I've come to realize there are more than a few misconceptions out there about backpacking. I run into a lot of people who when I ask if they have ever been backpacking, they either look at me with that look of "never again" or they tell me they've never been because it's too scary, miserable, or daunting. I too have fallen victim to backpacking misconceptions but now laugh at my own self when I think of what I once thought backpacking was and wasn’t.
For those of you out there who had a bad experience or have no idea what you're getting into, maybe this will help ease your anxiety and get you out the door and into the backcountry sooner rather than later.
In no particular order, here are a few common misconceptions I've come across over the past few years:
1. All bears want to eat your face off
I'm fairly certain that nearly everyone I've ever taken backpacking for the first time has a sincere fear of bears. Sure, I have a healthy fear bears too, but depending on where you live, it's either a legitimate concern or not one at all. For the most part, wild animals in general prefer not to engage with humans. Unless you've really pissed them off, decided to snuggle a bear cub, or have left a food trail into your tent, I really don't think bears need to be of such high concern. Again, this is area specific so if you're camping in Grizzly country or in an area that has a major population of bears, call your local Forest Service to find out how to deal with the issue. In my neck of the woods, you just keep a clean campsite and you're good to go.
2. Boots rule the backcountry
Wrong. You don't have to wear boots if you're going backpacking. Long distance hikers wouldn't think of wearing a boot, but instead they wear trail running style shoes. Before you go investing in a $300 pair of boots, give running shoes with some aggressive tread a shot. Unless you're carrying a really heavy load and need the boot for ankle support, save your money and avoid the cool looking hiking boots. Boots are pretty cool though…
3. Your cook pot is for obviously for cooking food
Yes and no. You can cook food in your cook pot like you would at home on the stove, but unless you're prepared to clean it you're going to be in for a challenge. Instead of actually cooking food in your pot, bring along a freeze-dried meal such as Mountain House and just use the cook pot to boil water. Eat your meal from the bag and you’ll be given the gift of having little to no cleanup. I've tried cooking out of my MSR Reactor and while it is kind of fun making a meal in it, I hate cleaning it afterwards.
4. Backpacks hurt, plain and simple
NO! Backpacks are only meant to be heavy, not painful. Yes, if you have a poorly fitted backpack and have no idea how to pack it, you're going to be in for a world of hurt, but it doesn't have to be that way. If your pack hurts you then kick it to the curb and find one that fits your body type and hiking style. Do not accept the pain you pack puts you through! I can't tell you how many people I've met that simply accept the fact that backpacking is supposed to hurt their hips and shoulders. Totally not true! If you have the right pack then you're only going to feel the weight of the pack and not the pain. The only pain you should feel is in the muscles you're working when you're climbing those hills.
If you spend money on anything, put it towards a good pack that fits your body. You'll be thankful you did.
5. Sleeping pads are only for comfort.
Yes, but no - this is twofold. Yes, sleeping on an ultra light air mattress is comfortable and it keeps you from feeling rocks, but that’s not its only purpose. Sleeping pads of any kind are actually meant to insulate you from the cold earth. The ground can suck your body heat right out of you so having a proper sleeping pad can help you stay warm throughout the night. Blowup mattresses give you extra insulation and comfort…and they also double as a water toy if you're camping near a lake.
6. Backpacking requires many miles of hiking.
Wrong! Talk to any long distance hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail and they'll tell you that one of the best things you can do for yourself while on the trail is to "hike your own hike." Maybe this means you only want to hike 2 miles before camping, or maybe it means you want to hike 20 miles. The point is, there's no distance requirement for backpacking and there is no right or wrong way to do it. If you're just starting out, I'd suggest you stick to short hikes of no more than 4 to 6 miles to ease yourself into it. I once only packed in a mile to a lake for the night and it was pretty amazing. The point of backpacking is to pack on your back what you need for the trip, plain and simple. Don't get sucked into the idea that you need to hike 10 miles per day for multiple days in a row for it to be considered "backpacking." Hike your own hike and do what feels right. You’re out there to relax and have fun, so do it!
Backpacking is fun and should always be fun. If you're not enjoying it, take a look at how you're doing things and figure out what it is that would make your life better in the backcountry. Maybe it's a warmer jacket, better shoes, nicer pack, or less mileage. Whatever it is, find out what it is and change it.
Stay safe out there!