Sometimes called “dirtbagging”, wild camping is just going out there with minimal equipment. You might also call it rough camping or just “adventuring.” The idea is to use your wits more than your gear, and to have fun with less of a plan than you might normally have on a more traditional backpacking trip.
For example, I once floated down a river on an inner tube for an overnight trip. I just threw a few necessaries in a bag that sat on my lap. I slept next to a patch of wild strawberries and was rained on in my bivy sack all night and as I floated toward home the next day–but I still had a lot of fun.
Sometimes wild camping means breaking the rules a bit. I really can’t apologize for not staying in the shelters in the Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, because they were full. And to be honest the challenge of hiding out when camping was fun. Since I didn’t have fires and just slept under a tarp in areas not commonly frequented by other hikers, my impact was minimal.
I plan to do a jacket-packing trip sometime in the near future. This will be a test of certain survival skills, since I will only be bringing a few items–only what will fit in the pockets of my pants and jacket.
Wild Camping Safety Tips
It is true that you can go with less gear if you have more knowledge and skills. Knowing how to stay warm without a sleeping bag, for example, makes camping with just a seven-ounce bivy sack possible. Knowing a few of the edible plants in the area can allow you to bring less food. But there are some essential supplies that you should bring for safety.
To start with, you need water. Food is not a priority since you could go for many days without it if necessary. But a way to carry water and the knowledge of where to find it are essential. A plastic pop bottle weighs about an ounce, and a small packet of water purification tablets just a fraction of an ounce. Both can fit in a jacket pocket or fanny-sack if you are going really light.
A basic first aid/survival kit is a good idea as well. Again, this is something that can fit in your pocket.
A fully charged cell phone, while not an absolute necessity, can be a life saver. If you are going out into a large wilderness area and wild camping with the bare minimum of necessities, who knows? You might just get into a bad situation and have to call for help (but if this seems likely, plan better–the SAR teams are generally overwhelmed now that everyone in the woods with a toothache has a cell phone).
Dirtbagging as Cheap Lightweight Backpacking
Dirtbagging is stripping backpacking down to its essentials: fun and adventure. Throw a few things in any old pack, and just get out there. You don’t need all that expensive backpacking gear. Leave the extra clothes behind, sleep in a pile of leaves or next to a fire. Dirtbagging is keeping it simple and using your wits instead of your wallet.
Example of a Dirtbagging Trip
I took an inflated old rubber tube, a homemade plastic bivy sack, and some snacks for a float down the Boardman River here in Michigan. I had a few warm things to wear to bed instead of using a sleeping bag. I carried a small umbrella to use on the river and over my head at night. Altogether, I had maybe 10 pounds in a bundle on my lap as I floated down the river sitting in the tube, with my butt and my feet in the water.
The trout were surfacing everywhere and the deer were stepping back from the riverbank at the sight of me. Blue heron were hunting for fish in the shallows. There were wild strawberries at every stop. No paddling, just going with the flow. It was very relaxing, and yet still had the element of unpredictability, and thus adventure.
I feasted on berries in the evening until the rain came. It rained all night, but I stayed dry in my garbage bag bivy sack (my dirtbagging shelter), with a small umbrella over my head. A large white-tail deer almost stepped on me in the middle of the night, and scared me half to death with his snorting. In the morning it was still raining.
It wasn’t just raining, it was a thunderstorm. One thing about a bivy sack is that you don’t have enough space to keep yourself entertained. So storm or not, it was time to get moving. I bundled up my few things, stepped into the cold river, and sat in the tube.
I drifted by beautiful houses, sitting in my tube in a heavy sweater, with my umbrella over my head. It was just getting light, late because of the storm. People looked up from their morning coffee, to see me in a flash of lightning. I waved and floated on. I had a great time slogging through knee-deep mud in a portage around a dam, and arrived home safely a couple hours later. That’s dirtbagging.
The Long Distance Day Hike
An alternative to backpacking, the long-distance day hike allows us to get deep into the wilderness with less complication and in tighter time frames. In Colorado, for example, if you have a car with a bit of clearance, you can drive to 10,000 high in many mountain ranges, and hike to the peaks or passes from there. That was my own plan early in June. Drawing on that and many other experiences, I have some tips for anyone who wants to try long distance day hikes.
First, a definition. For the sake of this article a long distance day hike is any hike that is more than ten miles. And, of course, it must take place during one day. However, the trip to take the hike might be more than a day. For my hike to Hermit pass in the Sangre de Christo Mountains I drove up to about 9,000 feet the night before, and slept in my van. That way I was able to sleep according to my normal schedule (more or less), and still be hiking by 5:30 AM.
This is strategy works particularly well if you have limited time and/or limited equipment. Any car can be slept in if necessary. Just bring a pillow and blanket, plus food and water. I also brought a thermos full of hot tea for the morning.
Hiking Advantages versus Backpacking
You don’t need to carry a tent, sleeping bag, or large backpack, so the long miles are much easier. Also, with only one day off you can still have a great wilderness experience. Pack in the morning if need be, and take off directly from work when you finish. In the summer you can leave at 5:00 in the afternoon and still be hours away before dark. The next day you can hike 25 miles if you like, and still be home before dark.
On my recent trip I hiked about 14 miles, getting up at 5:00 in the morning, and hitting the trail by 5:20. I planned to go to Hermit Pass (about 13,000 feet), and then to Hermit Peak (13,200 feet). After fog and rain followed by hours of falling snow (in mid-June), I did make it to the pass, but unable to see even 100 feet in front of me, I decided against the scramble to the peak. I was back to the van and driving home by one in the afternoon.
It was a great hike despite the weather, and it reminded me of some of the other advantages of day hiking, as well as suggesting some tips for preparation for days like this. For example, I loved the fact that facing a day full of rain and snow, I did not have to set up a wet tent at the end of it. Also, it was easy to travel fast and far due to the light weight of my pack. I had snacks and water, the usual rainwear and survival/first aid kit, as well as a hat, gloves and sunblock (but I never saw the sun once).
The fog did disperse long enough for a few great views of the surrounding mountains. I wouldn’t have planned to backpack in such conditions (too messy in rain and snow), so the strategy opened up an otherwise delayed hiking experience. Here are some tips for your next long distance day hike:
Wear the Lightest Shoes that are Practical
I only use running shoes for backpacking or hiking. If you need more ankle support, get the lightest hiking boots that give you that and fit well. Long days are much more possible without too much weight on your feet. I also keep the socks light, using nylon dress socks. This strategy has prevented me from getting blisters for years now.
Keep It Light
It is not just a matter of comfort to carry less weight. It also enables you to get off the ridges and peaks quickly when storms come, and to go long distances. A light pack – in conjunction with light footwear – opens up a lot of possible destinations. Balance on scrambles is improved with less weight as well.
Hydrate Before Hiking
I like to drink as much as I comfortably can before hitting the trail. It is easier than carrying extra water in a pack. I still carry two half-liter pop bottles full of water, along with some iodine tablets for purifying more when necessary.
Eat Heavy the Night Before
Eating a good and large meal the night before allows your body to stock up on energy-producing glycogen. I had a subway foot-long sub in a cooler in the van for dinner, along with crackers, cheese, and nuts. Even though breakfast was nothing more than orange juice, I did quite a bit of hiking in the morning before I was hungry.
I had a map and compass, of course. These days, although I have never had to use one on a hike, I also carry a cell phone for emergencies. A long distance day hike is a great way to pack adventure into limited free time, but it can turn into an overnight suffer-fest pretty easily, and long distance implies a long way from help, so be prepared for almost anything.