapping them as I tripped over a rock, in a futile attempt to stall my inevitable smack into the dirt.
3. I learned that falling hurts (the poles have saved many falls in my backpacking history).
4. My feet hurt. It may just be the lack of backpacking over the past year, but my feet were hurting by the end of this one. A large part was that we didn’t take our normal breaks, but perhaps the trekking poles also take some of the pounding from my feet and distribute this weight to my arms and the trekking poles.

Platypuses and Dromedaries are Great
When I first began hiking, we would store our water in nalgene bottles, stopping every so often to take a drink. We have been using water bags (platypus, msr dromedaries, etc…) for so long now I had forgotten how nice it is to have them. I can take a drink when I want and I stay more hydrated, all of which makes the entire experience even better.

Evening (and morning) Hiking is Great
I think it’s the light during this time of day helps to enhance the scenery, longer shadows on mountains, shafts of light piercing through trees. There is also a greater chance of seeing wildlife at the beginning and end of the day – I think even the natural world knows these are the best times of day.

After lunch I also get a little tired and lethargic (even when in the ‘real world’, the afternoon is always asking me for a nap). Around four, my body seems to wake up once again, and I get a second wind that lets me hike pretty well until six or seven.

Mosquitoes Suck
I forget how bad they can be sometimes. It makes me truly appreciate backpacking in September and October when the clouds of mosquitos dissapate. This was a pretty late snow year, which pushed the mosquito season later into the summer.

I like daily bandana baths, and ‘Wet-Ones’ at the end of the trip
It’s amazing how dirty one gets while in the back country. Legs full of dirt and dust, sweat, sunscreen, and bug juice packed in alternating layers on any areas of exposed skin. Each evening I soak a bandana in water and clean up a bit (I do this away from creeks and lakes—probably not good to have those chemicals and general nastiness dropping back into pristine water). While certainly not perfect, it does reinstate some level of civility and makes me feel a whole lot better. I also have a set of camp clothes, and a set of hiking clothes, where camp clothes are never worn during hiking. It always feels great to put on a set of relatively clean clothes (the downside of course, is that each morning I put on an increasingly gross set of hiking clothes).

When the backpack is over, I’m generally pretty far from a shower. We keep a case of ‘wet-ones’ in the car (these are near the diapers in your grocery store). We give ourselves a pretty generous ‘wet-ones’ bath, replacing our stench with the slight smell of chemical cleanliness offerred by the ‘wet-one’s.

It was great getting out. Once the soreness subsided, I fully realized how much I had missed backpacking, and how long it has been. Now with late summer and fall coming, I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of things.