Backpacking sounds great. You carry what you need on your back, traveling across untamed wilderness with only your wits and woods sense. You imagine a scene where elk stride majestically across a meadow, an eagle swoops and catches a giant trout from a stream, and Bigfoot poses next to the trail marker for you to snap a picture. After 5 minutes though, a single burning thought creeps in….where are the, uh, facilities? You look frantically about, begging for a rest stop, a McDonalds, a port-a-john, or even one of those awful pit toilets the forest service has. But there’s nothing out there for you, and the cold harsh reality of the woods sets in: here in the wild, you must poop…in the woods.
More than any other factor except bear attacks (of which, there has never been a recorded injury or death in SC) the reason you won’t backpack is because you can’t take a toilet with you. Car camping is the most popular form of camping because there’s toilets and showers for you to use. RV’s are popular because you take the toilet and shower with you. To really “get away from it all” though means packing in toilet paper and a trowel.
Let’s not get the cart ahead of the mule though; there are many other things that need to considered. If you’ve never backpacked before, it can be intimidating to try to get everything together. The gear list seems endless, the price tag enormous, and so many fears creep into your mind making you pack every last thing imaginable. First, find out what gear shops in the area offer equipment rentals, especially if this is your first backpacking trip. Quality equipment makes all the difference in the world, and it’s much better to rent or borrow gear then it is to buy low quality gear that causes you to suffer. Look to rent backpacks, sleeping bags and mattresses, tents, and if possible small backpacking stoves. Talk with some of the employees who work at the store on what gear to rent, and they’ll do their best to steer you in the right direction.
Along with those essentials, the next thing on the list to pack is clothing. When and where you’re going will decide how warm you should dress, but no matter what, avoid cotton; it does not compact well, it’s heavy, and once wet it is nothing but a liability. In colder weather, a damp cotton shirt next to your skin will bring about hypothermia. Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon are good choices. Packing too many clothes becomes burdensome and you go home with stuff that’s wrinkled and still smells as fresh as when you packed it because you never wore it. For 2-3 days of backpacking, I only bring 1 change of clothes in addition to what I’m wearing, plus a fleece jacket and a rain jacket. Personally, I’m of the opinion that if I smell like dirt, trees, and mountain air, the higher the chance that Gigantopithecus won’t catch my scent. However, 1 change of clothes per day isn’t ridiculous; just remember that you have to carry it all.
Cooking is an issue that I believe I will have to leave for better people to debate: I don’t know how to cook fancy gourmet meals at home, much less in the backcountry. I do like to eat however, so I go for easy to prepare stuff that I can get cheap. You can go for the nicer freeze-dried foods at the outdoor stores, where all you have to do is add boiling water and, voilà, you have lasagna. It costs about $4-5 per meal, which is the weekly food wages of a college student. So, what I like to do, is go to the grocery store and get some of the instant meals from Zatarans, tuna-fish in the foil packaging, a jar of peanut butter, oatmeal, an assortment of snacks for lunches, and some noodle soup. Sounds delicious right? But, this is what works for me, in terms of variety, taste, and actual nutritional value of the food. Go to a grocery store to just look around and decide what would work and what won’t. If you have the chance, even try some of the food beforehand. Like packing clothes, pack a little extra food just in case but don’t be so paranoid you lumber into the woods with a full hock of ham strapped on your back (unless you’re camping with me, and then that behavior is perfectly acceptable).
Returning to my original point though: If you’re backpacking for the first time, the big issue is nearness to a lavatory. So with that in mind, my recommendation is that your first backpacking trip be somewhere within a 20 minute walk of a restroom and shower. Jones Gap State Park fits the bill nicely, with backpacking sites that are close enough the facilities if the terror of the trowel strikes, but far enough away that at night you feel truly alone sitting around the campfire. Worse comes to worse and the weather turns sour in a hurry, you can always get to the cars quickly and head home.
Like starting anything new, start small and easy and build up to epic levels of adventure. Don’t forget the little accessories like flashlights, and pillows that make the trip fun. And don’t worry about things not going perfectly; you always get better with practice.
(Backpacker magazine publishes gear lists online for 3-season hiking that is an excellent overview of what to consider packing; take a look online for more information.)