(CNN) – Emily Davenport spends days hauling heavy loads through the White Mountains of New Hampshire each summer.
She sleeps on the floor. She returns to civilization littered with insect bites and scratches. As an experienced backpacker, Davenport is living his dream.
Davenport, 31, works as a guide for the Appalachian Mountain Club, the oldest outdoor group in the United States. For seven years, she led hikers on multi-day hikes through the White Mountain National Forest, which includes a famous section of the 3,524-kilometer Appalachian Trail, the longest hiking trail in the world. Backpacking is hard work, but according to Davenport, the effort pays off with spectacular travel experiences.
“You can go to these places that you might not otherwise have seen, these remote places,” she said. “Backpacking is so unique that you can just get away.”
Go where? In the United States, backpacking is one of the main ways to reach more than 109 million acres of land protected in the National Wilderness Preservation System, which bans motorized vehicles and even bicycles. Such wilderness areas range from Colorado’s towering Maroon Bells to Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park, a dramatic landscape that is home to grizzly bears and caribou. Wilderness areas are just the beginning of US backpacking. The country is framed by two spectacular long-distance hiking trails, the Appalachian Trail and the 2,650-mile (4,265 kilometers) Pacific Crest Trail, with many shorter routes in between.
In recent years, new backpacking routes have opened up some of the most scenic places on earth for hikers.
Slovenia’s Juliana Trail connects mountain villages and peaks in the Julian Alps, while Egypt’s Red Sea Mountain Trail runs through arid Bedouin areas. There are world class backpacking trips everywhere: Bolivia, Japan and Morocco to name a few.
The White Mountain National Forest in east New Hampshire and west Maine offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure.
A bit of backpack history
While people have long traveled the world on foot, romantic artists and poets of the late 18th century helped celebrate walking as a recreation for Europeans, writes Rebecca Solnit in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking.
A century later, urbanization sparked a boom in outdoor recreation in the United States when Americans tried to escape the cities to spend time in the woods.
Previous hikers simply traveled overland or followed traditional routes, but the growing interest in this activity inspired purpose-built hiking trails around the world. The Vermont Long Trail was completed in 1930 and was the first long-distance hiking trail built in the United States. the National Blue Trail in Hungary in 1938 was Europe’s first long-distance hiking trail.
The benefits of backpacking
These early backpackers wanted to connect with nature, adventure and beautiful places. Nowadays there is growing evidence that staying in the wild for extended periods – like backpacking – has a strong impact on wellbeing. Contact with nature promotes creativity, generosity and happiness. Hiking is also a fantastic exercise.
And you don’t need a lifetime of outdoor knowledge to hit the trail. Growing up and hiking and camping, Davenport didn’t try backpacking overnight until college. Then she joined a student group for a 7-day trip through the Grand Canyon.
“It was a little intimidating, but it was an amazing experience and I learned a lot,” she said. Here’s what you need to know to perfect your own overnight adventure.
Shelters – like this one along the Sugarland Mountain Trail near the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee – are a great option if you don’t want to carry a tent.
How to get started
Start small and do a test run
You might dream of a full week on the trail, but Davenport suggests that new backpackers start with something simpler.
“You don’t have to be in tip top shape to try it,” she said. “Hike a few miles on a flat path to pitch your tent.”
One of Davenport’s most popular beginner-friendly destinations in the White Mountains is Nauman Tentsite, a wooded paradise just 2.5 miles from the trailhead. If you don’t have a tent or don’t want to bring one with you, you can instead hike to an open shelter like the Ethan Pond Shelter by a pretty pond on the edge of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Hundreds of such accommodations accommodate backpackers along the Appalachian Trail.
Before leaving, however, Davenport suggests that hikers pack all of their gear into a backpack for a long walk around the neighborhood. See how it feels and adjust as needed. If you’re wearing a new pair of walking shoes, don’t forget to break them in before a big trip to avoid painful blisters.
