Getting Started with DC UL Backpacking
Have a question about our group? Here are answers to the most commonly asked questions about DC UL. If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to an Assistant Organizer.
- Do I have the right gear for backpacking?
- What about this UL stuff?
- What is the group’s hiking pace and general rules of staying together on the trail?
- Do you plan day hikes or other trips to get ready for backpacking trips?
- What is the deal with the trip rankings and member ratings?
- Why do you ask for a gear list?
- Are there membership dues?
- How does the group usually rendezvous, carpool, and park cars?
- What is your policy about bringing dogs on trips?
- What’s your no show / cancellation policy?
- Should I let friends and family know where I am going on a backpacking trip?
- Is it okay to bring alcohol?
- What if I get hurt? Is there a liability waiver?
- Does the group adhere to Leave No Trace backpacking norms?
- What if I see or experience something that needs to be reported?
- How do I improve my skills further?
Do I have the right gear for backpacking?
There is no easy answer to this question, as there are a multitude of options for a safe and comfortable backpacking trip. Since we hike miles both into and out of our camp area, “car camping” gear and anything too heavy to fit comfortably in a backpack and be carried over many miles is not suitable. Some of our hikes involve 15-20 mile days, so appropriate selection of gear becomes even more important. The rule of the group is that you have everything you need for the weekend, including food and water (and/or the ability to treat water). The exception to this rule is to ask and receive an answer to a gear question, such as “may I share a tent/stove/pot/water filter/etc.?” In general you will need shelter (tent/tarp/bivy), a suitable backpack, appropriate sleeping bag or quilt based on temperature and field conditions, sleeping pad or underquilt (hammockers), non-cotton hiking clothing and shoes, water purification device (filter, tables, or UV), stove and cooking pot/mug, and other smaller items. We do not arrange group meals but welcome any pre-trip food coordination on an ad hoc basis. There are differing opinions on the relative weight of your gear, but there is a general movement in the group to go lighter. If you are missing a piece of gear, mention it to your trip organizer, ask about it in the trip discussion area, and/or post a ‘NTB’ (need to borrow) in the Gear Market forum. There are many DC UL members with way too many items in their gear closet that may be willing to lend an item or two out for the weekend. As always, please feel free to post questions in the DC UL Backpacking Message Board, consult trip organizers, group members, posted gear lists, and other UL related websites like BackpackingLight.com for ideas and thoughts on going UL.
What about this UL stuff?
The UL gearing aspect of this meetup can be a little intimidating, even for experienced backpackers. The short answer is that you shouldn’t be deterred from joining DCUL just because your gear is heavy. Many of our members are very serious about going light, but we also have longstanding members who are not ultralight. Others are in various phases of transitioning, trying out one piece of gear against another.
The concept of being ultralight, however, is not that you are leaving gear out but that you are choosing what gear you need for the conditions you will face on your trip–whether it is a hot day along the Pennsylvania ridges or temps below freezing in the Adirondacks. You pack what you need for a safe and enjoyable experience.
What is the group’s hiking pace and general rules of staying together on the trail?
The group takes different speeds and paces based on the particular weekend trip, but on some of the more strenuous outings the pace can average up to 3 mph or more. A good rule of thumb is a base level 2 mph. The group tends to stay together within a fifteen minute window on the trail, but all members should be familiar with the trail (review the map posted by your trip organizer!!) and the targeted campsite for the evening just in case he/she gets separated. In case of injury or other reason to leave the group early for the weekend, it is imperative that you tell another backpacker and make appropriate alternative plans. Backpackers should plan on doing their utmost to stay with the group unless alternative arrangements are made in advance with the hike’s organizer. Backpackers should read the meetup outing’s description carefully, as different norms will be in effect. Some longer, linear hikes will necessitate that anyone not able to catch up with the group be able to take care him/herself and meet the group at the end of the hike at the appropriate time.
Do you plan day hikes or other trips to get ready for backpacking trips?
