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Home / Articles / Santa Fe Guides / Sweat /  Slackpacking
sp2-PD
The author has introduced slackpacking to Montana’s Glacier National Park. Adventurous couch potatoes everywhere rejoice.
Photo: Patrick Dodd

Slackpacking

Even you can go backpacking

September 1, 2010, 1:00 am
I woke up one morning last spring and decided I wanted to be a backpacker. (Yes, it really did happen that quickly.) I am not your ideal backpacking candidate: I haven’t hiked in years, I’m overweight, I’m a bit of a hygiene maniac, I can’t cook and I don’t like peeing in the woods.

But, for some reason, I decided I wanted to start backpacking. So I did.

Believe me—if I can do it, chances are you can, too. In case you don’t agree, I’ve written up a Slackpackers’ Bill of Rights to show you precisely why I’m right.

You have the right to go a short distance. I love hiking, but I am not very fast—nor do I like walking for 12 hours straight. This precludes me from venturing miles upon miles into the wilderness to set up camp. But who says you have to go so far? The Santa Fe area has an abundance of short, very hikeable trails that aren’t far from civilization, but still feel like they venture through the middle of nowhere. There is nothing wrong with taking a leisurely hike up to some secluded little spot near the ski basin, pitching a tent, then hiking down the next day.

You have the right to be comfortable. Let’s get one thing clear: I like to bathe. I don’t like to sweat. I love sleeping in a bed. But I also love the outdoors. If you can deal with not taking a shower for a night or two, you can go backpacking (if you really can’t go without some form of bathing, bring a travel pack of Wet Ones). The most important thing for comfort, however, is shoes. You could walk 10 miles in great shoes and feel OK—or you could walk half a mile in bad shoes and feel like your feet are falling off. Good hiking shoes and socks are essential (I hate to say it, but you should spring for the $15 socks). Plus, there’s the issue of the weight of the backpack itself but, if you load it right and it fits well, a 50-pound load can feel like it weighs half as much.

You have the right to not be scared witless. One thing keeping a lot of people from backpacking, including me for a long time, is a fear of the unknown. Horror stories abound from the backwoods, from animal attacks to flash floods to faulty compass readings. Just remember that, if you do your homework, even “dangerous” things can be fun. If you fear falling off a cliff or otherwise maiming and mangling yourself, try to choose an easy hike (a great list is available in the Sierra Club’s Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area). For each horror story you hear, there are thousands of other people who venture into the woods and come out with nothing but a great experience.

You have the right to free backcountry camping. National forests and Bureau of Land Management lands across the country generally offer free or very cheap backcountry camping based on two basic principles: You must be at least 150 feet away from a roadway, and you must pack out everything you pack in. This means if you hike a mile into the woods in the Pecos Wilderness, you are perfectly welcome to hammer in some tent stakes just about anywhere you please. Each area has slightly different rules and regulations, so call ahead to make sure you’re in the clear—but you can generally count on free camping on public land.

You have the right to keep your bank account afloat. Backpacking can definitely be expensive if you obsess over carrying as little weight as possible (the lighter the gear, the more money it costs). But if you’re not going far, you don’t have to worry about shaving off as many ounces as possible—so you can afford the cheaper, slightly heavier gear. There are a few essential items that you really do need if you want to backpack (see below), but that $80 ultra-light saucepan isn’t one of those things.

You have the right to ask questions. Local outdoor-gear shops are sources of such great knowledge, you can pretty much walk in a novice and walk out an expert. REI (500 Market St., 505-982-3557) offers periodic “Backpacking Basics” classes, and the staff at Sangre de Cristo Mountain Works (328 S. Guadalupe St., 505-984-8221) is full of great advice for everything from gear to trails to campsites. Generally, I’ve found that outdoorsy people love to talk about the outdoors and love to fill in beginners on all that Santa Fe has to offer.

You have the right to do things that “don’t count.” A common refrain I hear from serious hikers and backpackers is, “Oh, that doesn’t count.” You only spent one night in the woods and you had cell phone service the whole time? “Oh, that doesn’t count.” You could faintly hear the highway from your campsite and could see the distant light of a house? “Oh, that doesn’t count.” The trail you hiked was marked “easy” and you passed third-graders on your way up? “Oh, that doesn’t count.” To those serious hikers and backpackers, I say: I don’t much care if it didn’t “count.” I care that I got into the woods, stretched my bones under some aspen trees, spent 24 hours away from my laptop and fell asleep in the dirt at 10,500 feet. That counts.

Santa Fe National Forest
505-438-5300
fs.fed.us/r3/sfe

Carson National Forest
575-758-6200
fs.fed.us/r3/carson

Cibola National Forest
505-346-3900
fs.fed.us/r3/cibola

New Mexico Bureau of Land Management
505-954-2000
blm.gov/nm/st/en.html

Santa Fe Slackpacking Basics


Slackpacking is what you do when you're slightly lazy but still want to do something akin to hardcore outside adventuring. Even if you are just starting out and even if you don't really know what you're doing, there are still some basic things you can't slackpack without. Even more basic than backpacking basics, slackpacking basics are what the uber-simple backpacker needs for an uber-simple adventure to be as comfortable as possible.

