As the outdoors industry expands, new backpackers can find themselves floating in a sea of gear.
But with an activity that demands minimalism, what exactly is necessary? And what can be left behind?
Backpacking may not be the foremost outdoor activity in the Upper Midwest, but it’s far from forgotten. Here, hunting and fishing often take the podium, but that activity slows considerably in the spring. Not so with backpacking, and the Midwest has several long, beautiful hiking trails for new and experienced backpackers.
“I think the Midwest gets overlooked a lot for hiking when it really shouldn’t,” said Jo Swanson, outreach coordinator for the Superior Hiking Trail. “We have a lot of hiking here.”
Swanson calls herself “a little obsessed” when it comes to backpacking, having logged more than 6,000 miles on the trail. She’s explored the SHT, the Ice Age Trail, Border Route Trail and some of the more well-known trails beyond the Midwest, like the Appalachian Trail.
Dave Caliebi, trail program specialist for the Ice Age Trail Alliance, pointed out that the Midwest has two national scenic trails — the Ice Age Trail and the North Country Trail. Caliebi hiked the entirety of the Ice Age Trail in 2010. That trail follows the last outline of the last glacier in the area.
The North Country Trail is 4,600 miles and extends from North Dakota all the way to New York state. The Border Route Trail, meanwhile, is just 64 miles of meandering trail through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, following the borders of Minnesota and Ontario, Canada.
After walking thousands of miles through the wilderness with packs on their backs, Swanson and Caliebi have found that there are certain pieces of gear that are basic necessities, and pieces that are so useful they can’t be left behind.
While it’s perhaps the most obvious piece of gear, choosing a backpack is not a decision that should be made lightly. Swanson urges new backpackers to buy their packs in a store, not online. Stores will have weight that can be put in the backpack, and it’s important to test the fit of the pack with weight. Nearly all packs will feel comfortable empty, but that all changes when they’re filled.
Caliebi said that, in his experience, he’ll fill the space he’s given. When asked what he thought was most important to pack, he said “mostly it’s what I wish I hadn’t brought” because the larger the pack one buys, the more they tend to carry. On his first trip, he said he was mailing things home within days, just to lighten his load. His first backpack was a 70-liter pack, but he said 60 liters is plenty of space for just about anyone.
Swanson uses a frameless pack made by Granite Gear. Her first pack, which had a frame, weighed 6 pounds empty. She’s found the minimalist approach works better for her, and she packs her bag a specific way to make up for the lack of a frame.
Other companies also are getting creative in their backpack design. Klymit, for example, is making waterproof packs with inflatable frames.
Then there’s the old standby. Duluth Pack, out of Duluth, Minn., is a longtime leader in the backpacking industry, with packs that run the gamut — and include lifetime warranties.
Some people bring a tent, some a hammock, and some carry only a tarp. Caliebi and Swanson said they find a tent with a rainfly to be best for their trips. Tarps, when used properly, will keep a hiker dry, but they won’t necessarily keep the bugs away.
Caliebi brought a two-man tent when he first began backpacking, but quickly downsized to a one-man tent for a lighter load.
Tent possibilities are endless. One, the new SJK In-Season 2 tent, is an all-seasons, lightweight, go-anywhere shelter that is easily carried on a backcountry camping excursion.
Sleeping bag and pad
A sleeping bag is an obvious piece of gear to bring, but some consider the sleeping pad to be a luxury.
“The one piece of advice I received is that sleeping well is important. If you don’t sleep well, it keeps building up and building up, and you’re not going to have as much fun,” said Caliebi, emphasizing his desire for a sleeping pad.
Swanson pointed out that the sleeping pad gives her added insulation between her body and the cold ground, which keeps her warmer.
“I do a lot of backpacking in the shoulder season, and that keeps me warm at night. It doesn’t have to be heavy-duty,” Swanson said. She said she once encountered a backpacker on the Appalachian Trail who used bubble wrap for a sleeping pad.
