My first backpacking trip was along the Moccasin Gap Trail in Southern, Illinois some forty-two years ago. That first trip was miserable. It’s ironic that the trail was a 13 mile trek. The miserable part was due to my lack of knowledge, poor equipment and the weather. To spite that, I enjoyed the trip and have continued to pursue backpacking. I learned a lot on that first trip as my mates and I headed out from Trigg Tower, a Fire Tower in the Shawnee National Forrest (http://nhlr.org/lookouts/us/il/trigg-tower/).
The original backpack was an orange external framed pack that my parents bought at a local Army Surplus store that was Paducah, Kentucky’s original outdoor supplier. I had an Army surplus down filled mummy style sleeping bag, several dehydrated meals manufactured by Mountain House, a surplus mess kit, a green web belt with metal canteen and canteen cup, a metal framed folding stove with several cans of gel fuel, a hatchet, a K-bar style knife, a multi-tool knife with utensils, a pocket fisherman, a rain poncho, a huge nylon tarp, a couple of changes of clothes stuffed into a plastic garbage bag and a two pole pup tent. My weight at the time was about 110 pounds and the entire pack and contents weighed just under 60 pounds.
The first night went uneventful. We all climbed to the top of the fire watch tower and took pictures of the amazing view. Up early the next morning we ate a quick breakfast, packed our gear up and hit the trail head. By lunch my shoulders and back were aching, and my feet hurt. That second night our camp was pitched just off the trail and the rain began to fall. The tent leaked, the tarp underneath became a river and I slept very little as my down mummy bag continued to soak up as much water as it could hold. It was mid October and the temperatures dipped into the low forties and my teeth began to chatter. We all were up early and ate a charred breakfast of Bacon and scrambled eggs cooked hurriedly under a dining fly over a small fire. After breakfast all the scouts packed our wet gear and began our walk.
By the middle of the second day the strap on my new $50.00 backpack (not a bad price in the late 1970s) broke away from the frame when the grommet came loose from the nylon tearing the strap. My feet were soggy, my gear was soaked and less then optimal. My Dollar Store boots were starting to separate at the sole as we entered into Camp Ondessonk (https://ondessonk.com) which lays at the end of the Moccasin Gap Trail. The most cherished memory was the end of the trail and the satisfaction that I had completed the trek in spite of the conditions. As I hoisted my new but battered backpack into the trunk of that old Dodge Duster my Scout Master owned, the bottom seam started to separate.
This first trip proved many things. I remember the view from the tower. I remember exploring the old Scout Camp, Pakentuk, a camp my Father attended as a young man. The old Scout Camp lays somewhere near the current location of Camp Ondessonk and Pakentuk Falls. There were many ruins of old cabins there. I remember imagining my father doing all the things I had done as a Scout only with the gear common in the 1930(s). Camping, cooking, hiking and pioneering, all on this very ground where I stood. I remember many of the turns in the trail and the wonder of what lay ahead. I remember the Shawnee Forrest and thinking about how many moccasins had trod the trail before me.
That first backpacking was an escape too, from my dysfunctional family. The world was much larger and more beautiful than our little gun barrel house that I grew up in. It was the beginning of a life long love for all things outdoors. It gave me a foundation which sparked many of my favorite pastimes. Sealed my commitment to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that helped form my character and helped mold me into the person I am today. A tradition I was able to carry on with my own family and hopefully passed along for generations to come.
I also learned that you get what you pay for, and sometimes it is worth the expense to have a degree of quality. After the trip I began to do research. I read everything I could find on the subjects of backpacking and camping. I worked hard and began replacing all my substandard equipment.
Weight matters, the more you carry the heavier it gets with each step. Add in difficult terrain and that pack not only becomes more stressed, so does the body. Everything must be carefully considered. There is no better method than trial and error to determine just what you must have, vice what you find convenient to have and eliminate anything that wasn’t used at all. There will be few exceptions here, first aid supplies, water purification, wet and foul weather gear being some. Use your trips to see what items you can use for multiple things. Just because you have room for something doesn’t mean you necessarily need to carry it, particularly on longer treks.
