Dec 12, 2015

First Few Steps in the Wilderness

I recently took an introductory class for wilderness Backpacking. The outdoor adventure company REI offers an array of outdoors classes, and this was their weekend class that introduces one to the fundamental skills involved in going on backpacking trips.

Backpacking is a form of wilderness travel where you head out into the wild carrying everything you would need for the trip in your backpack. This is in contrast to car-camping, where you load your stuff into a car and drive to a campsite and pitch your tent, with your car being accessible all the while. As you can imagine, backpacking would require a lot more thought, planning and experience compared to car-camping, because if you are 50 miles away from civilization and you cannot light your fire to cook food, or if you are not well stocked up on drinking water with no water source around, then you are in trouble.

We were a group of 8 and our instructor was Jeremy, an experienced backwoods expert with years of wilderness travel behind him. We started off with a brief introduction to backpacking right outside REI in the parking lot where Jeremy talked in detail about clothing, the Ten Essentials, food management and efficient packing of a backpack. REI had provided us with basic equipment such as backpacks, tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, food and snacks.

We all packed our backpacks, got into a van and drove off out from the city into a nearby wilderness area called Portola Redwoods State Park. This is a beautiful, damp and ancient forest with giant Redwood trees just an hour away from my city. This state park is part of an interconnected state park system that runs west from the San Francisco Bay area all the way to the Pacific ocean coastline.

We got to our destination, unloaded our heavy cargo, had a quick lunch of sandwiches and strapped on our backpacks. And then we began our 4 mile journey toward our campsite. Jeremy continued imparting us his pearls of wisdom throughout the journey. We had frequent pit-stops to drop the backpacks down to the ground, catch a breath and rest our thighs, and of course, to pause and take in the lush-green, damp and mossy Redwood forests around us.

It takes bodily strength to carry a heavy backpack (10-15 kg for a weekend trip) and walk for miles under changing elevation. A dedicated backpacker needs to stay very fit for the physical challenges of backpacking. It is important to regularly keep going on practice hikes to nearby hills and mountains with a deliberately-made-heavy backpack.

After about 2 hours of hiking at a relaxed pace, we got to our campsite. It was just a small clearing with a picnic table nearby. Jeremy got started with showing us how to pitch our tents. It sure is amusing when you get to see how small a one-person tent is. You cannot do more than duck down and crawl into the tent and just call it a day. If you sit up, you would push against the fabric of the tent roof so there's no head room. There's not enough width that you can so much as even stretch your hands.


Jeremy explains setting up tent.


This is my fully assembled one-person tent.

Dusk was falling upon us by the time we got done setting our tents up. We then walked to a nearby stream to replenish our water supplies. Here we were shown how to use different hydration systems such as manual pump water filters and gravity assisted water filtering. After about close to an hour near the stream, we then walked back to our camp in the dark, with our headlamps lighting up our trail.

We wrapped up for the day by gathering near the picnic table (seen in the picture) where Jeremy walked us through the nuances of cooking stoves and camp cooking. There was a nice overhead tarp set up by our instructor to shield us from the rain that was beginning to fall. We all had our freeze-dried meal and retired for the day into our tents. I had quite a warm and comfortable night's rest in my little tent despite it being cold and raining all night.

We started our day early, had a quick breakfast, broke up our tents and hiked back out of the forest. On our hike back, Jeremy addressed an important topic - how to poop while out in the wild with minimal environmental impact! That was funny to listen to but definitely isn't fun to have to deal with, although there's no escaping this.

As we approached our trailhead, we were given some closing advice and tips on how to train physically to stay fit. We then got into the van and drove back to civilization. I was really glad I finally took this class and got the basics of backpacking under my belt. I now look forward to building on this foundation and start taking little trips by myself.

An excellent book to learn about backpacking that I'm reading right now:
Allen and Mikes Really Cool Backpackin' Book

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