First Time Backpacking? No Worries
By Jim DuFresne
Teresa sent me an email recently with a question about backpacking that I have been asked a thousands times before: Can we do this?
Or in her case, can her boyfriend do this and survive? Possibly even enjoy it?
My boyfriend and I are planning a trip to Isle Royale this July. I bought your book have been reading and planning our 3 night 4 day hike. I have also been dehydrating fruits and veggies for our stay. We have never done this kind of overnight hiking before and in just the last few days he sounds like he isn’t sure about the whole thing. Is there any advice you can give me so as to reassure him that this can be done and that 1000′s do it every year.
Teresa is correct on the last point. Thousands do it every year. Isle Royale is a remote island national park in Lake Superior that attracts roughly 17,000 visitors from April through October. That’s a drop in the bucket by National Park standards, less than what they draw on a good day at Grand Canyon.
But of those Isle Royale visitors, the National Park Service classifies 12,000 or more as “backcountry users,” people who arrive to spend a night or more away from the entry ports of Rock Harbor and Windigo. Some are kayakers, some are canoers, some are anchored in a backcountry bay in their sailboat.
But the vast majority is backpackers, hikers who cram everything they need, and a few things they don’t, in a pack and then head down the trail for days at a time. That’s what leads to Isle Royale’s most unusual stat. The island boosts one of the longest visitation period of any national park in the country; the average stay at the park is 4.5 days.
People don’t come to see Isle Royale, they come to escape.
Once you hit the trail, you realize backpackers come in all ages and physical shape; from a couple of retired guys plodding down the Greenstone Ridge Trail to a family with five-year-olds hauling their own gear.
Once you reach you’re next camp, the camaraderie among backpackers pitching their tents for the evening is heartfelt and spirited. You swap stories about seeing a moose and in the evening you share your chocolate bar with another couple while watching a pair of loons on a lake. Everybody is pulling for everybody to reach the end of the trail.
Because it is Teresa’s first backpacking adventure I do have a few suggestions that will make it much more enjoyable:
Keep the backpack as light as possible
This is the key. Isle Royale is not overly rugged, we’re not talking about Rocky Mountain National Park here, but you’re still hauling your gear down a trail that will include steady climbs every now and then.
You don’t want a lot of weight on your back, that’s why at Rock Harbor there’s a scale to weigh packs and storage available if they are too heavy. Ideally for adults the weight of their backpack should be between 30 and 40 pounds and as close to 30 as they can get it.
You don’t need a lot of clothes. You need one set that you will be hiking in and one set when you’re done for the day.
You don’t need gadgets. You need a lightweight backpacker’s stove, fires aren’t allowed in the backcountry, but you don’t need a trailside cappuccino maker, no matter how compact and cute it is. Freeze-dried coffee will be just fine.
Breaks are crucial, especially the second day when you shoulders will be most sensitive to the straps of your backpack (the reason to keep it light). The rest periods don’t need to be long, just numerous so you can remove the pack and allow your shoulder muscles a brief recovery.
Besides this why you’re out here, to soak up the amazing scenery on the island. Backpacking is not a foot race, take time to enjoy the surroundings.
The most feared injury on Isle Royale is being attacked by a moose or falling off Mount Franklin, it’s a blister on the back of your heel. To survive you don’t need to haul along a giant first aid kit, just carry a small piece of Moleskin, a few other bandages and tape and, even if a blister develops on the second day, you’ll be fine.
Teresa has a good start here, dehydrating fruits and vegetables will result in delicious meals in the middle of the wilderness. My favorite is tomato paste that we spread thin on wax paper and then dry at the lowest possible temperature in the oven. We then store it in a Ziploc bag and on the island tear off chucks of it to make incredibly rich sauces and soups.
Keep in mind that after hauling a pack 8 miles, whatever you cook at the end of the day is going to taste great, even if it’s watery mac-and-cheese and cup-a-soup. Pack enough food so you’re not hungry at night but to end the hike with anything more than an emergency granola bar is a cardinal sin in backpacking.
Limit your itinerary
A common mistake when you have only have four days on the trail is to cover too much mileage each day. On Isle Royale 7 to 8 miles is a pleasant day, allowing you to start around 9 a.m., be done by mid-afternoon and stop often for breaks and lunch in between.
If she can work out the logistics with her schedule, my suggested itinerary to Teresa is to take the Isle Royale Queen IV from Copper Harbor which lands in Rock Harbor around noon. That gives them more than enough time to hike the 7.1 miles to Daisy Farm campground the first day.
The second day can be easy; 5.8 miles to Lake Rickie Campground. On the third day they can hike to McCargoe Cove, a beautiful campground to spend the night, and along the way drop their packs at the Greenstone Ridge Trail junction and climb the ridge a half mile to the west for a view of the inlands lakes form the top of it. Total mileage that day, including the side trip, would be 7.5 miles.
On their fourth day they can hike to the old mining ruins on the Minong Ridge in the morning without packs and then return to McCargoe Cove and hop on the Voyageur II. The ferry that circles the island and will pick them up for a ride back to Rock Harbor. The boat ride will be a way to see the scenic Five Fingers region of the park and cap off the trip.
As far as Teresa’s boyfriend, if this blog doesn’t convince him to go, I say go without him. And after you come back so enthused about your adventure on the island, he’ll never pass up another opportunity to go backpacking again.
Neither will you.