A Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking Safety

One of the keys is to safety is to be prepared.
One of the keys is to safety is to be prepared. Louis Hansel
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Planning your first backpacking excursion is exciting but also challenging. There’s a seemingly endless amount of gear to acquire and precautions to take. Above everything, you have to ensure that your trip is safe so that you’ll return with great stories to tell, not wounds to heal.

One of the keys is to safety is to be prepared. Like any outdoor adventure, backpacking poses risks, and things can go wrong. Your best bet is to find a backpacking partner, pick a well-mapped location, plan out your food, and take proper safety precautions. And to help you take that first step towards backpacking Alabama’s outdoors, we have put together a list of seven expert tips to make your trip as safe as possible.

Have a Checklist

One of the biggest challenges of preparing for a backpacking trip is just keeping track of all of your gear and supplies and ensuring that everything makes it into your backpack. Even experienced backpackers have reached their first campsite and realized they forgot an essential item like a headlamp or even a rainfly for the tent. If you make a checklist, you’ll have a much better chance of making it to the trailhead with all of your stuff. You can find complete backpacking checklists online, and the folks at your local outdoor gear shop can provide helpful advice on what to take.

Try to avoid packing at the last minute. If you’re in a frenzy, you’ll run the risk of forgetting things. Several days before your trip, set out all of your gear and supplies on the floor and go through your checklist, placing each item in your pack as you check it off. By packing well in advance of your trip, you’ll have time to acquire things on the list that are missing.

Take Proper Clothing

One of the keys to staying healthy and comfortable on the trail is to avoid getting too sweaty and too hot or too cold, which can lead to dehydration and, in cool weather, hypothermia. If you dress in layers, you can add or remove clothing to regulate your body temperature.

Your first layer—or “baselayer”— should wick moisture from your body. On top of this, wear a layer of clothes that will retain heat. And, finally, your top layer should block wind and moisture. With each layer, wear items made primarily of synthetic materials or wool, because these will pull moisture away from your skin to keep you dry. In cool or cold weather, you’ll stay warmer if you’re skin is dry. And avoid clothes made with 100% cotton because they retain moisture, don’t dry quickly, and rob your body of heat.

Stay Hydrated

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Flowing streams and rivers are the best sources for water in the backcountry. Anastasia Petrova

If you don’t drink enough water while backpacking, you can get exhausted, disoriented, and seriously ill. That can happen pretty easily in the humid South. To have enough water for drinking and cooking you’ll probably need to use water from local rivers, streams, and lakes, and there’s a chance the water will contain harmful bacteria and protozoa.

While you can boil water to get rid of the harmful stuff, modern backpacking water filters allow you to draw water from just about any source quickly, and they’re lightweight and don’t take up much space. Many filters have been tested to remove 99.99% of bacteria and protozoa.

While filters will eliminate most of the harmful materials, you should still practice safe water-gathering techniques. Your best bet is to find clear, flowing water from a river or stream. Moving water is less conducive to bacteria growth than a stagnant water source. And, if clear, flowing water isn’t available, your next option is to gather from a lake or other body of calm water that is relatively free of sediment. Also, make sure you don’t collect water immediately after a heavy rain or get it from a source that is near an area where animals have grazed.

Plan Your Meals

You’ll burn a ton of calories backpacking, so a detailed food plan is needed to keep you energized and hydrated. While you don’t want to load your pack down with food you don’t need, it’s better to have a little too much than to be hungry. Overnight trips will require at least a breakfast, two lunches, and dinner. To make this work, plan to take foods that are light and cook quickly. Save time and space by using freeze-dried food created for backpacking. These have come a long way from their forefathers, the military-issue MRE’s, and are quickly cooked up with just boiling water.

Bring high-calorie snack foods that you like to eat. Avoid heavy canned goods and keep the sugary candy bars to a minimum. Instead, find a good trail mix to provide steady energy.

If you plan to backpack in cool or cold weather, bring a stove so you can quickly prepare warm drinks, like hot chocolate and coffee. If your or a hiking partner gets hypothermia, a warm drink can help to raise the person’s core body temperature quickly.

Keep It Simple

Backpacking is an adventure, and that means unforeseen things can happen. Maybe your stove breaks, or someone twists an ankle. When things go sideways, the consequences will be more severe if you’re in an extremely remote area far away from civilization. For your first backpacking trip, keep it simple and do an overnight trip or hike for a couple of days at a destination reasonably close to home. Save the extended backcountry treks for the future when you have more experience.

Seek out a hiking club or visit a local outfitter where you can gain some insider knowledge on local trails. You’ll also find hiking guidebooks for almost every destination. Also, some state parks, such as Oak Mountain State Park near Birmingham, have backcountry campsites that allow you to get a sense of being in the wilderness while still remaining relatively close to park facilities. If something goes wrong, you can easily bail and get assistance.

Plan to go a short distance each day. Hiking with a backpack will take more of a toll than you think. Your trip will be much more enjoyable if you move at a comfortable pace and arrive in camp with plenty of daylight remaining so you can easily set up camp and prepare dinner.

Use a Map and Compass

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Learn to read a topographic map and carry a physical copy of one including your route in your pack. Daniil Silantev

If you’ve never used a compass, now is the time to learn. There are countless handheld GPS tools and smartphone apps available, but, when batteries die, or your internet connection goes out, you won’t be able to count on a GPS or phone for your map. Learn to read a topographic map and carry a physical copy of one including your route in your pack.

Also, leave a trip plan with someone, give them an expected return time, and let them know when you’re back so they won’t report you missing. And, to be on the safe side, invest in a personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger. These devices will send a GPS signal to appropriate authorities even if you have no phone signal.

Pack First-Aid Supplies

Make this easy on yourself and buy a pre-packaged backpacking medical kit. You can find one that is waterproof and has almost everything you will need, including medicines that provide relief from stings, antihistamine, and supplies to treat blisters and wounds. It’s a good idea to go through the kit to see if you need to add anything or organize the contents before packing. If the kit contains a book with instructions on how to use materials, take some time to learn a few basics.

As you expand your backpacking trips, take a basic CPR class or wilderness first aid course. Having the knowledge will give you peace of mind if more involved aid is needed.

Know Your Wildlife

Do a little research to find out what wildlife you may encounter. In Alabama, your biggest concerns will be venomous snakes and spiders, along with fire ants. Bear encounters are pretty rare, but you may run into a coyote, red fox, raccoon, or skunk. No matter the animal, take a cautious approach to any wildlife. Keep your distance and secure all food and scented items well away from camp. The most common practice is to store food in a spare bag and hang it from a tree, which will help keep the rodents out.

Consider the Weather

Most first-time backpackers will bail on a trip if the forecast calls for nasty weather, but there are still some other things to consider when you’re hiking in fair conditions. For example, if you head out after an extended period of heavy rain, streams along the trail could be flooded. If your hike requires stream crossings, you might need to alter your route, because crossing deep, swift water is dangerous. In general, you should stay aware of the weather and how it affects conditions where you’re backpacking. Either check online information sources or call park rangers or other officials to check trail conditions.

Written by Hap Pruitt for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.

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