Ray hiking tips gained from hundreds of miles walked in the woods. YMMV...
After numerous trips into the backcountry I think I've
finally learned enough about backpacking to actually give someone some
advice. I've read numerous hiking, backpacking and mountaineering guides
and there is some very valuable information out there. However what I
want to share are some things that these guides don't cover, at least
not in detail. Some of the things I will write might be seemingly vulgar
or inappropriate but let me say now if I've put it here it was because
it was something that I wish someone had told me about before I first
went into the backcountry. I'll try to organize my thoughts into specific
and common topics but some of these tips might cross topics from time
to time. (Circa 2003)
When you go into the backcountry you should consider yourself unsupported. You must be self-sufficient and self-reliant. You should consider what you would do in an emergency. Most people can probably handle a sprained ankle or even a fairly serious cut, but what might you do if a member of your party breaks a leg or becomes unconscious and is incapable of removing himself from the backcountry? Dialing 911 on your cell phone, despite being bad form, may not be possible for myriad reasons. At the very least you should carry a first aid guide and have an idea how to make slings, sleds, and other methods of transporting incapacitated hikers.
Going into the backcountry can be a painful and demoralizing experience. You will need to have the stamina and fortitude to remove yourself from the situation you've put yourself in. In my opinion good physical fitness is the single most important factor in maintaining your safety in the backcountry. I don't mean you need to be able to run a marathon with 50 pounds on your back but you should be able to think clearly and not have to rely on others for simple tasks after a six-hour eight-mile hike that gained 4000 feet.
The biggest threat to your safety in the wilderness probably comes from the weather and not preparing properly for a wide range of weather possibilties. Expect rain and possibly even snow. Plan for cold nights, and possibly even cold days. Those Boyscouts have a saying for dealing with a lot of these types of scenarios. "Be Prepared."
There is safety in numbers in the backcountry. Groups of people are less likely to have problems with wild animals, and even civilized animals. They have more knowledge and experience to deal with dilemmas than an individual. The comfort level provided by hiking in a group in no way reduces the responsibility of each individual to prepare properly and to be self-reliant. If you think you will simply rely on others in the group to have the capacity to deal with emergencies you may become a liability to the group.
Gear Gathering: Boots
Before you ever step foot-one onto a trail you will need to acquire some gear. Yes, you certainly can take a walk in the woods in t-shirt, Bermudas, and tennis shoes. In fact these can be some of the most pleasurable times in the woods. However, I'm talking about gear that will get you through a three-day rainstorm in the backcountry, through eight miles with 60 pounds on your back, through a 30-degree night at 12,000 feet.
It is my opinion that hiking boots are the most important gear you can
take with you into the backcountry. Your feet are your only method of
transportation when hiking and if they stop working you're in real trouble.
I have hiked with people who bought their boots from the mall shoe store,
the sports super store, from the discount warehouse online, and from quality
outdoor outfitters. All of these people were able to complete at least
one hiking trip in these boots.
The first trip we went on as a group my good friend and hiking partner, Mike King, bought what I thought at the time were the largest boots I had ever seen. Mike was a competitive cyclist and has some of the skinniest legs on the west coast. (Yes we've checked.) Well of course Mike looked funny as hell with his skinny little toothpicks sticking out of these leather mountaineering boots, so obviously we made fun of him. But it was the rest of us with sore feet and black toe nails. Eight years later Mike is still wearing those boots, they are only now starting to show some serious wear. Meanwhile some of us are on our third and fourth pair of boots.
When buying boots at your local quality outdoor store, bring the socks you'll be wearing while hiking. Bring the liners too if you will be wearing those. Try on several different makes, styles and sizes. The store where you buy your boots should have a simulated incline, or a simulated trail of some sort. Try on your boots and walk up and down this incline. Really stomp your feet down, trying to kick you toes into the ends of your boots. If your toes touch the end of your boot with no weight on your back you'll probably be really compressing your toes on the trail with 60 pounds on your back. I think it's been scientifically proven that slamming your toes into the end of your boots while walking downhill with a load on your back is one of the most effective ways of losing toenails.
It is also very important to break in your boots before you do a major hiking trip. Go out to your local trail and try to get in a couple dozen miles to get the boots to start conforming to your feet.
I also very much like using the quality insert available to hikers these days. I've used the Sorbothane insert and now I'm big fan of Superfeet. Superfeet are like a less expensive Orthotic and Sorbothane has amazing impact absorbing properties.
Treat your feet right and they will happily take to some of the most beautiful scenery, the most peaceful meadows, and some the most blissful sounds you'll ever experience in your life!
Gear Gathering: Backpack
I'm of the opinion that a backpack is one area where you can try to save some money. A backpack has to carry all your gear and it has to be reasonably comfortable while doing it. If it can do that, then it is the minimum of what you need and can get you into the backcountry on a budget. However, if this will be your first multi-day hiking trip then you don't even need to buy a backpack at all. Buying a pack at this point may actually cost you more money if the pack is totally inappropriate to the type of hiking you prefer after your first three trips.
