What you need to know for spring backpacking: 16 quick tips
May 16, 2019 10:20AM
● By Editor
By Kate Paine form nemoequipment.com - Posted: May 16, 2019
It’s finally here!
Are you feeling what we’re feeling? Spring is officially here, and the temps here in the Northeast are starting to actually feel like it. Around this time of year we stash away our skis and snowboards and start planning our first spring overnight.
Spring is hands down one of the most beautiful times to get out hiking and camping — trees are beginning to bloom, there is new life everywhere you look, animals are starting to be active, and the trails are not overly crowded. You can find solitude in the forest more easily than during the summer, and enjoy the quiet awakening of the nature’s transition to warm weather.
it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
But let’s be honest: it’s not all roses. Spring is also one of the trickiest, most challenging times to get out, with wet and unpredictable conditions requiring careful preparation and realistic expectations. Many a first trip out in the spring has ended in soggy, cold disaster.
So we have some advice. Before you grab your gear from the garage and dart out on the trails at the first sight of a daffodil, take a moment to review these tips on mastering the first spring trip out.
1. don’t bite off more than you can chew.
You’ve been cooped up inside for months, and it’s tempting to channel all that pent-up energy into planning an aggressive first trek out. But there are several reasons to dial back expectations and take it easy.
Just between us friends, is it possible you’re not in the stellar shape you were at the end of the summer? Take your fitness level into account when planning your trip, and remember that you’ll be carrying more gear than usual for the unpredictable spring conditions. We recommend your first trip out be a shake-down to work out the kinks; one in which you’re a little less committed if something goes wrong.
By the end of the summer, you may be doing 20 mile days with ease, but for now, having some bail out options along the way is not a bad thing.
2. trails have changed! expect the unexpected.
This is yet another reason to pace yourself. Trails can change dramatically over the winter due to erosion from melting snow, trees falling over, missing trail markers, and flooding. Trail work won’t start ‘til the summer, so you may find yourself climbing over, under, and through trees, hiking through deep mud, or facing an unpassable stream. Even hikes you know well can take you much longer than typical due to the unpredictable conditions on trail.
3. check the conditions.
Spring is especially tricky for predicting conditions because even if your backyard is 70 degrees, in the mountains there can be snow pack twelve months a year and nights can drop far below freezing. The forecast in the valley can be drastically different than the forecast an hour away in the mountains, with even more extreme differences the higher the summit.
A lot of trail condition reports are user-generated and can be spotty at the beginning of the season. We recommend calling the state or national park office and asking about conditions. They’ll be able to tell you when roads are open, what trails are open and if the snow pack is partially or mostly melted.
All this to say…
4. don’t put away that winter gear just yet.
If you’re hiking on snow, things like traction devices for your boots can make a big difference. I personally love my Hillsound crampons. And having a hat and light pair of gloves can go a long way to combat the winds you may get at higher elevations, which can be chilly even on warm days.
5. “wet” is a game changer; watch out for hypothermia.
Once again, spring is deceiving. Trees may be starting to bud and the sun may be shining, but there is snow pack and spring rain to contend with. Many people are surprised to find that hypothermia is often more of a problem in spring than it is in winter. Being 35-50 degrees (F) and wet lends itself to hypothermia even more than being dry at below-freezing temps because your body loses heat so much more quickly. Staying dry should be the focus of your gear prep.
6. give your gear a test run.
You get points if you can find your gear right away. What becomes a grab-and-go kit by mid-summer might right now be an unorganized pile of gear.
If it’s brand new gear, spend some time familiarizing yourself. Set up camp in your backyard or living room to make sure you have all the pieces and you know how to set it up. Make sure all components of your system work and fit well together. Your tent, bag and pad should function as a system that — when used together — offers the most appropriate protection for the conditions. For example, an insulated sleeping pad like Tensor™ Insulated will increase the warmth of your bag, or a sleeping bag with Thermo Gills™ that allows excess heat to escape will provide more versatility for dealing with changing conditions. We like adding Switchback™ closed-cell foam pad to our kits for a little extra insulation from the ground.
If it’s old gear, do a once over and check for damage such as tears from last season, damage from mice chewing fabric, and cracking or peeling of the waterproof layers. Check out our care and repair tips for advice on getting your gear up to snuff. Also, NEMO products all offer a lifetime warranty, so if the damage is warranty related, be sure to allow time to get your gear back.
If your pad or bag have been compressed all winter, give them 24 hours rolled out to decompress (though we recommend storing these in a loose, uncompressed state). If your bag has a bit of a funk from last season’s last trip, give it a wash to freshen it up. Read more tips on storing your gear here.
7. understand what “three-season tent” really means.
If you’re just gearing up and choosing a shelter, educate yourself about what tent will fit your needs. A widely-held misperception is that “three-season” means spring, summer and fall. But in reality, the differences between a three- and four-season tent have more to do with how well the tent handles snow-loading and wind-loading, and how breathable it is, not how warm it is. If you are on a protected site, a three-season tentwill likely suit your needs, and will transition into warmer temperatures more easily with its increased ventilation and breathability.
In the spring, you may find you want to spend more time inside of the tent and have more gear with you, making livable space inside and a generous vestibule more of a priority. We love tents like the Losi™ 3P for striking the right balance of being lightweight, having a durable pole structure that can handle a little snow load, and offering maximum interior livable space for hunkering down inside when the weather is not at its best.
