Everything you need to know about backpacking!
A series by Bob Vogel
Why would anyone want to sleep on the ground, in the middle of the woods, in a tent?
Well, I guess I can’t really explain it.
- I could point out the drawbacks of day trips… Getting up to leave before the sun comes up, driving three or four hours, hiking all day, then driving three or four more hours back home, only to arrive after dark, totally exhausted.
- I could point out the high cost of motels, or of staying at the AMC high huts.
- I could even point out the beauty of the sun setting, or rising, over a pond with absolutely no sound except the occasional bird. Or looking up at the night sky (from a location not subject to light pollution) and realizing just how many stars there really are in the sky.
But I don’t think any of that would change anyone’s mind. But for some of us, backpacking has an attraction. And if you are one, but don’t know how to get started… this series is for you.
Backpacking 102 – Gear – What do I need?
Well, if you already are a New Hampshire day hiker, and you want to go backpacking, the equipment needs could be relatively minimal…
- A sleeping bag. Actually, that’s about all you really need. My first backpack that’s about all I had. But there are a few more desirable items to have.
- A sleeping pad. I quickly discovered that the hard wooden floor of a shelter was not comfortable. And unless you have a tent, you are confined to shelters, so…
- A tent. Although many AMC members have a two-person tent, and are willing to share… (except during this Covid situation of course!) if you help carry part of the tent. Well, now you are all set… If you like eating cold food, or are planning to cook over a fire. (Trust me, that isn’t as romantic as it sounds, it isn’t fun on a rainy day.) So, you may wish to buy…
- A stove. (But again, this can be “shared” equipment, especially if you learn to carry “easy backpacking meals,” Read that as “things you just add hot water to, then wait a few minutes, and eat out of the bag.”) And, unless you want to boil all your drinking water, or carry chemical water treatment…
- A water filter. (Again, these can be shared items on ‘normal’ AMC trips.)
Sure, there are a lot more “little things” you’ll need: A cup, spoon, some rope and a bag to hang your food. But you don’t want to add too many more items, because remember, you’re going to have to carry it all… So, the last item?
- A pack big enough to carry everything, or with attachment points to lash gear on the outside.
Let’s look at each of these items a bit more.
Backpacking 103 – Sleeping bags ($27 – $550)
- Rectangular bags, are… rectangles. You have lots of room to squirm around inside, but the added size means more weight.
- Mummy bags are form fitting, energy efficient, and because there is less material, are lighter. But also confining.
- Synthetic materials are warm, even if you get them wet. But they are bulkier and heavier.
- Down is very compressible, long lasting, but loses its insulating value if wet, and is expensive. Goose down is better than duck down, and more expensive. The higher the ‘fill power’, the higher the cost. 850 fill down is light, and expensive. 600 fill power is less expensive, but weighs more, and won’t compress as small.
- Some folks prefer quilts to sleeping bags. They can be lighter (no bottom layer).
Backpacking 104 – Sleeping Pads ($30 – $250)
My first trips I slept in a shelter on the hardwood floor in my sleeping bag. It was not comfortable. I soon bought a cheap air mattress, which was much better… the first half of the first night, until it went flat. I then bought a 2’ x 4’ piece of foam rubber. It worked, but did act as a sponge if any water got into the tent, or was spilled. But, as a poor college kid, I used that foam pad for years, and it was both cheap and comfortable.
Closed cell foam. Doesn’t absorb water. Not very comfortable unless you get a Z-Rest or such pad with formed bumps. Still not as cushioning as an inflatable pad.
Inflatable pads. Lots of options, and these are the most popular these days. Weight, ease of inflation, insulating value, and durability vary. I finally bought one, because they may be the most comfortable option. They can also be hard to stay on. (Slippery pad, slippery sleeping bag, and add in tossing and turning, especially if the tent is on a bit of an incline…)
Backpacking 105 – Tents ($55 – $650)
The first question is “Who is going to sleep in it?” Just you? You and your spouse/significant other? Or you and someone else from the trip. Sharing tents saves weight. A one-person tent might weigh 3 pounds, and a similar two-person tent might only weigh 4 pounds, or 2 pounds per person. As a new backpacker, you might find having a friend in the tent with you at night provides a level of comfort. If nothing else you can share your concerns with each other.
For others, such as myself, who have sleep issues; lying awake at night without being able to toss and turn is torture. Having a second person in the tent makes it too difficult for me.
Front entry versus side entry: Two side doors make getting in and out easier for a two-person tent, you don’t have to climb over each other. Even for a one-person tent site entry requires less contortionist moves than a front entry.
