This post is a reflection from what I’ve personally learned throughout my Rocky Mountain hiking/backpacking adventures and a bit of schooling from books I have read and friends I hike with. I consider myself as a beginner hiker. I am no expert by any means or even an amateur. I’m not a Park Ranger or an REI* hippie from Boulder. I’m just a plain ol’ guy who likes the outdoors. I work 40 hours a week and have kids. However, I do live in the beautiful state of Colorado where the Rockies are in my back yard, so I have no excuse not to have my Jeremiah Johnson moments now and then. I’ve lived in Colorado since 1999 and have had my share of hiking/backpacking trips. However, it has been since 2010 that I’ve really gotten into this new passion of mine.
Although hiking and backpacking are similar, there have some differences. A hike is simply a walk in the wilderness where you don’t plan to stay overnight (even though it does happen on occasion and usually by accident). Backpacking is an overnight stay where you have to hike to get there. You will require the same equipment (just more of it) on a backpacking trip than you will when you go hiking. I will now list the necessities you will need on a backpacking trip:
This is a no brainer! What am I talking about here? I bought my backpack from an Army-Navy surplus store before my trip to Chicago lakes (near Echo Lake, just west of Evergreen, CO). It’s a Denali Pacific Crest 55+10 (meaning it can be expanded between 55-65 liters – that’s the storage capacity). 50-75 liters are recommended for multi 2-4 day trips while 35-50 liters are good for a 1-3 day weekend jaunt. After my last two back-country trips (not including car camping), I’ve realized that I bought the wrong size pack. Sure, the storage capacity was enough but I’m just too dang tall! I’m 6’4” and require a large pack. While I was looking for a new pack, I adjusted it to the largest size and thought it would work. Apparently not! This thing was probably made for people much shorter than I am. So with me, it puts most of the weight on my shoulders instead of my hips. With most backpacks, the aluminum frame is designed to transfer the bulk of the weight from the shoulders to the hip belt (where 80% of the weight should be). So during my last 2 trips, after arriving at the end of my destination, my shoulders were sore!
I live close to an REI. A few years ago, I paid $20 for a lifetime membership. This gets me on the VIP list as far as sales go. Right about late February – March, they have to get rid of all their seasonal goods to make way for new additions and upgrades. All I had to do was walk up to the backpack fitting specialist guy and he hooked me up with a pack that was just my size. He measured my torso (from my iliac crests or hip bones to my C-7 vertebrae where my shoulders begin). Usually manufacturers fashion their frames to the following sizes: Extra Small- Fits torsos up to 15 ½”, Small- Fits torsos 16″ to 17 ½”, Medium/regular- Fits torsos 18″ to 19 ½” and Large/tall- Fits torsos 20″ and up. If you happen to fall in the 17 ¾” category, try on both sizes and see which one best fits you. I was even able to walk around the store with a pack on, holding 30 or so pounds to get the feel of it. I’m sure that when I have the money for one, I’ll be styling with a brand new backpack custom fitted for me and the hikes that ended in sore shoulders will be a thing of the past!
Another feature I look for in my backpack is hydration compatibility – a compartment that holds my hydration bag. Most modern packs contain a pocket on the rear or inside of the back that allows for hydration bag storage. The hydration straw is then fed through the shoulder strap where it can be easily accessed. You also need to know if you want your tent/sleeping back to be attached on the inside or outside of your pack. My current pack has straps that hold my tent and sleeping bag on the outside. However, I’ve found that tree branches and stuff tend to snag on my pack if there are too many items protruding from it. The pack I have now has a detachable top lid storage pack that I can also use as a smaller pack for day hikes. After getting the camp all set up and going, I like to take day hikes to explore the surrounding area and take in the essence of God’s country. This usually includes my hydration bag (that’s inside a smaller backpack) and my butt-pack (which leads me to my next item).
The butt-pack or waist-pack – I carry around one of these when I do back-country backpacking. I actually hold it in my front. I put various items in it so I can have easy access to them without having to drop down and take my big pack off (which can be tough to put back on). Some of the items included in my butt-pack are: snacks, car keys, cell-phone, wallet, camera, flashlight, insect repellent, and sunscreen. Also, some newer backpacks have pouches included in the waist strap that can fit various odds and ends. It would actually be better to find a pack with compartments instead of having to strap on an extra butt pack but to each their own!
