Lessons learned from taking a first-timer on the Berg Lake Trail
By Evan Wishloff
This past Canada Day, I booked a backcountry campsite at Berg Lake to take my girlfriend out for her first backcountry camping experience. When I had booked the site and invited her, all the way back in October when bookings opened, she enthusiastically said yes.
But as the date approached, her nerves had started to get the best of her. It would be her first time in the backcountry, and as someone who is quite new to backcountry camping myself, I could sympathize with the worry she had in having to be entirely self-sufficient in a place where Uber Eats can’t come and save the day.
Through taking a first-timer out, I learned a few things. And although she will only reluctantly admit it, she learned some things from me too. After the trip, I asked her what she thought first-timers should know outside of the obvious things like “keep your gear dry” or “pack a good rain coat.” Out of her answers, this blog post was born.
I am no mountain expert, so this isn’t going to be an all-encompassing guide to backcountry camping - I’m not qualified to write that! Besides, there are plenty of resources out there that state some of the obvious things about how to prepare for your first trip to the backcountry.
Instead, this post will cover some of the not-so-obvious tips and insights that a first-timer, or even a regular backpacker, may not have considered. Read on below.
Try on Your Pack (obvious) with the exact clothing you will be wearing on your hike (not so obvious)
I could write paragraphs and paragraphs on how to pick the right clothing for backpacking, but that’s not what this article is about. Saying you should wear light, breathable, moisture-wicking clothing is too obvious. So is saying that you should try on your pack to make sure it is comfortable.
Instead, try on your pack, weighted and packed as it will be on the trail, WITH the clothing you will wear on the trail.
My girlfriend learned the hard way that a particular pair of pants she packed to hike in had a seam along the hips that, when coupled with the weighted pack’s hip belt, caused some serious chafing and pain.
No matter how great and technical your clothing is, it’s only as good as it’s fit when you’re fully kitted up.
Steep climbs with heavy packs are the name of the game on the Berg Lake Trail
Wool is worth its weight in gold
I have been a long-time merino wool advocate, but when you try telling people of the magical qualities this material has, they tend to roll their eyes and think you are getting paid by some merino-mafia to push product. My girlfriend was no exception.
“You’re saying that I could wear one t-shirt for all 3 days, and it wouldn’t stink by the end of it?” she skeptically asked when I told her that she should buy at least 1 merino wool shirt to bring on the trip.
When I showed her the price tag, she balked. Close to double the price from a comparable synthetic tee.
I spewed out the benefits hoping to convince her: fast-drying, anti-stink, warm-when-wet, temperature-regulating, soft-and-comfortable, environmentally-friendly, and more.
Thankfully, she caved and bought an Icebreaker shirt to wear on the hike, and by the time we got down after day 3, she was thoroughly convinced on the dynamic properties of merino wool. In fact, now I catch her browsing for merino-everything whenever she stops in to Campers Village: socks, underwear, hats, pants, gloves - you name it!
Merino truly is worth it’s weight in gold in the backcountry!
Choose Function Over Fashion
This can apply to every piece of apparel or gear that you have to wear for a backpacking trip, but in this specific instance, I’m thinking about hiking boots. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more integral piece of gear to nail the fit on when you’re going to spend a long day hiking in the mountains.
Hiking boots aren’t cheap, so I understand the desire to get something that you like the look of. But, the number one consideration always needs to be comfort.
Buy the most comfortable pair suitable for your adventure - don’t even think about the color or aesthetic!
My girlfriend had eyed up a pair of hiking boots that she LOVED the look of. Her serious infatuation with the look of these boots was so intense that I thought she was going to buy them without trying them on!
But she did, and as soon as the last lace was tightened, her reaction was immediate. “These won’t work.”
She begrudgingly tried on a few more boots before landing on a pair that neither of us would have ever picked to try, but from the minute she slid them on her feet it was like Cinderella’s Slipper - only if that slipper was a Gore-Tex, high-cuff, rugged boot with a lugged grippy sole.
We were happy to report that these boots made it comfortably through 60 kilometres of climbing, descending, rain, mud, snow, sun and dust with nary a blister to be found.
So remember, even if it may ‘ruin’ your planned Instagram photo-shoot, choose comfort and function over fashion when it comes time to pick out your gear for the backcountry.
All smiles at kilometre 19 after a full-day of climbing. Happy feet = happy day!
Fit the pack (with a pro)
I take full responsibility for this being included on the list of things learned from the first backpacking trip. After getting a crash course on how to fit a pack from a Campers Village Store Guide, I thought I could handle adjusting the pack on my girlfriend to be comfortable. I was wrong.
Use the knowledge and expertise from a Campers Village Store Guide when you buy your pack to fit it specifically to you.
