By: Christine Martens
It's been a long time since I spent my first night in the woods, but I haven't forgotten what it was like. I must have been about 12 or 13 years old, and I was on my first overnight backpacking trip. I had my mother's old gigantic external frame Kelty from before my time and my grandfather's old army sleeping bag which probably weighed more than my entire kit does these days. After darkness fell and we were told to go to sleep, every single tiny noise sounded like it could be a grizzly bear right next to by tent. I stayed awake petrified for hours, not knowing we weren't even in grizzly territory. Every time I heard a rustle, I would grab my flashlight and shine it into the darkness hoping to see what had made that noise. Only if I was lucky, I'd see two tiny little eyes shining back at me, with no idea who they belonged to. I would clutch my flashlight more intensely.
So a decade or two has gone by since then and what have I learned?
CHRISTINE MARTENS TAKES A BREAK ON A HIKE.
First of all, ear plugs are a great invention. I think pretty much everyone goes through the same feelings I did on the first night out. I recommend camping near a noisy stream and putting those ear plugs in and pretend like you're sleeping in your own bed. Those critters out there will not bother you, trust me. Also, think about where you set up your tent. Under a dead tree is a bad idea, and you may also regret being right next to a pile of wood that may be home to many critters. Open balds or tops of ridges can be very windy, and your tent will make a racket flapping about. Practice setting up your tent in your yard before you leave.
IF YOU DON'T SLEEP WELL ON THE GROUND, CONSIDER HAMMOCK CAMPING!
Secondly, don't trust the serving sizes on freeze dried backpacking meals. Whomever thought that one serving of a freeze dried meal should be 180 calories obviously was sitting behind a computer with an order of magnitude smaller appetite than your average hiker. I recommend bringing at least 3,000 calories a day. You don't have to buy the expensive dehydrated meals. I have hiked almost 5,000 miles without ever buying one of those. Oatmeal for breakfast, GORP (good old raisins and peanuts), a snickers or cliff bar for snacks, a block of cheese, some crackers or chips for lunch and some couscous or instant mash potatoes for dinner is a good menu for a day. Don't forget to bring a filter to purify your own water.
Thirdly, on your first backpacking trip, don't be too ambitious. You'll be able to do fewer miles with a backpack full of camping gear than you can with no weight on your back. Depending on where you plan to go, look up the local rules on spending the night. Each park or forest is different.
YOU CAN SPEND THE NIGHT IN SHELTERS ALONG THE APPLACHIAN TRAIL.
Fourth of all, don't wear your brand-new hiking boots on your first backpacking trip. You'd do better in sneakers. Brand-new boots are likely to give you blisters, and blisters can ruin a hike. Either wear well-worn hiking boots, or consider wearing sneakers or trail runners, which take less time to break in.
When you wake up in the morning, don't forget which way you came and which way you were going. It may help to point your shoes or your trekking poles in the direction you want to start walking in the morning. There's nothing worse than starting the day in the exact wrong direction.
Once you've spent a few nights in the woods, you'll realize how much fun it can be. The woods are safer and more peaceful than any city, and you're likely to get many more hours of sleep without all the artificial light we usually use at home to stay up late. With experience, you'll find gear that's perfect for you, food that's perfect for you, and many spots in the woods that are perfect to call home for the night.