I reached the summit of Sassafras Mountain around noon on the sixth day of my backpacking trip on upstate South Carolina’s 77-mile Foothills Trail. When I emerged from the woods and climbed onto the viewing deck, a woman was there with her husband and two small children.
She stared at me with extreme curiosity as I took off my backpack. I’m sure I looked a little frazzled too as I was tired, sweaty, and dirty.
“Didn’t you know you could just drive up here?” she asked in jest with a friendly smile.
She was right. There is a much easier way to get to the Palmetto state’s highest peak. An air-conditioned car can get you all the way to the top.
“Really?” I joked in return. “And I’ve been walking all week to get here?” We both laughed.
What I really wanted to tell her was that even though it may not look like it, my week had been wonderful. My sweat and grime were gladly earned in the splendor of nature. I had experienced remote wilderness with numerous amazing waterfalls and spanning vistas. I had seen beautiful wildflowers and wildlife. I had walked the first three days with the odd sensation of not seeing or speaking to another human being. And I had slept alone every night, under the stars, next to pristine streams.
These are the days that stay with you for a lifetime. And it is the kind of adventure that allows you to expand your horizons and uncover what you are really made of.
If you want a true wilderness experience beyond car camping or day-hiking, backpacking is where you can find it. There is a profound freedom in setting out and surviving in nature with only the essentials of life on your back.
This article is meant to give you insight on how to start out without making some of the initial mistakes I made.
Backpacking is a very individualistic pursuit. There is no exact or correct way of doing it. For that reason, it’s important not to jump headfirst into buying gear without knowing what you may or may not like. Will you sleep more comfortable in a tent or a hammock? Will you be warm enough in a 35-degree sleeping bag on most spring nights? Will you prefer to filter your water or chemically treat it?
These are but a few of the questions that take some time to figure out for yourself. Consult with local outfitters, do your research, and borrow gear from friends if possible so you can try different things.
Weight is everything
Another aspect to consider when putting together your gear is its overall weight. Weight is everything in backpacking, and I feel it is something you don’t quite realize the importance of when you are starting out. If your pack is too heavy you will not have an enjoyable time. I cannot stress this enough.
There is a fine balancing act between luxury at camp, overall safety, and comfortable walking/carrying gear during the day. There will be many items you will think you initially need, but you’ll end up realizing they are not worth the weight. Don’t rush out and buy all those little gadgets.
However, especially on basic items like a backpack, sleeping bag, and tent, I recommend purchasing the lightest gear you can afford, without sacrificing quality. Not doing this was the first mistake I made when starting out.
Go with an experienced friend
If you have an experienced backpacking friend, ask to tag along so they can be your initial guide. I find solo backpacking very rewarding, but a skilled friend in the early days can be invaluable, fun, and safer until you develop your own abilities.
In addition, sleeping alone deep in the woods for the first time can be a little daunting. Sounds are amplified at night, and a squirrel can sound like a bear. Having a friend in an adjacent tent will be more comforting during those initial nights in the wilderness.
Practice your skills at home
There are numerous skills that you’ll want to perfect at home before you hit the trail. Don’t wait until you get to camp to learn how to cook on your backpacking stove. Practice hanging a bear bag in your backyard. Learn how to pack your backpack efficiently and in the most comfortable manner. Practice … practice … practice.
Make a checklist
And check it twice before heading out. Forgetting to pack a simple item can make your trip much more difficult or even ruin it. Yes, I have forgotten a fire starter (lighter), a spoon, and the repair kit for my air-filled sleeping pad. Forgetting these small items made my trips far more difficult.
Choose an easy first location
My suggestion is to gently transition into backpacking at a local National Forest campground like Rock Creek Park in Erwin, Backbone Rock near Damascus, or Dennis Cove Campground near Hampton.
You can practice living out of your backpack, while still having those safety amenities and your car nearby. During the day, you can pack your backpack and walk the hiking trails to get a feeling for carrying the weight through the woods.
Once you are comfortable with your skills, here are a couple of locations I think would be great for branching out:
Beginner/one night: Hike in on the Hampton Blue-blaze Trail and camp in one of many campsites along the Laurel Fork Stream. This is three to five miles of mostly level-grade hiking. Retrace back to the car the following morning.
Intermediate/one night: Backpack the scenic Roan Highlands on the Appalachian Trail from Carvers Gap to US 19E. Fifteen miles total. Point-to-point hike, so a shuttle is required. Numerous campsites and water sources available.
Intermediate/one night: Backpack my favorite loop in the Grayson Highlands. Twelve miles utilizing the A.T. and the Pine Mountain Trail. Camp at The Scales with a good water source and primitive restrooms. Reservations via the State Park are currently required.