So you’ve decided that you want to go on your first backpacking trip? The to do list might seem daunting; prepare your body, buy gear, plan meals and logistics, packing, hazards, etc. The list feels like it could go on and on and you just aren’t sure where to begin. The good news is that you can do it!
Yes, there is planning involved, but with the proper preparations you will have a great first experience. We’re here to help you with those details by sharing everything you need to know to get started on your first backpacking trip.
Planning for a backpacking trip might just be the most difficult part of the whole experience, mentally anyway (unless you get lost or attacked by a bear, of course!).
Almost all of your experience will come down to how well you planned, as well as your flexibility and attitude towards everything. A few things to consider when you first decide that you are going to take a backpacking trip are your fitness, your destination, and the length of your trip.
It might be difficult to take on a 5 day backpacking trip when you haven’t exercised in years. You might be able to pull it off, but it also might end in a rolled ankle. There are a few different ways to get fit to prepare you for a backpacking trip.
- Stretch. This one is a big one. Stretch every single day. Stretching will give you an advantage after a long hike. Your muscles will recover quicker, you will reduce the risk of injury, and will increase strength and stability.
- Interval training. Interval training will help improve your cardio. It also mimics hiking in how you alternate between high intensity and low intensity movements. Running up and down stairs and jumping rope are great tools for cardio because they also increase ankle stability.
- Circuit training. Circuit training is another cardio booster. It goes from one task to the next without a break. This type of exercise can also target all of the major hiking muscles.
- Balance. Improve balance, endurance, muscle strength and stability by doing a variety of balance exercises ranging from using a step to yoga.
Picking your Route
The first step to picking a route is picking a destination. Choose a place that inspires you, that fits within your budget and time, and is a match for your skill set. Some things to consider when picking your route are:
- Time of year. The time of year and location will dictate how much clothing and gear you will need to bring. Some locations are ideal at certain times of the year, so take that into consideration when planning your trip.
- Maps and regulations. Obtain maps and guidebooks to where you want to backpack. Look up the regulations in that area relating to campfires, bear spray, permits, and so on. You can choose whether you want a clearly marked looped path or will need a shuttle once you arrive where you are going. Research the trails on the maps to choose the best fit.
- Distance and Trail Type. How many miles do you want to clear in a day? What is the terrain like? Knowing how far you want to go each day, how much time you have, any obstacles you might face are going to be the guide for what you need to bring.
Here is a map that shows the most popular backpacking routes around the world:
Length of Trip
Plan to hike around 3 to 10 miles a day, depending on your current physical health, the terrain, and the weather. Give yourself some flexibility to stop sooner on the first few days so that your body can rest and adjust to the physical exertion.
You might even be a little sore around Day 3 and 4. Anything beyond 10 miles a day would be extremely high energy and you might be better off training for a marathon if you want to push past 10 miles a day.
What should I wear?
What you wear depends a lot on where you are hiking; the temperature, terrain, seasons, etc. Backpacking through the desert in the summer will be a different experience than backpacking through the Olympic National Forest in the winter. Some basic things will always stay the same, though.
Always wear layers that are moisture wicking (i.e. not cotton unless you are in a dry, arid climate). You want to stay dry and warm. You want the versatility of being able to pull off an outer layer to cool off, or add an outer layer to warm up and stay dry in case of rain. Look at the weather in the area you will be.
Look at the worst possible weather scenario and then bring what you need that would protect you in that scenario. Even if it is warm and sunny, a lighter long sleeved shirt will keep you cooler while protecting you from the sun’s rays. Here is a great list of 13 clothing essentials for hiking in different conditions.
- Next to skin base layer. This layer is for cool or colder weather and is the layer next to your skin.
- Hiking layers. T-shirts, Nylon pants, sun shirt, or sun hat.
- Insulation. Lightweight fleece pullover.
- Rain gear. It’s always a good idea to bring some form of a rain gear. At the minimum, a waterproof jacket. Raingear is also a great mosquito bite preventative.
- Sleepwear. Bring some light, clean clothing specifically and only for sleeping in.
Hiking shoes are one of the most important choices as far as clothing goes. They can make or break a trip. When looking for boots you want to choose ones that are comfortable, not too loose, and not too tight. Your toes need room to wiggle.
Quality and durable boots will help support your feet and ankles and prevent injury. Try on boots at the end of the day when your feet are swollen. Wear the socks that you plan to wear on the hike.
You want socks that wick moisture to prevent blisters, and that provide cushioning to make your hike more enjoyable. It’s a good idea to break in your hiking boots also. Take them out on long test hikes and make sure that they are comfortable.
