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First Time Backpacking? No Worries

Posted on May 24th, 2012

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Editor’s Note: Jim DuFresne has suggestions for anybody heading to Isle Royale National Park for the first time. For more on the island park check out the Isle Royale pages at MichiganTrailMaps.com.

By Jim DuFresne

Teresa sent me an email recently with a question about backpacking that I have been asked a thousands times before: Can we do this?

Or in her case, can her boyfriend do this and survive? Possibly even enjoy it?


Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

My boyfriend and I are planning a trip to Isle Royale this July. I bought your book have been reading and planning our 3 night 4 day hike. I have also been dehydrating fruits and veggies for our stay. We have never done this kind of overnight hiking before and in just the last few days he sounds like he isn’t sure about the whole thing. Is there any advice you can give me so as to reassure him that this can be done and that 1000’s do it every year.

Teresa is correct on the last point. Thousands do it every year. Isle Royale is a remote island national park in Lake Superior that attracts roughly 17,000 visitors from April through October.  That’s a drop in the bucket by National Park standards, less than what they draw on a good day at Grand Canyon.

But of those Isle Royale visitors, the National Park Service classifies 12,000 or more as “backcountry users,” people who arrive to spend a night or more away from the entry ports of Rock Harbor and Windigo. Some are kayakers, some are canoers, some are anchored in a backcountry bay in their sailboat.

But the vast majority is backpackers, hikers who cram everything they need, and a few things they don’t, in a pack and then head down the trail for days at a time. That’s what leads to Isle Royale’s most unusual stat. The island boosts one of the longest visitation period of any national park in the country; the average stay at the park is 4.5 days.

Weighing a backpack at Rock Harbor

Weighing a backpack at Rock Harbor on Isle Royale National Park.

People don’t come to see Isle Royale, they come to escape.

Once you hit the trail, you realize backpackers come in all ages and physical shape; from a couple of retired guys plodding down the Greenstone Ridge Trail to a family with five-year-olds hauling their own gear.

Once you reach you’re next camp, the camaraderie among backpackers pitching their tents for the evening is heartfelt and spirited. You swap stories about seeing a moose and in the evening you share your chocolate bar with another couple while watching a pair of loons on a lake. Everybody is pulling for everybody to reach the end of the trail.

Because it is Teresa’s first backpacking adventure I do have a few suggestions that will make it much more enjoyable:

Keep the backpack as light as possible

This is the key. Isle Royale is not overly rugged, we’re not talking about Rocky Mountain National Park here, but you’re still hauling your gear down a trail that will include steady climbs every now and then.

You don’t want a lot of weight on your back, that’s why at Rock Harbor there’s a scale to weigh packs and storage available if they are too heavy. Ideally for adults the weight of their backpack should be between 30 and 40 pounds and as close to 30 as they can get it.

You don’t need a lot of clothes. You need one set that you will be hiking in and one set when you’re done for the day.

You don’t need gadgets. You need a lightweight backpacker’s stove, fires aren’t allowed in the backcountry, but you don’t need a trailside cappuccino maker, no matter how compact and cute it is. Freeze-dried coffee will be just fine.

Stop often

Breaks are crucial, especially the second day when you shoulders will be most sensitive to the straps of your backpack (the reason to keep it light). The rest periods don’t need to be long, just numerous so you can remove the pack and allow your shoulder muscles a brief recovery.

Besides this why you’re out here, to soak up the amazing scenery on the island. Backpacking is not a foot race, take time to enjoy the surroundings.

Bring Moleskin!

The most feared injury on Isle Royale is being attacked by a moose or falling off Mount Franklin, it’s a blister on the back of your heel. To survive you don’t need to haul along a giant first aid kit, just carry a small piece of Moleskin, a few other bandages and tape and, even if a blister develops on the second day, you’ll be fine.

Eat Well

Teresa has a good start here, dehydrating fruits and vegetables will result in delicious meals in the middle of the wilderness. My favorite is tomato paste that we spread thin on wax paper and then dry at the lowest possible temperature in the oven. We then store it in a Ziploc bag and on the island tear off chucks of it to make incredibly rich sauces and soups.

Father and daughter on the Greenstone Ridge Trail.

Father and daughter on the Greenstone Ridge Trail.

Keep in mind that after hauling a pack 8 miles, whatever you cook at the end of the day is going to taste great, even if it’s watery mac-and-cheese and cup-a-soup. Pack enough food so you’re not hungry at night but to end the hike with anything more than an emergency granola bar is a cardinal sin in backpacking.

Limit your itinerary

A common mistake when you have only have four days on the trail is to cover too much mileage each day. On Isle Royale 7 to 8 miles is a pleasant day, allowing you to start around 9 a.m., be done by mid-afternoon and stop often for breaks and lunch in between.

If she can work out the logistics with her schedule, my suggested itinerary to Teresa is to take the Isle Royale Queen IV from Copper Harbor which lands in Rock Harbor around noon. That gives them more than enough time to hike the 7.1 miles to Daisy Farm campground the first day.

