Long Distance Backpacking Skills
Are you ready to hit the trail, walk for days and leave the world in the rearview mirror? So are we. It’s a wildly attractive concept, but few are able to put it into action and actually see the entire thing through. Long distance backpacking is dropping the weight of your worries at home, and taking off for as long as possible. Nothing in your way, nothing but the ironclad manliness inside you to carry you through.
Long distance backpacking isn’t a weekender’s thing: it requires days, usually weeks of commitment to just dropping off the face of the earth. It’s doable, if you have the right skills. We’re going to go over the five necessary skills you absolutely have to possess and master before attempting this. Between safety and having the brass balls to be able to carry yourself through the muck and the mud. If you’re serious about taking some time off and attempting this, this is what you need to know.
1. Planning Out Resupply Trips
Long distance backpacking puts you through rigorous mileage, immense pressure and stress on your body, and you need to resupply properly. There’s no one set right way to do it, but there are plenty of wrong ways to do it. Resupplying is about being tactical, mapping out your course ahead of time, and understanding landmarks and what’s around you. Resupply trip planning is basically working out mapping and tracking from the safety of your computer.
You need to plan accordingly for cost and nutritional purposes. Your goal is to cover between 15 and 40 miles per day. You’re backpacking; the camping part is only a small chunk of the game, so eating on-the-go is a major factor of successful long-distance backpacking. Here’s what you need to learn and why.
- Eat Early in the Morning: When you stop in town for supplies, do it early in the morning. Breakfast is a cheap, filling, protein-rich meal. You’ll find a lot less traffic and lines, so you can refuel your body and get back to the trail. An average person that barely does anything all day goes through about 1,800 to 2,300 calories in a day, just to maintain their weight. You need to double that, so stock up, fill up, and even if you’re feeling bloated, get back on that trail. Your metabolism will kick into overdrive.
- Don’t Assume You Can Make It: Weather changes, your fatigue can creep up at a moment’s notice. Don’t assume you can make the extra mile if your body is telling you no. Set up camp early if need be, but before it ever comes to that point, plan ahead with a 10% distance margin for error.
- It’s a Trip, Not the Apocalypse: Don’t overstuff your pack. You should absolutely have enough provisions to sustain you through a couple of days, but those can be lightweight, protein-rich snacks. If you arrive in town after the shops close, if you simply need more energy than you did the day before, bulk up without adding extra weight to your back.
Plan ahead, make a time chart, make hourly goals and track your distance. This is where having a compass watch and GPS would come in handy. As an added step, use a chronograph to time yourself and monitor your efficiency when you’re hopping from town to town. Also check out some of these hiking apps.
2. Dealing With Nature’s Deadly Beasts
If you’re going to take the PCT, as many thorough backpackers strive to one day do, you’re going to run into your own mix of deadly animals. If you’re planning on doing this in a foreign country as your first experience, then you’re going to need to double up on your research of indigenous species and what they can do.
One of the biggest mistakes long distance backpackers make is not planning for a vicious encounter with ferocious animals. You have bears, rattlesnakes and wolves to think about. Does it mean you should pack a firearm? Possibly, so long as you can get a concealed permit that applies to all state that you’re travelling to. But we have a few other methods you can apply to be better prepared for an encounter with a deadly animal.
- Gain the High Ground: A bear can climb a tree, wolves can scratch at the bark and leave you stranded, but if you have a means of self-defense, you need to reach the high ground to properly utilize it. Getting the high ground can help you wait out an animal attack until the predator gets bored. Just be certain that you have a way out (firearm, hunting knife) in case they try to stalk you in your spot.
- Don’t Immediately Run: Not all animals with predatory instincts will prey upon you. If there’s one thing animals understand, it’s how to size up a situation and calculate their risk and reward. If you’re vigilant, unblinking, and standing your ground, you could end up staring down at a predator for five or ten minutes, and slowly backing away from that situation before it turned into a skirmish.
- Wear Hiking Boots: It’s not just rattlesnakes: you don’t know what’s out there, lurking in the underbrush. Hiking doesn’t always mean a clear-cut path. You’re going to carve through raw, untouched earth, and you can’t predict what’s going to be waiting for you. Hiking shoes not only make the actual act of hiking and climbing a lot easier, but protect you through durable materials and a high cuff.
It wouldn’t hurt to investigate common poisons, antidotes, and put a list of nearby emergency services (apart from just 911) in your phone for when you’re actually on the trek. If you’re going to be hiking with someone, you’ll have another set of eyes to help you out in a pinch.
3. Crossing Over Rushing Water
Rivers, rapids, whatever you’re up against in whatever region you’re in, there’s going to be more than one waterway blocking your path. Rivers can run for over a thousand miles, and a bridge isn’t going to just appear in the next couple of miles or so. If you’re going to travel more than a hundred miles, you’re going to run into a waterway. Knowing how to cross it isn’t quite so simple.
Rushing waters can pull you under, and cause more than a bump on the head up against the river bank. It’s best to find out what rivers are calm, which are deadly, and any lakes or streams you might run into as well. If you know you’re going to hit raging water, then you’ll need to get the following in check.