Choose your equipment wisely
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When the return to nature kicked off a full-blown backpacking tour in the 1960s, hikers set out in droves, many wearing stiff leather boots, woolen clothing, and outer-framed backpacks.
Equipment has come a long way since then and your load doesn’t have to be overly heavy if you choose carefully. A well-fitting backpack and comfortable boots are top priorities on your equipment list, Davenport said. Otherwise, it may result in an uncomfortable trip.
Instead of ordering a backpack online, Davenport suggested going into a store.
“There are people out there who can help you customize,” she said. “[Backpacks] will also fit differently if they are of weight, so many stores, like REI, pack sandbags. You can walk around the shop a little and they’ll customize it just for you. “
The same applies to boots, which can be modified with insoles and lacing techniques. Davenport said it was best to find a store with a lenient return policy. “If you take them on a hike and they feel awful, you can give them back.”
Before starting out with groups, Davenport has all of their backpacks emptied for inspection. There is usually additional equipment that can be left behind, such as extra shirts and spare shoes.
“You really only need certain base layers,” said Davenport. “You’re trying to cut down on all of those extra things that you don’t need.” The basics include moisture-wicking base layers, light insulation and waterproof rainwear.
Even if you don’t venture deep into the wild, it’s worth considering a battery-powered satellite device like a SPOT beacon. Many backpacking destinations don’t have cellular service, making getting lost or twisting your ankle a serious business.
While you may never use it, a satellite device can provide reassuring and potentially life-saving access to emergency services.
Renting equipment for your first backpacking outings is a great way to see if you’re enjoying it.
Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis News / Getty Images
Borrow or rent if you can
All of this equipment can be expensive. So once you get a feel for backpacking, you may want to borrow or rent your gear instead. (This can also be a great way to test out certain brands.)
The Appalachian Mountain Club Lodges that Davenport works at, including the Highland Center Lodge and Joe Dodge Lodge, have rental equipment rooms available for overnight guests to use. In recent years, there have been new equipment rental services that deliver camping and backpacking equipment to your home or destination. Oregon’s Xscape Pod backpack “pods” include premium backpacks, tents, headlamps, cooking kits, and other essentials for planning a trip with shipping to the lower 48 states. Kits from Arrive Outdoors in California offer similar value. If you already have your own equipment, you can rent extras à la carte at Camp Crate, where you can find everything from trekking poles to high-tech camping stoves.
Have fun (and don’t try to set a speed record)
While Davenport prepares groups for excursions into the White Mountains, she often hears from hikers worried about their pace. “Usually they’re afraid they’re going to be incredibly slow,” she said.
However, if you want it to be quick, there are other, simpler vacation options. But whether you’re a super fit athlete or struggling to lift your backpack after lunch, backpacking trips are a chance to escape the pace of modern life.
“It’s just nice to part with everything and be away from it all,” said Davenport.
Once on your way, you can tune into the natural world around you at walking pace. Instead of rushing to hurry, just enjoy the scenery, listen to the elusive wildlife, and try to spot plants along the way that you would never see from a car window.
“Just take it one step at a time,” she said. “Try to have a good time.”
The 211-mile John Muir Trail stretches from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney in California.
Victor Volta / Alamy
What to do with the rucksack?
You don’t have to travel far from home to get started. Some state and regional parks have walk-in campsites that are great for learning the ropes and testing equipment.
When you’re ready to move on, these world-class backpacking trips offer the challenge – and spectacular scenery – of your life:
– Plan an overnight stay – or hike for a full week – on the 200-mile John Muir Trail from Yosemite National Park, California. – Hike from cabin to cabin on New Zealand’s 55-kilometer Milford Track in the country’s Fiordland National Park.– Climb steep hills for great views on the 30-mile Pemi Loop through New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness. – Accompany Egyptian guides on the 230 km long Sinai Trail, a long-distance hike across the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.
– Or discover herds of reindeer as you follow the 434-kilometer Kungsleden into Swedish Lapland.