More than a walk in the woods, deep wilderness exploration requires proper equipment and a desire to get back to nature.
By Tom & Joanne O’Toole
Walking in the woods, hiking, and backpacking may initially sound like the same activities, but the three actually have little in common. But each can be enjoyed by motorhomers, depending on one’s level of interest in exploring the great outdoors.
When someone says they’re going to take a walk to get close to nature, they might spend an hour trekking through a local park or nature center, or in the surrounding natural area if they happen to live in a rural setting. Equipment is not necessary, and comfortable shoes are usually sufficient.
Hiking is a little more serious, and can mean different things to different people. It is certainly more than just a walk, and might entail a morning, afternoon, or even all-day outing. However, hiking usually does not translate into staying overnight in the wild, or penetrating deep into uninhabited territory.
Walking in the woods and hiking represent different levels of exercise. For the woefully out of shape, a short walk along a nature trail might result in huffing and puffing. It can make them feel as though they had endured a 20-mile ordeal, as did many of our pioneer ancestors when they forged their way across the country.
Hikers usually have experience under their belts. They are outdoors-savvy and have the proper equipment to get them to their destination and back in a given time frame.
Hiking can involve tackling lengthy forest trails, climbing a hillside to sit on a ridge and enjoy the vista, or plodding along a riverbank for the better part of the day. It’s certainly more than just a walk along a park trail, near a pavilion where vending machines offer snacks and soft drinks.
The most rugged of the foot-weary breed are the backpackers. Most backpackers have gained experience over the years by first taking walks in the woods, moving on to basic hiking, and graduating to wilderness hiking and backpacking. These people have an appetite for the outdoors and are skilled at reaching a destination with a minimum of effort.
The frontier families who trudged their way westward were soaked to the skin by rain; covered bone-wearying distances; and spent nights in and under shelters that never knew waterproofing. Those hardy souls did their best to live off the land, but their main fare consisted of salt pork, jerked beef, and flour. They were lucky if they could build a fire, and the main source of fuel for cooking and warming their chilled bodies was “prairie coal” — dried buffalo dung.
But for all their ingenuity and know-how, the pioneers did not invent the original backpack — the Iroquois Indians did. They took a forked branch, formed it into a frame, and then affixed a strap that fastened around their heads for balance.
Today’s backpackers have it much easier. Methods for carrying gear become more efficient all the time. Modern frame packs are engineering marvels made of lightweight aluminum tubing and nylon material. They are perfectly balanced to fit the contour of one’s back, and take nearly all the weight off the shoulders and put it on the hips, where the backpack rests comfortably on a padded hip belt. The backpacks’ contoured shape holds them away from the back to allow air to circulate.
Serious daylong outings, overnighters, weekend excursions, and even longer adventures require planning and plenty of outdoor know-how.
The two most important items for comfortable backpacking are the pack and the boots. Buy the best quality you can for both. When you select your pack, remember that one with an exterior frame distributes the weight better and will hold more items. Before you make your purchase, be sure it is constructed of heavy water-repellent fabric, has ample pockets for all the things you’ll need, and has reinforced stitching at the stress points.
Top-of-the-line, lightweight, water-repellent hiking shoes are equally important for comfort. After you find the best ones for you, break them in well before you make that first long outing.
Every enthusiast has a list of personal items that he or she can’t live without when heading off to commune with Mother Nature. However, certain essentials should not be overlooked. These include a tent with a waterproof ground cloth or a plastic tarp with mosquito netting; a blanket for summer or a nylon sleeping bag for fall, winter, or spring; and foam rubber pads or an inflatable air mattress for sleeping comfort.
Other items you should include are sunscreen; sunglasses; waterproof matches or a lighter filled with fluid to start a fire; rain gear; a complete change of clothing (including socks and underwear); a first aid and snakebite kit; insect repellent; a signal mirror; coins, in case a pay phone is available; facial tissue and toilet tissue; a pocketknife; nylon cord; a needle and thread; safety pins; a small trowel; soap and a hand towel; your own cup, bowl, and spoon; and trash bags.
A nearly endless list of items can be carried to suit your personal needs, such as face cream, a wide-brimmed hat, water purifying tablets, an axe or hatchet, a small pair of pliers, and maybe a pair of canvas shoes. Of course, the equipment and supplies you’ll need will vary with the location you’ll be exploring, and the time of year.
Many of these personal items should be individually sealed in waterproof, zipper-style plastic bags. Most backpacks have numerous pockets in which to store such items.
Someone in your hiking group should carry a small one-burner cooking stove; utensils; food figured at the rate of 1-1/2 to 2 pounds per person per day; drinking water; a flashlight with an extra bulb and batteries; a compass; a map of the area; and any other special items you’ll use.
