Backpacking Prep, May 2013

8:16 p.m. on August 12, 2013 (EDT)
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Every year, I do a 'Backpacking Prep' at a local recreation area. There are 140 km of trails, but with the preparation I can break it down into 3 days of about 12-15 km each. 

A lot of people have the idea that backpacking is just like walking, without realizing how much of a difference carrying a 40 lb pack makes. The 'Backpacking Prep' lets them find out exactly what's involved. Curiously, perhaps 3/4 of them vow never to do it again!

First things first. At the trailhead, I did a quick equipment check. When I saw her arriving with a huge pack and 5 Safeway bags, I sorted through the gear and supplies that one woman had brought. I trimmed her down to just what would fit into her pack, but I got a bad feeling about the hike. 

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Just a small group, but ready to roll. 
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Our first day began at noon and involved only 12 km from the TH to the first shelter at Running Dog. The elderly Belgian was slow but steady, the Chinese and the skinny little Dutch girl were reasonably fast, and the taller woman began complaining by the end of the first kilometre. 

It seems she'd spent a fortune on new gear a day or two before the hike. Needless to say, the salesman upsold her on everything - a top-of-the line Osprey pack, new Salomon Quest 4D boots, and every little extra he could think of. For food, he'd told her to buy beef jerky, and she'd followed his advice. 

We started off with a risk of showers, but while it stayed overcast, the rain held off. 
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The Cooking Lake/Blackfoot Recreation Area is knob-and-kettle terrain, formed by the melting glaciers. The result is a large marshy area that is perfect for beaver. Fascinating to see all the stages of beaver meadows and ponds, all within a few kilometres. 


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We made it to the first stop in about 3 1/2 hours, allowing time for a snack break and a moderate, relaxed pace. Lesson learned - backpacking is more about pacing than speed. For myself and the other three more experienced hikers, it was a pleasant walk, but the tall woman began complaining about her sore feet on the last long downslope. 

We stopped at the shelter and set up camp...


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then I sat down to figure out what the problem was.

First her boots: when I got them off, I discovered that her toenails were perfectly manicured, and WAY too long. They were banging into the toes of her boots. Cute, but not very efficient. She had also layered up in two pairs of heavy wool socks. 

I loaned her a pair of thinner merino wool socks and handed her a pair of nail clippers. I have to pin the blame on the salesman - while Salomon Quest 4D are the epitome of out-of-the-box comfort, he'd simply sized her boots improperly. 

We cooked dinner and relaxed. then bunked down for the night. 

The next morning was still overcast, and there had been a few light showers overnight. The people in tents were fine, but the Belgian in his mosquito net had done some scrambling to drape a tarp over it. The rest of us just took our tents down from the inside and packed up. 

A new complaint from the tall woman; her boots were still too tight and she was having a hard time getting them on comfortably, even with shorter toenails and thinner socks. We'd shared some of our food with her the evening before, but apparently, all the salt in the beef jerky she'd been eating was making her swell up. She was also tired: not used to sleeping outdoors, every little noise had woken her up. 

Back on the trail, with more sights to see and places to go. 

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Complaints all the way, mainly directed at the salesman at the camping store, and vows to return all the equipment. Fortunately, our route to the next site included a return trail part of the way back to the TH. While I'm not in the habit of abandoning people, at the trail junction I suggested she return to the parking lot instead of completing the hike. That was what she wanted, and  she was ready to go as soon as we'd talked. She'd been sharing a tent with the Dutch girl, so we had to shuffle sleeping arrangements, but I made sure she had a map and a cell phone, and she headed home. 

Peace! 
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The next campsite was about 15 km away, but we had a whole day to do it in. Nothing to it!

We settled in, making camp and cooking dinner.
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It was still early, so after dinner we decided to go for a walk. We were camped at Lost Lake, but had access to Islet Lake as well. Evening is the best time to see beavers, and waterfowl return to their lakes and ponds. 
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The next morning, we messed around a bit by Lost Lake, then headed back. 