After buying your pack, you can even pack it with your gear and bring it back for a true fit from a professional! And as a bonus, if it’s not too busy, they can probably teach you a few things on how to best organize and layout the inside of your pack for maximum comfort and efficiency!
A well-fitted, balanced pack makes scree slopes and long days on your feet so much easier!
Bring more coffee than you think you need
This one is also on me - as a self-described caffeine addict, I had triple-checked the amount of beans I was bringing. I even tossed a few extra scoops in for good measure in case of a coffee emergency. I thought for sure I’d be packing extra beans down the mountain, but as it turns out, we used the last few for a mid-day coffee during our final day. Crisis narrowly averted!
If you need your caffeine, bring more coffee than you think you need. I’d rather have an extra 50 grams in coffee beans to hike back down than run out entirely, and if you like your coffee, you probably fall in the same boat.
Spend the $4 more for the best dehydrated meals
Dehydrated meals are an easy, convenient, calorie-packed way to relax in the evening after a long day of hiking. But, as I thought I knew from previous experiences, this convenience came with a tradeoff - mainly the fact that the meals I had eaten in the past tasted mostly like cardboard. Not this time though!
I talked with a few Store Guides about the cardboard taste of dehydrated meals, and they looked at me like I was crazy.
“You clearly haven’t tried any of our favorites!” was the reply.
I was shown a few brands with simple ingredients lists that I could pronounce, and assured the flavors wouldn’t disappoint.
After convincing my girlfriend to splurge on merino wool, I had to break the bad news that we’d be spending over budget on the food too, but she reluctantly agreed.
When it came time for our first night’s meal, we both experienced why paying a premium for dehydrated meals from brands like Yamnuska, Nomad Nutrition, or Good To-Go was worthwhile - the food was delicious! Our favorite was the Kathmandu Curry from Nomad Nutrition, but we can honestly say every flavour we had on our trek was drool-inducing!
Watch the video below to see what goes into a Good-to-Go Meal - it looks so good you'd never believe it came out of a bag.
Spend $50 more for better gear when it counts
There are a few pieces of gear and equipment where bumping up from the entry-level versions is definitely worth it.
Things like a sleeping bag and sleeping pad are places you don’t want to skimp out on. The difference between a $100 and $150 sleeping bag can be over 10 degrees in temperature rating, not to mention lighter weights and other useful backpacking features. As discussed above, merino wool also falls into this category.
As a general rule, don’t cheap out on anything that involves keeping you warm, dry, hydrated, fed, and safe!
If you're going to walk up to Emperor Falls for a closer look, you better have a good rain coat!
And sometimes, spending nothing is the right course of action
When you’re starting out, it’s easy to spend thousands of dollars on gear to prepare for your trek, but you don’t always need to. After you have rounded up some of the essentials like a backpack that fits, a warm sleeping bag, or the other key pieces of gear, your wallet might be feeling a bit light. But not everything about backpacking has to be costly!
Sometimes, household items you have laying around can do the trick just fine.
Keeping your sleeping bag and sleeping clothes dry is one of the most important things you need to do during a backpacking trip. Not only for comfort, but also for safety if the temperature really dips at night. You need to stay warm, and a wet sleeping bag isn’t going to do it for you!
Dry bags are amazing and durable, and an amazing addition to your backpacking kit, but they also can cost upwards of $50. You can use a heavy duty garbage bag for the same result. It’s not as durable as a dry bag, so you’ll have to take more care not to tear it, but for first-timers, or the budget-conscious, it’ll do the trick!
Pro tip: Instead of packing your sleeping bag inside its stuff sack, and then putting that inside the garbage bag, try lining the inside of the stuff sack with the garbage bag, and then putting your sleeping bag inside. The stuff sack will provide an extra layer of protection so the garbage bag is less likely to rip or tear inside your pack.
Other inexpensive (or even free) alternatives include plastic cutlery from a takeout restaurant (instead of ultralight titanium sporks), a plastic pop bottle (instead of a Nalgene), and large freezer ziploc bags for clothing (instead of more dry bags for smaller items).
There's a reason these products exist, and if you catch the backpacking bug, you'll likely want to invest in some of the nice-to-haves as well, but for your first time, you can get by with a little creativity!
First backpacking trip in the bag and all smiles!
There you have it: a handful of tips and tricks that will hopefully help you for your first backpacking trip. If you are looking for more guidance to make sure your first backpacking trip is a successful adventure, stop in to your local Campers Village and talk to one of our Store Guides - they’ll be happy to school you in the ways of the backcountry!
Any not-so-obvious tips, tricks or hacks you have that we missed? Let us know in the comments!