Preparing for a long hike or packrafting trip.
Here, I explain how I prepare myself for long hikes during which I have to be completely self-sufficient for multiple weeks. There are serious dangers involved in remote hikes and I still spent several months preparing myself, so please make sure you are aware of your personal limitations. I do not want to be responsibility for anyone getting lost or injured. In my opinion, safe hiking requires addressing four topics, which I will discuss in several forms below:
1) Prior experience
2) Proper equipment
3) Knowledge about the specific environment
4) Being in good shape
This is arguable the most difficult topic to cover, as there is no one-size-fits-all approach. When selecting new challenges I strongly urge everyone to start simple. A 2- or 3-day hike might not seem very adventurous, but it is more than long enough to get cold, hungry, exhausted, or lost. Start by going on a weekend hike in easy terrain with some friends and in an area with good cell phone coverage. Keeping the hike short will also make it easier to predict the weather. Then start introducing new challenges: go on a weekend hike alone, go on a weekend winter hike with a friend, go on a weekend winter hike alone, go on a week long hike with a friend, go to places with different terrain and climates, etc.
You will find that those brief trips already feel surprisingly long and there are many things that would have turned into serious problems if you would have had to continue longer (blisters, not enough food, unsuitable clothes, etc.). After a couple hikes you will know your limits and develop a feeling for how to set realistic new challenges.
When hiking solo, it will also take time to learn to cope with the mental challenge of being alone. Traveling by yourself when everything goes right is easy, but even a few hours can feel like an eternity when things go wrong and there is no one around to help you.
Planning a route
Obviously, one of the most important things to plan for a new hike is the route, especially the minimal distance you expect to cover. Based on previous trips in similar terrain you should be able to predict your average daily distance pretty well. I typically plan ~20-25 km/day for terrain with marked paths and no enormous height differences. In remote areas with no paths and many streams, boulder fields, or bushwacking I plan 15 km/day or less. In addition, I expect to be able to travel 6 out of every 7 days. For example, for a 3-week long hike in remote Greenland this comes down to 18*15 = 270 km. I then plan a route that is roughly this expect distance, but also include several 1-2 day detours in case I travel faster than expected (which almost always happens). These numbers will vary across people and landscapes, so make sure to gain some experience in similar terrain before embarking on a long trip with a hard deadline, such as a flight or limited food supply.
When intending to hike over marked paths or repeating someone else's route (which I don't recommend) try to get as much information as possible. How long did it take them to hike a certain distance? What was the weather like? Were there dangerous sections? Is there cell phone coverage? Are there dangerous animals? When hiking through remote wilderness, keep in mind that you will be making a lot of detours due to bushes, swamps, finding places to cross rivers, etc. Hiking what is 15 km on a map can easily account to 20 km in real life. Also try to use the terrain to make navigating easier, it is much easier to stay on track when walking along a river or following a valley. Use your prior experience to determine which terrain you can safely traverse and how it affects your speed.
The question I get asked the most about my hikes is "how do you know where to go?". As I tend to hike in mountainous terrain without trees, navigating has usually been quite easy, as I can see where I am going an it is difficult to miss a mountain ridge. Nonetheless, there are serious risks involved with getting lost.
I typically carry two copies of a waterproof map (which I often laminate to further improve their durability) one on my body and a spare one in my backpack. I also carry a compass with declination correction, a GPS, and photos of large scale maps on my camera. Several navigation apps also work without cell phone coverage. I strongly encourage every hiker to not solely rely on electronic maps, as GPS and other electronic devices will stop working in cold weather, can get damaged, blocked by trees or mountains, or their batteries accidentally drained. Make sure you know how to use a compass and consider learning some basic nature signs to help you navigate. Keep in mind that navigating in dense forests will be substantially more difficult and overhead trees, rain, mountains, and snow might disturb the GPS signal and reduce battery life.
After not hiking for several months, it usually takes me 1-2 days to become fully accustomed to how a specific map relates to the landscape around me. I therefore advice planning a relatively easy route for the beginning of your trip. When hiking in arctic areas be aware that many rivers, lakes, and glaciers might have significantly shifted since the map was made.