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All in all, a nice weekend (once we sent the badly-prepared woman home) and everyone learned a lot. I found it interesting that the old Belgian was game for more backpacking trips, but the Dutch girl, a runner, swore she'd never do it again. 





11:30 p.m. on August 12, 2013 (EDT)
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I guess as a guide you get all types, including the soft city slickers with more money than sense who get an idea in their head that they want to try backpacking but lack the mental toughness to carry through.

11:37 a.m. on August 13, 2013 (EDT)
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There is an assumption that just buying lots of expensive equipment will make you a backpacker. Unfortunately, while top-of-the-line equipment is usually lighter than the Walmart version, even a pack full of expensive gear can't help with poor preparation, and it won't make the hike much easier.

It seems to be coupled to the idea that hiking is 'just me and my little knapsack, tripping through the alpine meadows' - kind of a cross between 'Heidi' and 'Sound of Music'. 

Most people seem to be surprised at how much work is involved in carrying a heavy pack up and down even the smallest of hills, and on uncertain footing. 

11:37 a.m. on August 13, 2013 (EDT)
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There is an assumption that just buying lots of expensive equipment will make you a backpacker. Unfortunately, while top-of-the-line equipment is usually lighter than the Walmart version, even a pack full of expensive gear can't help with poor preparation, and it won't make the hike much easier.

It seems to be coupled to the idea that hiking is 'just me and my little knapsack, tripping through the alpine meadows' - kind of a cross between 'Heidi' and 'Sound of Music'. 

Most people seem to be surprised at how much work is involved in carrying a heavy pack up and down even the smallest of hills, and on uncertain footing. 

1:10 p.m. on August 13, 2013 (EDT)
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Good points. I like the forum and great people here. Equipment forums do tend to emphasize the tools more than the skills. Outdoor trips require mental toughness of varying amounts. Many young, strong people don't have much mental toughness. Mnan older, experienced people and especially women do.

1:16 p.m. on August 13, 2013 (EDT)
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I took my first real backpacking trip almost 40 years ago and I'm still surprised at how much work it is to drag my butt up a mountain with a full pack 8p

You must have a lot of patience to take total novices out on the trail with you. I've taken beginners but spent months working out gear lists and mental preparation.  I'm happy to teach someone but class is going to start long before we go outside!

5:54 p.m. on August 13, 2013 (EDT)
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Good grief, man. I wish they'd programs like this around here, or at least for the greater majority of people who think picking up a new hobby is as simple as picking up new, designer gear from REI. 

Planning really is everything. I planned for months before one first, solo weekend trip. Mental planning is very much hand-in-hand with the physical planning. When you build skill sets, and have confidence in them, you begin to do as much as you can with as little as you can. These alone will save weight.

I brought a small lantern with me. Small enough it weighed less than my headlamp. A second Swiss Army Knife, only because it had pliers the first didn't. But that little stuff adds up. Needless to say, neither of those (along with a few other things) won't be coming out on my second trip.

More than anything, though? Some of the best upgrades are the easiest and cheapest, and there're better ways to save weight than by emptying your wallet. You can cram a Tarp Tent into your pack, but if there's too much of everything else in there, it's not even going to matter. I'm playing around with the smaller items for my next trip, and already I'm noticing how easily the weight comes off without having to leave anything at home.

What are the most common problems your beginning groups face? Has your program adapted over time, learning from each group's experiences, and using their experiences to shape the next's?

And - I have to ask - what's the most absolutely unnecessary item someone's attempted to pack with them for the trail? I'd imagine you'd have some stories, there.

7:32 p.m. on August 13, 2013 (EDT)
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I don't know that planning = preparation, any more than expensive gear = less weight. In the latter case, the best way I've found to reduce your weight is to buy a smaller backpack. The larger the pack, the more junk you'll stuff in there. 

Planning is an important part of any trip, but basically it comes down to getting a map, booking campsites (where necessary) and trimming down your food  and equipment to the minimum.

After that, the most crucial element is physicalpreparation, being able handle the load and the distance without being in agony the next morning. And that just comes from practicing beforehand. I recruit people from the larger group who are both interested in trying backpacking and have done a few dayhikes with me, and suggest they ramp up their hikes with added weight as the date approaches. If you've never carried 40 lbs for even a short distance, you really shouldn't jump into it cold. That's part of the mental preparation.

