A New Summer Means Learning New Backpacking Skills—Hopefully

After a fall and winter of snow-filled adventures that are very fun but not quite as fun as summertime adventures, a horrifying bike crash and broken shoulder and surgery, and a spring thus far spent in tap-dancing anticipation, I’m planning my first solo backpacking trip of the year in a few weeks. Sure, it’ll be Memorial Day, and the first five miles of the best trails will be filled to the brim with people making their first and only foray into the woods for the whole year, but so what. It’s summer, dammit. It’s the childlike joy of Christmas, birthday parties, a visit to Disneyland, the first day of a vacation by the beach, all rolled together into one big, fat, dank…breakfast burrito, of course. I’m full of optimism about all the golden-tinged adventures the rest of the summer will bring, even if most of those adventures are just me following my toddler around, infant strapped to my back. Andy Williams could not have been more wrong: This is the most wonderful time of the year.

I don’t know about you, but buoyed by the fresh optimism a new backpacking season brings, I always like to make a list of outdoor skills to improve upon each year when summer begins. Here are mine for the upcoming season.

Learn how to build a fire even half as well as my wife. Wind, rain, snow, bare granite with no visible kindling for miles, doesn’t matter. While I’m over here trying to light on fire something that looks like a crazed squirrel nest, usually using some fancy firestarter, my wife has erected a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque bit of kindling architecture complete with well thought out ventilation systems that she ignited with a simple Bic lighter. I’ve watched a zillion times, no idea how she does it. Needless to say, she’s the firestarter in the family.

Photo: Manuel Meurisse

Develop my wife’s trip-planning skills. I guess some people like to have a thorough idea of, I don’t know, where they’re hiking to and how long they expect the trip to take, and how many miles it is, rather than show up at a trailhead with hopefully the right topo, and, crap, well, I forgot to download the GPS coordinates to my phone, but still, I’ve got a map. Oh, it’s the wrong map.

Get better at planning meals. Stuffing a bear can full of Trader Joe’s mac and cheese and sesame sticks has always seemed adequate to me, as long as you don’t mind eating the same dried, salty food for three meals a day. But you know who makes well-planned meal choices? With breakfast, snacks, and a varied lunch/dinner? My wife, who is likely at this very minute buying food that I will deem unnecessary at the trailhead car park while packing, and then will gleefully and thankfully consume that same afternoon.

Practice better tent housekeeping. If you had to guess, between my wife and me, which one us do you think has fallen asleep in their tent with a half-eaten Snickers bar in their hand, and another in their pack, smack in the middle of bear country?

Clearly, the toddler has much to learn about good tent hygiene. Photo: Justin Housman

Be a more careful packer. You would think (or, I should say, I’ve long thought) that throwing every piece of outdoor gear I own into the back of a pickup and driving into the mountains to sort it all out at the trailhead would be an excellent way to pack for a backpacking trip. Until the time you get 200 miles away from home before discovering you’ve left your backpack in the bedroom because you were trying to color coordinate it with one of your down jackets. You won’t be surprised at this point to learn my wife is not the one who did this.

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Avoid dumb injuries. My wife has also never had to visit a rural emergency room because on a backpacking trip she’d embedded a fish hook so far into her finger it had to be surgically removed. I’d really like to learn to not do that, either.

Need some decidedly non-serious, well, okay, the information is serious but the format isn’t, exactly, bit of outdoor how-to writing? AJ alum and funnyman Brendan Leonard has you covered with, Surviving the Great Outdoors: Everything You Need to Know Before Heading into the Wild (and How to Get Back in One Piece).

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