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You Don’t Have To Become A Thru-Hiker To Become A Backpacker

(note: some thoughts on backpacking I jotted down a few years ago)

If you’re reading this, odds are, you are probably NOT a ‘thru-hiker’ – But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to be one.

In fact, you’re probably not a backpacker at all!

You probably enjoy reading about and following those who are in the process of starting – or have completed, one of the

most epic journeys that the average person will ever undertake.

You probably even live a little vicariously through these special backpackers on their grand adventure.

But sometimes reading about these fantastic mileages – 2000, 3000 mile hikes, 25 mile days, pack weights so low they seem impossible, can be so intimidating.

And equipment!  Equipment so varied, so specialized, (and expensive!) it’s easy to just say, why bother, I’ll just stay at home and read about it.

Thru-hiking is at one end of the spectrum, weekend backpacking trips are at the other.  Professional athletes just don’t walk on to a pro team, there is a logical start up, just like backpacking.

I have read many stories of thru-hikers who have said they had never hiked at all before deciding to “do” the AT or PCT.  They just up and decided to do it, went out and bought some gear and with a little food and planning (or not) just started walking, after all, it is just walking.

A few of those even make it to the end the first time around, but all invariably learn and adjust as they go, but not without a lot of pain and anguish.

This would be the exception to the rule of learning how to backpack.

If you want to get away from the trail head, away from the campground and get into the forest and into the mountains, I say… you can do it.  Anyone can do it.

One of the many John Muir quotes:

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

I work with many folks brand new to backpacking or those who want to try it.  It’s so easy to say, just get a pack and go!

In reality, so many of us have jobs and mortgages, and kids in school, so we’re not taking off 6 months out of the year to hike.

The one thing that you and I have in common with the “thru-hiker”, is a sense of and longing for adventure.  And backpacking is that ultimate adventure that is right here, right in front of us, available for the taking!

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 The First Step Is Always The Hardest

The sphere of knowledge around backpacking and the things you will learn, and the confidence you will gain is almost unbelievable.

I have said for years that backpacking is actually a gateway drug for mountaineering.

You will learn about tents, and shelters, and ground cloths, and stoves (and stoves and more stoves..), and fuels, and little teeny pots, and long handled spoons.  You’ll learn hundreds of foods that you can pack in baggies and cook with just a little boiling water.

You will learn about first aid – and making a kit that fits in a very very small stuff sack.  You’ll discover maps and navigation tools that you never even knew existed.  You’ll gain knowledge about animals, and vegetation, and hanging ‘bear bags’.  You’ll develop new a understanding of the insulating values of sleeping bags, and water bottles, quick drying fabrics, layering, and boots.  OMG you’ll learn about sandals, and trail runners, and lightweight boots.

You’ll become an expert on the pros and cons of waterproof footwear.  You’ll learn about ten different ways to purify water, and how much water that you personally need to carry.  And you’ll learn how to carry all this stuff on your back and into the wilderness!

And you will love it.  And it will change you… forever.

And you don’t need to hike 25 miles or 3000 miles to learn it, to enjoy it.

You will need to find a place you want to visit, a friend or friends to go with, maybe a local hiking group, maybe to a nearby National Forest or State campground, but you do have to take that first step out of your car and get started.

And having the right equipment?

Here’s a little secret, there isn’t a backpacker alive who doesn’t own multiple sleeping bags, multiple tents, and for Gosh sakes, multiple stoves!

Accumulate what you think you’ll need to sleep and cook a meal, maybe go in the spring or summer,  (IMHO winter is not the best time to start) and I guarantee you’ll start making adjustments to your kit.

One of the surest things you’ll hear around the campfire are folks talking about equipment.  The funniest part will be, absolutely everyone will be saying “If I only had that ONE THING my trip would be perfect”.  “If I just had that lighter/warmer sleeping bag or that lighter/roomier tent, or that newest stove….etc.,etc.,etc.!”

And if you can’t find anyone to go with…well, just give me a call, we can learn together.

REI Member Since 1979 YouTube.com/philreedshikes
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Re: You Don’t Have To Become A Thru-Hiker To Become A Backpacker

Great post!  

"I have said for years that backpacking is actually a gateway drug for mountaineering."

For me,at least,it worked the other way around. I started day hiking, surmounting the easier summits, learning that a good many peaks required at least an overnight approach (or were much more pleasant done as an overnight)and things mushroomed from there.

Starting on unfrequented trails and summits, I developed a preference for wilderness and I have never developed a preference for hiking the AT and similar.

But whatever gets you out of doors and walking is good!

 

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Re: You Don’t Have To Become A Thru-Hiker To Become A Backpacker

As I always explain...

