The One-Page Backpacker's Guide

By Carl Uebelhart

March 14, 2014—Over millennia empires have risen and fallen. Scientists have brought us a greater understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. Philosophers and artists have expanded our cultural vocabulary as we attempt to explain existence. A staggering amount of dedication, sacrifice, and old-fashioned hope have brought us to where we are, imperfect though it may be.

And you want to pack up all the shit you'll need for days and walk into the woods, cut off from the internet, friends and family, single-origin espresso at Verve, and sitcoms waiting on Netflix? Fuck yeah.

It can be daunting, but there's nothing quite like waking up in the backcountry. Getting away from it all and simply being, then carrying a piece of that back home, can put the rest of life in perspective. By disconnecting from the day-to-day, you can get in touch with just being human.

Where to Start?

Let's make the best of science and technology, even as we seemingly turn our back on it.

With gear, there's a tradeoff between comfort, price and weight, and the sweet spot is dependent on intent. Traditional gear tends to be simpler and cheaper, but bulkier and heavier (think a car-camping tent vs. a tarp-and-trekking-pole combo). That'll give you a pack that weighs 40 to 50 pounds. Light is where I like to be—35 pounds or less—which means fairly expensive gear that gets you most of the comforts of a traditional setup. Two-pound tents, 750-fill down bags, minimal luxuries / clothing, hand-made stoves. Ultralighters, who carry packs that weigh less than 25 pounds, are their own breed and worship at the altar of ounces with their thigh-length sleeping pads, bless them.

So what should you aim for? Depends on who you are.

The Weekender. Since you're not carrying much food it's easier to aim for either a truly ultralight setup, or just scrounge together used traditional gear. It depends on how hard you want to work, or how badly you want that roomy tent. You'll generally have the most balanced approach in terms of price to weight, and might not even need to pick up things like a stove (eat raw/cold), or a shelter (depending on climate).

The Basecamper. Tie on a folding chair, a fishing pole, multiple camera lenses, some drawing supplies, that copy of War and Peace collecting dust, a bottle of whiskey, an aeropress, or whatever makes you happy—you've only got a one-day hike in to the lake (generally) where you'll set up base camp to lounge at or explore from at your leisure. Don't stress too much if that super comfy sleeping pad is a few more ounces.

The Deep Backcountry / Thru-Hiker. Maybe you're doing the JMT, PCT, or just a WTF. This is where the gear gets expensive. When you're carrying that week's worth of food, suddenly that extra pound on your tent feels like ten. Buy the best or second-best product out there, make an alcohol stove, trim extra straps, etc. You're gonna be washing your socks in streams.

PS: Winter vs. Three-Season. In the Alpine this translates to late spring to late fall, but West Coastal trips are three-season year round. Go Cali! Basically, unless you're going to be camping in snow, you want three season.

Let's Go Shopping

In terms of specifics your best bet is to go to an outdoors store and chat with the knowledgable folks that work there (Down Works right near Downtown Santa Cruz has an awesome hand-picked selection of boutique gear and handy charts, if you can hang with their technical attitude). If you're antisocial or truly hardcore, you could peruse internet forums. That said there's some common issues and solutions:

"I'm cold at night!"

You bought a bag rated at 32F, because, hey, it really doesn't get below freezing on the coast that often, right? A bag rating is not a guarantee you'll be toasty. A bag rating tells you that you might be shivering and miserable, but you'll live. If you're a cold sleeper and generally want an extra blanket at home, get a bag rated a ~20F lower than what you think you'll need. This can be pricey when you're worried about weight, but having to stagger around for miles after a poor nights sleep sucks.

You decided to be frugal and use your yoga mat or a foam pad you found in your parent's garage? No. Even for three-season camping I'd recommend a pad rated at least R3.2. It doesn't matter how warm your bag is if the cold ground is leeching your warmth away.

Long underwear can make a noticeable difference. You'll want them in the morning anyways if the sun is obscured by a ridge. More useful than a bag liner in that respect.

Although there are nights I sleep under the stars, I always carry a proper tent. (Granted, it's a $400 proper tent because it weights two pounds, but I spend at least a month a year in the deep backcountry of Yosemite.) A tent gives you an extra few degrees of warmth, and protects you from rain, mosquitoes, and wind. Even if you're not 10,000 feet up with 20-25 mph gusts of wind blowing, you might want something between you and the night.

"The food is too expensive!"

Get creative; you don't need $12 freeze-dried meals. Nearly all microwavable foods work great in the backcountry: mac 'n cheese, bulk dried soup mixes, Pasta Sides, ramen, cous cous, etc. Stroganoff Pasta Sides plus tuna is a favorite with old timers in Yosemite. Accent your meals with some olive oil (yay two-ounce Nalgene containers) and mixed spices (0.5oz). For protein, bulk TVP is the bomb, or you can get tuna (pay a bit more for the foil pouches vs cans). Pick your favorite brand of instant oatmeal for breakfast, and you're left with lunches (GORP, energy bars, PB&??). The first day or two of a trip can have perishable luxuries.

If you don't want to buy an expensive, light-weight stove, build one for free. I built this variation on the Roy Robinson Cat Stove and the Sgt. Rock Cat Stove. And for a windscreen/heat reflector I took a knife to a foil baking pan from a supermarket. On a six-night trip, with six full pot dinners (soup, rice sides, pasta) and breakfasts of double oatmeal packets plus cocoa I used less than nine ounces of fuel. Half the dinners were cook-in-pot vs just-add-water.

I guess you could buy a white-gas/naptha Whisperlite, or a butane-fuel pocket rocket. But the Whisperlite is heavy (it was named in the early '70s), and butane containers do not belong in the backcountry IMHO. Trangia stoves are an option for the non-DIY inclined, and come with a few bells and whistles.

"It's not comfortable!"

This is a mix of physical condition and gear. Throwing money at gear helps, but throwing gear out can help just as much or more. Aside from the clothes I'm wearing, I generally pack a pair of wool or silk long johns, one pair of normal underwear, one or two pairs of socks (dependent on weather and length of trip), a long-sleeve synthetic T-shirt sprayed with 100-percent DEET (UV resistance and mosquito protection), a lightweight synthetic down jacket, and a rain jacket that doubles as a wind blocker and outer layer for when I need the extra warmth. If I expect rain I'll pack rain pants.

I'd recommend fully loading up your pack before you head out and walking around in it to test the fit and feel, ideally taking it for a short trip. A good general rule is that if you don't use something don't take it with you the next time, barring first aid / repair related items.

Break in your boots by getting in a dayhike or two. Are your toes ok after some sustained downhill? Are there any hotspots? If so can you just moleskin or duct tape your foot? Stiffer shoes benefit from soaking them before walking so they'll mold to your feet.

There's no shame in picking a short trip or one with less elevation gain. Some of my favorite hikes are really easy.

Go with a friend! Not only is it safer and more social, but you can split communal gear (cooking, shelter) to save individual weight.

Hot cocoa can provide immense emotional relief.

This Was Fun and All, But What About the Lists?

If you want to totally geek out, here is my personal gear list.

Here's REI's Guide to the Ten Essentials.

Be overwhelmed with graphs and opinions at Backpacking Light.

And there's a lot more information here.

Carl Uebelhart winters in the gentle embrace of Santa Cruz, and spends his summers traipsing about in the High Sierra and the Pacific Northwest.