If the mountains are calling and you must go, there are a few things you’ll want to learn before you hit the trails.
On Being Prepared
Having the right items in your kit and knowing how to use them can mean the difference between a great adventure and a miserable one, and can be literally lifesaving. Schools of thought vary only a little as to which items comprise the bare necessities, and all of them agree that kits should be adjusted to suit the individual and the trip. At minimum, your pack should include extras of food, water, and clothing; a navigation system; protection from the sun; a flashlight or headlamp; an emergency shelter; a first aid and a gear repair kit; and something with which to start a fire.
Navigation, Maps, Route Finding
As GPS systems become increasingly reliable and affordable, many people are choosing to use them over a traditional map and compass. There are pros and cons to each system (GPS signal can be spotty; maps can be torn or out of date), but whichever you choose, you need to learn how to use them. Take a class if there’s one local to you, or check online for how-to videos and articles. Get your gear and practice somewhere familiar until you’re comfortable with your equipment and your skill level.
Pitching Your Tent
The first time you pitch your tent should be in your own home or yard. This is important because it gives you not only an opportunity to ensure that all the pieces are present and in good condition, but also a chance to practice set-up in the best conditions. Figuring out which pole goes where can be tough enough without trying to do it while you’re sore and hungry at the end of the day! The better you get at a quick set-up, the easier things will go if you ever find yourself having to pitch in inclement weather.
Starting a Fire
Learning when to start a fire is just as important as learning how to start one, and may be the easier of the two. In the backcountry, it’s quickest and easiest to stick with camping stoves and fuel for cooking, and layered, insulated clothing for warmth. The allure of a campfire is tough to resist, though, so check with the relevant governing bodies of your intended destination to determine whether ground fires are allowed and under what conditions, and abide by those. If you’re lost, you may be tempted to start a signal fire, but if there is any possibility you could lose control of it, don’t. Use a signal mirror, a rescue whistle, or a personal locator beacon instead.
Leaving No Trace
With the number of visitors to our national and state parks in the hundreds of millions, it’s up to each of us to do our part to ensure future visitors can enjoy our natural resources in as pristine a state as we can manage. Learning the principles of Leave No Trace is absolutely essential for anyone who plans to spend time outdoors, and if you’ve heard the phrase “take only memories, leave only footprints,” you’ve already got the gist. The rest is easy: plan ahead and prepare; travel and camp on durable surfaces; dispose of waste properly; leave what you find; minimize campfire impact; respect wildlife; and be considerate of other visitors.
Relieving Yourself Outdoors
It’s often one of the biggest concerns for beginners, but it’s easier than you may think. First, know before you go whether you’re on the hook to just pack out your TP, or if you’re expected to pack it all out, which may be a requirement for more populated areas—that’ll determine which toiletries to pack. Then, find a semi-private location a good one- or two-minute walk downwind of your campsite or trail, at least two hundred feet from any water source. Your toiletries kit should include a hand shovel, so use that to dig a hole at least six inches deep. Drop trousers, pop a squat, and heave away—and when you’re through, bury your treasure, and remember to sanitize your hands.