No. With rare exceptions, DC UL Backpacking focuses primarily on overnight trips and generally avoids campgrounds, cabins, and non-primitive sites. While the mileage will vary for our differently rated backpacking trips, we will most likely be spending the night in the backcountry or in a primitive campsite (fire ring and possibly stones or logs to sit on). DC UL uses a system of trip ratings and member ranks to facilitate ensuring no one is getting in over their head on a trip, helping to keep everyone safer and the trips running smoothly and successfully. If you are unsure of your backpacking stamina we recommend sticking with the low mileage (LM) hikes or some of the shorter ‘members only’ (MO) hikes until you feel more confident with your abilities. We would also suggest hiking with other groups or on your own to develop confidence and/or backpack with other area groups who do slightly less mileage before coming on one of our longer trips. However, always feel free to talk things over with one of the organizers – you just might be surprised at what kind of a trip you can successfully finish!
What is the deal with the trip rankings and member ratings?
DC UL has a series of trip and member ranks that serve as a system for allowing advanced backpackers to get out on the trips they want to do and providing a path for new people to build up skills and progress to doing longer and bigger trips. They’re there for everyone’s safety, and also to prevent there being problems on trips that can spoil everyone’s enjoyment.
Why do you ask for a gear list?
We ask for gear lists from applicants on their first trip and, for certain trips, for members new to winter backpacking. To help your trip be a successful one, we review the list to make sure you have gear appropriate for the trip and for the conditions that you’ll encounter. We’ll make suggestions on additional things to bring or items that you may not need. The goal of this process to ensure your safety and the safety of the group.
Are there membership dues?
Yes. Once you reach Member status in DC UL, there is a $10 annual dues payment that you are required to submit when participating in your next DC UL event. Applicants do not have to pay dues. Dues are used to cover operational fees, such as our Meetup subscription and other online fees, and to support fees and logistics for our annual events, such as Geargasm and the Four State Challenge. Keeping current with your dues enables you to benefit from our gear discounts from our sponsors, which are available only to members in good standing. To pay your dues via PayPal, you can click here. If you need to pay your dues via an alternate way (check, Venmo, etc.), email organizer[at]dculbackpacking.com.
How does the group usually rendezvous, carpool, and park cars?
For most hikes, the group assembles at a Metro station, allowing those without cars to get themselves to the rendezvous point. There is no fee to exit Metro parking lots on weekends. If the group is assembling outside of normal Metro hours and you do not have a ride to the rendezvous point, please let the group and organizer know. The hike organizer generally queries the group about who is willing to drive from the rendezvous point to the trailhead and will assist with making some arrangements in advance. Passengers are responsible for compensating their driver for gas and being responsible passengers. Our carpool policy is to reimburse drivers $0.10 per mile driven to and from the trailhead. If there is rain called for or the trail is anticipated to be muddy, bringing towels and an extra change of clothes and shoes is warranted.
What is your policy about bringing dogs on trips?
We recognize that people enjoy their dogs and want to hike with them. Many of our trip leaders are dog owners too. We do, however, have a few rules that need to be followed.
- For the health and safety of our members, your dog must have up-to-date records for all required vaccinations.
- Your dog is a hiker like any other, and needs to work its way up through our system, doing a “low mileage” trip first.
- When bringing a dog on a DC UL trip, you need to ask the leader’s permission, and you need to ask the other members of the group if they’re cool with the dog, as well. You should do this by posting in the discussion area for the trip when you RSVP.
- You need to be able to control the dog at all times, and comply with any rules applicable in the forest or park we’re visiting. If the dog is not trained to your voice commands, it needs to be leashed.
- Dogs are not allowed on warm weather trips. They don’t have any business trying to walk a 20-mile day in August.
- If you’re bringing your dog, you should anticipate driving your car to the trail head. Otherwise, it is good form to bring a sheet or other means of keeping another driver’s car clean.
Ultimately, you are responsible for your pet and cannot expect the trip leader to know how your dog will respond to different trail conditions (rain, snow, extreme cold, rough terrain that will wear on a dog’s pads, etc.). If any of these conditions are anticipated, your trip leader may ask you beforehand to confirm that your dog is able to handle them before agreeing to allow your dog on the trip.
What’s your no show / cancellation policy?
Our trips, especially our Low Mileage (LM) ones, tend to be very popular and often have long waiting lists. If you don’t show up or cancel with insufficient notice, you deny another person the chance to attend—and that’s just not cool. But we also know that sometimes things come up at the last minute and cancellations are unavoidable. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you RSVP to a trip.
