The Novice Backpacker

This information has been prepared for the individual who has limited experience with backpacking or distance hiking. The purpose of this document is to aid in planning for a thru hike of the East Coast Trail, which is located on the North-East & Eastern portion of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, Canada. While the information relating to the ECT is factually correct, the recommendations for preparing for such a hike are merely based on my personal opinion.

The info below will be of little use to those with experience in hiking long distances with minimal pack weight – to cut to the chase, check The Experienced Backpacker page.

How to Prepare

Preparing physically for a long hike is simple – all you have to do is walk. Backpacking is not rocket science, and the ECT is about as easy as a “long” hike gets. Preferably you’ll want to walk on similar paths near where you live, and preferably with 15 to 20lbs on your back. Even if you are able to keep your final pack weight very low, you’ll have to add food, water and possibly fuel – so 15 – 20lbs is a good realistic place to start. This is also an excellent opportunity to test your options in footwear.

Try to fit in at least a few “shakedown hikes” – basically overnight trips whose primary purpose is to test equipment and your familiarity with its use. In terms of distance for a shakedown hike; the longer the better, all the way to your intended daily target distance. However, even if you have to perform this testing in your backyard, that’s far better than nothing, and in some way maybe even safer. Regardless of where you first use new equipment, the objective is to mentally detach yourself from the convenience of home and civilization and objectively evaluate what worked – and what failed.

If you take away only one thing from this document, please make it what was suggested in that previous paragraph.

For your own safety and comfort, you may also want to develop a few skills that are not very common in modern society – we’ll get into that later.

Where to Camp

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NOTE: Raw data for this topic is available in the Camping tab of the spreadsheet.

In terms of camping, the ECT is not constructed with thru hikes in mind – designated camp sites are not evenly spaced out. In addition, other places to camp are not easily found due to the characteristics of the trail; IE. often hilly terrain, thick forest, and that very big blue thing to the left. Difficulty finding a spot for the night can be especially true if you’re relatively inexperienced. For these reasons, the results from the Thru Hike Calculator in terms of distance are merely general targets.

Example:

If you’re planning on 25 kpd, you may hike a little beyond that the first day before finding a suitable camp spot on the second half of White Horse Path… there are a few spots in the northern half and near the northern trailhead. The next day, you could potentially stop early… Small Point on Stiles Cove Path would be a common choice. You’re doing 25 kpd averages, but the actual numbers look like this:

Day 1 km: 27.90
Day 2 km: 21.80
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Average km: 24.85

Another more reasonable (and perhaps more likely) scenario is that you start later than expected on your first day, or deliberately write the first day off and camp at a spot near the beginning of Picco’s Ridge – there are good spots at about 0.5km and 5km. The added benefit here is that you have an opportunity to quickly correct any mistakes in terms of planning (too much heavy equipment, too much food, not enough warm clothes) in the morning of Day 2 before getting too far into the hike.

Ultimately the availability of a spot to set up your shelter will determine how much ground you cover on any given day. The point here: You need to be flexible.

Check the Camping tab in the Spreadsheet to get started with planning where you’ll stop each night. Pay special attention to columns F to I – those fields will suggest good camp spots depending on the number of kilometres you plan to hike each day.

Resupply Strategy

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NOTE: Raw data for this topic can be found in the spreadsheet – check the Resupply and Water Report tabs.

Food (resupply) and water for an East Coast Trail Thru Hiker is extremely easy to figure out. The longest distance between grocery stores that are directly on route (or very near the route) is 65 km, and some stretches have options at half that distance. Even for thru hikers going at the most relaxed pace, there should be no reason to carry more than 4 days of food at any given time. The news is even better for water – streams and rivers are very plentiful. Equip yourself with a good method of water treatment and a copy of the Water Report from the spreadsheet and you’ll have to carry less than 1lb of water for much of the day.

Those with specialized diets may choose to resupply with a technique that distance hikers on longer trails often use: Mail-drops. Mail-drops are packages that you send to yourself via postal mail before departure. The concept is fairly simple; prepare a few resupply packages (maybe food & supplies – fresh socks!) and mail them to yourself at strategic locations along the trail. Put your name on the TO label, along with the words General Delivery, then the address of the selected post office. It may be a good idea to also note your intentions on the package… something along the lines of Please hold for East Coast Trail Thru Hiker.

