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Backpacking for beginners: How to get started, what you need and more tips


(CNN) — Each summer, Emily Davenport spends days at a time hauling heavy loads through the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

She sleeps on the ground. She returns to civilization pocked with bug bites and scrapes. An expert backpacker, Davenport is living the dream.

Davenport, 31, works as a guide for the Appalachian Mountain Club, the oldest outdoor group in the United States. For seven years, she’s led hikers on multiday treks through White Mountain National Forest, which includes a famed section of the 2,190-mile (3,524-kilometer) Appalachian Trail, the world’s longest hiking-only footpath.
Backpacking is hard work, but Davenport said the exertion pays off with spectacular travel experiences.

“You get to go to these places that you might not otherwise have seen, these remote spots,” she said. “Backpacking is so unique in that you can just get away.”

Get away where? In the United States, backpacking is a primary way to reach more than 109 million acres of land conserved in the National Wilderness Preservation System, where motorized vehicles and even bicycles are banned.
Such wilderness areas range from Colorado’s soaring Maroon Bells to Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, a dramatic landscape home to grizzly bears and caribou. Wilderness areas are just the beginning of US backpacking. The country is bracketed by two spectacular long-distance hiking trails, the Appalachian Trail and the 2,650-mile (4,265-kilometer) Pacific Crest Trail, with many shorter routes between.

In recent years, new backpacking routes have opened up some of the most scenic places on Earth to hikers.

Slovenia’s Juliana Trail links mountain villages and peaks in the Julian Alps, while the Red Sea Mountain Trail in Egypt travels through arid Bedouin territories. There’s world-class backpacking everywhere: Bolivia, Japan and Morocco to name a few.
White Mountain National Forest in eastern New Hampshire and western Maine offers ample opportunity for outdoor adventure.

White Mountain National Forest in eastern New Hampshire and western Maine offers ample opportunity for outdoor adventure.

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A bit of backpacking history

While people have long traveled the world on foot, late 18th-century Romantic artists and poets helped celebrate walking as recreation for Europeans, writes Rebecca Solnit in her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.”

A century later, urbanization in the United States spurred a boom in outdoorsy recreation, as Americans sought to escape cities for time in the woods.

Earlier walkers simply traveled overland or followed traditional routes, but rising interest in the activity inspired purpose-built trails across the globe. Completed in 1930, Vermont’s Long Trail was the first long-distance footpath built in the United States; the 1938 National Blue Trail in Hungary was Europe’s first long-distance trail.

Backpacking’s benefits

Those early backpackers sought connection with nature, adventure and beautiful places. Today, a growing body of evidence shows that spending extended time in the wilderness — as on a backpacking trip — has a powerful impact on well-being. Exposure to nature boosts creativity, generosity and happiness. Hiking is also fantastic exercise.

And you don’t need a lifetime of outdoors knowledge to hit the trail. While Davenport hiked and camped growing up, she didn’t try overnight backpacking until college. Then, she joined a student group for a 7-night trip through the Grand Canyon.

“That was a little intimidating, but it was an incredible experience and I learned a lot,” she said. To hone your own overnight adventures, here’s what you need to know.

Shelters -- like this one along the Sugarland Mountain Trail near the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee -- are a good option if you don't want to carry a tent.

Shelters — like this one along the Sugarland Mountain Trail near the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee — are a good option if you don’t want to carry a tent.

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How to get started

Start small and take a dry run

Maybe you’re dreaming of a full week on the trail, but Davenport suggests that new backpackers start with something a little easier.

“You don’t have to be in great shape to try it out,” she said. “Hike a couple of miles in on a flat trail to pitch your tent.”

In the White Mountains, Davenport’s favorite beginner-friendly destinations include Nauman Tentsite, a forested haven just 2.5-miles from the trailhead. If you don’t have a tent or prefer not to carry one, you can hike instead to an open-sided lean-to like Ethan Pond Shelter, by a pretty pond at the edge of Pemigewasset Wilderness. Hundreds of such shelters accommodate backpackers along the Appalachian Trail.

Before leaving, though, Davenport suggests hikers load all their gear into a backpack for a long walk around the neighborhood. See how it feels, and adjust as needed. If you’re sporting a new pair of hiking boots, don’t forget to break them in before a big trip to prevent painful blisters.

