Making the Transition From Car Camper to Backpacker

BackpackersMost people who started camping at an early age were brought up car camping. Maybe if you were raised by Jeremiah Johnson and Annie Oakley your family camping trips consisted of alpine starts up sheer mountain faces after a hearty breakfast of tree bark and hardtack, but most of us were eating hot dogs and chips while our parents dragged camping supplies out of the back of the family car.

Car camping is about as close as you can get to roughing it when you’re camping with young children, but when those children grow up, they might want to get a little more adventurous with their camping trips. If car camping is all you’ve ever known, and you’re now looking to try your hand at backpacking, here are some things that you need to know.

You have to be in better shape. You don’t exactly have to be fit to go car camping. If you’re in good enough shape to drive a car, you’re probably OK to camp. However if you want to hike in to your campsite, you have to be in relatively good shape. You don’t have to be in marathon condition, but if you’re going to carry a loaded pack for a few miles you have to be fit. Hiking is the best training to get yourself in shape for overnight backpacking trips.

You need to have the right gear. Your 50 quart cooler and inflatable queen air mattress are proper for car camping, but that gear won’t fly for backpacking. Since you have to carry all of your camping gear and equipment, that gear needs to be much smaller and lighter than car camping gear. This can sometimes mean that you have to get all new everything. A smaller and lighter sleeping bag, a smaller and lighter camp stove, tent, camp furniture, sleeping pad, etc.

Go ahead and get a pack. You can’t go backpacking without a backpack. Well you could, but you would just be walking rather than backpacking. Make sure you get a pack that’s big enough to hold all of your camping equipment, but you should also make sure that pack fits properly. Any good outdoor store should be able to help you fit a pack.

Take baby steps. If you’ve never done anything except car camping, you should gradually build up to extended backpacking trips. Don’t plan a 6-day trip without knowing what you’re getting into. Start with an overnight trip and work your way up to those epic week-long adventures. This will help you slowly get a feel for backpacking, and will help you learn as you go.

Realize you won’t be able to carry as much stuff. When you are camping out of a car, you can bring way more junk than you actually need: a poker table, an inflatable kiddie pool, a sofa, and a keg. What you can take backpacking is limited to what you can carry. Think about priorities and how much weight you’re willing to carry in order to have those things. Some people will happily carry a case of beer into the woods, while others reduce 2-ply to 1-ply in order to save the weight.

The more skills the better. Car camping doesn’t really require any special skills or abilities. Mr. Magoo could take his family on a successful camping trip. If something goes wrong, you’re a few feet away from your car, and safety or assistance is easily accessible. If something goes wrong on the trail, you’re on your own. You should know basic first aid, and emergency skills just in case something happens.

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