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SUMMER EXPLORER: A beginner's guide to backcountry trekking

For the adventurous soul, there’s nothing quite like setting foot on a brand new challenge. Escaping to the backcountry can offer just this.

For the adventurous soul, there’s nothing quite like setting down the first foot on a brand new experience that challenges mind and body, and frees the spirit.

Escaping to the breathtaking backcountry can offer just this.

Although, for the outdoors-person-in-the-making, planning a backcountry adventure with little to no experience – and equipment – can seem like a tall mountain to climb. But overcoming that peak has never been more accessible to the modern day mountaineer.

Jenna Nodding, owner of adventure guiding company Get Outside, offers an expert's backcountry bible from what to bring, to safety hints, to testing your limits responsibly, that will put the backpacker in you on the right path.

What clothing do I need to wear?

For those looking to hike into the wilderness for the first time, wearing layers is an important first lesson.

Whether it’s the peak of summer or dead of winter, Nodding said she always wears layers whenever she’s exploring the backcountry.

“Then you can always build on it to give you the warmth you need, but it also provides comfort and the right layering for all different weather systems,” she said.

For summer trips, bring several pairs of synthetic or wool socks, a T-shirt, fleece, sweater, windbreaker, rain jacket/pants/hat, hiking pants, long johns, and shorts.

Avoid wearing jeans and clothing made of cotton because they don’t dry well if wet.

Proper footwear with a good tread is strongly recommended, which means staying away from tennis shoes or runners.

“The biggest thing is finding [hiking shoes] that are comfortable,” Nodding said. “The kick is that the shoe should be comfortable from the point you put them on. If you’re finding them uncomfortable off the get-go, you need to find something that works for your foot.”

What equipment should I buy/rent for my trip?

In case you’re wavering on if backcountry escapades are really for you in the long run, then renting equipment is the best option.

In the Bow Valley, there are stores that offer rentals for sleeping bags, backpacks and tents, among others. In Banff, Snowtips-Bactrax offers a backcountry package, which includes a tent, sleeping bags, Therma pads, a stove with pot, backpacker meal kit that has a collapsible bowl, spork, etc. (but no food), and backpacks.

Prices are based on the number of people.

“Everything is washed in its entirety and sanitized after every rental, we also sell camping accessories in store as well,” said Kaylee Ram, operations manager at Snowtips-Bactrax.

For those looking at buying equipment, Nodding said finding the right sleeping bag can make or break a trip.

“It you don’t get a good night's sleep and you’re cold all night, the trip is going to be miserable and you’re not going to enjoy the experience,” said Nodding.

For summer in the Rockies, Nodding uses a –9 C sleeping bag. While she enjoys snuggling under the bright stars, Nodding likes having a light-weight tent to sleep in at night. It's good for a bug-deterrent and to keep dry in case it rains.

For backpacks, there are ones that are hiking specific to help distribute weight around the body, making for a more comfortable trek that your shoulders will be grateful for.

For storing food and personal belongings, a carabiner per person and rope is recommended to store high on trees and out of reach of woodland critters. There are lots of bears and other wild animals calling the backcountry their home. It's important to give them the space they need, but in case of close encounters, always carry bear spray on you and know how to use it.

Equipment that is also recommended includes: flash light, Ziploc bags, toilet paper, a First-Aid kit, phone or radio, and emergency communication device.

What safety precautions should I take?

Before setting out, let someone you trust know where you're going and when you’re due back.

“Give them instructions as well if you don’t get back in time for how much extra time to give you before they start contacting authorities," Nodding said.

How many nights and how many kilometres should I go?

We’ve all heard the stories from that one friend about their multi-day hiking trip, where they’ve walked dozens of kilometres through the dense bush and vertical slopes. It can be intimating and perhaps deterring, but Nodding offers this advice for beginners.

“Keep it simple. If you’re a first-timer, then go a single night,” she said. “Hike to the campgrounds that are closer to the road. That way, the physical aspect is not the main focus and you can then enjoy the experiences and relax and see if being out in the elements is what you thought it would be and if it’s for you.”

