10 Tips for Heading Into the Wilderness

On a crisp fall evening in Maine's Baxter State Park, I place my camp mattress outside my tent and lie on my back, gazing up at the sky. Without the ambient light of the suburbs, I can count more stars than I've ever seen before: bright and dim, solitary and clustered, twinkling and constant. The only sound I hear is that of my own breathing.

There are few better ways to leave the world behind than to stuff a few things into a backpack and spend the weekend outdoors. Long gone are the days of heavy canvas tents, flannel-lined sleeping bags and cast-iron frying pans. Backpacking equipment is now lighter, warmer and easier to use. Here's how you can experience the rewards of the simple life and still enjoy a good night's sleep.

Practice The best way to get used to carrying weight on your back is to do it. Load up your pack at home and go for a walk. Adjustable trekking poles help distribute the pack weight and take some of the burden off your back and knees. Assemble your gear before you leave home to make sure you have all the parts.

Pack Smart
Try to keep your pack weight less than one-fifth of your body weight. For a 125-pound woman, that's 25 pounds (although lighter is better). Check the weather so you don't take unnecessary gear. Stuff bulky items that you won't need during the day (sleeping bag, mattress, tent) near the bottom of your bag. Seal extra clothing and your first-aid kit in waterproof plastic bags.
Break in Your Shoes With a light pack, you can wear lightweight boots or trail shoes. Shop in the afternoon when your feet are naturally swollen, and choose a pair that feels comfortable in the store--try them out as you shop. Before you wear them on the trail, walk at least 30 miles in your new shoes.

Camp Responsibly Plan to stop for the night before dark; it's always easier to set up your camp in daylight. The best place to pitch your tent is at a designated campsite. (The National Park Service lists sites at nps.gov.) When that's not possible, look for durable surfaces like sand or hard-packed dirt where you will leave little evidence that you were there. For tips on how to camp responsibly, visit Leave No Trace at lnt.org.

Pitch Perfectly
Practice setting up your tent at home, so you'll know how to do it. At camp, once you've put up your tent, wait 30 minutes and then reposition the tent stakes to tighten the fabric and eliminate any sagging. If the ground is too soft to hold the stakes, use heavy rocks as anchors.

Drink Safe All water sources in the backcountry are suspect, and few things ruin a weekend like a case of diarrhea. Make your water drinkable in a variety of ways: boil for at least three minutes; add an iodine- or chlorine-based purifier; pump it through a commercial filter like Pur, or use a SteriPEN.

Enjoy a Hot Dinner
Cook over a portable camp stove to minimize your impact on the wilderness. If you plan to build a fire, check local regulations before your trip. Use a pre-existing fire ring, burn only dead wood, and keep the fire small. Never leave it unattended, and douse it with water or sand until it's completely out.
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