When the first wild bear I ever saw up close wandered past my backcountry camp, I grabbed my camera and shot pictures like mad. Bears appear to Yosemite tourists all the time yet had somehow eluded me during my first several years of park visits. Unwisely, I followed the bruin as I finished a roll of film and even loaded another.
My fellow forest-dweller didn’t like it and let me know with a snarl and sudden step in my direction. The bear’s bluff charge nearly made my heart leap out of my chest. I got the message and backed off, a bit wiser than before.
Fifty years of outdoor experiences have taught me a few things, which I hope are worth sharing. Through this series, I offer you 50 tips to judge for yourself. This column, the fourth of five, focuses on backpacking. Whether you go for a few days in a nearby park or a few months on the Pacific Crest Trail, a wide and wonderful world awaits those willing to trek into the wilderness.
- Start easy and build up gradually. Hiking out to camp for a single night will help you learn to make a longer trip more comfortable. Of course, it helps considerably if you exercise and attain good fitness before a backpacking trip, especially a long one. Try taking some day hikes with your pack first, both to build your strength and to test your pack weight.
- Travel light. The less your pack weighs, the easier and happier your hiking becomes. This sounds obvious and yet we all learn the hard way. For instance, do you really need a tent? In many situations, just a sleeping bag and camping mattress get you through the night comfortably. Shoot for a base weight of 20 pounds or less; some ultralight experts get under 10 pounds. Even veteran backpackers find new ways to shed weight as ever-lighter gear reaches the market.
- Consider these gear suggestions. Hiking poles will help take the pressure off your knees when you climb or descend hills. Some people swear by hiking boots but lighter options work too; I often wear running shoes. Wear whatever footwear you choose around before your backpacking trip to ensure your comfort. Sandals let you take off your shoes in the evening and give your feet a break.
- Learn to use a map and compass, and don’t rely exclusively on electronics to navigate. Phone apps and GPS devices work great, until they don’t. When batteries die, signals disappear or gadgets break, you need a backup plan. Surprisingly few backpackers possess map and compass skills, but those who do avoid costly route-finding errors. By the way, when something looks wrong, stop and reassess. You won’t find your course correction just over the next hill. Chances are, it’s behind you.
- Watch out for water. This greatest necessity also weighs more than anything else, so it’s important to carry the right amount and plan ahead on where to refill your bottles. Guidebooks, maps, and fellow hikers can all provide this information on dry stretches of trail. While I hesitate to rely on electronics, many hikers use apps like Guthook, which provide up-to-date information about seasonal water sources. In addition, filter water you suspect of contamination. This isn’t always necessary but err on the side of caution, especially around livestock.
- Avoid mosquito bites, and don’t let the bugs bug you. First, time your outings to avoid the pesky blood-suckers. They hatch during spring in the lowlands and then work their way up the mountains through summer. Second, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to guard against them. Many use chemicals like DEET that definitely help, but those concerned about their possible health hazards can get by without them by observing the first two tips. Mosquitoes are thankfully less numerous following a dry winter like we had this year.
- Leaves of three, leave them be! Learn to recognize poison oak. The enemy’s leaves are green in spring and summer, red in fall, and fall off the plant in winter, but the stems are still dangerous. Thankfully, the oily plant doesn’t grow above 5,000 feet and presents no problem on high elevation hikes. But, when in doubt, touch nothing suspicious. If you do touch it, wash your skin and clothes. Good idea to wash your dog, too.
- Bring fishing gear if you’re camping somewhere with angling potential. Backcountry lakes and streams deliver far better action than more easily-reached fishing holes. Fish bite best in the early morning and evening hours. It doesn’t take much tackle or expertise to land a few in the right waters, and doing so will make you a hero in your camp.
- Be realistic about your schedule, especially at elevation. Mountain miles take more time and energy than lowland ones. When my family first hiked a segment of the John Muir Trail, we seriously underestimated the difficulty and time required, forcing us to march 20 miles out on our last day. The trail doesn’t care if you’re in a hurry. You’ll enjoy yourself more if you take adequate time.
- Finally, leave wildlife alone! For starters, don’t stalk a bear like I foolishly did. Additionally, take steps to protect wildlife from effects of your passage. In bear country, carry a bear can; hanging your food bag from a tree rarely works well. Clean your camp, and don’t leave out food for any animals to access. Dependence on human handouts means death for our furry friends.
I try to hit the trail for a few days or weeks every year. Every trip produces special memories. When I look back at some years, my backpacking trips are the events I remember best about them.
Spotting wildlife always delivers thrills, too. I’ve been fortunate to spot bald eagles, California condors, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, and quite a few bears. I love taking pictures of them, which I happily shoot from a respectful distance.
Matt Johanson enjoys exploring and writing about the outdoors. Climbing Mount Shasta, hiking the John Muir Trail, and skiing through Yosemite’s high country rank among his favorite outings. Matt’s books include California Summits, Sierra Summits, Yosemite Adventures, and Yosemite Epics. He’s taught and advised an award-winning high school journalism program for more than 20 years.
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