Whether you identify with the ‘ultralight’ crowd, leisurely packers, or somewhere in between, let me explain that making plans for a trip has much to do with your goals in backpacking. In order to have a successful trip that leaves you with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, a goal (or goals) must be made for the trip to have purpose. If a trip were to be poorly planned for, then there would be a higher chance for forgotten gear, mistakes, and emergency, which can be disastrous on an already chaotic endeavor. The key is to take the time to sit down with your hiking partner and make a plan for the trip. This includes looking at a map, choosing a route, making a gear list, checking the conditions, and choosing a date. Also, make sure to tell someone back home about your itinerary and when you should be back, just for some extra safety. Once you know the length of the trip, how far you are hiking, and what sights you want to see, you need to pack according to your backpacking style. As renowned hiker/adventurer/traveler Andrew Skurka lays out in his book “The Ultimate Hiker,” there are three styles to backpacking: the hiker, the camper, and the overpacker.
The Hiker likes to go long distances, find one place to lay their head for one or two nights, pack up, and keep going. A true hiker has an itinerary that sacrifices many luxuries and comforts in order to see and experience many places over any length of time and distance, ranging anywhere from a day hiker to a thru-hiker. The hiker uses equipment that is lightweight, low in volume, and multi-functional to achieve their daily goals. This doesn’t mean that they are ‘ultralight,’ though this class of hiker is on one end of the spectrum. There is still a level of comfort that they wish to maintain while out in the field, and that comfort differs from person to person. Some examples can be a hiker that likes to pack a fold up chair for sitting, or keep a pillow at night, or sleep in a cotton t-shirt, etc. Striving for light gear in the pack is usually one of those comforts as well. Keeping large amounts of weight off of the back and shoulders can make the difference between a grueling or pleasant outdoor experience. The most important piece of equipment that a hiker can carry, however, is also the lightest. And it’s stored between their ears. There is a certain level of knowledge and respect that a hiker must have for the outdoors to be effective in their goals. Basic survival, first aid, and navigational skill are 3 very important topics to cover before setting out. Having a firm grasp on the possibilities associated with hiking, both hypothetical and real, can alleviate stress and make the hike more enjoyable. This style isn’t always for everyone. I personally know that I don’t want or need (or have the time off work) to hike 100+ miles every time I take a vacation or escape from the city’s limits. Sometimes, I like to enjoy a little relaxation in the wild, and that’s where the Camper comes in.
The Camper essentially likes to hike shorter distances, make a single camp to stay at, and bring many comfortable items that would be otherwise too heavy for a hiker to justify carrying. This can be done from the trial or from the car, and can limit the outdoor experience quite a bit due to populous campgrounds. While car camping, you may not be able to fully immerse yourself into the vastness of the wild, which is okay, because it can still be quite relaxing and rewarding. The camper can also be found on the trail with a giant suspension pack on, filled to he brim with the essentials, and slowly making their way down a trail to a nearby site to chill and enjoy the surrounding area. Camping is a fairly painless and easier way to get out into the wild, not requiring much experience in survival skills, navigation, and is a good fallback plan for groups of varying ages. When a camper is out on the trail, the weight of the pack means less because the goal is to reach the point of interest, unload the weight from your shoulders, hang out and relax for a few days, pack it up, and lug it back out. Make sure that your goal and expectations are realistic enough to avoid back, shoulder, and neck injury. A certain level fitness could be required, depending on your gear load and distance to be traveled. Just know your limits and be smart about it. Don’t take gear that you don’t need, and won’t use. The trip to your destination might wear you out a little, just remember take ample breaks during the hike, and remind yourself to look up and appreciate why you are out there. The camper’s efforts to get the comfortable equipment out into the wild is always worth it, so long as you aren’t trying to force the nomadic hiker and the hoarding style of the camper together. Then you are just being an overpacker.
The Overpacker’s famous last words are, “I’ll bring that just in case.” The visual I always have for an overpacker is that unfortunate hiker on an incline with sleeping bag and tent tethered to the outside, 4 liters of water, ice ax, and half of a cast iron cookset swinging from a carabiner. This is usually accompanied with a far-off look of pain and anguish that screams “why am I DOING this?” There could be many reasons for over packing on an adventure. From my experience, overpacking ranges from lack of experience and confidence, lack of gear, or a lack of knowledge of the area they will be traversing. This uncertainty leaves the mind to ask “what if” and can lead to packing heavy and/or unnecessary items “just in case.” After an overpacker’s trip, it will either teach a person to pack less in order to hike more miles, hike less and camp more comfortably, or never set foot on the trail again. Either way, the overpacker usually does not stay an overpacker for long. If they choose to stay on the trail, they will learn to refine the gear that is needed, how to use it well, and to be confident in their surroundings. Overall, their goals change.
No matter what style of backpacker you are, doing your homework before a trip should be mandatory. Researching the area, the weather conditions, the water availability, the wildlife, and expected terrain on the trail can be very helpful, and can be done from home via the internet or phone call to the local ranger’s station. If you ever have questions about restrictions, fees, or access to a particular trail or site, never be afraid to ask someone. Always know before you go and make your goals realistic enough to be able to enjoy the trip that you desire.
As always, Be Safe and Happy Hiking