10 Steps for Starting Backpacking | Backpacking for Beginners
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
I'm often asked how I started backpacking or what tips I have for people that are thinking about getting started themselves. I'll give you my first tip now: start as soon as you can! The biggest thing I wish I had done differently was to start years before I did.
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If you're not sure whether backpacking is the right hobby for you, check out my Instagram post where I go over some questions you should ask yourself and I point out some reasons why it just might be your new favorite activity.
If you've decided that you'd like to try out backpacking for yourself -- good for you! -- then here are some steps to get you ready for your first time on the trail.
1. Pick a Trail
The first step is to figure out where you'll be making your first trip. This is important because the gear and other preparations you'll need to make will vary depending on where you're going.
I'll go into more detail with recommendations in an upcoming post, so stick around to see more about how to pick a trail for your first backpacking trip!
2. Research Trail Conditions and Weather
Once you've selected your trail, spend a few minutes researching the terrain and weather conditions for when you'll be going. You'll use this to determine the temperature rating of your sleeping bag, the type of shoes and clothes to wear, and any other gear you may need.
If you're just starting out, it's easiest to backpack in the Spring or Autumn. When the weather isn't too cold, you will save weight on extra layers of clothing and your sleeping bag. These seasons tend to have the most mild, clear weather without being too hot. Spring and Autumn are also generally the best times of year to find water along trails, making it easier to fill up when needed.
Keep in mind that those seasons also tend to be the wettest in terms of rainfall, so you may need extra rain protection depending on where you are.
Some extra tips:
Note the peak elevation as it may be much colder there.
Ridges and exposed areas can be windy, making them feel much colder.
Always check the daily high and low. You want to be prepared for both!
Use extra caution if there's any chance of thunderstorms. You don't want to be on top of a mountain in a tent with metal poles.
3. Get Proper Clothing
The weather report will let you know what type of clothing you should bring. I'll go over this in more detail in a future post, but some general tips:
No cotton - only wool or synthetic materials.
Sturdy, but comfortable - items that let you move freely, but won't rip if snagged on a branch or rock.
Comfortable shoes - the type will vary person-to-person, but pick something that gives the support you need and feels comfortable for miles.
Layer, layer, layer. Items like button-up flannels are great because they can be worn many ways to adjust your warmth.
Prepare for rain if needed. Depending on the intensity of the showers, opt for rain pants and waterproof shoes as well.
Don't overpack. Generally one set for daytime and one for sleeping is enough!
4. Pick up Your Gear
I've shared a video on my Youtube channel with the Top 5 Gear Essentials to get your on the trail:
What you'll need are:
Use information about the areas in which you plan on backpacking to help inform your decisions, but take into account that you may visit different areas in the future. Err on the side of getting warmer equipment than you might need right now. It's much easier to unzip a sleeping bag than it is to sleep in 3 layers of clothing.
Pick up your backpack last. You'll have a better idea of the size you need if you already have the other major items.
5. Fit and Test your Backpack
Never test out your equipment for the first time on an actual trip. This is especially important for backpacks. You'll have a really hard time if your pack ends up being uncomfortable, creating pressure points, or sitting on your body in a weird way.
In fact, it's a good idea to give all your equipment a quick test run before the real thing. I always set up a new tent in my living room before taking it outdoors!
Some tips for testing your backpack:
Test out multiple packs in a store. REI is a great place to do this -- and they'll even help you load the pack with sandbags and let you walk around the store!
Ask a gear specialist. Get properly fitted by an expert (for free!) and ask their advice on the proper bag for your body and size. Don't feel pressured to buy what they recommend; they're just there to help!
Adjust the bag to your body. Backpacking packs have tons of straps and adjustments that can be made so they fit your body perfectly. Here's a great video I've used with my packs. Make sure most of the weight is on your hips, not your shoulders.
