How to Prepare for a Backpacking Trip

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Hi all! Now that is it May, I need to start preparing for my second trip backpacking Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Last year we were able to reserve a few backcountry sites to backpack the lakeshore, but this time around we prepared ahead of time (see Top 5 Things to Know Before Hiking Pictured Rocks) to reserve backcountry permits to make sure we hike from Grand Sable Visitor Center to Minors Castle (almost the whole lakeshore)!  There are a few things I am doing to make sure I am ready for this trip and I had better start now rather than later. Here are my tips to prepare for your backpacking trip!

  1. Get in shape

I was in a lot better shape last year and I was still tired after each day of hiking. This year…I need to start taking on more mileage before I hike 7.3 miles a day for fun. On top of just in general needing to get in shape, taking on so many miles consecutively and so soon can lead to injury if not properly prepared. Everyone is different, do your research and prepare your own body accordingly. I know that for myself, I need to do something to get in shape and prepare my body for my Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore trip.

If you are planning a longer hiking trip make sure your body can handle the work-load involved in your scenic hike!

  1. Get your gear together
The fellas use our gear as a bed is we leave it out for them to play with.
The Fellas cuddling with our backpacking gear when it’s not in storage.

If you are just starting out on your first backpacking trip you have A LOT to prepare for. Even if you are a seasoned backpacker you know how much planning it takes to make sure you are ready for comfort in the backcountry. You should do plenty of research on what others take into the backcountry and even think about additional things that would make yourself comfortable and happy! Here are things I take backpacking with me:

If you have your gear organized year round then this is not too much of a problem. Personally I use totes to put all my things in except my sleeping bag which I don’t want to squish. I keep my sleeping bag outside of storage because my dogs love cuddling it. People may use more, less, or liter gear but the above is what I take with me into the backcountry.

  1. Upgrade gear as needed

While I am loving my gear, there are a few things that we are upgrading/ changing based on different desires or needs:

  • Charlie is looking at getting a tent instead of bringing out his hammock setup again. He just decided that the hammock surrounded by the bug net and tarp was too constricting and did not provide enough privacy.
  • I am looking at changing or nixing my pillow. With my hammock I just don’t need it and I just wake up cuddling it like a teddy bear anyway.

Changing up your gear list is up to you and your preferences, don’t let anyone tell you different!

  1. Shakedown Hike

Now you have your gear together. You’re packed up and eager. Now it is time for a practice run. 

Hike with your bag. Overnight with your supplies. Is your bag too heavy for you? Did you pack some unnecessary items? Forget something you really need? Figure this out now and get rid of anything you don’t need. This is also a great way to practice wearing your backpack and make sure it is the right one for you! See Rachel’s How Not to Pack for A Pictured Rock Hiking Trip to really understand the importance of packing.

  1. Prepare a main point of contact 

I have said this before and I will say it again; make sure someone knows where you are and your itinerary! When Charlie and I leave for any type of trip we need to get a dog sitter and that is normally a family member. When we leave for a trip we know we may have limited cell service we make sure that this family member is prepared with our itinerary with notes on when we will be able to contact them and what to do if we do not contact them. A satellite phone would also help in these situation and hopefully by the time we do this trip we will have a Garmin InReach or InReach Mini. STILL, these phones are not always 100 percent reliable and your point of contact should be told that!

These tips for preparing for your backpacking trip are only the things primarily on my mind right now. Make sure to always do your own research and to make sure you are comfortable with your plans and your gear before isolating yourself in the backcountry. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you have so much fun!

Once on trail I will make sure to share as many photos and tips as possible! I will let you know how the trip went right here on the blog and don’t forget to read my first experience hiking Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore; Part 1 and Part 2. And follow my adventures on Instagram!



How not to Pack for a Picture Rocks Hiking Trip

Hello fellow patrons of Sustaining Sara! My Name is Rachel, a humble guest, here to indulge you in sustainable, earth friendly, and wanderous content! If you do not know, Sara is my twin sister. Now, of course that is how I got this gig, but trust me, I can bring the content too!

Before I begin my tragic tale, let me tell you a bit about who you are metaphorically speaking to. Like Sara, within the past few years I have begun to expand my views on living sustainably, have continued to curate my plant bb collection, and am constantly molding myself into “Rachel, Wanderer of the World, Extraordinaire”.

…Don’t worry, it will catch on eventually…

This is me… and my giant, unnecessary backpack at the beginning of our trip

Now for the real reason we are here, overpacking.

