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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Thursday, August 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Uncertain steps: A newcomer’s introduction to backpacking

This is the first in a series of stories from a fledging backpacker’s perspective as he learns what it takes to be a mountaineer.

When my wife told me last month to take a hike, I knew it was for my own good.

“It’ll be fun,” she said with the same encouragement in her voice that led to years of life-broadening experiences such as Civil War re-enacting, Ham on Regal and ballroom dancing. (Well, two out of three, as they say.)

Ten days later, we walked into the first class of Backpack School, a seven-step journey to outdoor enrichment sponsored by the Spokane Mountaineers. The first step inside was the hardest for me, a confirmed indoorsman who on his first family camping trip 12 years ago packed half the household to a campground near Seattle.

And I still managed to forget the tent stakes.

Surely there were others like me among the 37 students; this was a newbie class, right?

The get-acquainted session consisted of 20 warmup questions, such as: “Have you ever had a close encounter with a bear?” A dozen folks raised their hands – all intact, as far as I could see – while I could only raise my eyebrows in amazement.

Next question: “Have you ever been sprayed by a skunk?” Ten more gleefully raised their hands. I wondered to myself: “How recently have you been sprayed by a skunk?” and I gave them a wide berth.

On it went, my insecurities growing with every question. This is an introductory class, right?

Next question: “Ever gone skydiving?” My arm goes up, but my wife pulls it down with a knowing look: parasailing in the Bahamas doesn’t count.

Finally, I felt some kinship: Several others also had skied on an expert downhill run. I puffed my chest, and took a seat to learn about the essentials of backpacking.

There are 13 essentials, to be exact, from first aid to matches to sunblock, all thoroughly explained by the instructors. The items were also displayed on tables, along with the reason I followed my wife here in the first place: a photo album full of eye-catching pictures with more scenery than I’d seen since I got lost with the kids 10 years ago in Dishman Hills.

The album held page after page of photos with dazzling sunsets, snow-capped peaks and happy hikers.

Happy, perhaps, because they already owned everything they needed to reach those trails. I’d have to reach for my wallet – but how deep?

I soon found out. The next class covered the big (ticket) items: tents, sleeping bags and especially shoes. “Don’t scrimp on shoes,” we were admonished. Scrimp on what, then? Sleeping bags? Not unless you want to freeze, says one teacher, regaling us with tales of midsummer snowstorms.

Fortunately, the instructors offered plenty of good advice on where to shop, from craigslist to traditional retailers.

The evening ended with a choice: a get-acquainted hike the next morning near Sprague, where our guide promised that the rattlesnakes would still be a bit slow from winter, or the wallet-biting aisles of a local retailer.

Easy choice. Lattés in one hand and credit cards in the other, my wife and I found affordable prices and expert advice from the salespeople at REI, including a fellow student who happens to work in the shoe department.

The final tab wasn’t bad, and it didn’t hurt that my son loaned me a quality backpack from his college days, lessening our financial load as we prepare to take the first steps on to the trail.

And to taking some of the same photos I saw in that album.

Next: Happy trails, I hope

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