On extended trips into the mountains, veteran backpacker Bill Koerner always brings a secret weapon: Crocs.
Sure, there’s the fashion penalty to consider, but when it comes to looking good versus feeling good after a day of grinding out miles in heavy boots, the choice is clear. Koerner chooses foam-rubber sandals.
“I could care less about fashion,” the Manitou Springs resident said. “Those things feel incredible.”
Style-minded campers are safe to ignore the example and focus on the broader point: When heading into the backcountry, bring a daily reward – be it a pair of sandals for the campsite, a clean cotton shirt for bedtime or a piece of chocolate or fruit to freshen the palate.
If it’s light and cheap, bring enough to share.
It’s one of many tips and tricks to consider when getting ready to go backpacking, a sport that involves endless preparation – and endless opportunities to outwit, outlast and outclass your companions, Crocs or no Crocs.
Beginners, consider the following list a solid start on a rewarding experience. Veterans, call it a timely refresher, and send additions, deletions, kudos and complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay light: There’s an impulse to be prepared for any outcome, but packing too much weighs down campers and detracts from their experience, said Dean Waits of the Pikes Peak Group of the Colorado Mountain Club.
Keeping a light pack – less than 35 pounds – helps hikers cover more ground and stay more comfortable while doing it.
Pack the essentials: Waits suggested starting with the “10 essential systems” and working from there. According to “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills,” they are: navigation (map, compass and topographic map); sun protection (sunglasses, hat and sunscreen); insulation (extra clothing); illumination (headlamp); first-aid supplies; fire (waterproof matches, lighter and candles); repair kit and tools; nutrition (extra food); hydration (water filter); and emergency shelter (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad).
A GPS beacon is another key piece of equipment.
When it comes to a tent and sleeping bag, buy backpacking-specific models that weigh no more than a few pounds, Waits said.
For sleeping pads, be careful to use only closed-cell foam, which provides excellent insulation between campers and the ground. Prepare food with a backpacking stove and a fuel can. Be sure to check reviews online on the models before plunking down cash, and consider bringing an extra fuel can.
Wear proper clothing: Do not hike in cotton. Socks, shirts, pants and sweatshirts made from cotton are slow to dry and prone to chafe. When wet, cotton sucks heat from your body and hastens hypothermia, spawning a memorable phrase: Cotton kills.
Instead, visit a specialty outdoors store and consult with a knowledgeable employee about lightweight synthetic fabrics meant to dry quickly, a key element in staying warm, said Koerner, who is advocacy director at the nonprofit Trails and Open Space Coalition. Taking layers that can be added and removed is critical for temperature maintenance.
When it comes to socks, go with wool, which reduces friction and offers warmth even when wet. Bring several pairs, and wear them with or without silk liners that further aid in wicking and in reducing friction.
Check the fit: A good pair of waterproof boots is a must. Colorado’s trails are studded with rocks, and a hard toe strike with poor protection can make a trip miserable, as can chronically wet feet.
A pack is no less important. If it’s in poor condition, it can break on the trail. A poor fit can tear at your shoulders and wrench your back.
While ordering these items online can save a few bucks, it’s best to consult the experts, lest campers end up with ill-fitting gear, Waits said. When possible, rent a pack or borrow one from a friend to get a sense of how it fits.
Still prone to hot spots? Bring moleskin to cover them or use a cheaper and arguably more effective alternative: duct tape.
Gaiters, worn to protect the area between your boots and your calves, are a good idea if you anticipate rain or bushwhacking through willows.
If your boots get wet, stuff them with newspaper and leave them overnight. It’s effective at sucking out moisture. Fire can help, but be careful not to melt them.
Consider trekking poles: Hiking with a heavy pack puts a lot of pressure on knees and ankles. Trekking poles can lighten the load significantly and provide additional points of contact for improved balance. Be wary of putting too much weight on the poles, however, as an ill-timed snap could cause a nasty tumble.
Tip: Neatly wrap several lengths of duct tape around a pole rather than carry a entire roll.
Keep the menu fresh: Carefully prepare three meals per day, bearing in mind that backpackers can burn up to 4,500 calories per day and must replace them to stay energized.
A variety of online resources is available when planning menus, including one at rei.com/learn/expert-advice/planning-menu.html.
Trail mix, jerky and other dehydrated foods are ideal when on the go, combining fat and protein for a much-needed boost. Fresh fruit, including fruit cups, is always a treat.
After a few days away from civilization, “you could sell a dollar piece of chocolate for $10 at auction,” Koerner said.
Dehydrated meals are convenient but also expensive and somewhat drab. Replace them with pasta, instant rice and mashed potatoes, or spice them up with sealed pouches of tuna, salmon or chicken.
In the backcountry, there is no culinary challenge that can’t be bridged with campfire-roasted Spam.
Peanut butter is a quality, high-calorie additive for oatmeal and other breakfast foods, but remember that it’s one of many nut butters. Consider hazelnut for variety.
Drink lots of water: CamelBaks and similar hydration systems offer the advantage of drinking on the go. Make a point of taking a drink every hundred paces or so. Drink at least 3 liters of water per day.
Sports drink powder helps liven up water, but it should be added to a thermos, not put in a hydration system, where it can be tough to purge, Koerner cautioned.
Water filtration systems vary, so talk to a qualified source at a specialty outdoors store.
Start a fire quickly: There’s a wide variety of fire-starting materials available, including fuel-saturated sticks used in fireplaces.
Waits suggested one that’s nearly free of charge: dryer lint mixed with Vaseline. Newspaper is also excellent tinder.
Despite those aids, building a fire the hard way, with matches and tinder, is a rewarding skill to hone.
Practice, practice: Among many first-timer mistakes is biting off too much too soon. Instead, begin by taking a series of hikes to test equipment, suggests Ron Leasure, a former ranger at North Cheyenne Canon Park who works at Mountain Chalet, an outdoor gear store downtown.
Be sure to set up and break down your tent to verify you have all the components and know what you’re doing.
If it’s your first time with a water pump, consider bringing it on a creekside hike and filling your CamelBak.
If possible, accompany an experienced friend, Waits said.
Take a class: Beginner backpacking classes often are offered for free at REI (rei.com) in north Colorado Springs.
The Colorado Mountain Club (cmc.org) offers similar classes for members, sometimes at Mountain Chalet.
Map and compass navigation is a critical skill in the backcountry.
Get organized: A veteran of a 16-day, 160-mile trip on the Colorado Trail, Waits leaves nothing to chance.
Before leaving, he makes a spreadsheet of all he’s carrying, noting weights, which he obtains by using a postal scale and a bathroom scale. Upon his return, he goes through the spreadsheet and reconsiders unused equipment.
The process is as much about familiarizing yourself with your gear as it is about conservation and economy, Waits said.
Be responsible: Sit down and learn the regulations and rules of where you’re going, Waits said, including whether fires and camping are permitted.
Learn and practice leave-no-trace principles. This means packing out food waste and burying human waste in holes at least 6 inches deep and at least 200 feet from water. Be mindful that some destinations require human waste to be packed out, too.
Tell someone who you trust where you’re going and when you plan to be home.
Check the forecast before leaving. Maybe have two or three destinations picked out and go with the one with fairest skies.
Don’t bait wildlife: Hang all food and cooking materials in a bear bag and suspend it from a tree branch at least 5 feet from the trunk and 10 feet off the ground.
The tree should be at least 100 feet from your campsite. Farther is better. Nylon cord, a stuff sack and a rock are the only technology required for bear bags.
Many campers elect to carry bear spray as a precaution. This is a necessity if camping in grizzly country, such as Montana or northwestern Wyoming. There hasn’t been a confirmed grizzly bear sighting in Colorado since 1979, but black bears are legion.
It’s not a competition: Plan your trip to be comfortable. Make daily intervals of 3-4 miles if necessary, or choose a trip that allows you to set up a camp and do day hikes.
Epic 20-mile days come after time and experience.
Inspect old gear: Even experts should take an afternoon to go through their gear before the season’s first trip.
Is your pack clean? Do the zippers work? How long has it been since you cleaned your water filter? Have you brushed out your tent and inspected its seams? Are all your poles and stakes in their bags? Has your first-aid kit been freshened up? Do your boots need to be replaced?
Last and most certainly least: Are your Crocs in working order?
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