I would suggest you rent a backpack for your first couple of trips, or even better, borrow one from a friend if that avenue is available to you. I didn't buy a backpack until after my third trip. By that time I'd tried out two different internal frame packs and one frame external pack. I was able to make an informed decision as to what my backpack needs were. The two places I know where you can rent gear in SOCAL are REI and Adventure 16. Both carry quality gear and have knowledgeable people to help you pick out what you might need. If you can't find either of these search your Yellowpages for Camping and Outdoor Outfitters.
Gear Gathering: Tent
Your tent is what will allow you a good night's sleep; it will keep the rain, snow, sleet, dew, and falling pinecones off of you. Actually sometimes it seems like that one millimeter of nylon will protect you from bears, deer, and even the boogie man. Some people skip tents and choose to sleep under the stars. While I think this is a wonderful idea for you I prefer to have that impenetrable nylon barrier between Bigfoot and me. Okay, actually I've spent enough time chilling my heels in my tent during torrential rainstorms to decide a tent is an essential piece of backpacking gear.
Your tent needs to be able to keep you dry. It must withstand some wind. It must be large enough to hold you and everything you think you want in it. It should have a rain fly that extends all the way to the ground. It should have a vestibule. A quality backpacking tent never comes with Fiberglass poles. Ever! I would also strongly suggest you toss the bend prone steel stakes that come with your tent and replace them with some good aluminum or plastic/nylon ones. And finally your tent should roll up/fold/stuff into a small package, say five inches by twenty. You should be able to find a good tent that weighs six pounds or less.
Most backpacking tents are just barely large enough for the number of people it says it will hold. So if you buy a two-person tent and put two people in it, don't think you'll get anything else in it. Your gear stays outside. I don't mind if you don't
I have slept in Bivy Sacks, two-person lightweight non-freestanding three-season backpacking tents, and four-season 5 pole two to three man mountaineering tents. I slept just fine in all three, but luckily it didn't rain while I was in the Bivy Sack, it didn't snow while I was in the three-season tent and it didn't hurricane while I was in four season tent.
Consider the type of hiking and where you'll be hiking when buying a tent. Ultra light solo JMT through-hikers might opt for a Bivy. A pair of through-hikers might share a lightweight two-person tent. I currently have a three-season two-person non-freestanding tent for summer backpacking and a two person four-season tent for when I think I might run into inclement weather.
Free standing tents are generally heavier then their Stakes Required brethren
but are easier to set up, easier to move while up, and easier to shake
the dirt and varmints out of in the morning. Freestanding tents are generally
more stable, have more headroom, and don't need to be staked out in reasonable
If you aren't sure what style of tent to buy then don't buy one. Tents aren't cheap, at least not one you're going to keep for several years. Like backpacks, you can rent tents at a quality outfitter. Rent a few times and see what you like best, and what will fit in your budget.
Gear Gathering: Sleeping Bag
A sleeping bag has some very basic requirements. It must keep you warm, it must be compressible enough to take up little space your pack, and it must be as light as possible. It must also be large enough for you to fit all the way down into it and still be able to close the hood around your face.
A good bag should have a draft tube (an extra piece of insulated material along the inside of the zipper to prevent drafts) along the zipper. It should also have a hood. That's about it. Sleeping bags are simple devices and almost an afterthought until it gets wet, or the temperature drops below its rating.
There are two basic types of insulation in sleeping bags, Down and Synthetic. Down is generally lighter, warmer, more compressible, and more expensive. And Down is absolutely useless if it gets wet. Synthetic is a little heavier and a little bulkier but most Synthetics will still keep you warm even when wet. It also tends to absorb less water when getting wet so once it is wet it will probably be lighter then a wet Down bag.
There are approximately 4.2 bizillion sleeping bags out there and picking one often comes down to what you can afford. So here are a couple of simple rules.
If weight and bulk are of premium importance to you and you are reasonably certain you can keep your bag dry, go with Down. It'll cost a little more but how much are your toes really worth to you? (Okay just kidding, well sort of). If you can handle a little more bulk and weight and you'll be in temperatures above -20F then it's really hard to beat some of the more advanced synthetics.
Here again is an option to try before you buy. You can also rent sleeping bags from most outdoor outfitters.
Gear Gathering: Socks
Socks are nearly as important as boots. Your socks should keep your feet warm and cool, reasonably dry, blister free, not allow them to slip all around the inside of your boots, and should look good (Okay the rest is true though).
I recommend a two-sock system. A wool or synthetic/wool blend outer sock that does all the cushioning, warmth keeping, and boot space filling. And a thin silk or polypropylene inner liner that will keep your feet dry, cool, and not slip on your foot thereby keeping you from getting blisters.
