When I look back at my 2015 backpacking season, I can't help but think about how much I learned in such a short amount of time. With my memories still fresh in my mind, I think it's about time I write down my top 5 lessons learned from 2015.
1. Plan Your Hikes In Advance
In previous years, I had always made "plans" in my head to go here or there throughout the summer but found that come the end of the summer, I had done very few if any of those things. I'd spend the winter months regretting that I didn't get out as much as I would have liked while promising myself I'd do better the next year. I've since learned that if I don't put it on the calendar then I'll probably never do it. I'll get caught up in life and end up forgetting about the whole thing somehow. Before the season arrives in 2016, take a moment to go through your calendar and mark down when and where you want to backpack or hike and then plan accordingly. Just having it in your phone or on a wall somewhere will help you concentrate on that event and force you to plan towards it. Do yourself one better and invite someone along, then you really have to make sure you do it!
2. Ease Yourself Into Longer Trips
I've mentioned on my home page that I'll admit to you when I fail. So, here we go; I made a huge mistake on my first trip out in 2015. Huge might be a little dramatic, but I certainly didn't make a wise choice in choosing my first outing of the summer. I have a co-worker who hikes and climbs year round and we had discussed doing the 30-mile trip around Mount St. Helens in two days when the snow cleared. While he may have been in mountain goat type shape, I certainly was not. I was in lifting shape, but hiking shape? Not so much. I felt good for about the first 8 miles until my knees began to curse at me and my hips silently screamed out in pain. By the time we reached our camp for the night, my goose was cooked. All I wanted to do was fall asleep and pretend that I wasn't on the opposite side of the mountain from where my car was parked. I woke up the next morning and had 16 miles to go before I could drive like hell to get home. Having been in the Marines, I know what my body can and can't do and while I mentally knew the hike wasn't going to kill me, my body was telling me very hateful things. If it wasn't my knees that were hurting it was my feet. If not my feet, it was my hips. With three miles or so left until the trailhead, I decided to take a short break and damn near wasn't able to get going again. My muscles weren't having it and had begun to cramp up on me to the point where I felt like it took me a good half mile to get back up to my normal pace. By the time I got to the truck I was in quite a bit of pain and after the hour-long drive home I began laughing at myself because I couldn't hardly get from the truck to the house without looking like I was 90 years old. I'm pretty sure that for the last 10 miles of that hike I cursed everything to do with hiking and asked myself why I would ever think this was fun.
After a day or so, my mind slowly forgot about how much pain I was in just two days prior and I began thinking about how much fun I had on that trail. This came as a relief because I was not in the mood to start a yard sale on Craigslist with a bunch of gear I had just purchased over the last year. Someone nearly got a sweet deal on some gear!
The moral of the story is that I highly recommend that unless you backpack year round, you do yourself a favor and ease into your hikes. Plan that long hike for the latter part of the season so that your body has time to get used to the weight of a pack and your feet toughen up accordingly. Short overnight hikes are a great way to test out new techniques or gear so that when you are on that long hike, you can really enjoy yourself and not count each step like you want it to be your last.
3. The Magic of Tea
On what felt like a death hike around Mount St. Helens, my hiking partner exposed me to the magic of tea. As mentioned above, I was feeling pretty crappy when we made it to our camp the first night. In fact, I felt so terrible that I didn't have an appetite at all and I could tell my body was not reacting well to the miles I just hiked. I was feeling pretty sick until my friend offered me a cup of green tea he had just made. He said it would make me feel better but I really didn't think it would produce any miracles. My exhaustion from the hike had killed my appetite and overall energy levels and I really didn't think I'd be doing any eating that night. I sipped the hot tea for 15 minutes or so and within a half hour I was up walking around, making dinner, and scarfing down my food.
From that day on, I don't leave the trailhead without some sort of tea in my pack. I have no idea why it works but I'm here to tell you that for me it is pure magic. Give it a whirl and tell me if you have the same experience. It's a great way to end a long day on the trail.
