Travel in the time of COVID-19 isn’t quite what we’re used to. Masks, social distancing, limited options, extra risk… One option is to travel by foot to explore the natural world around you. If you’re careful, backpacking is one fun way to do that.
Backpacking is an equipment heavy activity. As such, it’s tempting to learn about it from staff at stores, but you’ll likely end up spending and carrying too much if you go that route. Some store employees do have valuable expertise, but keep in mind that you don’t need to buy everything that might be nice. Remember – you have to carry it all.
There are a few primary categories of supplies and equipment you should consider.
1. Shelter and Sleep
Backcountry shelter can be broken down into tents, tarp shelters, and bivouacs or bivvies. None of them are houses, to be clear. A well-made shelter used correctly in conditions it was designed for can keep you dry and add some warmth to your night. If an animal or another human wants to get in badly enough, they will.
Tents come in a wide variety of sizes and types. You’ll want one designed for backpacking as car camping tents can be quite heavy. A tent will also normally be heavier if it is rated for more seasons (e.g. a 4 season vs. a 3 season). If you are going alone, a single person tent will help keep you warm, but there likely won’t be room for your pack inside, so consider getting a pack cover or packing a trash bag to cover your pack with in case it rains at night. If you are traveling in a group, you can use a bigger tent and split the parts up amongst the group so the weight is divided among everyone. Take note that size varies widely – a 3 man tent of one brand may be of a much different size than a 3 man of another. Set up new tents at home before taking them into the backcountry.
Tarp shelter can mean you bring a tarp and some p-cord (parachute cord) and set something up yourself. Commercial varieties also exist. The quality and effectiveness of such a shelter is just as variable as you might imagine. Bivvies fit over your sleeping bag to keep it dry in case of rain, but not much else will fit in there with you. They can be nice if you are looking for a particularly lightweight option.
2. Your Pack
First and foremost, your pack must fit. Backpacking packs should carry the load on your hips and should adjust to fit close to your back, without weight on your shoulders. Definitely try packs on before you buy and practice packing it at home before you go. The heavier items should be packed closer to your body. Consider putting frequently used items in accessible places.
Trekking poles are a nice accompaniment, especially in mountainous areas. I just use old ski poles as they are cheap.
Note, if you just go on weekend trips, you shouldn’t need the biggest size pack. If you choose that option, just be ready to carry it.
3. Food and Water Treatment
I would recommend always treating your water, no matter how clean it may appear to be. Iodine tablets are probably the most commonly used treatment, but chlorine based products are also available. Follow the manufacturer’s directions and consider bringing a flavoring agent as the treatment does affect taste. If you are travelling somewhere where the water is not very silty, physical filtration pumps also exist. Silty water tends to clog them, so careful and bring a backup treatment. You’ll want to stay hydrated, so take safe water seriously.
Food can be pretty personal. I definitely eat things in the backcountry I normally never touch. Things like powdered instant coffee, spray cheese, powdered mashed potatoes, and beef jerky. Don’t forget to pack snacks, breakfast, and dinner. I like one pot boil and eat meals that are simple to make. You want things that cook quickly so you don’t waste fuel.
That leads to the tricky topic of fires. I know some people feel that an outdoor experience is not complete without a campfire, but living here in arid Colorado, I almost never build them as the risk is too great. If I do, it’s only at established fire pits and only if there is no current fire ban. In the US, check the regulations of the county you will be in. Personally, I think cooking is so much easier and faster with a lightweight backpacking stove that I would never try to cook on a fire again, but that’s me.
4. Staying warm and dry
At night, you’ll want a decent sleeping bag, possibly a compression sack to get it to fit into your pack, and a sleeping pad. The pad is not just for comfort, but to insulate you from the ground. Have a dry pair of socks and also consider fleece pants and a hat to sleep in depending on your climate and time of year. I like packing a small synthetic camp pillow, but that’s up to you.
On the trail, it’s a good idea to have rain gear accessible, packed where you can easily reach it. If you are fair skinned, have sunblock in reach as well. As previously mentioned, a pack cover is also worth considering.
A final note on apparel – make sure your boots fit and consider a non-cotton sock liner under your non-cotton socks to help prevent blisters. Make sure you have a blister kit in your medical kit (yes, you should have at least a basic med kit).
I love tech, but I do not recommend relying completely on your phone or GPS. Have a paper map and compass as a backup and learn how to use them. Your map never needs batteries and can be the difference between life and death.
6. A small form of amusement
Optional, of course, but I don’t go anywhere without a book, notebook, and pen. What do you prefer?
There are a lot of great books and training courses on this topic, so this post is just an intro and not a complete guide. Have fun out there, but also please keep in mind that resources are strained due to the pandemic and rescue may not be possible. Plan ahead and make smart decisions!