Staying Comfortable and Safe Outdoors
Do you ever feel like you just need to get away from your daily stresses and get off the grid for some time to relax?
We are very lucky to live in the Northwest where we have copious amounts of wilderness to explore and enjoy. Getting out into nature is a wonderful way to refresh your body and mind after a stressful work week…month…year. As we have mentioned in a previous post, recent research from Japan purports a close human relationship between walking among trees and nature to positive changes in blood pressure, hormone balance, heart rate, and overall mental health. Venturing out into the wilderness is also a great way of breaking away from the everyday stresses of our modern world and getting a fresh perspective on things. Once you lose your cell phone signal, you are free from the work emails, Facebook notifications, political news and everything else that is going on in the world. You owe it to yourself from time to time to fully “clock out” of your day to day work and personal life in order to check out the wilderness around you.
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Kayaking, mountain biking, day-hiking, backpacking or car camping; our locale gives you an abundance of easy to reach options to get out and enjoy nature. Regardless of how you are enjoying the great outdoors, chances are you will have to carry some supplies with you at some point. In most cases, that involves a backpack. Whether you are just going out for a nice day hike or you are going out for 5 nights on the trail; preparation and properly packing your pack will ensure a more comfortable, safe and ultimately more enjoyable trip into the wilderness. The following tips are focused on overnight backpacking but they apply to packing any sort backpack in order to maximize ergonomics and comfort.
Backpacking doesn’t have to be the grueling visual of carrying an uncomfortable, heavy pack along a trail for miles and sleeping on the hard ground. With the proper gear, you can have a comfortable experience that tends to be some of the most rewarding exercise you will find. One of the most crucial pieces of gear for comfortable backpacking is… you guessed it, the backpack. Finding a backpack that fits your body and feels good for you is one of the most important aspects of ensuring you enjoy your trip. Modern backpacks are quite light and well designed to carry heavy loads comfortably. Brands like Osprey have gender-specific designs and various sizes of their backpacks to ensure proper fit to maximize comfort.
Warning: Backpacks and most outdoor gear can be surprisingly expensive! Don’t feel like you need the latest and greatest pack or gear. There are plenty of older and used items around that are still very capable. Fit is the most important thing, shop around!
Once you have a pack, ensuring that you load it properly is key. Loading your pack correctly not only properly disperses the weight of the pack, it allows the pack to shift weight off of your shoulders and onto your hips. This transfer of weight is crucial to ergonomics, safety and your comfort when carrying the pack. You want heavier items like your stove and food/water towards the middle of the pack, close to your center of gravity. This helps with balance and stability, which in turn keeps you safer by helping to ensure you do not topple over. Typically, there is a separate bottom pocket for your sleeping bag as well as straps on the outside for a ground pad. Otherwise, the sleeping bag and some other lighter items you won’t use until you get to camp (long underwear, sleepwear) should be at the bottom of your pack. As I said before, the heaviest items can go above the sleeping pad and other lighter items so that they are centered and close to your spine. Pack the bulky items first then fill around those with things like your tent that can efficiently fill up the empty space to optimize your capacity. Keep things like snacks, maps or anything you may need during the hike in easy to access pockets.
Here are a couple of links to more information about proper packing:
So now that we know how important it is to pack your backpack correctly, it is time to go over some of the stuff that you need to make sure you actually put in your pack. Obviously you first want to cover the basics: Food, Water & Shelter. If you can stay hydrated, fed and warm then you are pretty much guaranteed to have a decent time. Make sure you are doing your best to minimize the weight of whatever you carry. Avoid foods with a lot of water weight; dehydrated and freeze dried foods that only require boiling water are typically the best. Instant oatmeal is a great option for breakfast, also think about protein bars or cured meats and hard cheeses that hold up without refrigeration for snacks throughout the day. Bringing along small bottles of hot sauce or seasonings can make a big difference! Remember that you will be doing more physical work throughout the day with hiking, so you will be needing more calories than usual, don’t skimp on your food supply! While we are on the subject of skimping, NEVER SKIMP ON YOUR WATER SUPPLY!! Unfortunately water is typically the heaviest item you will be carrying but unless you are absolutely sure there is a water source along your route (and you have a water filter that you can use to filter it) always bring more water than you think you will need. With the dehydrated meals needing water as well, make sure you account for that when you are thinking about how much water your group needs. Having too much always beats not having enough.