Note that residents of Canada also theoretically have the option of foregoing this General Delivery method by using the free FlexDelivery service offered by Canada Post. The end result is essentially the same and some time has to be devoted to online setup, but it offers the possible advantage of email notification when your package arrives at the destination.

If you’ve not previously done a long hike, you’ll probably be surprised by how hungry you are for food after the first few days. It’s not uncommon to become ravenous in terms of food consumption when burning so many calories. This situation often leads to the hiker craving different things – when your objective is simply to walk, the topic of food will likely occupy much of your thinking.

Strategically then, if you decide to resupply primarily via Mail-drops, it may also be a good idea to pick the location based on areas where you’ll have other options. There are good on-route possibilities for either technique in St. John’s, Bay Bulls and slightly off route in Ferryland – generally the Grocery Store and Post Office are within a few minutes walk of each other. Much smaller retailers are in Witless Bay and Cape Broyle that would offer the possibility of limited “diet modification” (aka, pigging out). There are also some road-side restaurants on-route, but availability depends largely on when you’ll be passing through. In terms of resturants in general, it’s best to not rely on these – perhaps just consider them a possible morale boosting bonus.

Resupply for non-food (largely meaning: fuel for your stove / cooking) is another matter. You’ll find neither of the two most popular backpacking fuels – isobutane canisters or denatured alcohol – to be particularly abundant. The former can be obtained on-route in St. John’s and intermittently slightly off route in Witless Bay, and the latter in the form of Methyl Hydrate slightly off route at Witless Bay and on-route at Cape Broyle. Those not willing to accept the weight penalty of carrying extra fuel could find themselves temporarily rationing, improvising or switching to non-cooked meals (going stove-less as it’s known) if any of these locations are out-of-stock.

In all cases keep in mind that while you’re on trail – blissfully operating on nature’s schedule – the rest of the world is grinding away on 9 to 5, so ideally you’ll want to reach your resupply point while it’s open. All Retailers and Canada Post locations have their business hours online, but if timing is critical, call ahead to confirm.

Essential Skills

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There are a few skills that are not regularly known or practiced in modern society that come in very handy when traveling through the woods. The skills below could be considered essential for survival in an emergency situation, but you may also choose to employ them in a non-emergency context while hiking.

Take a few moments to watch the following videos and practice these things on your shakedown hikes, and I’ll guarantee that at some point during your thru hike you’ll be very glad you did. And hey – it’s all good stuff to know for the impending Zombie Apocalypse.

Planning Food Consumption:

This may seem like an easy one, but new backpackers most often take way too much food. The Spreadsheet has a tab covering Resupply, so you can plan ahead quite easily and avoid this mistake. A popular technique to simplify this process that is often used by thru hikers of longer trails is to consider the trail as multiple shorter hikes, each one ending and the next beginning at a resupply point. You’ll have to actually count out meals (IE. Breakfast x 3, Lunch x 4, etc.) taking into account the distance until your next resupply point. Remember, on the ECT the longest stretch between resupply points is only about 65km.

Navigation with Map and Compass:

You’re never very far from civilization on the ECT, and it’s relatively unlikely that you’ll get lost – after all, the ocean is hard to miss, and once you find that, you’re halfway back on track. However, if you should lose the trail in the forest, you’d be very surprised how hard it is to find again if you’re unsure of the direction to travel – in the forest, you can be as close as a couple of metres from a path and not see it. Check out Dave Collins two part video on Staying Found and Map, Compass and GPS Navigation.

Knots:

Knowing how to make a few good knots can be extremely helpful when you’re living in the woods during a thru hike. This is especially true if you’re using a tarp of any sort or an ultralight shelter. Some simple knots that are also easy-to-remember and quick release are detailed in the Knowing Knots, or Not article at GoTakeAHike.ca.

