- General Backcountry Travel - The Boy Scout field book is a good primer on backcountry travel. Lots of breadth, and just enough depth so you know what you don't know. NOLS has a good reputation when it comes to multi-day backcountry travel, but we have no first hand experience. Time on the ground is what you need anyway. Start conservatively and gradually expand as you learn more.
- Navigation - You'll need both map and compass and GPS skills. This is something you can spend class time on, but really only comes together on the ground. The key skills are map reading and terrain association with coordinate based (UTM or Lat / Long) GPS usage as a backup. We don't know of any schools or classes that teach off trail route selection. One clue - anywhere worth going in the western mountains probably has game trails running through the choke points.
- Wilderness Medicine - Wilderness Medicine Institute is the leader in this space. Their Wilderness First Aid course is a good primer on the subject. Really, health in the backcountry is more about preventative measures -- First, avoid trauma by moving cautiously and carefully and being aware of your energy envelope so you don't get into a space where a fall is more likely. Second, avoid "generic flu like symptoms" (AMS, dehydration, hyponatremia, etc.) and exposure issues by moving cautiously and carefully and being aware of your energy envelope. See the pattern?
- Fitness - Carrying a pack is a whole other kind of work. Cardio workouts like running or mountain biking help. Things like climbing stairs help. But all of the little stabilizer muscles necessary to walk on trail, let alone off trail, with a load can only be built by walking on uneven surfaces with a pack on.
- Listen to the Mountain - The one trait that most typifies a successful backcountry traveler is open mindedness. Even in a long familiar area, there is always some nuance or secret waiting to be discovered if you pay attention. The weather forecast you pull up in advance of a trip counts for something, but if you observe all of the elk tracks headed down country, that counts for even more. That's something you'll miss if you think you already got all of the answers from NOAA.gov. If you're headed to a completely new area, paying attention to what the mountain has to tell you may be all you have to go on.
Tools - Expected Use
- Level 0.5 and Level 1 Kit - The Level 1 Kit is always carried in concert with Level 3, and only some of them are duplicated in the pack itself. On the 0.5 Kit, sometimes the folder is left home so it doesn't duplicate the fixed blade in the Level 1 Kit.
- Cookset - Most folks have gravitated towards one pot meals or even freezer bag cooking. Cookset consists of a single pot and a stove. Our favorite is the GSI Halulite Minimalist with a Trangia alcohol stove and a custom pot stand / windscreen and (4) 1oz fuel bottles nested inside. Alcohol stoves can't be beat for simplicity, reliability, and cost; and the Trangia is the best choice. It's bombproof, allows you to carry fuel in the stove, and also allows you tamp out the burner when you've done the cooking you need to.
- Water Filter - In our experience, you need a pump filter so you can get water up out of small sources. In the country we travel, the model of dipping a bag into a pond or something and doing a gravity feed is a luxury, not something to be depended on. We've used the Sweetwater Guardian for years. This does *not* purify water, so it's not for third world uses. Once our current filters are ready for replacement, we'll switch to the First Need XLE Elite Purifier because the reliability and serviceability are about the same but you get purification as well. Do NOT use one of the UV based systems like the Steripen. The Steripen has been proven in laboratory testing to not actually render water inert.
- TP and hand sanitizer
- Inflatable Pillow - A good night's sleep is essential. If you plan to use your spare layer as a pillow, you're probably carrying too much insulation. A Kit Bag makes a good basis, but isn't thick enough for side sleepers. Exped UL Air pillow on top of a Kit Bag is perfect.
- Crazy Creek Chair - We'll use the brand name here because they (so far as we know) invented the segment. This is the closed cell foam with the stiffeners and side straps that clip together to create a chair. Very nice for sitting up and watching critters, or sitting in your tent reading through a storm. With the side straps unclipped, it becomes a 3/4 closed cell foam pad to supplement your air mattress and as backup if your air mattress fails.
