Last updated: July 14, 2016
If I, Ranger Carol, took every backpacker in the park right now and checked to see what they had in their packs, I can almost guarantee I'd never find two with the same exact gear. Why is that? It's because every single backpacker has an internal struggle with weight versus comfort. Have you ever heard of the proverb "it is the last straw that breaks the camel's back"? The struggle is real! One extra ounce of weight can seem to make a great trip into a not-so-great trip.
However, I wouldn't be writing this blog if there weren't some similarities. There is a list called the ten essentials created by The Mountaineers in the 1930s to help outdoor enthusiasts stay safe on their adventures. This list includes navigational items. This could include a map and compass or a GPS. GPS units are great, but they often require things like batteries which might go bad during your trip. So think about backup batteries and perhaps a map in addition (this will add extra weight).
The Essentials also contain sun protection including sunglasses, sunscreen, and perhaps even longsleeves. The sun in Glacier National Park goes through less atmosphere than in my home state of Florida. Take a lesson from my negative experiences; you burn more quickly here, which can lead to dehydration. Speaking of which, that's another item on the list: hydration. Bring extra water, a waterfilter or water treatment tablets. Sadly, yes, the water here in Glacier does harbor Giardia and otherwater-borne illness-causing protozoa and bacteria…there is more than one employee around here who knows how that feels.
The sun isn't the only environmental factor that can ruin a trip. Here in Glacier National Park the weather can do that too. Insulation is on the list…think extra layers of clothing. I would encourage raingear to be in that pile too. Just a couple days ago the weather was sunny and warm but by evening it was in the 40s and raining at low elevations and hailing and snowing in areas up higher. Because of that uncertain weather, something to start a life-saving fire is also on the list; make sure you have waterproof matches or a lighter. Also an emergency shelter is necessary. Don't forget your sleeping bag, tent, bivy,or waterproof tarp.
Be prepared for the unexpected. Bring illumination like a flashlight. Getting caught out in the dark can mean going off trail and getting lost. Usually the reason people might be out after dark is a minor injury that first aid supplies could have helped with, like mole skin for a blister or a wrap for a strained knee. Another reason backpackers might find themselves out later than desired is equipment failure. Maybe the bottom of your trusty hiking shoe decided the trail was a fine time to come off. A repair kit and tools come in handy here…things like a pocket knife, duct tape, and some thread or string. So the emergency items (illumination, first-aid supplies, and repair kit) are on the list.
One thing I have personally witnessed several times out on the trail that makes hikers confused, tired, and cranky is the lack of good snacks! Nutrition is essential to your success on the trail. Have a little extra in your pack; you never know how many calories you (or your hiking partner) might burn. Some people require nearly full meals while others eat gorp for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Know your needs and still pack a little extra.
In Glacier, we also add three more little items to your essentials list, so make it 13 essentials. We require 20 feet of rope and a durable stuff sack for food storage, and encourage you to carry bear spray. We supply you with food "poles" at each backcountry campground. You have to supply the rope (nylon cordage usually works fine) and the sack (this is what your food goes into) to actually use the pole. Bearspray is not the same as personal pepper spray. Bear spray is designed to disperse outward in a cloud about 25 feet away from you–if the wind cooperates. Bear spray is extremely effective in deterring a charging bear. It is also a nonlethal means of deterring the bear as its effects are immediate but temporary. It's a great thing to have along in bear country in the unlikely event you may have a negative bear encounter.
So that's the essentials list; the items everyone should have. Even backpackers with these essentials will find a wide disparity in these items from pack to pack. Think about your personal medical needs when making up a first-aid kit. If you suffer from allergies, asthma, weak knees–consider what you might need before hitting the trail. If you tend to be cold, you may need to bring a sleeping bag rated for a lower temperature than your partner. Everyone is truly different, so think of your own needs when deciding what type or how much of an essential you need.
You're also going to be packing a few nonessentials if you're human like me. I cannot tolerate a jacket as a pillow and have an inflatable pillow that MUST come. Depending on how many miles I'm traveling in and up, I MIGHT pack along heavy binoculars for wildlife viewing. I also like to throw out a line and will take along a fishing pole and tackle on one-nighters or short multi-night trips. These three items are not essential for survival by any means, but they give me comfort. As you can also tell, my comfy pillow comes no matter what; I insist on that comfort. The binocs and fishing gear, however, are negotiable based on the effort the trip will take. If I have to pack more food or water, I might determine the weight and space of my binocs and fishing gear isn't worth it. They might actually decrease my enjoyment–the last straw that broke the camel's back. These are serious things to think about when packing for your trip: weight versus comfort.
Good luck packing! See you in a permit office soon!