Fire:

In optimal conditions, it’s not difficult to make a fire. Chances are however, if you need a fire, conditions will be less than perfect and possibly even terrible. Survival Lilly has some good info on Various Ways of Making Fire and How to Improve Them including info on a selection of tools. Dave Collins has info on Fire Building in Harsh Conditions and Paul Kirtley has a good video on Essential Winter Fire Lighting Techniques – if you can do this in winter, you can pretty much do it in any survival situation.

Keep in mind that the ECTA has a policy of it’s users not having open fires, and official regulations for camp fires in Newfoundland are specifically defined to the point of being very restrictive – allowed only during certain times of the year, away from the forest and near a body of water.  LNT Principle #5 for Minimizing Campfire Impact states to use existing fire rings when available, but if you find one on or very close to the treadway, according to ECT Policy it should not be used. If however you find yourself in a critical situation where you have to light a fire, please follow LNT Principles.

 

Going Lightweight

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I should start by saying that I’m somewhat reluctant to write about gear. These things are just tools that allow us to spend time with nature, and far too often backpackers lose sight of that. Also, my gear is right for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you – there is no “best” tent, or backpack or anything really – just what works for the individual. Some hikers, given half the chance, will sit around all evening debating the merits of one stove over another, while all around them mother nature is trying to entice them with her beauty. They don’t see it – they could be @ Starbucks.

Anyway…. Almost every selection in backpacking equipment comes down to a simple question:

“Do you want convenience items? Or do you want a lightweight pack?”

For a complete successful thru hike, you’ll need as little weight on your back as possible. The best thing to realize now – before getting on trail – is that for a long distance hike you need to look critically at every single item you carry with a goal of keeping your total pack weight down.

The total weight of everything you need, less food, water and fuel (the “consumables”) is known as Base Weight. During research and preparation for long distance hiking, you’ll read many terms – lightweight, ultralight, sub-ultralight, etc. – and definitions of these – under 30lbs, under 20lbs, under 8lbs! Whatever your final pack weight, understand this universal truth; When you are walking 20 or more kpd, you will curse the weight of your gear.

Let’s not get into those terms. Instead, the general rule of thumb we’ll use here is:

“Try for a Base Weight less than or equal to 10% of your body weight.”

For example, I’m 165lbs. I try to keep my backpack – fully loaded, but less consumables – to about 16 or 17lbs. That’s my Base Weight. By the time I add food and fuel for a few days, plus water for a few hours, my pack is easily up above 20lbs. Obviously, if you weigh 120lbs you may exceed the target – conversely if you are overweight, you need to go lower than 10% – this number is just a general guideline. The idea here is to use this guideline to keep things in check – if you get everything together / packed up and find that you’re at 25%, then you know things need to be re-evaluated. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with 25% if you’re going for a weekend hike or even for a few days, but that selection of gear is not going to best serve you for 300+ km.

So will this 10% number make you a “Lightweight Backpacker” by definition? That’s the wrong question. The whole point of this text is to help you – before hitting the trail – strike a near perfect balance between walking comfort / camping comfort for a 300km hike – not to adhere to some arbitrary, obscure definition. You will try to make the walking portion of your hike comfortable by minimizing pack weight, but at the same time keep in mind your comfort level in terms of convenience while camping and your general safety throughout the duration of the hike.

Some hikers will warn about a general lack of concern for safety in the idea of going lightweight or minimalist in your backpacking equipment, and that can be a valid point. Like the balance that you’re trying to find between hiking comfort / camping comfort, you need to weigh these opinions against what is likely / not likely to happen. Add to that the enthusiasm some hikers have for equipment discussions, and it’s easy to get advice that’s not suited to the task of thru hiking. I’ve actually had people tell me, on trail, that I can’t possibly be safe with just 20lbs – while they’re struggling with a 50lb load complete with knee pain after 15km.

To go light safely, you have to be intimately familiar with the weather, distance and environment with which you’ll be dealing. As long as you employ logic – don’t confuse light with stupid light – you’ll be ok.

