First-Time Backpacking: What I’ve Learned

When you think of backpacking, what comes to mind?

It seems that the only requirement for fitting the definition of a backpacker is the ownership of a particular piece of luggage.

  • “Backpacking around Europe.”
  • “Backpacker strip.”
  • “Backpacker hostel.”
  • “Backpacker style travel.”
  • “Living out of my backpack.”

Planning a backpacking trip?
Planning a backpacking trip?

These phrases are well known in RTW circles, and they conjure the image of a particular type of traveler and a particular culture.

Khao San Road, in Bangkok. The warren of hostels along the waterfront in San Pedro, Guatemala. The bustle of jumping off points for classic “backpacker” journeys at Cusco, Peru; Kathmandu, Nepal; or Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

These places conjure in our minds a particular image, that of backpacking.

Young people struggling on and off of busses and trains with huge packs bulging, sometimes with a second pack strapped to their fronts. Smiling faces in coffee shops, bags propped next to tables, guidebooks open, comparing notes.

It’s not about the bag so much as it’s about the community, in the end.

There is another kind of backpacking

Hiking

The kind in which you actually carry your bag.

Settle down, I’m not criticizing; I’m just pointing out a difference. I spent the last two years backpacking through Southeast Asia. The furthest I actually walked with a full pack was probably three miles (4.8 kilometers for the rest-of-worlders). That was around a backwater town in Laos trying to find the one and only guest house.

There is another sort of backpacker out there, but they’re rarely found in the backpacker hangouts. That’s because they’re too busy humping a ruck along the Appalachian Trail, or along the paths less traveled in the Himalayas, or through the cloud forests of Peru, or across New Zealand on the maze of footpaths that criss cross both islands.

There is another sort of backpacker out there, but they’re rarely found in the backpacker hangouts.

I’ve schlepped a backpack across three continents and 15 or so countries. About half of our six years traveling has been spent living out of a pack.

This year, I’m dipping my toe into the other sort of backpacking, the sort where what you put into your pack actually matters. The sort that involves actually carrying my well worn pack for more than an hour at a time between bus and ferry, hostel and train station. To minimize confusion, we’ll call this sort “unsupported” backpacking because there’s no cab to catch when your feet get tired, no eager kid to pay to schlep your bag, and every mile your gear travels is on your own back.

There is much written about packing for backpacking journeys. After many years living on the road, I’m going to be honest and tell you what not many will: Frankly, it doesn’t matter a damned bit what you put in your pack. Weight is not that big of a deal if you’re traveling mainly by buses, trains, boats and airplanes.

After many years living on the road, I’m going to be honest and tell you what not many will: Frankly, it doesn’t matter a damned bit what you put in your pack.

Of course REI is making a killing off of assuring you that you need the lightest possible water purifier and ultra-light, quick-dry undies. The reality is that 95% of those of us who backpack are carrying more than we need, because we want to. Because the extra items make us comfortable or happy in some way. Because we can.

And you know what? That’s okay. I support the concept of packing less. The advice to lay out everything you think you need and then throw away half of it is still good advice. If you pack less you’ll definitely be glad of it. But let’s face it, backpacking, in the cultural sense, is just enjoying the convenience of a piece of luggage that allows you to navigate dirt roads and cobbled streets without using expletives and keeps your hands free for a guidebook and a beer.

But let’s face it, backpacking, in the cultural sense, is just enjoying the convenience of a piece of luggage that allows you to navigate dirt roads and cobbled streets without using expletives and keeps your hands free for a guidebook and a beer.

Preparing for the unsupported sort of backpacking requires a little more thought

Jenn Backpack

There are two considerations, really:

  1. Lightening your load
  2. Strengthening your body

The metrics on what to pack when you’re planning to actually carry your pack longer distances vary depending on who you’re asking, but general recommendations hover around 25% of your body weight. Some allow for up to 30% if you are very fit and going somewhere that the extra weight is justified (as in the desert where you’re carrying extra water, or winter hikes where extreme weather gear is required). For me, at 150 lbs, that means that my optimum pack weight would be not more than 37.5 lbs (15 kilos).

Of course much depends on the type of walk you’re taking, doesn’t it?

