What’s better than a day in the hills? Easy – several days or more. Here are our top six essential tips for walkers looking to take their first steps into walking far and sleeping wild.
Backpacking – not to be confused with what drunken twentysomethings do in India – is defined by the Backpacker’s Club as “the art of being self-contained, carrying everything you need to survive in the outdoors such as a tent, sleeping bag and food, whilst walking/cycling from one location to another on a multi-day journey through a natural landscape.” Phew. At the heart of that rather exhaustive definition is the act of sleeping in the wild, away from the trappings of civilisation. This is the essential thrill and challenge of backpacking, but it can be a daunting prospect for beginners. Here are a few general tips to get you started.
1. Start small
It’s a good idea to not bite off more than you can chew at first. Start with small one or two night trips at weekends to get a feel for the pack, your gear and the experience of sleeping in the wild – and whether or not you actually like it!
2. Choose your gear carefully
Planning is often just as big a part of backpacking as the execution, and working out what gear you need to take is one of the most important things to get right. Honing your setup is something that takes time and you can’t expect to get everything perfect at first, but when starting out you can avoid some of the most common equipment-related pitfalls by thinking things through beforehand. How will I keep my gear dry? What items do I need backups for in case they fail? What if I have no phone signal? Try and strike a balance between leaving non-essential items behind and having enough to ensure comfort and safety. You can tweak this balance with experience.
3. Choose your route wisely
Another vital component of planning is your choice of route. When starting out it’s wise to keep things manageable; don’t choose some epic backcountry expedition with huge daily distances for your first trip. Remember what looks straightforward on a map in the comfort of your home may seem very different when you’re out there. Choose a route with civilisation close at hand as a backup and have plenty of ‘Plan Bs’ and escape routes to allow for a change in the weather, kit failures, emergencies or other unforeseen problems.
4. Don’t go it alone
When attempting something new in the outdoors, it’s often best to it attempt it with others, at least at first. Backpacking is no exception – companions give you company, moral support and backup kit in case yours fails.
5. Use blogs and expert advice
Backpacking, particularly of the lightweight and ultralight variety, has a cult following, and there are hundreds of blogs and websites out there run by people who live and breathe it. The depth of the enthusiasm – geekiness, to put it another way – of some of these folks can be intimidating, with detailed pack lists, equipment analysed down to the gram and thousands of words expended in the minute analysis of stoves and tents. But in amidst all this there are many gems of wisdom to be found – don’t be afraid to wade in.
6. Don’t be afraid to experiment – but stick with what works for you
The world of backpacking gear is a big one. Gear companies range from huge brands to internet-only cottage companies, while the gear itself covers a spectrum from wooden-frame backpacks to ghostly cuben-fibre lightweight rucksacks, from hefty synthetic sleeping bags to lightweight down wonders. Most gear also comes in countless different shapes and sizes; stoves operate differently and run on different fuels, tents can be alloy or carbon, and most types of equipment run the gamut from relatively affordable to extremely expensive. A backpacking setup is something you can go on tinkering with endlessly, and what works for one person may be a completely different experience for another. Finding a balance between sticking with what works and keeping an open mind is another key part of the art of backpacking.
Carey Davies is the BMC hill walking development officer and former TGO journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @BMC_Walk
Chris Townsend is a renowned expert on long-distance backpacking and the BMC’s hill walking ambassador. He’s chalked up more than 15,000 miles in the wild places of North America, Scandinavia and Scotland through a series of solo walks, sometimes lasting up to six months.
Buy Chris's Backpacker's Handbook in the BMC Shop
Q. What’s your number one tip for first-time backpackers?
A. Don’t try to do too much too fast. Start out with short trips and be prepared to make them even shorter if they seem tough. Aiming for high mileages or lots of summits on your first trip could lead to disillusionment. Better to feel you could have done more, rather than wish you’d never set out.
Q. What’s more important, comfort or weight?
A. The balance between comfort and weight is simple: comfort first! But that means comfort when walking as well as camping. A heavy pack full of camp luxuries that makes your back ache isn’t comfortable. Everyone is different, though, so you need to work out what works for you. It’s possible to be comfortable with very light gear.
Q. Should I try to go as lightweight as possible straight away?
A. As lightweight as possible means being safe and comfortable with very light gear. This does require some experience, so I wouldn’t suggest this for a novice. However, most novices tend to carry too much rather than too little. If you look at other peoples’ gear lists (there are many online) you can get an idea of what’s needed for different conditions. Initial choice of gear is important. Most weight comes from your pack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and stove/cookware. If these are heavy, shaving grams off other items won’t make much difference.
Q. What’s been your worst backpacking error?
A. I’ve made a few. One of the worst was buying a chunk of open-cell foam in a market because it was much cheaper than a real camping mat (I was a student!). This soaked up condensation, and I had a really unpleasant wet and cold night that sent me home early. Lesson learned.
Q. I’ve seen you use lightweight tarps in Scotland. Are you mad?
A. I may be mad, but it’s not because I use tarps in Scotland. A well-designed shaped tarp can be roomier and more stable than a tent while weighing less. Last year I spent two months walking 750 miles on the Scottish Watershed. I used Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar tarp shelter and it worked well in some really big storms.
WATCH our hill walking skills video series with Chris Townsend on BMC TV
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