Yes, bag possibilities, too, are endless. One, the new SJK Sojourn 20-degree sleeping bag, is one of those “moderate” bags, lightweight and made for three-season hunting and camping.
Large, heavy boots often are sold as the footwear of choice for backpackers, but Caliebi prefers simple, low-top hiking shoes because they weigh less and are easier on his ankles and knees. However, he said that the most important aspect of footwear simply is that it is comfortable.
Swanson’s favorite water purification method is the SteriPEN, which involves a special ultraviolet light that goes into the water for a specific period of time, destroying bacteria and viruses in the water. Less expensive water filters can be found at big-box stores for as little as $20.
Caliebi prefers iodine tablets, which dissolve in the water and kill harmful microbes, though some people don’t like the taste they leave behind.
A water container also is important. Some use Nalgenes or water bladders, but Caliebi says the bottles from bottled water — like those from a gas station or convenience story — are lighter and hold up well enough for a trip.
Swanson’s rule of thumb is to bring one layer beyond what she thinks she’ll use. She brings only one change of clothes and is sure to keep one set dry throughout her trip. She had brought pajamas, but no longer does so. Rain gear is a must, even if the forecast is sunny. It can be used as an extra layer for warmth, even in dry weather. A light sweater or fleece also is often included in hikers’ packs.
Packing two pair of hiking socks is important to Caliebi. If one pair gets wet, he hangs it off the back of his pack to dry and switches to the second pair.
Other important items
Food, obviously, is very important, as is a shovel to bury human waste, a headlamp or flashlight kept within reach as night falls, a whistle, first-aid kit, knife, a lighter and matches (stored separately), necessary toiletry items like a toothbrush and toothpaste, sunscreen, a spork and a water container or two. Duct tape has become a must for Swanson and Caliebi, who both said they put it over spots on their feet where they feel blisters coming on — among the many other uses for duct tape.
While a GPS can be a fantastic addition to a trip, a paper map and a compass will never run out of batteries.
Swanson prefers to simply eat cold food on the trail, but some bring stoves to cook their food. Fire is not always reliable as, occasionally, wilderness areas implement a burning ban. Caliebi prefers a “beer can stove” that can be made from YouTube tutorials. The stove, made from aluminum cans, uses denatured alcohol as fuel.
Caliebi has found that most gas stations carry denatured alcohol, though they won’t always have other types of backpacking stove fuel.
Rope can be an important addition for those hiking in bear country. Hanging packs in a tree not only prevents bears from eating a hiker’s food, but also prevents bears from associating humans with food. Once the association is made, bears often have to be moved or eliminated. Inflatable pillows are popular, but Swanson said dirty clothes work just as well. Bug spray, depending on the time of year, can quickly shift from “optional” to “absolutely necessary.” A phone is good to have along, but should not be relied upon, Swanson said.
Getting it all together
Caliebi packs his heaviest items toward the bottom of his pack so the weight stays on his hips and doesn’t pull on his shoulders.
“You’ll find out pretty quickly if your pack is out of balance from side to side,” he said.
One way Caliebi evens out the load horizontally is by splitting his tent. He puts the poles and stakes on one side, and the tent body and rainfly on the other.
Because she has a frameless pack, Swanson loads her sleeping bag into the bottom of her pack, followed by her heaviest gear — often her food. Some food is kept on top, too, where it’s easily accessible, and there are a few other items she said are important to keep handy, like her whistle, map, compass and headlamp.
Keeping gear dry is an important aspect of backpacking. Swanson keeps her sleeping bag in a garbage sack to keep it dry, and added that investing in simple Ziploc bags can make a world of difference for keeping clothes — and especially electronics — dry. She said a waterproof cover for her pack is absolutely necessary, but even with the cover, water can seep in on a rainy day.
“The common phrase that I hear when people are starting a hike is to ‘hike your own hike,’” Caliebi said. “Don’t try to replicate what someone else did, walk as fast as they did or carry the same gear. Everyone has their own pace and things they enjoy. Essentially, make your own trip.”