While backpacking or hiking in the back country (or sometimes just in the foothills), dangers like wild animals (or even people!) are inevitable. Listed here are various tools to use as weapons in self defense:
Firearm– I own a Glock 17-9mm that is left over from my cop days. I’ve only taken this along
during my trip in the “Never Summer Wilderness” in August 2011. Its purpose was mostly to fend off bears, moose and the like. Now a 9 mm will not kill a large animal, it would only scare the crap out of it (or sometimes anger it even more!). If you want a powerful weapon, get a .50 Action Express Desert Eagle! This beast would probably take out an elephant, so I wouldn’t take it out on a backpacking trip unless I was in Kenya. Any firearm will do really. I just brought along my Glock for personal comfort. It has three magazines with 16 round capacity, so I felt safe. Remember, if you intend on packing a piece, I highly recommend weapon’s safety training. It’s no good carrying a lethal weapon if you don’t know how to use it properly! Also, check with the local county or park you’re packing in to see their laws about weapons in the back country. No need to get jailed or receive a ticket!
Machete– I carry around one of these in my pack and use it as both a weapon and a tool. Obviously, you will need to start a fire and you will need firewood for that. Most of the wood you’ll find sprawled across the ground but if you hike above tree-line, there are slim pickings. I spent almost 30 minutes one time hacking away at a stubborn piece of what I thought was a dead branch! I have an 18″ high carbon steel Gerber Machete ($15 at most sporting goods stores). This thing is almost indestructible and has a serrated edge for sawing wood. Very intimidating too (as you can see in the picture)!
Bear Spray– Although this can be expensive (I bought mine for $50 at REI), it is well worth the investment, as you will probably rarely use it – so it lasts a long time. Throughout my hiking excursions, I have never come across a bear but I guarantee you I’ve been in close proximity to one. While in Yellowstone, my buddies and I came across some fresh grizzly prints not two minutes into our hike! By nature, bears will avoid humans but there is the inevitability that once and a while Ranger Joe and Yogi will have a run-in.
The only times a bear will really attack is if it is surprised, its young are nearby or it is hungry. That’s when bear spray comes in handy. It won’t debilitate a bear; it will only blind it for a while so you can high tail it out of there! One suggestion though: never try to run from a bear (Black, Grizzly or Brown). Those animals can run at a top speed of 30 mph! And Browns and Blacks can climb trees, so think about that after you blind Yogi with some bear spray!
Bear spray is just like the Oleoresin Capsicum spray that cops use (also known as pepper spray or OC spray) only about 10 times stronger! I’ve only used mine once when I was testing it in my back yard. I did make the mistake of walking through the cloud of highly powerful fumes! I ended up having to close my teared up eyes and feel my way inside to my sink! So I recommend if you test a canister of bear spray that you don’t aim into the wind!
Walking stick– You can choose to use a regular wooden stick you find along the trail or go all out and purchase some telescopic transverse trekking poles. Not only will a walking stick aid you as you’re walking up or down hill, it is also a readily available weapon if you run across a coyote, fox or Sasquatch (although I’d use a Desert Eagle with one of those!).
Sleeping bag– I hadn’t camped in many, many years until June 2010. Some work buddies and I decided to take a trip up to Yellowstone. After the first night, I almost turned into an Ice Man! Despite the time of year, Yellowstone had very unpredictable weather. All in one day, it snowed, rained and the sun came out! Unfortunately, I was ill prepared in the sleeping bag department. I thought I had brought with me a thickly insulated bag, but instead I packed the wrong one. This thing was so thin, it could have been used to hold lunch meat! And with as tall as I was, it only went up to me chest-high. It was more suitable for a 15 year old at a slumber party than a grown man! It was one of the most miserable moments in a quite a while for me. One of my friends came up to me in the morning and said, “Dave! You’re all blue!” And he was telling the truth! “I…c-c-c-c-an’t…f-f-f-f-feel my t-t-t-toes!” I replied through clenched teeth. We spent the better part of the morning driving back to Jackson, WY and buying a new bag for me!
This new one I have is a 30 degree Coleman. Nothing fancy and it cost me just 30 bucks. You can find them anywhere: Wal-Mart, Gart’s Sports, Dick’s Sporting Goods or Army Surplus stores. You don’t really have to go all out and get those -10 degree mummy bags that cost so much you have to take out an advance on your paycheck. Those are more for the avid backpackers and pros who hike Everest. I usually sleep in my bag fully dressed and sometimes wear my coat or use it as a pillow. The myth of sleeping in your skivvies and keeping warm is a bunch of horse hockey! Unless you have someone to cuddle with but I camp with all guys, so (mark my words) that has never and will never happen!
