My first outdoor adventures began when I joined the Boy Scouts at age 10. We learned valuable outdoor skills for camping and hiking. One of the most important things I learned in scout was to leave a camp better than you found and how to apply the outdoor code. I spent many weekends camping and hiking in the NC mountains.
I never took up backpacking while I was a youth, but I was exposed to it as part of one of the many camporees that I attended. I stayed in scouts until I earned my Eagle badge and aged out at 18 in 1985. I later helped out as an assistant scoutmaster for a few years while in college, where I helped the troop plan their first backpacking trips in the mid 90’s and continued to do that on and off until my son joined the Scouts in the late 90’s. He earned his Eagle in 2003, and aged out a few years later. I still visit the old troop from time to time.
I Start Backpacking in 1988
On my first trip, my gear consisted of an external frame backpack, red Union Jack thermal underwear, a sterno stove, camo pants, rag wool sweater, liner socks with wool over socks, and a cowboy hat. We had a food bag but did not know about bear hanging our food– besides, it was January. It was a short 1.2 mile hike into a primitive campsite. On day two we attempted a 4 mile hike up to an old historic cabin but the rocks on the stream were icy and I slipped and fell in the creek. My pants froze.
That first outing kicked off a series of backpacking trips with my friends in the mountains around North Carolina and Virginia. Most of our early trips were out-and-backs over the weekend, staying at a campsites and day hiking, or doing short 10 mile loops. We thought we were so tough. We backpacked at least once a year for many years until we all started getting our careers going, getting married, and having families. With every trip we upgraded our gear and learned to be better outdoor stewards. We always managed to get in our winter camping where we could reconnect and catch up with each other. I still hike, camp and backpack with many of my old friends to this day.
Backpacking Take Two
I got a chance to get back into backpacking once my son joined Boy Scouts. I guided them on several trips in the Mountain Rogers area of Virginia and that sparked my interest in doing 30+ mile sections of the AT. Some of the troop members even joined me when I did a 50 miler so they could earn their 50 miler badge.
By now my gear was greatly improved– I had an internal frame pack, a bear bag, synthetic thermal underwear, lightweight hiking boots, fleece hooded jacket, headlamp, and a white fuel stove.
I backpacked for about three years, completing several sections of the AT from Grayson Highlands State Park in VA south to highway 19e. Then my father’s health declined and he passed away, so I spent the next few years working on settling his estate with the help of my brother and sister. I started my own business and backpacking was once again on hold.
In 2021 my wife started watching YouTube videos of women backpacking and decided she wanted to give it a try. We started going on harder hikes, and eventually brushed the dust off the old gear and made a plan for an overnight backpacking trip to South Mountains State Park in NC. We day hiked it in advance to give her a sense of whether it was going to be too tough or just right for an initial outing.
When taking someone that has never backpacked before, it’s very important that you ease them into it. You want them to have just enough challenge, but not so much that they will be discouraged. I have seen many of my friends take girlfriends or wives out for their first backpacking trip without easing them in and it did not go well.
My wife did great; she even had to deal with having her menstrual cycle while we were on our trip, which was something that she was nervous about. We evaluated the trip once back home and made plans to upgrade some gear and to go for an 18 mile AT trek in the Fall of 2021. One of the guys that took me on my first backpacking trip saw my post on Facebook about our overnighter and asked if he could join on the next one along with his wife. I said “absolutely!” Currently I organize three trips a year now: a shake down overnighter to test new gear and introduce newcomers to backpacking and two AT section hikes of 20 – 30+ miles averaging about 8 miles per day.
This year’s first trip was rained out.he next trip was in June– a 17 miler, and the last in October is a 35 miler going south on the AT. Last year after one of the backpacking trips I decided to update my food storage from a bear bag to a bear canister. This was due to a pretty poor and frustrating bear hang on the first night. On night two we had the good fortune of having a bear locker. However if there had not been a bear locker around, like most places along the Appalachian Trail, the trees in the area were all small pines that would not be suitable for hanging food. Also I knew our fall trip was going deep in bear country. I choose BearVault because it comes in several sizes so I can scale according to my outing length. The BearVault did very well on our Fall 2022 trip. We had some pickle juice leak out of its zip lock but you could not smell it until you opened the lid. That was enough to make me a fan for life.
What Keeps me Backpacking as I Get Older?
I have always loved hiking and camping outdoors but backpacking has this adventurous allure to it. The mere thought of putting everything you need into a bag, strapping it to your back and heading out into the unknown is just so thrilling. Each time you go out you learn something new about your gear, your skills, and yourself. The views you get see make the long days so worth all the effort. The time spent around camp sharing the day’s experiences, triumphs, and embarrassing moments are just so memorable.
Advice for Fellow Retirees
If you are new to backpacking, no matter what your age, do your homework. Learn as much as you can about mental and physical preparedness. The mental aspects of backpacking are the biggest mountains you will ever face, so don’t be overly ambitious on your first outing, try to “keep it simple.” You can work towards bigger, more ambitious outings as you gain skill and confidence. Don’t go for the bargain gear or top of the line, buy good quality gear that is within your budget– you can always upgrade in the future. Pooping outdoors is not a natural thing. It will feel awkward at first, but the more outings you go on the more at ease you will become with doing it.
Bears are out there, but they are not lurking behind every tree waiting to eat you, for the most part they will run off once you yell “Hey Bear!” Learn how to use apps like Gaia GPS, All trails, etc. They make navigating in the outdoors so much easier than the old map and compass. However, you should still know how to read a map and use a compass. Learn basic outdoor skills like knots, fire building, proper food storage, trail etiquette, trail first aid, and Leave No Trace principles. Know how to pitch your tent and use your stove before you hit the trail. Drink plenty of water and eat every 2 hours, you are burning a lot of calories. Hike at your own pace. You are here to enjoy the outdoors, not endure it.