If you’ve been keeping up with our Facebook page, you’ll know that I’ve just gotten home from a backpacking trip in Northern California. Our group of 10 started hiking just outside Shasta City and hiked north on the Pacific Crest Trail towards Weed. The distance was split up over 3 days and this included a side trip up Mount Eddy, the tallest peak west of I-5 (my token statistic for the blog).

Start: Gumboot Trailhead

I like to think of myself as an experienced day hiker, but I had no idea how far removed day hiking requirements and multi-night backpacking requirements are. I pondered this very thing while shouldering my 35-pound pack at the Gumboot Trailhead (which felt like it was crushing me into the dirt). In the end I decided, the literal act of walking in the wilderness was the only similarity between the two. Too dramatic? Maybe. But how could two nights in the wilderness feel so heavy on my back already?

As with all things difficult and out of our comfort zones, those difficult things teach us very valuable lessons. Here are some of the things that I learned about gear, backpacking, and myself on this trip.

Backpacking gear matters

My backpack is amazing. Unfortunately, I didn’t figure this out until the last day while hiking back to the shuttle van. I spent much of the first two days of hiking with intense mid back pain. I knew this wasn’t normal, but I didn’t know how to fix the problem in the moment. My first mistake was only trying the bag on once before we left. I added about 20 pounds for effect and it felt fine. For the two minutes I had it on in my living room…

There are on average, 10 different adjustment points for a 65+ liter backpack. Some you can adjust on the fly, and some require you to reconfigure certain parts of the bag’s frame. This is not convenient on the trail, as you can imagine. As I learned the hard way, you should be intimately familiar with each adjustment option. Know how to adjust it and what adjustments are possible to accomplish with a fully loaded pack before you take your first step on the trail.

Boots are more than just a fashion statement

Did you know that tall, heavy, stiff hiking boots are less for ankle stability, foot protection, and balance and more to help support the weight of the pack? Yup. It’s true. Good hiking boots also help with that other stuff, but that is not their main function. So, even if you have excellent balance, strong ankles, and get to hike on nice dirt, have sturdy hiking boots. And of course, if you’re skirting over shale and skrie and you are carrying a heavy pack, good boots are an absolute must.

Don’t forget to look around

Backpacking offers full immersion into the wilderness but I found that I had to remind myself to look around as we were hiking. I kept looking at my feet! It wasn’t because I was afraid of missing a step. I wasn’t worried about tumbling down the side of a cliff face with a 35-pound weight attached to my body (no…that thought NEVER entered my mind…never). I figured out it was because after a few hours of hiking and looking at scenery, my neck hurt and felt better when I bent my head forward and looked down.

The Pacific Crest Trail is often cut into the “crest” of a mountain range. This means sweeping views to one side, and the side of the mountain to the other. For the entirety of the first day, the view was to the right. My head was constantly turned towards the right. That hurts after a while. So once I started to remind myself to occasionally turn my head to the left, my neck felt much better. I imagine many patients whom I’ve made move their computer monitors from the side to directly in front of them are slapping their foreheads right now…DUH, Diane. So, take home message here, look around to save your neck.

Training is important!

I fully underestimated how difficult this trip would be on my body and mind. After three days of hiking, I knew that to do more without getting injured or worn down, I would need to train much harder. I consider myself fairly fit. Physical therapy is an active job, I’m on my feet most of the day. I run, I rock climb, I hike. But on this backpacking trip, I found muscles that I didn’t typically use. Those muscles were weak, and therefore, very sore by the second morning.

I was reminded that hiking downhill with a pack on is just as hard, if not more so, than hiking up a hill with a pack on. Ending up with a hamstring pull halfway through a 30-mile hike would have been scary, frustrating, painful, and completely my own fault. Thankfully, the terrain was mild enough to facilitate my lack of preparedness. I’m also thankful that my habit of stretching post “workout” didn’t fail me while on vacation.

All said, I would do this trip again. Next time, I would train harder and become more familiar with my gear beforehand. Then I would be less distracted by pain and be able to cover more ground in a shorter time frame. I would also bring along some of my favorite people because hiking with strangers is great, but sharing the wilderness with people you love is even better.