Unfortunately, the people in every group make the same mistakes. Probably the best safety measure is an equipment check at the trailhead. I can make sure people have boots, not sandals or sneakers; I can make sure they have an equipment list beforehand, and check to make sure they haven't missed anything. I can check the tent and sleeping bag and fuel, but part of the exercise is relying on themselves.

There's always someone who brings along too much heavy food (or too little), although I had one rig pig who happily carried two complete three course meals, including potatoes, pork chops and chicken, and a mini-BBQ). And somehow there's always someone who tries to get by with a $19.99 Walmart kids tent. I make them share with someone who has a real tent. Usually, the problem is that a person makes one poor choice, such as the woman with her beef jerky, or the woman last year who borrowed an 85 litre pack and filled it with enough stuff to throw her back out. Few people make enough mistakes to get sent home. 

But a group backpacking trip is about working as a team, and part of that dynamic is figuring out a group solution to problems. When the woman hurt her back, we split up her gear among us, and she finished the trip. We could have also helped the lady this year finish if she'd wanted, but when she realized how bad her decisions had been, she just wanted out. 

7:56 p.m. on August 13, 2013 (EDT)
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Peter, I'm happy to think that these beginners have you along on their first trips out. I hope they appreciate you. If some of them don't take to it, it's certainly not because they didn't have a good teacher.

 The best way I've found to reduce your weight is to buy a smaller backpack. The larger the pack, the more junk you'll stuff in there.

This made me laugh. This is exactly how I got into 'lightweight backpacking' and 'ultralight gear.' Well, except for the 'buying' part. I had a beloved old MEC Spirit 40 (boo on the new redesign, but I digress). Which, in a small torso size, was actually 37 litres including all pockets. I love this pack with all my heart, and I was determined to do ten-day trips with it. And now I do!

8:53 p.m. on August 13, 2013 (EDT)
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I'll second the physical preparation part.  Back in Nov. 2012, when I tore my ACL, I thought that I would be at least a year away from doing anything active.  Due to the bureaucratic practices of HMOs, my surgery was delayed all the way till March of 2013.  I didn't really think I'd be doing anything, let alone backpacking until probably 2014.

I began an extensive rehab process (although my HMO thought I only really needed ONE physical therapy session), and focused my goal on being able to do some light hiking by 3 months (July 2013) after surgery.  Weight training definitely helps ease the activity of backpacking.. including squats, kettle bell swings, core-training exercises, etc... mixed with good ol' fashion cardio work. I'm an avid sports fan, so I looked to some of the success stories in the NFL (e.g. Adrian Petersen/Jamaal Charles) as motivation for coming back from an ACL tear. Fast forward to Aug. 2013 (5+ months after surgery), and I've completed a couple of backpacking trips including a few 10000+ ft summits thrown in.  It's amazing what the human body can do if you just push it a little farther. 

9:13 p.m. on August 13, 2013 (EDT)
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My first 7-day venture was lead by an experienced guide who set our pack goal at 45lbs, with consumables.

I'm heading out for a 3-day jaunt this weekend, and I just weighed my pack at 16lbs. 11oz., with consumables. I could go even lighter without much effort, but I wanted to play around with some gear I haven't used much before cold weather sets in.

What I've found is I'm happier on the trail with less stuff on my back. I've been carrying so much stuff I've never used or really needed. Why carry a 4oz multi-tool, when my 1oz knife is all I've ever needed? Sure, I've sacrificed having a pair of camp shoes to change into at the end of the day, but last trip, my feet didn't hurt at all--probably because I'm carrying less weight.

7:27 a.m. on August 14, 2013 (EDT)
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Peter1955 said:

We could have also helped the lady this year finish if she'd wanted, but when she realized how bad her decisions had been, she just wanted out. 

 Did she mention if she was done for good or if she'd like to try again better prepared?  The reason I ask is that in the group shot before you set out she had such a happy smile on her face.  I hate to think she's given up without ever finding out why we all can't wait to get back out there.