Most Popular Hiking Boots for Men:
Timberland White Ledge Men's Waterproof Boot
Most Popular Hiking Boots for Women:
KEEN Women's Targhee II Mid WP Hiking Boot
There is a lot of gear that could go into a backpacking trip. A great way to split up some of the weight, especially when you are just starting out, is to go with a group, as well as a more experienced backpacker. They, most likely, will have more high quality communal gear to bring. Another great reason to travel with a group is:
If you go camping with a group, you can split up the gear to disperse the weight more evenly. You can coordinate ahead of time and see what everyone has. It will be less weight to bring 1 3-person tent than it would be to bring 3 1-person tents.
You will want your pack to be as light as possible because you will have a plethora of supplies that are going to weigh a bit and every little bit helps to reduce the pack weight.
This can come in the form of bringing freeze-dried meals rather than ingredients for a gourmet meal, or splurging on a more expensive, but light, higher-quality sleeping bag.
The 10 Essentials:
The 10 Essentials list was created by a Seattle-based organization for outdoor adventurers and climbers in the 1930s, called The Mountaineers. They updated the list to a “systems” list in 2003.
Here are the 10 essentials that you need to bring on your backpacking trip. You might not use all of them, but you will be glad you have them if the need arises.
Navigation (map and compass)
Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
Insulation (extra clothing)
Illumination (headlamp/flashlight-check out the best EDC flashlight here)
Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
Repair kit and tools
Nutrition (extra food)
Hydration (extra water)
When choosing a backpack, you want one that fits comfortably. You can get measured at most outdoor adventure stores. Your backpack should hold 45-60+ liters. Fill it up with a lot of gear until it weighs about 30 pounds and then take it out on a long test hike. If it feels good, then it should work for a multi-day backpacking trip.
Backpacking tents weigh a lot less than car camping tents. They make them lighter and more compact using super light materials and poles, which can add to the cost. Some things to take into consideration when choosing a tent are capacity, weight, seasonality, and livability.
Ultralight Pyramid Backpacking Tent
Stove and Water Treatment.
Bring a compact stove that can boil water quickly. An integrated canister system is a great option if you are backpacking with a group. You can boil water and then add it to a freeze-dried meal. Some backpackers also bring water for their entire trip. This adds a lot of weight. If you know you will have access to some outdoor water sources, bring some form of water treatment system to lighten your load.
Ultralight Portable Outdoor Backpacking
Sleeping bag and sleeping pad.
When choosing a sleeping bag and pad, take into consideration the climate and terrain of where you will be sleeping. Know the pros and cons between synthetic vs down fill in the sleeping bag. You will want both to be meant for backpacking, lightweight, and compressible. You will want to look at the insulation and cushioning for the sleeping pad, as it can be the difference between a good and bad night’s sleep.
Sea to Summit Ultralight Mat
Your stove will be a great piece of gear for cooking. If you are using an integrated canister system, the pot is already built in (like the below picture shows). You can create a camping kitchen kit to bring along on a backpacking trip.
If you don’t use an integrated canister system, you will need a pot or kettle to boil water in, a mug, a spoon, a bowl, a long handled stirring spoon, a spatula (for making pancakes), salt and pepper in little bags, a paring knife, and any other necessities needed to make the food that you brought.
It might also be worth considering bring a small collapsible sink, sponge, and soap for washing your dishes. Make sure the soap is biodegradable and that you wash the dishes far away from camp and your water sources.
For the lightest meals, bring freeze-dried meals. All you have to do is add boiling water, wait, and then eat. You can pack high-energy, high-protein bars and snacks to eat while on the trail. Freeze-dried meals are usually on the more expensive side for the amount of food you get. You can use a dehydrator at home and make your own dehydrated meals.
Here are a few ideas for lightweight backpacking food.
Bring foods that are high calories, complex sugars for some of them, some protein, and eat all day. It’s much better to graze all day than to eat just a few bigger meals when you are backpacking. Consider your body a fire. If the logs run out, the fire dies.
I’ve often heard the excuse of “I can’t afford to go backpacking” from acquaintances when asked if they enjoyed backpacking. It can be one of the most affordable vacations that you take!
There are tons of other ways to camp on a budget:
Hydration is essential if you want to survive. Minus the obvious of not drinking water (death), if you don’t stay properly hydrated you will feel sluggish, could get headaches, will feel colder at night, and won’t have a good backpacking trip. It’s best to drink often, at least every 10-20 minutes.
Dehydration is sneaky and you don’t want to be blindsided by it. So drink up, and often. If you don’t carry all of your water for each day, make sure that you are familiar with water treatment options and that you have all the supplies that you need to effectively and safely treat water sources.
The Lifestraw water bottle with filter is a great way to purify your water.
LifeStraw Go Water Bottle with Integrated 1,000 Liter LifeStraw Filter
On the Trail
There are a few things to consider when you are out on the trail. (http://www.backpacking.net/ethics.html) Here is a great list of some ethics and best practices when backpacking.
