(See also part 2 for more unorganized thoughts on backpacking.)
Some folks may know that I went on my first ever solo backpacking trip (in fact, my first ever backpacking trip, period) over a 3-day weekend this summer. Although I’m gradually putting together a bunch of reviews of books and gear I used, I thought I’d collect together some of the lessons I learned. Note that if you’re expecting deep insights and tales about how I “found myself by losing myself”, you are likely to be disappointed.
I should stress that I am absolutely not an expert, and none of this should be taken as advice. These are just some things that I noticed, that nobody told me about. Some may apply to you; some may be specific to me. Take this, as with everything you read on the internet, with a grain or two of sodium chloride.
Setting up camp
Everyone will tell you that it is very important to setup your tent on flat, level ground, and they are right. What they won’t tell you is that this is essentially impossible. Unless you’re camping on a lava plain, the ground will most likely have some kind of slope to it, and rocks, small plants, and half-buried pine-cones ensure that it will be at least a bit bumpy. (You might be thinking that you can just sweep all those things out of the way, and you’re right, but remember, you have to put them all back when you break camp. Leave no trace!)
The question therefore becomes one of which way do you want your tent to slant? You do not want your head downhill; you will wake up with the worst headache ever. Therefore, you only have to decide between sliding down towards your feet during the night, or rolling to the side. The latter can be made acceptable by putting your pack next to you (inside, or outside, the tent) on the downhill side. The only real problem with the “feetward slide” is that if your tent has vents at the foot (like mine) the foot end of your sleeping bag will get progressively colder as it moves closer to the outside world. If you’re sharing a tent then probably feet-downhill is preferable, as if you roll to the side then someone is going to get squished. But that’s pure conjecture on my part.
Covering the Miles
I didn’t set myself up for any crazy mileage, not knowing how I’d handle carrying a 30lb pack. But it was fine, and I could, and probably should, have tried to get in more distance. Partly because as it was, I was left with many hours in the day and not much to fill them with. I tried to take day hikes (a minimal daypack does not add much weight, and can double as a stuff-sack when you aren’t wearing it) but those can be difficult to schedule, depending on how many hours are left in the day (do I really have enough time to climb that mountain and get back before dark?).
Answering Nature’s Call
Going to the bathroom is not particularly difficult; in retrospect, I spent a lot of time and effort researching what turned out to be pretty simple. Certainly, it doesn’t have enough inherent complexity to warrant an entire book. Indeed, Meyer’s “classic” spends a great deal of time talking about other things: female-specific concerns, group latrines, etc.
I will reserve the gruesome details of my own personal procedure for answering Nature’s call for a later post. Let’s get this off on the right foot, shall we? Suffice it to say that having read a few things on the most sanitary, leave-no-trace methods, all it took was one “implementation” to clear up any issues.
Good Night Moon
Getting to sleep can be a troublesome affair. In the area where I was, it was in the low 70s when I went to bed, and in the low 40s when I woke up in the morning. Such a dramatic change meant that I had to adjust my sleeping arrangements throughout the night. When I first went to bed, I had all the vents on my tent open, and wore only a T-shirt and shorts, and had my bag unzipped and both my legs lying out of it. As the night went on, I closed vents, added layers, and cocooned myself in my fully-zipped and cinched sleeping bag.
I have a minimal sleeping pad, but I think for me it might be too minimal. Not because of temperature, but because I sleep at least some of the time on my side.
I spent a lot of time after dinner (more on food, later) but before bed, walking, on the theory that I would “tire myself out” and thus have no trouble getting to sleep. Physically, I was tired, but I tend to spend my walking time thinking, so my brain was very much awake and not particularly inclined to sleep. I’m not sure how to solve this problem…
In the morning, it is very important to check your tent for condensation on the inside, and if there is any, to wipe it down. If you don’t, first, eventually you will get mold, and second, and of more immediate concern, when you set it up the next night and try to sleep, it will feel like sleeping in a sauna. Just as a general rule, for me at least, humidity is much worse than cold, so leaving some vents (or even a door) open to get a breeze through is acceptable.
I’ve heard some people recommend a mid-day nap. I’m not sure I’d trust myself to actually go to sleep in the middle of the day and still wake up in time to continue hiking any reasonable distance. But a couple of times I did lie down on a rock and pull my hat over my eyes…
Three days is too long or not long enough
I’ve since heard from other people that three days is just about the worst length for a backpacking trip. With a straight overnighter, you know you’re going home the next day. Three days pushes that just far enough into the future to be a bit stressful, but not so far that you can really get used to living your life alternating between walking and sleeping in a tent.
That coupled with my unfortunate habit of thinking (and sometimes talking, to myself) incessantly while walking led my mind to some pretty strange places. Most people have probably had the experience of being in bed, either trying to get to sleep or else having woken up in the middle of the night, and your mind will just not shut up. This was a major problem for me my second night, coupled with the overt strangeness of my thoughts. (I wasn’t contemplating suicide or anything, but did spend an inordinate amount of time thinking intently about what it would take to eat a toaster oven. Which would probably prove fatal if you actually did it.)
So yes, my next time will either be a quick overnighter (most likely) or a week-long trip. (Who wants to do a segment of the JMT with me next summer?)
Nido is disgusting. It was recommended instead of Gatorade-like substances as something to mix into your water to get some more electrolytes and so forth. When used to make “milk”, it tastes like a strange hybrid of whole milk and cheap nacho cheeze sauce. It is acceptable in mac-n-cheese or coffee, but absolutely intolerable on its own or with breakfast cereal.
Speaking of breakfast, I don’t eat breakfast. It’s not my thing. I thought I would be hungry in the morning, but I never was. It would have been better to have just snacked on granola during the day instead of trying to force myself to eat it when I got up. A (small) cup of coffee or tea (or maybe some simple soup) would have been more than sufficient.
Food, in general, is another area where I don’t think I really had time to adapt. I was never particularly hungry, despite eating much less than normal. I often had to force myself to eat breakfast and lunch. Dinner was usually no problem; I’d built up an appetite by then.
I don’t like tuna from a pouch. Actually, I don’t like tuna in anything but tuna salad. The pouched salmon is, surprisingly, much more mild and to my liking. Chicken is available in pouches, but they seem to be double or triple the weight of the tuna/salmon pouches. I don’t have much use for a pound of chicken whilst on the trail.
Other Uncategorized Thoughts
Don’t pack your backpack to its absolute fullest capacity. You will never be able to pack things as efficiently in the field as at home, so if you use up all your space to start with, you’ll be tying things on the outside or stuffing them in your pants pockets in the woods. I found that my gear “expanded” by about 10% after my first night.
I’m not sure how fastidious to be about hiding away items that might have a scent in my bear canister. I kept my chapstick in my pants pocket (if I didn’t, I’d forget to use it) and packed my pot, after washing, back into my pack at night. I know some people keep their entire cookset in their canisters, and I have heard stories about people being “investigated” during the night because of (e.g.) chapstick left in the tent.
Although I took toothpaste, I didn’t use it; I brushed with baking soda. It’s odorless and works just fine; just make sure you don’t accidentally use any of the scented varieties. Those are only for absorbing odors, and fundamentally not for cooking or tooth-brushing. For future trips I may try tooth powder or maybe miswak.