Don’t Be Afraid of Wilderness Hiking—It’s One of the Safest Ways to Go on Vacation Right Now
Wilderness hiking isn’t as scary as you think and now’s the perfect time to try it.
Last month, a bear ate my friend’s tent, sleeping bag, food, and everything she had inside. A few days later, she invited me to go wilderness camping with her in upstate New York’s bear country. First thought: “Umm….”
To be fair to my friend, she properly bagged her food and hung it high in a tree far from camp, in an area that doesn’t usually have bears. To be fair to the bear, she didn’t eat the entire tent and sleeping bag, but she did enough damage that they were no longer usable. As COVID-19 has allowed animals to roam freer than usual, we suspect Mama Bear had just gotten more comfortable in the woods. Undeterred, we got a bear canister and began discussing our trip to an even more “bear active” area.
After being cooped up in New York City (which still remains mostly shut down) for three months, I was eager to get away and a wilderness adventure seemed like the perfect way to enjoy nature while safely social distancing. Mimi (whose tent was eaten), already had COVID-19, tested positive for antibodies, and donated plasma. Check, check, and check. I tested negative for the virus so we made a plan to head north to the Adirondack Mountains with two other girlfriends that tested negative for the virus. I’ll also note that we all wore masks when we stopped into rest centers along the highway and while unloading our gear in the trailhead parking lot. Outdoor activities tend to be safer than indoor events but it’s still important to take safety precautions.
Though I’m a pretty decent hiker and camper, I have minimal experience with wilderness hiking and camping. What distinguishes wilderness hiking and camping from “regular” hiking and camping? Basically, the wilderness version means you’re in a very remote, difficult-to-access area without amenities like bathrooms, running water, garbage facilities, and snack bars. You must bring in everything you’ll need for the trip then carry out all your garbage. Note to women who may wonder how to handle camping during that time of the month: read up on menstrual cups and travel.
After hiking five miles from the main trailhead, we relaxed into our campsite and the other ladies whipped out their camp stove to start cooking dinner. They roasted sweet potatoes and cooked made-for-camping pad Thai noodles for dinner then enjoyed hot oatmeal and fresh coffee for breakfast the next morning. I ate cold, pre-made sandwiches and drank ice cold river water that I’d filtered. Why do I mention this? Because it’s important to know that even if you don’t own a camp stove or don’t know how to use one, you can still go camping! One of these days, I’ll get a stove, but for now, I’m very happy with my homemade granola bars and peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
The next morning, we awoke to find that the sunny, 60-degree forecast had turned into a snowy, 40-degree day. Granted, the snow was light, but it was JUNE for goodness’ sake. The previous night’s rain, combined with the on-and-off-again snow, meant that the already-formidable mountain had converted into a nearly insurmountable vertical bog. Half our party decided to skip the hike so Mimi and I headed out on our own to conquer the mountain.
Wilderness trails are unpaved and unmaintained. There’s no gravel, asphalt, or woodchips to follow, and in some cases, there’s not even a sign. If you’re lucky, there will be wooden planks or a sturdy fallen tree to help escort you over mud pits and streams. If you want to get over a boulder, you’ll have to scramble up it, then you’ll have to scramble back down on your way back. Remember that going down is usually harder than going up, particularly if it’s been raining.
I love hiking but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a very hesitant hiker. I sprained my wrist while hiking in Mexico and triple-sprained my ankle (apparently, that’s a thing) after being hit by a car while cycling in New York City. If you ride in the city, it will happen sooner or later. These previous injuries mean I’m more prone to re-injury so I walk slowly, step carefully, and am not ashamed to sit on my butt and slide down a slippery section.
Countless solo hikers, couples, and groups passed us on the way up. They quickly navigated slippery rocks and leaped over muddy ravines while we struggled to maintain our balance while crossing mossy tree trunks. Some young guys gave us the side eye, likely doubting the capability of two chubby girls with ankle braces. Others kindly commented that they’d “see us at the top.” I appreciated their graciousness but no, they would not see us at the top. They’d make it to the top way before we did, then make it halfway back down the mountain to pass us again on their way out. According to the exercise tracking app, Strava, we hiked 6.46 miles that day, with a total elevation of 1,917 feet (the equivalent of about 200 flights of stairs.) For all you Apple Health enthusiasts, that’s 14,840 slippery steps.