- Posture. Ensure that you know how to pack a backpacking backpack properly. Once your pack is loaded and on, you should lean forward only slightly. You should try to maintain how you normally walk with your head up, shoulders back, arms loose and swinging at your sides to reduce muscle strain.
- Learn your hiking pace. If you are backpacking with more than just yourself, you’ll have to take everyone’s hiking pace into consideration. Your group should only go as fast as the slowest person. If you rush yourself, injuries can happen because you are moving at a rate that is faster than your natural, comfortable pace.
- Navigation; stay found.
- Know how to use maps and navigation tools. It’s very easy to get distracted and take an improper fork in a trail and soon realize that you are no longer on any trail. Knowing how to read a map, and even better, know how to use a compass and it will increase your chances of re-orienting yourself and finding the trail again. It’s best to be prepared for this scenario as opposed to just hoping or knowing that you won’t step off the trail.
- Keep track of each other. It’s a great rule of thumb to never lose sight of the person in front of, or behind you. Always keeping your sights on these people will greatly reduce the chances of becoming lost and separated. It also prevents an injured person from being unknowingly left behind.
- Be familiar with terrain and stay on the trail. It’s a good idea to frequently assess where you are on the trail by using a compass and map of the terrain. It’s common to come upon a fork in the trail and take a wrong turn. Stay alert and aware of your surroundings and keep your bearings and wits about you.
- If you get lost, don’t panic. Panicking doesn’t help anything. If you get lost, stop and try and get your bearings using your map and compass. Blow your emergency whistle to signal distress if you have one. If you don’t have one, make a lot of noise. You can try and move to the highest point so that you can see where you are and hopefully get back to the trail. Continue making a lot of noise until you are found again.
SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger
A great GPS with many features like, a one push button that sends S.O.S. to local response team. Also gives you the ability to communicate via sms or email when cell signal is not available.
There are a lot of hazards and obstacles to consider when you are going on a backpacking trip. There are many variables that we have no control over; the weather and animals are two of them.
The most important thing to consider to avoid certain hazards is common sense. Common sense can also be subbed for intuition. Listen to that gut feeling when backpacking. When in doubt, turn back. Pushing forward into a questionable situation isn’t daring, it’s stupid and could cost you and your backpacking buddies their lives.
Listen to your body; undress before you overheat, dress before you get chills, eat regularly, drink often. You can prevent a lot of injuries by following this basic principle of listening to your gut and your body. There are some hazards out there that you can’t prevent, but can be aware of and prepared for.
There are a few wilderness threats out there that need to be taken into consideration. Some of them include heat, bugs, your ego, or an avalanche. Some others include:
- Gravity. Falls are the leading cause of death for outdoor enthusiasts. The majority of them are hikers, not climbers. When you are hiking near a drop, always ask yourself whether you feel comfortable where you are, what the consequences would be if you fell from that height. Stay in your comfort zone and be aware of your surroundings. Never climb something that you can’t easily get back down.
- Water. Water-related deaths are the second major killer in the wilderness. Be aware of where you are, the weather, and so on. Flash floods happen in a flash (hence the name!), and you don’t want to be found in its grasp. Don’t go into fast moving water that is above your knee. Avoid walking across frozen lakes and rivers unless it is very clear the ice is 4 inches deep and continuous everywhere.
- Animals. Be familiar with the predators that are living in your backpacking destination. Know how to fight them off or get away from them as safely and quickly as possible. Never approach predators because it might be the last thing that you do. If you are in bear country make sure to carry bear spray.
- Cold. Listen to your body. Hypothermia kills almost as much as falls do. If you are shivering or feeling uncoordinated, find shelter and get warm and dry. Hypothermia deaths can happen in temperatures as high as 50 degrees. And wet clothes increase those odds. Prepare and pack for the coldest possible temps that you could encounter. Check out this guide on winter camping and backpacking for more great tips.
- Heart attack. Heart attacks are a real possibility, especially for those over 40, when in the backcountry. Higher altitude, rigorous physical activity, and reduced oxygen are not favorable for someone that already has an existing medical condition.
Falling thru thin ice is also very common, below is a infographic that shows how to survive a fall thru ice.
A first aid kit is one of the 10 essentials to bring on your trip. You can buy a premade kit or build your own. Whenever you have acquired and assembled your kit, you need to make it waterproof.
Some other items that are helpful and frequently used in a kit are sunscreen, lip balm, multi-use tool, small roll of duct tape, and insect repellent. Here is an inclusive list of items to add to your kit.
Here is a lightweight and waterproof basic first aid kit.
So there you have it, everything you need to know to get started on your first backpacking trip. It may seem daunting, but with some planning and common sense, you can have a great time.
The best advice is to just do it! Get out there and enjoy the Backcountry. Was this list helpful? Let us know in the comments. If you enjoyed it, please share with your family, friends, and hiking buddies.