Joys of backpacking into the backcountry

Camping in the backcountry can often lead to wildlife sightings, like this moose grazing near a lake. Planning a backcountry trip can be challenging but well worth the effort once it starts.

Prime backpacking season is upon us, and perhaps you’re considering heading out for your first foray into the world of backcountry camping.

You’ve seen the allure of carrying your home on your back and aren’t in the least deterred by my tales of rainy nights and soggy days. Unfortunately you haven’t the slightest idea how to plan your trip. Here are three main components of trip planning that can help.

First, you have to determine when and where to go. This can often be the most challenging, especially here, because the options are so vast.

The “when” is easy. If you plan to go backpacking in the mountains, you should wait until at least the first official day of summer before setting out, and really you should wait until after July 4. If you end up at high elevations (over 12,000 feet) in a large snow year, you could find yourself crossing snow fields well into late June and early July. 

In choosing “where” to go, I like to choose wilderness areas or national forest areas that are within easy driving distance.  The portion of the Uncompahgre Wilderness/Uncompahgre National Forest near Silverjack Reservoir offers a variety of options for backpacking, and the trail heads for those are only about 2 ½ hours away. Similarly the Maroon Bells Wilderness (specifically the Avalanche Creek area) near Carbondale can be reached in 2 to 2 ½ hours. Of course, there are plenty of wilderness areas, national forests and BLM lands throughout Colorado for you to explore. 

Once you’ve narrowed down the area you’d like to visit, it’s time to get specific. You’ll need a good book describing routes and trail heads, plus a good map.

Most of your local outdoor stores will have National Geographic and Lat40 maps of areas such as the Weminuche Wilderness, Uncompahgre National Forest, etc.

Some outdoor stores, such as REI, and bookstores will have books on hiking these areas. One that I have used many times when backpacking in the Weminuche area is Hiking Colorado’s Weminuche and South San Juan Wilderness Areas by Donna Ikenberry. There are similar books for other wilderness areas in the state.

Using your map and book, you should be able to find a trail suitable to your needs. This means examining the length of the trail (err on the side of caution and plan to go about six miles a day), difficulty of trail and trail use. I like to look for trails that have gradual elevation gain and are only “moderately” used.  If the trail you want to hike is “heavily” used, you can bet you’ll probably be competing with others for the best campsites.

Next, you have to get and prepare your gear. You probably already have hiking boots and clothing suitable for a backpacking trip. At least, I assume if you want to backpack, you enjoy hiking and do it quite often.

Don’t plan to pack a different outfit for each day of your trip. Pick two pairs of pants and two shirts and swap them out every other day. You can rinse them in creeks and let them dry by hanging them off your pack.

The things you might need to purchase include a backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, small tent, water treatment and dry bag or bear bag.

Note: If you decide to make your first backpacking trip in a national park, make sure to check for permit requirements and bear-proof-canister requirements. 

For this gear and other smaller items, such as a cook set and stove, food, etc., I recommend heading to your favorite outdoor gear store. Don’t plan to just order everything online. By talking to employees at recreational stores, you will gain valuable information on types of cook sets, brands of food, best and lightest gear, etc.

Weight will play a huge factor in what you purchase. Trust me, you don’t want to have more than about 40 pounds on your back when you start out on your trip. Over time, I’ve gotten my pack weight down to 30 pounds. Knowledgeable store employees can help you get the best buy for the best weight and functionality.

Finally, you have to get out there.

Before you head out on your trip, make sure to leave detailed information about your route, days on the trail, etc., with someone. Throw some “after backpack” snacks in the car, such as a canister of Pringles, and leave a few beers or sodas on ice in a cooler. They may be lukewarm when you get back, but they’ll still taste great.

While you’re out, make sure to manage expectations. Not every day will be perfect or easy. Rain will probably find you in the afternoons, and finding a camping spot by 3 or 4 p.m. will often keep you from hiking through a thunderstorm.

Use the trail descriptions from that book you bought to find great campsites, or look for nice flat areas away from dead trees and within site of accessible water. Make sure to camp 100 feet from lakes or streams and try to find a place with the shelter of a few healthy trees. I’ve found great campsites in forests near lakes, in meadows and on knolls above rivers. 

Backpacking can be great fun and worth the time and preparation of planning a trip. Knowledge can go a long way in keeping you and those you hike with safe and happy out on the trail.

For more information on planning trips or on specific gear, watch for more columns this summer or email me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Daily Sentinel online advertising coordinator Julie Norman can’t do enough backpacking and mountain biking on her days off. Email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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