Backpacking Basics

July 18, 2017
Backpacking Basics

By Tess Mulrey, Cincinnati Nature Center Naturalist 

For me, one of the best ways to wake up is in the middle of the woods – awoken by the sun’s steady rise, the birds letting each other know they made it through the night, a creek rushing nearby. I even love the shock of cold, wet air hitting my body as I emerge from my sleeping bag and tent. No breakfast is as good as oatmeal, cooked in the woods and eaten out of a tin cup with a dirty spork. To wake up already in the forest is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Backpacking is easily one of my favorite ways to spend my free time and travel. There is no better way to feel immersed in nature than to spend consecutive days in the wilderness, where logs and boulders become your sofa and your kitchen table. The simplicity of backcountry camping is freeing and rejuvenating, especially when compared to the hustle of our everyday lives. It doesn’t get much more straightforward than packing up your essentials on your back and walking from one place to lay your head to the next.

Although backpacking is a seemingly simplistic form of recreation, a lot of thought can and should go into planning and preparing for even just a weekend in the backcountry. We should be deliberate about the places we choose to hike and camp, as stewards of the environment in which we are visitors. One of the best guidelines for hiking and camping sustainably is to follow the Seven Principles (© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
    • Always have a plan for where you are going, and a back-up plan if things need to change. You should plan to your abilities – your knowledge, your fitness level, and your experience – and if you’re traveling with others, you should plan your trip based on the abilities of the least experienced member of your group.
    • Make sure you have enough food, water, proper clothing. Know where you can refill your water supply, or carry enough with you for the entire trip.
    • Know the regulations – are fires allowed? Does food storage need to be bear-proof?
    • Know the forecast, and be prepared for the elements. (i.e. if there’s a 20% chance of rain, plan on it raining)
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
    • Stay on official, marked trails
    • Wear proper footwear (i.e. waterproof boots), so that if you encounter a wet, muddy section of trail, you can walk through it. When everyone sidesteps the mud, the trail widens, which leads to trampling plants and increased erosion.
    • If you must hike off trail (to find a campsite, for example) 
      • Hike only on durable surfaces such as rock, gravel, or dry grass
      • Disperse groups to avoid creating a new trail (i.e. walk next to each other rather than single file)
    • Abide by the old adage, “good campsites are found, not made”.
    • When a good campsite cannot be found, only camp on durable surfaces, as above, and avoid vegetation. When you leave, it should look like you were never there!
    • Avoid camping in sensitive riparian habitats by setting up camp at least 200 ft from water. Repeated camping next to waterways kills the riparian plants that hold the soil in place; this can result in increased erosion and reduced water quality.
  3. Dispose of waste properly
    • “pack it in, pack it out” – Pack out all trash, including organic waste like banana peels and apple cores
    • For human waste, find a nice place that is at least 100 ft from water sources, trails and campsites. Then dig a cat-hole in which to poop that is at least 6 inches deep, preferably in rich soil which will break down waste quickly.
    • Pack out all toilet paper and feminine products
    • For dog poop, bury it as with human waste or pack it out in a bag. Even if your bag is biodegradable, it needs to be packed out or buried. When I backpack with my dogs, I have them carry out their own waste. *At Cincinnati Nature Center, always pack out your dog’s waste.
  4. Leave what you find
    • Find something that’s super cool? Awesome! Take a picture, and then leave it there for others to discover and enjoy. Unless, of course, it is something manmade that doesn’t belong in the nature, like trash or a painted rock. In that case, you should pack it out with your trash.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire)
    • Know the regulations and fire danger where you are camping! I know it is a bummer, but if there is a fire ban, do not build a fire!!!
    • If fires are allowed, keep them contained in already existing Do not build new firepits.
    • Only use scraps that are already dead and on the ground for firewood.
    • Make sure your fire is completely out before your go to bed and/or leave your campsite. Spread out the embers, pour water on it if you need to.
  6. Respect wildlife
    • Observe wildlife from a distance.
    • Store food and trash properly, especially when in bear country. This includes any scented items too, like deodorant, bugspray or toothpaste.
    • Keep dogs under control and do not allow them to chase wildlife.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors
    • Do not camp within view and earshot of other parties. Try to be at least 300 ft away. If you’re like me, part of the reason you go to the backcountry is to get away from other people. Be respectful of other’s need for solitude.
    • Follow the saying “Take only pictures, leave only footprints”. For me, part of the appeal of spending time in the backcountry is the minimal evidence of human impact. I go to the wilderness not only to be closer to nature, but also to be further from man-made objects and the stresses of daily life associated with them. My ability to forget about these stresses is impeded when I encounter rocks or trees etched with initials, trash next to the trail or forts and rock structures built along the trail.

Note that these principles are not strict rules, but rather guidelines for good decision-making while in nature. Sometimes you’ll have to make a judgment call: for example, is it better to camp at an already impacted site that is too close to water, or to make your own campsite at a more appropriate distance? Being mindful of these guidelines allows us to reduce our impact on the places we enjoy so much.

When we spend our time in nature, whether we’re deep in the Montana wilderness or hiking at Rowe Woods, we are called to be stewards of the environment in which we find ourselves. After all, the reason why we are there is because of the beauty, wonder and peace we find in nature – why wouldn’t we do our best to preserve it? If not out of reverence for the plants, animals and other living and non-living things that make their home there, then out of respect for the people who will come after us, seeking the same experiences we’ve been so lucky to have.

Photo, taking in the views near the campsite at Cracker Lake in Glacier National Park.