CAIRNGORMS NATIONAL PARK, Scotland — Chris Townsend has hiked since he was a boy in the Scottish Highlands where he was born. Going outdoors alone to study plants, birds and other wildlife seemed right.
“When I was 10 or 11, I wanted to be a naturalist. … The local fields and woods were my playground,” said Townsend, 62, author of “The Backpacker’s Handbook” ($21; McGraw-Hill/International Marine).
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel a close connection with the natural world and a need to be in it. Then as I grew older I wanted to spend more time in the wilds, so I took up camping and found I really enjoyed it.”
In an interview via the Internet, Townsend talked about the recently released fourth edition of “The Backpacker’s Handbook.” He also wrote “The Advanced Backpacker” and coauthored “The Encyclopedia of Outdoor and Wilderness Skills.”
Townsend enjoys backpacking in Europe, especially Norway, Sweden, the Himalayas and the Pyrenees. But there’s no place like home, the Scottish Highlands.
On this side of the Atlantic, Townsend hiked the length of the Canadian Rockies. In the U.S., he calls the Grand Canyon “the most amazing place I have ever seen.” He hiked four major trails in the American West, including the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, the Arizona Trail and the Pacific Northwest Trail.
“The Pacific Crest Trail is my favorite, a beautiful and spectacular trail,” he said. “They all go through splendid country, though.”
Townsend also hiked in the High Sierra several times, once completing a 500-mile circular route. In the American East, he hiked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
“The mountains there are very similar to the Cairngorms where I live but with far more trees,” he said.
Closer to Bloomington-Normal, Backpacker Magazine suggests places like Missouri’s Ozark Wilderness: Eleven Point River Shuttle Hike, a moderate 24 miles; or the 16.5-mile Big Piney Trail. In Wisconsin, try the 11-mile Apostle Islands Lakeshore Trail. Find more places to go at www.backpacker.com.
Most books that focus on spending time outdoors in remote places start with a warning not to go alone, but not Townsend’s. He’d be hard-pressed to offer that advice. Since his days exploring as a boy, he’s gone by himself most of the time. Answerable only to himself, he enjoys the freedom. He can hike far one day if he wants and take a short hike the next. It’s up to him. For him, solitude adds something to the journey that companionship does not.
“I now find that only when solo do I really feel part of wild places. I do hike with others at times and I do enjoy it, but it is a different experience,” Townsend said.
Beginner backpackers should use caution going it alone, he said. Avoiding danger begins with an honest appraisal of your skills and using common sense in your choice of where to go.
“For going alone I think it’s as much where you go as the level of expertise that matters. A novice backpacker would be unwise to set out on a remote trip in the Alaskan wilderness. An overnight trip in the woods close to home would be fine, though,” he said.
When alone, Townsend is especially thoughtful as he moves along. Each step could lead to trouble if he twisted an ankle or fell on slippery rocks and broke a bone.
Townsend said beginners make common errors.
“Two of the biggest mistakes I see novices make are carrying too much and trying to go too far. It’s all too easy to think you can hike 25 miles a day with a 50-pound pack. Discovering you can’t can lead to disillusion. I think too many people have one unpleasant experience of backpacking and never try again,” he said.
Limit what you carry.
“As regards being prepared for every type of weather, it’s a myth to say this requires a ton of supplies. Modern backpacking equipment is light and compact. There’s no need to carry more than 20 to 25 pounds, including food for a two-night summer trip. Many backpackers carry less. In winter, another 10 pounds might be required, depending on location,” he said.
Townsend carries just 20 pounds in warmer months minus food and camera gear he needs to illustrate his books and magazine articles. He comes back with far more than he took.
“What I think I’ve found (backpacking) is a feeling of being at one with the world, a feeling of ‘rightness’ that is hard to describe. It’s a combination of physical well-being brought on by walking every day and mental well-being from being in touch with nature. … I look forward to backpacking trips so much that I don’t have to prepare myself mentally. It’s not going backpacking that requires mental strength,” he said.