Where some see hardship and privation, Dave Gantz finds joy and serenity.
Of course, he should.
Chances are he carried them there.
Backpacking means trading day-to-day creature comforts – the kind many consider indispensable — for a few simple necessities, all moved by foot. The prize is an independence found only along the trail.
“I really like the simplicity of it,” said Gantz, the Centre County, Pennsylvania, guidebook author, map maker and backpacker behind walkwithgantz.com.
“I like knowing that anything I need is right there on my back. It’s a pretty free feeling.”
It’s often a wild one, too.
Those who wander the woods without having to exit by day’s end often get to experience hidden vistas, secluded waterfalls, untouched fishing holes, untrammeled campsites and other special places.
Growing numbers are learning that. Studies show backpacking is growing in popularity, especially among the younger set.
“I think it relates a lot to the types of adventure millennials are seeking,” said Wesley Trimble, communications manager for the American Hiking Society.
“There’s been a rise in people who want to live a minimal lifestyle. That has a lot of ties to backpacking.”
It’s ironic then that newcomers often unnecessarily complicate things, said Heather Balogh Rochfort, the Colorado blogger behind justacoloradogal.com and author of “Backpacking 101.” They try to do too much too fast.
“It’s human nature to jump into the deep end of the pool,” Rochfort said. “That’s why, for me personally, I always recommend people start out going for one night, or maybe two if they’re feeling really sprightly, rather than a week.
“You can really focus on having fun instead of stressing out about what you’re doing and what you’re carrying.”
Distance is another consideration.
Rochfort remembers one of her first trips. She and a friend planned to walk 18 miles before making camp. They made only 11 before she realized she simply couldn’t go any further.
When planning an outing, be realistic about the fitness level of group members and consider the topography, she said.
“Trying to push too far is only going to make it miserable,” she added.
It’s important to think about gear, too.
The most essential piece is the pack on your back, Gantz said.
“It doesn’t have to be top of the line, but it has to fit you. It needs to fit your back correctly or you’re going to be miserable,” he said.
Stuff a pack with weight, even if it’s 20 pounds, he suggested. Try it on and adjust the straps to fit your torso.
“You want the hip belt to ride on top of your hips, almost like on a shelf. It should buckle in front almost even with your belly button,” he noted.
When it comes to stuffing it, Gantz always takes a sleeping pad.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 80 degrees outside, the ground might be cold. You need that pad between you and the ground,” he said.
It’s good to carry a map of the area you’ll be exploring, too, added Rochfort. Even if you never plan to walk far from a trail, it can show other ways in and out in case of an emergency.
Then there’s the water issue.
It’s heavy, Rochfort said. There’s no way, especially on multi-day trips, to carry all you need.
Know where to find it and how to treat it, she advised. She uses a gravity filter; others use chemicals or pump-style filters.
Pick a system, learn how it works and always use it, Gantz said.
“You never know what’s upstream,” he said.
Also keep in mind hygiene and safety.
“One of the most common causes of people getting sick in the backcountry is dirty hands,” Gantz said.
He always carries hand sanitizer for that reason.
Rochfort packs a first-aid kit as well. A pre-packaged one can work to start, she said.
There’s a lot more to gear than that, of course. Backpackers must make decisions on footwear, clothes, cooking stoves, food and more.
Rochfort said to avoid getting too hung up on getting to the lightest gear possible right away, or on paring it down. That can all come later.
“In the beginning, it’s really important to find that balance. You don’t want to cut too much until you know what you’re cutting,” Rochfort said.
Indeed, the thing is to just get out there, Gantz agreed. The rewards, he noted, are tremendous.
“When you’re out there it doesn’t matter how bad your blister is, how much your back hurts, how hungry you are. Your car or that next town aren’t coming any closer to you. You have to get there,” he said.
“It’s kind of a life lesson, that you have to push through. A lot of people like that feeling of achievement. When you get back to your car, it’s like, ‘wow, I did that.’”
Taking to the trail
Interest in backpacking is on the rise and has been for a while.
According to a 2016 Outdoor Foundation report, participation in backpacking increased by 4.9 percent between 2006 and 2015. There are an estimated 10.1 million backpackers today.
That outpaced the gains seen by a host of other outdoor activities, from hunting, fishing, and camping to mountain biking, downhill skiing and bird watching.
There appear to be plenty of wannabes still on the sidelines, though.
The same report looked at people who aren’t especially involved outdoors, but would like to be. They were asked what activities they’d like to try.
Backpacking ranked in the top 10 among those ages 18-24, 25-34 and 35-44.
If you’re looking to get started, here are some resources.
* Dave Gantz and a couple of other veteran backpackers are leading a “Backpacking 101” class for the Keystone Trails Association. Part one is a classroom session focusing on equipment, skills and more. It’s set for May 20 in Little Buffalo State Park. Part two is a guided overnight trip on June 10-11. Cost is $50 per session and space is limited. Registration is available here.
* Friends of Allegheny Wilderness and Chapman State Park are likewise hosting an introductory backpacking overnighter on June 17-18 in Allegheny National Forest. Cost is $30 and space is limited. Register by calling Jennifer Moore at 814-723-0250.
* And if you want to try things on your own, consider picking up a copy of Heather Balogh Rochfort’s new book, “Backpacking 101,” available by clicking here. The 255-page paperback includes information on choosing gear, planning trips, cooking meals and more.