Notice I didn't say cotton anywhere up there. If you don't like your feet or keeping all your toes wear cotton socks. Other wise never put cotton socks on your feet in the backcountry. Cotton absorbs water/sweat and just turns into a wet sloppy mess. Cotton also does very little in the way of insulation. Just bite the bullet and go buy those $8 per pair socks and get at least two sets. Always try to wear a clean set of socks each day. Wash the dirty pair at night, in a stream without soap, and dry them overnight and during the day. Your feet will thank you.
Gear Gathering: Stove
The only advice I have in the area of stoves is don't use those propane one burner stoves you can get at the sport super store. They work just fine in the car but you've got to carry everything on your back and those propane bottles weigh like five pounds each.
I've been using the MSR Whisperlight for many years and I love this stove. It is simple, light, and can boil water all day long at nearly any altitude in any temperature. Many of my friends use the Gaz Propane/Butane stoves and those work great too. They simmer better then the MSR but their fuel canisters are a bit bulky.
As far as fuel consumption I can get through five days of cooking breakfast and dinner for one person on less than 22 oz. of gas for my Whisperlight. The Gaz guys usually take two of the 270-gram canisters or one of the 470-gram canisters. We also use our stove to heat washing water at least once during the trip (for bodies not dishes).
Go for light, simple, and reliable, whatever that means to you. Backpacker magazine is a good resource for information on things like stoves.
Gear Gathering: Cooking Gear
Another simple item that people sometimes don't pay enough attention to. You will need at the bare minimum one good-sized pot, say between one and two quarts capacity. It should have a lid and a handle, either collapsible or removable. It should not be the fancy schmancy Revere copper-bottomed pan from under your counter. Way too heavy and bulky. You don't need anything fancy; in fact one of my hiking partners used a surplus mess kit for years with very few complaints. Mainly just about burning his fingers on the non-insulated handles
What's the most important feature for cooking gear you ask? Light weight! Since you need something that you can boil water in and you must carry on your back keep it simple Stanley.
Now if you like to do some fun stuff like fry up some bacon or cook up some pancakes then a small lightweight frying pan is also a good investment. I have a six-inch pan with a removable handle that fits perfectly under my pot when I'm packing.
One of the goals of your pot is that your stove can fit in it. I don't want to talk about packing just yet, or menus, but you want to make sure there is no excess air space in your pack. If your stove doesn't fit in your pot then fill it with some other small items.
My choices in keeping my cooking gear minimal and simplistic reflect and influence the type of food I eat. I'll touch on menus in another section.
Gear Gathering: Clothes
Your clothes will be strongly dictated by the environment you'll be going into. Obviously your wardrobe will be drastically different if you're planning a trip to Denali in spring as opposed to the Sierras in the summer. Since most of my experience is in the western US, and mostly restricted to summer I will only discuss clothing that is appropriate for these locales and times.
The key word to staying comfortable in the backcountry is Layers. You'll need several and they will change throughout the day and evening. I'll leave the decision of underwear to the individual and start with daytime clothing for a clear summer day. Shorts and a light shirt are most likely what you'll be wearing while hiking in all but the most extreme weather. You may hear the term "Cotton Kills" and this can be true because of cotton's poor characteristics once it's wet. It becomes a heap of warmth sucking material when wet, but if you're reasonably certain of decent weather cotton can be quite comfortable. Understand however that you can never be very certain of the weather in the mountains so if you choose to wear cotton you're taking a bit of a chance.
So what are the alternatives? Some people choose the high performance outerwear pioneered for runners and cyclists. This stuff is generally a synthetic material that has excellent breathability and wicking (the ability to keep the skin dry in the face of profuse sweating). But for this material to work properly it must be in contact with your skin and some people don't find this particularly comfortable. Another option is the synthetic safari shirts, most notably made by Ex Officio but also made by many others as well. These are made from a very light and breathable synthetic material that fits loosely. They usually have long sleeves with ties to hold the sleeves rolled up and front pockets to hold small items. They also sometimes have pit zips to further enhance ventilation.
The safari shirt is a very versatile garment; you can wear a t-shirt underneath in the cool of morning then take it off in the afternoon. You can wear just the safari shirt and stay cooler and dryer than in a cotton shirt. It also dries very fast after getting wet.
For your shorts again stay away from cotton. Nylon and its derivatives have excellent wicking, drying, and breathing characteristics. So a good choice is the shorts some people wear for soccer and running. Function over form is a priority so worrying about clashing or looking frumpy is just wasted energy in the backcountry.
On windy or cooler days you may want a light hiking pant. Sierra Designs Hiker series of outerwear is an excellent choice. It provides some wind resistance, some water resistance and packs up into one of its own pockets. The only drawback to this stuff is it's a bit noisy when warn because it's nylon.
