An old dog can still learn new tricks for backpacking
by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist
I got to swim in Lake Superior last weekend! It's not often that you can use the words "swim" and "Lake Superior" in the same sentence, but conditions up there are better than normal with this summer's heat wave.
I took our Boy Scout troop for our third annual backpacking trip on the hiking trail that follows the north shore of our greatest lake. Reader's Digest recently called the SHT one of the top five trails in America. I believe it! We have only hiked about ten percent of its 210 miles, but we are already big fans. (See photos of our trip).
This year we had eleven boys in our group, including eight who had never hiked the SHT, and four who had never backpacked at all. They all loved it, of course -- how can you not love the adventure of being deep in the woods, setting up a campsite near an isolated creek using only gear that you carried in on your own back?
Backpacking does require the right equipment and attitude. Boys adapt quickly, but what about slightly overweight middle-aged men? I didn't start backpacking until I was 42, so I think I can address that audience with some authority.
The first thing I learned was to get a good external frame backpack. Sure, all the packs at Scheel's feature fancy internal frames nowadays, but I think that's a fad. For whatever reason, external frame packs must be considered old-fashioned. I can tell you from my experience on nine backpack trips that external frames are better for general backpacking, even though they are cheaper (if you can find them).
If you have a big enough budget to buy gear so small and light that you can fit it all INSIDE the pack, and if you are portaging a canoe or doing rock-climbing with your pack on, then internal frame is the way to go. But if you are simply carrying average gear into the woods on normal footpaths, like most backpackers do, then strap your tent and bag to an external frame.
The next thing I learned about backpacking is to wear light boots. I wore expensive Vasque mountaineering boots for 19 years while camping and hiking, until they couldn't be repaired any more. After some research, I decided to take a leap of faith and get boots that were much lighter, and I could not believe the difference. All my assumptions about the sturdiness needed in a boot were wrong!
Every ounce of weight on your feet is like five or six ounces on your back, so lighter boots can make a big difference in how far and fast you can go. (This can be important when those "little boys" you're hiking with suddenly grow over six feet tall.)
During my first backpack trip after getting my super-light Merrill boots in 2004, I had to add half the gear of one struggling boy to my pack. That extra weight over nine miles, combined with my less stiff boots, led to an ankle injury.
Physical therapist Bob Johnson later convinced me that it was not worth "strapping big splints" on my feet by going back to the heavy, stiff boots. Rather, he solved the problem by ordering custom orthotics. These are plastic inserts that go into your shoe and make your feet stand level. I was able to get away with pronating feet previously, but a combination of an aging body, extra weight on my back, long distance, and less supportive boots brought my new foot problems to a head on that trip.
I am happy to report that two years and five trips later, the lightweight boots are working better than ever, thanks to my orthotics.
Another thing I learned about backpacking was the value of walking sticks. As with the lighter boots, I read about walking sticks in "The Backpacker's Handbook" by Chris Townsend. Townsend was skeptical of the value of "trekking poles" -- a fancy walking stick that looks like a ski pole but that can be adjusted for height and collapsed for travel. But after using one, he was hooked, and found that using two was even better.
I followed his advice and used my wife's cross-country ski poles on a trip in 2004, and I, too, became a believer. I sprung $50 for a pair of real trekking poles at REI, and it's probably the best purchase I ever made for hiking.
Sure, I get some razzing from people saying that it looks like I'm trying to ski the backpacking trail, but it is amazing how much difference it makes if you can transfer some of the weight from your legs to your arms. My first thought was to convince the boys in our troop to use them, but my wife wisely advised me that it would probably be best if I held back an advantage, given the age disparity!
If I ever do a weeks-long trip like I've dreamed about, you can bet that I'll be using my cheap external frame pack, my lightweight boots with inserts, and my two trekking poles. Happy hiking!
You can reach Tom at email@example.com.
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