Hard Learned Backpacking Lessons

Reflecting on some of my earliest backpacking adventures, I sometimes wonder how I managed to survive. For example, over the Christmas / New Year’s holiday during my senior year of high school, two friends and I embarked on our first multi-night winter backpacking trip. We were not only inexperienced but lacking in both knowledge and wool. Our primary attire was cotton: cotton blue jeans, cotton long johns, and probably cotton tops. If I was lucky, my socks were wool, but I really don’t remember. My toboggan was synthetic. I also wore a nylon (but not very waterproof) pull-over parka. I knew nothing about hypothermia, and my backpacking partners probably didn’t either.

Our first late December day began with frost on the grass, crisp air, and a bright shining sun in a clear blue sky that warmed us as we hiked. Since none of us had bothered to check the weather forecast, we had no idea what was in store. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

That day we hiked some back roads on the western slope of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Ridge until we could access the historic 1758 Forbes Road. Over two hundred years later, it was little more than a Jeep trail. We backpacked along this famous but unmarked route until it intersected the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail on the eastern side of Laurel Ridge near the ridge line. Making it to one of the new Adirondack style trail shelters on this new trail, we camped for the night, safe and secure in our lack of knowledge and inexperience, still unaware of and unprepared for what we would face the following day.

The next morning we packed up and started hiking under overcast skies. Eventually a fine mist started falling, and with the falling moisture, the temperature started dropping as well. After we were damp from the mist, the precipitation eventually changed to a wet snow that started accumulating. As darkness approached, we found ourselves getting cold. Little did we know we were starting to experience the initial stages of hypothermia.

Growing increasingly confused, weak, and uncoordinated, we hiked on through the cold and snow, looking for the next shelter. We eventually become benighted, but about eight miles after setting out from the previous night’s shelter, we managed to locate the next one. Once inside, we built a roaring fire in the fireplace, warmed up, hung our wet cotton up to dry in the heat of the fire, and refueled with a warm meal and warm liquids. One of our sleeping bags had also become wet and we used the dry warmth from the fire to dry it as well.

Evaluating our predicament, we planned to hike the next day the few miles to the closest road, find a phone, and call to be picked up. Our third morning we found the trail covered with several inches of snow. The temperature was below freezing, but at least the snow had stopped falling and the there was little wind. We managed to hike out, arrange to be picked up, and lived to backpack another day.

That was over forty years ago, but it was not the last hard learned backpacking lesson I have encountered. I now know not to wear cotton when conditions can be cold and damp, to check the weather forecast before heading out on the trail, and to generally be better prepared. All those hard learned lessons have served me well but have not prevented me from experiencing additional hard lessons from the trail. For instance, a year after this ill-fated trip . . .

Stay tuned for Part II….

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Comments 4

  • Mark Stanavage : Jul 31st

    Not quite so bad, nor quite as old, but old enough to remember there weren’t alternatives for the cotton garments. With the exception of the socks and long underwear. Nowadays technology has brought us the wonders of wicking clothing and merino wool. Wearing cotton now sends the message that you are ignorant or signing up for the “Darwin Awards ” Still have an external frame and canteen, but you won’t catch me in cotton!

  • John Edward Harris : Jul 31st

    Thanks for the reply, Mark. Less than a year after the events narrated in this post I bought my first wool pants and wool shirt. The pants were used dress pants from a wool suit and the shirt was a used Woolrich brand shirt that I picked up at a used clothing store / thrift shop. Such places were about the only place to obtain wool for backpacking at a reasonable price back in the day. Yes, technology has brought us many wonders, but sometimes I think we can become too reliant on technology. When I read accounts of John Muir’s treks in the High Sierras or early attempts to climb Everest I am amazed at what those explorers accomplished with gear we might now consider outdated, obsolete, or, God forbid, “old” like us.

  • firehound : Aug 2nd

    Thanks John, It’s true we all have the one time story, and how we managed to survive, I hike with what I hope is everything I need, warm, dry and above all stranded. Thanks again….

    • John Edward Harris : Aug 2nd

      Thanks for the reply, firehound42. We all learn from our less than stellar trips. If we give up the first time we encounter adversity, make a mistake, or encounter difficulty, we will never grow and mature. I think the key is to start with short trips, short both in terms of time and distance, and build on our experience to longer trips, longer both in terms of distance and time.


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