Trail Life 101: Planning for Your Backpacking Trip

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While getting outside and reconnecting with nature always sounds appealing, more often than not figuring out where to start can become more daunting than the actual trip. After you have purchased all the necessary gear, next comes the fun part of planning. So grab a guidebook to your chosen destination along with a detailed topographic map and keep these essential tips in mind when planning your big trip.

Choosing a Destination

Consider planning your first few backpacking adventures in areas that are within driving distance of home; this will allow you to reschedule should bad weather unexpectedly strike. Setting out on a well-marked trail with easy terrain, established campsites and ample water sources will aid in alleviating some of the first time jitters and allow you to focus more on the fun and beauty.

Research

A successful hike always starts with research. Your most up-to-date resource are the rangers who roam the area and are well acquainted with the area in which you are about to travel. One phone call or visit to the nearest ranger station can supply you with current trail conditions, permit requirements, what critters to be watchful of and any trail or campsite closures that may be in effect. When researching possible trails keep in mind your physical conditioning and if your skill set (and gear) can handle the worse weather you could possibly encounter. If you find yourself wavering towards maybe (or no) consider modifying your trip and your goals.

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Know Before You Go

Plan to hike no more than five to seven miles a day, depending on your physical conditioning. Before setting off be sure find out if the area in which you are traveling will require a backcountry permit, check the weather religiously before departing and most importantly, where you can find a post-trip beverage! Also, do not forget to let someone back at home know your plans and stick to your chosen route. So if for some reason you run across trouble you will be easier to locate.

On the Trail

Stay flexible as surprises are bound to happen eventually. By doing your homework you will be prepared to improvise if need be. Consider keeping a log, at least on your first few excursions. By recording the weather and trail conditions, how long it took you to get from point a to point b, how long it took to set up and break down camp, you can use this information for planning future trips.

Trail Life 101: Blister Prevention and Care

Blisters are a pain, literally. As biped adventurers our feet take a lot of abuse from repetitive impact across miles of uneven terrain, scaling large rock walls, scrambling up peaks, so on and so forth.

While our tired “dogs” often become achy and sore, the most common foot problem in the backcountry is a blister. Often created by friction, pressure, ill-fitting boots and wet socks, there are a few steps we can take to not only treat a newly formed blister but possibly prevent them as well.

Prevention

  • The best prevention for blisters is to wear boots that fit with room to wiggle your toes and without slippage in the heel box.
  • Just like your clothing, avoid cotton! Wear wool or synthetic socks that will wick away moisture.
  • Take the extra time to break-in your new boots. Wearing your new kicks around the house and on day hikes before hitting the trail for a multi-day excursion will save your feet from unnecessary pain.
  • As soon as you feel a burning sensation, or hot spot, cover the spot with moleskin or duct tape.

Blister

Treatment

  • If you have to pop a blister to relieve pressure do with a sterilized needle or razor blade. The best method is to clean the area then pierce the top or roof of the blister with a sterile needle and gently massage out the fluid. Be sure to keep the roof intact as a protective layer to the skin beneath the now dead layer.
  • Create a donut out of a piece of moleskin or foam that is just larger than the blister then apply antibiotic ointment and dry the skin around the blister. Once the area is prepared, affix the moleskin donut so that the hole creates a pressure free pocket around the blister. You may then apply a second donut as needed to help take away any direct pressure. Seal this second layer with yet another layer of moleskin and cover with duct or athletic tape.
  • Keep a bandage in place for up to 3 days, then wash and re-tape. If the area is red, swollen, or leaking pus, it’s infected. Keep it dressed and if the infection persists for more than a few days, see a doctor.

What special methods for prevention and treatment have you learned from your time on the trail?

Trail Life 101: Tent Care

Like most outdoor fanatics I scrimp, save, and scan Gear Trade  or other sale sites for the backpacking tent I have been drooling over for the past six months (or more).

