Book Review | Backpacking 101 by Heather Balogh Rochfort
After Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, tackling the mighty Pacific Crest Trail as a novice backpacker became an overnight outdoor sensation and as a result, permit requests for the P.C.T. jumped by 300%. Now, not everybody starts backpacking with a 2,660-mile trail, but more and more people are attracted to active vacations. Backpacking is a great way to unplug from work and reconnect with nature, and knowing where to start requires research. To save beginner backpackers precious trial-and-error time, Backpacking 101 lays the law of the land in a user-friendly format and concise chapters.
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In this book, Balogh Rochfort discusses how to choose the right gear, planning a trip, cooking on the trail, emergencies and more. Let’s look under the hood.
Heather Balogh Rochfort is the gear editor for Backpacker Magazine and the author of JustAColoradoGal.com. She loves to play outside and actually gets paid for it, which is pretty much a dream job. In the book, you can tell that she’s covered pretty much every option under the sun.
In “What to wear,” she breaks down the clothing list in Outer layer (Waterproof/breathable, water-resistant/breathable, waterproof/nonbreathable, insulated shells, soft shells), Insulation, Base layers (and the essential “no cotton” rule), Pants and Accessories. That works well, as you need to think of dressing for the outdoors as an onion, with multiple layers that you either pile up or peel off. To illustrate a few key points, such as the “three-layer construction” or “body mapping” for insulation purposes, simple monochrome drawings lay down the basics and help get the gist of otherwise complex concepts.
I liked that she has a small section on women-specific backpacks because yes, there’s a difference in men- and women-backpacks. I didn’t know that 15 years ago (or maybe, women backpacks weren’t around) and backpacked all through the Pacific coast with a backpack that was slightly uncomfortable and made my back terribly sore each night. Last year, I splurged on an Osprey AG Aura 65 Womens (you can buy it here: US | UK) and the suspension system and hipbelt are just fantastic. It makes a world of difference in how I feel after a long backpacking day (I honestly feel great) and I’m never going back to a unisex backpack. I like my back too much! So, kudos to Heather for pointing this out.
Why Compass Navigation Matters
Heather’s section on navigation is a very short and easy-to-understand section with an emphasis on compass navigation, with handy illustrations on topo maps reading and step-by-step instructions on how to take a bearing. Why compass when everybody has a cell phone with GPS system? Because many outback areas have zero mobile reception and it’s essential that you know how to read a topo map and how to navigate with a compass. In poor weather, this skill can literally save your life and the book is very clear. Of course, the book also discusses GPS navigation, so you can have the best of both worlds with the old-school and digital navigation options.
As an obsessive foodie, I was particularly interested in the Food chapter, which I found came up a bit short. I expected a few recipes but then, she lists Backpacking Chef, the bible of backpacking food for DIYers, so I can live with that. She also provides examples of real food to pack, as well as the lowdown on dehydrated meals, DIY dehydration and reliable dehydrated food brands. I have the US edition of the book, which lists prices in US$ but I’m guessing that the UK edition lists them in £, to calculate your food budget.
About cairns on trails, she mentions that they’ve been quite popular in recent years but that some people now call them manmade eyesores and they are sometimes misleading. Indeed, some people build cairns for fun, regardless of whether they indicate a trail or a direction. I’ve learned not to trust cairns blindly for navigation but during a long time, it was an easy way to know where to go. I’ll add that in some places, loose stones are actually part of historical structures weathered by time and to avoid desecrating them, it’s best to just leave them alone. Don’t build more cairns on the trails. You never know if you’re not walking through some Iron Age fort or ancient memorial.
Wildlife & Environment
Since North America is big wildlife territory, Heather discusses how to keep safe from bears, which is essential for anybody walking in bear country, as well as snake bites and other animal encounters. She also discusses backpacking etiquette and the environmental impact of backpacking, which is really great as outdoors activities can sometimes seem innocuous and yet, they take a toll on nature.
You will find better books about pitching a tent or building a shelter, but most sleeping options are featured in short paragraphs and should help beginning backpackers make up their mind about what they prefer.
Overall, I really like that this book provides no-nonsense information in 256 pages when the topic could easily fill encyclopaedias and would recommend it as a gift to backpackers-to-be or even seasoned backpackers, as a refresher on essential topics. It’s an easy read and the bite-size chapters make it a practical guide.
Thanks to Simon & Schuster for sending me a free review copy of this book. All opinions expressed in this post are my own.