- Water Storage - Depends on environment. Current standard is (2) GI 1qt bottles in wand pockets and (2) .75 qt water bottles in bottle holsters on Prairie Belt.
- Area Specific Paper Maps
Tools - Contingency
You can go overboard very quickly in this area and add pounds you carry and never use. Remember that you should be carrying enough shelter and insulation to not be in an open ended survival situation. If you're already carrying enough equipment to live in the environment you're entering, what exactly is your "I'm carrying this just in case" scenario? There may be one worth preparing for, but think it through rationally. When we were kids in Alaska, the "what if" scenario was that you ended up having to pass the winter somewhere. That still influences our thinking, but even in Alaska it is turning into an increasingly remote likelihood.
- First Aid Kit - We'll cover this more in detail elsewhere.
- Spare boot laces
- Saw - At 3oz, the Gerber slide out saw is something you can construct a serious shelter with if need be. It's also plenty of saw for feeding smaller woodstoves.
- 915 Stuff Sack - Carried empty. Lots of overflow capacity if you need it.
- Cordage - paracord is the classic, but bulky and somewhat heavy. 1mm or 2mm accessory cord is a good substitute. for hanging a bear bag if you deem it necessary, gear repair, and emergency shelter construction.
- Spare Water Storage - Currently carrying MSR Dromlite 4 liter bladder.
- Fire Starting Kit - duplicate backup
- Personal Locator Beacon - You're choice if and what. We're using the DeLorme InReach. You can get to lots more information via the dedicated forum thread.
- Signal Panel - lightweight high viz.
- Signal Mirror
- Bug Spray - In some locales, mandatory. We try to avoid those but do carry some in case.
- Sunscreen - You should be using long sleeves, long pants, and a hat. Good to have sunscreen for ears and face particularly at higher altitudes though.
- Spoon - duplicate backup. forget to put your primary back in your KB after washing it in the dish washer and you'll be glad you have the duplicate.
- Water Purification Tabs - backup for the filter.
- Sunglasses - don't like using them because they interfere with ability to see things in the woods. sometimes they're mandatory anyway.
- Spare Batteries - we've recently settled on the Goal Zero battery pack because it provides (4) AA batteries or the ability to recharge a mobile device in the same package.
- Small GPS - Our primary GPS has been our mobile devices for a couple of years now with one hiccup. Nonetheless, at the weight of a Garmin Foretrex, it doesn't hurt to still carry it as a backup.
Insulation includes everything necessary to keep you warm. It consists of sleeping system, clothing, and external heat sources such as a stove. If you think of all of those items collectively as insulation, it is easier to get a direct handle on how much of it you're carrying and where you can cut weight. For example, if you're carrying a wood stove, do you need that extra puffy jacket you carry for emergencies? Isn't your wood stove the extra margin of safety you need? Maybe. It depends on how capable of getting your stove assembled and producing heat you think you're going to be after pushing yourself too late into the day. Another area where insulation gets duplicated much of the time is sleeping system and clothing. If you're not wearing most of the clothing you have to bed, you're duplicating. Here are some factors to take into account when you're working on dialing in your insulation:
- Environment - The amount of insulation you need on a coastal plain is likely not the amount you need high in the mountains.
- Body Fat - If you've got a really low BMI, you're coming from behind when it comes to staying warm.
- Dietary Intake - If you travel mostly on subsistence rations, you're going to need to have extra layers to account for the fact that your furnace isn't producing as much heat.
- Energy Envelope - If you are one who perpetually pushes yourself to the limit in the backcountry, you're much more likely to need extra layers because you take your body to a place where it can't care for itself. If you work with the land and are conservative about your movements, you'll need less. Consider the Mexican proverb, in which the sun is colloquially known as "the cloak of the poor". Pay attention to when and where the animals move and learn from that.
