Farkas: Backpacking 101 – taking outdoor exploration to the next level

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One of the many blessings (curses?) of Alberta life is the shoulder season.

For every time we’re blessed with a 15ºC chinook day in February, it seems like we’re cursed with a payback, snowed-in Christmas-like day in May. (Albertans probably wouldn’t have it any other way.)

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So what do hikers do when the weather outside can’t decide whether it’s summer, winter, or both? We do the only thing we can do: we prepare.

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Embarking on a wilderness adventure with only the essentials strapped to your back is a profound experience that connects you with nature – and the people around you – in a unique way. Although the planning and effort needed for backpacking may sound intense, rest easy. It’s not as hard as it sounds.

Backpacking is the natural evolution for hikers looking to take things to the next level through a far more immersive way to explore the great outdoors. While both activities share a love for nature, they vary greatly in terms of preparation, skills and equipment.

To most people, “backpacking” means setting out on a self-supported overnight trip. Let’s dive into what sets it apart from day hiking, and why taking the leap may not be as hard as you think.

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Although backpackers require self-reliance, adventures are best shared with company. Photo, Jeromy Farkas. cal

1. Time and Distance:

A big difference between backpacking and hiking is the time spent on the journey. While a day hike typically lasts a few hours, backpacking involves overnight or multi-day trips where hikers carry all necessary gear and provisions for the complete trip. This prolonged exposure requires careful planning for food, water, shelter and safety.

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That said, backpacking doesn’t necessarily mean a long drive and arduous trek to your overnight destination. Consider the Quaite Valley Back Country Campground in Kananaskis. This popular starter backpacking destination is only a 45-minute drive from Calgary, and accessed by an easy 4.5-km one-way trail with only 100 metres of elevation gain.

2. Self-Sufficiency:

Backpacking demands much more self-sufficiency as compared to traditional hiking. This is either a selling feature or a downside, depending on your tastes. Simply put, you don’t have anything that you don’t bring. In addition to carrying personal essentials like food, water and clothing, backpackers must also be prepared to handle emergencies and navigate varied terrain and weather. Backpackers must rely on themselves – and each other–to address challenges or fix problems that arise.

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One of the best advantages of sleeping in a tent is the views. Photo, Jeromy Farkas cal

3. Equipment:

Backpacking gear is often different from what you might bring on a day hike. Essential equipment includes sturdy footwear, a backpack, lightweight shelter, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, food preparation, water filtration, navigation tools (such as a map and GPS device), and appropriate clothing for all weather conditions.

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Backpackers must carefully consider the weight and size of each item, as carrying more than you need can quickly turn into a nightmare. Most backpackers will tell you: “You think you love something until you find out what it weighs.”

There are expensive, lightweight versions of many popular pieces of outdoor gear – but I wouldn’t obsess over that. The difference is often marginal, and you don’t need to break the bank to get started.

4. Physical Fitness:

While hiking requires a certain level of physical fitness, the demands for backpacking are often – but not necessarily – more strenuous. Carrying a heavy pack over rugged terrain for extended periods can test your endurance. Successful backpackers spend time training, gradually increasing the weight of their pack and building up their fitness to comfortably handle the challenges of the trail.

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Backpacking allows hikers to reach places, like Kendall Katwalk in Washington state, that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Photo, Jeromy Farkas cal

5. Navigation and Route Planning:

Navigating the backcountry requires more advanced skills compared to following established trails on a day hike. Hikers must be proficient in map reading, compass use and GPS navigation to avoid getting lost – and backpackers, doubly so. Good route planning means honestly assessing terrain difficulty, water sources, campsite locations and potential hazards like grade, wildlife, or river crossings.

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6. Leave No Trace:

Respecting the environment is fundamental to backpacking. Be sure to “leave no trace” and minimize your impact on the natural landscape. This means packing out all trash, disposing of human waste and garbage properly, camping in designated areas, and respecting wildlife and vegetation. By following these principles, backpackers help preserve the wilderness for future generations to enjoy. Let’s leave things better than we found them.

Albertans are blessed to have incredible access to nature and outdoor adventures, even if our weather continues to “delight” and surprise.  Backpacking is not only an introduction to new challenges and rewards – it’s an invitation to look at your gear, your surroundings and yourself differently.

If you’re an avid hiker thinking of planning your first overnight trip, don’t sell yourself short. While backpacking is more complex than a simple weekend hike, the barrier to entry (in terms of skills, cost, time and equipment necessary) may not be as much as you think.

And if you live in Alberta, I probably don’t have to tell you: be prepared for anything!

Former city councillor Jeromy “Pathfinder” Farkas is a certified wilderness first responder with more than 4,000 hours of experience in some of North America’s most remote backcountry settings. In 2022, he completed a 4,265-km trek from Mexico to Canada. He is chief executive officer at the Glenbow Ranch Park Foundation.

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