Tent– I don’t have one of those…yet. When I do purchase one, it’ll be a 2-3 man 3 season dome tent. Again, I won’t go all out and get those way overpriced REI or Big Agnus tents just because they’re name brand. Although if you purchase a tent from REI and it ends up damaged anytime during it’s life, you can get it replaced for free! Something else you need to look for in a tent is how many entryways does it have? It you have just one entrance and there are two sleepers, it may become a bit crowded. With two sleepers, you’ll probably want a tent with two openings and two vestibules. A vestibule is simply the overhanging of the rain tarp that allows for extra storage of items you don’t want inside the tent such as boots and backpacks. You also don’t want a tent that is too heavy or bulky. It will usually hang on the outside of your backpack. All a tent really has to do for me is provide me with some shelter from the elements and comfort.
Under-pad– These things are essential if you are sleeping on the hard ground (especially for a couple of nights). They’re pretty much inflatable mattresses that support one person. Some are self inflatable, others you have to blow up and others are simply just pads. This is another item I have on my wish list. Usually an under-pad will go for more than a sleeping bag will! I’ve seen some for upwards of $200! However, I have found some for around $30 on Amazon.com. Why an under-pad? Well, I’m glad you asked! Imagine tiny little green men stabbing you in the back constantly the entire night while you sleep and you will get the idea of what it was like for me to sleep without one! Of course that was only a dream of mine but after waking up, I wish I had packed a Chiropractor with me!
Depending on the time of year you wish to do your backpacking/hiking, you need to wear appropriate clothing. In Colorado, the weather can change like that (I just snapped my fingers)! At the beginning of a hike, it might be cold enough to freeze your spit but as your blood gets flowing and you start working your muscles more, your body generates a lot of heat. Not to mention, there’s a huge yellow orb in the sky that will eventually make you shed some of your clothing.
I suggest wearing layers of clothing on a long hike or backpacking trip. Always bring a heavy coat for nighttime (usually packed in the backpack). I like to hike with a simple t-shirt and hoodie. That way when I start getting hot, I can tie the hoodie around my waist and put it back on if it gets cold again.
Pants– Long pants are a necessity. Plain ol’ denim or fancy-schmancy water and bug resistant Columbia Silver Ridge II convertible pants will do. Although it may be hot, there are plenty of rocks, twigs, branches and the occasional snake that will be a nuisance.
One time I wore shorts on a hiking trip and after falling 6 feet between huge boulders, slipping on the wet rocks and tearing my legs up on the countless bushes, I could have been a display in one of those Discovery Channel Bodies Exhibitions! I still have the scars to prove it!
Shoes– As far as shoes go, if you don’t indulge in any other article of clothing, shoes would be the ones to go all out on. You can be somewhat comfortable with a less than ideal hoodie or pants but when it comes to shoes, you can’t mess around. Feet are one of the most important parts of your body to take care of on a hike. If you cut your hand, you can still walk. But if you roll an ankle because you don’t have the proper footwear, it can really cost you!
I was lucky that a friend of mine gave me a pair of his very high quality vortex hiking boots. These things are water proof (as long as I don’t step in water over my ankles) and are very comfortable to hike in. When hiking in Colorado, you will probably have to cross a stream or two. Even in the spring and summer months, the water flowing down from snow melt can be very frigid. You’ll thank yourself for owning an expensive pair of water proof hiking boots when you come to one of those instead of being ill prepared (like I was many times).
Before owning waterproof boots, I owned a pair of $12 Pay Less boots I had purchased in 1999 when I first moved to Colorado and hiked up Long’s Peak! Yeah, I had no idea what I was doing. I usually bring two pairs of shoes on my trips. The hiking boots (of course) and some sandals I can wear around the campground or to go jumping into a 50 degree alpine lake!
Headwear– I always bring something to cover my head with. That can either be a simple hat or a beanie. At night, the temperatures drop to below freezing, so you’ll want something warm. Hats also absorb sweat so you’re not constantly wiping your forehead and attracting the attention of elk hunters and Sasquatches. Also if you’re thinning on top (I’m talking about hair), a hat is very necessary in keeping the sun off your pate.
Eyewear– I also wear sunglasses. Lighter colored eyes are more apt to develop cataracts later on in life. Because my eyes are blue, sunglasses are my buddy. They also come in handy so I don’t have to squint my eyes when the sun bounces off the snow (which can be almost blinding) or I’m taking pictures of Sasquathces.