Ceiling height: Being able to sit up to get dressed is a very nice feature.
Tents that use your trekking poles save the weight of dedicated tent poles, but don’t forget your trekking poles!
Coated nylon or polyester are the ‘normal’ fabrics, but Dyneema is one ‘High Tech’, ultralight weight option today… unfortunately it’s very expensive.
(The other sleeping option is hammocks. That’s a whole different world, with its own plusses and minuses.) I haven’t used one, so can’t really provide a lot of guidance. If you are interested, ask someone who uses one.
Backpacking 106 – Stoves ($1 – $150)
These days it seems “everyone” is using a Jetboil. They are convenient. You screw on the gas canister, pour in the water, fire it up and in a couple minutes you have a pot of boiling water. But they aren’t without drawbacks. After that first trip you have a partial filled gas canister. Is there enough gas for another trip? Would you take it and the second new canister? Or just take a new one and keep a collection of partial cans at home? You can, if you have a kitchen scale, weigh the partial cans and estimate the amount of gas left. Stoves with a regulator are recommended, especially if you want to do more than boil water. Ignitors are convenient, and save having to reach for matches or a lighter every time. (But carry the matches too, ignitors can (will!) fail.) There are other less ‘integrated’ canister stoves too. I’ve been using a BRS 3000T, that you can get on Amazon for $16. And it’s weight? .06 lbs. How do you beat that for a canister stove? The small fuel cannister, stove, pot stand, matches and lighter, plus a cloth fit in a 750ML pot.
“Gas” stoves. (Actually, most of these use Coleman fuel.) If you go back 20 years, WhisperLite was the stove of choice. For winter camping these are still among the best stoves as gas stoves work in freezing temperatures. (Although there are some ‘inverted canister’ stoves which claim they can run in the “winter.” But they don’t advertise a lower temperature limit. NH gets very cold!)
Alcohol, the once and future stove? Alcohol stoves have been around for a long time. A bit less convenient than a Jetboil, and slower to boil water, but the stove can be very light weight. And, you can make one from a used soda can if you want. (Yes “Coke can” stoves work. And were a thru-hiker thing a few years back. You can also buy premade alcohol stoves similar in function to a Coke can stove. Esbit, and others, make alcohol stoves and nesting cook sets. Or assemble your own cook kit. Alcohol stoves work in the winter down to at least 5 below. Maybe colder.
There are also wood fired stoves. Some have a battery to run a fan to improve efficiency.
Esbit also makes a solid fuel stove. It is available as a small folding metal stove, or is a cook set that comes with the wind screen and the pot. Not the fastest, but low cost, and they work. Nothing wrong with simple.
My suggestion? Most people I know have had multiple stoves over time. So, start with something relatively inexpensive. It will heat your food, and as you see other stoves in use, you’ll decide which one you want to use as your ‘forever’ stove. (But you will still get a new one every couple years! No matter which one you have, you’ll always envy some convenience of the other options. ☺)
Backpacking 107 – Water purification ($1 – $40 and up)
You could boil all your water… if you like: your water hot, carrying extra fuel, and spending time doing it.
You could carry bleach, but it makes your water taste like…well, bleach. There are also pills, some with a second pill to counteract the taste of the first.
Pump filters were popular, but have lost favor. They are still around and work.
SteriPEN – uses UV light to sterilize the water. Cloudy water can be harder to sterilize, but on the plus side there’s no water inside it to freeze like ‘filters.’
Or you could just buy a Sawyer Squeeze (or Sawyer Mini), like ‘everyone else’. (There are a few other filters, some are gravity fed, where you fill a bag with ‘dirty’ water and there is a hose to fill your bottles or pans.) But the Sawyer Squeezes are popular because they work, are light, and are relatively inexpensive. (Their weakness is filling the water pouches they provide. CNOC makes better water pouches, that are compatible with the Sawyer Squeeze.)
Backpacking 108 – Packs ($75 – $300 and up)
Years ago, frame packs were ‘standard’. I still love mine, but they are heavy (5 lbs.+). These days new ones are hard to find, but used ones are all over eBay, Craigslist, and I’ve even picked them up from people’s trash. (Be sure the foam shoulder straps and waist belt haven’t deteriorated.)
But in the stores, it’s all internal frame packs now. Some are light, but some are quite heavy. (Surprise, lightweight ones usually cost more!) Osprey EXOS 58 (liter) (2 lb. 11 oz for the Large, and $220) and Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 (liter) (2 lb. 1 oz for Large, $285) are a couple light weight ones. I ended up with a REI Flash 55 (2 lb. 10 oz., $199), several lbs. lighter than my frame pack. Note: It’s hard to pick a pack until you commit to all the other gear, because a pack that won’t hold the gear you choose… doesn’t help.
