Spring will come. Eventually. Right? This round-after-round fight with the Polar Vortex can’t go on forever. So, while we patiently wait for warmer weather to arrive in St. Louis, it’s time to start thinking about getting back outside.

When I think outside, I think backpacking. I love to hike, I love to camp, and backpacking is hiking and camping all rolled into one. Yes, I know there are preconceived notions that come along with the word backpacking: heavy packs, long miles, rocky campsites. Bruises. Blisters. Bears (oh my!). All the good stuff.

In reality, if well-planned and well-prepared, a backpacking trip can be an incredible adventure, even for the greenest of beginners. Believe it or not, Missouri has a wide variety of options when it comes to backpacking, ranging from easy overnighters to multi-day treks along the Ozark Trail. Here are a few “entry-level” options for beginners interested in exploring Missouri’s backpacking destinations:

Johnson’s Shut-Ins “Walk-in” Sites – Just a two-hour drive from St. Louis, Johnson’s Shut-Ins is one of the most popular state parks in Missouri, primarily due to the incredible swimming holes that are thronged during the summer months. Take advantage of the early season and go before the weather gets hot (and the crowds get HUGE). The walk-in sites here are ideal for first-time backpackers, just a short hike from the parking area at the campground. You’ll have your own secluded campsite, far away from the trailers and RVs, yet close enough to make a run to the camp store should you realize you’ve forgotten anything on your packing list. Bring straps/cords to secure your tent, as these sites have wooden tent platforms installed.

Meramec State Park Wilderness Trail Backpack Camp Sites – Closer to St. Louis (just east of Sullivan, down I-44), this 8.25-mile loop through Meramec State Park offers another option for the backpacking beginner. An easy trail meanders through the forest above the Meramec River; there are 10 campsites at varying distances along the path. You’ll want to bring an ample supply of water, as seasonal sources may be limited in summer. Check in at the registration board at the trailhead; sites are first-come, first-serve. Keep an eye out for black bears!

Bell Mountain Wilderness Trail – For a more challenging overnighter, try taking on the Bell Mountain Wilderness Trail. One of the more popular backpacking destinations in the state, this 11.6-mile loop through the St. Francois Mountains offers spectacular views from atop Bell Mountain (1,702 feet), along with varied terrain and rigorous sections climbing into and out of the Joe’s Creek watershed. (Tip: Hike the trail in a clockwise direction and be sure to fill up on water at Joe’s Creek; there isn’t any water at the top!) Campsites are situated along the summit of Bell Mountain, providing awesome views of sunset and sunrise. Best thing: they’re FREE! Be sure to register at the trailhead; sites are first-come, first-serve.

For the more adventurous who want to take on a multi-day trip, the To Taum Sauk section of the Ozark Trail is Missouri backpacking at its finest. This 16-mile system covers some of the best terrain Missouri has to offer, including access to Russel Mountain and the summit of Taum Sauk, Missouri’s highest point (1,772 feet). The trailhead is on the west side of State Route 21, 6 miles south of Ironton. The out-and-back section passes Russel Mountain before connecting to a loop near Taum Sauk. At the fork, take the left/south arm to visit Mina Sauk Falls before summiting, or stay to the right/north to take on the climb first. Campsites at Taum Sauk are first-come, first serve.

Now that you have a few destinations to consider, let’s circle back to the “well-planned and well-prepared” element.

Backpacking isn’t an “on the fly” activity and requires careful planning: when to go, what the weather could be like, how much water you will need, what you will eat, where will you sleep. Once you have selected your route, do the research and suss out the details. The more planning you do ahead of the trip, the better prepared you’ll be when on the trail. Be sure to share your plan/itinerary with a friend or loved one. That way, someone knows where you are should anything come up.

Speaking of being prepared….

Backpacking is an exercise in subsistence. You’ll be carrying everything you need to survive with you, so there are several things to pack: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, clothes, food, cookware/stove, water and water treatment. Did I mention you’ll need a good backpack?

Managing the weight of your pack is essential, as the lighter your pack, the easier and more enjoyable your trip will be. When just getting started, don’t go out and buy hundreds of dollars in ultralight gear; borrow the essentials from a friend, try it out and see if you like it. If you do, you can piece your kit together over time. One place you should splurge: footwear. You’ll need quality footwear for the terrain, and this is not the place to skimp. If your feet are miserable, you will be miserable, so investing in well-fitted footwear is essential to enjoying the experience.

There are several online resources that can help you with the nitty-gritty of planning and preparation when it comes to food, water filtration, packing tips and so forth. REI has a great series of articles in their “Expert Advice” section. 

And look! It’s happening! The weather is finally changing, slowly but surely. The sun is coming out, temperatures are climbing into the 60s — perfect backpacking weather. Now that you’ve got some ideas and a place to start, pick a route, gather your gear, plan your trip, and I’ll see you outside!

Author: Nick Tilley is a contributor to Terrain Magazine
Images: Courtesy of Missouri State Parks