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Ultimate Guide to Backpacking for Beginners

Backpacking Basics For Beginner Backpackers

Backpacking is an adventure that blends hiking with backcountry camping. It lets you broaden your horizons beyond the car campground to enjoy a richer, more immersive outdoor experience. A key distinction from day hiking is the size of your pack—your backpack (and you) must carry all of life’s essentials on your back. And you must choose those essentials with care.

What Is Backpacking?

Backpacking is an activity that combines hiking and backcountry camping. Basically, you put all of your camping and hiking gear in one bag and carry it on your back until you decide to camp. Backpacking allows you the time and ability to explore locations you can’t reach on a day hike.

Each year about 4,000 backpackers attempt thru-hikes on the nation’s big three footpaths: the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails. Each is a massive commitment, with gear bills in the thousands of dollars and up to six months away from work.

But backpacking doesn’t have to be a months-long, bank-account-draining undertaking. For many people, the real appeal of backpacking is the quiet remoteness it affords, a chance to step away from the rat race and experience some real solitude. With a little bit of planning and creative preparation, you can easily have the time of your life out there, even if this is your first overnight sojourn.

If you’re new to backpacking, you may have a lot of questions, like what to pack, what to eat, and — most excitingly — where to go. In the US, you have dozens of beginner backpacking trips at your fingertips. Whether you want to plan an epic hiking vacation to your favorite national park or you want to hit the trails closer to home, you’ll have options.

When planning your first backpacking trip, you can either, 1) choose a trip within your comfort zone and go with family, friends, or a partner or 2) join a guided trip so you can learn new skills, develop friendships, and take on a more difficult challenge. Some people try to fit too much into their first backcountry trip and end up ditching the pack for good after their adventure is over. Or, they don’t set their sights high enough and end up underwhelmed, wondering why anyone would willingly lug 30 pounds of gear into the backcountry.

There are many benefits associated with backpacking, both mental and physical. Spending time outdoors is an excellent way of reducing stress by taking in the fresh air and appreciating the landscape. Seeing other living things enjoying their freedom brings a certain amount of peace to you and you can finally forget the chaos that characterizes your week, just for a while.

So, you are planning your first backpacking trip or are about to introduce friends to their first backpacking experience. Congratulations! Backpacking for beginners is both an exciting and a daunting prospect. When asked the question, “what makes a person a hiker?” an experienced long distance backpacker I know answered, “you become a hiker when you plan and execute your own hike.” Her point is, that backpacking is not so much about the miles–or even where you go–as it is about taking responsibility for the journey.

New backpackers may not know where to start, so, we’ve compiled some tips to help make your first backpacking experience one you’ll never forget.

Backpacking Basics For Beginner Backpackers

We know that if you’re backpacking, you want to escape the crowds, take in stunning views, and put in some effort. So, we want to help you plan a trip that will make you fall in love with the sport so that every time you dust off your backpack, a smile spreads across your face. If you’re looking for inspiration for your first backpacking trip (or your second, third, or seventieth), we’ve compiled a list of beginner-friendly backpacking trips and trails across the United States that will immerse you in wild environments and challenge you just the right amount.

Choose an Easy Backpacking Destination

Choose an Easy Backpacking Destination

The key advice here is to err on the side of easy. If the hike is too hard, it can make for a miserable experience. If it’s too easy, then you simply have more time to explore the area around your camp.

Follow these tips when you decide where to go backpacking for the first time:

  • Consult with experienced backpackers: Hiking club members and REI store staff love to make trip recommendations. Hiking guidebooks are a valuable tool—you’ll find the best selection for a given area in local REI stores and other local outdoor retailers.
  • Pick a place close to home. You want to spend more time hiking than driving. You also want to have ample daylight hours to reach camp before dark.
  • Just a few miles roundtrip is fine: Plan on shorter distances than your typical day hike because walking with a heavier pack is slower and more difficult.
  • Aim for a few hundred feet of elevation gain: If you’ve hiked much, then you know that mileage alone doesn’t tell the full story. So also choose a trail with less elevation gain than your typical day hike.
  • Pick a well-traveled trail and well-established camp: It’s nice to have hikers and backcountry campers nearby who can give you a hand if you run into difficulties.
  • Make sure there’s water near camp: If your source will be a lake or large river, you should be fine. Streams and springs can dry up, though, so double check with local land managers before relying on a small water source.
  • Consider going without Junior or Fido on your first trip: Though they can both be great fun, their presence will complicate things a little. If and when you decide to have them join you, check out our articles on Backpacking with Dogs and Backpacking with Kids.
  • Seek summer weather: Unless your destination is one where extreme heat or fire danger can be an issue, go in mid-summer to maximize daylight hours and your odds of comfortable conditions. Always check weather forecasts and don’t hesitate to cancel or turn back if a storm moves in.
  • Consider “walk-in” campgrounds: Some state and national parks have campgrounds that are within a mile or so of a car campground. Staying in one of them is an excellent way to transition into backpacking.

Grab Full Beginner Backpacking Packing Checklist

Ideally, your pack should weigh between 20-35 pounds for an overnight excursion in mild temperatures (think lower-elevation mountains where you may need a jacket and hat at night). This includes pesky water which weighs a whopping 2.2 pounds per liter! Here are a few handy hacks to reduce your backpacking pack weight.

