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Friday, August 30, 2013

How to Be Awesome at Hiking and Camping: Part 2

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Last time, I talked about the basics of packing for a hiking trip.  But before you set foot on a trail, it's important to take some time to change your mindset.  This is a big focus of all the books and magazines we studied for years, and it makes sense.  Most of us start out with very little experience outside of a very developed society, and the rules and expectations are just different.  You have to think like a hiker when you're in the backcountry, or you and others around you will not have a great time.

Think Like a Hiker

1)  Every Ounce Counts.

Let's talk about those first disaster trips for a second.  What kind of stuff did I pack in my bookbag?  (Because it was a bookbag at that point, not a hiking backpack with padded shoulders and a waist strap.)  Let's see:  hardback books, jeans, cans of beef stew (gross), and an entire canister of Gatorade powder.  Like, enough to make 30 gallons of Gatorade.

Why?  Why would I bring those horribly heavy, terribly impractical things on a three-day (ended up being a one-and-a-half day) hike?  Because I wasn't thinking like a hiker and because I was terrified of forgetting something.  This is why it's so important to make your master list and go through it many, many times.  You don't want to be impulsively throwing extra things in your bag at the last minute "just in case you need them."  That's a good way to add another ten or so pounds to your pack.

The "Every Ounce Counts" rule means that you get rid of all the extra packaging when you pack your food.  It means that you take zip-off pants instead of a separate pair of shorts.  It means that you try to plan your hikes around water sources so you don't have to pack three days worth of water, one of your heaviest items.  This is the number one rule of packing, and it affects everything that you bring.

Some people get really extreme with this rule and drill holes in their toothbrushes, or take off the zipper pulls on their clothing.  Some people buy cheap books and just tear out the few chapters they think they will read on the trip.  If you keep those things in mind, all of a sudden, your debate about whether or not to bring toothpaste doesn't seem so crazy.

2)  Be Prepared

Yes, the old Boy Scout adage.  This seems to contradict the first rule, but they actually work together.  The challenge, and I think the fun, of packing for a hike is to take everything you need and not one thing more.  When you get back from your trip and unpack, you should be able to look at everything in your bag and think, "Yup.  That came in handy."  On the flip side, you shouldn't have to say, "I really wish I'd had that."  (I mean, besides pizza.  Everyone wishes for pizza while they hike.)

Brian is the master of efficient packing.

So when you pack, you are always going back and forth between needing to be prepared and needing to pack lighter.  Again, thinking back to those early trips, I may have had tons of unnecessary stuff, but I didn't have a foam mat, so I froze at night as the ground sucked all the heat out from under me.  All the jeans in my pack couldn't insulate me as well as a thin foam mat would have.  Choose carefully.

3)  Hope for the Disney Ending.  Prep for the Shakespeare Ending.

This kind of goes along with the whole "Be Prepared" thing, but it's a little more specific than that.  You need to think about worst case scenarios.

Because this guy is definitely worst-case scenario.
This guy happened.  To me.

In regular life, worst case scenario usually means we call 911 and have someone available to help us in minutes, or we have a car that we can drive to or away from wherever we do or don't want to go.  In the woods, worst case scenario is pretty bad.  Someone gets hurt, you have no phone signal, and you're several hours away from the nearest road.  Plus, you have no Google to tell you whether or not that little guy up there is going to make your finger fall off, or if the pain is just for funsies.

You need to spend some time reading up on first aid and emergency care.  Learn how to splint a broken bone.  Learn how to signal with a mirror.  Learn how to treat a burn.  Learn to recognize venomous snakes, and whether or not you have flesh-eating caterpillars in your area.  And most importantly, carry the right supplies in your first aid kit.  Carry sting-ease to treat insect bites and evil (but harmless) saddle-back caterpillar stings (see above). Carry burn cream, topical antibiotics, bandages, and medicine.  If there are snakes in your area, take a snake bite kit.  You'll probably never need it, but take it anyway.  Always, always always take a map.  Even if it's to a trail you've been a hundred times.  You never know when you might need to find the quickest route to the highway, and it's probably not that lovely switchback down the mountain you just spent five hours on.

In the ten or so years we have been hiking, we have only had to deal with minor injuries, the worst of which was some second degree burns, so odds are that probably nothing will happen.  We're also really careful, we think through situations to make sure we are not putting ourselves in danger unnecessarily, and we always have the supplies we need in case something does happen.  We hope it won't.  But we're ready if it does.

4)  Leave No Trace

This is a huge one.  It is your personal responsibility to make sure that any trails, campsites, or other locations you visit show no sign that you were ever there.

Pictured:  Unspoiled beauty.  Keep it that way.

Of course, first and foremost this means no littering.  Everything you pack in, you should pack out.  Don't try to bury your trash.  Animals will just dig it up.  If you bury your TP, make sure the hole is 6 inches deep or deeper.  (There are actually entire books devoted to the issues of using the restroom in the woods.)

Don't, I repeat, DON'T try to burn your trash on your campfire.  The fire is rarely hot enough to burn it completely, and it just makes a trashy mess for the next camper to clean out.  If you do find someone else's trash, pack it out when possible.

Beyond just trash issues, though, if you made your own campsite, when you leave, no one should be able to tell you camped there.  Re-cover the ground with leaves or pine straw, cover your fire pit with dirt (after it is cool enough to rest your hand on), and double check for ropes tied to trees.  Leave. No. Trace.

If you use an established campsite, still make sure that it is the image for a perfect campsite.  No trash, chopped branches, food on the ground, or whatever.  Leave. No. Trace.

When you're hiking, make sure that your foam mat isn't brushing up against trees and leaving little foam crumbs like Hansel and Gretel.  Move branches aside as you pass instead of hacking them down with a machete like you're Crocodile Dundee.  Take the switchbacks instead of cutting a path straight down the mountain, which increases erosion and adds wear to the landscape.  Walk single file in a group so you don't widen the path.  Talk softly so you don't disturb the wildlife for the group a few minutes behind you.  Leave. No. Trace.

5)  Share the Trail

There are lots of basic policies and customs for hiking that are rooted in courtesy and safety.  Spend time reading up on these in hiking books, blogs, and magazines.  For example, there are lots of do's and don't's when you are hiking on a trail with horses.  You always give them the right of way if they need to pass you.  You try to stand off on the side downhill and don't make any sudden moves so you don't spook them.  You try to find another trail so you don't have to hike in horse poop all day.  Those kinds of things.

Not familiar with "Leave No Trace" policies.

Generally, you pass on the left of the trail, and smaller groups tend to get right of way because they move faster.  When you stop for a break, move completely off the trail so other groups don't have to step over you.

Of course, don't litter on the trail.  Even sunflower seed shells, apple cores, and other "natural" trash is still trash that no one wants to see while they are out in the woods.

There are lots of other things to keep in mind while you are hiking and camping, which is why I highly encourage you to read some books about backpacking.  Here are few I recommend.  These are books we have read over and over, and they've been really helpful.


  Click here for Part 1 of this series.

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