I’ve been home from my Colorado backpacking trip for a few weeks now, so I’ve had some time to reflect on all the things that I’ve learned.
Most people’s first backpacking trips are usually rewarding, yet very educational experiences. You learn things about yourself, the people you are with, and the environment in which you are. You will probably also discover whether or not that $400 rain jacket was worth it or not. (It was.) So here are a few things I’ve learned from my first (but hopefully not last) backcountry backpacking trip:
- Your pack will inevitably be heavier than you anticipate. I was planning on my pack weighing around 35 pounds. It ended up being just under 50. FML. Most of the weight came from food and snacks, but I was told not to skimp on food since there was obviously no grocery store I could go to if I ran out. I actually ended up with the perfect amount of backpacking meals, but I could have done with probably half of the snacks that I brought (energy chews, granola bars, electrolyte tablets, etc.). I brought a seemingly large amount of clothing, but I actually used pretty much every item of clothing, except the extra long sleeve shirt.
- Pack everything in waterproof dry bags. A lot of my stuff got wet the first day we hiked and pretty much stayed wet the rest of the week. It rained almost every day we were there, and if it wasn’t raining, it was usually pretty overcast. Not the best kind of weather for drying wet clothing. I thought maybe if I brought the damp stuff in my tent overnight it would be somewhat dry in the morning, but no. I’m pretty sure the condensation from the tent made everything even more damp. I had one dry bag, but I was using it to hang all my food from the tree. Definitely could have used like 5 more of those.
- ALWAYS wear sun protection when hiking at higher altitudes. I was warned about the sun and how much easier it is to burn at higher altitudes. It makes sense. Being at 12,000 feet above sea level you are obviously closer to the sun and more prone to the sun’s harmful rays. I was really good and lathered up with sunscreen every day, made sure to wear a hat, and brought plenty of long-sleeved shirts for protection. On the second day of hiking, however, I had a serious lapse in judgment. It was a partly cloudy day with the sun going in and out of the clouds. I took my hat off because it was impeding my views (it was a little big on me and kept sliding down my forehead). It was only off for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, but I ended up pretty much frying my scalp. I was putting sunscreen on my face every half an hour or so, but I never thought about my head. I have so much thick, wavy hair that I’ve never really had a problem with it, but I guess when you’re that high up you have to be even more careful. Lesson learned.
- Invest in a sturdy pair of waterproof boots and a good rain jacket. It rained A LOT in Colorado. I think the seven days we were there, there was maybe one day where we didn’t run into any rain. And it usually wasn’t just rain. It was hail and sleet and wind and thunderstorms. I somehow was talked into buying a $400 rain jacket for this trip. (Note: I did not pay that much for it. I got a discount from the vendor through my work.) I never thought in my life that I would need that technical of a rain jacket, but I’m so glad I had it. I wore that jacket every single day, even when it wasn’t raining. It’s windproof, light, and warm, and packed pretty nicely in its own hood. I’m not saying that everyone who backpacks needs a crazy expensive rain coat, but just make sure it’s waterproof. (I suggest getting one with the Gore-Tex waterproofing though.) Get some waterproof hiking/backpacking boots too! Most hiking boots these days are waterproof, I will say, but if you get a pair that is more specifically geared towards backpacking, you will be much better off. They are a little heavier and stiffer, but they are also usually taller in the ankle and will give you better support when you are carrying a heavy pack. I saw quite a few people near the top of the 14,000ft mountain we climbed with ultralight trail running shoes on, and I can’t imagine how cold and sore their feet were. We walked through several creeks on that trail, not to mention the snowpack, AND it had been raining and hailing all day. I know a lot of people are all about the ultralight hiking footwear, but cold and wet feet for 10 hours? No thank you!!!
Also…waterproof gloves. Get some! That was the one thing I didn’t have on this trip and desperately needed!
- You will feel the greatest sense of accomplishment! Backpacking is hard. And it does suck a lot of the time. No bathrooms, no showers, eating out of a bag for all your meals, sheer physical exhaustion most of the time…it’s definitely not easy. But the feeling you get when you get to the top of a mountain and can look out for a hundred miles and see nothing but wilderness is indescribable. It’s also one of the most humbling experiences. You realize how small you are and how big the world really is. But you also feel like you kind of conquered a part of the world. It’s a truly awesome feeling.
You also learn a lot about your gear after you go backpacking: what you needed, what you forgot, what you wish you had more of…that kind of thing. Here are a few lists of my own:
What I Needed:
waterproof gloves (this is one thing I wanted more than anything!)
better sun hat (I used a baseball style hat and I really needed a hat with a wider brim…my neck got burned)
What I Wish I Had More Of:
waterproof dry bags (So. Much. Wetness.)
socks (just one more pair would have been nice)
What I Could Have Done Without:
half of the contents in my “snack bag”
rain pants (these were really nice to have, but I only used them once)
liner socks (the only reason I used these is because they were the only socks I had that weren’t wet)
climbing helmet (probably good to have for harder, more technical climbs, but I didn’t feel like I really needed it)
microspikes (definitely didn’t need these at all)
What I Will Never Do Without:
a lightweight, foldable chair
sleeping bag liner
inflatable, waterproof solar lanterns