OK, now you know everything. Ok, well let’s say you have heard a whole lot, and your head may be spinning, and you feel like you ‘know’ nothing concrete.
Start thinking of what you really ‘want to do’. Hike the AT? Or spend a few quiet weekends in NH? Carry all this gear up and down the 4000 footers, or just hike a few miles into the lower woods? Next up we will look at some ‘sets’ of gear. The low weight options, and some ‘more economical’ options.
Backpacking 109 – “Exactly what should I buy?”
Unfortunately, as much as I’d like there to be (for me as well as for you), there is no simple answer. A lot depends on you, your plans, and your finances. How much do you intend to backpack? (Are you interested in “trying it out”, or committed to hiking the Appalachian Trail? How strong are you? Stronger people can carry heavier packs, although they may not want to. And finally, “How much are you willing to spend?” (Because, generally, as weight goes down the price goes up. And as weight goes way down, price goes way up!)
My history as a backpacker
I started out as a poor college student a long time ago. Here is a sample of what I used, updated to current equipment and prices.
River Country Products Trekker 2.2 $55 on Amazon. (Note: This tent has had quality issues since I originally recommended it. I can’t recommend it now and haven’t researched an alternative.) Sleeping bag: From a local Department store: Coleman 30 degree at Walmart, $27. Pad: Thermorest Ridgerest $29 at REI. Esbit CS585HA 3-Piece Lightweight Camping Cook Set, Amazon $27. Water filter, Sawyer Mini, Amazon $20. And to carry everything: Teton Sports Explorer 4000 internal frame backpack, Amazon $75. So, for $233, you can have your “Big 6” backpacking items and go backpacking. Will they be as lightweight as possible? Heck no! Will they be as high quality? ‘Varies’. But will they ‘work’, keep you warm, dry, and fed? Yes! And, if it’s what you can afford, and you are comfortable carrying the weight, “Go for it!” When I started out 50 years ago, I didn’t have ‘the best.’ Has my gear improved? Sure. Did I invest in a new (lightweight!) tent, pack and sleeping bag a couple years ago? Yes, I did, because I’m not as young as I once was. 😊 Did I ‘have to’, no, but I decided that if I was going to backpack a bunch it was worth the cost to reduce my pack weight. (Did I mention I’m not getting any younger?)
So, where do you fall? Likely somewhere in the middle. Maybe you already have some of the gear, but are just looking to buy a new sleeping bag. (Make sure it will fit in your pack, and leave room for the rest of your gear!) Maybe you don’t have much. (But before you rush out to buy ‘everything’ let’s talk as, if you are willing to share, not everyone needs a tent and stove.)
And finally, to give you one more ‘data point’, here is my current pack contents and base weight. (Excluding food and water.) from the summer of 2019. Note that this does not include items carried in my pockets, such as wallet, cell phone. Note, this list is ‘pretty good’
“What about the tent I saw at Walmart for $20? That’s even less expensive than your $55 example.” Well, one thing to consider about tents, when you’re in the woods your tent is what keeps you dry in a storm. Many tents are less than perfect. If you by any tent, test it out in your backyard before you take it into the woods and depended on it.
The same applies to sleeping bag ratings. It may say 20° but does that mean you’ll be “comfortable” or “clinically alive” in the morning? There is a big difference! There are sleeping bag standardized ratings these days, but not every manufacturer tests their bags. See: https://thermarestblog.com/en-iso-sleeping-bag-ratings/ and lots of other articles available on the web. For NH, in mid-summer, if you pick your weekends, a 30-degree bag is fine. But even mid-summer I’ve appreciated a 20-degree bag at times. It does get cold in the mountains, and if you are ‘higher’, it gets colder. Can you sleep with all of your clothes on and make it through the night? Yes, but in a 20-degree bag, with your base layer on and sleeping on a pad you are usually fine. No summer sleeping bag is going to also be a winter sleeping bag.
OK, and now on a totally different subject: “Where the heck can you go backpacking in NH?”
Well, let’s limit this discussion to ‘The White Mountain National Forest”. That will give you plenty of places to start.
In the White Mountains there are several levels of ‘accommodations.’ So, let’s look at these options, and some pros and cons of each.