Backpacking tents are one of the largest investments that any avid backpacker or climber will make. Taking time to give your new investment some TLC after every trip will help to ensure a number of comfortable evenings for many trips to come. 

Basic Cleaning and Storage

One of the top priorities in tent care is properly cleaning and storing it after each trip. Not only will this prolong the tent’s life, you will also avoid that disgusting smell of mildew next time to you go set up camp ten miles in. Shake out loose dirt, clean off any mud, wipe down the floor, and fly with a sponge and water when you return home from every trip. Make sure the tent and fly are also both dry (avoid direct sunlight) before packing it away. If you live in a humid environment consider storing your tent loosely in a stuff sack or box to avoid mildew.

Mildew will kill a tent and your sense of smell. This fungus will penetrate the urethane coasting of the tent fabric and grow between the fabric and coating eventually lifting the coating from the fabric thus loosing all waterproof capabilities. Should mildew begin to form you can sponge-wipe the tent with a solution made up of 1/2 cup Lysol to a gallon of hot water, or rinse with a solution of 1 cup of lemon juice and 1 cup of salt to a gallon of hot water.

Zipper Care

Most of the problems experienced with tent zippers are due to wear in the zipper sliders, rather than a failure of the coil itself. (The slider is the metal part that you move to zip and unzip the zipper.) Particles of dirt and grit on the coil, accumulated during use, abrade the mechanism inside the slider head. Once a slider becomes worn it will stop engaging the teeth of the coil correctly and cause the zipper to slide out-of-place. Avoid accelerated wear and tear by cleaning the zipper coils after every trip, especially in sandy and gritting environments. Zipper cleaners and lube are available at most outdoor stores, or you can use paraffin wax or lip balm if you’re in a pinch. Petroleum based lubricants are not recommended.

Sun Damage

One of the biggest causes of tent damage comes from the sun. UV damage will cause nylon and polyester to become brittle and eventually tear. When traveling in dry and sunny environments try to set up your tent in the shade whenever possible. Consider using the rain fly even on clear days as it acts as a sunscreen for the tent and is less expensive to replace if it is damaged.

Tree Sap

Tents are made from a variety of materials so it is difficult to say what substance will or will not damage your tent. You are best to start with only a small spot on the tent and with substances that are less likely to do any damage to begin with. Some die-hard backpackers swear by butter or vegetable oil rubbed into the area with a paper or cloth. Unless you enjoy the midnight invasion of woodland creatures licking your face or attempting to tear down your tent, make sure to immediately follow this method with soap and water to remove any oil and residual smell.

Trail Life 101: Trail Comfort Essentials

What should you carry in your pack during a day, overnight, or multi-day journey?

This age old debate can often be over heard while gearing up at the trail head or even while already on the trail, I have even heard a meeting of the minds over a pint at the local tavern in certain mountain towns that shall remain unnamed. Everyone has a different view which generally derives from personal experience and knowledge. As for my own personal answer, this list is my bare bones answer to what I personally carry in my backpack during any given day. Although this list may be added to or subtracted from depending on the duration of the trip and the area of travel, these basic items will aid in response to an accident and prepare hikers to safely spend an unexpected night in the wilderness if the need arises.

Navigation

Although we live in the age of advanced technology where GPS units can do just about everything except prepare a warm cup of coffee, it is still a good idea to carry a topographic map and compass as a backup. Adding very little extra weight to your pack, a map and compass do not rely on batteries and can provide a wealth of information from finding ideal camping areas to locating water sources along the trail.

Illumination

It is easy to stay beyond your expected time when traveling across panoramic ridgelines. If you ever find yourself trekking out of the backcountry at twilight or attempting to set up camp as the sun sets behind the horizon, a headlamp is an invaluable piece of equipment. Lightweight, compact and offering a hands-free light source, newer headlamps with LEDs feature a longer battery life than now-ancient incandescent bulbs. Many headlamp models also offer a strobe light mode, which is a great option to have during an emergency situation.

