SHANE STEINKAMP'S BACKPACKING BASE CAMP
WHERE DO I BEGIN?
Everybody starts somewhere, and the 'sports' of hiking, backpacking, and camping are no different. I started somewhere and wound up here, and hopefully by reading some of this stuff, you will get to where I am too. Where is that? Why, at the point where you can wander in the outdoors successfully, and actually enjoy yourself!
Not everything on this page is mine, but it's all good advice.
The first thing you should understand, and think about, before venturing into the back country, is that accidents and injuries do happen. People die in the wilderness every year because they are unprepared - mentally and physically - for the challenges they face. This is true in the city too, and the wilderness isn't any more dangerous - just different. Before you go buy a single piece of gear, you should gather as much information as you can about these 'sports', and have a reasonable idea of what you will face in the places you want to go, and a reasonable expectation of your abilities.
Having been personally in some pretty bad spots, and having known others, and observed others, who were in bad situations, the bottom line when things go badly in the wilderness comes down to fear. At some point when you get lost, or things go bad - like a bad fall - people who are unprepared for these eventualities have what I call the "HOLY $H1T" moment. When you are having the HS moment, it's best to stay put. What you do and the decisions you will make immediately after the HS moment are those that will determine your ultimate survival. Usually the best thing to do in these situations is, surprisingly, nothing. Tend your wounds, but stay put for a little while. Wait until the adrenalin wears off. Then THINK. If you are lost, for instance, wandering around without a clear plan of exactly how to get UN-lost is counter productive. If you are injured, wandering around without a clear plan of how to get rescued or how to self-rescue is counter productive. You should only move once you have had time to THINK, and make a PLAN, and are ready to execute the plan.
Those who will not reason
Perish in the act:
Those who will not act
Perish for that reason.
— W. H. Auden, 1907-1973
You should read all the books, watch all the videos, and visit all the websites you can to understand this kind of thing before you actually experience it. Better yet, understand how NOT to have accidents and injuries happen to you. The books, videos, web-sites, and Learning Channel TV shows (like Wild Survival), are all excellent starting points. You can't gain experience if you are ignorant, so accumulating a large body of knowledge about skills, terrain, gear, etc. is important. It's especially important when your trip goes from fun to dangerous.
Skills, both physical AND mental are important. When you read about fire starting in the book, don't just say, "OK, I know that." Actually go out and start some fires in your BBQ pit. Take the fire bow for instance. All the books tell you how to do it. NONE of the books tell you the most important part. You read the book and go out and find a stick and a fire board, and spin your nice clean stick in the nice clean socket you have carved out. It takes you HOURS of trying to get a spark to smolder. Now, if the books were written by people who actually HAD the skills that they talk about, the books would tell you to add a nice helping of charcoal dust or a little sand, dry dirt, or other grit into the socket and THEN spin the stick. Charcoal dust is best, and you can start a nice spark easily in just a few minutes once you've figured that out. Of course, figuring out the right stick/board or stick/stick combination isn't taught in the books either, but I'll leave that to your eventual experience because they vary from place to place.
Other skills are the same way. Take navigation, for instance. The best place to learn navigation is on your kitchen table. Put a cup, a spoon, a fork, and other objects randomly on the table. Draw yourself a little map. Get out your compass, orient the map, and navigate between the objects. Once you've got that down, get a map of your neighborhood and start navigating it. Unfamiliar territory is NOT a good place to learn these skills...
Learn and use every piece of gear you have BEFORE you take it out into the middle of nowhere. If the gear happens to be really cheap, like a Lexan spoon, buy two and destroy one. How much abuse can your gear take? You are depending on this stuff for life and limb - shouldn't you know what it can take?
THINK before hand about things that might happen to you and what you will do when they happen. I call this the 'what if' game. I have found it very useful. Start with, "What if it rains?", and move all the way up to, "What if I am killed?" The last question may sound stupid, because if you are killed, you won't care, right? But that question leads to things like carrying identification, writing down emergency contact numbers in your log book, notifying people of your itinerary and expected return, etc.
Once you have considered these things, and developed reasonable expectations, you are ready to start learning some skills, and developing the characteristics that most 'good' hikers have if you don't have them already.
Phil Heffington made a really great post on the AT-L and he enumerated some points. Here are his comments, in purple. His is a really good list, but I'd like to expand it and add to it, so my comments are in blue.