The AMC High Huts: Unless you are a chef, you won’t beat the AMC hut food. And you get an indoor place to sleep, composting toilets, and drinkable water. Sounds pretty good… but on the flip side… almost $150/night/person next year! And you sleep in a bunk room, where the chances of someone snoring seems (based on my experiences) to be close to 100% (Life Pro Tip: Bring earplugs if you go!) But there is also much fun to be had at the huts. If someone gave me a ‘Free Hut Pass’ I’d use it at times.
Shelters: Well, there is a roof over your head, which usually doesn’t leak. (And it may have a composting toilet nearby, which is nice.) And it’s a place to get out of the rain! But you have to share the shelter with whoever shows up, and on a rainy night, or along the AT, they can get very crowded. Don’t expect a long, uninterrupted night’s sleep. Even if you don’t have to go answer the call of nature, everyone else will have to. Oh, and the popular locations have caretakers, and a $15/night/person fee. See: https://www.outdoors.org/backcountry-campsites/
Tent Platforms: You get a ‘deck’ on which to pitch your tent. On the plus side it’s flat, with no sharp rocks in the middle of your back. It may have a composting toilet, which is nice. Cons? If it’s a weekend you probably will have to share the ‘deck’ with others and their tents. So, you will be sleeping maybe 5’ from someone else, who may snore. (Hope you saved those earplugs!) And there typically will be that caretaker collecting the $15/night/person fee. https://www.outdoors.org/backcountry-campsites/
The backcountry: Well, once you hike, typically ¼ mile, away from the shelters and tent platforms you are in ‘the backcountry’. And usually, you can camp there. There are rules you need to follow. You have to camp 200’ from streams, ponds, and trails. (So you don’t pollute the water or detract from the enjoyment of those hiking past.) The full rules are at: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5363715.pdf The disadvantages of the backcountry are that there are no, as in zero, ‘facilities.’ No composting toilet, no graded tent site, or platform, on which to camp. No bear box to store your food in to keep the animals (bears sure, but also mice and racoons, etc.) away from it. But, on the plus side, you will have the peace and quiet of the woods. Maybe if you are hiking alone that won’t have much appeal at first, but a couple years ago I went (alone) to Three Ponds, the sight of our planned group backpack, and there was no one at the shelter. I went another 1/3 of a mile and pitched my tent. The nearest person was 3 miles away down in the valley. It was just me, and the occasional black fly. (Even they weren’t out in great numbers.) When I got up in the morning and walked back to the pond, there were fresh moose prints. It was almost enough to make me wish I’d gotten up earlier. (But I saw two moose later in the day, so it balanced out.) The quiet was relaxing. And the ponds, at dusk and dawn, were as pretty as you could ask for. Alas someone had warned the fish it was ‘free fishing day’ in NH, and they weren’t biting, so my idea of freshly caught trout for breakfast didn’t work out. 😊 But it was still a great time.
Renting gear. If you want to try this whole ‘backpacking thing’ before committing big bucks…
REI stores, in Framingham and Reading, rent some gear. Contact them for details. https://www.rei.com/rentals
Backpacking 110 – Enough talk, let’s EAT!
Ok, what to eat when backpacking? For simplicity let’s say: We are driving up Saturday morning, getting to the trailhead at 10:00 AM. We’ll hike in, reach camp in the afternoon, spend the night, and on Sunday pack up and hike some more and back out, getting to the cars at 4:00 PM.
So, what are you going to pack for food?
First let’s break it down to ‘meals’: Saturday trail lunch. Saturday supper. Bedtime snack? Sunday breakfast. Sunday trail lunch. And snacks.
OK, the trail lunches. Saturday… whatever you’d take on a day hike for lunch. (For me that’s a peanut butter and (1/2” thick slice of Honey Crisp) apple sandwich. Sunday… well you could carry a slice of apple, but it will get beat up and turn brown. And apples are heavy. Maybe just PB, or (if you eat sugar) peanut butter & jelly. The PB can be carried in a small container, or Jif makes individual portion containers, which are convenient.
The bread can be carried in a plastic Tupperware® type container to keep it from getting crushed. Or you can buy packets of tuna or chicken for your sandwich, or to eat plain. (If you take a can, you need a can opener, and to carry both the can and opener in and out, which adds weight.) Or, if you like them, maybe just go with ‘bars’ [Clif, Kind, …] for Sunday lunch. You’ll be out, and getting real food, soon, so maybe that’s easier. To drink, you have water. Myself, I don’t drink enough water if it’s not flavored, so I’ll take Nuun tablets. (Previously I used powdered Country Time lemonade mix, but it’s high in sugar, and I’m limiting added sugar. Sugar isn’t good for you.)
