Backpacking for Beginners – Everything You Need to Know
So you’re ready to take your hiking and car-side camping skills to the next level? You’ve been dreaming of days spent on the trails and nights spent under the stars, but how do you make those dreams into reality? Planning a camping trip – especially your first one – can seem like a daunting task, but these days there are tons of resources out there to help you out.
Where to begin
The first thing you want to do is pick a location and plan a route. Are you going to do a loop trail? Hike out and back? Or go from point A to point B? If you’re doing the last one, you’ll need to shuttle cars and plan time for that in your first day’s hike.
Since it’s your first time backpacking, it’s a good idea to do a shorter (1-2 night) trip. It would also be beneficial to recruit your more experienced backpacking friends to go with you. They can help with planning and can provide the communal gear, like a tent, stove, and water treatment system.
When planning your route, you need to consider how far you’ll be able to go in a day. Take your level of fitness, the type of terrain, elevation changes, and weather into consideration. It’s probably best to give yourself some leeway here. You don’t want to push yourself too much. Be sure to take time to relax and enjoy the experience. We have an article about how to improve your hiking fitness you might want to look at.
During this stage you should see if there are any special rules for the trail you’ll be using. Also look for blogs or online forums about the area. You might be able to pick up some good tips from fellow backpackers.
Skills you’ll need
Now that you’ve planned your route, it’s time to research those skills you’ll need to get through your trip. Here are a few things you should know how to do before you set out:
Navigation – Even if you’ll be sticking to a well-established trail, you should know how to use a map and compass. Be sure to bring a water-proof trail map.
Fire starting – Unless it’s prohibited in the area you’re going, you’ll want to make sure you know how to start a camp fire. Look up a guide to starting a fire, and try it at home. Have a back-up plan for if it rains, and your tinder and kindling are wet.
Stove set-up – Whichever type of stove you decide to bring, make sure you know how to use it. Also, don’t use it in the tent – even if it’s raining. You can use it in the vestibule of the tent, but make sure it’s well ventilated.
Water treatment – You’ll want to know at least two methods. There are lots of options out there. You can always boil water, but you want to have at least one other method at your disposal. There are pump filters, tablets, ultraviolet light purifiers, and other options, so find out what’s going to work best for you.
Essential backpacking gear
Planning your packing list is the next step to preparing for your backpacking trip. Since you’re a beginner, you’ll probably need to do a lot of shopping. If you have friends or family who backpack, reach out to them to see if they have any gear you can borrow or buy.
Footwear – This is probably the most important piece of gear you’ll buy. You can go the traditional hiking boot route or opt for a pair of trail running shoes. Boots offer more stability on rocky terrain, but trail running shoes give your feet more ventilation. Whichever you choose, be sure to break them in well before you set out.
Backpack – There are lots of different styles out there. You’ll probably want to get the lightest pack that will hold your stuff and be comfortable on your shoulders and hips. It might be a good idea to go to a shop and get fitted for a pack.
Clothing – Stay away from cotton. It takes a long time to dry, and you’ll be uncomfortable for most of the day if you get wet. Stick to quick-drying materials, and plan to wear layers. It’s always a good idea to bring a light rain jacket, no matter the forecast.
Sleeping bag – Be sure to look up the average night temperatures for where you’re going and plan accordingly. Your bag should be as lightweight and compressible as possible whilst still being rated for the temperature you expect to encounter.
Waterproof stuff sacks – It’s always nice to have a few of these. At the very least bring one for your food and one for your sleeping bag.
Tent or shelter – Where you’re going will be the deciding factor on how substantial you need your tent or shelter to be. If you’re going as a group there are some great ‘easy pitch’ tents for families available. If trekking up big hills is your thing then keeping the weight of your backpack low will be more important, so check out our guide to lightweight backpacking tents.
Food – Dehydrated or freeze-dried food is a good option if you want to keep your pack light. Bring high-protein, high-calorie snacks like trail mix or power bars to eat during the day. Always be aware of the packaging. There aren’t trash cans on the trail, so you’ll have to keep empty packages in your bag.
Group gear – If you’re going out with more experienced backpackers, it’s likely that they will have most of the group gear. You’ll need a tent, stove, kitchen supplies, and water treatment system.
5 Beginner Backpacking Mistakes
- Overworking your feet. Having the right footwear and breaking them in helps. If you feel a blister starting, you should stop as soon as possible and treat it.
- Packing too much or too little. Yea, you don’t want to go too far to either side. If you’re buying new gear, make sure to get the lightest option possible. There are some great packing lists out there that will let you know what you absolutely have to bring.
- Not testing your gear. Be sure to try out gear like your tent and stove. You don’t want to get on the trail and realize you don’t actually know how your water treatment system works.
- Not preparing for the weather. It’s OK to postpone your trip if it’s going to rain. Even if the forecast says it’s going to be nice, know that weather is unpredictable and can change quickly in the backcountry.
- Leaving a trace. Be sure you’re familiar with the philosophy and rules of Leave No Trace. You’ll need to think about things like what you’re going to do with your toilet paper and leftover food.
There’s a lot you need to think about before you head out on your first backpacking trip, but once you’re soaking your feet in the river by your campsite, it’ll all be worth it. Be sure to utilize all the great resources that are on the internet. Once you get more experience, the planning part will become much easier.