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Backpacking 101: Getting Started - Finding a Hiking Group

I get email messages like this all the time:
"I'm interested in backpacking but don't know where to start.  I don't have any gear, anyone to hike with, and don't know where to go.  Please help!"
This article will focus on finding someone to hike with.  By hiking with other people, you can ask questions about hiking and backpacking, gaining knowledge to make you more prepared for hiking and backpacking.

I am by no means an expert, but I possess a passion for the woods.  When I was 11, while other girls played with dolls, I pretended to be lost in the woods, making sassafras tea to "survive."  Living in Colorado at the age of 12, our church took some kids to Breckenridge to climb mountains, where I bagged my first "fourteener."  


Mt. Quandary, Colorado.  My First Mountain, 1980.


Long story short, I got out of backpacking when I had kids, and then returned to the backcountry when my children reached an age where they wanted to hang with their friends more than me. You can read the longer, more boring, version here, on my "About" page.

So here's the problem; m
y hubby was blissfully happy spending his free time on the boat, and really didn't share my enthusiasm for mountain adventures.  My friends and other family will go on the occasional hike, but don't like to camp.  I was on my own and terrified to go overnight in the woods alone. 


Captain Rich and His 25' Girlfriend



1.  Start Hiking by Going Online


Turning to the internet, I found Meetup.com.  Meetup is a website where people can, well, meet up.  Not hook up, mind you, although there are a couple Meetup groups that I am certain do that very thing.  There are Meetup groups for everything:  learning foreign languages, arts and crafts, outdoor activities like hiking and white water rafting, and some weird things like polyamory.  


2.  Safety First!


I signed up for a very large regional hiking group, specializing in day hikes. The cost was a couple dollars and no long term commitment. My initial experience was a group day hike, with about 25 people, two hours from home. The hike was just a few miles in duration, and in a very public place, so that if I got any weird vibes I could just boot scoot down the trail to my car.   I also left my hike plans with my family, and took a photo of the leader's vehicle and license plate, texting it to my hubby.  Paranoia?  Maybe, but I have a vivid imagination, fueled by too many detective dramas. 

Thankfully, no axe murders occurred, nor any awkward sexual passes by creepy guys with candy.  Everyone was quite nice.  Talk among strangers, as it usually will happen, is superficial but pleasant. And the coolest thing - my companions are there because they have a love of the woods and were alone in their endeavors, with neither family nor friends who communed with nature.  I had found My People.


3.  Get in Shape So You Can Keep Up

Getting my feet wet with a couple of short hikes, I soon craved more. More miles, more deep woods, more weight on my back. And less. Less people, less crowded trails, less road noise and less cell phone service. I was building my mileage up, too.  From one mile to three, then five, then trail running six or seven. In one year I had increased my endurance and physical fitness dramatically. 

Anyhoo, the mountains were calling and I absolutely had to go!  I found Washington Backpackers Meetup.  Just like the first group hike, I wanted something noncommittal and easy to bail out of if there were any shady characters. Plus, the lack of elevation change where I live meant I needed to start mountains gradually. 


4.  Get Your Gear


Longer trips means more gear.  I knew I needed to replace my gear, so I was basically starting from scratch;  Mice had chewed a hole in my 20 year-old backpack, and my old tent was disgustingly smelly from being in the attic. Thankfully, the gear today weighs a fraction of what it did 20 years ago, so by purchasing new gear I saved about 20 pounds of pack weight, even though I had to shell out hundreds of dollars. BTW, I will post more about gear in a future article, so look for it soon!
1994. Cotton clothes, an eight pound tent, and a huge stove. Crazy!


5.  Car Camp Before You Go Into the Woods


Needing to try out our gear before venturing into the wilderness,  I attended a "Backpacking 101" event. The backcountry is not the place to find out your tent has a big leak, or you don't know how to work your stove.  Gear failure causes a lot of unnecessary injuries and deaths.

I dragged my daughter along for safety and some special mom/daughter bonding time. We car camped and had a couple challenging day hikes, with discussions revolving around gear, fitness, and the like. We ended our day with a terrific dutch oven dinner and s'mores over the fire.  No axe murders or awkward encounters with creepy people!


My First Trip with Washington Backpackers, a 101 event


6.  Branch Out


Shortly after finding my Meetup groups, I encountered Hammock Forums, where   hammock campers interact.  The hammock hangers frequently organize regional hammock hangs. I attended my first one in 2013 and have been hooked since. The hammock hangs tend to be informal, and involve lots of hammock talk and great food.  Attendance may be anywhere from 10 to 150 people. Tent campers are welcomed to the hangs, which are often in parks or other easy access areas, and perfect for many first-time backpackers. 


Rich Tries Out a Hammock at the Mid-Atlantic Hammock Hang (MAHHA)

Another place to look is message boards relating to certain trails.  www.Whiteblaze.net is where Appalachian Trail enthusiasts gather online.  Frequently hikers, especially women, look for hiking partners. 


Currently, I organize backpacking trips with the Washington Backpackers. Last week I participated in trail maintenance in West Virginia at Dolly Sods, in the Monongahela National Forest.  Next week I am leading a hut-to-hut hike of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. When I am not participating in group hikes, I stay in trail shape by running frequently and hiking alone in the local state park.  

Hopefully this information will be enough to get you started in finding people to hike with! vPlease feel free to comment :-)

Happy Hiking
<3
Demeter

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