Backpacking 101: Tips for getting started

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter



Before shopping for boots, sleeping bags, tents, stoves and clothing, prospective backpackers need to answer some basic questions.

"What's the goal?'' asked Lindsay McIntosh-Tolle of REI in Portland in a spring backpacking seminar. "Is it to go as far and as fast as you can? That's going to affect what you're going to pack.

"Or it is to get out, be in the environment, relax, stop and soak it all in? Because that's a different philosophy.''

Backpacking checklist

BASICS: Pack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stuff sack, boots, outer socks, liner socks, water bottles, water filter, multi-tool (with knife), flashlight, batteries, map, compass, meals, stove, fuel.

CLOTHING: Wicking underwear, quick-drying top-pants, insulation layer, rain gear, cap.

PERSONAL ITEMS: Sunscreen, lip balm, pillow, walking stick, sandals, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bug repellent, toothbrush.

SAFETY: Extra flashlight, first-aid kit, firestarter, duct tape, water purification tablets, pack cover, whistle signal mirror.

OPTIONAL: Cellphone, GPS

Then there's fitness.

"What's your fitness level?'' she asked. "What's the fitness level of others in your group? It's important to have a party with similar hiking goals.''

Once those parameters are defined, then backpacking boils down to a balancing act of weight versus comfort, she said.

"How much weight are you willing to carry for how much comfort? How much comfort are you willing to give up for how little weight it is?"

Backpacking gear starts with clothing, McIntosh-Tolle said.

Stay away from cotton, buy clothing that can be layered, and remember, it's wet a lot in the Northwest, she said.

"There's nylon, soft wool, capilene, polypropylene, a ton of materials that are available. They are light, wick moisture away from the skin, and dry quickly when wet.''

Pants made of nylon are much better than jeans. Some pants come with zippers so they can be converted into shorts.

"Have lots of layers, not one big puffy coat,'' she said. "Think about versatility in your clothes.''

Rain gear is important, too, and not just a coat, but also pants.

Rain gear comes in nylon with polyurethane coating, but it's not breathable, she said. Laminated rain gear has a membrane that allows the fabric to breathe, but costs more.

If possible, keep a separate base layer just for sleeping.

"Separate sleeping clothes, that are completely dry, free of body moisture, will be warmer,'' she said.

There's a wide range in boots.

Lighter boots provide less support, while stiffer boots are better particularly if a lot of off-trail travel is likely. Sandals for crossing streams and wearing around camp have become popular.

"Break in your boots or your feet will be horribly miserable,'' McIntosh-Tolle said. "The newer the boots, the more moleskin you'll need to take.''

Liner socks can lessen greatly foot problems, she added.

With backpacks, capacity matters.

A pack with less than 40 liters of capacity is a daypack. Most one- to two-night trips need a 65-liter pack.

Try on a variety of packs. Lumbar and shoulder support can vary.

Virtually everyone uses internal frame packs, which keep the weight closer to a hiker's natural center of balance.

"You want the weight to be on your hips,'' she said. "You want the hip belt right on the bony part of the hips.''

Packs are almost never waterproof.

"Having a pack cover, kind of like a rain shell, is a fantastic thing,'' McIntosh-Tolle said.

Most hikers first pack will be larger than ones they buy later.

"When you start out, you will probably need more space to do the same length of trip than when you've been doing it for awhile. You get it down to exactly what you need.''

Packs designed for women's different body dimensions and walking style are worth considering, she said.

"It's no longer a case of taking a man's pack and shrink it and pink it,'' McIntosh-Tolle said.

Boot and pack comfort can not be overemphasized.

"Packs and boots are the biggest difference if you are comfortable and whether you will like backpacking,'' she said.

With sleeping bags, the choice is between bags filled with down or synthetic materials.

Synthetics are less expensive and insulate when wet. Down is warmer, compresses better and lasts longer, but must be kept dry, she said.

Down sounds inappropriate in the soggy Northwest, but with a plastic bag or waterproof compression sack keeping a down bag dry is doable, she added.

Sleeping bags designed for women are available. Women tend to sleep colder than men with their hips and feet being cold spots.

A silk or synthetic bag liner can add 10 to 15 degrees of comfort to a sleeping bag.

Sleeping pads come a wide variety of choices too, from foam to inflatable.

"When you sleep well, you do everything else well,'' she said. "You need to test how soft the sleeping surface needs to be for you to be happy.''

Stove choices boil down to those fueled by white gas or isobutane propane.

White gas is a refillable liquid. It's versatile, works well in cold weather and at higher altitudes.

Propane is light, small and quick to use. It requires no priming and the flame generally is more easily adjusted.

Tents are a tradeoff between weight versus comfort and livability.

There are tarps, A-frames and tents with vertical sidewalls if the goal is simply a shelter with as little weight as possible. The more internal space, the more weight.

Five pounds is about the weight of a two-person tent, she said.

Freeze-dried foods are light and have "come a long way from the cardboard it once was,'' she said. Bringing along a few seasonings from home, like basil and tabasco, is a good idea.

Try freeze-dried food at home first.

"Make sure you will be happy to eat that after a day of hiking,'' she said.

Water weighs 2.2 pounds per liter. Having a filter or treatment tablets is a must.

Tablets are the simpliest way to treat water. Iodine tablets need about 30 minutes to treat. Chlorine dioxide takes about four hours, but absolutely kills everything.

Hand-pumped and gravity operated filters are available and remove almost all protozoa and bacteria found in the Northwest. Ultraviolet filters will kill everything, but require batteries.

Backpackers also need several small items including waterproof matches, maps, a compass, sunglasses, lip balm, flashlight and extra batteries, a first-aid kit, a knife, duct tape and an emergency shelter.

And don't forget sunscreen.

"It's really important for your back not to be all red when carrying a pack,'' she said.