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Backpacking in the Wilderness

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Ever have the urge to put all your clothes and food on your back and go traipsing through the mountains? Here is how you do it without killing yourself.

The Backpack

Since you plan to go backpacking, it might be a good idea to get a good backpack. For those of you who have had their same pack for many years, it might be time to consider buying a new one. Much advancement in technology has occurred in the last few years.

There are many different kinds of backpacks. The two main sub categories are external- and internal-frame packs. An internal-frame pack has a frame to keep the pack ridged on the inside, while an external-frame pack has the frame on the outside. The internal's frame is usually a little more flexible. Internals are generally a bit more expensive, but are usually for the experienced hiker1. An internal gives you more flexibility in your arms and helps keep your balance because the internal stays closer to your body. The problems with an internal is there is usually only one main compartment where most of your stuff goes into (which makes it hard to get to some stuff sometimes) and it is hotter on your back because it is so close to your body; it leaves little room for ventilation. All in all, the general rule is, if all you do is little weekend trips on a moderate trail, go with the external. Any more, then it's good to go with the internal.

Another major consideration is size. Only get what you need. The bigger the pack, the heavier it is. 10,000 - 12,000 cm3 is about right for a long weekend. Also, don't just consider your next trip. A pack is rather expensive, so you should consider trips you may be taking years from now.

When buying your pack, don't just order it online. Go into the store and try it on. In most outdoor stores, they have a backpack specialist who can help you out. They will often measure your torso to see what will fit best. Sometimes, they will put in weight that simulates what you'll be carrying on the trail so you can feel what it's like. If you have access to a good hiking or camping supplier, they should have experienced employees to help out.

What to Bring

No matter when you go, you'll run into all kinds of weather. When backpacking, always be prepared for the worst. It's very probable in the mountains for there to be thundershowers in the middle of the summer. Here's a good idea of what to bring with you. And, remember, think light, because you have to carry it all!


This is what people in the group needs to bring for themselves. Every person should have these items in their pack.

  • Two T-shirts2
  • Two pairs of shorts
  • One pair of long trousers - no jeans or other cotton. Cotton absorbs water readily and makes your pack really heavy. Think water-resistant. A good way to test this is to sprinkle water on it with your fingers - if it beads up, they'll work
  • Swimming trunks or bathing suit
  • Fleece long-sleeve shirt - again, avoiding cotton
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Rain jacket
  • Hiking boots - make sure you break them in ahead of time.
  • Tivas, or other type of sandals that won't leave your feet if you're trying to cross a river (it is possible)
  • Thick, lightweight socks
  • Liner socks
  • Lightweight super-absorbent towel
  • Toilet paper
  • Lip balm
  • Toothbrush/paste and dental floss
  • Biodegradable soap
  • Deodorant
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Sleeping bag - lightweight, but warm
  • Backpack cover - large binbags will do just fine
  • Hydration - this can be either a water bottle or a hydration pouch. The pouch is the best way to go because you can have your hands free while hiking.
  • Trekking poles - these are an optional item. They're used for hiking over tough terrain.
  • Torch - a good idea is to get one of those headlamps. It makes it easy to read your book at night.
  • A book - paperback is preferable (due to its lightness, of course).
  • Pocket knife
  • Zip-lock plastic bags - these are most useful. You can use them for everything including saving your paperback book from the rain to storing your rubbish and used toilet paper
  • Sierra Cup - a general cup for all food needs
  • Plastic Cup
  • Utensils
  • Matches
  • Gorp

As a Group

These are the items that only a few people3 need to bring.

  • Your camping permit - it is required in many areas. Contact the ranger station to ask if you need one and how to get one.
  • Tent(s) - look on the box to see how many people it can hold and how heavy it is. Plan accordingly. Also, put your tent together before the trip just so you're sure how to do it.
  • Ground cloth - to put under the tent. 6 mm plastic from your local hardware store will work.
  • Stove and fuel - Buy a nice backpacking stove. The smaller the better.
  • Cooking supplies - a two-litre pot, a pot-gripper, foldable frying pan.
  • Backpacking bucket - made out of vinyl.
  • Camp suds.
  • Bear bag - to hang your food in a tree to keep it from the bears4
  • Rope.
  • Water Purification Device - very important - gets rid of contaminations in the water.
  • First Aid Kit - Plasters and moleskin are the most important things here. Use the moleskin to help with blisters.
  • Maps of the area and a compass
  • GPS - if you can afford one


Depending on what kind of trip you take, you may be doing a lot of hiking. You might just hike one day and rest for a couple of days at a lake and then hike back out, or you might hike everyday to a new lake. Either way, there is hiking involved. If you aren't the most fit person, you can always pace yourself. Take it slow when tackling those tough hills. Just know that if you keep on going, you can always make it to your destination.

When choosing your destination, think reasonably. A nice slow-paced day can be around seven kilometres, whereas if you are at a strenuous pace you can do about 12 kilometres.

When hiking, be aware of your feet. If they start hurting, check them. If you have a blister, tend to it as soon as possible. Hiking with a blister is not advisable. If you must hike with a blister, at least don't use your boots and take it easy. You can wear your sandals you brought along with a pair of socks.

If you begin to get tired on the trail, think of how far you need to go in terms of a running track. Just think of every mile as four laps. It's an easy self-motivator.


Still thinking light? Good. Food is going to be the heaviest thing you have to carry. This is good and bad. Bad for the obvious reason that it will make your pack heavier, but good because as the trip goes on, your pack will become significantly lighter. Just remember to bring as little food as you possibly can, but enough that you will eat well throughout the trip. This differs for every group because some people eat more than others. Ask every person in your group how much they think they will eat on the trip and plan accordingly. Also, remember that you'll probably be doing more physical activity than usual and will probably eat a little more than usual. Here are some ideas for food, but everybody's preferences are different.

  • Breakfast - Granola and oatmeal are the way to go. Light and easy. For the granola you may want to bring some powdered milk. Don't bring real milk; it is too heavy. You get used to powdered milk really easily on the trail. For oatmeal, you just need to boil the water. You can eat both of these things in your Sierra cup.

  • Lunch - Salami or other salted meat is good with some cheese and crackers. Bring some oranges, but not too many. Oranges are just about the nicest-tasting thing you can eat after a couple of days in the mountains.

  • Snacks - If you get hungry while hiking, your gorp is the way to go.

  • Dinner - It is a great idea to dehydrate your food. You can do this with all food. A great idea is to make a bunch of dinners at home that you would normally eat and dehydrate them. When you are up on the mountain, all you need to do is add water and heat it up and you have a wonderful dinner.

  • Drinks - Water does get repetitive after a while. Powdered fruit teas or squash mixes are a good thing to bring. If there is snow near by you can make a flavoured snowcone / slush5.


Finding a Campsite

Picking a good campsite can sometimes be difficult depending on where you plan do go backpacking. In some places there will be defined campsites, which are really easy to find. Other places might have no campsite at all. Generally, if you find a fire ring6, that can often be a good campsite. The things to look for are some flat areas with few rocks or pinecones, or ones that can be easily cleaned away, for a place to sleep and a place for your 'kitchen'. A good place for your kitchen is somewhere where you have some room to cook, with a nice solid place for your stove. Also, the campsite should be about 100 metres from any water source. The reason for this is if there is any flooding you won't drown in the middle of the night, and it will also avoid contamination of the water with rubbish or other things.

Setting Up Your Campsite

Now that you've found your campsite, you just need to set it up. This is probably a good thing to do right away, before anything else, just so you don't run out of sunlight when you are setting up your campsite. It's no fun.

First, set up your tent. Make sure you put your ground cloth underneath it. If it's windy, use the stakes as well so your tent doesn't fly away. Next, set up your kitchen. Put your stove in a sturdy place. Get your bucket and fill it with water7. Find a stick and lay it across two rocks that have some space between them and are not too tall. Hang the bucket from the stick so the bottom is touching the ground. You don't want your bucket falling over and making a big mess in your great campsite.

Now you've set up your campsite and can enjoy the rest of the day.


When up in the mountains, nature will still call even if there is no toilet for 100 kilometres. First thing, make sure you are far enough away from any water source so your waste won't creep into it. If you're defecating, you have to dig a hole (using a rock works) about six inches deep and go into it. Next bury it and mark it with a rock or a couple of sticks crossed over each other. Take your toilet paper with you (inside a ziplocked bag or something similar) so you can burn it later. In areas where it is too dry to burn (for risk of forest fires etc), you have to pack it out8.

Washing in the Mountains

Just because you're hiking, doesn't mean you want to be dirty and smelly.

  • Your Body - You'll want to wash just as regularly as you do at home. It won't be as fun (since the water will be significantly cooler), but it still has to be done. Try not to let any soap (even biodegradable) go into the water. Use the bucket and rinse yourself away from the main water sources.

  • Your Teeth - Use your Sierra cup to hold the water you'll use to brush your teeth. Make sure you do it away from camp, as it can attract wildlife such as bears.

  • Your Clothes - Use the bucket and wash them in there. Use the camp suds, and make sure you rinse them with fresh water in the bucket as well. Air-dry them. You will probably have to do this daily because you should only have, at most, two of everything.

Going to Bed

It seems easy, right? Well, there are a couple of things you have to do before retiring for the night. First, you need to hang your food. Throw a rope over a high tree limb and attach it to your bear bags with the food inside. Hoist the bags high enough to keep your food out of reach from bears. Then, you need to put out the fire. Make sure it is completely out. Now, you can go to sleep.


With any rubbish you accumulate or find on the trail, you have a choice of two options.

  1. Pack it out...
  2. ...or burn it (if it is safe to do so).


Even though backpacking is so much fun in itself due to the marvellous scenery you'll see and the lack of people9, there are still some times when you'll want to be doing other things.

  • Swimming - If you're near a lake or river, swimming is always a good thing to do. It helps a lot to relax your muscles after a long day of hiking. Don't forget your sunscreen!

  • Fishing - Fish are good for entertaining you, and for food! In some areas, you may need a fishing licence, check before you leave home.

  • Card Games - These are very lightweight and can be very fun.

  • Mini board games - You can buy these in many shops.

  • Reading - That's why you brought the book!

  • Day Hikes - Don't feel like packing everything up and moving on today? Just leave everything at your campsite10 and bring just your water and gorp. There are often other lakes near wherever you camp that you can visit for the day.

1Although, if you think you might be doing this activity for a while an internal may be a good idea.2Yes, only two. You don't want to be carrying extra clothes and you can wash your clothes while on the mountain3Depending on how many people in your group.4Presuming you're in an area where bears are to be found.5To make a slush / snowcone, first put the snow in your Sierra cup, add the flavouring, and then (most crucial part) add a little bit of water and stir. Mmm-mmm good!6A fire ring is a circle of rocks where a campfire should be made. Don't make a campfire unless it's in a fire ring.7This is mainly for convenience, so you don't have to walk the hundred metres every time you need water for something.8An Americanism meaning to take it home with you. The idea is to leave no rubbish on the trail.9Depending on when and where you go.10Be careful of burglary. If you think it might be unsafe to leave your stuff, you can find wire locks (similar to those flexible bike locks) and lock your things to a tree.

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