  • Wear the same clothes for multiple days. Backpacking is a stinky sport, embrace it and practice smart backpacking hygiene principles. You only truly need a change of clothes after three or four days (but be sure to pack a multiple pairs socks – to prevent blisters and to keep your feet feeling fresh at camp). Also, I always pack fresh undies, but otherwise, I don’t usually bring multiple pairs of clothing.
  • Share the load! Split tent weight, water filters, stove weight, and other shareable items with a friend! Some items in backpacking are easily shared, and this is a great way to save weight!
  • Phone smarts. Use an e-reader app on your phone instead of bringing a book. Also, keep your phone on airplane mode with location services turned off. This saves valuable battery life – allowing you to keep that bulky portable charger at home. Alternatively, get a smaller, lightweight portable charger.
  • Food: Bring dehydrated, lightweight foods like granola, dried fruit, instant noodles, and oatmeal.
  • Invest in down. It’s true, down jackets and sleeping bags are an expensive investment, but they are one of the best ways you can help reduce your pack weight! If you know you’re all in on the backpacking life, start looking for deals and invest in a good down sleeping bag and jacket! This is one of the first bigger investments I recommend my students to make in my backpacking course.

Finding A Mentor

Finding A Mentor

One of the best ways to get into backpacking is to find an experienced person who will mentor you and show you the ropes. But before you convince your neighbor who went backpacking a couple of times in their 20’s to head into the wilderness with you, it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind.

First, there are radically varying levels of skill when it comes to backpacking. It’s best to find someone who has formal training, such as through the National Outdoor Leadership School, Outward Bound, or from a backpacking guide company like Wildland Trekking. Learning the wrong way can easily get you into trouble, and — at the very least — can lead to some unenjoyable experiences.

Second, be sure the person who teaches you the art of backpacking understands Leave No Trace principles. The world’s remaining wild places are dwindling in size and simultaneously being heavily impacted by a burgeoning population with a growing interest in the outdoors. Those of us who venture into the wilderness must be educated about how to preserve it for future generations.

Finally, be sure you know this person well and trust them.

If you can find someone who fits these criteria, it’s worth reaching out to them and simply asking if you can join them on a trip. Many people love sharing their passions with others. Let them know you’re a beginner and be prepared to either rent gear or spend around $1000 or more on gear and clothing so you’re well-outfitted for the trip (more info on that below.)

Plan a Route

Now that you’ve picked the area where you want to go backpacking, begin planning a route. I would suggest sketching a couple options in case your plan A falls through. This can happen for any reason ranging from weather to permitting but in general, having a backup plan and gauging reasonable miles is important at all levels of backpacking.

When experienced backpackers reflect on their earliest backpacking trips and what made them fall in love with the outdoors, we tell stories about the beauty and the adversity of the experience. We talk about swimming in an alpine lake, weathering a crazy storm, or the quality of conversations.

As an experienced backpacker planning trips with beginners, overplanning mileage is one of my most common mistakes.If you are a beginner or backpacking with beginners I would suggest planning around 5-7 miles for a full day on trail. This allows time to get acquainted with new gear, not feel stressed by pressure to cover ground, and gain familiarity with the surroundings.

Plan Your Backpacking Food

Plan Your Backpacking Food

For an overnight backpacking trip, plan for dinner, breakfast and a couple of lunches. Freeze-dried backpacking food is your lightest and easiest option (just add boiling water) for entrees, but it’s also pricey. Save money by going to the grocery store instead. You won’t have a cooler, so perishable things like fresh eggs can’t be on the menu. Learn more by reading Meal Planning for Backpacking.

Avoid canned food (too heavy) and try to accurately project how much you’ll eat because an excessive amount food adds weight and bulk to your pack. You need some extra food, though—enough for an added day in the wilds. Here are some specific meal-planning tips for your first backpacking trip:

  • Dinner: Look for all-in-one meals such as packaged noodle or rice entrees. Boxed meals can be removed and placed in a plastic bag for easier packing.
  • Lunches and snacks: Bring high-calorie, high-protein energy bars and trail mix to munch on during the day because backpacking burns a lot of metabolic fuel. Keep thing simple by making lunch a trailside affair with ample snacks and a longer rest. Other backpacking lunch options include bagels, jerky, dried fruit and nuts.
  • Breakfast: This can range from a cooked entrée (pancakes anyone?) to hot oatmeal from a mix to two or three breakfast bars. You have to weigh the advantages of starting your day warmed up and fueled up versus hitting the trail earlier. If you can’t go without your caffeinated beverage, your simplest option is an instant coffee mix or tea bags.
  • Wildlife Precautions: On the trail follow common-sense measures like keeping a respectful distance away from animals and taking care not to come between large mammals and their young. At night, secure all food and scented personal products well away from camp. Often this is done by putting everything in a spare stuff sack and then using some nylon cord to hang it from a high a tree branch. You can also use a bear canister to secure things, even if the main concern is rodents stealing your food. To learn more read Food Handling and Storage for Backpackers and Campers.

Mistakes To Avoid Your First Time Backpacking

  • Planning your daily mileage without considering elevation gain
  • trying to tackle too many miles
  • packing way too much gear
  • not understanding basic backpacking navigational skills
  • forgetting to protect your snack stash
  • sleeping with smelly products
  • testing gear for the first time on the trail
  • skimping out on a few creature comforts
  • ignoring important foot care on the trail
  • forgetting to write a safety trip plan
  • bringing too much (or too little) food
  • packing too many sweet foods and candy bars
  • forgetting your emergency safety supplies
  • disregarding leave no trace principles
  • trying to learn everything on your own

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