At the beginning of July, I went on a 4 day/3 night backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I traversed Mt. Moriah, Carter Dome, Carter Notch and then summited Wildcat mountain.
This was my first backpacking experience and I learned about myself and "back-country" survival. (I'll put back-country in quotes, it was quite untouched by man but we were hardly ever more than 2 hours from people, and our final mountain Wildcat had a ski resort attached.)
I also found myself, upon return, answering the same questions about bugs, food and water. Here are my lessons learned.
#1 How to Use a Stove
While it would be rustic to light a fire and cook over it, anyone who has done so hungry knows it takes a long time. Also with leave no trace, a roaring campfire burning up the dead underbrush isn't so friendly to the forest.
Before we left, we prepacked Norr pasta sides + instant potatoes in Ziploc plastic bags. When we were ready to cook, we boiled water and poured it into the bag. We let it sit there, cooking the pasta, and the potatoes absorbed the excess moisture. After 10-15 minutes your food is hot and cooked. Your cooking container is clean, aside from heated water, and your plastic bag can be tucked away to carry out.
#2 Sanitation is Difficult (but not that Difficult)
Sanitation can be difficult on the trail as there is less clean water available. All clean water must be filtered or carried in. Often times our go-to method to clean something is to wash it in the sink with tons of running water.
Out in the woods, things are more difficult but not impossible. But you can brush your teeth just the same. You can rinse off in a lake. You can bring along some toilet paper or just shake dry.
#3 Killer on the Knees
On my first day, we passed a group of 3 gentleman all over the age of 70. They were hiking down the same mountain we were and they all had knee-braces on. I noticed their use of hiking poles and knee braces but didn't think anything of it.
As I was climbing down the mountain on the second day, I understood it all. My knees were killing me from the downhill stepping over rocks. My stabilizer muscles were fatigued from supporting all my weight un-evenly balanced on one foot as the other stepped down a rock. But the end of the first major day of hiking, my knees were swollen and largely refused to move.
I hear hiking poles can help take some of the stress off you knees, and maybe the knee braces help too. Either way, it all made sense why someone who has been hiking for 40+ years would wear double knee braces.
#4 Bugs Spray is Essential
Alrighty, bugs! As a kid I got eaten alive at summer camp, the bites would swell up bigger than quarters, and I would itch them until they bled. My body seems a little less attractive to mosquitoes now, but I still think I taste better than average.
That being said, I was a little worried about backpacking. Especially, watching everyone just put bug spray on and sleep in an open 3-walled shelter. However, after the first night I was amazed. I had no bug bites!
We applied bug spray 3 times a day: first thing, about mid-day as we sweated it off, and right before bed. I sprayed my hand then wiped it all over my face, ears, and neck. While this left me sticky, I also managed to come out from a 4 day hiking trip (never in a bug proof shelter) with only a few bites.
I was using Ben's Bug Spray.
#5 Bandanas are Versatile
My friend told me she was carrying 3 bandanas with her while backpacking. I thought she was a bit crazy, and maybe that was just her thing. But then I started to learn why cowboys and soldiers carry bandanas. They are so versatile; to wipe sweat, to clean things, hold things. She used one as cushion to prevent things moving, one as a pot holder, and one as a sweat rag.
They might just be up there with Duct tape, WD-40, and balling twine.
#6 Lightweight is the Name of the Game
Every ounce adds up to pounds and every pound slows you down. "Count your pennies and the dollars take care of themselves." Similarly, count your ounces and the pounds will take care of themselves. Lightweight gear can be more expensive, but your body will thank you. Leave your "extra just in case" at home, your body will also thank you.