Water, Food, Electricity, Fuel
In arctic regions there are usually enough streams and lakes to refill my water bottle a dozen times a day. Therefore, I only carry a 500 mL bottle + a few 100 mL in a 2L hydration bag for safety. In remote arctic regions usually don't bother purifying water from streams. When I visited Greenland, most locals went out of their way to collect water from streams, as they preferred this over their regular tap water. I do usually purify water from stagnant water like lakes, for which I use iodine purification tablets, as these are much lighter and smaller than water filters. In warmer areas, like my hike in Glacier Peak Wilderness, I used a Sawyer water filter. During my winter hikes I was often still able to obtain water from streams, but took care to keep it close to my body as it would otherwise freeze.
This is definitely the one thing which I have improved on the most over the years. I have found that I need approximately 2800 kcal per day to sustain myself during multi-week hikes. When eating that amount, I lose about 400 grams of body weight per week. I carry 8 days of food for every 7 days I plan to travel, so I have a buffer in case something goes wrong. For hikes over a week, carrying 2800 kcal worth of 'normal' food is impractically heavy and takes up too much space. Alternatively, eating only super high density foods like granola or nuts doesn't provide enough nutrients and becomes really hard after the first week (believe me I tried). To obtain a good balance between fats, sugar, vitamins, flavor, and calorie density, I currently eat the foods described in my gear list. This entails a breakfast of assorted nuts and a variety of freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, a lunch of the same plus two large meal bars in various flavours, and a dinner of different freeze-dried expedition meals. For all of these I have tried to find versions with the absolute highest calorie density. This comes down to roughly 500 grams of food per day, worth approximately 2800 kcal. This strategy also means I only need to heat 500 mL of water per day to cook diner, which keeps my required amount of gas to at a minimum. For my longer hikes I have considered bringing a fishing rod as these only weigh as much as ~2-3 days of food, but as I am not a great fisherman I haven't yet tried this strategy yet (I own the Emmrod Packer). On my 2019 Greenland hike I also brought freeze dried fruit and vegetables, which were a welcome change from all the nuts and granola.
I typically bring a battery pack large enough to make sure that my phone, camera, and GPS can last twice the intended length of my trip. This allows me to comfortably take photos and use my GPS messenger as much as necessary in case something goes wrong, even at the very end of my trip. Rather than only recharging my camera battery, I usually bring a second battery in case something goes wrong with the original battery or my battery back. I have considered using solar, wind, or mechanical chargers, but have never found them worth the weight, except perhaps for hikes over 2 months long without any chance of recharging.
Although some people swear by alcohol stoves, I have never found them to be significantly lighter than gas stoves and prefer the option of regulating flame intensity. A 227 gram gas canister allows me to cook approximately 18 freeze dried dinners. Keep in mind that at cold temperatures (below ~5 °C) gas stoves don't work well. In such cases, I switch to Esbit stoves. Although these are extremely light, they are not well suited for boiling large volumes of water, so an alcohol or coleman fuel stove is likely better for serious winter hikes. The choice of fuel also depends on if you have to take it on planes and the local availability.
With so many available options a hikers' gear depends largely on personal preference. I am not a big fan of ultralight gear, as I believe the comfort and security gained by carrying slightly heavier, but more robust gear often outweighs the extra burden. Even without ultralight materials it is perfectly possible to carry full hiking and packrafting gear as well as food for 30 days and still carry a backpack under 30 kg. I here provide a list of all the gear I carried on my 2019 Greenland trip as well as some suggestions to further reduce weight. I have also indicated which objects I carry on my body to decrease the load on my back and limit risk in case I would unexpectedly lose my backpack. Although many people focus on reducing weight, I find that the total volume of my gear is often at least as serious a restriction.
Your previous trips will be your best guide to determine what items work best for you. Determine how much weight you can comfortably carry for multiple days and adjust your gear accordingly. I am 183 cm tall, weigh 72 kilos, and my limit lies at a roughly 27 kg backpack. In general, you will get more and more tired as the day pass, but your backpack will also get lighter from all the food you eat and fuel you burn. The trick is to balance these two. Make sure you not only know how to use every item you bring, but also how to fix it. Never bring new gear on a challenging hike and try everything out at least twice before leaving. What I regret the most about my earlier hikes is trying to save money and weight by bringing a mediocre camera. Instead, bring the best one you can afford and consider taking a photography workshop.