What about food and water?

For water and food, it depends on the person and what is needed. However, Nodding recommends bringing at least one litre of water if you’re going out for a day-trip. The expert guide said she keeps water purification tablets on her during trips as well. To help keep travelling weight down, Nodding said to always keep water and food in the car for when you’re going to and when returning from the backcountry.

Nodding added that food weight can be an issue for inexperienced users. She recommends portioning when packing meals to know how much you have to eat each day.

"It gets rid of some of the anxiety of if you have enough food, or if you can eat that much – you already have everything planned and it keeps pack weight down quite substantially," she said.

Backcountry etiquette

So, what happens when nature calls? Have a Ziploc bag available for used toilet paper. It takes time for toilet paper to break down and just from a look stand point, clumps of used toilet paper in the wild doesn't scream "au naturel."

Nodding added that starting a campfire in undesignated areas is often overlooked as a bad habit in the backcountry.

“A lot of people equate backcountry to camping, or being out in the wilderness, to being able to have a fire, but unfortunately, creating your own backcountry fire is not part of the etiquette,” Nodding said. “If there isn’t a designated fire pit, then don’t create one.”

And finally, clean up after yourself. Be respectful and don't leave behind garbage.

Are options available to go with a guide or guided tours?

Yes. Get Outside (www.getoutsideadventures.ca), located on the doorstep of the Rockies in Canmore, offers year-round day and multi-day trips.

“One of the great things (with having a guide) is you learn those right habits right from the get-go," Nodding said. "It's nice to have someone look after all the logistics and planning for you and that opens up more energy and brain space to be able to learn new skills. Guides also take care of all the safety measures for each trip.

"The connections that you develop with people are a little more deeper and meaningful."

Purcell Mountain Lodge, located near Golden, B.C., offers guided tours at its year-round luxury lodge in the remote backcountry. In summer, any bold adventurer will connect with nature and cross rivers during an optional guided 13-kilometre hike to the mountainside lodge.

S and K Expeditions, consisting of married couple Stef McArdle and Ken MacDiarmid, offer personalized guided backcountry skiing and whitewater canoe trips in British Columbia and beyond.

What are the benefits of being out in the backcountry?

For Nodding, simply said, there are too many to list.

"The calmness from being outside. It allows you to get away from the hustle and bustle and craziness that can be everyday life and it can allow you to settle back into what's truly important," Nodding said. "There's nothing quite like being out in the backcountry."

Huts, cabins and lodges

Backcountry enthusiasts will love the variety of options available for hiking to huts, cabins and lodges in remote areas of the mountains.

The Alpine Club of Canada has 35 backcountry huts across Canada and the U.S. Most huts can be accessed on foot, but others require helicopter drop-ins or glacier travel. Visit www.alpineclubofcanada.ca for reservations, or to check out huts and locations.

Popular backcountry lodges inside or near Banff National Park:

Assiniboine Lodge (www.assiniboinelodge.com)

Blanket Glacier Chalet (www.blanketglacierchalet.com)

Halfway Lodge (www.horseback.com/halfway-lodge)

Icefall Lodge (www.icefall.ca)

Lake O’Hara Lodge (www.lakeohara.com)

Mallard Mountain Lodge (www.canadianadventurecompany.com)

Mistaya Lodge (www.mistayalodge.com)

Purcell Mountain Lodge (www.purcellmountainlodge.com)

Skoki Lodge (www.skoki.com)

Sundance Lodge (www.horseback.com/sundance-lodge)

Summer Explorer is an in-paper feature section produced by the Rocky Mountain Outlook, Cochrane Eagle, Airdrie City View and Okotoks Western Wheel. 



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Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

Jordan Small joined the Outlook in 2014 and covers the vast world of sports in the Bow Valley. A Barrie, Ont. native, he also wrote for RMO's Mountain Guide section and the MD of Bighorn beat.
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