From Pemmican Trails
Backpacking is a relatively simple sport when the weather chooses to cooperate. You hike all day with your equipment on your back and then plunk down and set up camp for the night. It is a great way to get away from the concrete and noise of our cities and get some fresh air and exercise.
However, if the weather doesn’t cooperate, backpacking can be tough and downright miserable. Imagine yourself soaking wet, cold, and hungry, without a place to sit down or rest. Times like these can be a test of the will -- not to mention a test of your equipment.
Before the Hike
Having good gear makes a big difference on the trail; however, you don't need top of the line equipment to enjoy yourself. Many people aim for a happy medium between comfort and price. If you will be backpacking for the first time, consider renting a pack, tent, or sleeping bag before purchasing it. This will allow you to test whether or not you like the gear before making a larger investment.
You can sometimes buy second hand gear at a reasonable price or team up with friends and share equipment. See our article on backpacking gear for a sample list of equipment and packing tips. Also, don’t forget to bring a cell phone with you on your first hike, they often work at high points along a trail and give some people peace of mind.
You can bring along whatever food you like for an overnight trip. However, on longer trips you will want to choose foods that are light and rich in calories. Many people pack a dinner and a breakfast, and instead of eating a lunch they will munch on snacks throughout the day. You can even bring along perishables such as smokies or steak for the first day of your trek, if you stow them at the center of your pack for insulation.
Most hikers will consume around 900 g (2 lbs) of high-calorie food per day. As an example, in one day a backpacker might consume: 250 g pasta, 200 g cheddar cheese, 2 x 45 g snickers bar, 200 g trail-mix, 2 x 45g oatmeal packet, 2 x 50g pop-tarts. This weighs a total of 930 g and packs in a whopping 3600 calories. Plan on eating between 3000 and 4000 calories for each day of backpacking, and don’t forget to bring along an extra day’s ration of food and fuel in case of emergencies.
Listed below are examples of foods that are light and available at any supermarket but still pack a lot of punch. Alternatively, you can find a selection of pre-packaged, freeze-dried dinners for around 7$ each at most outdoor retailers.
- cream of wheat
- granola + powdered milk
- Pop tarts
- beef jerky
- dried pepperoni
- Snickers bars
- granola bars
- unsalted nuts
- peanut butter + bread
- dry pasta + hard cheese†
- dry pasta + soup mix
- rice + any sort of sauce
- freeze-dried meals
- dehydrated potatoes
- smokies + buns
- steak (wrapped in newspaper or cooked)
- hot dogs + buns
- cooked ham
- cooked bacon
- powered coffee
- crystal light
Choosing your First Trail
As with any new activity, you should start small and then work your way up. Begin with some of the easier trails located in Riding Mountain National Park or Spruce Woods Provincial Park, and then shift to more challenging areas as your comfort levels increase. You should do a few overnight trips before undertaking anything longer. Long treks are somewhat more involved and require that you carry additional weight in food and fuel††.
Bring a Friend
It is advised that you take a friend along with you for at least your first few hikes. It is much safer to travel as a group, and having someone else there to talk to can make a trek go much smoother. Be careful during your hike and remember that your drive out to the trail head is probably the single most dangerous part of your trip.
At the Trail head
It is usually a good idea to pack yourself a lunch to eat at the trail head so that you can start off with a full belly. Before setting out on the trail do a quick check of your pack and make sure that you have a tent, sleeping bag, and a means of making a fire. Find the start of the trail and begin hiking. As you head down the trail make a mental note of the signs or blazes used to mark the trail, these will be proof that you are on the correct path.
On the Trail
Keep a steady pace and take breaks often. You will probably find that the added weight of a pack strains various muscles in your legs and neck. Adjusting the straps on your pack can help shift the weight around so that you feel more comfortable. Transferring most of the weight to your hips will help prevent sore shoulders at the end of the day and reduce fatigue.
An average hiker with a loaded pack (say 40 lbs) on hilly terrain will cover a distance of about 15-20 kilometers in a day. Plan to hike about 15 km on your first day out, and then adjust your estimates accordingly. Not surprisingly, the more often that you hike the faster you will become. For example, after four weeks of conditioning, some hikers on the Appalachian Trail will walk 40 or more kilometers each day over mountainous terrain.
It is usually best to pitch your tent as soon as you get to camp, just in case it ends up raining. Choose the levelest patch of dirt or grass that you can find and erect your tent. An ideal site is sheltered, on ground where water cannot pool, and near a water source. Try to camp at designated sites where possible.
