It was mid-October at the Cove Lake Trailhead. We were 9 miles and 1,560 feet of climbing away from the campground at Mount Magazine, the highest point in Arkansas. A few select trees had already changed into their brilliant fall colors. The Boy Scouts of Troop 450 were laden with backpacks filled with all the necessary equipment, as well as an impressive proportion of the completely frivolous “essentials”. For example: multiple pocket knives for various stick-carving techniques, 7-piece mess kit, insulated coffee mug, bedroom pillow, extra hat, astrology books, etc…
We begin hiking at a steady pace and found lots of things to enjoy along the way. One thing I love about backpacking is the sense of independence. You are free from the civilized world. You (hopefully) carry everything you need to survive for a few days or more. This carrying adds a feeling of accomplishment to the journey. The constant burden reminds me to enjoy the moments and the little things. I smile at a squirrel leaping across the canopy, listen for the trickle of a clear stream, and relax at the refreshment of a cool breeze. It’s easy to enjoy a beautiful day when all you have to think about is where to put your foot next. So we trod along, sometimes chatting but mostly enjoying the quiet and the scenery (which I admit is an extremely rare occasion for teenage boys).
Most everyone finds a suitable walking stick to decorate later that evening. We break for lunch and bust out the beef jerky, summer sausage, cheese, and a wide selection of cookies. Since teenage boys are notoriously clumsy and not good cooks, the deciding factors for meal choice are typically ease of assembly and how well the 5-second rule can be applied. After picking the dirt off half our lunches, we continue up the trail, keeping a sharp eye for the perfect backcountry campsite.
The Cove Lake Trail is great for first-time backpackers. While it does have a significant mountain to climb, it is spread over enough smooth-packed earth to allow less-seasoned legs to enjoy the journey. This kind of soft, smooth, not-too-steep trail is fairly characteristic of hiking in the Ouachita Mountains. In contrast, the Ozark Mountain trails tend to be steeper climbs, often with man-made sandstone staircases, rocky and root-ridden earth. The Ouachitas typically offer broad views of wide valleys while the Ozarks have countless hidden gems (caves, waterfalls, boulder-filled creeks) usually of a smaller scale.
Finally, we made it to my favorite part of backpacking: the wilderness campsite. Selection of the perfect campsite is an art which must consider everything from the hardness and smoothness of the ground to the danger of falling branches in high winds, walking distance to water and discreet locations for going #1 and #2, proximity of other tents, as well as offering the best view. It’s not just the individual site that matters, it’s the whole setting. You need a nice stream running nearby to fetch water from and much more importantly, to throw rocks into. You must also find an open area with logs or rocks for natural seating in which to host skits and songs. Also good are large boulders, trees with unusual shapes, views off a cliff from above or of a bluff from below, and hammock hanging locales.
Of course, those are just the material features of a campsite. What a campsite really is at its core is a group of family or friends gathered together, away from distraction, spending quality time together. What I remember best from my first backpacking trip is my dad singing “Ghost Chickens in the Sky” that night and my brother and me performing our infamous Bumble Bee skit. I remember my dad helping us adjust our packs and checking to see if he needed to lighten our loads a little. I remember learning to tie knots, skip rocks, and burn eggs. Most of all, I remember wanting to do it all over again.
The next morning we finished up the last few miles of trail and reached the top of Mount Magazine. It was Sunday and time to go home, so we loaded up for the two hour bittersweet drive home. We sang songs, told jokes, and shared stories, but somehow it wasn’t quite the same without the campsite in the woods.
I thought it might be helpful to share with you a few lessons I’ve learned over the years (mostly the hard way) that will help make your first backpacking trip a success. I’ve also included a list of absolutely essential gear, the items that are crucial to being prepared for anything a weekend in the woods might throw at you.
Lessons for a first-time backpacker:
1. Inspect your gear before you go – make sure your sleeping pad holds air, all the straps and buckles, drawstrings, and zippers on your pack are in good condition, re-treat your rainwear with a Durable Water-Repellent (DWR, i.e. Nikwax products) for maximum breathability/comfort
2. Make sure you know how to use your gear: changing headlamp batteries, lighting your stove, packing your sleeping bag & pad, adjusting your pack or trekking poles, setting up the tent or hammock; REMEMBER these things can be more difficult when you are tired, cold, hot, hungry, thirsty, or it’s dark out!
3. Double-check your checklist! DOUBLE-CHECK YOUR CHECKLIST! I have forgotten items on the following list on several separate occasions, and those were all of my worst trips despite good weather. I’ve had great trips in terrible conditions because of remembering the right gear!
4. Test-carry your fully-loaded backpack, if it you can’t get it on your back you should probably take some stuff out. Don’t forget to include water and food on this test run (essential but heavy ).
5. Check the weather right before you leave for the most accurate forecast.
6. Start hiking early (more time=more miles, hiking faster=more injuries).
7. Break in your footwear (prevents blisters) – this is actually breaking in your feet, they toughen up more than your shoes soften down.
8. Find an experienced partner – someone who’s already learned from their mistakes, at least talk to an experienced backpacker before going on your first trip. L&C hosts clinics 3-4 times a year.
9. Learn “Leave No Trace” practices for your destination: they vary a lot depending on climate.
10. Pick an appropriate destination: consider distance, steepness, terrain, popularity of trail (less people = less help in emergencies)