9:22 a.m. on August 14, 2013 (EDT)
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@LoneStranger: I think she was really there just to try it out. I believe she liked the mountains, but was happier with less demanding ways of getting there. 

9:56 a.m. on August 14, 2013 (EDT)
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It is a good thing that backpacking doesn't appeal to everyone.

There is nothing wrong with "forgetting something" or bringing the the "wrong food". This is how people learn. There is safety in a group with the option for sharing and helping others.

Equipment is over-rated. People don't really need that much for a short trip.

The hardest part to judge when it comes to newbies is their mental outlook. It is the most important attribute for partners in the outdoors. The ability to deal with adversity, be part of a group, and be good-natured in the face of problems is more important than all the other technical stuff put together.

When I started backpacking in 1961, my Dad would have me put everything in my pack before the trip and lay it on the floor. Then he would ask some questions, like "Do you really want to carry all of those clothes?  How will you start a fire in the rain? No lists, no spreadsheets, no fancy equipment. Just the greatest adventures of our young lives.

10:27 a.m. on August 14, 2013 (EDT)
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One reason I started doing the Backpacking Preps is to screen out the people who didn't really understand what it was all about, or who were physically or mentally incapable of completing a longer trip. 

I've been caught a few times when someone had to turn back, halfway along a trail. On a group trip that means that either someone has to go back with them or the whole group turns around. Kind of ruins the weekend.

This way, they don't get to come at all unless they've done some real backpacking. 

1:33 p.m. on August 14, 2013 (EDT)
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Say what you will about REI, but generally, they've been fairly honest and straightforward with me. If nothing else, they have an honest desire to educate the public. I had to return some base layers this weekend and they gave me some solid advice without ever pressuring me into buying a certain item, or any item at all.

Sure as heck would like to know which store this woman shopped at!

2:07 p.m. on August 14, 2013 (EDT)
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REI has a good rep, like MEC in Canada. Makes a difference when your income doesn't depend on commission, I guess. i think she went to Atmosphere, but it's not really fair to blame the store for one greedy employee.

4:11 p.m. on August 14, 2013 (EDT)
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Oh, sure. Although I've found REI's retail reps are consistently all as helpful as they are friendly. Guess they've a dynamite hiring manager at mine, if nothing else? Don't even get me started on commissioned salesfolk - they're half the reason I do the majority of my shopping online.

8:50 a.m. on August 15, 2013 (EDT)
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Peter,

I don't do training trips like you do, but I have taken several newbies on their first multi-day hike. What I've found helpful is to provide people with a list of what to bring. I assume you're doing this with your registration anyway, but some things I've found to be more helpful:

I emphatically state, "Do not add or detract from the list. The list is good. The list is wise. Trust the list." (Like my friend who told me he was going to bring a collapsible Army shovel for bathroom breaks.)

I highlight regarding where it's okay to go "cheap" (Yeah, you can wear a Walmart polyester t-shirt and use empty Gatorade bottles.) and where you need to buy/rent quality products (shoes, pack, etc.).

I still do a shake down at the trail head, but it's usually quick and painless.

Another thought is you might want to see about a cooperative agreement with a local supplier. They keep your supply list on hand and provide some sort of discount on purchases and rentals in exchange for you sending business their way.

8:52 a.m. on August 15, 2013 (EDT)
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Oh, I lied in an earlier post. My pack this weekend will be around 19-20lbs. There is this stuff called "water" that I seem to use on every trip and should probably counted in my consumables column.

9:46 a.m. on August 15, 2013 (EDT)
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G00SE said:

Another thought is you might want to see about a cooperative agreement with a local supplier. They keep your supply list on hand and provide some sort of discount on purchases and rentals in exchange for you sending business their way.

I have a number of corporate sponsors who offer discounts, but many of them supply only a few of the items my hikers might need. I can't risk offending the rest by singling out one as the supplier-of-choice. Instead, I have to let people find their own gear.

The list I provide is pretty comprehensive, but there are always people who just don't read it, or who figure their choices are better. That's where the equipment check comes in. 

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