I've divided your slackpacking basics into four categories - Well Duh, Stuff It Would Be Irresponsible For Me Not To Mention, Stuff You May Not Think Of, and Stuff You Don't Need.

Well Duh

1. A backpack.
Yes, you need a backpack to go slackpacking. And yes, you should actually try it on before you buy it. Don't find a cheap one online and click "Pay Now." Every body is different - I had to try on four packs before I found the one that felt good. Clerks at local shops are amazing when it comes to sizing, fit and adjustments, so find a store employee and grill them on what needs to happen before you buy. I finally settled on the Gregory z55, which set me back $200—and yeah, you're gonna have to spend a few dollars on a pack. The cheapest packs you can find are about $150, but to get a pack worth its salt you will have to shell out at least two bills. But believe me - you want a good, comfortable pack when it's loaded down with food and gear and you're slogging through the wilderness somewhere.

2. A sleeping bag.
Depending on what time of year you plan on slackpacking and how much weight you want to carry, you can spend anywhere from $30 to $600 on your sleeping bag. I spent $30. But I also shiver at night in the Rockies. It's up to you. You can also pick up a cheap sleeping pad to make sleeping on the ground a little more comfy, but if you do, you're a wuss. (Just kidding. I have an air mattress.)

3. A tent.
It's arguable whether you really need this, but it's awfully nice to have—especially during monsoon season. Unfortunately, when it comes to backpacking tents, affordable (under $300) ones are usually in the 6-pound range. That may sound light, but when you're packing that much on your back, it suddenly feels like a bowling ball. Lighter tents go up in price exponentially. If you have more than one person on your slackpacking expedition, however, tenting it gets easier because you can split up the weight.

4. Good shoes.
My own personal life motto is, "Life sucks when you wear uncomfortable shoes." Okay, I actually just made that up now, but it's true. You may balk at the price of a good pair of hiking shoes, but I have two words for you: Spend it. I picked up a pair of Vasque Breeze GTX XCRs, and it was quite possibly the smartest thing I've ever done. Myfirst hike in these shoes was six miles to the Glorieta Ghost Town, and even un-broken-in, I could have gone another 10 miles. If I'd worn crappy shoes, however, I'd have been ready to amputate below the ankle after just a mile. Hiking is all about your feet, so keep your feet happy.

5. Good socks. Yes, I too used to LOL at the $23 socks on the rack at outdoor shops. "WTF," I'd say, "I'll go to Target and spend a dollar. Screw you, !" No no no, my  friend. Spend that $23. (Well, I usually cap my sock price at $14, but you get the picture). Even the greatest hiking shoes on earth will suck if your feet are sliding around inside them, if your Hanes tubes bunch up in weird places or if you sweat through your socks after a mile and a half. If you really don't want to get expensive socks, get the REI store-brand socks for $9.50 (the cheapestworthwhile hiking socks I've found).

6. Water. And lots of it. While water is the most vital part of any hike, it is also unfortunately the heaviest. Budget a gallon of water a day (seriously) per person. If you don't want to lug that around, check out my blurb about water filters below in Stuff You May Not Think Of.

7. Food. I like to eat. A lot. And I like to eat delicious things. Thankfully, camp food has become infinitely more delicious in the years since I started hiking as wee child. are actually tasty as hell, ain't just for ladies, and
be still my heart. A step further you find brands which create freeze-dried bagged meals that are far nicer than anything that has ever, EVER come out of my own kitchenplus, they're easy to make. Open bag, pour hot water in, close bag, wait, eat.

Stuff It Would Be Irresponsible For Me Not To Mention

1. A Map and Compass. The important thing about a map and compass, however, is that you know how to read them - and topographic maps can be surprisingly obtuse to a beginner. Pick up a map of the area you plan to slackpack. Many ranger stations in national forests have really nice maps readily available for free or cheap - or, if you want to spend a few dollars,  topographic maps are the smart slackpacker's #1 resource. Local gear stores often have maps of the most popular trails in the region. But, I repeat: Even if you think you're smart, you should ask someone to give you a refresher course on how to navigate the old-fashioned way.

2. Sun protection. That desert sun can be wicked. For me, this means sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, and SPF lip balm. Not only will this prevent sunburn, but on hot days, staying out of direct sunlight can help stave off dehydration.

3. Layers. Even when the days are warm, we all know that nights in the desert can get darn chilly. I usually go overboard with a tank top, tee shirt, long-sleeved tee shirt, sweat shirt, a fleece, and jacket over that. You don't have to be like me.

4. First-aid kit. Whether you get punctured by yucca or end up half-hypothermic in a ditch somewhere, those all-in-one first aid kids (Be sure to get one that includes an emergency blanket
the reflective material can also serve as an emergency shelter, or even a shiny signal to rescue planes if you find yourself in a pickle.