- Wear Hiking Boots, Not Shoes: Don’t get us wrong, hiking shoes have their place, and in another point, we’ll show you where they belong. But if you’re about to hop over the river, switch into your boots (or maybe water shoes for hiking). Whether you’re traversing across the slippery rocks or a cliche fallen log (hikers have used these in the past), you need all the traction you can possibly muster.
- You Are Never Stronger Than the Water: Even if it doesn’t look like much, you cannot underestimate the power of moving water. It can look timid, until you feel it pulling against your body. Taking your current position for granted can lead in a nasty slip, and a trip down the river. Use caution.
- Veer Off: If the river is cut in the middle of your path, and you thought you’d be able to cross it, don’t panic. Mark where your next destination is, and walk up the river until you find a narrow point, something that’s easy to cross. If you can’t see a way to bridge the gap, if there’s no tree to throw a rope around, if there’s no way you can make the jump (not that you should be jumping anyway), then you don’t need to risk it. Walk up, find a better way.
Keep in mind that while you’re walking upstream, you’ll be more likely to run into larger animals. That means bears, wolves, and more docile creatures. It should increase your vigilance, and of course, ensure you have a form of self-defense at the ready.
We have a GPS in our watches for crying out loud. We’re not saying that you shouldn’t use them, but you need to know how to find your way when your ideal conditions can no longer be met. You don’t have to revert back to the boy scouts and the green moss growing north basics. You need to learn true navigation, how the world is formed, what steep peaks tell you versus a valley with quiet life. You can read Mother Nature like a book with a bit of training.
It’s not exactly crazy to assume that you might run into technical difficulties, whether it’s lost battery power, or losing your signal to the satellite and being essentially stranded. Learn how to use the land to determine your destination, and you’ll find yourself using these tips and tricks (or at least noticing how they work) even when you’re using GPS to traverse through the great outdoors.
- Use the Sun (and Calendar): We’ll assume you know roughly what day it is when you enter the wilderness. You can use the sun to navigate in all directions. People always pull up this old saying of, “Rises in the east, sets in the west,” but that’s not entirely true. In summer, it actually rises from the northeast, and rises from the southeast in the middle of winter. Find out the time of year, where the sun’s position is, and mark your way to your destination using it as a beacon.
- Locate True North: Magnetic north and true north aren’t the same thing. You can find a ton of different ways to locate true north, which doesn’t rely on the magnetic fields of the north pole. You can use the stars, shadow stepping, make it fit for the equator or hemisphere that you’re located in, and get yourself out of any situation.
- Local Geographic Information: Trees and plants grow towards different angles, based on how the natural land grows in different regions. Figure out the lay of the land before you set foot in it, and you’ll have the final piece of the puzzle to navigate your way through and out of just about anywhere on earth.
It’s about getting ready far before you ever set foot on the dirt. Take a moment to learn how celestial navigation works in different areas of the earth, and at different times of the year. The world is complicated; there is no one clear cut-and-dry solution to manage navigation.
5. Pacing Your Physical Prowess
Last but not least, you need to take it easy. There’s no race, there’s nothing for you to do but enjoy your time. If you’re stressing over your path, make a new path. If you’re trying to squeeze five days of hiking into three, then just alter your plan. You need to pace yourself accordingly. Overdoing it isn’t going to help you, and it isn’t going to paint a pretty picture for that Monday morning job, or a speedy recovery from all this fatigue.
First and foremost, test the hell out of yourself. You know where your health is, where your stamina is, but do you know how far it can go? Test yourself and hit the gym a little harder, and a little more often than you are now. Find out just how far your body can go, and stop just before it breaks. Extend that stamina, stretch out that vitality, and ensure that you can handle the stress that this will put on your body, beyond the shadow of a doubt.
- Invest in Walking Shoes: Walking shoes help you grip the ground when you walk, but they also provide arch support and comfort throughout those eight to fifteen hour days. Nobody wants to start day two on extremely sore feet. Walking shoes are designed to withstand a lot of impact, and while these long distance trips might burn through them faster than intended, you’ll get a much more comforting trip out of them.
- Wear Sunglasses: You know when your eyes feel heavy? That can be caused by constant sun glares just hitting you in the face, but whatever the cause, it sends signals to your brain. Heavy eyes, heavy on your fatigue. Don’t trick your body into assuming that you’re tired; keep the glares out of your eyes with a quality pair of hiking sunglasses, and keep on keeping on.
- Use Gear That Reduces Physical Stress: Grabbing an external frame backpack allows you to take a load off, quite literally. These are designed to maintain your center of gravity, so you’re not pulling yourself uphill, so you’re not putting extra stress on your joints, and so on and so forth. External frame backpacks help reduce fatigue, case and point.
Your gear is going to determine how well your natural abilities hold up. Of course, you need your physical prowess to base everything else off of. Never assume that you’ll come out of a long distance backpacking trip unscathed. Push yourself, build your endurance and constitution, and come out on top.
When’s the Trip?
If you’re a bit wet behind the ears, that’s okay. Read survival books, make sure you have the right hiking gear, and if you need to, plan out your workout regimen to turn yourself into a beast before you conquer the wilderness. Gear up, knowledge up, and get into the root of our origin, back to those survival skills that are locked away in your DNA.