Ok, so you have your gear together and you’ve tested it and everything looks pretty good. What’s next?
Before heading into the backcountry there are several things you need to keep in mind. First and foremost – you are leaving civilization behind. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget when you’re sitting in your living room and there’s a ‘fridge full of food ten steps away in the kitchen. Where you’re going there is no electricity. If you’re hiking off trail there probably won’t be any signs or blaze marks to follow like on the AT. (Even then it’s remarkably easy to walk off the trail.) There’s no hospitals or pay phones to call a cab for a ride home. There probably won’t be any cell phone reception where you’re going. If there is it’s likely to be spotty at best. You may see wild animals that might not be friendly.
I’m not trying to dissuade you from going, but I do want to press home the fact that whatever you have on you is what you’ll have. Choose your gear carefully.
Here’s the key to being alone in the wilderness: You need to be self sufficient.
More on that later.
Hiking in the backcountry is hard work. Here in Maine there are lots of hills, mountains, rivers and streams, and dense forests to negotiate. As you’re hiking you might find yourself climbing a 4000 foot mountain one day and trying to figure out how to cross a river the next morning. Carrying a pack up a big hill is tough if you haven’t been training for it.
You need to be physically fit in order to do this or you will suffer when you get out there. One of the best ways to get in shape for hiking is – you guessed it – hiking. Put your pack on and walk between three and five miles a day. This will get you used to your pack, carrying weight, and moving it over long distances. Just remember that there’s a big difference between walking on the side of a road and trying to push through a stand of fir trees in the middle of the forest.
Depending on where you are animals can fall into several different categories from “Aww ain’t he cute,” to “Oh my God! He’s huge!”
First of all respect all wild life. Do NOT approach a wild animal. The term wild means just that. You don’t know how they’ll react. Trying to walk up to a wolverine is a very different experience than trying to pat your kitty cat. Most wildlife wants nothing to do with you and it’s a good idea to leave them along.
If you’re not sure what kind of animals are out where you’re going do a Google search or better yet, talk to someone who’s been there. Here in Maine we have to watch out for black bear, moose, coyotes, and a bunch of other mild to medium threat animals depending on the time of the year and other environmental circumstances. If a guide tells you not to get between a mother bear and her cub don’t do it. He’s telling you that for a reason. Learn as much as you can about the area you’re hiking into before going there.
One of the toughest things about being in the backcountry is navigating from point A to point B. First of all there are many geographical features that will keep you from walking a straight line. Mountains, hills, streams, rivers, lakes, and dense forest all conspire to make you get lost.
I’ve provided some good information on navigating with a map and compass. Click the link and check it out.
Preparing for the Trip
There are different things you need to take into account when getting your pack ready for a trip out to the bush.
Food: You need to know how much food to take. What I do is figure out how many calories I’m burning during the day and break that
up into three meals plus snacks while I’m walking.
For example: If I’m burning 3000 calories a day I’ll probably have a small breakfast, then eat various bars and GORP while walking. Then lunch is usually, but not always, something quick that I don’t have to heat up. Dinner is usually my biggest meal because I have more time to prepare it and am usually hungriest at
that time. Food is the fuel you use to walk and it’s important that you eat well. Chances are good that you’ll lose weight on an extended hike, so be prepared to tighten your belt as you go.
You have to stay hydrated. Water is one of the most important things you can have in the wilderness, so make an extra effort to obtain good drinking water. Unfortunately, water is also very heavy, so you have to find a good balance. Here in Maine there are tons of streams, lakes, rivers and ponds around, so getting water while I’m out hiking is usually pretty easy.
Generally you don’t want to drink untreated water. I usually purify mine using a Katadyn water filer, but you can also use different types of chemicals or you can boil it. Boiling is the best way to kill all the germs in the water, but I’ve never had a problem with filtered water.
I was canoeing with Mrs. Jarhead one time and came up to a beaver dam where thousands of fish had been caught and died. They were rotting right there in the river and maggots and pieces of dead fish were being washed down river. I’ve also been hiking in deep woods and came across a moose carcass that was lying partially in a stream I’d been getting water from. It’s always a good idea to purify your water before drinking!
I usually keep at least two quarts on me and refill every chance I get. For those of you living in more arid parts of the country you’ll
probably want to carry more, but I don’t have enough experience hiking in that part of the country to give advice. (Anybody out there want to chime in on this?)
After you have your gear together it’s time to go out for a short trip. Maybe just an over nighter or perhaps a weekend in the hills or forests close by to where you live. Three or four smaller trips will help you build up the confidence you need for a larger trip. Experience trumps all! You can lose gear, have your food stolen by bears, or whatever fate throws at you, but if you have knowledge and experience you won’t panic and can turn a potentially bad situation into merely an uncomfortable trip. See the difference?
Earlier we talked about being self sufficient in the woods. If you follow the general guidelines I’ve laid out here as far as gear, food, water, navigation, and respecting (and enjoying) nature, you should be headed in the right direction. Do some short trips and figure out what gear works and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to throw something that’s not useful or worth it’s weight in your pack.
Anybody ever read Ender’s Game? One of the core concepts in the book is that he’s on his own. He’s trained in such a way he know’s that nobody will ever come to his aid. If you take that mindset out into the bush with you it will help you become a better backwoodsman. I’ve read news stories of people climbing mountains here in Maine then calling the forest rangers to come get them because they were too tired to walk down.
Know what the rangers said? “No.”
If you go out there with the idea that nobody is going to bail you out if you get in trouble (they probably won’t) you’ll be much better prepared to handle it on your own.
I was going to write this as a three part series, but I think I need to do at least one more. In the next post I’ll talk about setting up a tent or camp, getting firewood and processing it and other camp related chores.
Sound off below!
I’ve shared some pictures throughout the post of some of the hikes I’ve been on some of the things I’ve seen out there. If you’ve never been backcountry camping what are you waiting for? Get out there!