Backpacking consists of walking from one place to another while carrying everything you will need for the journey. Anyone who says otherwise is probably trying to exaggerate their own accomplishments… or even worse, they may be trying to sell you something.
At some point backpacking has come to take on a sort of grandiose position within the minds of many non-backpackers and backpackers alike. Backpacking and hiking became something far more complicated than it truly is and in many ways this has created barriers for both newcomers and many casual backpackers alike. The following is basic advice to bear in mind while preparing for your next trip.
At its simplest, carry what you need.
Of course what one needs has been misconstrued over time by nervous parents, outdoor organizations who fear liability suits, gear manufacturers, retail stores, and even other backpackers. In 1907 the Boy Scouts coined the motto, “be prepared”. An honest and true motto for any outdoorsman, though it has seemingly come to mean, “bring everything you could ever dream of needing even if you don’t know how it is meant to be used”.
So what do you really need for a backpacking trip, then?
You need food and water to keep your body moving. You need to keep your body at an appropriate temperature range. And you will need a method of dealing with any medical problems that may arise.
Food and water are pretty simple. Carry lightweight calorie rich foods that do not need refrigeration (unless of course it’s cold outside). You will want to carry enough food to last you for either the entire duration of your trip or long enough for you to re-supply and obtain more of it. Water can be obtained from rivers, streams, creeks, lakes, and ponds (though care should be taken to treat water in order to prevent illness). Carry only as much water as you need to get you from water source to the next water source. If you happen to be hiking a desert in mid-late summer, you may find yourself asking, "why am I hiking a desert in mid to late summer?", but you will certainly want to carry a lot of water. If you are planning to hike in a much wetter environment, it is often safe to carry no water at all.
Keeping your body at an appropriate temperature range is a more complicated, but still a relatively simple matter. Bring enough clothes that you will be warm enough and bring appropriate methods to keep yourself dry. This means layering wool or synthetic materials (these stay warmer when wet and dry significantly quicker than cotton does). Also, understand that your body generates an incredible amount of heat while hiking and that your last line of defense in a cold situation is your shelter and your sleeping bag. If you can keep your clothes dry you will not need a second (or third) set of clothes. Again, consider your environment. If it is going to be relatively warm and you have reason to believe it will not rain, don’t pack rain gear and even consider leaving your shelter at home. If you know it will be cold and wet, pack warmer clothes, rain gear, and consider bringing a heavier shelter to protect yourself from the elements.
Lastly it is important to consider what you will do if in fact something does “go wrong”. With this it is important to consider your own abilities. It is important to note that most injuries or problems in a wilderness setting are solved in either one of two ways. Either you seek help and evacuate or you suck it up and deal with it. In the case of an emergency your best bet will always be to seek help. Therefore, knowing alternate and easiest access routes to reaching that help is of utmost importance. Having been trained and certified in wilderness first aid my solo medical kit contains nothing more than ibuprofen and two “butterfly” style bandages. Outside of my med-kit I carry duct tape, two bandanas, a needle, dental floss, and usually a cell phone (which may or may not have service). I know that if I am hurt I can suppress (some of) the pain, stop bleeding, or build a splint with these materials. If the injury is considered to be less than serious, I’ll patch it up and continue my trip. If the injury is considered to be serious I can do what I can and then look towards evacuation and seek further medical attention.
Carrying less and carrying lighter loads will certainly make things easier for yourself. With these three categories: food and water, body temperature, and personal safety, in mind one can most easily envision what they will actually need for a trip. Despite what major outdoor equipment retailers will tell you, these are the only vital elements of a successful backpacking trip. Exactly what gear you carry is superfluous to your trip so long as it works and it works for you. Remember; carry a positive attitude and a sense of humor as well. These weigh nothing and often prove to be invaluable tools.