- Don’t RSVP if you are a maybe or want to hold a spot. RSVP yes when you know your weekend is clear and that you are prepared to attend.
- If your schedule changes, update your RSVP as soon as possible. That gives us time to reach out to others on the wait list and give them the opportunity to attend.
Overall, we ask that you be considerate of your fellow backpackers. Keep your RSVPs current. Update the organizer if something unavoidable has happened and you need to cancel at the last minute. Above all, we want the opportunity to share our love of the outdoors with others and to get as many of you on our trips as we can.
Should I let friends and family know where I am going on a backpacking trip?
Yes! Your family and friends can access trip details via the Meetup event page. Please let family and friends know where you are going and when you should return every time you hit the trail. It’s easy to paste and send the event URL to family or friends before the outing.
Is it okay to bring alcohol?
You may bring alcohol for personal consumption or sharing around the fire at night. Flasks tend to be the most popular choices, as beer and any heavier container doesn’t make sense on a multi-mile trek. If you do choose to bring alcohol, please drink responsibility.
What if I get hurt? Is there a liability waiver?
The group typically brings light first aid items and will do their best to help in any injury or emergency situation. If you have a pre-existing condition, please let the hike organizer know in advance of the trip. There is a waiver for the group which applies to all members and is posted as a reminder on our event pages.
Does the group adhere to Leave No Trace backpacking norms?
Yes. We do not practice bushcraft, survival skills, or engage in extensive bushwhacking. We stay on the trails and attempt to camp in already established primitive sites.
What if I see or experience something that needs to be reported?
If you see or experience anything on the trails or with other backpackers that makes you uncomfortable or otherwise needs to be reported, do not hesitate to talk privately with any of the organizers. Membership in this Meetup is not a guaranteed privilege: members who do not behave and comport themselves appropriately will be removed.
How do I improve my skills further?
The DC UL Veteran member level is just one level of outdoor skills. Outdoor skills are like everything else in that one can always learn more. Here are some resources for progressing further:
- Map Reading: “Orienteering” is the term to search. This skill helps out West and with occasional less well-marked trails back East. DC UL occasionally offers a map and compass skills class, but you can also practice locally at either Little Bennett Regional Park in Maryland or Prince William Forest near Quantico, Va. The course at Little Bennett is small but amusing for a day. Prince William has a number of permanent courses ranging from easy to multi-hour off trail. Quantico Orienteering Club is the local Orienteering club.
- First Aid: Any basic first aid will help. Wilderness-focused courses are particularly useful, as they will often break it down into stabilization and evacuation. NOLS “Wilderness First Aid” (WFA) is the standard two-day course that can be completed in a weekend. DC UL regularly posts WFA classes, when available, that are operated by MEDIC, based in Charlottesville, Va. For those looking to make a longer term investment, the “Wilderness First Responder” (WFR) is the standard for professional guides or remote trips.
- Rock Climbing: Other than Old Rag, most Mid-Atlantic trails do not involve extensive rock scrambling. However, for some trails in the Adirondacks, White Mountains or out west, having some rock climbing experience opens up additional terrain. The Washington, D.C. area has a number of rock climbing gyms, all of which offer “Introduction to Climbing” classes that teach the basics of tying in and belaying. Earthtreks and Sportrock are the local gyms. There are Meetup groups for people to climb with at each of the local gyms, but you should learn how to belay and tie in by the professional instruction at the local climbing gyms prior to joining any group. And, like any skill, expect to spend a non-trivial amount of time to get good at it.
- Knots: The Truckers Hitch and the Clove Hitch are often useful in camping. The bowline is sometimes useful too. If you get into rock climbing or mountaineering, expect to learn even more knots. YouTube and other online resources offer helpful step-by-step instructions on how to tie these knots.
- Physical Training: At the Veterans Member level, most of the club does some amount of cardio exercise during the week to stay in shape. There are plenty of options for getting in this via your favorite cardio activity. Getting out and hiking is also key–D.C. is home to a number of day hiking clubs that provide opportunities for you to get out. The important thing to do is find something that you enjoy and go do it.