5. Fire starter. While I actually don't recommend having wood fires
especially in the New Mexico backcountry, where they are often outlawedhaving the means to create a fire in an emergency is a good thing. Matches, a lighter, a quick-lighting fire starting kit, or whatever you think is best should be kept in a waterproof container and only used when absolutely necessary. Thankfully, they are not very heavy and don't take up much room.

6. Duct tape. Because it does everything. It can fix a rip in your pack or even serve as a big, painful-to-take-off band-aid if you're in a bind.

7. Head Lamp. Flashlights are annoying 'cause you have to hold them. Head lamps are cool because you feel like a miner. A good head lamp can run you a lot of money, but for the average person's slackpacking expedition, you only need to spend $10 or less at Wal-Mart. (I know, I hate Wal-Mart too, but when you're passing through Kalispell, Montana on the way to Glacier and you realize you are headlampless at 10:30 pm, there are few alternatives.)

8. Itinerary. Unless you are forgetful, you don't actually have to bring your itinerary WITH you. What you must do is tell someone else your itinerary. The biggest mistake an adventurer can make is to disappear without anyone knowing where he or she is off to. Tell a friend, email your mom, leave a sheet of notebook paper on your fridge. If you're parked at a trailhead, do NOT leave your itinerary within sight inside your car (for example, a note on your dash that says, "Just hiking - be back on Sunday!") - this gives undesirables the perfect time frame to steal stuff. If you want to leave a note with your car, fold it and leave it under the driver's seat or in the center console.

Stuff You May Not Think Of

1. Coffee. I cannot survive without coffee. I become narcoleptic by about noon if I don't have a cup first thing in the morning. I bought the  press, and it's all well and good, but
like all French pressesit's a pain to clean out, and it takes up a lot of room. The solution is Starbucks Via instant coffee. I triedall kinds of instant coffees to find just the right one, and even though I usually don't like Starbucks coffee, Via is definitely the best instant coffee out there. The easiest way to pack it is to pour one Via packet into one of those little plastic baggies they sell at Hobby Lobby or Jo-Ann Fabrics, measure out how much sugar and powdered creamer you like along with it, and seal the bag. Then all you have to do is pour that single bag into some hot water, rather than measuring out sugar and cream on the trail.

2. Camp stove. When it comes to camp stoves, you have two choices. You can find a little camp stoves at outdoor stores, or you can find out about how to make homemade camp stoves out of tin cans. Or you have a third option: Don't use a camp stove (see the blurb in Stuff You Don't Need).

3. Water filter. Water is darn heavy, but it's also darn essential. Luckily for people who will be hitting some stream crossings on their travels, lightweight water filters are the perfect solution to packing in five days' worth of water. I use a Katadyn,  a simple pump-action water filter that is awesomely efficient. The only hitch in trusting a water filter is that you have to hit water to filter. In other words, if there's an intermittent stream on your route or it's been a paticularly dry year (which is every year, it seems), do NOT count on hitting water and pack all your water in.

4. Baby wipes. I am a hygiene maniac, and going days without some form of bathing seriously sucks. Enter baby wipes, Wet Ones, or whatever type of pre- moistened towelette you prefer. I have found, however, that wipes leave a gross residue on your skin
so I tend to wipe myself down a second time with plain water.

5. Trekking poles. Thoughts on trekking poles vary among hikers, but I like them. They can help support you on uphill climbs and can brace you against slipping on steep downhill stretches. In addition, if you bring along a tarp and some stakes, you can use them as poles to fashion a bare-bones shelter in lieu of a tent. Just make sure you get poles with a comfortable grip. Have you ever shoveled snow or raked leaves and come in with big blisters all over your palms? Yeah, bad trekking poles can do that to your hands. Not cool.

6. Rope. You never know when you're gonna need rope.

Stuff You Don't Need

1. Books. Yeah, I thought sitting by my tent and reading Thoreau would be awfully poetic. But it was stupid. The book was heavy and by the time I got camp set up and ravaged some camp food, I was too damn tired to crack a tome. Leave the books behind.

2. Daily changes of clothes. Especially if you are by yourself or with a very close companion, no one will care if you smell. You should always pack an extra set of clothes in a waterproof bag in case you encounter rain or river-dunking, but you don't need a new sweatshirt for every day. Or even new underwear. But you didn't hear that from me.

3. Camp stove. Once you get to camp at night, much like the reading thing, you may be too beat to even think about cooking food. If you feel like you can survive on protein bars, beef jerky (actually I prefer turkey jerky) and candy bars (you'll burn the calories anyway), by all means, skip the hot food.

4. Tent. As I said, tents are nice. I have a tent. I like my tent. But there's nothing wrong with throwing your bag on the ground and snoozing under the stars. Save yourself six pounds and add some slackpacking trail-cred to your outdoorsy resume.

 

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