The gear you choose to purchase is either money well spent or money wasted. Official Boy Scout gear has been top quality for over a century. Most name brand items can be quality as well. Surplus military gear is also a good buy for the money, provided it is current technology. I have found it tends to be a bit heavier than the civilian equivalent in some cases. Many military manufacturers also have civilian outlets where you can purchase new gear. When making purchases you have to consider size, weight, durability and cost.
One of the first purchases will be your backpack. I am partial to external frame packs. They are what I started out with, but there is also the advantage of being able to change the pack without necessarily changing the frame. I salvaged my original pack frame and purchased a scout pack to replace the original cheaply manufactured orange pack. Drilled a few holes in the aluminum frame for the new pack to be positioned correctly and replaced the original screws and nuts with pins which were easier to replace on the trail. I added a quality hip belt and shoulder straps. These will help with the weight distribution and take the stress off your shoulders. It lasted through my high school and college years. External frames are easier to stand against a tree when taking a break, or when your trek is done for the day. They are easier to pack and extract the necessary gear from. They tend to be more supportive of the weight and easier to distribute the load more evenly.
Internal frames are easier to pack into luggage compartments particularly if you have to fly to get to your trailhead. They also tend to stay closer to your body and make it easier to maintain your balance. They will work better for anyone wanting to ski, are easier to put into canoes or kayaks.
Both are available in a variety of sizes and there are a number of quality manufacturers available to choose from. I prefer as many exterior pockets as possible regardless of which style pack you choose. Our garage back home and our camping closet wherever I am currently stationed are stocked with several sizes of both styles. There is no one size fits all needs when it come to backpacks. Longer treks will require larger capacities than shorter treks.
Boots are another very important purchase and also not one to skimp on quality. I prefer military stye or something similar to the old style 70(s) hiking boot. Technology has come a long way and as long as you change them out at an appropriate interval, your feet and your back will thank you. Many boosts of great quality are not much heavier than a pair of athletic shoes. As with your pack, there isn’t an all in one boot. Season, terrain and climate have to be taken into consideration. Whatever your choice, go to the store and try them on. It is also a good idea to take extra shoes along on long treks, so you can change into something else while in camp. Moccasins, athletic shoes or sandals are a good choice here. While on the subject of footwear, it is a good idea to carry a few changes of socks. These can be worth their weight in gold. My time in the Scouts and the Army taught me to take care of my feet. As with packs I have several pair of hiking boots. Mole skin is also a good thing to bring along, you never know when you’ll get a blister. I tend to store only very minimal first aid supplies, but always include mole skin, some gauze, some antiseptic, tape and large military style bandage.
Shelter must be considered. Something light, perhaps a bivy shelter, tarp or small backpacking style tent. Our closet and garage has several of each of these. I prefer simple, and light. If my trip is going to be short I sometimes simply build my own shelter or utilize the terrain. For short trips during good to fair weather conditions I prefer a nylon tarp, comes in handy when you can’t find or build your own shelter. My favorite came off a tent that has long since been discarded. Technology here has come a long way since that first two pole pup style tent I carried onto the trail. I tend not to pay a lot of attention to product reviews, as they tend to depend on an unknown experience level of the writer.
I have tried all types of tents in every imaginable terrain and climate. Some are good, others aren’t. My latest acquisition, a tipi style tent from a Sportsman’s Guide. It is 10 feet in diameter and tall enough for my 6 foot frame to stand in, but it is a bit heavy to take on a backpacking excursion, but is adequate for camping or a canoe trip. If you pack light enough in other areas, it could be considered and they do sell a slightly smaller version which I don’t own. I bring this tent up, because it has very mixed reviews. People either thought it was the best thing for their money or total crap. Since I bought one and am considering buying a larger version for family camping, I have to equate the poorer reviews to the inexperience of the reviewers. One of the chief complaints is leakage with this tent. All tents will leak, especially if you touch the material during a rain storm. Secondly, you have to put your tent in a good spot, otherwise it can be disastrous results. If you pitch the tent in low ground it will flood. We purchased one, and have been very happy with it. We have weathered many a storm. Many lessons were learned over the years, and even so we sometimes make mistakes. These aren’t the fault of the tent manufacturers. I look at room, ease of setup and take down, price and quality of zippers and flies. Guide Gear, sold by Sportman’s Guide is in my opinion very good gear and reasonably priced.
Sleeping gear, is another careful consideration. Terrain, season, weight and weather have to be taken into consideration. There is no one size fits all sleeping gear either. I have a number of types and styles of sleeping bags. In late spring, summer and early fall especially farther south, I might just carry a simple fleece style light bag. As the seasons turn colder or farther north, a heavier bag might be added, and for winter, something below zero to minus thirty rating should be considered, As always you can increase the rating by combining bags and bivy sacks. I also often simply take along a good thermal mummy style bag, you know the silver foil type emergency bags. These are very light weight and extremely warm. The downsides are that they aren’t going to hold up too long and they tend to crinkle and make noise. If you are going to uses these take 2 or 3 with you. It is possible with experience to avoid this expense and weight all together, shelter and sleeping comfort can be accomplished without expensive bags and tents. As your survival skills increase you will learn ways to stay warm and dry without all the modern amenities.
Water purification is a good idea. The days of old are long gone when you can belly up to a stream and drink the fresh water. Many different styles and types are available. If you plan on going on a short excursion, you can take enough water for the entire trip. Longer stays and if things go badly and you get stuck in the wilderness for an extended period will require you find and purify your own water. My preferred method is the water bottle style with a purification filter in the top. These are very similar to the water pitchers manufactured by Britta or Pur, that many of you have in your refrigerators. Many camel pack systems have built in purification filters now and they are also good. There are the pump style systems that also work well. Choice between these comes down to personal preference and budget. It is also advisable to learn some alternate methods of purifying your water source.
Cookware is another area that you can either go without, or all out on, dependent upon your preference. Quality again is well worth the expense here and will last much longer than the $10.00 mess kit purchased at a department store. My first Sterno Stove was not such a good choice. I use a Coleman backpacking stove and have for many years. I have a couple of other multi-fuel style stoves and they all work well. I recommend learning how to jerk meats, dry corn and make hard tack. These will keep you nourished for many days without cooking at all. Other options are MRE style prepackaged meals that often come with heating packs. If you choose to go with dehydrated foods, understand you will have to carry more water to hydrate your meals. If I do the dehydrated, I carry a single large pot and lid to heat the water. The lid will help conserve your fuel and the water will heat quicker. MRE style foods can also be heated this way, and the water doesn’t necessarily need to be purified (wiping the exterior packaging to sanitize as necessary). My mess kit has basically gone the wayside, when I use MRE or dehydrated meals. Tuna now comes in foil packets that do not require refrigeration and are very light in weight and have options of different flavors and spices. Spam also comes in these neat foil packets. It is possible to shop at your local grocery and avoid the higher costs of backpacking and survival style foods. Eggs can be hard boiled and many fruits and vegetables don’t require refrigeration. In the winter months as the temperatures fall below 40 degrees refrigeration isn’t necessary.
I recommend you acquire a good walking staff. My favorite has some things attached to it to help on the trail. It has a series of beads on a string, which can be used to estimate your milage. I know my pace count and keep track of my progress both digitally and manually. GPS devices are great but you have to know how to do things the old fashioned way. There is also some snare wire and twine wrapped around it. I also have a wrist strap to help with keeping it in my hand, especially in slippery ground. The staff will also be helpful in rougher terrain and while crossing streams.
Now, I will discuss clothing. It needs to seasonably appropriate, and you need to be cautious about the weight, and not over or under packing. Layers are wonderful, and allow a degree of options. Many folks like to stick their clean clothing for the next day down inside the sleeping bag to keep them warm, this is especially rewarding on those cold mornings. I take a few changes of underwear and socks, which I will wash along the way as necessary. Clothing can air dry by being tied to the pack frame while you walk or dried by the fire in the evening. Wool material tends to retain heat even when wet. Don’t forget some type or rain gear, I prefer a poncho over a rain suit. The technology has improved dramatically and I do own a few rain suits. Be sure to consider the weight and try some variations to learn what works best in the way of clothing for you. I find pockets very helpful, and prefer a tactical style pant, short and vest.
Once you have acquired all your gear, practice. This doesn’t have to take you far from home. Set up in your back yard, go for a trek around town or your neighborhood, and back to your camp. This is much better way to learn what works and what needs to be changed than the way I found out on mile 7 of a 13 mile trek. Enjoy your next trek, wherever the trail leads you.