Being in shape
You don't need to be superman to go hiking. However, I have always exercised regularly, mostly biking and hiking. I suggest picking up endurance sports, especially those focused on your legs. Exercising outside in bad weather will prepare you in ways an indoor gym cannot. Make sure to go on a few day hikes carrying at least 50% of your gear. This will allow you to make adjustments, build muscle, and get accustomed to your shoes. On long hikes, the main challenges is to make it through the first few days without getting exhausted or injured, after that you will get accustomed to the rhythm.
Although my packrafting experience is limited, there are some things that I found difficult to find on the internet:
- First is the typical daily distance covered when packrafting. During my 2019 in Greenland I found that on still water 25-30 km is doable without extreme effort. When having a strong headwind this goes down to around 10-15 km per day.
- Second is the maximum wind speed during which the waves are low enough to safely paddle. Although this will depend on many other conditions, I found a wind speed of 5 Beaufort to be a rough maximum. There are several websites where you can find current or typical wind speeds in most areas.
- Third is the maximum amount of weight that can be comfortably carried on a typical packraft (Alpacka Classic Yak in my case). I have used my packraft with myself (~72 kg) and a backpack (~28 kg) without any difficulties. A heavy backpack helps to counterbalance your own weight and actually makes paddling smoother.
- Lastly, a few general tips. When paddling near the sea or ocean bring a table with the local tides, as these can quite dramatically influence wave heights and currents. Also keep in mind that it can actually be difficult to find drinkable water when paddling in a fjord or near the sea or ocean, and so are camping and going to the bathroom. Don't make the same mistake as I did during my 2019 trip and make sure to camp really far away from any shore; tides can come up surprisingly fast and high. For more tips on packrafting in remote areas I highly recommend this article.
Here I have listed some general tips in no particular order.
1) Take it easy during the first 2 days.
2) Bring a nail clipper and extra pair of shoe laces, black toe nails hurt!
3) For every week you go, plan to hike 6 days and carry food for 8, add optional detours for if things go well.
4) Leave a map and your planned itenary with at least one person back home.
5) Study the local weather. Prepare for bad weather, but also make sure you can hike comfortably on warm days.
6) Read relevant reports of other hikers.
7) Wade rivers with your shoes on.
8) Bring tools to repair all your vital equipment, especially your packraft, tent poles, and sleeping mattress.
9) Test all your equipment at least twice before leaving and learn everything you can about it.
10) Go on a test hike in pouring rain, most 'waterproof' clothes are often not so waterproof after an hour of rain.
12) Bring bandaids and common drugs against headache, diaria, fever, skin infections, etc.
13) Use hiking poles to reduce the risk of falling and take some load of your legs.
14) Use screen protectors for your camera, GPS, phone, etc.
15) Learn how to lace your hiking boots in ways to reduce pressure on certain points.
16) Learn how to adjust your backpack properly.
17) Learn how to use a map and compass and practise this outdoors.
18) Always bring a mosquito headnet and sunscreen.
19) Carry enough batteries to make your electronics last twice the intended length of your trip.
20) Carry at least a map, emergency beacon, 1 day worth of food, compass, water purification tablets, and heat blanket or hat on your body.
21) Bring a GPS messenger. I currently use the Garmin Inreach mini, with which I have much better experiences than those from SPOT. The ability to both send and receive messages adds a lot of safety and so do optional weather predictions. When sending my location or a text message 4 times a day, the Inreach mini lasts about 3 weeks.
22) Take out appropriate insurances. In general, the insurances below will be relevant. There might be some overlap in what they cover. I have used GEOS in the past.
- SAR = search and rescue, this will pay for finding you and bring you back to safety. Usually this does not cover any medical care.
- MEDIVAC = medical evacuation, this will pay for flying you from a foreign place/hospital to another hospital of choice.
- Travel insurance = These don't necessarily cover medical costs or adventurous hikes might not be included. It's a good idea to take out either a medivac or travel insurance that at least covers a few weeks of basic medical costs abroad, as the medivac insurance might not be applicable for relatively mild cases and likely won't fly you back right away.
- Health insurance = These typically only cover medical cost after you have been repatriated to your home country using your medivac insurance. Even then they might not cover injuries from dangerous sports/activities.
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