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Want to be a backpacker? Take these steps

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One year ago, remarkably warm weather in southern Manitoba extended the summer outdoor-recreation season well into October.

If you recall sunbathing at the lake during the 2011 Thanksgiving long weekend, your memories are entirely accurate. By comparison, this fall has proven to be pretty much average, in terms of temperature, based on decades of Environment Canada data.

This doesn't mean it's time to sit back and wait for the snow to fall. Statistically speaking, we're bound to have two or three more weekends of shoulder-season camping weather, with daytime highs above zero and overnight lows not far below freezing.

My advice for the end of the shoulder season is to begin preparing for next year. And that includes planning for that multi-day backpacking trip you've never tried before.

One of the most common questions I receive is whether a trip such as the 66-kilometre Mantario Trail can be undertaken by a novice backpacker. My answer is always yes, as long as that same backpacker already enjoys hiking and has gone on at least one overnight trip.

Backpacking is hardly technical -- it may in fact be the most democratic of wilderness pursuits -- but you still need to prepare for it. So if you're planning a multi-day trip next year, here's how you can start right now:

1. Go for a day hike over uneven terrain

Before you try backpacking, you must go hiking, and not just on one of those level, short self-guiding walking trails you find in provincial parks.

For starters, a longish day hike in the Canadian Shield will allow your legs and lungs to give your brain a decent indication of your general fitness level. And if you do that hike right now, you're guaranteed to experience less-than-optimal weather, which is something you must be prepared to not just endure but actually enjoy during a multi-day trip of any sort at any time of year, anywhere on the planet.

A good warm-up day hike is the Hunt Lake trail in Whiteshell Provincial Park, a 12-kilometre there-and-back along the southeast side of West Hawk Lake. This route will carry you up and down the same sort of granite slopes you'll encounter on the Mantario Trail.

Pack a rainsuit, food and extra warm clothing in your daypack, but don't worry too much if it's miserable out -- you're not staying overnight. The trailhead is located east of the West Hawk Lake townsite.

2. Try an overnight backpacking trip

OK, so you know you can walk for a few hours and you enjoy it. So do most people. It's time to go on an overnight trip, where you will learn -- the hard way -- what it feels like to carry too much weight in your backpack.

The most common mistake novice backpackers make is carrying too much of everything. This is especially true of paddlers who try backpacking for the first time: They tend to think whatever they can schlep on a portage for 500 metres, they can carry around on their backs all day.

In reality, overburdening yourself will make you miserable on a multi-day trip. So get those bad packing habits out of the way on an overnight first.

Start with the basics -- borrow, rent or otherwise find a backpack, lightweight tent and the lightest sleeping bag that will keep you warm. Carry dry food, a lightweight stove and all the camping gear you think you will need for less than two days.

Do not go out and buy a lot of gear. Don't waste the money! This overnight trip is intended to let you know what gear you actually need.

Then head out on a moderate overnight trip, such as the 26-kilometre Birdtail loop on the west side of Riding Mountain National Park or the 30-kilometre Packhorse-North Escarpment-Bald Hill loop on the eastern edge of the park. Backcountry camping permits and entrance fees apply, but your campsite will be stocked with wood for a fire, in case you find yourself cold and soggy.

3. Plan for that multi-day trip

Now you know you enjoy hiking and you can handle an overnight. Preparing for the multi-day trip involves figuring out what sort of weight you need to shed from your pack -- and what lightweight gear you need to borrow or purchase to achieve a manageable load.

Take the entire winter to make this happen. Also choose a route and carve out a free extra-long weekend from your schedule. Put together a group of two or three people,. Create a meal plan and buy the dry goods at your earliest convenience. Buy or borrow the right map. Store everything you need for the trip in one place, for easy access.

I can't guarantee you will be completely prepared for a multi-day trip. That will be determined by other factors, including your general level of wilderness-camping experience and those of your tripmates.

But I can guarantee you'll have way more fun on a long trip if you first try a series of short ones.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 C12

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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