8. get down with a water-resistant bag.
In case we haven’t said it enough, spring camping can be wet. Choosing a water-resistant bag that can retain its ability to insulate against the cold even when wet is essential. There are two general options:
- Choose a synthetic bag such as the men’s Kyan™ or women’s Azura™. Synthetic insulation is known for its performance in wet conditions. Unlike down, there are no feathers to clump, and therefore no cold spots created. And while down bags are more compressible, these bags use FeatherCore™ synthetic insulation that equals or beats the compressibility of 650FP down.
- Choose a treated down bag such as the men’s Disco™ or women’s Rave™. Treated hydrophobic down is water-resistant and retains its loft even when it gets wet, offering wet weather performance that approaches that of a synthetic bag. Bags with a waterproof/breathable footbox protect against the condensation on the inside of the tent, and keep your feet warm and dry.
Depending on where you are going, 15 degree bags are a safe choice for spring camping. We recommend choosing a bag that’s suitable or rated for slightly colder than the conditions you’re expecting, and evaluating your gear as a system. And it’s a good strategy to pair your sleeping bag with a pad with a similar rating. For spring camping, we recommend an insulated pad such as the Tensor Insulated, which has a metallic layer that reflects infrared heat back at you.
9. don’t wear cotton. just don’t.
Did we mention spring camping can be wet? Cotton is much less forgiving when wet, and can exacerbate a wet situation. Instead, start with a wicking next-to-skin layer like merino wool that moves the moisture out. Layer on puffy or fleece insulating layers, and be sure to have a waterproof/windproof shell for your outer layer.
While it may be 70 degrees when you take off, it can easily get to freezing at night. So bring more layers than you think you need.
10. remember the forgettables.
You may be a little rusty on your first trip out, so make a detailed list ahead of time that includes the little things. A few things that top our list as most commonly forgotten on the first trip out: our headlamp, a component for our stove, eating utensils and our water purification system. Check out our downloadable packing list to help jog your memory.
11. speaking of water purification…
In spring’s cool weather, your typical water purification system might not be as effective as in the summer. Iodine tablets work, but take longer. Pumps are great, but be sure to prevent them from freezing at night (some people sleep with them in their bags to keep them warm). And beware of leaving your water bottle out overnight and letting it freeze…you’ll be thirsty ‘til it melts! My personal favorite system is Kataydyn’s BeFree, which you can easily stash in your bag at night.
12. you might be hungrier than you think.
Your body burns a lot of energy just keeping you warm, so if you’re facing cold temperatures, expect to be a lot hungrier than you might have anticipated, and plan for more calories. If you like a good camp meal as much as we do, you may be happy about this! Check out Good To-Go’s yummy meals, which suggest hot water (but you can use cold, just let it sit awhile longer).
13. the bugs are a battle. here’s how to win.
There’s a short sweet spot in the season before the insect world erupts (around here in New Hampshire this is in April), but beyond that, prepare for bugs. The standing water that comes with spring creates a breeding ground for mosquitos, black flies and other less-than-pleasant pests.
It may go without saying, but as soon as you’re wearing short sleeves you’re much more susceptible. While use of bug spray is a personal choice, wearing long sleeves and tucking your pants into your socks/boots is a smart way to go, and you might even resort to a head net. And don’t forget the tick check at the end of each day.
If you’re setting up camp and looking for a communal, bug-free area to gather and play cards, a screen room like the BugoutTM does the trick and can make your evening a lot more enjoyable. Citronella is a natural product that can also help keep the bugs away when you’ve set camp.
14. watch out for your best friend … we mean your dog.
Your pup is experiencing the same wet weather you are, and is even closer to the ground. Think about their insulation and comfort, especially if you’re going for a multi-day trip.
And muddy paws can be a big mess. Bring a towel for cleaning mud before they get in the tent, and consider picking up a Pawprint for washable wall-to-wall protection inside your tent.
15. respect the trails. minimize your impact.
Spring trails can be a mud fest. While staying on trail may not seem like the easiest option, it’s always the better option than going off trail and rerouting a new cut through the forest. While gaiters are typically thought of as great for snow, they can be very helpful for staying in the middle of a muddy trail rather than walking the edges.
When finding a spot to pitch your tent, look for hard, durable surfaces. New growth in spring is particularly fragile since it’s not getting a lot of sunlight yet. Make all efforts to leave no trace.
16. be aware of wildlife.
Spring is a big deal in the animal kingdom. Bears are coming out of hibernation and are hungry. Moose and deer are stressed from a winter with scarce food. Animals are birthing their young.
Depending on where you are going, you may not encounter any wildlife, but if you do, remember to give them wide berth. Don’t handle the young, even if you find fawns or baby rabbits — in 99% of cases, the mother is nearby and the young animals are fine. If you are in bear country, it’s a good time to start using bear bags and keeping food away from your camp site.
If you see something amazing, take a picture or mentally log a memory, but always seek to minimize your impact.
so what are we waiting for?
There’s a lot to love about spring camping, and we’re as eager as you are for our first trip out. With the right gear and the right mindset, you can open the season with an exhilarating overnight that jumpstarts your season of outdoor adventures!
See you on the trail!
This post written with special thanks to NEMO’s Kendall Wallace, whose degree in Outdoor Education comes in handy every single day. Kendall is a NEMO gear aficionado who saves his longer trips for the warm summer months, but can enjoy a weekend out in a NEMO tent anytime of the year.