How does one overpack, you might ask yourself? And to you dear Reader, I would say one does it quickly and without notice. It is with great dismay that I report to you that my first backpacking trip, which was to be our grandest of adventures yet, was nearly a catastrophe. All because I could not keep track of my pack weight in the week leading up to our trip.

Lets recap:

Just like Sara, I have my own lovely line up of backpacking gear. This includes my big three combo that I am just in love with! My choices include my hammock setup (which is constantly evolving), my sleeping bag, the Nemo Forte 20 degree bag, and my backpack, the Kelty Zyro 64W… I love my pack, but this is certainly where all of my woes began. We will get to that in a minute.

For now, let me indulge you in the importance of the big three. These are most often your biggest and most expensive items among your gear. This account for the durability, weight (or lack there of), and the R value rating (warmth).

A great deal of time was dedicated in finding these items. Sara and I’s differences in our hiking and backpacking styles were highlighted in our REI and Amazon carts. A perfect example of these differences was Sara’s choice of a propane stove, while I opted for an alcohol stove. There was no real weight difference to our choices, just in the way they worked and how we would store our stove and fuel.

This is fine, it is more than acceptable to have your own unique set up.

What is not acceptable is when a certain someone (yup, me) notices that the backpack I have chosen is only $10 more for the 64L pack as apposed to the 45L version.

Oh boy… That minute has come, Reader. The instant my woes became reality. I did not know it then, but my nature to overpack would be over indulged solely due to the pack size I had chosen for myself.

The majority of our packs (that being Sara’s, Charlie’s, and my own) began with the same basic items. Including, but not limited to:

  • Hammock gear (See 2020 Faves…and 2019 for specific gear)
  • food and water
  • stove
  • bowls and eating utensils
  • spare cloths
  • sleeping bag and pads
  • etc.

We also divvied up the gear we would all be sharing evenly according to weight and pack space. This included things like our water filter, the Sawyer One Gallon Gravity System, among other things.

With the essentials lined up, it was time to bring some pizzazz to my time on the North Country Trail. This is just a fancy way of saying “I can not live without my stuff, I get bored easily, and I always bring a book that I never actually read.” This trip was no exception to this “Rachel Rule” and ohhhh lordy, did I suffer the consequences.

A few things past Rachel did not need to pack include:

  • a kalimba complete with a notebook full of tabs
  • a deck of cards that was never used
  • to many pairs of socks and extra leggings
  • another book that never saw the shore
  • and an entire bag of granola (I did not need the entire thing!)

I also ended up carrying my hiking boots inside my pack instead of my chacos… Considering the blisters I received the first day of hiking, this was best for my feet… but probably not the best for my back…

Me with my giant, unnecessary pack, now at max weight with my boots inside

For a wee visual, somewhere between Miner’s Beach and Miner’s Castle the straw broke the camel’s back. The camel was me and the camel’s back, was my own. I was in literal tears for the majority of that stretch (no shame here). It felt like the longest few miles of my life. I was quite literally torn between completing our hike and just laying down and perishing on the shoreline. Anything to get that pack off my back!

After a particularly slight incline, that totally killed me, I started recognizing the area where my car was waiting for us. “We’re almost there, Rachy!” I can remember Sara cheering me on. It might have worked if there was not an assortment of picnic tables between us and the car. I limped to the nearest one and *gracefully* clasped onto it. Relieving myself of my pack was both the most painful and joyful thing I had done that entire day.

I sat there as Sara riffled through my bag for my car keys. Her and Charlie milled about the area using the facilities, loading their gear into the car, and admiring the views of the shore while I sat there feeling shriveled up, laying my head on the picnic table, hydrating for dear life.

At some point Sara came over and offered to take my pack to the car.


I lift my head in time to see her putting my pack back on the ground.

“No wonder you’re hurting! This is so HEAVY!”

Dear Reader, I cried. Again! I let it out. It sunk in slowly, I was not technically a wimp, I was an over packer!

You can almost see me behind my pack…

In the backpacking world any nonessential items are usually left off trail. As I ease into the ways of backpacking, the idea of an ultra light set up was never on my radar. Our trip and the lessons I painstakingly learned have given me a new perspective on how I will pack for future adventures. A good and hard look at what gear I am willing to take with me, and most importantly what gear I should probably leave behind will be needed every time I plan another trip!