Now, the last of the “big three” in outdoor survival, shelter. Shelter is obviously an important part of your overall comfort when your out in the wilderness. Depending on your needs, choose a tent that works for you and/or your group. For car camping, I would recommend a bigger tent with space for extra comforts and gear. You can usually find good deals on big 6 – 8 person tents around holiday sales at Walmart, Target etc… You can also usually find plenty of quality car-camping gear like sleeping bags, ground pads etc… around the big box stores but it is typically heavier gear than what you would want to bring on a longer trip. Now if you are going out backpacking, you are going to want to go the other way with your tent selection; you want the least amount of tent (weight-wise) you can get away with. Ideally, a backpacking tent is under 5 pounds or so and is fully weatherproof. Hopefully, any tent you buy is fully weatherproof, but with the backpacking tents, the higher cost typically leads to more reliable weatherproofing as opposed to “weather-resistant” tents. Now as I mentioned before, outdoor gear can be expensive so shop around and do not be afraid to get older gear. However, with outdoor gear, you are putting a little more reliance on this gear to shelter you, keep you warm and in worst-case scenarios keep you alive. With that in mind, you often get what you pay for in the realm of outdoor gear so I recommend doing some research into the brands of gear you intend on purchasing, at least for the items that you need to keep you alive if things go terribly south (shelter, stove, water filter, etc…)
Now that we have gone over packing your pack as well as tips for food, water and shelter, hopefully you are thinking about dusting off the old camping gear in the garage or thinking about planning a first time camping trip for the family. A couple of other things to think about to ensure a fun trip are: headlamp flashlights – they are way better than normal flashlights, smore supplies, extra food and water and games or activities to keep the kids entertained.
As far as safety goes, following a couple of steps to ensure proper preparation can ensure you are being as safe as possible. First, Always ensure that you educate yourself about the area you are visiting. You can usually check government websites such as Olympic Nat. Park Conditions Alerts to make sure you know of any fire bans, wilderness warnings or bad conditions in the area. Also, make sure you have a fully stocked first aid kit before you leave home. Another good tip is to make sure you let a couple of people know where you are going and when they should expect to hear back from you.
As far as wildlife goes, your preliminary check on conditions should alert you to anything out of the ordinary but as a rule of thumb, if you don’t leave food or anything to attract animals to your campsite, chances are the animals wont come. Most of the stories you have seen or heard about involving bears and the like involve campers leaving food out, which is basically inviting wildlife to sniff around your campsite. In areas where bears are prevalent, invest in or rent a bear canister (they are required in many areas of Olympic Nat. Park.) They store all your food in them without letting the scent out to keep the bears away. Even if there are no bears in the region, keep your food in the car or in a bag and hung from a tree away from camp because the raccoons and other wildlife will come if they smell it. Overall, proper preparation and research should alert you to any kind of issues that you and your family should be aware of. If you have any questions go online and find the ranger station that presides over the area you are going to and give them a call, they will answer any questions you have and will have the most up to date information.
Here are some resources to guide and help you get out and enjoy the wilderness our region has to offer:
So you want to go camping for the very first time?
So you want to go backpacking for the very first time?
In conclusion, always keep these tips in mind when you are preparing for an outdoors excursion. When packing, remember to keep the heavier items close to your body around the lower middle of the pack and work around that, keeping things balanced. Also remember to do your research and double check your food, water, shelter and first aid supplies before any outing into the wilderness. Sticking to these tips will help to ensure that you stay comfortable and safe so that you can truly enjoy the great outdoors!
Bonus: here are some pictures of the Drs.’ most recent backpacking trip in Gifford-Pinchot National Forest!