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Leaders Of The Pack

03/19/2013 03:16PM ● Published by Jon Lewis

story: Jon Lewis

Pack Your Bag And Head Out To The Great Outdoors

Summer’s hot days and warm evenings make it a good time to consider a trip up to the cool mountains. And if you’re heading up to the hills, why not take (most of) the comforts of home along with you?

Therein lies the fun of backpacking, and living in the North State means there is no shortage of alpine opportunities, ranging from short treks for the tender-footed novice to months-long expeditions for the nomadic veteran capable of logging hundreds of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.

While campgrounds offer easy access, plenty of amenities and quality outdoor experiences, there’s just something about loading up a pack and setting out on a self-sufficient adventure.

There’s an investment—sometimes strenuous hiking, maybe a blister or two, the absence of plumbing—but the rewards can be amazing: no crowds, incredible scenery, great fishing, a confidence-building sense of accomplishment and a touch of that soul-soothing calm that comes from dealing with nature’s quiet side.

There are two approaches to backpacking. One will often result in observations like that of John Muir, who wrote how “every camp of men or beast has this glorious starry firmament for a roof” and all “are sailing the celestial spaces without leaving any track.”

The other approach can lead to the cynical description of backpacking as “an extended form of hiking in which people carry double the amount of gear they need for half the distance they planned to go in twice the time it should take.”

Leon Nelson, a 73-year-old retired dentist who has been an avid backpacker since the age of 12, believes everybody can enjoy the former and avoid the latter with a little preparation and planning.

A big fan of the Internet, Nelson recommends that beginners go online to learn about the latest—and lightest—developments in backpacking gear. is his favorite, but handy info is also available at

Backpacking with an experienced camper who can help with preparing, planning and packing is also a great way to learn about the sport.

You don’t need the latest and greatest to enjoy a safe backpacking trip, but there are some essentials that need to be in your pack, including a tent, sleeping bag and pad, first-aid kit, map and compass, a flashlight or headlamp, warm clothing, food, stove, cookware and a water purifier.

After averaging 40 days a year on the trail, Nelson has refined his backpacking hobby into an art and has drafted a long list of tips and suggestions that he gladly shares.

For clothing, Nelson strongly advises against cotton, which soaks up water and is slow to dry. He favors wool and synthetic fabrics that wick away moisture, and quick-drying nylon and fleece materials that can be layered. For cooking, Nelson likes to focus more on taking pictures during meal times, so he relies on an Esbit cook system that quickly boils water used to reconstitute freeze-dried meals.

When it comes to your feet, Nelson swears by Cabela’s “Trail Lite” hiking boots which he augments with a thick Dr. Scholl’s insole. The good doctor also recommends nylon polyester or silk socks that should be changed mid-day. (Rinsed-out socks will dry quickly when clipped to the back of the pack).

At the first sign of redness or tenderness, Nelson suggests a small piece of duct tape over the affected area to prevent a blister. If a blister has formed, protect it with a piece of moleskin.

To prepare for the expedition, load up a pack with about 40 pounds of gear and walk around the block a few times to see how it feels. “Find out what your weaknesses are and work on them,” Nelson says. Once on the trail, “allow plenty of time so you don’t overexert.”

The U.S. Forest Service is an excellent resource for those interested in backpacking in the North State’s Wilderness areas, including the Trinity Alps, Marble Mountain, Russian, Castle Crags and Mt. Shasta. Prior to an outing, campers should check with the appropriate district office to obtain necessary wilderness and campfire permits and the latest information on trail conditions.

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