From sands to summits:
Backpacking unlocks Washington’s wildlands
By Michael J. Foster/WDFW
A sweeping panorama of alpine summits and wildflower-filled bowls spreads out in all directions around you as you take a well-earned break along a mountain trail. You raise your binoculars to watch nearby velvet-antlered bucks graze.
Wild Pacific waves crash on a sea stack-studded beach while you set up the day’s camp. Once finished, you think about which of the teeming tidepools that dimple the beach to explore first.
Fish roll in a glacier-fed river as your group packs up to continue on a multi-day hike. A bull elk’s bugle raises everyone’s heads in time to watch the herd emerge from the trees and start to cross the stream.
Backpacking can be the doorway to all these Life Outdoors experiences and so many more — from surf to streams to timber stands to snow-capped peaks. Once you hit the trail for a multi-day adventure in Washington, whole ecosystems expand with every turn. Whether it’s a challenging long-distance hike of several days or an easier river valley overnight, our state’s epic biodiversity is there to witness.
If you give it a try, your trip can be full of opportunities for wildlife viewing; stunning vistas of wildflowers; alpine lake and backcountry stream or beach fishing; big and small game hunting; wild berry picking; and plant and mushroom identification and foraging, to name a few of the options. That’s not to mention the exercise, the camaraderie of camping, and the beauty of a night under the stars.
While this blog post isn’t an exhaustive guide to backpacking preparation, safety, and best practices, we will provide an overview, pointers, and links to resources for beginner and intermediate backpackers.
When to hit the trail
Here in August, we’re well into the summer high time for backpacking. Most of the higher-elevation hikes have been free of snow issues for some time — especially with the recent hot, dry conditions across the state — and the lower-elevation timber-stand strolls near waterways can offer respite from the heat.
Depending on your experience level and goals, late spring and early fall also have a lot of potential. While summer weather can be a safe bet, it also brings out the crowds so those shoulder seasons can free up the trails. You’ll need to pay attention to the weather forecast before any outing, but that is especially true if you’re venturing out in late spring or early fall when the snowline and heavy rain present more of an issue.
Another advantage to backpacking in shoulder seasons is that wildfire danger is typically lower. As of this writing, virtually the entire state is under a burn ban of some degree due to extreme fire danger, with many of those restrictions including campfires. All state and federally managed recreation lands are under burn bans that include campfires.
All DNR-managed lands in Eastern Washington are closed to public access due to fire conditions.
All WDFW-managed lands in Eastern Washington are open for day-use only until further notice. That includes water access areas within wildlife areas, except for a few that remain open to 24-hour use. Water access areas located outside of wildlife areas that allow overnight camping remain open 24 hours. For the latest information on WDFW restrictions and closures, visit the Washington wildfire information webpage.
For federal and tribal lands, make sure your destination is open before you head out by checking the appropriate land manager’s website. For resources, you can also visit our Washington wildfire information webpage.
So if your picture of a night under the stars includes a campfire, you’re better off waiting until the fire danger decreases. Fall foliage and fewer crowds won’t hurt then either.
At all times of the year, check with the managing agency of the lands you’ll be visiting for their location-specific campfire rules. If you’re in the backcountry, and especially during high-risk times, it’s best to avoid having a campfire altogether. Campfires are often prohibited above a certain elevation or near certain bodies of water.
You can also check with the managing agency about safety considerations for hiking in a region with an active wildfire.
If you’re heading out on the trail after the fire danger has decreased and would like to have a campfire, please follow the helpful guidance found on the Washington Trails Association’s wildfire season and campfire safety webpage.
Where to start
As for where to get into backpacking, Washington has public land opportunities across the state in all of its ecosystems.
For details on public lands in Washington, check out our Life Outdoors webpage where you’ll find links to information on state and federal public lands to explore through backpacking, including permit, pass, and/or entrance fee requirements as well as details on what activities are allowed and when.
If you think backpacking only takes place in challenging, high-elevation wilderness locations, keep in mind that there are plenty of trail options that aren’t full-on leg-burners. Many river valley trails, some beach routes, and some out-and-back trails don’t come with a vicious elevation gain and make great places to start or introduce someone to the adventure.
The nonprofit Washington Trails Association’s (WTA) website offers a wealth of resources for those starting out. Its comprehensive hiking guide lets you search for hikes nearby and filter by a variety of parameters including mileage and elevation to find just the right fit for your experience level. The detailed individual hike descriptions include the essentials on directions, length, elevation, rating, trip reports, and parking, entry, and permits requirements. You can also spend some time with WTA’s Hike Finder Map to visually narrow down your search.
Pack your bag
While not a comprehensive list, we’ll detail here some of the supplies you’ll need to be well-prepared. There are a host of options for gear to bring and some research will go a long way in completing your packing list. People also will discover their own preferences over time. Build on the information below and think about what you can carry and what you would want for two days or more in the wilderness. After that, some research will point you to the right products and brands for your budget and goals.
As with any wilderness outing, these 10 essentials should always be in your pack. The 10 essentials are a collection of first aid and emergency items that can help you in the event of minor injuries, sudden weather changes, or unexpected delays, according to the National Park Service. The 10 essentials are only the basic items you should carry. You might need additional items depending on your activities.
In addition to the hiker’s 10 essentials, here are some camping supplies that will help make your trip memorable for the right reasons:
· Frame backpack: With some exceptions, you likely won’t be able to haul all you need for an overnight trip with a daypack. A frame pack where the pack bag is attached to an internal or external frame of composite or aluminum designed to carry heavy loads will make the difference.
