by Ian D
The Importance of Knowing Your Equipment, and the Reality of the Using It.
A few months ago I decided it would be a good experience to go on an extended backpacking trip. I carefully researched the area I was interested in by asking people who knew the area and by looking over various maps and descriptions.
I initially thought I’d attempt this solo but then asked my daughter if she’d like to come along. She seemed interested and reluctant at the same time. I described the hike to her as a leisurely and “easy” hike with several trails we could take and end the trip early if needed.
The one unexpected obstacle I ran into though was my wife. She didn’t think it was a good idea for us to “jump” into this hike with little to no training or physical preparation.
My daughter and I are not in terrible shape but neither of us are doing long walks or running type activities on a regular basis. My wife thought we’d be safer if we did a few day hikes beforehand and got used to having a pack on and carrying a heavier load incrementally. I assured her that neither of us needed to do that and we could easily walk a few miles a day.
The total hike was only expected to be about 20 miles so that would only be about 7 miles a day or so. So we eventually got the go ahead and started seriously planning. We did all this serious planning about 5 days before the hike was to begin.
Then life happened and we were delayed by a meeting, a fence building project, and 100-degree record-setting temperatures. We started packing about 2 days before the trip in the afternoons after working outside all morning on the fence project. We ran out and got food and extra things we thought we needed and eventually had our packs “ready”.
My pack, an Osprey Kestrel 58, weighed in at 40 lbs and my daughter’s North Face Terra 55 weighed in at 30 lbs. We figured we could handle the weight as we weren’t planning on very long days and we were going to hike at a leisurely pace.
The day of reckoning arrived and we headed out to the trailhead. It was forecast to be sunny and around 96 that day. As we got out of the car at 8:30 am, in the already 80 plus degree heat, the bugs proceeded to enthusiastically greet us.
Once we finally got our packs on our backs, I think we both knew right then this wasn’t going to end well. We said goodbye to our ride and started up the trail. We didn’t make good progress though, as we proceeded to stop about every 5 minutes or so for the next 2.5 miles, trying to figure out how to get our packs to sit comfortably on our backs! We tried adjusting the load inside, the straps outside, and the internal frame adjustment.
We finally both found a somewhat better position that at least rested somewhat on our hips and shoulders together. My daughter and I were in significant distress, discomfort, and dread from the packs, bugs, and heat! We considered many times turning back that whole 2.5 miles and camping at the trailhead and hiking down to a place where the phone might work in the morning. We believe that both packs have insufficient padding on the shoulder and waist straps.
Both packs seemed to just not be right for us, but this is probably more the fact that we clearly had NO idea how to set them up. After 2.5 miles and 6 hours, we stopped for a water refill and lunch. The water refill consisted of unpacking the brand new Katadyn Hiker Pro.
This worked flawlessly and allowed for a quick refill of both our hydration packs. It uses quick disconnects that allow for direct filling of a similarly equipped hydration reservoir. The cool water from the small stream was refreshing and turned out to be the one thing we both thought was the highlight of the trip.
Next up was lunch of some Backpacker’s Pantry Pad See You with Chicken. But first I had to get my Solo Wood Stove going. I knew how to use this stove as I’d pretested it a few years before. The problem we ran into though was the waterproof matches we had simply would not light.
So the BIC lighter was used and after sufficient nursing of the kindling, the stove came to life. The stove works fast and efficiently. I only needed a small pile of twigs to get the water boiling and we were eating about 30 minutes later.
The problem was that 30 minutes gave enough time for every insect in the area to call their friends and come to greet us. It was all we could do to eat our food, which actually turned out to taste really good, and not ingest some bugs with it. We quickly finished, cleaned up, and “bugged” out so to speak!
Up to this point, we had yet to find anywhere desirable to camp for the night. It was too rugged, hilly and any semi-flat spots seemed to be in the vicinity of the areas with a little remaining water, all of which were bug infested and quite smelly places.
So we trudged on in search of a possible campsite and toward the next trail junction which was a way down and out in case we needed to end things. Around 6:00 pm we got to the junction of the trail we could escape on. Here we could have made a hasty camp on the trail and hope for the best and then continue onward in the morning. But I instead called the wife and requested an EVAC. We discussed our options and decided to head down the trail the 6 miles to the trailhead.
We figured we could do the 6 miles downhill in about 3 hours, which turned out to at least be a correct estimate in the end. This was some of the hardest 6 miles as we’d already been out for 9 hours in the heat and our bodies were both screaming for us to lie down and stop already.
