What is Backpacking and Why Do It?
Updated: May 17
Backpacking in its true form is hiking with everything you need to camp on your back. The hike can be long or short but at the end of the day, you are setting up camp, cooking dinner, and sleeping out in nature. You are a self-contained unit with everything you need to survive on your back. People refer to backpacking around Europe but very rarely are they camping. The backpack is just a way to carry their clothing.
Generally, a backpacking trip will have you following a trail in a provincial park or state forest well away from civilization and your car. Once you head off from the trailhead you are on your own to choose your adventure. You get the solitude of being away from the city and the pleasure of exploring areas you haven't seen before.
For example, a one-night trip would look something like this. Drive out to the trail you have chosen, parking at the trailhead parking lot. Put on your backpack, lock up the car and start hiking. Depending on the terrain and your fitness level, you may do as little as a couple of miles or hike all day. As you hike you will occasionally stop to eat a snack with a potentially longer stop if you are feeling like a full lunch. This is a good time to air out your feet and put on some fresh socks to help reduce the chance of getting a blister.
After lunch, you hike some more until you find a good campsite or make it to the site you've rented for the night, depending on whether you've chosen a free or pay location to enjoy. Once at your campsite you will set up your tent or hammock. Some people, myself included, will occasionally choose just a lightweight tarp if the weather isn't expected to be bad and it's not bug season. Once you get your shelter set up then you'll get your sleep gear out. Put your sleeping pad in your tent, roll out your sleeping bag and blow up your inflatable pillow if that's your thing.
Then while you still have daylight you need to head out and collect firewood if you are planning on having a campfire. You'll head out into the forest looking for dry, deadwood. This is where bringing a folding saw can really make your job easier. Always make sure the area you are in allows fires and practice good fire safety.
Once you've got camp set up and you've collected firewood, it's time to eat. Following good animal management, you take your food and cook gear at least 20 yards from where you are sleeping to cook and eat dinner. The point of this is to keep the scent of food away from where you are sleeping to keep the chance of animal encounters in the night to a minimum. While people are most concerned with bears, it is mice that are the real menace. They chew through everything if you give them a reason.
When camp cooking, you'll often bring food that just requires water like ramen noodles or dehydrated camp meals. This food is light, calorically dense, and easy to make. One of my favorites is making instant mash potatoes and adding beef jerky. It's kind of like Sheppard's pie. To make your dinner you break out a little camp stove and put your pot of water on to boil. Once your water is boiling you add your food and give it a stir. It takes a few minutes for the food to rehydrate so you can remove it from the heat and sit back and relax while your food finishes cooking. Unless you are out in a group where you will be sharing, the easiest thing is to eat right out of your pot. It makes for fewer dishes to clean.
After eating, you use the last of your water to clean your pot, so water is your next task. Head down to the stream to filter water into your bottles or Camelbak. Unlike at home, you don't have a tap with clean drinking water so you need to use a microfilter to take out any bacteria or parasites.
Now you have to store your food for the night. Heading away from camp, you find a tree with a nice fat branch so you can throw a rope over to hang your food bag at least 12 feet off the ground. Tonight was a success as it only took a few tosses to get the rope over the branch. Attaching your bag you hoist it up and tie off the rope to a tree nearby. No animals are going to get your food tonight.
Then back to camp and prep for your fire. Sort the wood by size, breaking the small twigs down into bundles to help get your fire going. Once you've got your firewood sorted and stacked it is time to make your firelay. Teepee, top-down, long fire. There are countless ways to make a fire for different needs.
Since it is a nice summer night you don't overcomplicate it. Simple teepee it is. Once you've got the structure put together you get your tinder ready and ignite your fire. Tonight is a cotton ball with Vaseline lit by a ferrocerium rod. A few sparks bring the flame to life. Using a stick you push the tinder into the teepee and you wait as the flame starts to ignite the twigs of the initial firelay. Once the flames start to grow higher than the twigs you start adding slightly bigger wood until you have a nice little fire going. You bask in the satisfaction of starting a fire with just simple items you brought with you.
Now as night descends, you just enjoy the glow of the fire. If you are out with friends you can lose yourself in conversation around the campfire. Or to bring back the nostalgia of summer camp you can tell ghost stories. Occasionally the sound of your voices is interrupted by the wind through the trees or the call of a distant bird. As the night unfolds the stress of modern life drops away. You feel the deep fatigue of a hard day's work but it is paired with a feeling of contentment.
Before long it is time for bed. You turn on your headlamp as just a few steps from the fire. A few trips to the stream with your cooking pot supply enough water to thoroughly douse the fire. You now head over and enter your tent. A quick change of clothes, into your camp jammies, and then into your sleeping bag. Warm and tired is a great feeling. Before you realize you are out for the count, sleeping the sleep of children on a long drive home.
You wake to the sound of birds chirping and sun lighting your tent. When you first move, you feel the ache in your muscles of yesterday's trek but it's a good feeling. Your body likes to work, even if you don't. Now it's time to get up and enjoy some breakfast. Oatmeal with some trail mix tossed in makes for a hearty breakfast.
Checking the time, you break camp, packing your life back into your pack to continue your trip. You hoist your pack, adjust the straps and head off. You'll have to retrace your steps or finish the loop if you were lucky enough to find a trail that was a short enough distance to cover in a weekend. Personally, I like loop trails as every step is new.
Just after noon, you get back to the car. Breakfast has long been burned off so you are looking forward to a nice meal on the drive home. Dirty and a little tired, you've found your happy place. You may be back to the office tomorrow morning but for now, you are an outdoor adventurer exploring new lands, even if they are only new to you.
This is what backpacking is. If reading this has made you want to get out then you know why. It's the challenge and sense of self-sufficiency. You bask in the beauty of nature. And your brain can slow down. Modern life is faster than we were evolved for. The speed of a backpacking trip is just about the right speed to find happiness that is elusive in the world of smartphones and HR departments. Plus the gear is really cool.
Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard