District Fray Magazine: Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking
Hit the Trail: What You Need to Know to Start Backpacking
“In 1955, a 67-year-old woman named Emma Gatewood hiked more than 2,000 miles with a homemade knapsack, a blanket, a shower curtain and Keds sneakers. She became the first woman to successfully solo-hike the entire Appalachian Trail.
Veteran backpacker and REI employee Nelson Bruni brought up Grandma Gatewood when I asked him about what kind of gear was required to start backpacking, and who should consider giving it a try. As an enthusiastic backpacker myself, I was a little embarrassed I’d never heard of this pioneering hiker, and I was even more embarrassed thinking back to those times on the trail where I’ve complained about my state-of-the-art pack being a little uncomfortable and causing my 28-year-old shoulders to get sore.
But Bruni told me Grandma Gatewood’s story as an encouragement to anyone interested in backpacking.
“There is no perfect body type or perfect person for backpacking,” he says. “If you have the will and you can enjoy it, you can do it.”
Different from day hiking or camping at a campground, backpacking or backcountry camping is where you head out into the wilderness with everything you need on your back. Many ambitious folks set out to thru-hike the country’s longest trails, meaning completing the entire length of the trail in one continuous trip.
The most well-known are the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail (the one featured in Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”). They’re colloquially referred to by acronyms – the AT, the CDT and the PCT, respectively. Completing all three is considered the Triple Crown of Hiking, and Bruni is two-thirds of the way to earning this elite moniker – he’s done the AT and the PCT.
Since the AT is right in our backyard and the sky’s the limit in terms of how far you can travel, backpacking is a highly adaptable activity, especially for beginners. Casual backpackers can easily stuff a pack and get out on the trail for a day trip or even a long weekend.
“Even if you go backpacking and you go 1 mile, you’ve done more than most people are ever going to do in their life,” Bruni says.
2020 is also the perfect time to head into the backcountry, because it’s the ultimate social distancing activity – no other people for miles, bring your own everything and disconnect from screens and the accompanying stress.
If you’ve read “Wild” or talked to a long-distance backpacker, you might have heard horror stories about the physical trials of the trail. Thankfully, Bruni says, the positive memories outweigh the struggles.
“There’s a quote from ‘Cold Mountain’ [by Charles Frazier], where he talks about God’s gift to us is that we only remember the good.”
To help you get started and experience the good, Bruni shared his expertise about everything from snacks and gear to trails and safety.”
Featured photo of Lani Furbank on Old Rag Mountain by Zachary Barnes.