Taking the Route Not Traveled: A Starter Guide to Wilderness Backpacking
The best way to truly get off the beaten path is by starting with no path at all. Wilderness backpacking is appealing to many for the solitude it offers whether alone or with friends, the adventure aspect, and the opportunity to trek through unspoiled terrain. These three elements can cause a bit of anxiety, though, too! Three of our friends and fellow explorers with off-trail backcountry experience offer their perspectives and tips to show how solid pre-planning, the right equipment, and a realistic and level head can alleviate some concerns and lead to some exceptional and unforgettable times.
Let’s start with a little introduction to who you are, where you currently live, and where you’ve gotten your wilderness backpacking experiences.
Samuel Martin: Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, I spent a lot of time in the foothills of Appalachia. It wasn’t until High School that I began backpacking in the state along the Appalachian Trail or our many wilderness areas. I’ve since backpacked the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, but I always seem to return to the hills of my youth.
Eddie Boyd: I am from Columbus, Ohio. I know, not much of a mountain town, but the people here keep me around. My wilderness experience comes from my time on the Continental Divide Trail where I often found myself off trail and at the mercy of my navigation skills. That adventure sparked another trip that centered around the great state of Wyoming. Josh Tippett and I created a route called the Greater Yellowstone Traverse that spans 500 miles from the Beartooth Range all the way down the Wind River Range with some of the nation’s most iconic natural wonders along the way. The entire route was made on Caltopo sight unseen, and while we did have some trail, most of it was route finding and scrambling, and that taught me so much about travelling without a path to lead the way.
Matt Morelli: I was born in a suburb just north of Atlanta, Georgia. This meant that I was just under two hours from Amicalola Falls State Park, the bottom of the approach trail to that leads to the start of the Appalachian Trail in Springer Mountain. My first backpacking trip took place when I was just 12 years old. My father and I labored up and down mountains while being crushed under a burdensome load of 40 or 50 pounds of unneeded and outdated gear, a ludicrous amount of water and enough food to feed a small army. We had set our sights for a gorgeous, 80-foot drop waterfall in the backcountry of the Cohutta Wilderness Complex in North Georgia and Tennessee.
Since that brutally heavy trip, I have returned to that same waterfall a handful of times, sleeping on the same tent site my dad and I had spent that formative night. It is a wonderfully idyllic spot, but soon I wanted more. When I was 18, three classmates and friends of mine made the same trek down to that same waterfall, and we hatched a plan for an epic senior trip. Seven months later, the four of us unloaded our oversized packs from a shuttle service near the North-Western most tip of the continental United States to embark on a seven-day-long hike down the coast of Olympic National Park before taking the Hoh River, through the Hoh Rainforest, up to its source, the mighty Mount Olympus.
That was the first time I found myself genuinely enamored by the activity of backpacking. Since then, I have backpacked in over 20 states, over a half dozen National Parks, and countless National Forests and Wilderness Areas. In 2017, I completed a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, and in 2018 was along for the ride to help pioneer a new long-distance hiking trail through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That brought my total mile count to around 3,500 miles in a matter of four years.
How do you know or find out where you can do this kind of hiking? What do you need to know to plan a trip? What are the best resources for things like permits and everything else that comes with hiking away from areas with established paths?
SM: I hear about wilderness areas most commonly through my circle of friends who are in the outdoor world. We share trips with one another and suggest new areas to explore. Once I am interested in an area, I will do my best to research and plan the trip online through government agencies if necessary, or backpacking forums to find current and up to date information.
EB: The best places to do off trail adventures are in areas where there are lots of vantage points and/or above tree line. It helps to have many points of reference, especially if you are new to this sort of travel. Of course, there are many places where traveling off-trail is prohibited, and it is very important to obey those restrictions to protect the ecosystem around you. I have found the best way to get current information regarding the areas you wish to do this sort of hiking is to call the ranger district office for that area and they will be able to tell you if what you have in mind is feasible. National Forest lands are the best because you can usually tent camp wherever you want without a permit.
MM: I like to think that I am an old school type of guy. I obsess over maps, absorbing their contour lines, water features, and trail networks. Imagining what it would be like to stand in a place I have never been is more than enough to keep me up at night. That being said, I gather a lot of my inspiration from social media, primarily Instagram. Sure, it may seem millennial of me, but it often does prove to be a useful tool for finding places that captivate my mind.
Most importantly, Instagram can help you get in contact with the locals of the wilderness. Search a hashtag for any wilderness area, National Forest, National Park, or State Park that you think you might want to visit, and chances are there are thousands of photos waiting to spark your imagination. There is always someone that lives and breathes for that land, and more likely than not, they would be happy to share trail conditions, water sources, and wisdom for a successful trip into the backcountry of their favorite place. There is little chance that they will share their prized secret spots with a stranger, but they tend to push you towards some marvelous destinations. Who knows, you might even end up with a hiking partner!