In that 6 miles we were also contemplating every potential spot where we could stop and camp and still, the only places seemed to be right on the trail or bogs. So we decided to keep going using the thoughts of a soft bed and a bug-free night to push us along. Around 8:30 pm, we got to a switchback where there were about 2 miles left.
On the map, it looked as if the lower section of the trail was only a few feet below this switchback and we could take a “shortcut” to get there. It looked as though someone previously had made a trail so we headed down that. Unfortunately, the “trail” turned out to be a bad idea as it quickly ended a few hundred steep feet down, through deadfall, and some bushwhacking.
At this point, we both had no energy to try and get back up the steep slope. So we decided to try a sideways hike through the bush to get to the trail.
This got us almost nowhere as it was simply too steep and closed in to make much progress. We had both already fallen a few times and were on the verge of a mental breakdown. I finally spotted the trail a few hundred feet down and it looked like it was almost straight down below us. We had to slide on our backsides a few times to safely reach the trail and luckily there weren’t any serious rock cliffs.
Once down we thought we still had a few miles to go but luckily our near death off-trail experience had re-energized us ever so slightly. It turned out to be only about a half a mile from the trailhead from where we had come out.
When we arrived there was a perfect camping spot, of course, in a nice dry grassy field. I proceeded to essentially collapse and await our EVAC. The wife pulled in about 5 minutes later which would have brought me to tears had I any water left in my body. I imagine what we felt is remotely similar to what a soldier feels when the cavalry comes to the rescue.
- Know your gear – If you have a backpack load it up and try it out. Simply buying it and letting it sit idly serves no purpose. If you’ve loaded it to use as a BOB then you need to strap the thing on and walk a mile with it. That way you’ll know how it feels and if you need help, as clearly we did, in getting it set up and adjusted properly. The same goes for your water filter, stove, knife, firearm, and other gear. Use it and know its functions and abilities, become proficient.
- The Wilderness – It’s got the word “wild” in it for a reason. Be prepared for the bugs, heat, and rugged terrain. If you think you could bug out by simply hiking into the woods with your family and survive, well, you’re wrong. You’ve got to know the terrain and where water and campsites are. Otherwise, like us, you could be in for a long uncomfortable hike. Do your research and pre-locate camp and water on a map if possible. Mark distances and account for the weather with regards to the number of stops you’ll need for breaks and water.
- Backpacks – Apparently you need to know a few things when using one of these devices. I’m going to have to learn more about proper loading and adjustment of these things as we clearly couldn’t figure ours out. So my advice is to ask a local expert to help set yours up and tell you how to use the thousands of straps, buckles, loops, and gizmos on these things.
- Your Body – Let’s be serious here! Most of us American’s couldn’t hike a mile without getting winded. Simply put, if you take care of your body then it will take care of you. Get out and do day hikes with a partially loaded pack and work up to greater loads. There’s simply no way you will understand the effects a pack has on your ability to move unless you strap one on fully loaded and try it. Go explore your local wilderness and get to know it intimately. That could be the forest, the mountains, or the inner city. The more you know about the surrounding areas you live in the safer you’ll be. Plus all that exploring will hopefully get you into better shape.
- Hydration – It turned out that I was slightly dehydrated or had heat exhaustion as by the time we got home, I was shivering and feeling quite ill. You need to drink regularly and keep electrolytes in your system. Carry electrolyte tabs with you to make sure you never “feel” thirsty, and the day before a hike or athletic event make sure you drink plenty of water. What you drink today is used the next day.
- Shortcuts – Be aware that the trails were generally made to avoid hazards and to get from point A to B in the least amount of slope. Thus why all the switchbacks are there. But some trails as we all have encountered seem to be built by someone who’s a forest maze builder. So if you’re going to take a shortcut to avoid the misery ahead then make sure you know the hazards or at least able to see the trail you’re going to.
- Listen – There have been unconfirmed reports and rumors, that in some cases a wife’s advice has been known to be spot on. When your wife tells you something, try to listen to what she has to say. Maybe even do some additional research and such to show you did listen. This will make your wife happy and may get you some brownie points. Then, in the end, discount everything she said and do whatever you wanted anyway. How else is a man supposed to learn a life lesson? Also, make sure you allow her a self-gratifying “I told you so!” as she picks you up off the ground and helps you into the car.