At the top of He Devil in the Seven Devils mountain range.
At the top of He Devil (on my second backpacking trip).

Be the Rookie: How I Got Hooked on Backpacking

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It started with a woman.

At the top of He Devil in the Seven Devils mountain range.
At the top of He Devil (on my second backpacking trip).

A smokin’ hot chick who wasn’t afraid of dirt, bugs, or peeing in the woods. When I met her, she and her brothers would make two or three backpacking trips a year, usually a couple of weekenders along with a longer week-long trek into some higher profile area like Yosemite or Rocky Mountain National Park.

I had gone backpacking once, years before, on a poorly planned weekend lark, up and down an 12-mile trail along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, and I had heavy, ill-fitting old-school gear. I had an ancient down sleeping bag that was too short and a bivy sack (not a tent), and while it was July, I froze my ass off all night. I had no sleeping pad to insulate me from the ground, which sucked the heat right out of me.

The fishing, through, was fantastic — lots of bright hungry cutthroat trout ready to take a dry fly. The scenery was nice, the water clear, and there were rafters to keep things interesting. After the hot and nasty 12-mile hike in on the first day, I started fishing, and while I was utterly exhausted, I could see feeding trout. Can’t ignore that.

I caught some fish, and then this amazing rafting guide in a bikini (tanned arms) drifts by and smiles. Oh, and there’s a guy casting from the raft, too, and he catches a fish just out of my range in the hole I was working. They disappear around a bend in the river never to be seen again.

What the hell?

I just busted my ass for hours to get to this spot, and then boom, some guy floats by? I’m sure he had cold beer in a cooler, too.

I didn’t go backpacking again for years. In fact, I did not do much of anything but work the day job and do enough home improvement to turn the house into a perfect castle (impossible task) then work the day job some more and then learned what scramble really means after a blast of layoffs meant someone took my cheese.

Enter the Smokin’ Hot Chick

She used to fight forrest fires, by the way, a firefighter woman. Tough but all woman. I was in a rock and a hard place — I could go backpacking with her, along with her brothers, and probably hate it (they didn’t even fish!) — or beg out with some excuse and watch our connection fizzle and die.

I really didn’t have a choice.

Ridge line up to He Devil.
Ridge line up to He Devil. The smoke? Forest fires all around, with a couple little smokers nearby.

But I was game to try backpacking again anyway because, after all, I would be sharing an ultralight backpacking tent with her and not her brothers. It couldn’t end all badly, especially when you give a woman a chance to show off. So I jumped.

I did a bit of research, and I let her teach me about what we really needed to bring, things like water filters, sleeping pads, a sleeping bag that didn’t weigh 9 pounds, dried food, special candy treats, and a little shovel for digging holes to create your own on-the-spot toilet in the backcountry. Dig and bury. Huh. I hadn’t been that gentlemanly in high school when I was out hunting and camping and tearing things up with 4-wheel-drive pickups. The backcountry, depending on where you go, though, has rules designed to keep it all clean.

I figured I needed to buy a decent pack — which is the term backpackers use, pack, not backpack — this time around, so I started looking. She begged me off, told me it was a waste of money if I didn’t even know if I would like backpacking. I could borrow one of her brother’s packs. I tried it on. Turns out her brother was about 5’ 10” and the pack was a medium. The hip belt was high on my waist. Professional boxers didn’t even wear their shorts that high.

I needed my own pack.

I hit a local outdoor adventure store and started asking questions. The owner directed me to a reasonably priced Osprey pack, then loaded it up with heavy climbing ropes to get it fitted to my back, shoulders, and hips. Since I needed a big pack, I also got stuck with a big hip belt — but he swapped it out for a smaller one that fit better for me — no cost. If you can find a local enthusiast store, the service can really help out newbies, but most modern packs these days are surprisingly adjustable right out of the bag. He gave me some tips on how to adjust it on the trail, and I appreciated it since I had no idea what all the straps were actually for.

Plus, he told me that I’d be carrying most of the weight of the pack, most often, on my hips, distributed through the properly adjusted hip belt. But along the way on the trail, I could loosen and adjust the shoulder straps to take more weight or reduce it, and the same with the hip belt, to give these areas a rest every now and then without actually stopping.

He was right.

If I hadn’t talked to him, there’s a good chance I would have believed the hip belt was for stabilization and the shoulder straps were for weight — instead of the other way around. After all, the small backpacks I ever used only had shoulder straps — why would a real pack be any different?

Half the Fun is Gearing Up

One of the most important lessons I learned is that half the fun is gearing up for the trip, the anticipation, and the knowledge that, heck yeah, you’re getting out of the office, out of town, and you’re going someplace new. That knowledge alone made struggling at the day job a lot easier. When you’re looking forward to a long weekend that has nothing to do with mowing the lawn and fixing the backyard fence, oh boy, that’s good stuff.

backpacking sleeping pads
An inflatable air mattress on the left compared to a foam pad on the right.

So I got to shop for an extra long mummy sleeping bag. I found one on sale for $68. It’s not a super bag, but it gets the job done. The great thing about backpacking is that you can get out there and have a good time with only the basics, and in my mind the basics are a decent pack, a lightweight sleeping pad, and solid hiking boots. As for an ultralight backpacking tent, an ultralight sleeping bag, super light rain gear . . . all that stuff you can upgrade over time.

Part of the challenge is figuring out what clothes you’re going to bring, and while some guys get by with just one pair of underwear, I can’t make it a week without fresh skivvies. So on your living room floor you load up your pack with all the food, the headlamp, the clothes and jackets, first aid kit, the paperback book, fishing rod, camera, water filter, stove, fuel, and then you lift it up onto your back and think, “Uh oh.”

When you drop it back down to the floor, you toss out one pair of skivvies, that extra t-shirt just in case, one pair of socks, and make a tough choice between the thick fleece shirt and the light jacket, depending on the time of year, and then turn your attention to the food. Instead of two pounds of dense heavy candy, you pack one pound. You drop one freeze dried meal you probably won’t need. And one heavy energy bar. Maybe you miss something on the trail, maybe you don’t. You’ll learn.

The Seven Devils

Getting to the Seven Devils means driving up a washboarded gravel road for 15 miles or so outside of Riggins, Idaho, the self-proclaimed whitewater capital of the world. It’s a normal enough Idaho back country road until you break out into the open near the end of the road and see rock — lots of rocky craggy little peaks. And this first look, of course, is just the taste of what’s to come. I was hooked by then, it turns out, before I even set foot out of the pickup.

While the sight of the rocky crags and promise of the trailhead was liberating, it might not have mattered at all and here’s why: Backpacking is all about doing. Getting to the trailhead is all about anticipation and preparation and focusing your energy toward the future. When you step out of the pickup, lace up your hiking boots, and throw that weight on your back, it’s on, you and the trail and gravity, and man alive, you get to point your face to the sky and soak up a place that far fewer than one percent of the population ever treads.

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