If you think you may encounter cool nights you may want to invest in mid-weight non-cotton thermal underwear. Good materials for thermal underwear are silk, polypropylene, and fleece. Mid-weight is light and compressible enough so that you can take it with you with minimal impact on weight and gear capacity. Depending on your own cold tolerance you may also want to bring along fleece pants. A nice 200-weight fleece pant should weigh very little and compress nicely for packing. The nice thing about fleece is it's soft and very comfy on those cold nights around the campfire.
Regardless of the expected temperature you should take a fleece top of some sort. If you are weight and space conscious go with a pull over. If convenience is more important to you get a jacket with a full-length front zipper. The zipper will make it slightly less compressible and weigh a little more.
That pretty much covers the types of base layers and thermal layers you'll need for most summer backpacking. The quantities vary with each persons personal preferences but I'll tell you what I generally bring for a 5-6 day trip. Three pair of underwear, two T-Shirts, one safari shirt, two pair of hiking shorts, one set of thermal underwear, one fleece top, and one pair of pants. The pants are sometimes fleece, sometimes a nylon cotton blend, and sometimes just my rain pants.
The mountains are a fickle place when it comes to weather so it is the prudent hiker who brings rain gear along. Your rain gear can be as simple as a poncho or as cheap as a large trash bag with a head hole cut into it, a set of PVC rain gear, or the ultimate in waterproof/breathable Gore-Tex. This is entirely up to what you can afford and feel comfortable with. I have used all but the trash bag and I now take a three-layer Gore-Tex jacket and two-layer Gore-Tex pants. These are also my outer layer at night when the wind picks up a bit.
My very first trip was a short trip in the middle of summer and I didn't take any rain gear at all. I got lucky, it didn't rain, and I haven't tried to press fate like that again. The first time I did some extended hiking in the rain I was wearing a PVC Jacket and shorts. When I took the jacket off at the end of the day I was literally drenched. I wrung out my shirt, shorts, and socks. I wouldn't have gotten any wetter if I hadn't worn the jacket at all.
A few years ago I was hiking in Yellowstone National Park and it rained every day. I was wearing the Gore-Tex jacket and shorts this time and was as dry and comfortable under my jacket as if it weren't even raining. Meanwhile one of my hiking partners was wearing a plastic raincoat and had to occasionally drain his sleeves of sweat and rain.
If the temperature starts to drop and it's raining, good rain gear can be the difference between comfort and hypothermia or worse.
Gear Gathering: Sleeping Pad
You must take a sleeping pad. It will keep you off the cold ground, it will compensate for uneven ground (slightly) and it will allow you to actually get some sleep.
You can go with a full-length pad or a ¾ length pad; it's up to you. There are closed cell foam roll up pads, closed cell foam fold up pads, and self-inflating air mattresses. The most comfortable, heaviest, and most expensive are the air mattresses from companies like Camp Rest and Mountain Hardwear. The foam pads can do a decent job of keeping you off the cold ground but they just aren't as thick and luxurious as the air mattresses.
I never slept real well in the woods until I bought my Camp Rest standard full length pad.
If you can handle the extra pound and $40 to $60 of the air mattresses they can't be beat. If the weight and cost are prohibitive for you the foam pads are the way to go.
Gear Gathering: Water Filter
Nowhere in the backcountry of the United States is the water fit to drink directly from stream, creek, or lake. You must, therefore, boil, filter, or treat your water so that you don't go home and a couple weeks later you can't get out of the bathroom for a few of days.
If you boil water, it must be at a rolling boil for at least five minutes. If you use Iodine tablets follow the instructions precisely. These days, though, it's easiest just to use a water filter. However, a water filter is not a cheap item, and it is not a place to try to save money. Getting giardia or some other intestinal parasite is bad business and takes weeks of treatment for recovery. Pur, First Need, MSR, Katadyn, and Sweetwater make quality water filters. It would be hard to go wrong with any of the products made by these companies.
If you're having trouble deciding between similar filters look at flow rates and take the higher one. Also look at filter life, and take the longer. If they're even to that point get the cheaper one.
If you'll be hiking around water that has a high silk content, like near headwaters, below water falls, or when it's raining you my want to get a pre-filter so all that silt doesn't fill up your filter element the first time you use it.
Once you get your filter home pump a few gallons of clean tap water through it until the water comes out clear.
Gear Gathering: Miscellaneous
That's about it for the main gear. There are scores of optional items that I'll briefly touch on here.
For an excellent and complete list of things you might want to take backpacking, and even how to pack your pack, see Adventure 16's list.
Backpacking food can be a tricky business. If you are planning a meal for more than one person then it gets even more complicated. See, for the most part humans are very particular about what they eat, how it's prepared, its color, its consistency, etc and a persons mood in camp can be very dependent on these issues.
I would suggest planning food for yourself only for your first few trips; until you figure out what you like, how to prepare it well and how much you need. This is not a subject to be taken lightly. I've seen more arguments in the backcountry over food than any other topic.
It is important that there is enough food to keep everyone satisfied. It is also important not to bring too much food as that is just dead weight in your pack. For these reasons establishing a menu is one of the most challenging aspects of backpacking.
