Constructing the Foundation for Backpacking
Hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) is something that thousands of people attempt each year. Unfortunately, roughly three-fourths of these potential thru-hikers quit before they finish the trail (REI). Many of these people are highly ill-prepared for this journey, a condition that this essay will help remedy. You see, since there are so many things to take into account for a journey through the AT that are often not taken into account before the journey begins. First and foremost, a thru-hiker (one who is to hike the entire AT in one trip) spends months planning their trek. In order to complete the roughly six-month long trip, hikers will purchase an average of at least two thousand dollars worth of equipment (REI). Potential thru-hikers will spend large sums of money in order to shave ounces off of their carried weight in order to make the trip easier on themselves. However, this essay does not serve as a gateway into being one of the thirteen thousand people who have completed the Appalachian Trail. Collecting the information in this guide will help condition your mind in order to determine whether or not a two thousand mile cross-country hike is right for you.
First thing’s first: get rid of all of your electronic devices for one day. Stay away from the internet, your computer, music, any i-Device, and go on a walk. This part of the journey isn’t so much about physical peril or stress, but a determining factor in whether or not you are able to be in the wilderness at all. In today’s society, nearly every person is connected to the world. In today’s world, smart phones have bestowed the ability to have social networking, email, and every person in your life sitting in your pocket. Beginning a six month period in the woods (cell reception is highly sporadic amidst the wooded mountains, if available at all) begins with the ability to put life on hold. Obviously, we all have deadlines we must meet. There’s no reason to miss school, work, or other important events to see if you can live without a cell phone (just think, they didn’t always exist). However, being able to set life on hold for at least one afternoon in order to walk down a local trail or park without worrying about the outside world is an important first step in being able to remove yourself from the world.
Maybe you were truly bitten by the wanderlust bug, and you’re ready to move onto the woods. That is fantastic news, because that is exactly what the next step is going to be. Have you ever been camping, and if so, did you enjoy it? What sounds like a journey into one’s self through the inner revelations that Mother Nature is able to provide sometimes turn out to be disappointing adventures with soggy shoes and a plethora of insects that bite and sting. One cannot decide to hike over two thousand miles of rough terrain without having any experience. Of course, you don’t have to be a seasoned veteran of anything related to nature, but having broken in a pair of hiking boots before won’t hurt.
This is where we get to the real meat of this guide. Before voyaging off to a journey across America’s landscape on foot, it would be a great idea to see what backpacking is all about. In general, backpacking means you need a backpack. Not one of those flimsy things you used in grade school, either. Hiking backpacks are broken into two camps: external and internal frames. Every hiking backpack has a frame to it that is similar to the idea of a chassis for a car. The frame is then covered with fabric much like the same material on the everyday frame-less pack. At some point a potential backpacker is forced through the crossroads of external or internal framed backpacks. For extended periods of time, the external frame stands superior. This is not to say that the internal backpacks aren’t solid options though. Internal framed packs are more compact because they lack what is essentially the bedpost that the external frames are born with on the top and bottom side of the main pouch. They hug the wearer, which leads to higher maneuverability, and some models even come with a removal bag on the top of the pack.
On the other hand, the external frame’s main benefit is in its name. With all of the light-weight aluminum on the outside of the pouch, there is often more room for objects inside of the bag. Also, those bulky bedposts on the bag are actually highly beneficial for space. Whereas the internal frame forces the user to put big bulky objects inside the bag (such as sleeping bags or tents), the external frame allows the hiker to strap big objects onto the frame itself, opening up more carrying capacity in the main pouch. Also, the external frame is meant for putting the heavy weight in the top of the pack, so that the hiker isn’t bottom heavy. Having the weight on top of the bag helps the hiker avoid falling backwards, but this doesn’t mean that the weight needs to be on the shoulders. Modern hiking packs, both external and internal, have a large, cushioned strap that goes around the hiker’s waist. It is imperative that this strap is tightly secured to the hiker before the shoulder straps are tightened. The shoulder straps are meant to hold onto the hiker so the pack doesn’t shift while in motion. However, the bottom strap is so large and padded because the weight needs to sit on the hiker’s waist instead of the shoulders. Adjusting the weight to one’s waist avoids a number of problems like back pain, blisters, sore or raw skin, a lack of balance, and it will lead to a much more comfortable trip overall. In order to determine what type of pack is best for you and the equipment you will need to fill it with, a trip to your local outdoor outfitter is necessary.