· Tent and footprint: Many lightweight backpacking tent options are out there, and a footprint is a protective layer designed to prevent moisture transference and tent-floor abrasion on rough ground.
· Sleeping bag and camping mat: Find a bag rated for the temperatures you’ll experience, and the camping mat makes a big difference in comfort on rough ground.
· Backpacking pillow: In a pinch, a balled up sweatshirt can work, but a lightweight backpacker’s pillow is a solid step up.
· Bear can or supplies to hang your scented items: A durable bear can is your safest bet for securing scented items from large and small animals and is required in some areas, but you can also hang your supplies from a bear wire or a tree using rope and containers. If you’re depending on a tree, using layers of containers — like plastic containers inside a dry bag — can help. Also be sure to hang your items high enough and far enough from the tree’s trunk that a bear can’t reach them. Securing scented items can also prevent small animals from damaging your equipment while chewing their way to what’s in your pack or tent.
· Camping food/trail snacks: Cuisine is a highlight of camping, and there is no shortage of dehydrated meal options that only require hot water for a well-earned feast.
· Backpacking cookstove and fuel: And to make that delicious camp meal, you have your pick of lightweight stoves and fuel options.
· Water and water treatment or filtration: Staying hydrated is key, and in addition to what water you pack in, there are a variety of water treatment and filtration options that will let you use backcountry water sources while avoiding illnesses like a giardia infection.
· Cookware, utensils: Round out your camp kitchen with a backpacking mess kit that includes a pot, pan, bowl, cup, and cooking/eating utensils.
· Body wipes, toilet paper, toiletries, trowel: That’s all pretty straightforward for hygiene away from home, but what’s up with the trowel? It is recommended in most backcountry areas that in the absence of a toilet, you dig a “cat hole” 6–8 inches deep and 200 feet from any campsite or water source to dispose of human waste.
· Enough clean clothes and an extra pair of socks: Bringing an extra day’s worth of clothing into the backcountry, just in case, is often recommended.
Here are some safety considerations, many of which come from National Forest Service trailhead guidelines:
· Plan your route, take a map and compass, and let others not joining you know your travel plans and when you expect to return.
· Bring proper, broken-in footwear and clothing for all conditions. Terrain can be rocky and weather changes quickly.
· Monitor weather forecasts before a backpacking trip. Stay off high ridges and peaks during lightning storms.
· Hang your food and scented items or use bear cans to avoid encounters with bears. For information on how to prevent and best handle bear encounters, read the WDFW’s blog on the use of bear spray.
· If you’re beach backpacking, know the tide charts and familiarize yourself with where and when some headlands demand the use of overland trails to avoid getting trapped by high tides.
· Don’t be afraid to change plans: If the weather takes an unexpected turn, if you suffer a minor injury, if the terrain is just rougher than expected, or if some of your gear fails, don’t be afraid to call the venture off rather than forging ahead just to reach your destination.
The more you know
One can’t over prepare when entering the backcountry, so check out these resources to learn more about backpacking preparation, safety, and best practices.
· The WTA website includes information on seasonal hikes and resources for hiking with children, as well as a Trail Smarts section with loads of how-to instruction to get you ready to safely hit the trails.
· There is a plethora of hiking and backpacking guides out there covering everything from beginner’s basics to more advanced topics. Many of these books are tailored to specific regions to help you find options near you. Check your local bookstores and library as well as online outlets to find the right titles for your goals.
· If you’re interested in backpacking for hunting and fishing, check out the Washington Backcountry Hunters & Anglers to learn more from like-minded wilderness enthusiasts.
· Research hiking clubs in your area that welcome newcomers and experienced trekkers alike.
· Regional social media groups aimed at hiking and backpacking are also abundant and can provide a community that can help you learn.
Community science on the trail
An added benefit of getting out in the backcountry is the potential for some great wildlife viewing. What’s more is that those encounters can also contribute to conservation work if you report your wildlife observations to WDFW. This information gives scientists data that can be used to study changes in our ecosystems.
Reporting an observation is easy: Just fill out this simple wildlife reporting tool, and your submission goes directly to the affiliated biologist.
There is also a specific need for observations of the American pika. This small, round, rodent-like herbivore is about 6–8 inches long and looks similar to a hamster with its big, round ears. In Washington, they are found primarily in high elevations of the Cascade Range but have also been found in the Columbia River Gorge.
Pikas are particularly susceptible to changes in their environment, making this species a bellwether for climate change.
If you plan on hiking in areas where pikas might live, download our pika observation survey in the ArcGIS Survey 123 app beforehand and use it to record your pika observations. For more details about pikas and reporting observations, you can read this WDFW blog.
For more information on sending in general wildlife observations reports, read this blog by WDFW on the WTA website.
Armed with all this information, we here at WDFW hope you get your boots on and give backpacking a try if you’re new to it, and if you’ve hit the trail before, we hope you found some resources here to expand your skillset.
The Life Outdoors is filled with amazing times for the whole family, and graduating from the frontcountry to the backcountry is the key to some of nature’s most unique experiences.
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Participating is simple:
1. Visit WDFW’s Life Outdoors webpage now through December 2021 to find out the outdoor recreation theme for the current month: https://wdfw.wa.gov/life-outdoors
2. Submit pictures of you, your friends, or family participating in the month’s featured outdoor recreation theme on WDFW’s website: https://wdfw.wa.gov/share
3. When submitting your photo, select #LifeOutdoorsWA in the category section. In the description area, tell us a little about your experience.
4. On the last Friday of the month, a winner will be selected and featured on WDFW’s Facebook and Instagram. Winners will also be contacted via email to receive their prize.
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August’s photo themes: