Backpacking: Not nearly as hard as you may think

A brief look at backpacking misconceptions and the basics of getting into backpacking

A view of Merced Lake at Yosemite National Park from the summer of 2020. (Matthew Wallace)

When some people picture backpacking, they think of people lugging heavy bags up and down mountains all day non-stop for weeks on end, resulting in sore backs and aching feet, yet the portrayals shown in popular movies and other media are rarely true in recreational backpacking. The problem occurs when people focus on thru-hiking, a hike that crosses hundreds of miles that generally crosses state or country lines over the course of a few weeks to many months.

However, only a few thousand people go on these ultra-hard thru-hikes every year, and the rest of the backpacking scene is actually short, overnight or three to four day trips in various parks on trails with sizable amounts of traffic.

Through opportunities with Boy Scouts, I have attended two-night, large-group backpacking trips, as well as a three-night small group hike outside of Boy Scouts. The longest I have ever walked on any of my trips is 10 miles in one day over a period of roughly six hours. So, it is rare to see anyone, especially beginners, hike all day long.

The actual weight of backpacks is often exaggerated, as few knowledgeable backpackers would wear packs they deem heavy. For example, the general rule of thumb taught in Boy Scouts is that a backpack should never be heavier than 25% of someone’s body weight. A bag should not be so heavy to the point that carrying it would considerably slow a person down.

It is important to note that a backpack designed for backpacking is much different from a school backpack in that all, or almost all, of the weight rests on the wearers’ hips, not their backs. Because of this design, a person can carry 25% or more of their body weight with relative ease while backpacking.

During all of my hikes, the feeling of being weighed down by the backpack began to fade after about 45 minutes of wearing it while hiking, provided it was adjusted properly. So, although someone can still get tired much faster with the backpack on, the feeling of being encumbered is not as omnipresent as people assume.

The other equipment is just as essential for backpacking, but can be expensive. The total costs of gear can vary greatly depending on the distance and season of a trip, but also, most importantly, how much someone is willing to carry. There is a general trade off between how much someone is willing to pay versus how much a piece of gear weighs; that is to say that a more expensive piece of equipment will generally be lighter than its cheaper counterpart.

The biggest hitch to getting into backpacking is that participants need to know what they are doing. After all, most backpacking trips take place away from cities, in the backcountry, so there is a considerable learning curve for backpacking preparedness. Most of the skills required are general outdoorsmanship skills, such as knowing how to set up a tent or what to pack in a backpack and how to use that gear.

For instance, on my first ever backpacking trip, I was not well acquainted with how much food and water I should consume while walking and ended up “bonking” near the end of the hike. Bonking, or maxing out, is where the body runs out of easily accessible energy, which means someone will fairly suddenly become completely exhausted and it becomes nearly impossible to progress. Yet, bonking is preventable by eating small amounts of food regularly while walking instead of all at once after you reach the destination.

However, there are many more skills that are needed for backpacking, the most important of which are navigation, first-aid, knowing how to properly use backpacking stoves and knowing how to properly treat and filter water. Learning navigation and first-aid are both in-depth and will often require taking a short class to properly learn all the material.

That being said, the first thing that may come to mind when thinking about backpacking is the physical burden of doing so. Though valid, the exercise of backpacking is spread out over a large portion of the day with plenty of breaks since it is rare to walk for more than an hour without taking a break. Backpacking is not so dependent on physical stature that it will be a roadblock. Will it help if you are fit? Of course, but in the grand scheme of things, a beginner or expert can always take as many breaks as they need.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that it is ill advised to just go on a trip with no experience carrying weight; instead, it is better to practice with weight on three or four short day hikes to get used to carrying weight and balancing before someone goes on their first overnight trip.