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11 Tips for Backpacking (Especially If You've Never Gone Before)

Get out there!
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I was thirteen when I went on my first backpacking trip, a month-long trek through the Salmon River Valley, Idaho on a NOLS course. My family wasn't particularly outdoorsy (an understatement!) so the trip was my first time camping or spending any extended period outside. From the moment I hitched my forty-pound pack onto my shoulders, I loved everything about it: the unimaginable density of the stars, the self-sufficiency, and joy/fear that comes from being completely vulnerable to the elements. Since then, I've gone on a number of backpacking trips that have taken me to some of the most beautiful spots imaginable, but a recent trek along the forty-one mile Timberline Trail that encircles Mt. Hood was among my favorite and most challenging. When I posted about the trip to my Instagram, I received so many questions that a post was inevitable! Below are my tips for backing: 

1. Prepare carefully for your trip.

Okay, this is really ten tips rolled in one but it's really, really important because once you're out there, you're on your own. Even on a popular trail that seems relatively risk-free, Mother Nature can mess with you (see below). Before leaving, make, follow, and double check all of your items against a thorough packing list*—here's mine. It's also worth checking AllTrails before you go, where hikers who went before you list helpful tips, from bugginess to the difficulty of river crossings, weather, and tips for specific campsites. The night before you leave, send an email to family and friends, telling them where you plan to camp each night. In the event that something goes really wrong, they'll know where to send help. 

*The Timberline Trail intersects with the PCT, which made our stuffed packs feel hilariously like overkill. We met "Rhapsody" and "Neddie of the Three Amigos" (PCT-ers use trail names) who were hiking without stoves or tents... I repeat: no stove or tent! 

2. Nature is powerful—trust your instincts and always be prepared to bail. 

The Timberline Trail has a number of challenging river crossings, but there was one in particular that we were nervous about: The Eliot Branch. When we were a few miles out from it, we began asking hikers coming our way about their experience, and best points to cross. Many reported the same thing: Cross at the rope line and expect it to be difficult, but no higher than your waist. By the time we arrived, two hours later, the river was much higher and stronger, as glacial rivers rise later in the day when the sun causes more water to melt from the glacier. We watched a group of six people cross, with enormous difficulty, at the point we'd been recommended—up to their necks, in a situation that looked far from safe. We found a point higher upstream, and crossed with three other people, linking arms and leaning our weight into the river. Our crossing was incredibly dangerous and, it's really no exaggeration to say, life-threatening, but we made it across due to the strength and leadership of the people we were with. A few hours later, we ran into two women who planned to cross even later that day. We gave them the answer they didn't want to hear: Don't cross. 

Decisions that prioritize safety are often inconvenient—they could mean camping an extra night and missing work on Monday, or adding several miles to an already long day—but nature is stronger than you are. Had the river been any higher, we would have had to hike back two miles, to a safe place to camp, before crossing it the next day. Far from ideal, but potentially life-saving.

3. Be kind to other hikers—you may rely on them down the trail. 

A few hours after we crossed the river, we hiked to the highest point on the Timberline Trail, a barren ridge on the Eastern face that then gradually descends along a treeless ridge that is completely open to the elements. When we reached the ridge, we experienced wind strong enough to make every step forward difficult. It was one of my absolute favorite parts of the trip—truly amazing, in every sense of the word—but also incredibly scary. Our group of four walked in a tight line with two other women on the trail, who I didn't even learn the names of until miles later. Even on a highly trafficked, relatively "easy" hike, things happen. You have to be prepared to rely on strangers (as we did at the river) or be relied on (as we were on the ridge). 

4. Follow Leave No Trace (LNT) guidelines. 

There is nothing worst than arriving at a trashed campground—make the experience better for everyone by leaving a place better than you found it!

5. Wear sunscreen. 

Not to sound like Baz Luhrmann here, but wear sunscreen, especially at altitude. You may be freezing cold, while your skin is getting fried. 

6. Test your gear a few nights before.

A few days before your trip (i.e., with plenty of time for an REI run), set up your tent, blow up your Thermarest, turn on your headlamps, and test out your gear. The night before we left on our trip, we discovered that the elasticity in our tentpoles had gone away seemingly overnight—which would not have been fun to discover en route.

7. Always buy a double-serving of backpacking food.

800 calories for dinner may sound like a lot, but when you're crossing rivers and hopping over downed trees for 13-miles, you'll discover that it feels more like a snack. For that reason, I personally recommend always buying the two-serving backpacking meals. (Good To-Go makes some of my favorites, and I find that the rice-based meals are often the most delicious!)

8. Pack sandwiches for the first night's dinner.

The first day can feel hard, the same way the first mile of a ten-mile run can be the most difficult—your body is getting used to the physical challenge. I highly recommend packing yourself something like a glorious Italian sub for the first night, so you don't even have to turn on your burner or JetBoil.

9. Bring a variety of snack foods. 

When backpacking, I prefer snack-style lunches of jerky, nuts, and other salty handfuls. Just be sure to pack a variety so you don't get sick of any one flavor. Switch things up between BBQ sunflower seeds, lime plantain chips, Ranch-flavored cashews. You get the picture! 

Also important: Don't forget to pack treats. We have an annual tradition of visiting National Parks with Jonah's mom, who brings mixes of M&Ms in every variety, from crispy to dark, peanut, pretzel, and peanut butter. These mixes are the best backpacking dessert, especially since they don't melt.

10. Bring hiking poles, for river crossings and hiking.

The Timberline Trail was my first time bringing hiking poles and, lemme tell ya, they are game-changers. I can't imagine having done the river crossings without them—they make it easier to both balance on rocks and find stability when walking through the rushing water. They also help enormously with redistributing pack weight when hiking.

11. Enjoy the time unplugged!

Being immersed fully in nature feels like a massage for the brain. Use your phone sparingly for photos and enjoy it!

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