Choose your gear wisely

When the back-to-nature 1960s ushered in a full-blown backpacking craze, hikers headed out in droves, many sporting stiff leather boots, wool clothing and external-frame backpacks.

Gear has come a long way since then, and if you choose carefully, your load doesn’t need to be all that heavy. A well-fitted backpack and comfortable boots are top priorities on your gear list, Davenport said. Otherwise, you might be in for an uncomfortable trip.

Instead of ordering a backpack online, Davenport suggested going to a store.

“There’s employees there who can help fit you,” she said. “[Backpacks] are also going to fit differently when they have weight in them, so a lot of stores, like REI, will put in bags of sand. You can walk around the store a little bit, and they adjust it right to you.”

Same goes for boots, which can be modified with insoles and lacing techniques. Davenport said it’s best to find a store with a forgiving return policy. “If you do take them out on a hike and they’re feeling awful, you can return them.”

Before heading out on the trail with groups, Davenport has everyone empty their packs for inspection. Usually, there’s extra gear that can be left behind, such as extra shirts and spare shoes.

“You really only need certain basic layers,” Davenport said. “You try to slim down on all of those extra things you don’t need.” Basics include moisture-wicking base layers, some light-weight insulation and waterproof rain gear.

Even if you’re not going deep into the wilderness, it’s worth considering a battery-powered satellite device, such as a SPOT beacon. Many backpacking destinations don’t have cell service, which makes getting lost or twisting an ankle a serious matter.

While you may never use it, a satellite device can provide peace of mind and potentially life-saving access to emergency services.

Renting gear for your first forays into backpacking is a good way to see if you enjoy it.

Renting gear for your first forays into backpacking is a good way to see if you enjoy it.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis News/Getty Images

Borrow or rent if you can

All that gear can be pricy, so if you’re getting a feel for backpacking you may want to borrow or rent your gear instead. (That can be a good way to test-drive specific brands, as well.)

The Appalachian Mountain Club lodges where Davenport works out of, including Highland Center Lodge and Joe Dodge Lodge, have rooms stocked with loaner gear available to guests for overnight trips.
Recent years have seen emergent gear rental services that ship camping and backpacking kits to your home or destination. Backpacking “pods” from Oregon’s Xscape Pod include high-quality packs, tents, head lamps, cooking kits and other essentials for planning a trip, with shipping to the lower 48 states. Kits from Arrive Outdoors in California offer similar value.
If you already have some of your own gear, consider renting extras via the à la carte option at Camp Crate, where you can find everything from trekking poles to high-tech camping stoves.

Have fun (and don’t try for a speed record)

As Davenport prepares groups for trips into the White Mountains, she frequently hears from hikers concerned about their pace. “Usually they’re worried that they’re going to be incredibly slow,” she said.

If going fast is what you want, though, there are other, easier vacation options. But whether you’re a super-fit athlete or struggle to heft your pack after lunch, backpacking is a chance to slow down from the pace of modern life.

“It’s just nice to disconnect from everything and be remote,” Davenport said.

Once you’re on the trail, a walking pace lets you tune in to the natural world around you. Instead of hurrying along, just take in the scenery, listen for elusive wildlife and try to spot trail-side plants you’d never see from a car window.

“Just take it step by step,” she said. “Try to have a good time.”

The 211-mile John Muir Trail stretches from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney in California.

The 211-mile John Muir Trail stretches from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney in California.

Victor Volta/Alamy

Where to go backpacking

You don’t have to go far from home to get started. Some state and regional parks have walk-in campsites ideal for learning the ropes and testing out gear.

When you’re ready to go farther afield, these world-class backpacking trips offer the challenge — and spectacular scenery — of a lifetime:

— Plan an overnight — or walk for a whole week — along the 211-mile (340-kilometer) John Muir Trail from Yosemite National Park in California.
— Walk hut to hut on New Zealand’s 33-mile (55-kilometer) Milford Track in the country’s Fiordland National Park.
— Climb steep hills for big views on the 30-mile (48-kilometer) Pemi Loop through New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness.
— Join Egyptian guides for the 143-mile (230-kilometer) Sinai Trail, a long-distance hike across Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

— Or spot reindeer herds as you follow the 270-mile (434-kilometer) Kungsleden into Swedish Lapland.

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