Setting up camp
Water can be collected from a nearby lake or stream in a container such as a cooking pot or water bottle. If you don't intend to boil this water, make sure that you filter or treat it with an appropriate chemical before you drink it. This will reduce your chances of contracting a disease like Giardia (aka Beaver Fever) from fecal contaminated water sources. Food can be cooked over a fire or at a camp stove. Dirty pots are usually washed out in a lake or stream.
Before nightfall, if there are no storage bins or cables around, you should hang your food bag about 10 ft off of the ground from a rope slung over a tree limb. Put everything that you used for cooking, including bowls and utensils, into this bag. Every hiker seems to have their own method of hanging their food bag, but most involve tying a rock to one end of a rope and flinging it over a branch (very funny to watch). If it is not feasible to hang your food, just seal it up very tightly in a stuff-stack and hang it from a branch, away from your tent.
Ford a Stream
Fording a stream properly takes some practice. It can be difficult at first to determine which parts of a river are too fast or too deep to safely cross. When fording a stream you should always release your hip belt to give you better balance and aim into the oncoming water (your feet get sucked in the direction of the current so this makes it easier).
Survey the stream before you cross and search for an easier route. The easiest routes tends to be at wide section of the stream where the water is shallow. Start upstream from where you intend to cross and shift your way sideways across the stream one foot at a time. Always wear your boots for anything but the most trivial ford. You risk losing your traction, cutting up your feet, or even getting pulled into rapids.
Cook in a Vestibule
In bad weather some people choose to cook in the vestibule of their tents. Cooking inside of a tent can be very dangerous, especially if your stove needs to be primed. Improperly primed stoves can shoot up flames a foot high and set your tent on fire with you inside. That said, if you choose to cook in your vestibule, prime the stove outside and then bring it in after it is lit and running smooth. Ensure that you have adequate ventilation while you are cooking, as burning fuels release poisonous carbon monoxide.
What to Do If…
It Pours Rain
Hiking in heavy rain is awful, there is nowhere to rest and soaked clothes get uncomfortable fast. You should wear your rain jacket, put on a pack cover (if you have one), and keep moving to stay warm.
Setting up a tent in rain can be something of a race against time. Find the most sheltered location available and pull out your tent. Leave everything else in your bag so that it stays dry. If the winds aren’t too bad, you can use the tent’s fly to cover the rest of the tent as you set it up. That said, a little bit of water in the tent is not a problem, so long as you have a dry mat to sleep on.
Crawl into the tent and change into dry cloths. You can either wait for the rain to pass before cooking, eat snacks instead, or cook inside your vestibule (if you have one). In the morning, you should change back into your wet cloths before leaving, so that you always have a set of dry cloths available.
Taking down a tent in the pouring rain can be worse than putting one up in it. You should pack everything but your tent into your pack while you are still inside, get out, and then pull down the tent as quickly as possible. Roll it up and shove it into your pack; you can air it out later when the rain stops. Move on to keep warm.
It Gets Foggy
Fog is not a big problem if you are on a well marked trail where there is little possibility of getting lost. However, if you are following cairns or believe you could lose the trail due to the fog, then you should stop immediately and wait for the fog to lift. A heavy fog can be extremely dangerous if you are relying on sparse markings in order to maintain your course.
You Lose the Trail
It does happen. One minute you’re dreaming about beer and pizza and then the next thing you realize you’re on a deer trail. Stop and relax; this is the reason why you carry a compass. Backtrack until you find some sort of mark indicating the proper trail. Now, if you can’t remember which way you were headed, estimate your position on a map, take a compass reading to find north, and then try to figure out which direction to take.
You Get Blisters
Treat your blisters as soon as possible by protecting them from further abrasion. Many people will continue to hike with minor to moderate blisters on their feet; however, if these blisters get larger than say a loonie, use some commonsense and get off the trail before they get infected.
You Break/Sprain an Ankle
Any broken bone or sprain on the trail can be very dangerous, especially if you are hiking alone and far from civilization. Groups can set up camp and wait while a member or two hike out to get help. If you are alone, you will need to get off the trail on your own. Splint the injury, find a stick to lean on, and begin making your way off the trail.
After the Hike
You will sometimes return to your car wearing a pair of soggy, wet boots. For this reason, it is often useful to bring along an extra pair of runners that you can leave in your car for the drive home. When you do get home make sure to dry out all of your equipment before packing it away. This will keep your tent and sleeping bag from getting moldy between hikes. Sleeping bags should be unstuffed and then hung in a closet so that they get a chance to air out and do not lose their loft.
† Hard cheese lasts longer than soft cheese; if you place it in a zip lock bag at the center of your pack, cheese can last up to a week without refrigeration (it does get slimy).
†† Ten days is about the longest you can realistically hope to hike without stopping to resupply your food and fuel.