This summer, I developed a strong desire to spend some time in the wilderness. Real adventure that gets me out of my comfort zone. (For the record, I had done one real, adventurous, very legit camping trip in Alaska when I was in high school, but I was along for the ride with some camping experts and didn’t do any of the planning, so it didn’t feel like that counted.) So bought a bunch of stuff at REI, researched online, and planned a short, beginner backpacking trip for my husband and our dog in Shenandoah National Park. Of course it rained on the planned weekend and we had to cancel our adventure. A few weeks later, I did some camping in Wyoming at formal campsites and really loved sleeping outdoors, but I didn’t want winter to arrive without having done a real backpacking trip. So I somehow persuaded my wonderful husband to head out in much colder weather than originally anticipated (it was now October instead of August!) for a backpacking trip. We survived! Even with just one little weekend trip, I’ve already learned a ton, and I wanted to share it with other aspiring adventurers. Without further ado:
(10) Get a lightweight tent that is easy to set up. I did a fair amount of research before buying my tent, trying to balance ease of use, price, and weight. I ended up with an REI Passage 2 ($159; 5 lbs, 5 oz all in) and I cannot recommend it enough. My mom and I did a test run of setting it up before we went to Yellowstone and it was shockingly easy. When I showed my husband how to set it up in Shenandoah, he said it was the easiest tent he’d ever used. It was incredibly windy when we were camping, which made me really nervous. There had been no wind in Yellowstone, and I wasn’t sure if I’d set up the tent securely enough (or if it was built securely enough) to withstand the gusts. Turns out, it was a-OK. Also, there was plenty of space inside, even with the pup, and there are some pockets to hold important go-to items like headlamps (we use Petzl Tikkas). The top half is very open mesh if you want to see the stars and let in air without the rainfly (we did that in Yellowstone), or put on the included rainfly to protect from the elements a bit more (we did that in Shenandoah).
(9) Invest in a warm, compressible sleeping bag. Don’t forget a sleeping pad. Again, I had done a fair amount of research into the best sleeping bag for our needs. I wanted a bag that would keep me warm but also one that wouldn’t take up too much room in my pack. I ended up getting the REI Igneo ($300) (EN Lower Limit 19 degrees; 1 lb, 13 oz.; down) and I got my husband the REI Lumen ($159; EN Lower Limit 20 degrees; 2 lbs, 8 oz.; synthetic). In addition to my husband using the Lumen in Shenandoah, my mom also used the Lumen during our camping trip in Wyoming. Both of these have kept us reasonably warm in approximately 35 degree nights, when we also wore jackets, socks, etc. I’ve been impressed with the packability/compressibility of both bags. The biggest difference between the two is that the Igneo is made from real down with the Lumen is synthetic. This means that the Igneo is a little lighter than the Lumen. You can see a discussion of tips for choosing a bag and the pros and cons of each filling here. Regardless of how much you spend on your sleeping bag, you won’t stay warm and you probably won’t be very comfortable unless you also use a sleeping pad. We’ve used Klymit Static V Lightweight Sleeping Pads, which weigh 18.1 oz and which I found for less than $50 each on Amazon. They only have an R-Value of 1.3, so I might upgrade at some point to something that provides better insulation and maybe is a little more uniform in fill rather than having ridges, but the Static V has worked OK so far. You might also want to bring something to use as a pillow — my mom and my husband both really needed something under their heads to sleep comfortably while camping.