Perhaps it would also be good for us to discuss some of the other characteristics that make for a successful hiker. I'm talking about personality characteristics apart from just learning hiking techniques and use of equipment, etc. I'll start the discussion with a few recommendations.
1. Tolerance for healthy discomfort. Do you have, or can you develop an attitude of acceptance and tolerance for a level of discomfort that is necessary in performing a day in and day out physical challenge? Can you go three (or more) days without a bath? Do you freak out when you see a mouse or a spider or a snake?
2. Ability to recognize one's own mental state and adjust accordingly. Can you deal with depressions that come to you under certain circumstances? Do you recognize those circumstances when they occur and be able to anticipate your mood?
Add the ability to recognize the mental state of others. Also, understand the psychological dynamics of being with a group or even just another single person for extended periods of time. You WILL start to over-react and drive each other crazy - unless you understand what is happening.
3. Self Control. Can you act in a different way than you feel like acting? Can you go on when you are bored, depressed, angry, frustrated, etc.? Can you say to yourself, "There is something I will gain by continuing my quest that I may not recognize at this moment, but which I will recognize will be worthwhile for me after I look back on it from the future."
4. Flexibility. Can you change your plans when they fall apart, and do so with acceptance and tolerance for the uncertainties that will inevitably make it necessary?
5. Risk Taking. Can you be adventuresome? By that I mean an ability to accept the uncertainty of the unknown and see it as adventure instead of danger?
6. Innovation. Do you have the ability to be creative? You don't need to be able to build a telephone from duct tape and paper clips, but can you figure out ways to make things work in an unconventional manner to solve unexpected problems?
Creative problem solving is SO important. This is where knowledge is important. If you can put two different pieces of information together to resolve a third problem, you will do much better when things get rough. Sometimes when you are tired, even the simplest things will escape you. We were caught out once when the weather became unexpectedly cold. Very cold. We put on all the clothes we had, but it wasn't enough. So, I'm sitting there, trying to light a little fire, when my brain finally says, "Why don't you put on your poncho too?" DUH.
7. Tolerance of others. Can you deal with other people who have a far different personality than you? Can you enjoy a hike when you are constantly being tempted into a conversation with other hikers over trail and non-trail issues? Can you accept people despite their liberal or conservative social or political views? The trail is full of mice and "men". Can you deal with both? Can you "Hike Your Own Hike", and let others do so also?
8. Know your limits and quit while you're ahead.
Kahley had a comment here: "That's just fine until your limits start changing when you weren't looking and even though you think you are still ahead, you are actually about ready to fall off a cliff. I'm finding this...aging....hard to handle. I have injured myself on each of my recent trips. I really hurt myself the last time."
9. Relax. Even when things go bad, relax. If you approach things in a positive way, you'll feel better. I don't really go for the 'power of positive thinking' thing, but it works in small ways. I once gashed my leg very badly. I had my HS moment, then started cleaning it and said, "Cool. I haven't practiced suturing in a while. This will be good experience." Of course, by the time I was done I had used all my water to clean the wound so I had to hike on a bum leg to get water. I thought, "Well, now I'll see how well I do injured and thirsty." Once I got water, the bugs started on me, so I went for the bug dope. It was gone. Lost. I threw a complete fit and never really got over it... Nobody can be THAT happy... Fortunately I knew how to keep a smudge fire burning and kept the worst of them away... This leads us to...
10. Always have a backup and bailout plans.
11. Have fun. If you're not having fun, then you're not having fun. Fun should be the first, last, and best motivator. Of course, there are different reasons, but Fun should at least be high on the list.
12. Understand the Grand Unification Theory. The Grand Unification Theory (according to me) says that everybody hikes, camps, and enters the outdoors for the same reason. The ultimate reason. That reason is to reconnect as natural animals in and with our natural habitat. This isn't something you necessarily work for, it's just something that happens to you one day... That's MY theory. The important thing for YOU is to understand WHY YOU PERSONALLY want to wander in the wilderness - even if your answer is, "I don't know, I just feel drawn there..."
Now that you have been told all of this, which is mostly esoteric, you are probably still saying, "Yes, yes, but WHERE DO I BEGIN!?" Well, you begin at home developing the skills you need. Some equipment is required at this point, but start small. Start walking around the block a few times to begin to shape up your body, and then work on your skills.
You can continue by going back to the top of the page and selecting another topic from the Philosophy side bar menu, which is what I would recommend. If you are in a hurry and have no use for esoteric ideas, then click here to jump to the skills page.