Gaiters– Gaiters are another necessity of hiking clothing if you plan to trek through some snow. These bad boys are very handy if you don’t want snow and ice to soak through your socks and pants and into your feet. The worst feeling is hiking with cold, wet, soggy socks and numb feet. It takes forever to thaw them out and hopefully you have a dry pair of socks in your backpack. Gaiters are insulated water resistant material that wrap around your lower legs and attach to your shoes in order to block out any moister from seeping in. I got a pair for $15 at Costco and have used them once already when I went snow sledding with my son.
Snowshoes go hand in hand with gaiters. I went on a backpacking trip once near Copper Mountain back in May of 2001 with Neil Anderson and Todd Kress (RIP). The famous saying during that trip was, “There will be no snow!” Todd and I weren’t from Colorado like Neil was and we swore up and down that the trail wouldn’t have any snow in May. We were unfortunately mistaken! We all sunk into snow drifts (sometimes) up to our waist while Neil chanted in a sing song voice, “There will be no snow…there will be no snow!” Anyways, snowshoes would have been a lifesaver on that trip. If you plan to hike anywhere from around September through late May in Colorado, bring a pair of snowshoes with you. You will thank yourself for it!
Stove– If you’re not going car camping, I would recommend one of those very light and compact backpacking canister camp stoves. They weigh close to nothing (3 oz. or so) and fit in this tiny little plastic box. With some of them, you have to take small propane tanks but others have this gel stuff that (when lit) will burn very hot for a little while. It’s up to you, but the experts I’ve talked to recommend the stove with a propane tank. They stay heated longer and don’t cost an arm and a leg. The only thing you’ll be using the stove for is boiling water, so bring a small aluminum bowl or something.
Edibles– Usually my backpacking trips last three nights at the most. A lot of the food I bring doesn’t have to be cooked, so I just eat it right out of the bag. Beef jerky, dried fruit, trail mix, granola bars, tuna, and sausage are just a name few of the edibles I bring along. However, it is nice to indulge sometimes. Look up “Mountain House camping food” on Amazon.com and you’ll see a ton of stuff to choose from. They have anything from rice and chicken to beef stew and lasagna with meat sauce to eggs and sausage. They’re pretty much like military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). All you have to do is add boiling water, shake it up, let it cool down and it’s ready to eat! You can also find MRE type camping meals in the sporting goods section of any store.
Some food you can eat along the trail if you know what you’re looking for. I stay away from berries and mushrooms but while hiking the Never Summer Wilderness, we came across some wild raspberries. Because I have the same type of raspberries growing in my back yard, I knew what they were. They made for a tasty snack during a nice 15 minute break. We also caught some fish up in Parika Lake at our destination. All they have up there are Trout but I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like catching a fish and eating it.
Hydration bag– These come in many forms. A brand name that everyone is familiar with is CamelPak. A hydration bag is simply a plastic bag reservoir you can fill water that is equipped with a straw attached to the bottom that you can drink out of. The idea is to put the hydration bag on your back with the straw slung over your shoulder so you can drink while on the trail while still keeping your hands free. They come in three sizes: a wee 750 mL (26 fl. oz.), a not so wee 2 liter (70 fl. oz.) or a freakin HUGE 3 liter (100 fl. oz.). I recommend 750 mL for short walks to the mailbox, the 2 L for an 11 mile bike ride or a 5 mile hike and the 3 L for longer excursions. I have the 2 L and it’s served it’s purpose well. You don’t want to carry too heavy of a load with a 3 L unless you don’t want to refill it too much. My hydration bag comes with a separate small backpack so I can wear it on short day hikes or while I’m riding my bike.
Water filter– These things will run you from $80-$100 but they’re well worth it. Even though a stream may be flowing from a mountain doesn’t mean it’s 100% pure. Remember, wildlife have to relieve themselves somewhere! The worst feeling in the world is to get sick in the middle of nowhere where there is no possibility of finding help. Imagine being ten miles out in the back country with dysentery, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting and cursing yourself for not purchasing that $110 ceramic water filter. You’d probably pay $110 just to feel better!
GPS beacon– I’ve heard about these things for a long time but just recently spoke with a guy at church about them. According to him, these things will send out an SOS signal to the local SAR (Search And Rescue) team so they know where to find you. Cell phones don’t always transmit a signal, so you’ll want to be on the safe side and purchase one of these things.