Several groups weren’t just hiking that one mountain in the snow, they were hiking up two or even three mountains in the same day. Some may find this discouraging but I found it encouraging to know that such athleticism is possible by what appear to be everyday people (and apparently by the old Russian lady at our campsite who claims to have hiked two mountains in Jordans). In fact, I’m heading back to the Adirondacks next week to tackle the hardest peak. To increase my chance of making it to the top, instead of camping, I’ll be staying at the High Peaks Resort in Lake Placid. This way, I’m guaranteed a better night’s sleep and I’ll be closer to the trailhead than I would be if I were to camp.
What to know before wilderness hiking
If you’ll be hiking in the backcountry, consider downloading and familiarizing yourself with a mobile app like Gaia GPS, which lets you browse hiking trail maps and campsites. The paid membership offers route-planning features and the ability to download maps offline, which comes in handy in the wilderness, where it’s hard to find a cellular signal.
Before you head out on your trip, consider where you’re going to go, what sort of accommodations you’re interested in, and whether or not you’re comfortable hiking without a guide. Once you know where you’ll go and what you’ll do, make sure you have all the appropriate gear.
Just like you need to make reservations to stay in a lodge or cabin, you also need to make advance reservations for some campsites. Even during off-peak season, advance reservations are required for the most desirable campsites at popular parks like Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Consider staying at a lodge
There’s no shame in staying in a resort and it’s a great way get comfortable with wilderness hiking. As I mentioned, I’ll be staying at the High Peaks Resort in the Adirondacks because I think it will help me tackle a difficult mountain. Cabins, lodges, and resorts exist in national parks and forests across the country and you can also do a combination of camping and lodging to enjoy the best of both worlds.
For example, the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Alaska’s Denali National Park is a comfortable lodge that provides guided wilderness hikes to its guests. Denali also offers excellent wilderness camping and the lodge’s daily sightseeing bus could easily pick you up or drop you off at a trailhead along the route.
Go with an outfitter
My first introduction to wilderness hiking was in Peru about three years ago, where I spent two weeks hiking different trails around Machu Picchu and the lesser-known and harder-to-access Choquequirao. During most of the trip, my luggage was handled by porters and donkeys or sent ahead on a train. Though I saw others carrying their own backpacks, I can’t imagine having completed the treks without additional support.
Last year, I spent a week hiking in Jordan with Experience Jordan, who transferred our luggage by jeep, provided expert guides to navigate the trails, and prepared desert gourmet meals at the camp site. Their bonfire buffets were a far cry from the kindergarten-like sandwiches that I tend to pack when I’m responsible for my own food. One woman on the trip was especially grateful to have a guide nearby when her tent started blowing away in the middle of the night.
Though guide and porter services are often associated with epic international destinations, many domestic outfitters also offer these options.
Hire a guide
If you’re nervous to head out into the wilderness alone but don’t want to join an official group tour, look into hiring a local guide to accompany you on the hike. Some lodges include guided wilderness hikes as part of their regularly-scheduled guest activities (such as the previously mentioned Denali Backcountry Lodge), while others can make special arrangements to help you find a private guide. The website 57Hours is another great option, allowing you to book professional hiking, biking, rafting, surfing, skiing, and rock climbing guides around the world for half-day tours and multi-day adventures.
Packing the proper equipment makes a huge difference in terms of trip enjoyment and comfort. Just like with any type of travel, there’s a certain degree of trial and error with your equipment. Before I invested in the higher-quality (and more expensive) gear that I currently use, I bought cheaper stuff and borrowed items from friends to get an idea of what I liked.