I am not a big fan of the freeze-dried backpacker meals you can get at most outfitters. This is purely my opinion and others swear by these meals, but I find them on the heavy side, and not always as flavorful as you might hope by looking at the picture on the outside of the package. Some of the deserts are good, the cheesecakes are excellent, and the eggs aren't terrible.
I favor foods that I regularly eat at home yet are simple to make and light weight. For dinner I usually have Mac-N-Cheese, or some other single pot boil water, pour in noodles, drain and add sauce mix type dishes. These are very easy to make, are filling and flavorful, and are very light and small. Another favorite of mine for dinner is potato soup; it comes in a powder you just simmer in water for about 20 minutes. The most challenging part of these noodle type dishes is draining off the water. MSR makes an excellent backpacker colander.
For breakfast I've taken to the just add water pancake mixes, Aunt Jamima being my favorite. Again, these are easy to make, very light, and compact to pack.
Lunches are always a challenge to find things that are tasty, easy to eat while walking, and full of the stuff you need to keep you cruising down the trail. For backpacking you need carbs, both simple and complex, and fat. Leave your high protein low carb diet at home, that won't help you out here. A good source of carbs is Power Bars and other similar energy bars. I also like MetRX bars but these have more protein then carbs, and are not really meant for use in the backcountry. Peanuts, M and M's, sunflower seeds, hard candy, trail mix, Marshmallow treats, tuna fish in the pop-top can, and Beef Jerky have all been part of my lunchtime menu.
One key element to packing backpacking food is that it must be repackaged. When you go food shopping go ahead and buy a box of zip lock sandwich bags, and a box of zip lock freezer bags. When packing your food almost nothing stays in its original package or in its original quantities. You don't want things like powdered pancake mix or sunflower seeds spilling all over your stuff. Nor will you want to bring the entire box of pancake mix. Also, if it doesn't burn, you don't want to bring it, and the foil wrappers on power bars and hot chocolate envelopes WILL NOT burn.
I'll describe how I prepare a box of Mac-N-Cheese for packing and I think you'll get the idea of what I'm talking about.
Open the box and pour the noodles into one zip lock baggy. Open the cheese sauce mix envelope and pour the powder into another baggy. In the cheese mix baggy pour in ¼ cup of powdered milk. Role the cheese/milk baggy in such a way that all the air will be pressed out and seal. Put that baggy in the noodle baggy and again role so there are no air pockets left in the baggy and seal. Put that baggy in a zip lock freezer bag then do the next Mac-N-Cheese box. I can generally get three of four meals in one freezer bag. After I eat my meal I'll only be left with two baggies that I can burn in the campfire that night.
When you're ready to prepare this meal in a bag, boil your noodles, drain, add ¼ cup of water, the cheese/milk mix, and if you've got some, dump in a little butter or oil. I also like to add different things to liven up my meal. Little Smokies sausages, diced onion, chopped cerrano chilies can all make a plain box of Mac-N-Cheese a gourmet meal with attitude. Then you just need to burn your baggies in the fire that night, or save them, which ever you prefer since they now weigh little more than air.
All of your food should be repacked, except that which will spoil once opened, like mayonnaise. Each package of food should only contain what you can eat in one meal. This will help in menu planning as well.
I'll cover what I generally bring on a trip at the end of this page but there are a lot of resources on what to pack including Adventure 16's site.
In this section I would like to cover how to prepare your stuff to be packed. As I mentioned with your food, nothing stays in its original package. Another rule to live by is nothing gets packed empty. In other words nothing in your pack should contain empty air space. Everything you want to take is barely going to fit into your pack anyway, why pack extra air?
Some places that can contain extra airspace are cook pots, water bottles, extra shoes, food containers, coffee presses, cups, bowls, zip lock baggies that weren't purged properly, bear canisters, your trash bag, any hard cases that hold things like glasses, binoculars, stoves, lanterns. Seek out that extra air space. Let no space go unfilled!
Another thing I like to do before putting my gear in stuff sacks line them with a kitchen sized trash bag. Just open the sutff sack, put the trash big in there, then put your gear in the trash bag. If it rains or you drop you pack in a river your gear will hopefully stay dry. To seal it tie the top of the bag in a overhand knot fairly tight but not tight enough that you cant get it undone. Practice that a few times at home.
When packing there is a certain logic to where things might go in your pack. Things you won't need until you get to camp like tents, sleeping bags, cookware, and clothes can go down in the depths of your pack. Things you might need while on the trail such as water, trail food, first aid gear, compass, camera, film, binoculars, knife, flashlight, toilet paper and shovel, water filter, lighter, bear spray, sun screen, glasses, and rain gear, medicines, and aspirin/ibuprofen/acetaminophen (what a backpacker might call candy ) should be packed where you can get to them quickly, either in the head bag or near the top of the main bag. If your pack has outside pockets, most external frame packs do, then these are great places for this kind of stuff.