There are a few other universal truths concerning equipment for long distance hiking – things that you may not want to hear, so let’s just get it out of the way now, shall we?:

“Lightweight gear is expensive” – The lightest materials – titanium, goose down, carbon fiber, cuben fiber – are all synonymous with “expensive”.

 

“Lightweight gear is fragile” – After you’ve burned through money and bought everything you need, you’ll have a pile of easily breakable stuff. Isn’t that nice? 🙁

Expensive fragile gear is not the only way to go however. With some creativity, ingenuity and a few basic skills you can work around these issues and still have a pack that you can live with, walk with and afford.

Now that I’ve preached incessantly about weight reduction, I’ll contradict myself: Many hikers also take one “luxury” (guilty pleasure) item. It’s usually something that is non-essential, but not very heavy – something that’s “nice to have”. That’s ok. Everyone does it. 🙂

Other Practices for a Lightweight Pack

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Reducing pack weight is about more than just spending a small fortune on “lightweight everything”. There are some less obvious tricks to keeping it light.

Perhaps the most common practice involves multi-use items. Every item in your pack that has more than one use effectively reduces your total pack weight through the process of eliminating other items. When you get in this habit of expecting more from your equipment, you begin to question whether or not a single use item is doing all it can, or if it doesn’t measure up in terms of a usefulness vs. weight ratio.

Examples of Common Multi-Use Items

Trekking Poles:

The first use is obvious.

The second use is in replacement of poles to hold up your shelter. This works well with Tarps and some tents are actually designed for this. Potential weight savings 8+ oz.

Bandana:

Wet and wrap it around your neck or draped over your head / under your hat to keep cool in direct sun.

Used during meal time to hold a hot pot handle, clean up, dry your cookset, etc..

Pre-filter for very dirty water.

… and the list goes on. Collecting / wrapping kindling, cushioning the noisy rattling bits in your backpack, collecting berries, etc., etc.. Most hikers find many more uses for the Bandana.

Stuff Sack:

Obviously for gear storage.

At night, it becomes a pillow, when stuffed with any soft items you can find that are not already in use.

Water Bottle:

The first use is obvious.

Fill it with hot water at night for additional warmth in your bag, if required.

Carabiner Clip:

(I started using 3/4″ and 1/2″ mini binder clips a few years ago as an improvement on clothes pins, but quickly realized I could increase their usefulness and utility by combining them with a mini carabiner and a heavy rubber band. Five of these come in at just under 1 oz.).

Used as a clothes pin around camp. With the Carabiner and Rubber band attached you can hang your knickers off anything.

Used while hiking to attach things to your pack: wet socks to dry, solar panel to charge, etc..

When combined with a Ziplock, hang from the ridgeline in your hammock / light & zipper hooks in your tent for small gear organization.

This multi-use perspective on equipment will also help keep weight down over time – you’ll get in the habit of quickly dismissing many newly released convenience items on the basis that your needs have already been met with something that you’ve macgyvered.

Multiple Small Weight Reductions Add Up

Stuff Sacks:

You don’t need a separate stuff sack for each item. As an interesting test, after you’ve collected your gear, remove all the stuff sacks and weigh them together. I had nearly 1 pound of them – stuff sacks for everything – sleeping bag, food bag, sleeping pad, emergency kit, jacket, cookset, stove, etc.. – I kept 2 stuff sacks and replaced all the rest with with a plastic shopping bag and 3 large Ziplock Bags – saving about 3/4 of a pound – and losing zero functionality. Your pack can be lined with a huge plastic bag for weather protection – so it’s all protected – and you can still pack neatly. Most things in your pack are soft, so they’re squish together and take up less space. If there’s anything sharp, it can be wrapped carefully in a durable item like a bandana and secured with an elastic band to shield it from everything else.

Water Bottles:

Consider ditching the Nalgene bottle. That thing weighs 6 oz.. A plastic soda bottle weighs 1/4 of a Nalgene and does exactly the same thing. The wide mouth energy drink-type bottles are nice, as are the size and shape of Smart Water bottles. Hydration Bladder user? Those are even heavier, and will take longer to fill than a water bottle – time spent performing chores like this is time not hiking.