The trick is to bring exactly what you need, nothing more, and then make do with what you have. Advancements in hiking technology have really reduced the weight of necessary items like sleeping bags, water filters, and even the backpacks themselves. I will be revising my 72-Hr bag to be a bit lighter in the very near future. (What You Need to Know About a 72-Hr Bag)
#7 Expect 5-20 miles a Day Depending on Terrain
I would say I am an average, in shape human. I go to the gym, eat (mostly) healthy, and enjoy a good hike on the weekends. That being said, going on a backpacking trip where everyday was physically grueling, I had no idea what to expect for mileage per day. My friend Marian hiked 700 miles of the Appalachian trail, so she had a better idea and planned the trip for us.
I am a turtle with Lyme disease slow, I know it. When going up rock stairs and rocks climbs, I averaged less than 1 mile per hour! On flat roads or nicely maintained paths I could probably get closer to 3-4 miles per hour. This trip gave me a good understanding of my physical capabilities at the moment.
I can now expect my body to be able to travel 5-20 miles a day (assuming 7-8 hours of walking). This knowledge is useful when planning Get Home Routes (Get Home Safe: How to Pack a Get-Home Bag) or weekend hiking trips.
Learning is always important and now I know first hand more about myself, the human body, and the reasonable distances one could travel in a day.
#8 You Need Less than You Think
You really need less than you think to survive. I was actually surprised to find, I used nearly everything in my pack. (I didn't use my compass, my warm hat/gloves, first aid kit, or my knife.) However I would not have removed those items from my pack just because I didn't use them on my only backpacking trip.
But I was quite impressed by Marian's packing skills, in making a true essentials list. For living in the woods for a few days, you really need less than you think. If I had to survive in the woods for much longer, I may want other comforts but I had all I needed. See my packing list below.
#9 Sawyer Filter + Smart Water Bottles
We were backpacking in a region where water was abundant in trail side streams and lakes. All one needed was a container and away to make the water safe. (What you Need to Know About Water: Collect, Purify, Store). We both carried the Sawyer Water filters with a Smart Water bottle. Cleverly designed, the Sawyer filters screw on to almost any commercially available water/soda bottle. We (like many others) choose to bring along Smart Water bottles because they are durable for the trail but easier to squeeze than a more rigid soda bottle.
Screw the filter on, and drink or squeeze the water through the filter to create cooking and cleaning water. That was all that stood between us and water-borne diseases. It also seems to be the preferred system for the thru-hikers doing +2,000 miles on the Appalachian trail.
Don't know who said it first, but somewhere on the internet I heard: "Every time you drink water, you reset a 3 day death clock." Drink your water folks, but make sure it's clean!
#10 Great Views
We got some great views! That is the reward for backpacking, and hiking grueling mountains with swollen knees. The view and the accomplishment at the top of the mountain. I'll stop talking and just show a picture.
Conclusion + Packing List
I know when I was getting ready to start hiking, I looked at blogs online to learn. I found the shear about of different options, opinions, and gear list overwhelming. My friend provided me a list she uses, and showed me one way to backpack. There are of course multiple ways to accomplish the same survive-in-the-woods goal. You have to find gear and a method that works for you.
What I brought:
- Osprey Aura 50L Backpack
- Rain pack cover
- Sea to Summit Sleeping Pad
- Sleeping Bag (similar to this one)
- Inflatable X pillow
- Ben's Bug Spray
- Headlamp (similar to this one)
- Extra batteries for headlamp
- Lighter + Duct tape
- Sawyer Water filter
- Smart Water bottle
- CamelBak 2L
- Flannel shirt (doubles as pillowcase)
- LL Bean hiking boots
- Flip flops for post-hiking
- 2 T-Shirts (one hiking, one "clean" camp shirt)
- rain pants
- rain jacket
- First Aid Kit
- Toilet paper
- tooth brush + toothpaste
- bar soap
- notebook + pencil
- battery charger for phone (+ cable)
- Sea to Summit Dry Bags (everything was in dry bags)
Marian carried all that, plus:
- LL Bean Microlight UL 1 person tent (didn't end up using it)
- Lixada mini camp stove
- Butane fuel canister
- Black Diamond Trail Women's Trekking Poles
- deck of cards