You hear a familiar crunch as your leather hiking boot bursts through a thin layer of orange leaves littering the trail below. You look up for a moment, startled by delicate footprints up and to your left, just managing to catch the tail ends of two deer before they hurriedly prance out of view. There’s a chill in the autumn air, and, if you look closely, you can see your breath manifest into a tiny cloud right before your face as you walk. At the next junction on the trail, a small, weathered sign leans squat against a tree. “Monarch Lake 1.2 miles | Crystal Lake 1.4 miles” – Which do you choose?
My first-ever backpacking trip was kind of a shit show. I carried all my supplies in a broken, black backpack that had been left behind by two Swedish Air BnB’ers I hosted, I smashed my body into a one-person tent alongside my boyfriend at night, and I had no idea what altitude was or how its effects can wreak havoc on the body. As I made my way up the well-worn trail that traverses the summit of Alta Peak in the middle of Sequoia National Park, I found myself gasping for air and stopping every five minutes to sit down or lean my unsteady body against a tree to rest. I fell in love with my first wilderness sunrise, creeping its miraculous pink fingers across the Great Western Divide, but, by the end of the weekend, I vowed to never let my body feel that terrible in the outdoors again. It was time to train.
I was naked, wet, alone, and shivering inside of my down sleeping bag, perched precariously on the banked side of a mud-strewn switchback about halfway up Saddle Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains. “Is it safe to sleep in these conditions?” I wondered. “How long before I become hypothermic?”
Before I knew it, I had packed up my camp quicker than ever before and was bailing from my thru-hike, a jolt of adrenaline coursing through my veins as I slid down the trail and walked along the road until I had enough cell service to call a friend to come pick me up. It was only 45 degrees outside, but my adventure was ruined. And it was all because I didn’t know a thing about fabrics.
The question I get asked most often isn’t, “How many bears have you tackled from behind?” or “What do you do if you get your period on the trail?” No, dear readers, the thing I get asked the most frequently is simple: “What do I need to do to start backpacking?” Getting newbies’ butts into the great outdoors is my favorite thing in the world, so, in the interest of full transparency, I thought I’d create a four part series on how to get started, based on my own experiences and pitfalls.