Don’t skimp on the essentials when heading out. If it seems like this list of personal and group items is big, keep in mind that modern sleeping bags are covered with nylon fabric and can be stuffed into a very small duffel bag. If you think a tent is too heavy, plastic sheeting with mosquito netting can be substituted. Some backpackers measure everything by precise weight, cutting towels in half, sawing off toothbrush handles, and measuring out just the right amount of high-energy food for each meal and putting it into individual plastic bags.
As for the weight a backpacker carries, the general rule of thumb is that one’s total pack and equipment should not weigh more than 20 to 25 percent of one’s body weight; the pack’s weight should be even less if it’s being carried by a beginner. When figuring the number of pounds you’ll carry, don’t forget other items, too, such as full canteens, the camera around your neck, and anything hanging off your belt. Total weight is more than just the weight of the filled frame pack itself.
When traversing the wilderness, never underestimate the terrain you’ll be covering. Do not go backpacking without letting someone know where you’ll be and how long you’ll be gone.
Hiking conditions are always different, not only because of changing topography, but because of varying climates. Some areas of the country are conducive to year-round hiking and backpacking; in others, fall and spring are the most popular seasons. Hot, humid summers can make some regions a real challenge.
Perhaps the most enjoyable times of year for hiking are spring and fall. Springtime brings the soft beauty of the hills, and the first blooms of the year in the valleys. It’s usually at its best from the middle of April to the end of May.
In the fall, Mother Nature drapes a quilt of colors across the slopes as leaves turn to yellows, reds, and browns, while the sun sparkles through the trees. Although seasonal colors vary around North America, fall color is usually at its peak from mid-September to the end of October.
It’s inadvisable to hike during hunting seasons, but if you feel you absolutely must, at least wear highly visible clothing (orange is best) and take extra precautions so you are not mistaken for game.
Outings are meant to bring you closer to nature, but drifting off the trail into rugged terrain can be hazardous. It is not adventuresome or clever to make your own trail — that is, unless you’re someplace where no trail exists. If you must forge your way, remember to cause the least possible damage to plants and wildlife.
Inexperienced hikers often make the mistake of trying to cover too many miles in a day. Hiking is meant to be enjoyable and relaxing, and trying to set a fast pace can result in your missing out on what you really wanted to accomplish in the first place. With group outings, everyone should agree on a pace that will be comfortable for the slowest member.
It’s always best to get a good weather report before heading out. If the weather becomes inclement, the best way to stay warm is to be dressed in alternate layers of wool and cotton. Wool stays warm even when wet, and cotton fabrics ventilate to keep you cool.
Wearing two pairs of socks will minimize the friction in your boots. Put thin cotton socks on first (next to your skin) and then don a heavy wool pair. Always carry extra socks, as they must be completely dry to prevent blisters and other foot maladies.
Netting is helpful if you are in mosquito country, and a tent can literally be a lifesaver if it is windy, cold, raining, or snowing.
Hazards of hiking, and even more so with wilderness backpacking, include snakes, spiders, ticks, chiggers, poison ivy, and more, especially during the summer. Because potable water is not always available, you must carry your own or bring water purifying products and a container. Water also may be purified by boiling.
If you plan to spend the night in the woods, locate your campsite on bare soil at least 100 feet away from a streambed and from trails. In rainy areas, find a well-drained spot; it will keep you from having to dig a trench around your tent.
There is no garbage collection in the wild. You must pack out bottles, cans, foil, and other trash. Burying such debris is not acceptable. For human waste, dig a small hole about a foot deep and at least 100 feet from open water. If possible, keep the sod intact. After use, fill the hole with loose soil, and tamp down the sod on top.
Special care must be taken with campfires. To extinguish a campfire, douse it with water, turn the sticks and ashes, then soak it a second time, making sure the embers are completely out.
As much as you might like your dog’s companionship, give others (and yourself) a break by leaving it at home. Pets can scare away wildlife and prevent you from seeing many (if any) wild creatures on your trip. And regardless of how well-behaved Fido might be at home, you don’t know how your canine might react to an unforeseen situation in the wild that could cause it serious harm. Your dog might also threaten other people, to say nothing of fouling their campsites.
So, what’s left? Just enjoy the experience itself. If you’re an old hand at this, you’ll be heading off to explore new terrain. If this is to be your first trip, you’re in for lots of fun and excitement.
Whether you get to see a lush mountainside, witness a trickling waterfall, or simply appreciate the balance between woods, water, and wildlife, wilderness hiking and backpacking provide an intangible yet heady sense of accomplishment. And that’s reward enough.