Chop It Up:

This takes the idea of completely losing an item, like a stuff sack, one step further – you are in fact losing a piece of an item.

Look at your backpack, your stove, your trekking poles – everything, and ask yourself “Is this designed for me?” It’s not at all uncommon for weight conscious backpackers to mod their gear. For example, when I bought my trekking poles, I was constantly annoyed by the wrist straps – I’d never use them, and they were always hooking on stuff and generally getting in the way – so I removed them. I’d saved only a few ounces, but I stopped carrying something that I wasn’t using. My cannister stove is another example; It had a piezo ignitor – but I already had 2 other fire sources, I didn’t need a 3rd – and it’s designed to be replaceable, or to me, removable… it unscrewed. A very commonly modded item is a backpack – mine has a hydration bladder pocket that I’d never use and excess webbing on the straps… there’s 3 feet of the stuff dangling all over the place. All these things together are nearly 1/4 lb!

Once you start doing this type of modification you may feel yourself slowing slipping into insanity – looking for things to jettison from new gear, right out of the box – it may seem a little crazy. On the other hand, if these items can be changed to better suit your needs, why not do it?

No matter how focused you become on the lightweight idea, there’s always someone that’s gone one step further. You know you’re that person when your partner catches you sawing half the handle off your toothbrush and says “What ARE you Doing?!”…. or worse, just “Oh my Gawd!”. Busted! 🙂

Beware the Do-Dads and Trinkets

Equipment Manufactures and Retailers are always trying to come up with “great new must have” items for hikers. They’ll go to great lengths to get some new item reviewed on a blog, have their marketing info and press releases plastered all over the place, or have even been known to fake or buy reviews on Amazon – anything to convince you that they can make your hike better. The thing is, with a thru hike, what you’re trying to achieve is pretty simple – it’s a long walk – humans have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years. In the past we didn’t need a multi-tool with 26 functions or a portable kitchen sink.

Quite frankly, the last successful addition to my kit was a few years ago… my smartphone. The only reason it passed the test so handily was because it’s the ultimate multi-use item; camera, map & gps, book, music player, voice recorder, flashlight and occasionally even a communication device. Including a solar panel or backup battery – a necessary supplemental item on multi-day hikes IMO – I’ve found the advantages outweigh the < 1lb total penalty (no pun intended).

If the “lightweight” monicker is not keeping things in check for you, think “minimalist”. As a minimalist it’s more straightforward – you strive for a pack with only the base essentials, then reward yourself for a job well done with a luxury item.

Constant Evaluation

After some short overnight “shakedown hikes” leading up to your thru hike, ask yourself, of each piece of equipment; “Am I really going to use this?” A common trap that newbie backpackers fall into is the “Just In Case” way of thinking – you end up taking gear that you may use, but never do. There’s a related saying among lightweight backpackers:

“Just In Case weighs a Tonne.”

Ditch items that you’ve deemed unessential during this review process and, on the next trip, see if you really did need it.

Summary

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This info will increase your chances of a successful thru hike and make it as painless as possible.

Occasionally I hear people that have decided to do their first multi-day hike say, with conviction “Well, I know I want to go ultralight”. There’s more to that however than just buying a load of titanium and cuben fibre gear and hitting the trail – you really need to begin developing skills that are often necessary when not living in civilization. The single most important thing to do is to get out for a few shakedown hikes. Using the power of the Internet, this is easier than ever; research gear, get some great deals and observe some techniques in action on YouTube…. then try it out in real life before hitting the trail. Skip that step and realistically the most likely outcome is flustration and failure within the first few days.

The ECT is a good challenge for a first time thru hike – I’ve said before that it’s a pretty easy ride. However, consider that if you were to ask any hiker that has just completed a long trail; “What was the hardest part?”, inevitably the answer will come back “The first couple of weeks”. On this path, that’s the whole path. Luckily, the great thing about long distance hiking is that there’s no first place winner – last place also wins. If you take your time, you will make it.

There’s one more saying I’ll share from hiking culture, and it’s by far the most popular….

“Hike Your Own Hike”
(Do it your own way, and Have Fun!)

 

Continue to the next page: Equipment.

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