I consider "BACKPACKING" an umbrella term for four distinctly different types/categories of "hiking" because, technically speaking, each type of hiker HAS a " backpack." Otherwise, each has it's own approach and gear requirements. Moreover, NONE of them adequately qualifies you for ANY of the others: 1- Day hiking, 2- Distance hiking, 3- Wilderness hiking, and 4- Bushwhacking. NOTE: Of all the outdoor sports and activities, HIKING causes more Search And Rescue missions than ALL of the rest combined.

DAY HIKING

(Gear requirement- Minimal; Base weight- 5-15 pounds; often staying in the frontcountry) Is more-or-less that, hikes that are intended to last no more than the day (no overnight intended). Unfortunately, within the hiking category, this sub-category is the PRIMARY cause for the vast majority of Search And Rescue missions. Why? Because day hikers are made-up of housewives, teenagers, weekend-warriors, high school and college students... basically anyone who really don't identify as hikers/backpackers, ooutdoor enthusiasts, etc. or have a serious interest in backpacking/hiking. In other words, NOOBS!

People in this group (who get into trouble) typically get lost, run out of water (if they have ANY water at all), get lost, fall off the trail, get lost, get injured and, oh yeah GET LOST! They often have not planned, are not prepared, are grossly out of shape, have no backup plans or gear, etc. Basically, they are just not ready!! The wilderness does NOT make allowances for beginners, and does NOT suffer fools! So, "Be smart, be safe!" Although the gear requirements are minimal, start by reading my post on "The UPDATED '10 Essentials.'"

https://conversations.rei.com/t5/backpacking/wilderness-safety-and-the-truth-about-wilderness-surviv...

DISTANCE HIKING

(Gear requirement- light/ultralight leaning; Base weight- 10-20 pounds, but can be much more; Conducted often on established state/national scenic trails) whether called "through hiking or section hiking) this has always been popular amongst those who knew about it, but it has experienced and EXPLOSION of popularity ever since Reece Witherspooon in "Wild."

Although this is the SAFEST type of hiking, there are the occasional deaths every year. That said, The popular gear preferences lean toward light/ultralight, which can cost MONEY! Yes, you can pinch pennies, but my theory is, "Buy once, cry once" and "I don't mind SPENDING money,  but I do mind WASTING money!"

Another feature of this type of hiking is the long distances covered (often 10 to 20 miles a day, but this depends on the terrain and your level of conditioning (as well as the load you're carrying) or hundreds or thousands of miles overall). But you don't have to be an athlete or a young and adventurous '20-something'. MANY distance hikers are in their 50s-60s, almost shamefully overweight, and even completely inexperienced.

There is also a very prominent SOCIAL fact! Even if you are solo, be ready to meet all sorts of people and personalities!! Also, choose a "trail name" or one will be chosen FOR YOU!!! Resupplying in town every several days or so is another facet. But they go into town, not just for food, but beer, pizza, movies, a hotel room, etc., which is why I often describe it as "Touring."

WILDERNESS HIKING

(Gear requirement- Dependable, field servicable; Base weight- often 30-50 pounds, depending; Conducted in the backcountry) is much less about covering distance as it is about "getting away from it all." Here is where the soloist shines... IF they are qualified!

This type of hiking is marked by self-sufficiency, self-reliance and their gear/supplies reflect this. While keeping overall weight down is ALWAYS important, wilderness packs are heavier for a number of reasons: Individual outings tend to be longer, may be in winter, may include activities OTHER than mere "walking", etc.

Regardless, if you want a REAL "wilderness experience", THIS is for you! But you don't have to "rough it", if you do it right, wilderness hiking can be fun and comfortable, you can bring any number of luxury item you want, just remember, "Your choice, your WEIGHT!"

BUSHWHACKING

(This is essentially wilderness hiking) Everything is essentially the same EXCEPT, not only do bushwhackers want to "get away from it all, they want to "get away from EVERYONE." They do this by looking for places that are OFF-trail, very often on private land. Therefore, to do it legally, a few phone calls are often necessary in the planning stage.

Objectively, this is the MOST dangerous type of hiking, but wilderness hikers and bushwhackers experience fewer Search and Rescue missions because they tend to be better trained, more experienced, more skilled, and more meticulous in their approach. But bushwhackers need a higher level of self-sufficiency because there's little chance someone will be by in a few minutes (like day hiking or distance hiking) and they are unlikely to spend much time on established trails or campsites (like wilderness hikers).

Bushwhackers almost always soloists, are expert orienteers (with AND without map and compass), and avail themselves of every back-up option. The reason for this higher standard is because they know if anything goes wrong it can go VERY wrong VERY quickly.

