I must admit that had some anxiety about the Backpacking 101 course through Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. I was a little worried about the status of Christine’s ankle sprain, the dynamics of the group, and wondering if people would be a little too “hard-core” about backpacking in general.
I think all the worry was quickly alleviated once we started the weekend course. Christine and I are both so happy that we signed up.
The first session of the day started with Trip Planning. We brainstormed ideas on what you need to think about to plan a good backpacking trip. I felt our group came up with great ideas and covered all of the necessities. One group seemed more like the “party group” because they were concerned with who was bringing the frisbee, harmonica, and alcohol. I don’t think most serious backpackers would want to lug the extra weight or dehydrate themselves with a bottle of whiskey.
We then had a “Bio-Break”. I remember when I saw this on the agenda initially, I was wondering what this could be. It turns out to mean just a bathroom break. Christine and I have started using this and I think we’ll teach this phrase to our dogs. They also know “Go outside” and “Drain your lizard”, so what’s one new phrase for them to learn?
The next session taught us about clothing. We learned about layering and the purpose for each layer of clothing. This should help minimize what needs to be packed and ensures that our clothing is keeping our bodies at the right temperature and keeping us dry. All of the students in class learned the mantra of “No Cotton”, since it gets wet easily and takes a long time to dry.
Next, we learned some basic skills in map reading, which I found to be quite easy. I think most of the class was fairly confident with map reading, but it was great to work on map skills as small groups. We also learned some basics on reading a compass. I typically use my hand-held GPS, but it was good to have a refresher. Our instructor suggested that we take a compass for when we leave the trail/camp for the bathroom. We found a spot to approach and then followed the compass to get us there and back.
We took a short lunch break and then learned about the Ten Essentials that everyone needed to have available in their packs.
The instructors demonstrated different types of backpacks and talked about the pros and cons of internal frame packs, external frame packs, and frameless packs. We split into groups based on height and learned about the different packs the instructors had. We tried on various packs, discussed how to adjust for your individual needs, and then looked at how each of them were packed. I personally liked the Gregory brand packs best, because I feel they worked a little better with my back and they gave some breathing room between my back which tends to sweat. I ordered a Gregory Z65 and I’m excited to try it out.
The next session involved discussing sleeping bags and pads. It seems that most backpackers go with a mummy-style bag. They tend to be a little lighter, but they are not for the claustrophobic. I know Christine will definitely want something different since she likes to not feel confined when she is sleeping. I can usually fall asleep easily anywhere, so I’m not as concerned. The instructor also showed us some different styles of sleeping pads (foam and self-inflating). Again, I’m not as concerned about the type I get, but Christine will probably want a self-inflating pad, like what is offered from Therm-a-Rest.
Many of the people in our class decided to stay in Prince William Forest Park for the night. We were staying with family nearby, so we didn’t brave the cold with the others. Those staying overnight were given time to pitch their tents before dark. This was a great opportunity for us to look around initially at some of the different tent options there are. We did an instructor-led tour of the different tent options the next morning.
The end of the first full day involved a demonstration of stoves, cooking, and clean up. We looked at a variety of stoves and talked about the benefits of each. Our favorite that we will likely purchase is an integrated stove system made by JetBoil. We felt that based on what we will likely do in the future, this will serve our needs well. A co-worker is loaning me one this weekend to try out and learn more about. The instructors then did a skit, acting out a “good backpacking trip” vs. a “bad backpacking trip”. It was quite funny and showed the importance of planning ahead, delegating duties, and what to pack. We then started on preparing dinner. We split into four groups, with each group preparing a different meal. This gave us all some experience with using a camp stove and understanding how things could be prepared in advance to save weight and time. We had plenty to eat between all of the groups and we were able to sample a few of the other meals. The one we cooked was rice-based, but flavored with cheese and dehydrated hamburger. I think it was my favorite.
After everyone had enough to eat, we worked on cleaning the pots. Cleanup is a necessity and does have to be done after each cooked meal. We learned different techniques of Leave No Trace ethics to ensure that cleanup was done in a way that leaves little to no impact on the environment.
I really felt liked I learned a ton of information in this first day of class and we were looking forward to another full day. I felt the PATC did a wonderful job of explaining all the different types of gear and how to prepare for a backpacking trip. After the next day of sessions, I feel well-prepared and excited to go on our first trip.