Although this column is ostensibly about gear, it’s really about getting outside. Whether by bike, canoe, kayak or on foot, the point of this prose is to help you get outdoors. The most difficult transition for most people is from car camping to backcountry camping. It’s one thing to drive up to a campsite and unload the car. It’s another thing altogether to leave the security of the car and venture out to “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Or so the thinking goes.
But, like most things, the intimidation factor here rests largely on fear, and that fear stems from a lack of knowledge about how to take the first steps. Once you take those steps, each one gets easier and easier.
All backcountry camping requires a set of equipment for sleeping, shelter, cooking and staying warm and dry. If you are a car camper, you already have most of this stuff. A canoe trip is a good way to start, since the canoe acts as a substitute for the car. While you can’t take as much fresh food, almost everything else about a canoe trip is similar to car camping. The main difference is that you put everything into a canoe, and when you get to your campsite you don’t have to contend with neighbors! You get to have the campsite all to yourself!
If you want to go to the Boundary Waters and you don’t want to venture far, pick a lake that has a lot of campsites: Lake One, Seagull Lake, Saganaga Lake, or the like, and simply paddle to a campsite. It won’t be long before you’ll want to travel further, which means only that you’ll take a little less stuff, to make it easier to get across the portages. While it’s true that you’ll want to learn how to navigate and become fluent with a map and compass, these skills, like firebuilding, paddling and portaging, will improve with time.
If you’d rather go backpacking, the process isn’t fundamentally different, except that you’re going to carry your equipment instead of putting it in the canoe. Canoeists sometimes think of backpacking as a portage that never ends, which is partially true—but the backpacker travels lighter, with a smaller and more sophisticated pack.
There are several state parks within an hour or two of the metro that offer backpack-in sites including Lake Maria, Afton, and Wild River. Once you have tried a trip or two at a state park, you might consider the Superior Hiking Trail. Running 200 miles up Minnesota’s North Shore, the SHT is widely considered one of the best long distance trails in the United States. No permits or reservations are necessary, and there are many spur trails that give easy access. One of the easiest ways to start is to camp at the junction of these spur trails and the SHT, since the spur trails often run parallel to the many streams that dump into Lake Superior. Hike for an hour, find a campsite, and spend the next day nosing around. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can pack your pack, pick it up and hike to the next campsite! Guess what? You’re a backpacker!
Remember: it’s not about the gear. It’s about getting outside.