Some are equipped with several buttons that send out pre-recorded messages, text messages or e-mails. One message can say, “I’m ok,” and send coordinates on a map that someone can see. Another message can say, “I’m ok but I’m going to be late,” or “I’m out of cell phone range, have broken down and need someone to come get me!” or “I miss you, dear! Can’t wait to cuddle up next to you!” or “I’ve just seen a Big Foot! Man this guy’s freaking HUGE! Bring a camera!” You know, stuff like that really sets a loved one at ease, especially a spouse!
Camera– On several of my earlier hiking trips, I brought with me a huge Nikon D-40. This thing took amazing pictures but was also very cumbersome. I had to wear this thing around my neck and sometimes I was scaling huge boulders or walking across a stream. It wasn’t the best piece of equipment to take on a hike.
Since then, I’ve purchased a small, compact Nikon Coolpix L24 camera with 14.0 megapixels and 3.6x zoom. This thing takes pictures that are even more amazing than the $500 D-40 (if you can imagine that!). Plus it’s way smaller and light weight. I can fit it in a pocket or in my butt pack and take it out pretty quickly if I see a Big Foot or a moose. Or for those who want to be even more compact, simply use your trusty cellphone to also take pictures!
Never hike alone!– Out of all the suggestions I’ve given you in this post, this one is the most important. Unless you are a very experienced backpacker, I would always hike or backpack with one or more people. This is just common sense! What if you get injured, lost, sick, run out of food or (even worse) killed? A hiking buddy is a second set of eyes and ears. You guys can look out for each other, keep one another company and make sure you stay together. Plus, why would anyone want to experience the thrills and beauty of God’s country all by their lonesome?
I used to day hike alone in the foothills of Jefferson County Open Space. However, after a very scary experience a while back, I changed my mind. Whenever I go out, I always take a partner or I just don’t go. I decided to go for a hike two years ago in White Ranch Park. I grabbed a map and hit the trail. It was a beautiful March day but some of the trails were still covered in snow. I saw on the map where I thought I had parked and figured I’d make a large loop around the trails and head back.
However, after making a wrong turn, ending up at the bottom of a ravine and trudging in knee deep snow I realized that to my horror, I was on the other side of the park and wasn’t headed towards my car! Once I was re-oriented, I had to follow a deer trail up the side of a very steep mountain just to find the right trail on the map. I was lucky there was still daylight outside because I almost gave up halfway and built a lean-to!
Another hour later, I finally stumbled into the parking lot where my car was. My legs were beyond sore and I was out of breath but I thanked God I didn’t have to spend the night out there. After taking another look at the map, I realized I had hiked 10 miles that day! Never again will that happen! It took me making a possibly fatal mistake (that thankfully ended well) to realize that I shouldn’t hike alone! I was lucky. Some people aren’t. So take my advice and never hike/backpack alone! Just ask Aron Ralston or watch “127 Hours“!
Hike with someone in the same physical condition as you are– I took a hike up Shoshone Lake Trail in Yellowstone with a group of five guys once. It was a good five mile hike one way. On the return trip, it started to rain, so naturally our pace quickened. This wasn’t just a light drizzling rain either; it was a heavy, wet, cold, little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain, rain that flew in sideways. I felt like Forest Gump in Vietnam! Because of my long legs, I was up front with two other guys, while my two other shorter legged amigos took up the rear – way in the rear. Not only were these guys shorter than the three of us up front (I’m not giving any names!), they weren’t in the best physical condition. It became tiresome waiting for them every time I crested a hill or the trail took a turn. Finally, I went to the back, gave them my bear spray and told them I’d see them at the end. It probably wasn’t the safest (or nicest) thing to do but I was already soaked and waiting for them wasn’t making things any better.
There were other hiking trips I took with the same group of guys and what could have taken about three or so hours ended up taking five. I’m not coming down on anybody who couldn’t keep up. The point I’m trying to make is that if you want to enjoy your hike and not be held up by having to take many unnecessary breaks, make sure you and your hiking partners are in similar physical condition.
Physically prepare yourself before you go backpacking– Take lots of walks, pick up jogging, go on a bike ride; just get more physical! Believe me, there’s far less air up in the mountains than there is where I live. You will thank yourself for being prepared.
Well, that’s all I could think of. I hope this was help to some and you learned from my experiences and mistakes! Happy hiking/backpacking! Remember to keep the wilderness better than how you found it, don’t start any forest fires, don’t anger any bears or Sasquatches, but have fun! Live a little and enjoy the beauty God has given us! You won’t be disappointed!
REI = Recreational Equipment Incorporated