Prepare for overnight hikes with proper gear and knowledge
As trail hiking becomes more popular, the Shenandoah National Park increasingly attracts more visitors. Pick any beautiful sunny weekend and Skyland Drive may look as crowded as I-66. To avoid the traffic on the trails many hikers seek a more rewarding outdoor experience – farther away from the metropolitan areas. With the additional time being invested in day hikes, it’s natural to consider overnight backpacking which offers a richer appreciation of both connecting with nature and learning the art of living simply.
The Boots ’n Beer hiking club began backpacking seven years ago when one of our hikers suggested we adventure out at least once a month to add variety to our activities. I joined him with lots of enthusiasm and quickly learned the hard way that preparation for backpacking in the wilderness is the first lesson to learn. It was a mild day in January when we set out for an overnighter in a remote part of the Shenandoah National Park. We found the perfect spot and set up our tents just below the mountain top at 3,500 feet elevation.
Under the light of the full moon and the bright beams of our headlamps we prepared and ate our freeze dried dinners; chatting until physical tiredness took its toll. But later in the full moon night soon gave way to rapidly dropping temperatures. The inadequacy of my sleeping system became painfully evident as the barometer dipped to 18 degrees fahrenheit, and I could do nothing but listen to my own teeth shattering. The night was long and sleep was short.
The morning began with more surprises. Not only did all our water supply freeze, but the camp stoves refused to ignite. Tired and quiet, we slowly broke camp and left the wilderness in search of the closest Cracker Barrel to fill our bellies with eggs, bacon and a good hot cup of coffee for the long drive home. That night was the beginning of my backpacking education.
Are you ready to go to the next level in backpacking? When you build a home it requires thorough planning, preparation, choices, and lots of questions. As I learned, the same applies for backpacking because everything you need to safely enjoy the wilderness, you must carry on your back.
If backpacking is your adventure interest, learn from experienced backpackers. A good place to start is to explore hiker blogs like Cam Honan’s website thehikinglife.com. When you are ready to give backpacking a try, find an experienced backpacker, or group, and ask to join them on a trip suitable for beginners. It’s like opening up a treasure trove, as hikers love to talk about their gear, will readily share knowledge, and love telling their own stories of their various experiences in the wilderness.
Boots ’n Beer’s backpacking group has grown over the years to include a dozen regular backpackers and schedules overnight trips once per month. Some hikers have been backpacking for 30 years or more. That’s a lot of accumulated experience and know-how, common sense, good judgement and wisdom to enjoy, and put to good use on backcountry adventures.
Equipment and budget considerations. As a day hiker you already have your hiking clothes and boots. However, until you know if overnight backpacking is your “cup of tea,” you may want to borrow the necessary basic equipment from a friend or colleague before you purchase it.
The big three items you need include: overnight backpack, tent, and a sleeping bag. There are so many choices that spending an afternoon at an REI shop is time well spent; check out basic equipment with a knowledgeable salesperson. The big three items are suitable for our area during late spring, summer and early fall, and should not cost you more than 600 dollars. If you are a bargain chaser you can use the REI Garage Sales or eBay, where the same equipment, but slightly used, may be found for below 300 dollars or less.
With each excursion you’ll find yourself making a mental checklist of additional gear items to make camping more comfortable. Most people find a hot cup of coffee in the morning and a good meal after a long hike are essential, which means a camp stove is required. On a recent three day excursion a new minimalist backpacker joined us. She is an experienced volunteer ranger and did not use a cooking system. She prepared all her food at home and ate it cold, but a flask of bourbon kept her warm.
Most backpackers tend to overpack which creates heavy packs. The art of backpacking, however, lies in going “light” which requires putting more thought into one’s choices
Admittedly, each individual is different and some prefer a little more comfort than a minimalist hiker, but remember as the gear increases so does the cost and weight of your backpack. From an unknown humorist comes the definition of “Backpacking: An extended form of hiking in which people carry double the amount of gear they need for half the distance they planned to go in twice the time it should take.”
Remember, the joy of backpacking lies in the simplified life; immersed in nature, a sense of independent, and last but not least the enjoyment of the camaraderie with fellow hikers. After a day’s hike, nothing is more satisfying then having dinner together around the campfire and telling stories, or simply watching the dancing flames. For many a hiker a stogie with some firewater brings the grateful thought: “If there’s a heaven, it’s here.”