Backcountry Camping Can Be A Stressful Pursuit
When I was 24 years old I had a quarter-life crisis. I was working as a reporter for a small newspaper in Upstate New York at the time. It was a wonderful place to live, surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness. Camping and hiking opportunities were ubiquitous.
But one day it hit me like a punch to the gut: I was trapped. Aside from the occasional walk in the woods, or overnight camping trip, I had settled into a comfortable and routine life without much in the way of excitement. I was too young for that, I thought. Yikes. Suddenly, the quaint mountain town was suffocating. I had to move on.
So I quit my job, broke up with my girlfriend, sold a few things on Craigslist, and, in a drastic attempt to find adventure, loaded up my Subaru wagon and pointed it west. A week later I was in Montana, where I had signed up for a six-month long AmeriCorps position with the Montana Conservation Corps. Along with swinging an axe, wielding a chainsaw and digging in the dirt for eight hours a day, the job entailed 21 day stints in the backcountry.
I was nervous.
I had been backpacking a few times, but most of my experience was in the luxury of car camping. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!) Questions often raced through my head. Twenty one days without a shower? No toilet or outhouse? How am I going to poop in a hole for three weeks? No cell phone, TV or free Wi-fi? Guess I'll have to go cold turkey on Internet consumption. What about bears, mountain lions, giant mosquitoes and Sasquatch? Am I going to make it?
I made it.
Three weeks is a little extreme, but for a lot of people getting into backpacking and primitive camping can be stressful. There are certain adjustments in attitude that need to occur before getting the most out of a wilderness experience, and they don't always come easy.
To curb self doubts and insecurities I would recommend reading up on camping and backpacking manuals and tips. Maybe check out an online forum or two. That will get you started if you're not sure how to pack your pack, what gear you should bring, if you're looking for suggestions on where to go, etc. But the best way to get into backpacking is to go out with someone who knows what they are doing. For my first true backcountry experience it was a staff member of the conservation corps who taught me the subtleties of cooking over an open flame, the allure of knowing animal tracks, and why the Spork is man's greatest invention.
Stress about being in the backcountry can come in many forms. One summer I went camping at a primitive site in Maine and took along a friend who considers herself to be a 'city girl.' It was her first time camping and I was surprised to find that the thing she was most worried about was not having her coffee in the morning.
"We do have coffee," I said. "We brought a French press." (That's not really an option while backpacking, but there are some instant coffees out there that are actually pretty good.)
She was also worried about bears, naturally, but was happy to find out that there aren't any Grizzlies in Maine.
The list of concerns for first-timers in the backcountry is a long one, everything from . The trick is to be prepared. Do research, ask questions, plan ahead, but remember why you're doing it. It's fun! It can be life changing. Kneeling over a trickling mountain stream and pumping every ounce of water you use though a filter can really change your perception of turning on a faucet. In the same vein, nothing is more satisfying than creating a delicious and savory meal over a fire with minimal ingredients.
Being with a group in the wilderness is about camaraderie and adventure, feeling physically exhilarated and mentally at peace. Don't take it too seriously. But certainly do your homework.
Here are just a few tips that address common apprehensions before taking the wonderful plunge into backcountry camping:
Bathroom etiquette in the backcountry
There's at least one book out there, probably more, devoted entirely to this topic. It is uncomfortable to talk about at first, but nature is bound to call when in nature.
It's not that big a deal.
I'd recommend buying a small camping trowel. Dig a hole six inches deep, do your business, and then bury the waste and toilet paper. Don't forget to enjoy the solitude as you would in your own bathroom, and try to pick a safe place with a good view.
No shower, no problem
Baby wipes equal a shower in a box. They're always a good purchase before spending time in the woods.
Rinsing off in streams or other bodies of water is also an option. Just make sure you are aware of any dangers that would be present. It is not usually considered "leave no trace" to put biodegradable soaps directly into a water source, but filling a water bottle and lathering up over the ground can be just as satisfying.
If you happen to be camping in the western United States, chances are there's Sagebrush nearby (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artemisia_tridentata). The spicy, lemon scented plant makes for a great deodorant. Hang some in your tent to keep things smelling fresh, or better yet, vigorously rub some in your armpits. You just might get a few compliments around the campfire.
This isn't a post about gear, and I am not going to recommend brands. But when it comes to getting comfortable in your tent getting a good sleeping pad is worth every penny, both for comfort and warmth. I'd say save up and spend a little extra.
Leave no trace
Leave No Trace ethics deserve a whole post, but the philosophy is simple: Take only pictures, leave only footprints. It's important to learn about having a low-impact in the wilderness and backcountry so it can remain for all to enjoy.
About the author: Eric Voorhis is a journalist, photographer and blogger living on Long Island. As a reporter and freelance writer he's covered everything from education and local politics to recreation and the environment. He has been camping in nearly every state of the contiguous U.S., from the backwoods of Maine to the beaches of California, and hates it when people burn marshmallows