One last point on packing. You will most likely be gaining altitude during your trip, most likely both on the drive and also during the hike. When things go up in altitude the air in them expands. Sometimes this can pop baggies and blow tops on bottles. This can make a real mess in your backpack. I once spent a week eating oatmeal for breakfast everyday that tasted like my camp soap because the flip top flipped sometime on the way to the first camp. It was also a real mess because there was soap all over the place inside my food stuff sack. The best way to combat this is to remove the extra air in baggies and to squeeze bottles until the liquid in them almost comes out then put the cap on. If your bottle cannot be squeezed then make sure it is either empty or full.
The opposite of this is kind of fun, when you get home all your bottles will be squeezed in.
Trip Planning: The trail
Okay, now you've bought or rented $2000 worth of equipment, you've honed your body onto a walking machine, and you've packed your pack with less than one cubic inch of wasted space. Where are you going?
There are a lot of different ways to backpack. Two very common ones are on a trail and cross-country. I will only discuss on trial hiking here.
I will assume this is one of your first trips, otherwise you wouldn't need my advice on how to backpack.
So for your first trip I recommend keeping it fairly short, both in distance and duration. I think either an overnight trip where you walk in one day, spend the night and walk out the next would be good, or you may choose to layover one night before walking out. This will give you some good exposure to packing, finding and following a trail, setting up your gear, taking it down and packing it again, experiencing backcountry etiquette, and really getting a feel for what it's like to carry 50 pounds on your back for several hours.
Considering the length of this trip you'll probably want to find a trail that is within a few hours from your house. No sense driving 16 hours for 24 hours of hiking. Also keep the hiking distance sensible. You really don't know what you're capable of so don't try to do the Whitney in a day hike just yet. Keep it to 5 to 7 miles a day. Also pay strict attention to altitude gain and loss.
Altitude can get you in several ways. First of all, unless you live in Denver you'll likely be gaining altitude just driving to the trailhead. Your body will be taxed just being in the thinner air. Then, unless you're hiking in Iowa, you'll likely be gaining and losing altitude on the trail. That nice topo map you bought at REI before your trip can really be deceiving. Those contour lines can be as much as 40 to 80 feet apart in altitude. So you might have to gain 80 feet of altitude on the trail before the map indicates a change in elevation. The altitude you can see on a map can be a challenge but the altitude you can't see on a map can really kick your butt!
I would recommend gaining a max of 1000 feet per 2 trail miles, and even that can be tough.
I strongly recommend that you plan your trip around a water source. When you understand your abilities better you can camp away from water and carry all that you need but at this point just camp on a lake or stream.
Another consideration when planning a trip is the facilities near the trailhead. On an overnight or weekend trip you might not worry about driving home stinky but if your trip was four or five days then you guys are gonna be funky and in desperate need of a shower. I like to plan my trips so that there are public showers near the trailhead. Also check the hours of availability for the showers. I once came out of a trail at 1:10PM ready for a hot shower and found out the showers were closed from 1PM until 3PM for cleaning. Can't tell you how disappointed I was.
Your planning will not only involve where to go but when to go. There are issues with each portion of the summer and you should be aware of these.
In late spring/early summer (May/June) you can expect all creeks and rivers to be higher and running faster, sometimes making crossing them hazardous. Also in early season most passes will still be covered in snow, making their crossing challenging if not outright dangerous. Conversely spring is when there is probably the most animal activity and the flowers are blooming. If it's early enough the bugs might not even be out yet. Note: bears are hungriest in spring This is generally the time of year when people do lower elevation hikes.
Mid season (July/August) is probably when you'll find the most crowds, since most creeks and passes are now safe to cross, the kids are on summer vacation, and the weather is really nice. However, if you like bugs this is also a really good time to go. This is also the driest part of the season. Of course that doesn't mean you won't get rained on!
Late season (August/September) the creeks are pretty low and most passes are snow free. The crowds are dying out and the bugs are nearly gone. This is my favorite time to go but it has its drawbacks too. It can be hard to schedule around kids, there is less animal activity, most of the flowers are gone, and the fish just don't bite as much. This is the time when the thunderstorms start coming more often too.
For the most accurate information on the trail you want to go to contact the ranger station nearest to it. Also seek out books and web sites that discuss the specific trail you're looking at.
Most wilderness areas and all national parks will require a backcountry permit. More and more often these days these are costing some money. Usually not much just enough to make people not make reservations for six weekends then go on the most convenient one. You'll want to try to get your permit at least a month in advance and in some of the more popular areas like Yosemite you'll want your permit several months in advance. When hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon you need to make reservations almost two years in advance. Most areas have websites and will have details on what information you need to submit to get your permit. Usually they want a contact name and address, the number in your party, method of travel, entry and exit trailheads, entry and exit dates, and intended camp locations. Some areas are stricter then others as to whether you can deviate from your intended itinerary. The two main reasons for the permits are so that the rangers know where you are and when you would be expected to come out, and to control trailhead quotas.