I’m doing a five week wander on the Camino de Santiago, France into Spain, only 800 km (500 miles) and over terrain that is not high altitude or particularly rough. It’s certainly not an extreme journey. I don’t need a tent or a water purifier. I don’t need to carry my own food or water for more than the day’s walking. It’s a good walk, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a hard walk. The take home message: I should carry far less weight.

My first test pack came out at 21 lbs, 8.4 kilos.

That included:

  • Sleeping bag
  • 2 sets of clothes (tank tops and hiking skirts with socks)
  • 1 dress for tourist days
  • Something to sleep in
  • long sleeved merino
  • toiletries
  • towel
  • journal & coloured pencils
  • ipad (my work goes with me, also my reading material)
  • solar charger
  • Camera
  • Gorilla pod (tripod)
  • Water bottle
  • Sandals
  • Rain jacket

21 lbs seemed like too much weight. I walked several long days with it and it felt okay, but my goal was to get it under 15 lbs.

  • I swapped the sleeping bag out for a silk sleep sack and saved over two pounds.
  • Buying a pancake lens for my Canon 650D instead of the regular lens dropped another .75 of a pound.

Every little bit counts.

Here’s the take home message if you’re packing for an unsupported backpacking trip:

When you can’t figure out how to take any less, spend the money to go lighter.

There is a huge industry around ultra-light backpacking, from raincoats that feel like they’re spun of some magical fairy fiber to titanium sporks. You can lighten your load substantially by ponying up the cash.

Is that worth it?

Well, I suppose that’s something only you can decide. For me, it was worth it to spend the big bucks on a new lens and a silk sleep sack to make room for the pound I’m spending on the solar charger.

That seems like a frivolous thing to take, doesn’t it? Do I “need” it?

No, not strictly speaking. But here’s the thing: I’ve been working as I travel for more than a few years now. I know (too) well the rodeo of trying to get things charged in hostels and campgrounds or in cafes along the way. I’ve spent too many evenings plugged into a bathroom outlet, typing on my knees, back propped against a cold tile wall to find that a novelty, or sexy, or adventurous.

At this point in my life, it just plain sucks. The young people are welcome to that travel story. I’m spending my middle aged money on the luxury of arriving in the evening with a charged battery pack and I’ll enjoy meeting my editorial deadlines with a glass of wine in hand, in the quiet corner of a picturesque Spanish cafe, with tapas within reach, thank you.

What’s worth investing in?

Backpack

  • Good boots: the kind rated for the adventure you’re having, including the additional weight of your pack. And for heaven’s sake, break them in, thoroughly (Editor’s Note: Don’t be married to boots if you’re not a boots person. Yes, you need a good, strong, sturdy pair of shoes for hiking (no tennis shoes!), but I have hiked in the Andes, throughout Patagonia, and in the Indian Himalayas with a good pair of hiking shoes – I have always gotten blisters on my ankles with boots and simply prefer shoes.)
  • A decent pack: Yeah, a good pack is expensive, but the difference between the “budget” pack and the well engineered German brand is more than worth the money if you’re actually going to wear the thing for more than 50 meters between the baggage carousel and the bus terminal. Trust me on that. Also, a good pack can last you decades – literally, so the costs even out over the long haul. Get professionally fitted. Test it with weight in it. Then, spend the time breaking the pack in too. Grubby it up a little bit, nothing says “newbie” like a pristine pack.
  • Your body: Too many people spend too much time worried about the gear they buy and not nearly enough time worrying about the gear they have. Your body is your first and last piece of travel gear, the one that every other piece rides on, literally. Feed it right. Train for the adventure you’re having. Put in the time breaking in your body like you would your boots or pack. Do the maintenance care that will ensure it goes the distance. It sounds obvious, but the condition of your body is the single biggest indicator for the success of your journey and your enjoyment of the adventure. If you’re wondering where to shave another ounce off of your pack weight, I suggest you start with your ass. If you’re ten, twenty or forty pounds overweight, lose that before you worry about cutting the handle off of your toothbrush. The stuff in your pack you can put down, or throw out. The weight you wear is your biggest liability.

It sounds obvious, but the condition of your body is the single biggest indicator for the success of your journey and your enjoyment of the adventure.

Have you made an unsupported backpacking journey? Where did you go? What did you find that you’d packed that you didn’t need? What’s your best piece of advice for folks hitting the trails this summer?

Check out the following articles about backpacking and hiking to learn more:

manifesto - pack light

Photo credits: Photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission

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