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Preparing For the Back Country

Necessary equipment:
backpack: external or internal frame
sleeping bag
first aid kit
sewing kit (needle and thread)
foldable knife/tool set
iodine (for water purification)
water bottles (one or two liters)

Optional equipment:
rope (30+ feet)
water purifier
camp stove w/ cookware
digging trowel

Watching the sun rise from atop a mountain is a tough experience to beat. It will stretch beautiful shades of red across the landscape, which rolls out beneath you. But, in order to have the opportunity to view such a magnificent sight, some important risks must be understood and prepared for. A well-prepared hiker can safely enjoy an enormous variety of back country hikes.

Choose an environment

The first task in preparing for an expedition is to identify the environment you wish to hike, which will affect your choice of equipment. It is vitally important that you take into account the climate, terrain, and ecology of the region. For instance, never hike through the desert without at least one gallon of water per person per day of hiking. It is best to carry more water than you expect to need, just in case. In the Appalachian Mountains, however, there will plenty of available water, so you won't need to plan on hiking out with thirty pounds of it yourself-just a few containers and something to purify the water you find.

Select an appropriate trail

Almost every park or recognized trail will have guide booklets available. Chose a trail you wish to hike. Make sure that it is within your abilities. Don't go hiking the Dodson Trail through Big Bend's desert until you've got plenty of experience behind you. Otherwise, you'll end up hoping for a savior to carry you out on his shoulders. A website or booklet should tell you the approximate difficulty of the trail in question; if you're not sure, call the park and ask a ranger. Park Rangers are helpful people. Guide books will also illustrate possible live dangers, such as snakes, scorpions, and bears.

Get your equipment

After you've chosen your destination, you can start thinking about what kinds of equipment you will need. Equipment can be purchased or rented. It is recommended that you try several different kinds before making a large purchase. Rent or borrow from a friend first; or find someone who's advice you absolutely trust, once you know you want to invest in good camping equipment.

For any trip greater than one day, a frame pack will be essential. Ordinary backpacks simply do not have enough capacity or the ability to distribute weight well. A decent frame pack will take the weight off of your shoulders and place it on your hips, making long hikes possible. Obviously, the more you spend on your pack, the more features you will get. Some things to look out for: a comfortable set of straps, adjustable pockets (which allow for several smaller items or one large item), good solid seams, and plenty of zipper access. Make sure to fill one easily accessed pocket with the above listed tools of the trade.

A sleeping bag will also be required. Modern synthetics and goose down, though expensive, allow for fantastically small stuffing, while keeping you warmer. They are not essential, however; whatever bag you can access should be sufficient (as long as you're not going out into intense cold, which is not recommended for beginners). The last item, which is almost always necessary, is a tent. Tents protect you from insects, cold, and rain, as well as crawly creatures who might think that your feet would make a nice warm bed for the night.

Dress yourself for the occasion

Think about clothing. Most likely your trip will involve significantly different apparel choices than your usual outfits. Get some good boots. Break them in. You do that by oiling them and wearing them a lot before you ever head out of the city. Get nice wool socks; these really increase your feet's happiness. Bring some shorts and a tee-shirt or two. Bring one pair of lightweight pants (nylon wind pants are good) and at least one thermal shirt (long johns). If you anticipate a lot of cold, be sure to include a hat and gloves. Depending upon the weather, a rain jacket or wind breaker is recommended. I repeat: break in your boots.

Consider your exercise level and prepare your body

Now that you've got some gear, it'll be a good idea to prep your body a little bit. Questions to be considered are: how often do you exercise (particularly with moderate or strenuous aerobic workouts)? and what do you need to do to get ready for this hike? Keep in mind that a multi-day hike will be very harsh on your feet. Nothing is more important to the back country hiker than her feet. You cannot go on if the pain gets to be too much. So again, be sure to break in whatever boots you plan on wearing! If you don't already, do a lot of walking during the weeks before your trip. There's no feeling quite like carrying fifty pounds of gear up a mountain, but you'll never know it if you have to turn around halfway up.

Pack plenty of food and water

The easiest foods to carry with you are mixed nuts/dried fruit, granola, and pastas. These have plenty of energy to carry you through the most arduous of hikes and taste good too. Only bring pasta if you're going to have a stove and extra water! Although they're heavy, oranges and other fruit make a wonderful dessert after a long day's hike. Remember those questions about where you are going? Keep the answers in mind when you bring water bottles. Make sure that if there won't be adequate water supplies, you have plenty of extra for your needs. It is far better to overestimate than underestimate. Shouldering that heavy burden might not be any fun, but it's better than realizing you have no water and you're two days from civilization.

Now, you know what trail you wish to take and you've got the right maps. you've bought or rented or borrowed all of the necessary equipment. You've broken in your boots and learned to use all of your new toys. You've even carefully planned out what clothing and food you will need. There is still one thing left.

Find companionship

Get a friend. If you are an inexperienced hiker, nothing can take the place of someone who knows what she's doing. She'll be used to following trails (especially important for lightly marked trails, which are also not recommended for beginners), setting up and breaking down camp, and will be able to encourage you through moments of weakness, when you think you can't possibly go on. Until you've learned to gauge your own limits, this is very important; otherwise, you can end up taking twice as long as you thought the journey would take or you could overwork yourself-leading to stress, shock, or fatigue. Moreover, friends make good company. It's nice to have a friendly face (often yours!) in many of those gorgeous pictures you'll be taking. By placing a message on the board at a local camping supply retailer, you should be able to find a companion if you don't already know someone who will come with you.

It might seem like a lot of time, expense, and work to break into the world of back country hiking, but the rewards are priceless. In addition to your personal gains (physical health, satisfaction of accomplishment, self-understanding, greater knowledge of the world around you), you will be able to share these experiences with your family and friends. Perhaps one day, you will be hiking in the mountains with one or more of your children, teaching them everything that you know.

Let's recap:

1) Choose your environment carefully. Be sure that you understand the relevant characteristics of the region.
2) Choose a trail and do some research to make sure that it's appropriate for you.
3) Obtain solid equipment. Make sure it's comfortable and easy for you to use. Always have the necessities! Break in your boots.
4) Pick clothing appropriate for the journey ahead.
5) Think about your lifestyle and how it will impact your back country experience.
6) Break in your boots!
7) Bring lightweight, energy laden food and plenty of water.
8) Bring a friend. Make sure that his boots are broken in.
9) Have fun!