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Backpacking: Carrying Your Camp on Your Back

There is nothing like backpacking for Doug MacPhail.

Doug MacPhail backpacking on the Appalachian Trail

“It is an incredible and liberating experience to have everything you need to survive carried on your back,” said the Franklin Park resident. “Plus, every day is a new journey, going from point A to B. I can’t wait to see what is over the next hill.” MacPhail section-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail over a few years, backpacking along the way.

Carrying your camp upon your back is taking camping up a whole level and requires some advance planning, including special gear and equipment.

“Gear keeps getting lighter and better constructed each year. There are ultra-lite packs and tents that weight less than 25 ounces,” said MacPhail. “The same goes for cook sets, stoves, fuel, sleeping pads and rain gear.”

These innovations include food. “The prepackaged dehydrated meals taste terrific and eliminate the need to clean a pot,” MacPhail added. “Water filters work well for purifying water from a stream or even standing water.”

Sarah Carr

Sarah Carr, a backpacker as well as the assistant manager at 3 Rivers Outdoor Company, shares MacPhail’s love of the sport. “Backpacking is a great way to truly unplug and experience wilderness. You are reliant on your preparation with gear, skills and physical/mental endurance that you just don’t quite achieve while car camping,” she said.

To help others enjoy the activity, Carr shares her camping and outdoor tips at

According to Carr, having the right shelter is key. Backpacking tents that are lightweight, smaller, and easy to assemble tend to be more expensive than car camping equipment but are worth the costs.

“Decide on a budget range and do your research comparing different tents. For backpacking, I use a two-person tent even if I’m the only one sleeping in it,” said Carr. “This gives me enough room to tuck my gear inside during bad weather, and I’m always thankful for the opportunity to reorganize my pack midtrip.”

Used or hand-me-down gear is great for new campers before they make a huge financial commitment. Some specialty retail shops like 3 Rivers Outdoor Company offer used gear, and you can also check with friends and family to see if they have camping gear to loan or sell.

“With used gear, you always want to make sure that gear is still in good working order.

Sometimes, you may have to invest in minor repairs—restringing tent poles, re-waterproofing a tent’s rainfly, purchasing new stakes or a well-fitting tarp for underneath your tent,” Carr said.

The backpack is probably the most important piece of equipment, according to Carr. “Your relationship with your pack will be your relationship to the trip. Make sure that you have a pack that fits correctly and is the right type of pack for the length and type of trip,” she said, adding that it can be valuable to have an expert assist with the right pack and fit.

Overpacking is a common mistake for new backpackers, one that Levi Wilson made on his first outing. “I had 65 pounds on my back for 70 miles. In my notebook, I wrote down stuff I didn’t use or will never bring on a backpacking trip again,” he said. “Make sure you really need it to carry it.”

MacPhail agreed. “Just like packing for a vacation, lay out everything you think you need, and then put 50 percent aside. You need far less than you think.

“Backpackers carry too much food and clothing,” he added. “Typically, you are out for a few days and will be able to resupply and do laundry.”

All three veteran backpackers recommend taking advantage of synthetic and lightweight clothing and rain gear. And Carr said to pack a few treats. “Take a few things to make you comfortable and to have fun. I have peanut M&Ms, my favorite, an inflatable pillow to help me sleep and enough changes that I have dry clothes,” she said.

There are numerous resources to help new backpackers including experienced friends, staff such as Carr at specialty stores like 3 Rivers Outdoor Company, and of course, the Internet. “You will find loads of information about equipment online. You will even find gear lists that will help you with packing and keeping to the essentials,” MacPhail said.

Online resources, trail guides, maps and books are useful for preparation. “Research the place you’re going to see if they recommend bear bags or containers, the places to get water, and what the campsite is like,” Wilson said.

He also suggests social media. “I get lot of amazing information from backpacking groups on Facebook from people who are already backpacking or live close to a trail. Sometimes you will get lucky and they will share a cool hidden gem.” There are also numerous trail apps including All Trails, a favorite of Carr’s.

Wilson also shared a very important tip. “Make sure you leave an itinerary with a loved one or a friend,” he said.

While you should take the time to prepare, don’t make it more complicated that it needs to be, said Carr. “This doesn’t mean that backpacking has to involve a lot of training or that it always has a higher level of difficulty—there are backpacking routes of all lengths and difficulty levels.”

And always follow the one creed by which every responsible camper abides. “Leave the place better than you found it,” Wilson said.

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