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Re: You Don’t Have To Become A Thru-Hiker To Become A Backpacker

Are there statistical studies that support these categorizations?  Such studies would develop a number for person days involved in the activity and the number of incidents generated during that activity, allowing computation of frequency.

I am not sure your categories are mutually exclusive. I, and many others, have often day hiked in wilderness areas, which are not always remote and difficult to reach.  A lotof my trips include both on trail and off trail travel, in and out of wilderness areas.  For that matter, what wilderness are we considering - the officially designated wilderness areas or something else?

Another issue with day hikers is that many folks on the trail are not hiking, per se.  They are looking for  party or picnic spots just out of reach. Often drugs or alcohol are involved,hence problems develop.

 

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Re: You Don’t Have To Become A Thru-Hiker To Become A Backpacker

Statistical studies for types of activities that result in injury or death? Absolutely! "Studies" for these "categorizations"? Not so much, they are just common sense observations (if one were to categorize the different TYPES of hikers, I think these are reasonable).

"Drugs, Alcohol...", etc. Yep, absolutely, but that kind of behavior is not limited to day hikers. Not long ago, there was a firefighter out of Arcadia, California, who by all accounts was an accomplished outdoorsman (having had many outdoor adventures out of state and country). He took an inexperienced friend to the backcountry north of Los Angeles and wound up dead. Although the SAR Director screwed the pooch (had he done it right, the firefighter might still be alive!), an investigation found he was under the influence (drugs). In other words, his OWN fault! But yes, partying, picnics, etc. is not unusual for day hikers. To be fair, there's nothing wrong with day hiking or [most] dayhikers, but the numbers don't lie!

As to the term "Wilderness", the term is VERY broad! It can be an area that is specifically designated so, or simply undeveloped/undevelopable, or it can be the ocean or even SPACE. I consider "frontcountry" that part of the wilderness you can see from "town." Anything over that first ridge, is the beginning of the backcountry.

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Re: You Don’t Have To Become A Thru-Hiker To Become A Backpacker

You were asking about "statistical studies"? I don't have them handy, but I did find some notes I made:

YOSAR did a study in 2013, that study pointed to;

Of the 2348 SAR missions

Day-hiking, 1,379 SARs (588 injuries and 27 fatalities)

Backpacking produced 490 SARs (238 injuries, and 10 fatalities)

They don't  break it down as much as I do (4 categories instead of 2), but it still supports my claims. The day hiking number is pretty SOLID, but the "backpacking" number needs to be parsed out further into distance hiking and bushwhacking.

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Re: You Don’t Have To Become A Thru-Hiker To Become A Backpacker

We had plans to go to the Grand Canyon in 3 weeks (week before Easter) for our spring break. It would've been our first backpacking experience to see if "I" could give up the car camping and survive with less equipment, supplies and comforts, LOL. My boyfriend and his 30 yr old son and me with my 24 yr old daughter (all from different states)...it would've been so good for all of us to get to know each other. Soooo disappointed that because of COVID-19 we have to cancel all of our plans after just purchasing over $3,000 worth of stuff not to mention 4 plane tickets too. Sooo bummed I'm now stuck at home because the schools here are closed indefinitely per our state governor last night (I'm a school bus driver, now with no work). With #'s rising fast, I'm sure they will have "shelter at home" rules here soon too with no ability to go anywhere. It's like a bad dream but in real life or like so many movies that have been made on the topic... scary stuff. I'm all alone now because I live alone. Happy to see there's a place here to "connect with other outdoor enthusiasts, share knowledge and inspiration, discuss ideas, and build relationships". Thank you REI family.... you're awesome!!!!

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Re: You Don’t Have To Become A Thru-Hiker To Become A Backpacker

The gear will keep 'til another day, the tickets... depends... but C-19 won't be around forever (maybe up to a year and a half (when they said they may have a vaccine)).

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Re: You Don’t Have To Become A Thru-Hiker To Become A Backpacker

So sorry.  Wondering why did you cancel?  The park is open.  Your group is less than 10 and you can social distance.

Was it because of the plane ride/airport situation?

I'm mean, we all have to visit a grocery store or gas station within 3 weeks.

I have corridor reservations for 6 days, first week of May and plan on going unless flights are cancelled and/or park is closed.

Again, very sorry.

REI Member Since 1979 YouTube.com/philreedshikes
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Re: You Don’t Have To Become A Thru-Hiker To Become A Backpacker

Because everything is closing here. Not sure what will still be open when we'd go....where would we buy fuel to boil our water for our food? You know, all the unknowns. Situation seems to get worse by the day with the #'s doubling and rules the government is putting into affect. Plane to get there and bus rides at the grand canyon "if bus is still operating" would make me a nervous wreck. Decided it would be more enjoyable to wait until spring break next year. We will see what happens!!! God luck on your trip. 

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