South Rim Trail Big Bend National Park Backpacking

The South Rim Trail in Big Bend National Park. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

If the recent pandemic has you hankering to get into the backcountry, and you’re looking for an outdoor experience beyond car camping, a backpacking excursion could be the perfect getaway. With proper guidance, a rookie backpacker can plan an awesome trip.

I’ve backpacked the John Muir Trail—a 200-mile route through California’s Sierra Nevada—along with routes in Montana, and of course, my home state of Texas. I love the feeling of carrying everything I need on my back and walking through some of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Backpackers gravitate to parks where they can hike long distances and get away from it all, making places like Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, Guadalupe Mountains State Park, and East Texas’ Lone Star Hiking Trail some of the state’s most popular backpacking destinations. But Texas also offers scenic backpacking opportunities in centrally located parks like Lost Maples State Natural and Pedernales Falls State Park.

Preparation is key. You’ll need gear, but if you don’t want to spend a lot of money, consider borrowing or renting some of the basics—like a tent, sleeping bag, and pad. Go for a dry run by loading your pack with about 30 pounds of stuff and walking around your neighborhood. Feeling the weight of the pack will reinforce the point of carrying only what you absolutely need.

Your list of essentials should include cookware, a campstove (I use one a Snow Peak Gigapower the size of a Snickers bar) and fuel; a filtration system to purify water; water bottles or bladders; a headlamp; matches; first-aid; hand sanitizer; small knife; toilet paper; and sunscreen.

Your clothing stash should include base layers, hiking pants and shirt, rainwear, a hat, good socks, and broken-in hiking boots or trail runners. I also carry a satellite communications device in case of emergency.

Freeze-dried meals are light and packed with the calories and sodium you need if you’re hiking all day. I’m a fan of Texas-based Packit Gourmet, which makes backpacking meals that taste like actual food.

Ian Atkinson, a product specialist at Gossamer Gear, an Austin-based company that makes ultra-light backpacking equipment, has trekked 1,500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. His pack—without food or water—weighs in at an astonishing 6.9 pounds. (Water weighs more than 8 pounds per gallon, and you should estimate 1-2 pounds a day for food.)

Atkinson’s biggest tip to get started in ultralight backpacking is to read and research. “Learn from other people’s experiences and mistakes, and go on shorter shake-down hikes to test your gear before a big trip,” he says.

And remember to pack light. Carefully consider each item you’re thinking about bringing. Ask yourself if it’s essential and important. Does it serve more than one purpose? What would happen if you didn’t bring it? Would you compromise your safety by not taking it?

“While we always recommend erring on the side of being prepared and safe, especially when getting started, you won’t be needing that gun or hunting knife,” Atkinson says. “The easiest way to lighten up your pack is to simply not bring something. You will find the first things to go are generally extra clothing, comfort items, and an excess of food.”

By repackaging food or using travel-sized versions of items like sunscreen and toothpaste, you can reduce weight without affecting functionality. You can even trim down the handle of your toothbrush.

For your first trip, pick an easy destination. Some parks have walk-in primitive campsites located not too far from car campgrounds. Remember, it’s harder to hike with a loaded backpack than with nothing, so don’t plan a long trip the first time.

At Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, for example, you can walk 2 miles around the back side of the exposed granite dome to reach a cluster of campsites under a grove of oak trees. Colorado Bend State Park has walk-in sites .6 miles from a parking lot, and Pedernales Falls State Park has spots a 2-mile hike in. They’re a good way to ease into longer backpacking trips.

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