Back To Packing

By Paul R. Huard

February 6, 2009 5 min read


Exploring the outdoors can be fun with good equipment

Paul R. Huard

Creators News Service

Rick McKendrick of Bend, Ore., was bitten by the backpacking bug as a high school student. However, he wishes someone had given him a little bit of advice.

"I used to carry the kitchen sink," he said. "My advice to people is 'learn to live well with less.'"

If the freedom of the hills is beckoning but you never lived out a backpack before, take heart. Backpacking is the kind of activity where even beginners have an excellent chance of learning just how enjoyable it can be.

The difference between this activity and hiking is carrying enough food and gear to spend at least one night on the trail. If you have never left the city, you will need to change your attitudes so you can spend an enjoyable and safe time in the wilderness.

Whenever possible, backpack first with experienced friends or with organizations like the Sierra Club that provide opportunities for novices. If you are between 11 and 18 years old, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America are excellent places to receive training in backpacking.

You'll be tempted to spend thousands of dollars on gear, but try to borrow or rent before you buy. However, there are three basics that should be as personal to you as a toothbrush and you should never skimp on: your boots, (sleeping) bag and backpack.

Good boots should fit comfortably, be large enough to accommodate your feet while wearing a pair of wool hiking socks and give you enough ankle support and traction to keep you sure-footed on the trail. Always try boots on in a store with an inclined plane, which lets you walk down so you can check for "toe bump," which can be miserable when walking.

All it takes is one miserable night shivering inside an inadequate sleeping bag to convince you it's an equipment choice that means the difference between "bagging ZZZs" or crying for mercy.

"One of the top reasons why most people who say 'I hate camping' came to that conclusion because they were uncomfortable at night," said Dennis Figg, an outdoorsman and writer for the television show "Missouri Outdoors" and the Missouri Department of Conservation. "There are so many well-made and comfortable sleeping bags available, folks have plenty of choices that will help them get a good night's sleep."

A mummy bag is the traditional choice for backpackers and others who want a compact bag that pares down weight and bulk. They have a closer fit and a hood for the head. Because they have less space inside, they insulate more efficiently (less air space for your body to heat) and weigh less.

Make sure you try the bag on for size. Ask the store to let you crawl inside of a bag (take your shoes off first). Roll around in it, curl up inside it and determine whether you feel cozy.

While inside of the bag, look for beefy, smooth-running zippers that are backed with a tape or stiffener that prevents the zipper teeth from snagging in the fabric. Also, look inside for a puffy draft tube that insulates the zipper and prevents cold drafts from sneaking in. The best draft tubes hang from the top of the bag where they can't get flattened as you roll around.

There are two types of backpacks for backpacking: internal frame and external frame. Both packs have their advantages and drawbacks, so ask a sales clerk to explain the virtues of both. However, make sure you try the pack on in a store that provides sandbags or weights to put in the pack as you adjust the pack's fitting straps. It's the only way to determine whether it will fit you correctly when loaded.

You need to adopt some attitudes that will help you enjoy the outdoors and preserve its beauty for others, say the editors of "Expert Tips" from REI, one the nation's oldest retailers of outdoor and adventure gear. Here are some of their best pieces of advice:

* Wilderness lands are not theme parks. You need to be prepared to handle the necessities of carrying your own food and water, sleeping, eating and clean-up gear. That means you will also need to learn how to solve your own problems. If complete self-reliance is unappealing, think twice before you attempt an overnight trip.

* Pack out what you pack in. In the wilderness, no one comes along and cleans up after you. Learn how to use Leave No Trace principles on your trip.

* Backcountry travel requires a change in thinking and behaving. It's not a place to play your hip-hop albums at their loudest volume. Tread lightly as you travel. Avoid boomboxes, litter, commotion and other byproducts of city life.

You can get more free advice, as well as tips on backpacking basics, at

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