The other major thing that I modified on my pack was the shoulder straps and the hip belt. Even though I took a considerable amount of time to do this pre-Picture Rocks, at the conclusion of our hike it was obvious that I had not done it properly! That entire time my pack was sitting on my back incorrectly, putting weight and pressure on all the wrong places!

I now know that with the correct adjustments, my time on trail would have been so much more pleasant. Obviously, not perfectly pleasant, but so much better than what it was.

Even though I have nightmares about the horrors of Past Rachel’s mistakes, I am still looking forward to our future Picture Rocks trips. This year I will have my modified pack, sans brain, and complete with proper adjustments, with updated gear and an extremely refined gear list! This trip will surely be one fore the books! Covering more trail and testing our limits!

Look at that adequate pack… and then the less than adequate one…

Whether or not you find my tale humorous or just feel pity for Past Rachel, I do hope you enjoyed your read and that any perspective backpackers have learned a valuable lesson. Perhaps, in the not so distant future I will be write to you about my amazing ultra light backpacking lifestyle… I do not foresee this being anytime soon, but here’s to hope!

Taking in the views. An important part of a Picture Rocks trip is the stopping at all the beautiful lookouts!

Top 5 things you need to know before hiking Picture Rocks

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I have had great opportunity to travel, especially in the US, but I can without a doubt say that the Picture Rocks National Lakeshore is the most beautiful place I have been. That being said, there are multiple ways to experience this beauty; boat tour, kayak tour, or by foot. While each of these ways are great in their own right, without a doubt the most immersive is by hiking the shores and cliffs. Here are 5 tips for planning your Picture Rocks hiking trip.

1. Reserve camping spaces far in advance.

The Picture Rocks National Lakeshore and surrounding Upper Peninsula nature areas are very popular vacation spots for the surrounding Great Lakes’ states. Last year we started planning our trip a month ahead and by the time we were ready to reserve backcountry campsites…most were not available. Even the drive-in, “front country” campsites were booked up. We severely had to cutback on the days we could backpack the lakeshore based on finding backcountry campsite reservation within reasonable distance for us novice backpackers. 

Now for 2021 we are determined to hike from Au Sable Visitor Center to Miner’s Castle and reserving our campsites mid-January shows this determination. Keep in mind that reserving campsites for state parks starts January 1st of the reservation year and you will see the taunting “Reservations Full Through October” in June. I recommend planning your summer trip in January (I am serious) and any fall or winter camping in the summer and making your ASAP. 

2. Do not plan on having cell service.

As soon as we left downtown Munising we did not have cell service. Ariana Grande herself was cutoff on Spotify. From what I understand Verizon users tend to have better luck finding spots of service, but otherwise cellphones are unreliable for outside communication. 

That being said, there are ways to try to prepare for this on trail. While satellite phones still do not work 100% of the time, I have been meaning to invest in a Garmin inReach or inReach Mini to send checkin texts to my family.

3. Do your research and have it physically on hand.

On our first trip I forgot to download or print maps, write down daily mileage, or even research landmarks or notable viewpoints in between. While the latter was more of a pleasant surprise, the two former aspects were just annoying. Fortunately my twin sister took some glare-y and fuzzy pictures of maps at the trailhead.

Whether you are doing a short day hike or backpacking multiple nights, make sure to research the trails you are taking and the sights in between. Download this Backcountry Camping Planner with specific Picture Rocks information.

4. Document your emergency contact and itinerary. 

Heaven forbid even the littlest thing goes wrong on your trip, but still plan ahead. The National Parks Service recommends that you store a copy of your itinerary under your driver’s seat including your contact information and your emergency contact. On top of this we also made itineraries for our parents so that they were in the loop and even knew when our phones would be out of service.

5. Have a treat for yourself at the end of the trail.

It was my twin sister, Rachel, that made sure this one went on the list. When I am hiking I am always thinking about the food I will eat after a long hike and this really keeps me going! If you are doing a day hike make sure to have something nice waiting for you back at your camp like s’mores or your favorite beer. Make sure it is something relaxing and not a lot of work to obtain after your long day. As for backpacking the shore, we suggest that after you get off your long hike you take yourself to Picture Rocks Pizza in Munising and have a whole pizza all to yourself! We were recommended this restaurant by another thru-hiker and now we gotta pass along this information to you! No matter what you do, just make sure to reward yourself for the hard work your put your body through! 

Overall planning ahead can make your trip easygoing and fun, and that is definitely what a Picture Rocks National Lakeshore trip should be about.