Some outdoor shops, such as REI, offer gear rental programs that allow you to try out products before purchasing them. Also look into environmental organizations in your area that may have a gear rental program, which tend to be quite affordable (or even free) for members. I was crazy enough to go winter camping in Wisconsin and borrowed below-zero sleeping bags from Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center, whose free equipment lending program offers its members everything from tents and canoes to backpacks and snowshoes. Note that some gear rental and lending programs may be suspended due to COVID-19.
A good backpack
If you’re going to be carrying your gear for several miles, you’ll want to have a comfortable backpack that has a sturdy waist belt and good “suspension” system to evenly distribute the weight and keep you cool. I use the women’s-specific Osprey Fairview Trek 50 (the men’s version is the Farpoint Trek 55) because it’s built as a travel pack (meaning it’s great for non-hiking travel) and also has backpacking suspension and trekking features like an optional hydration sleeve.
Sleeping pads and pillows
Some of my friends can sleep with just a sleeping bag and a rolled-up sweatshirt but I’m a very sensitive sleeper so I require an extra-thick air mattress and travel pillow. I use the Big Agnes Insulated Pad and deluxe pillow, both of which are very effective despite being ultra-light and compact.
Before you buy a sleeping bag, look at the temperature that it’s intended for. Some bags are thin and light – perfect for warm weather camping – while other bags are thick, heavily insulated, and intended for below-zero temperatures. I own several sleeping bags but my favorite is the Big Agnes Expandable Mummy sleeping bag, which has expandable zipper panels that let you adjust the shape of the sleeping bag based on your body shape, sleeping style (it’s great for side sleepers), and the amount of clothes you’re wearing.
I got by with just using water bottles for years and so can you, but having a proper hydration pack makes long hikes easier and more comfortable. Basically, they’re mini backpacks with a 2-3-liter water “bladder” with a long, flexible straw-like feature so you can quickly sip while hiking. For day trips, I use a 3-liter Camelback hydration pack, which I stuff snacks and small supplies into, but for long hikes, I transfer the water bladder/reservoir into my Osprey hiking backpack.
Hiking poles are optional but they’re especially helpful if you’re a hesitant hiker (like me) and/or if you have bad knees (me, again!). I’ve used lots of poles over the years and I recently upgraded to the Black Diamond shock absorbing poles, which come in both a Men’s and Women’s version. Trekking poles help you maintain your balance when navigating sketchy trails and they are especially good for taking pressure off your knees when descending. Black Diamond also makes nice hiking gaiters, which keep rain, mud, and rocks from getting into your boots.
Wilderness hiking requires you to filter or boil your own water so that it’s safe to drink. There’s loads of different types of water filters, sterilization pens, and disinfecting tabs on the market but I swear by the Grayl Geopress Water Purifier, which I’ve used for several years. Though it’s perfect for hiking, I’ve also used it to filter water during dozens of “regular” trips throughout Latin America and Southeast Asia. It’s quick, easy, and completely eliminates the need to purchase bottled water. Want to see how it works? Here’s an unflattering but illustrative video of me filtering river water in the Adirondacks.
Even though wilderness hiking likely means there will be few people around, COVID-19 is still a real thing so you should always have a mask on hand. There may not be many people on wild trails, but you’ll likely need it at the beginning of major trail heads, at rest stops, and gas stations (assuming you’re driving to your destination). I use the Coolibar UV Face Mask since it wicks away moisture and provides sun protection.
If there will be bears near your campsite, you’ll need a secure bear canister to store not just your food, but anything with a scent, such as toothpaste and soap. I like the Frontiersman bear canister because it’s locking mechanism makes it harder for bears to get inside. Bears have an extremely acute sense of smell so even though this canister claims to be scent-proof (park rangers have told me nothing is scent-proof), you’ll want to stash it well away from your campsite overnight.
Re-sealable plastic bags
Multi-purpose plastic bags can be used to store your snacks on the way in and are perfect to carry out your garbage, including used toilet paper. You didn’t think we’d make it all the way through the article without mentioning what to do with used toilet paper, did you?
So grab a mask, a friend, and a roll of your favorite toilet paper and get out there.