Extra Food and Water

It is always a good idea to carry an extra day’s worth of food and water on any backpacking trip. Even day hikers should carry enough food to sustain them for at least a day. Simple items such as freeze-dried meals or even no-cook items packed with calories and the shelf life of a Twinkie are even better. Energy bars, nuts, dried fruits and jerky are all excellent trail foods.

If you will be traveling in areas that offer abundant sources, be sure to carry proper means of water treatment such as a water purifier or iodine tablets. The average hiker will use three quarts of water per day; this average will vary depending on the conditions and terrain in which you are traveling.

Extra Layers

Inclement weather has a way of sneaking up on your when you are traveling in the backcountry. Carrying additional layers of clothing for protection from the elements if caught unexpectedly is a smart move and highly recommended. Consider the season and environment in which you are hiking to determine what type of extra clothing you should pack. Commonly carried items include an extra pair of socks, a synthetic jacket, and insulating hat.

First Aid Supplies

There are things in your first aid kit that you cannot easily replicate in nature. Backcountry travelers should make the first aid kit a piece of gear carried with every trip. Pre-assembled first-aid kits are a quick and easy way to get your basic supplies while still being able to personalize it to suit your specialized needs. Whether you buy a pre-made kit or make your own, the kit should include latex gloves, tweezers, blister treatments, adhesive bandages of various sizes, several gauze pads, athletic tape, disinfecting ointment, over-the-counter pain medication, a compact first aid guide, and pen and paper (for documenting treatments, vital signs and other necessary information).

Sun Protection

Sun protection does not stop with sunscreen; it also includes sunglasses, lightweight skin shielding clothing and brimmed hats. Your activity level and the temperature are the factors that will determine if you choose to wear pants or shorts or longer or shorter sleeves while outdoors.

Trail Life 101: Spring Hiking Tips

Early spring is upon, or in southwest Colorado, I would rather refer to it as mud season. Cars are driving by bound for the high desert with mountain bikes stacked on the roof, rivers are running, the sun is shining, skies are blue and spring skiing in the backcountry is in full effect. After a few months of cabin fever taking over all logic, many avid hikers are ready to hit the trails already!

While the temperatures may be warming up and the sun may be making an occasional appearance, hiking in the spring can still bring rouge storms and unforeseen challenges. If you plan on hitting the trail within the next month or two you may want to keep these hiking tips in the back of your mind.

  • Avoid trails that you know will be sloppy and allow them to dry out before tearing them up with your hard rubber soles. Trails at lower elevations with a more southern exposure will dry out quicker. This rule of thumb goes for mountain biking as well!
  • If you do encounter a muddy stretch of trail, do not walk off trail to avoid it. Skirting the trail can damage the trailside vegetation, eventually leading to erosion. Staying on trail will aid in preventing unnecessary widening of the trail and soil erosion
  • Keep your feet dry and warm by waterproofing your boots a couple of days prior to the hike. If the chance of hitting snow is still a possibility, consider wearing gaiters to help keep stones and much out of your boots.
  • Streams will inevitably swell with the melting snow come spring. It is important to use care when approaching a stream crossing, as well plan ahead by checking the weather before hitting the trail. Spring rains combined with melting snow is a sure recipe for raging streams and rivers. If there is a chance that it might rain later, you may be better off turning around instead of risking the potential of being stranded later on. Keep in mind that water levels could be higher later in the day due to early morning snow and ice melt as the temperatures warm up.
  • When crossing a stream it is best to unfasten the hip belt and sternum straps from the backpack so you can quickly remove in the off-chance of falling. Consider using hiking poles to help maintain balance when crossing a stream.
  • Spring brings warmth and with warmth comes the return of biting insects. Be sure to pack protective clothing and repellent as needed.

Where will you be heading this spring? Be safe, take photos and above all enjoy!