Saturday 22 March 2014

Hard Lessons & Inspiration: Learning Backpacking

Camping in the High Sierra on the Pacific Crest Trail

Writing my Pacific Crest Trail book has led me to think about the early days of my backpacking life so I've pulled another piece out of my archives that might be of interest:

Thinking back to some of the mistakes I made as a novice backpacker makes me shudder. Did I really suffer that much? Yes I did! With no instruction or mentors I learnt initially by trial and error, mostly the latter. Sleeping out in the rain in a feather and down sleeping bag in a plastic survival bag and discovering the joys of condensation and a wet bag; trying to sleep on frozen ground with no insulating mat and discovering why these pieces of expensive foam were needed; buying a piece of open cell foam from a market because it was cheaper than a real camping mat and finding out just how much water it absorbed when sleeping in a single-skin tent with no vents in the rain – result: a sodden sleeping bag again. Then there was humping an external frame pack round the English Lake District with no hipbelt (these were “optional extras” in Britain in the early 1970s). A shocked American hiker had me try on his pack with hipbelt – I’ve been in loved with hipbelts ever since! I also had the experience of realising that one of those compass things might be a good idea after getting lost on the featureless moorland of Kinder Scout in a November storm and descending in the dark, cold and wet. I also realised a torch would be a good idea as I stumbled into bogs and fell over rocks. Then, just a week later, I realised that spare batteries were a good idea as my new torch failed as it had accidentally switched on in the pack and I was again slipping and sliding down in the darkness. I was cold and wet too as my cheap thin nylon cagoule leaked through the seams. I solved the last by going to the other extreme with a bulky, heavy 8oz neoprene coated cagoule with taped seams. The condensation was horrendous (this was long before Gore-Tex) but it never let in a drop of rain.

Those episodes and more taught me a great deal, as they would anyone who survived them. I don’t recommend following my example though. Far better to learn from those with more experience, whether in the wilds or from books, blogs and articles. Back in my early days the Internet didn’t exist so I couldn’t just pull up advice and gear reviews in an instant. Instead, when I realised that I would like to be safer and more comfortable, I read backpacking manuals and joined The Backpackers Club, a new organisation in Britain at the time. Those books – Peter Lumley’s Teach Yourself Backpacking and Derrick Booth’s The Backpacker’s Handbook (whose title I pinched for my own how-to book a few decades later) – were invaluable. I still have them and when I glance through them now, although the gear seems old-fashioned the advice is sound. I also went on Backpacker’s Club meets and learnt much by talking to experienced backpackers as well as hiking with them and observing the techniques they used.

As well as instructional books I read books about long-distance hikes and soon aspired to undertake similar walks. My first really long walk was inspired by John Hillaby’s Journey Through Britain, the story of a backpacking trip from the farthest apart points on the British mainland, Land’s End and John O’Groats. Hiking 1250 miles that spring long ago was a revelation. Two weeks and 270 miles was my previous longest walk. This one was long enough to become what I did, my way of life for the 3 months it took. This, I realised, was really living, this was what I wanted to do. Also on that walk I discovered my love for real wildness as I crossed the Scottish Highlands and revelled in the remoteness and vastness compared with the English countryside. I still didn’t know what real wilderness was though. And I didn’t know I didn’t know either.

After Hillaby came Hamish Brown and his wonderful Hamish’s Mountain Walk, the story of the first ever walk over all the Munros in Scotland and still one of the best long distance hiking books I’ve ever read. Inspired by Hamish and my walk through the Highlands on the Land’s End to John O’Groats trip I set out to climb all the Munros on backpacking trips. It took me 4 years, during which I undertook two 500 mile hikes and several shorter ones (including the first TGO Challenge), and I learnt much in the stormy Highlands where camps are often exposed and subject to high winds and heavy rain. I think that if you learn backpacking skills there you can easily adapt them to anywhere else. (Many years later I spent 41/2 months on a continuous walk over all the Munros plus the subsidiary Tops during a wet summer that really tested my skills and my perseverance).

Whilst bagging the Munros I was lent a book an acquaintance had picked up in the USA, a book that would
change my life even more than Hillaby’s and Brown’s had done. It was The Thousand-Mile Summer by Colin Fletcher. Reading Fletcher’s wonderful prose about backpacking in big wilderness in California inspired me to think about hiking overseas. A little research (again, without the Internet – I can’t imagine now how I did it!) turned up the Pacific Crest Trail. I knew the moment I read about it that I wanted to hike it. The year after completing the Munros I took my first very nervous steps north from the Mexican border. Although early April it was hot and the desert landscape was completely alien to me. I had much to learn again. My first lesson was that a half litre water bottle is nowhere near adequate in dry places. In Scotland I barely ever carried any water – there were always plenty of streams and pools. The idea of no water for tens of miles was inconceivable (again, the information now available on the PCT wasn’t around back then). Once I’d added some soda bottles to my load so I could carry enough water all was well though and I began to enjoy and appreciate the strange landscape.

The next challenge came as I approached the High Sierra. Late snow meant it was completely snowbound. I bought some snowshoes and crampons and teamed up with three other hikers. Together we made it through the snow, taking three weeks on the longest section. My pack was so heavy at the start that I couldn’t actually lift it. I had to sit down, put it on then gingerly stand up. Every hour or so I had to rest as my shoulders and hips were going numb. However I can’t now remember the weight or the pain it engendered but I can remember the joy of spending so many days without leaving the wilderness. The weight was ridiculous and I’ve never carried such a stupid load since but the rewards made the effort worthwhile.

For much of the PCT the beauty and wildness of the landscape had me floating along on a high. I was astounded and overjoyed to discover such wilderness. The whole trail was an inspiration. It remains the one walk that stands out in my memory; the one where I discovered real wilderness and the great pleasure of hiking and living in it. Since the PCT I’ve done many other long walks, most recently the Pacific Northwest Trail and the Scottish Watershed, and all have been great experiences. None has quite the magic or power of the PCT though. That was my first wilderness walk and as such remains special.


  1. I'll always be grateful that before my first backpacking trip (Keswick-skiddaw-bassenthwaite-rtn)
    I had the benefit of your backpackers handbook and magazine articles!

    My learning the craft has been in the skills of navigation, been lost a few times! And reducing the kit I carry.

    I can't wait to get out there again, my trusty pack on my back. It just feels right.

  2. A number of us will duly concur Chris with your early observations on the apprentice backpacker, it's the experience of actually going out and covering many varied walks that you build up confidence, as well as experience, but some in my opinion of the information lending to would be trail walkers can simplify the reality of what they may endure, having the latest kit and technology doesn't compensate for years of experience.

  3. Wonderful post Chris :-)

    How I remember my own external frame backpack without hip belt! It was bright orange and made of nylon and I had my tent, sleeping bag and roll matt strapped to the outside. No lightweight gear then.
    Happy days ;-)

  4. My first backpacking trip was an attempt on Whitney - we made it to Trail Camp and then the weather broke into horrendous thunderstorms and we ended up losing our permit slot. I can't believe the weight we were carrying then, but it was still the start of many wonderful trips in the USA.

  5. Metal frame rucksack with gaps and openings everywhere, a cheap cagoule in which I drowned in condensation and it let the rain in too, and most amusing of all - Doctor Marten boots which were lethal on wet rocks. My feet got wet, naturally, and they were more slippery than my normal shoes! I didn't enjoy it actually, because the Lake District was rainy and grim, but I did find it satisfying.

  6. After a tour in the military, I settled in North Florida near the Apalachicola National Forest and St. Marks Wildlife refuge. My interests turned back to hiking, canoeing, camping, and naturally onto backpacking. Like you, I was fortunate enough to be given a great book (from my wonderful wife). How she picked it out, she does not remember, but over 20 years later I am still indebted to you for writing The Backpacker's Handbook. Happy to be following you (now digitally) again.

  7. I am still awful at reducing the weight of my backpack, I have so much left to learn on that front. I have learned most of my backpacking skills through trial and error, and picking things from other backpackers..

  8. There are many different types of military backpacks built for specifically for different purposes.military backpacks Some tactical backpacks are built for general usage, some are built so you can stack even more stuff on them and then there are others which are made specifically to carry liquid sustenance or medical aid.

  9. Great article there.Backpacking is always a great hoby to have. Hope you enjoyed your trip.