You're going to have to spend some time getting dialed in on what insulation you should carry. Here's a sample of insulation that works 3 seasons in the Rockies - down to about 10f:
Yes, that's it. No more needed. As things get colder, or more exposure is anticipated (like if you're going to be sitting up on a meadow in the pre-dawn darkness), here are some other items that we've found very useful as part of an insulation system:
- ultralight puffy pants like the Patagonia micro Puff
- ArcTeryx Atom LT
In general, we've found it very hard to ever justify fleece given the compressibility / weight to warmth ratio of synthetic puffies like the above two items.
Shelter includes what you shield yourself from the elements with both when you're asleep and also during the day. In some cases, you can use both in conjunction. For example, a hard shell parka pulled over the foot of your sleeping bag makes for a mini bivy. When it comes to tents, we prefer floorless mostly for ease of living and weight savings. Remember that the larger the shelter the more you have to work to keep it warm, whether from body heat or from a woodstove. You want enough room to feel comfortable and no more. Also consider the conditions you'll be pitching in. Tipis (both dual and single pole designs) are the winners at weight to space ratio, but they rely on good stake placement for their structural integrity. A well staked tipi is bomproof. A poorly staked tipi is a kite waiting to happen. Here's what we carry for shelter from the elements:
- eVent or Dry Q Elite Hardshell Parka - These two fabrics are game changers. For the first time you can use a rain parka for general use travel when it is colder. Prior to these fabrics, a parka was a useless bit of weight in the bottom of the pack unless it rained. You want pit zips and generous sizing for wearing over insulation layers (such as a Mountain Serape) without binding.
- Gaiters - One of the above two fabrics is preferable but you can get away with something less breathable (like GoreTex) for this application. Wear them under your pants for rain, over your pants for post-holing in snow. Outdoor Research is pretty much the final word in gaiters.
- 1-2 Person Floorless shelter - The GoLite Utopia, with the mesh panels covered with uncoated ripstop, is about the best we've found. No longer made, and no you can't buy ours. The smaller offerings from Seekoutside like the Little Bug Out are good choices. Another good option is a traditional floored tent that allows "fastpitch" fly-only pitching.
Water, food, stove fuel.
Water, you need at least a gallon per person per day. Either carried with you, or re-supplied along the way. If you're in an area where you have to carry extra water anyway, carry some of it as fully hydrated foods. Don't get lackadaisical about water and your ability to have enough. This messes people up all the time. Just because you're in the mountains doesn't mean there's water up ahead. Also, beware hyponatremia. On a hot day when you're drinking plenty of water and not eating much, you can induce a very dangerous low electrolyte state. We use Hammer Heed in our water in situations like this to stay ahead of the curve.
Food is one area where you can add a huge amount of unnecessary weight to your pack quickly. Backcountry food is a whole subject area that doesn't happen to be our passion. Target a pound and a half a day per person with calorie dense foods. Check out our friend Sarah (Svien when we met her) Kirkconnell's blog and books as a great starting point.
If you're using wood for fuel, the supply is virtually indefinite. If you're using something else, don't forget that cooking over a fire is your backup cooking method. Unless you're using a Jetboil. Something else to consider - how much extra weight are you carrying in fuel just to heat your food? Does cold food make more sense? Or is the weather cold enough that putting pre-heated items into your body core is a good idea? This is another of those energy envelope considerations.
Three to four seasons out of the year in most environments, the Ute backpack is a good choice. Most likely paired with one of our compression panel choices. If you need to carry specialized gear (more gear), or carry more than about 5 days of food in the fall you might need a bigger pack. If your load gets much bigger than 60 lbs, step up to an external frame. In warmer months in more temperate climates, an Umlindi with Prairie Belt could also work for you. If you're on a budget, find a 90s vintage Dana Designs or Lowe backpack at a used gear store or on ebay for around $100. These packs were better than just about anything you can buy today and many of them are available on the used market in great shape. Level 3 also gets you into alternate modes of carriage - watercraft, sled / pulk, and bicycle trailer are good muscle powered options. And then there is motorized overlanding by motorcycle or 4 wheel vehicle.