Aside from online information, what are some of the biggest mental shifts you need to make when planning? What are the biggest things to keep in mind?
SM: When I am heading into a wilderness area for any length of time, I will leave a trip itinerary with family with notes on where and when I will be at certain areas. This is a precautionary measure in case of emergencies, but it helps mitigate emotions for family and friends who have safety concerns.
EB: The most important thing to keep in mind is how slow going off trail hiking can be. Someone who can hike 25-30 miles a day on established single track may only be able to cover 15 miles or less on off-trail terrain. Another point to remember is that there will be areas of the trip that will be completely unknown. Little or no beta may exist, and it is important to keep a positive attitude when faced with these obstacles. On the Greater Yellowstone Traverse there were two occasions where we had to turn around or find another route because there simply wasn’t a safe way for us to navigate the way we had drawn out on the computer. That is just the reality of being the first one to try a new route–it may not pan out perfectly all the way.
MM: I once read that the furthest one could get from a road on the East Coast is a point just off the Appalachian Trail in the northern half of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a mere seven miles as the crow flies from the nearest road. Even with this knowledge, the mentality I take into the wilderness is similar no matter the state I find myself in. Days are still planned around weather, seasons, water sources, terrain, and a handful of other factors that will make or break my time in the wilderness. Mainly what it all comes down to is self-reliance. Barring a life or death situation, no one is coming to get me if things do go poorly, and there is no easy way out if I become uncomfortable.
While in a wild place, the most important thing is to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. We, as humans, are designed to handle a lot more physical stress than society has allowed us to believe, and it is important to keep that in mind as one venture into a wilderness. Being comfortable is the first step to being rational, another immensely important trait of being successful in the backcountry.
How do these things affect your selection of gear? What are the major differences between your trail pack and your wilderness pack? How much does your carry weight vary?
SM: My pack doesn’t change drastically from a non-wilderness to wilderness trip. I may carry paper maps if the area is new and unfamiliar, however, the core of my pack–my tent, bag, sleep system, and clothing all remain unchanged.
EB: I personally did not change my pack for my off-trail ventures. I believe that it is important to be equally prepared for all conditions whether you are following a trail or not. The one thing I would change in the future is to bring a nice pair of long hiking pants to save some of the wear and tear on your legs. I have some gnarly photos of how messed up my legs would get after a long day of bushwhacking. I would even argue it is more important to go lighter on off-trail adventures because without a trail, you’ll be working that much harder to make every mile. I would also suggest a freestanding tent because the campsites that you do find may not be suitable for a tarp.
MM: With self-reliance being such an essential concept to me while in the wilderness I tend to bring a small selection of additional items.
- A small DCF Repair Kit for my shelter, pack, and stuff sacks
- Air pad patch kit
- A reflective mylar sheet cut to size during the wintertime in case the patch on the pad doesn’t take
- Superglue, which is nearly identical to surgical glue, for small cuts or field repairs
- A clotting agent to stop bleeding on major or life-threatening injuries until S&R arrives
- A Spot or any other GPS device, I leave it off and use it to store extra batteries for my headlamp. Once one set of batteries starts to die in my headlamp, I switch them out, leaving plenty of power to send out an SOS.
- I always have duct tape around a trekking pole, but I will usually recheck it before a bigger trip, its quality can degrade over time.
My gear selection varies greatly depending on the season. In the South, we can see anything from low temperatures in the upper 70’s during late summer to lows well below zero in winter months on the high peaks. This means my base weight could range from under seven pounds to well over twelve.
How do you plan your consumables? Do you make changes based on the waste you won’t be able to occasionally discard?
SM: As a principle, I try to limit the amount of waste I produce on trail. The hard truth is that most backpacking food items (protein bars, dinners, drink mixes, etc.) are almost entirely packaged in single use plastics. What works for me is minimizing those food items when possible and re-packaging when appropriate.
EB: The rule of thumb that I follow when traveling off trail is one to two miles per hour maximum pace. Because of this, I certainly carry more food to account for the unknown nature of these hikes. If you have to turn around or find another way at any point you better hope there is enough food in your pack to make it through. But it is key to make sure you aren’t overpacking by too much as that will slow you down, too. I would usually pack food for a normal five days out on a trail and then bring another day of food along to negate any miscalculation of how long a stretch would take.
MM: My consumables remain nearly the same no matter where I hike. I use an isopro stove if I do carry one, and I find that the four oz option is plenty of fuel to last me a full resupply or two depending on elevation and temperatures. No matter what, I have two Bic Mini lighters–I have dropped them in water before and having a backup fire starter is always a smart move.
What pieces of equipment become more important on a wilderness trip? Before doing this kind of travel, should you up your DIY and “trail hack/field repair” skills? How?
EB: My favorite things to carry for trail repairs are tenacious tape, small scissors, dental floss, and a sewing needle. I have yet to run into anything I couldn’t at least temporarily fix with those items. I only carry Ibuprofen, Neosporin, and Leukotape. If something truly bad happens far into the backcountry, chances are you may not be able to do much about it. It is very important to have a reliable SOS beacon to use when things go awry.
MM: Knowing your gear and its capabilities is always a crucial aspect of successful trips in the wilderness. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, and don’t bring a three-season tent to an exposed campsite during a blizzard at 10,000 feet. I have learned that lesson the hard way, which happened while trying to set up a flat tarp using shepherd hook stakes on a glacier during a pop-up thunderstorm. It is not a recommended practice.
Bring the insulation that you want, not that you need. The forecast might call for a low of 40, so a 30-degree bag seems like it would be fine until a rainstorm soaks your clothes, and the wind bites you to the core. An extra layer will not be the item that breaks the camel’s back.
Know how to work the items in your repair kit. It shocked me how many people bring sewing kits without the slightest idea of how to sew. Know that you must clean the area of your pad that has been punctured before applying the patch. There are countless sources about every product imaginable to pull valuable pieces of insight from, so do the homework and be prepared before the cell service runs out.
How do you approach navigation? How do you make sure your bases are covered?
SM: There is no one answer for the navigation question. I like to have multiple redundancies when exploring a new wilderness area. My go to option is to carry phone applications with GPS waypoints as well as printed maps of the area. I always mark down the bail out points along my expected route.
EB: This is probably not recommended, but I just use my smart phone with topographic maps loaded into it. I have never had a problem in all of my 8,500 miles of hiking. If the conditions are wet, put it in a Ziploc bag and you can still use it in the pouring rain.
MM: Navigation is an area I feel I lack preparedness in. The reason being is that simple map and compass techniques have always made sense to me. I almost always have a map on me, but I usually prefer taking pictures of it on my phone to make access easier. Google Maps also offers the ability to download areas for offline use. Using this will likely not show you what trail you are on, but it will give your GPS position on a topographic map which can be vital information if the way forward isn’t clear.
What should you keep in mind when selecting a spot to set up camp?
SM: I do my best to find established campsites when in the wilderness. Depending on the region and specific wilderness area, these campsites may be noted on maps. If I find myself off trail in a location where established campsites cannot be found, I like to make camp on hard, durable surfaces that would not be harmed by my stay.
EB: If it is at all possible, make sure that where you are camping has been camped on before. It is easy to tell where the ground is durable–there will be hard packed dirt and little vegetation growing on that dirt. Obviously, this is not always possible, so look for the area where you will cause the least possible impact. Avoid any sensitive plants or overly exposed areas.
With all the added complexity that comes with wilderness backpacking, why would you still encourage fellow adventurers to travel this way?
SM: I enjoy wilderness areas because you can get off of the beaten path. You can drop away from crowded parks and hot tourist attractions and find unique and exciting locations far away from crowds. The wilderness is a deeply therapeutic place for me–I don’t often go there and come back the same. It’s an incredible space to explore and learn new skills. It can also be an unforgiving landscape and should not be taken lightly. Do the research and prepare.
EB: Anyone who is well versed in on-trail wilderness backpacking would certainly enjoy taking control of their own adventure. You are the one calling the shots, and the days of following a route that someone else made are over. If you see a mountain off in the distance that you want to get closer to or even summit, rely on your skills and do it! Your mind will constantly be on edge thinking about what is around the next turn, but I enjoy feeling this way because I feel that my entire being is engaged in the adventure. When hiking on singletrack, it is easy for the mind to slip off and think about other things. But when the trail is gone, it is truly important to be fully present and paying attention to every step.
It is very freeing to know that you can go wherever you feel like going. It is a special feeling to stand on top of a pass that no one may have been on for several years or experience untouched wilderness that most do not have the gumption to venture into.
MM: George Mallory, one of the most infamous mountaineers in history, was once asked why he was willing to risk life and limb to climb Mount Everest. “Because it’s there,” he bluntly responded. That sentiment is not dissimilar to my feelings about the wild places here in the U.S. Those places often exist for the sole purpose of being explored, and they are just as much mine as they are yours. Go find your Everest–just be better prepared than Mallory was.
Eddie Boyd Triple Crowned at the age of 20–AT 15' PCT 16' CDT 17' CT 19'. He’s also a co-creator of The Greater Yellowstone Traverse. He’s hiked 8,500 miles thus far, and he’s, “On a path to following a path.”
Samuel Martin is a documentary and commercial photographer who began long distance hiking out of college when he Thru hiked the John Muir Trail. Near home he section hikes the Appalachian Trail and in 2018 he thru hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 99 days.
Matthew Morelli is a photojournalism student at the University of Georgia. In 2017, he finished a NOBO thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, and in 2018 became one of the first four people to hike the Greater Yellowstone Traverse. He has plans to finish his Triple Crown once out of school.