Staff members at large chains and mom-and-pop stores alike are generally handy in guiding a fledgling frontiersman (or woman) along the path of outdoor enlightenment. Normally, when one enters an outdoor store looking to break into the world of backpacking, the staff will be more than happy to help. There is a new world full of different types of equipment for different budgets, trip lengths, preferences, and general desires for what they want to do with nature. As Bill Bryson states in his book, A Walk in the Woods, thousands of people begin the trail and quit because it isn’t “what they expected” (Bryson). This does not have to happen! Outdoor stores provide the opportunity to wear packs and fill them with all of the gear that would be brought on the trail.
Moving into gear opens up many new questions. Think about all of the things that you use in your daily life such as a bed, toiletries, and a house. When on the trail, campers need to carry a tent (home), a sleeping bag (bed), and miniature-sized versions of the other things used in daily routines. Thankfully, many of these smaller items can be found in the travel section of the local supermarket. Fold-able toothbrushes and tiny containers of shampoo or deodorant can be found and tucked into a backpack with ease. The problems begin to arise with items like pots, pans, clothes, and food. Unfortunately, water is the heaviest and most necessary item on the trail.
Hydraulic Reservoirs, or water bladders, are the most convenient container for water on the trail. These are basically bags filled with water (hence the layman’s terminology) that slip into one’s backpack. A long rubber straw brings the water from the bag to the hiker, and can hook onto the straps of a pack so that it stays out of the way. Water on the trail is dirty and usually contaminated with some form of bacteria or other unpleasant entities, so purification is a must. The easiest way to purify water is to boil it on the trail, but purification tablets can be purchased prior to one’s journey that are just as effective in killing bacteria.
Next on the pre-hike shopping list is a mess kit. These kits usually come in five pieces in order to provide a pot, pan, a plate, a cup, and (usually) silverware on the trail. In order to cut down on weight, it’s best to purchase an aluminum mess kit as they are durable and lightweight, yet cheaper than titanium. What better to pair your new cooking ware than a brand new stove? Backpacking stoves are unique in their collapse-able design and light weight. They do require fuel though, which can be purchased in small packages to avoid clunkiness. It’s at this point that you must consider food. You have water, cooking materials, and eating materials. Noodles are a good option on the trail, but in order to hit the average necessity of 3,500 daily hiking calories, you’ll need a better alternative. Thankfully, freeze-dried meals have come leaps and bounds in their taste, nutrients, and portability. However, these meals are somewhat pricey. A slightly less expensive alternative is the military MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat). These aren’t quite as tasty, but they provide the necessary nutrients. Unfortunately, these methods are cooked by placing the bag of food in boiling water, so you will need a source of water to cook. Fortunately, the water is outside of the bag, so you don’t need to purify it first.
After getting food together, the last main-stays are the tent and sleeping bag. You can go one of two ways with the tent when backpacking: a one-man or a two-man tent. This depends solely on if you are going with somebody else or not. The one-man tent is smaller, but if there are two people one person can carry the tent and one can compensate with other items. Sleeping bags are judged by temperature. That means if you see a bag that says twenty degrees Fahrenheit on it, that bag is effective down to twenty degrees and anything lower than that will be uncomfortable. Mummy bags are some of the most versatile bags out there. If it’s cold, you can zip the sleeping bag all the way up to your face, and if it’s warmer you can still open it up. You’ll probably want to get a light mat as well because the ground tends to be hard.
After spending a couple of trips out in the woods, you can utilize the knowledge in this guide to begin gathering the necessary equipment for your trip. Obviously, this isn’t enough information to be able to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Those who complete that journey plan for months and spend thousands of dollars on top-of-the-line equipment that shaves off ounces of weight to make the trip as easy as possible. Completing the full trail will take time, dedication, and a lot of patience. Go to your local outfitter and gather a backpacking, tent, sleeping bag, food, cooking material, and ask around for more information. Learn about what does and does not work on the trail, and learn about your own preferences. You may not have completed the trail yet, but now you know where to start.
Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods. London: Doubleday, 1997. Print.
"REI." REI. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.