Take it for a test run -- fully loaded. Load up your backpack with your gear and some water to get a proper feel for how it will be on you actual trip. Take it with you on a hike or even roam around your neighborhood. It takes some getting used to carrying all that weight on your back!
Bonus tip: Test any electronics to make sure they're working and have power!
6. Plan Your Food and Water
Now that your gear is in order, it's time to figure out what you're going to do for food and water. Let's start with water:
If you're only planning for one night, you have the option of packing in all the water you'll use.
More than one night and you'll need to re-up on the trail with your choice of water filtration system.
Check maps and trail reports to figure out where there's drinkable water along the trail. Make note of these and be sure to fill up when you come to them.
Running water is better than still water. It's much more likely to be clean and not stagnant.
Bring electrolyte packs! I love the LiquidIV ones. These will help you stay hydrated better than plain water and will mask the taste of any funkiness, especially if you're using a chemical method of purification.
Bring more calories than you typically eat in a day. After all, you're essentially working out the entire time you're hiking!
Don't be surprised if you don't have much of an appetite, but make yourself eat so you have sufficient energy.
Bring a backpacking stove or other method of cooking if your food requires it.
If you don't have/want to bring a stove, skip the dehydrated stuff and go straight for the ready-to-eat. Granola, nuts, dried fruit, energy bars are all easy and calorie-dense options.
I have many backpacking/camping food posts planned, such as stove-free options and how to make your own meal kits! Stay tuned to learn more about packing food on the trail.
7. Plan your Navigation Method (map & compass or GPS)
Even on well-established trails, it's important to have backup navigation as a safety measure.
If you don't know how to use a compass, here's a great tutorial. I love REI's Youtube channel for all my outdoorsy questions.
Pick one or more of the following to make sure you know where you're going:
With your compass-using skills ready, print out a physical map of the area you'll be hiking.
Use your smartphone. Download a map of the area before you head out. On Google maps, your GPS will continue to track your current location even if you don't have service, allowing you to orient yourself on the map.
Bring a GPS or locator beacon. Garmin and ACR Electronics have some great options that will cost more money than the previous options, but are the best safety net for emergencies.
8. Share your Plans with Family or Friends
Always let someone know what your plans are, even if it's just an overnight trip. Share the trail you'll be taking, your anticipated route, and the duration of your trip.
If you have a GPS, you may have the ability to message them if you need help. Let your emergency contact know to keep an eye on their phone in case you send a message through.
9. Hit the Trail
Now that you're all prepped, it's time to hit the trail! Researching backpacking and implementing the tips above will take you far in getting prepared for your first trip, but you'll only truly learn by experiencing the real thing.
Take it slow. There's no need to conquer a week-long trip as your maiden voyage. Keep the stakes low at first with short trips on well-trafficked trails that are close to home.
You'll learn so much about what it's like to be self-sufficient and survive off just what you're carrying on your back. You'll quickly adapt any gear lists you've seen online to fit your own style and comfort-level preference.
Great work! With a trip under your belt, it's time to iterate and keep building your experience. Take what you learned on your first trip to improve your next trip and maybe try a new area or longer trail.
Keep in mind that there's no need to get competitive about the duration of your trip, the "ultralightness" of your gear set, or the thousands of feet of elevation gain traversed.
If you just want to backpack to get out of the city and be in the middle of nature, that's awesome!
If you want to push yourself and see how much you can advance in backpacking difficulty, that's also awesome!
If you only want to do single nights on trails with level terrain, that's equally awesome!
Backpacking, like everything else, is a completely personal activity and you should find the version that feels best for you.
I hope this inspires you to take those first steps toward your first backpacking trip or gives you a better idea of where to start with the whole thing. Backpacking can seem daunting at first, but you'll pick up some skills and amazing friends so quickly, you'll hardly remember a time when you were intimidated by it.
If you have any questions about camping/backpacking that you'd like me to address in my Backpacking for Beginners series, please feel free to reach out to me via the contact form on this site or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you so much for reading and stay adventurous,