4. Water Weight
It's no mystery that water weighs a lot but I really don't think beginner backpackers realize how much weight they're packing around when they strap a load on their backs. I played around this past summer with how much water to take on my hikes and still couldn't figure it out until I had a PCT Thru Hiker tell me they plan on 1 liter of water every 5 miles. When I heard this, I decided to make that my standard base plan and then adjust it from there. Plan for 1 liter per 5 miles and then account for how much water you may need for dinner and whether or not you have stream crossing along the way or water at your destination. If your destination is dry then you just have to suck it up and carry more weight but if not, then get a small water filter and make your life easy by filling up at stream crossings as you go.
Keep this in mind; a liter of water weighs about 2.2 lbs.! If you have a 3-liter bag in your pack that’s over 6 lbs. of water that you might not actually need. I'm personally pretty conservative with my water intake so for me I'll have more water than expected after 5 miles. Everyone is different of course so use your best judgment on whether you need more or less. The key is have a filter on you (I use a Sawyer Mini as it weighs hardly anything) and don't carry dinner water if you know you'll be camping near a water source.
Plan to use 1 liter of water per 5 miles as a starting point and you'll be in good shape!
5. The Right Backpack
Having the right backpack for your body type and preference is not a mind-blowing concept until you experience the hell of a poorly fitted pack. I'll reference my St. Helens trip one more time and say that the pain I felt on my hips from my Mystery Ranch NICE Longbow was enough for me to want to toss it off a cliff. Within 6 miles of being on the trail the first day the waist belt dug so far into my hips that I actually preferred the weight to be on my shoulders. I am well aware that my body type might not be a match for the style of a Mystery Ranch pack as I don't have a ton of extra padding on my hips, but I was pretty depressed when my beloved purchase decided to turn on me. I loved that pack like I had berthed it myself, but couldn’t bear the thought of enduring that pain again just because I liked the tri-zip design. Furthermore, I just couldn't accept that a backpack of any kind should hurt its owner that badly.
I was able to find the pack of my current dreams in the Exo Mountain Gear 3500. For me, the Exo rides like a dream, causes no pain, and is very well designed. To be honest, I often don't even take it off during breaks because I just don't feel I need to. It's comfortable throughout the hike and has never once dug into my hips the way the Mystery Ranch pack had.
What my experience this summer has taught me is that you really don't know what kind of backpack works for you until you actually hike in it for a few miles under a load. Every person has a different body type and I really believe it may take a person a while before they find the one that works for them. I can't offer a magic formula for finding the right backpack for you but I can tell you that you shouldn't accept pain as a necessary evil. There is a pack out there for you that won't cause pain or hot spots and you just have to do your research to find it. I lucked out with the Exo Mountain Gear and I of course would suggest it to anyone currently on the hunt.
Bottom line here is that backpacks don't have to hurt. The right one will work with your body type, ride well, and cause little to no pain throughout the duration of your hike (with a standard load). While hiking with 30-45 lbs. on your back won't be the most pleasurable experience, it certainly doesn't have to be a miserable one.
6. BONUS ROUND - Out with the Boots, In with the Trail Runners!
Okay, I can't just choose 5 lessons learned. I tried, but just couldn't do it so here I am with number 6 - Trail Runners!
I finally did it and made the switch from boots to trail runners for hiking and backpacking. It's been an amazing transition but one that took me a long time to do. If you read my post on making the switch to trail runners, you'll find the details of my experience but for these purposes, here's what you need to know; I no longer have any sort of desire to wear a boot ever again. After hiking in a trail running shoe, wearing a boot is like having cinder blocks on my feet. Of course you can't wear a running shoe for everything, but for most of the year and for your average backpacking, they'll do wonderful. I love how sure footed I am now and how light my feet feel.
Switching from boots to trail running shoes has been one of my most favorite lessons learned from this past summer.
What lessons have you learned this past year?