Lessons are forever learned on the trail

“Well, I learned something new on this trip,” Cat said as she watched Brandon hoist his backpack to his bent knee before pausing to swing it onto his back.

“That’s the thing about backpacking,” I said. “Every trip, you learn new things.”

And that’s one of the things about backpacking that I love: It’s one of the least static activities you can do. You’re constantly evolving.

On this trip this past weekend, education was the overt goal: specifically, learning how to backpack solo. There was a classroom session where we went over everything from redundancy to the fact a raccoon outside your tent can sound bigger than Sasquatch, there were handouts. Then, this past weekend we spread the hikers out over a 1.5-mile stretch of trail and let them fend, for the night, on their own. Some of the lessons learned from that exercise.

  • Make a list, check it twice. Despite two pre-hike e-missives warning of the likelihood of rain, one hiker showed up with no rain gear. “I forgot it,” he sheepishly acknowledged. Upon subsequent interrogation, he also sheepishly acknowledged that he worked from memory, sans checklist. “I always use a list,” I told him. “When I pull from my gear closet, I check the gear from my list. Then, when it goes into my pack, I check it a second time.” There’s a measure of forgiveness for the forgetful when you backpack with a group; there’s precious little when you’re on your own.
  • Double check your gear before heading out. Does your tent have all its parts? Are your fuel canisters (provided you use fuel canisters) full? Does your headlamp work? How about those butane lighters? One hiker had the double-bad luck to have both lighters fail as she was about to cook dinner (after a cold, wet day on the trail). Fortunately, she had waterproof matches in reserve.
  • Simulate the experience before jumping into it. The hikers were advised to do two things prior to the trip: Hike at night, and spend time by themselves. If you’re not used to being in the woods at night, it can be disquieting, especially on your own. Speaking of being on your own, are you ready to spend 24 hours or more just with you? Find out how compatible you are with yourself before committing to spend the night.

There were other lessons not in the curriculum learned during this weekend escape as well:

  • You can survive a wet weekend. The rain started about 4 a.m. Saturday morning and lasted until about 4 p.m. that afternoon. It was raining steady when we awoke; since we only had a short hike on the agenda we opted to wait to break camp. “Pack as much as you can inside your tent, and we’ll wait and see if it lets up to pack the rest. Fortunately, we had about a 15-minute window for final packing. Likewise, that afternoon we waited until the rain finally disappeared to set-up. Our tents were damp, but they took just a few minutes of airing (plus a going-over with a camp towel) to dry.
  • The gear is always greener … . Envy is considered one of the seven deadly sins, so we won’t label what happens on a backpack trip as gear envyappreciation, perhaps? Backpacking with others is a good opportunity to take notes on what gear does and doesn’t work for them. (While our emphasis was on solo backpacking, we spent just enough time together to take note of one another’s goodies.)
  • Don’t panic. The wet, the forgotten rain gear, the faulty lighters — all things that could derail a backpacking weekend, if you let it. When something doesn’t go according to plan, we continually reminded ourselves, take a deep breath, think through your options. Odds are you’ll come up with at least one good one.

And never, ever assume that just because you’ve done this a time or two that you can’t learn something as well. Like, be sure to read the fine print.

A key premise of this GetBackpacking! Going Solo class was to encourage independence, but to let the participants know they had support if something went awry. To that end, I came up with the brilliant idea of giving each camper a battery-powered glow stick to hang at their camp. “Switch it to solid if you’re fine, to flashing if you need help,” I informed each backpacker as I dropped them off for the night. “I’ll be by around 7:30 this evening to check.”

When I began my rounds that evening, I was chagrinned to see that not one of the glow sticks was lit. As I returned to camp and climbed into my tent, it struck me as odd that not one person had remembered to activate their stick.

The next morning as we regrouped, I mentioned this to the assembled. “Oh, we turned ‘em on,” Brandon said. “They turn off automatically after 10 minutes.”

See? Always learning.

Happy trails,


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To learn more about our GetBackpacking! Going Solo program, as well as our other courses and trips, visit Welcome to GetBackpacking!

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