(7) Trust that your dog is probably warm enough. Check for ticks. To avoid having to find a babysitter, and for enhanced mother-dog bonding, we decided to bring our dog on our backpacking trip. When we were planning on going in the summer, my biggest concern was bringing enough water and making sure we didn’t do a hike that was too intense for him in the heat. When our plans changed to October, my new concern was that he was going to get cold in the middle of the night when the temperature dropped to about 40 degrees. I brought a little vest for him but unfortunately I had forgotten that it was a puppy-sized vest and no longer fit him. I draped it over him but it was clear that wasn’t a long term solution. So I decided I was going to spoon with him in my sleeping bag. This was a mistake. He cooperated for a while, but the shoulder of the arm under him was absolutely dying. I had, after all, been carrying a pack for 6 miles that day, and I had lifted weights the day before. I couldn’t get myself comfortable while also keeping the dog in the bag with me. After what felt like hours of holding the dog and being unable to sleep because of my shoulder and the crazy wind, the dog got up and moved to a spot out of the bag, between our feet, where he stayed balled up for the rest of the night. I could finally lie comfortably. I checked my watch and it was something ridiculous like 10 pm. I could have sworn it was 5 am and I had been lying there in agony for 7 hours. Anyway, sleeping was much easier after that. Moral of the story: pack appropriately for your dog, and trust them to let you know if they are too cold. On a related note, my dog had approximately one million ticks on him after our hike, despite being treated with a tick and flea treatment. Really though, during the car ride home, I pulled about five surface-level ticks that hadn’t latched on to him. That was easy enough but I was still worried about others. We ended up giving him a shave when we got home, so that we could check him better, and we only found one more. But that’s six ticks total! Say that five times fast…
(6) Avoid pyrotechnics and molecular gastronomy your first time backpacking. Although many formal campsites (such as those I used in Yellowstone) have fire pits for campfires, Shenandoah National Park does not allow backcountry fires of any kind. Camp stoves are permitted, but we haven’t yet made that investment and wanted to avoid the extra complication of carrying that equipment, bringing and cleaning utensils, etc. I think this was a good strategy for our first time. So you might be wondering what to eat if you aren’t going to be heating anything up. Good question. I kept it simple. Before going on the trip, I made some “granola cookies” (which I made up) out of the following:
- pulverized oats (using the blender)
- banana puree from 2 bananas (again, in the blender)
- 2 eggs
- a bunch of butter
- some semisweet chocolate chips (minis worked well)
- unsalted peanuts, cashews, walnuts, and sunflower seeds
- baking soda
- unsweetened shredded coconut
These babies had no added sugar (just the banana and chocolate chips), and lots of fiber and protein. We put them in a big ziploc baggie and dropped them in the bear canister (see discussion of that below). Would I have wanted to eat these for 4 days straight? Probably not. But they were pretty damn good for afternoon snack, dinner, and breakfast during our hike. Another good option: the food of the trail gods, PBJ.
(5) Bring emergency water options. We each brought a Nalgene of water and I packed one additional backup water bottle that I kept in the bottom of my pack. This was plenty for us for the <24 hours we were out, even considering that we shared with our dog. But we also brought a Lifestraw just in case. I recommend bringing a filter or some water treatment tabs on your first trip, even if you don’t plan to use them. Read the instructions before you head out to make sure you feel comfortable using whatever method you choose.
(4) Bring entertainment. Probably the biggest mistake we made when going on our first backpacking trip was not bringing any entertainment for in the tent after the sun went down. We were tired, but going to sleep at 7 pm in the outdoors is not the easiest thing to do. We ended up each reading separately, but I think it would have been fun to have been prepared with some sort of game on our iPads or even cards. Think a little bit about this before you head out on your trip. Relatedly… bring a portable charger for your phone, iPads, etc. Even though we didn’t have cell service in Shenandoah, we used battery power taking pictures, so we were happy to have the option to charge our phones.
(3) Don’t worry about covering a lot of terrain. My husband and I are very comfortable hiking — we’ve done a 14er and are comfortable hiking 10 miles or more at a time. I mean, I do run marathons! But we decided to choose a more moderate hike for our first backpacking trip. Remember, you have a big pack on your back, and you probably won’t sleep that well in the woods — cold, holding your dog, listening for rabid animals, with roots digging into your back and your head unsupported… We did a loop that was about 6 miles the first day and 5 miles the second day, with a good amount of climbing (trail rated moderate/strenuous). I think this was a good distance for us to start with — not totally dying, but we felt like we got some nice hiking out of the trip and earned our granola cookies.
(2) Be smart about wildlife (aka BEARS). By far the #1 scary thing about backpacking has to be the animals, amiright? (Crazy men comes in at a close second for me…) We had our small dog with us, so I had this feeling of not only protecting myself from wildlife, but I also had to worry about this little, adorable potential prey. The first thing I did to address the animal situation was buy a bear canister, which despite the name, protects your food and scented items from inquisitive species of all types. These are highly recommended by park officials at Shenandoah. In some other parks, they are required. I went with the Backpacker’s Cache canister, which I got for $70 on Amazon. This was plenty, plenty big for us, even with all of our scented items — our cookies, our dog food, cleansing wipes, etc. If you only plan on doing very short trips with two or three people, consider the smaller Bear Vault product. Store the canister a good distance from your camp (at least 100 feet; they are bear-proof, not scent-proof!). Additional bear canister tips available here. Never bring food or other scented items into your tent, and if you do cook, be sure your “kitchen” is also a good distance from your tent. We did not take bear spray with us into Shenandoah, but I would have brought it with me if backcountry camping in grizzly country.
(1) Talk to the park officials. The folks manning the phones at the Shenandoah welcome center were incredibly helpful in planning my trip — they gave tips on which trails were best for dogs, which stream crossings would be OK and which might be running high, how to best use the bear canister, what parking lots were likely to fill up, where to fill out a backcountry permit, etc. etc. Don’t be shy — give them a call before your trip and use this invaluable resource!
Hope this is helpful! What are your best lessons or tips for backcountry camping???