The second day can be easy; 5.8 miles to Lake Rickie Campground. On the third day they can hike to McCargoe Cove, a beautiful campground to spend the night, and along the way drop their packs at the Greenstone Ridge Trail junction and climb the ridge a half mile to the west for a view of the inlands lakes form the top of it. Total mileage that day, including the side trip, would be 7.5 miles.

On their fourth day they can hike to the old mining ruins on the Minong Ridge in the morning without packs and then return to McCargoe Cove and hop on the Voyageur II. The ferry that circles the island and will pick them up for a ride back to Rock Harbor. The boat ride will be a way to see the scenic Five Fingers region of the park and cap off the trip.

As far as Teresa’s boyfriend, if this blog doesn’t convince him to go, I say go without him. And after you come back so enthused about your adventure on the island, he’ll never pass up another opportunity to go backpacking again.

Neither will you.

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6 thoughts on “First Time Backpacking? No Worries”

  1. Teresa says:

    Only a little over 4 weeks til we leave for Copper Harbor and then Isle Royale. I actually want to start our trip by crossing Tobin Harbor and heading to Look out Louise first. Because, in your book you said many people miss that part of the trail and many others will be heading to Daisy Farm the first night. I thought we’d start in the opposite direction.
    Like you said, I have been dehydrating fruits, vegtables, chicken and next will be scrambled eggs for breakfast. Already have the elk jerkey made and a number of homemade peanutbutter granola bars for lunches.
    We have 1 pot, 2 coffee cups and a few cooking/eating utensils and a small stove.
    I think I will add some italian seasoning to my tomato paste and dehydrate some. (Thanks for that idea) I had thought about taking a can of paste, but never thought about dehydrating it!
    As far as everything else we take, I just told my boyfriend this morning that I’m going to help pack his backpack. He’ll be putting things in and when he turns around I’ll be taking them out!
    I’ll be writing when we get back in the middle of July.

  2. Jim DuFresne says:

    Teresa, That’s an excellent itinerary. From Lookout Louise to Lane cove campground is 7.2 miles, an ideal first day along a very scenic route. Lane Cove is a pleasant campground to stay at. The next day you could move onto Daisy Farm along the Greenstone Ridge Trail or Moskey Basin if you up to it.
    Have a great trip and let us know if your boyfriend makes it back from the island.

  3. Teresa says:

    Well, I’ve got to say that even though I read your book about Isle Royale, until you get there, you really don’t know what your in for. we met a lot of “first timers”, like ourselves, and we all had the same comment – “we’ve learned a lot” and “why did I bring THIS?”.

    I guess if I’m going to ask for your advice, I should actually heed it! Our first mistake (because we didn’t think we had packed anything that wasn’t necessary) we did not weigh our backpacks…MISTAKE!!! Like you said in your book if it’s too heavy your going to be miserable. We were.

    Anyway, Day 1: My boyfriend (I believe) was suffering from heat exhaustion by the time we stopped and set up our tent. He seemed somewhat incoherent and was not able to help much. He immediately went inside, removed some clothing to cool off and I made him drink more water. He took a long nap. Upon waking I made up a packet of gatorade and he ate some dehydrated bananas we brought.

    Day 2: Only approximately 20-30 minutes into our day, the path was overgrown with vegetation so I couldn’t see my feet. I stepped onto either a rock or tree root and my foot slipped causing me to fall forward and as I did it felt like Verlander threw a fast pitch at my right calf. OUCH! I tried to catch myself when my left foot hit the ground and that may have worked, except when my right foot found the ground again my leg immediately cramped up like a HUGE charlie horse and down I went. My boyfriend had to help me up and to a downed tree so that an ace bandage could be put on. I hobbled flat footed (I couldn’t flex my foot or calf at all) using my left foot so much that the strain was taking it’s toll on my hip and thigh.

    With this injury our hiking plans were changed dramatically.

    All in all we were still able to joke about any of the not-so-good things that we went through at the end of the day. We also got some amazing pictures and met lots of people.

    I’m not sure I’ll get him back to the Island, but I want a “re-do”!!!


    Oh yeah, when we returned from the Isle Royale I went to a walk-in clinic. I have a torn/pulled muscle and will be resting and going to rehab soon, before I can return to work. Not exactly a “vacation”!

  4. Jim DuFresne says:

    Wow, Teresa, if you never went backpacking again, I wouldn’t blame you. The fact that you want a re-do, I admire you.

  5. jeff mcwilliams says:

    I’m not sure where Teresa comes from, but she might want to look into hooking up with a local outdoors group or club. Hiking/backpacking with others would allow her to take advantage of the experience and wisdom of others and get some face to face advice about her gear and techniques. She may even be able to take a beginner backpacking class.

    Check meetup.com for backpacking and hiking groups in your area.

    Isle royale is a beautiful place. I was there with a small group in 2009 and can’t wait to go back to see more trails.

  6. Teresa says:

    Thanks Jeff for that info and website that I can check out.

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