Backpacking: The Basics


Most people go backpacking to have fun. But, as anyone who has spent time in the backcountry knows, a backpacking trip for many people--especially the inexperienced--can quickly turn into a prolonged death march.

The main culprit, not surprisingly, is a backpack that weighs more than a wet bag of cement. Some suffer silently under the weight of a heavy pack as their shoulders, neck and legs turn into mush. Others quit and go home. Still others phone rangers (on their cellular phones, of course) and beg to be rescued. Fun? Try medieval torture.

“Most people who go backpacking in the Sierra are novice backpackers and they are just kind of clueless,” said Diana Pietrasanta, a wilderness manager with the Inyo National Forest. “They feel like they are going into the mountains and they have to take everything.”

Some heavy items that Pietrasanta and other rangers in the Sierra have seen backpackers either carry or abandon: A hardcover Bible, axes, coolers, 12 packs of beer, bags of charcoal, a bathroom scale, a watermelon, big water jugs, air mattresses the size of a small blimp and enough kitchenware--particularly can openers--to fill a store.


“Hey, I’ve found entire campsites abandoned,” said Bill Deisman, a recreation officer with the Sequoia National Forest. “People just picked up and went home with only their clothes on their back.”

Well, that’s one way to lighten the load--if you’ve got the bucks to buy new equipment for every trip.


The problem of packing light is centuries-old. Books have been written about it, chat rooms formed to discuss it, toothbrush handles hacked off to solve it. Nevertheless, where will you be on the night before your backpacking trip?


On the living room floor, with 40 to 60 pounds of gear spread on the floor, that’s where.

The latest addendum to the how-to-pack-light debate comes from super hiker Ray Jardine, author of “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook” and the subject of a recent profile in Backpacker magazine.

Jardine likes to pack light on his backpacking trips. How light? Try in the neighborhood of nine pounds. How? Jardine makes his own gear, including a lightweight tarp that substitutes for a tent. What about the weather? Jardine does his best to avoid it.

It’s an enticing approach--for those with suitable wilderness experience.

“But for most people, if they pack like that and run into weather, they die,” said Kevin Lee, manager of Adventure 16, an outdoor and travel outfitters store in Tarzana.

So, how to bring all the stuff you need and shed a few pounds?

A few tips from Lee and A-16 salesperson Amy Yaji:

* Try to keep the big three--the backpack, tent and sleeping bag--to about 10 pounds.


All three items come in a wide variety of weights. For example, a backpack can range from three pounds to seven pounds. The seven-pound bag might carry provisions for a 10-day trip. But, if you are only going for a weekend, do you really need all that extra space?

Tents also vary widely in price and weight--two-person tents can weigh anywhere from three to 20 pounds. Lee and Yaji say five pounds is a good goal for a two-person tent. Sierra Designs’ three-season Orion CD tent weighs four pounds, 14 ounces.

Sleeping bags have either down or synthetic fill. Down is the lighter of the two and it’s more compressible--The North Face’s Blue Kazoo down bag weighs two pounds, five ounces and is rated from 20 to 35 degrees.

“People get scared off from down because they think it can’t get wet,” says Lee. “But you have to sink it in a river to ruin it.”

* A change of clothes is not necessary every day.

It’s OK to stink. This is the wilderness.

Lee and Yaji both say it’s more important to bring the right clothes rather than a lot of clothes. Specifically, it’s a good idea to have one pair of medium-weight long underwear (synthetic, not cotton), nylon shorts, fleece pants and pullover, a wool cap, gloves and rainsuit (waterproof, not water resistant). If cold is an issue, a Patagonia puff ball vest might be a good investment--it weighs less than a pound and compresses to the size of a cantaloupe.

* Carefully consider the weight of your food.


Yes, Pop Tarts are yummy. But carrying an entire box of them is not efficient.

The general rule of thumb for food is to carry one to two pounds of food per person per day. The easiest way to stay within this range is to emphasize foods like instant soups, dehydrated foods, Ramen noodles and instant oatmeal and cereal. Trader Joe’s has an excellent selection of soups and cereals. At lunchtime, try crackers and dried salami. Or jerky, which is lightweight.

This next suggestion is not for everyone: Leave the pound of coffee at home and start the day with a nice lightweight tea bag.

How to cook the food? Leave the two-burner propane stove at home--that’s for car camping. There are many excellent single-burner stoves. One easy-to-operate stove is the Camping Gaz Turbo 270, which uses butane cartridges. The stove with a full-size cartridge weighs about three pounds.

Keep the cookware simple. Two people eating soups and dehydrated foods can easily share one pot--most backcountry pots weigh only a few ounces. Utensils? It’s not necessary to be a caveman, but all each person really needs is a plastic bowl, a cup and a spork.

* Leave the six pack in the fridge.

If you must have a sip, consider sipping your favorite beverage from a lightweight plastic flask.

* Think realistically.

Lose the lantern and use a small flashlight instead. Leave the lawn chair in the yard--and bring a small seat cushion. Bucket? Try a plastic water bladder like the Nalgene Canteen, which weighs two ounces and can hold 48 ounces of water. Video camera? Please. Guitar? One man’s music is another man’s firewood.

* Don’t get so obsessed with weight that you leave behind necessary items.

Examples? Toilet paper. First aid kit. Matches and fire starter. Tent stakes. The best way to avoid forgetting the essentials is to obtain a backpacking checklist from an outfitters store. Use it to pack and then double-check against the list at the trailhead.

* Get in shape.

“Most people I see on the trail are so out of condition they can’t enjoy the trip,” Yaji said.

Surprise! The best way to prepare for a backpacking trip is to carry a backpack. Go dayhiking in the local mountains with a 25-pound daypack. Wear your full pack whenever you walk the dog. At work, put on a pack and walk up and down the stairs at lunchtime.

They might laugh at you, but you’ll get the last laugh on the trail.