Before you leave write out your itinerary including the number to the local ranger station and give that to someone who knows when you should be home. I always tell my wife that if I'm not home one day after I say I will then call the rangers and give them the info.
The rangers will search along your intended path first so this is one of the reasons they might frown on deviating from your itinerary.
Trip Planning: The People
For your first several trips I strongly urge you to go with at least one other person. Solo hikers are generally experienced hikers who know how to handle themselves in a variety of situations. They also understand they are accepting increased risk for their solitude. There are some areas in the country where they won't issue a backcountry permit to solo hikers, usually due to bears.
So you're all ready to go and you've just put a personals add in the paper looking for a hiking partner to go with you next weekend. Hmmm, I wonder how that's going to turn out.
Your hiking partner(s) need to be people you know and get along with. People who are of even temperament and who are at a similar fitness level to you. I can't tell you how frustrating it can be hiking with someone who just runs away from you on every uphill section of trail!
You will both be tired and likely irritable at some point on the trip and won't want to be in the company of someone who is your polar opposite. If you will be sharing a tent then your partner will need to be somebody with whom you are comfortable being physically close too. You will see, smell, and hear more of this person then you ever have before, unless of course you're hiking with a significant other. If you can't fart in front of your hiking partner you may have chosen the wrong one.
At least half of the backpacking experience is sharing it with good friends.
Hitting the Dusty Trail:
Well here you are. You and your partner have just gotten out of the car at the trailhead and are ready to go for a little stroll. You know what is one of the funniest things watch a person do? Put on a 60-pound backpack. Yeah, some big burly guy could just manhandle the thing into place but a lot of people might struggle with that. So I'll tell you how to put a backpack on. If there is a table, bench, chair, big rock, or tailgate of a truck around then this is gonna be real easy! Put your pack on it with straps facing you. Turn around, back into your pack, slide your arms though the shoulder straps and stand up, wahlah.
If you don't have any of those things around and you need to put your pack on from the ground then here's what you do. Facing the side of the pack that will go on your back, cross your left arm over the top of your right. With your left hand grab the carry strap at the top of the pack between where the shoulder straps attach. Grab the right hand shoulder strap with your right hand. Now pick up the pack and sort of try to lift it and throw it up in the air. When it's high enough to get your right arm through the strap put the strap on your shoulder and bend forward. The pack should now be mostly on your back. Reach back with your left hand and find the left shoulder strap. Slip your hand through and pull the strap onto your left shoulder. Now it's just a matter of getting everything situated and buckled. Easy as pie till the first time you try it. You can also reverse your hands and put your pack on left side first if that is more comfortable for you.
Everybody's strapped up and cinched, it's time to start walking. Your balance will be off at first so walk slowly until you get comfortable with your load. As you walk try to look up every once in a while. I know you bought nice boots but you really came out here to see some nature. Take regular and scheduled breaks. I would say sit down or at least rest for ten minutes every half an hour. Your body will tell you if this is too much or too little, adjust accordingly. You should only go as fast as your slowest member. A good way to do this is to put them in front.
When you stop for your breaks, if you take your pack off squat down and stretch your quads and glutes. Also use a tree and stretch out your calves. Make sure you drink often and eat almost constantly. You should always have some snack food within reach while you're walking.
If you choose your rest site well there might be a large boulder or a fallen tree or a tree stump where can sort of sit down and get the weight off your shoulders and hips without taking the pack all the way off.
As you walk move the weight of the pack from your shoulders to your hips, or vice versa, as areas get uncomfortable.
If you start to struggle one of the best counter-measures for being tired is talking. Find a topic you and your partner can discuss for a while. The best topics are ones you both have strong, and possibly differing, opinions on. Although sometimes it's hard to concentrate on those so some of my favorites are favorite songs, albums (CD's) bands, concerts, movies, actors, actresses, and commercials, topical things that don't take much effort to talk about.
If one or both, or several, of you are former/current athletes then you can get a lot of mileage out of stories about "The Race" or about times that you bonked. First race stories are always good. Cyclists often have great stories about crashing during training rides or almost getting run over by cars, great stuff... Telling each other childhood, or war, stories is good too.
You've finally made it to camp, and a good thing too because you just ran out of stories about the girls in college. Even the ones you made up
Take off your pack and get a drink and a bite to eat. Pat each other on the back or shake hands. Enjoy the feeling of a hard job done well. Once you've caught your breath you'll need to scout a place for the tents, the cooking area (I always call it the kitchen), a fire pit if there isn't one already, and a place to hang your food to protect it from bears if you're not using a canister (A hard plastic can that bears can't get into without a screwdriver. And if you come across a bear with a screwdriver you've got bigger problems.)