Saturday Supper: Here there are many options. Some want to do the easiest thing, which might be to visit REI/EMS/LL Bean/Amazon and buy a freeze-dried hiker meal. They can be OK, but are relatively expensive. There are easy ‘do-it-yourself’ options. I repackage the Velveeta shells and cheese “microwaveable” cups into a plastic bag. 2 of the cups into a 1-quart freezer bag. Boil water, open the bag (take out your cheese packets), pour in the water. Let it sit a few minutes in a cozy to keep it warm. Squirt in the cheese, stir and Mmmmm good.
Or Couscous. Add some olive oil and season to taste. Some folks like to start with stuffing mix, maybe add in some walnuts and craisins. Maybe add one of those chicken packets. Ramen, with hot water in the cozy works. You can boil it a couple minutes, but meal planning is all a tradeoff between ‘easy’ and ‘tastes a little bit better, but created a lot of dirty dishes.’ A great meal ends up with one dirty spoon. 😊
If your stove choice was one that simmers, there are many ‘pasta sides’ which make great tasting meals. Think Knorr Alfredo. (Note about meals: ‘Serves 2’ really means… ‘serves one hungry hiker.’) Take plenty of food, you’ll be hungry if you hiked a lot and you don’t want to go to bed hungry. (But don’t cook too much. There is no easy disposal except eating it all!)
Breakfast: For myself I’ll go with Bob’s Red Mill ‘Old Country Style’ Muesli. It says ¼ cup per serving, but you will eat more than ½ cup. More if you didn’t get enough supper. For breakfast I may want it warm, so a little powdered milk mixed in and boiling water added; again, in a freezer bag in the cozy. And it can also be eaten cold with powdered milk & water, or dry, like trail mix. Others will carry oatmeal. And whatever add-ins you want (nuts, raisins, …) If I want something to drink, hot chocolate or Ovaltine®, again with some powdered milk, will help warm you up if it’s chilly. And it usually is. Or you can do a powered OJ mix, like Tang® with water.
Snacks: Clif/KIND/candy bars, nuts, trail mix, string cheese… For me, before bed, I like rice cakes with peanut butter.
You will notice that there are several aspects to food. Taste. How filling it is. But, also, how easy it is to make. And how many dirty dishes it creates. (There are no dishwashers in the woods.) I’ve been known, in a previous life, to pack in spaghetti and sauce, with fresh onions and peppers to be sautéed and added. And to make blueberry pancakes for breakfast. (Remember the spatula! If you do take pancakes, remember the spatula. I have a pan that still, 20 years later, has blueberries in the pits.) But over time I’ve come to realize that planning can make mealtime much easier. And, with good planning, the meals can also be tasty. And a nice meal tastes even better in the woods, after hiking all day.
So, my suggestion is, set aside an hour to walk up and down the aisles of your favorite grocery store. Look at some of those items you might not normally buy, be it instant mac & cheese, muesli, etc. Think to yourself… Would this taste good after a long day? How could I prepare it to minimize dirty dishes? (Feel free to google “best backpacker meals”, or look at YouTube videos.) I’ve got nothing against those freeze-dried backpacker meals, (but have never found any that taste ‘great’!) but you can do better, and do so for less money. 😊
When you first go you will probably take a bit too much food. As long as it’s light weight food that isn’t too bad. (My son and I once came home from a weeklong trip with 10 lbs. of unused food. That was ‘over packing’! We certainly didn’t plan well.) Thru hikers plan, on average, to take 2 lbs. of food per day. As a ‘weekend’ hiker you probably will eat a bit less, on average. But don’t cut it too close. If something does go wrong, it’s always nice to have a few things left. If something goes wrong and your ‘2:00 PM Sunday’ exit turns into ‘7:00 PM Sunday’ exit, you’ll be glad you had something for supper.
My cozy for keeping the food warm while it re-hydrates. I had made a foam cozy, and it worked well. But recently I looked at an “Amazon Prime” bubble wrap padded shipping envelope. Hmmm. Plastic, padded with bubble wrap. Just big enough to hold a 1-quart freezer bag of food. I think it’s a winner. (There are online videos about making these cozies out of duct insulation. See: https://www.cloudlineapparel.com/blogs/cloudline/how-to-make-an-insulated-backpacking-meal-cozy) Bottom line: You will want something, as if your meal cools off while re-hydrating, it won’t taste as good, or warm you as much.
Here are a few videos to get you started:
Still have questions? Email me. As you’ve probably figured out by now, I like ‘talking’ about hiking, and helping new hikers.
See you on the trail!