It doesn't really matter in what order you find these but some of your choices will affect others. Don't set up your tent under the tree you've hung your food in. Don't make the kitchen upwind of the tents. And don't put the tents downwind of the fire.
When you set up your tent make sure there are no rocks, roots, or big pinecones in the area. If you can try to orient the door to face into prevailing winds, this will help with condensation. However, if it looks like rain then you'll want the door facing away from the wind.
If you need to hang your food find the branch you're going to use and get your rope over it before it gets dark.
After dinner clean everything up and go ahead and get ready to hang your food. If you'll be having an evening drink, wine, hot chocolate, or whatever, get that out along with your cup. Don't actually hang your food until you're ready to go to bed, unless you've chosen to hang your food too far away to protect it while it's on the ground.
In the sierras in the summer the sun goes down about eight o-clock at night. Unless you're used to getting ten hours of sleep you probably don't want to go to bed just yet. Luckily if you're like me you brought along some playing cards and you're now ready for an evening of games. Any card game is fun in the woods. Go fish, crazy eights, rummy, hearts they're all good and they'll keep the atmosphere light and cheery.
This is a good time to re-hydrate. Keep a water bottle near you at all times and drink often. You may also want to snack. My friend and hiking partner Jesus Briseno pioneered the idea of bringing his small bowl to the evening games and we all pitch in some small amount of something we've brought. Peanuts, M and M's, chocolate, pop-tarts, salami, beef sticks, these all make good snacks. Just pass the bowl around and grab what you want. I also like to bring a bota bag of wine. This is a good time for that too. Just don't drink too much or you'll have the mondo headache in the morning. Of course if your elevation is high enough you're going to have a headache in the morning anyway.
At some point you'll be ready for bed. Before you hit the sack hang your food, clean up the camp REALLY WELL, make sure the fire is out, and go to the bathroom. Despite going to the bathroom now, you will most likely wake up at 4AM and need to go again, thanks to all that water you drank before going to bed. This is one of the true unfair situations in backpacking. You'll be dead dog tired and want to sleep all night soundly. You will also need to hydrate each night so you'll be drinking a bunch of fluids before bed. This will then prevent you from getting that complete good night sleep. You'll lie there hoping you can sleep through it till the sun comes up. Just give up!
Now if you brought a pee bottle you won't even have to get out of your tent to relieve yourself. But be very careful! If you didn't bring a pee bottle you'll have to go outside. Don't worry about getting dressed, modesty is a waste in the woods, just put on your boot and go take of business. When you get back into your sleeping bag you'll be able to so completely relax that you'll wonder why you ever waited in the first place. This will probably the two soundest hours you'll sleep all night.
In the morning you'll do what ever it is you feel is necessary, eat, drink coffee, pack up and then you'll hit the trail to it all over again. You absolutely should not skip breakfast! Even if you don't normally eat breakfast at home, eat something out here. You will be expending large amounts of energy and you need lots of fuel to sustain that output.
Some tips while in camp. Keep your stuff semi-organized and in its assigned stuff sacks. Only take out what you need for the stay at this camp. Wash your socks, and any clothes that are getting a little nasty then hang them out to dry. On longer trips you may want to do an inventory of food to see if you are carrying extra or if you need to start rationing your food. After getting camp set up go wash your feet, face, hands and anything else that might be covered in trail dust, you'll really feel better afterwards. Fill up all the water containers you have with you. I carry a two-gallon collapsible jug that is empty and collapsed during the day then I fill it when I get to camp. We use this for cooking and filling our bottles from and usually by the next morning it is empty and our bottles are full. After breakfast wash your dishes right away and set them out to dry while you're packing. When you're ready to pack your dishes they should be dry.
Some packing tips when packing in camp. While still in the comfort of your sleeping bag pull out the cloths you'll wear that day and put all other loose stuff in it's stuff sack. Try to do a little housekeeping now before you get up. Pull out your sleeping bag and hang it on a tree if you can to let some of the condensation from the night evaporate. Roll up your sleeping pad and either tie it up or put in its stuff sack. If you've brought some sort of trekking pole or ski pole use one to prop up your backpack. This will make packing so much easier. Collapse your tent, and if you don't need to let the rain fly or tent dry go ahead and put it in its stuff sack. Leave your ground cloth down and put all your gear on the ground cloth. This will help keep everything clean while you're packing. You'll want to save a place on or in your pack for your ground cloth so plan accordingly. Usually one of the last things I do while packing is take off my camp shoes (usually tennis shoes) and put on my boots.
It will be nice if everyone in your group is on a similar schedule and everybody is ready to leave at more or less the same time. It may also help if you agree the night before what time everybody should be ready to hit the trail again.
Before you leave camp take one last look around and pick up any trash in the area, whether it is yours or not. Make absolutely sure the fire is out and try to disguise where your tent was. The goal is to make the area look unused and pristine.
I like to take a picture of each camp site, it helps me remember each camp and what we did there etc.