A Beginners’ Guide to Backpacking

I was there once, bag packed, ready to head out into the woods. I was sure I had everything I needed for a good nights sleep out in the woods. That’s when I tried to lift my backpack and load it into the car, all 40 pounds of it. “Wow, that’s heavy”, I thought as I drug it towards the car. The next 45 minutes of hiking were something similar to giving birth while jogging on a treadmill. My body hated me, and my lack of conditioning. The long night of “sleep” I dreamt of never came. I was cold, uncomfortable, and paranoid that the critters circling camp in the night would ambush me the second my eyes fell. That’s what happens when you leave 5 pounds of delicious food in your tent.  I had no clue what I was doing. That’s why I write this blog. I’ve came a long, long way. Learn from me, and live life a little better.

Get in shape

This part is easier than you expect. Just get out and do some hiking. Jogging is great too. Backpacking adds a lot of weight to your back, and you’ll definitely feel the difference when you hit the trail. If you can easily do a few hours on the trail without breaking out the oxygen max, you’re probably O.K, But hiking should come easy before you bare the pack. Add more and more weight to your hiking pack to get used to the weight.

Decide where you are going to go

Backpacking Grayson HighlandsThis is undoubtedly the most important part. Start small, and perhaps even on a trail you are familiar with. A single night with warm weather is plenty to break you in.  Do several short easy trips before you embark on anything that will test your endurance. Having a pack on your back will wear you down quicker than you may think. Pick an area that allows backpacking (no bandit camping please).  An ideal location for a new backpacker is within an hours walk of your vehicle. If things go sideways, or you’re not prepared, you can just skip right out of there.  Check the forecast, and plan for it to be at least 10 degrees colder than you expect. Check with the local ranger and see what regulations you should be aware of. Do they allow fire? Do you need a bear canister? Is there water? Don’t know where to go? Check with your local outfitter or shop. They’re usually quite happy to share local knowledge. Still stumped? Here is a Guide to Finding Local Hiking.

Gear up

Backpacking GearThe absolute base of backpacking involves gear. Pack as light as you can. You don’t want a 40 pound pack. For a weekend, 10-15% of your body weight is an idea weight. Feel free to browse local outfitters and ask for advice and tips on all of your gear, but don’t let them convince you you need the most expensive gear. Gear rentals are often available to try before you buy.  Here are the absolute basic necessities, listed in order of importance.

1. Water. At least 3 liters for an overnight trip. Water purification as a backup plan.

2. Warmth. Sleeping bags, fire starters, blankets, whatever works for you in your area.

3. Food. Enough to eat for both days. This includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner. An extra meal incase your behind.

4. Shelter. Tent, bivys, hammock, or whatever suits you best.

5. Proper clothing. Avoid cottons if possible. A warm fleece and rain gear may be necessary depending on the environment. Good solid boots, and proper hiking socks are necessary.

6. Map and Compass. Because even the best navigators get lost.

7. Light. Headlamps are great for hiking in the dark, and those late night potty breaks.

8. First aid. First aid kits, complete with Moleskin for blisters, will keep you from unnecessary medical issues like infections.

These are the absolute basics in my mind, although different people will give you different lists.

For A complete, comprehensive list, check here, Complete Backpacking Pack List.

Here is a guide to how to pack your backpack, How to Pack your Backpack

Dress properly

Generally speaking, anything that dries quickly is going to be just fine for warm weather. Polyester, nylon and wool all work well. Check out my guide on how to dress for winter hiking, here. 

Find company

If possible, find someone who has been backpacking before. If nothing else, find another hiker who would be good company. www.meetup.com offers many ways to find other local hikers, and even backpackers. Local organizations such as NSEO (www.meetup.com/neverstop) often organize trips you can join in on.

Pick a good camping spot

Camp SpotGreat spots already exist on your local hikes. Quite often, predetermined backcountry camp spots are already available for you to use. These locations often have water sources, fire rings, and sometimes even bear lockers or hanging devices for you food. If a predetermined spot is not an option, pick an option where the environment will not be impacted. Avoid pitching a tent on plant life, as this can permanently damage or destroy the flora.. Duff, grass, rock, dirt,or sand are your best surfaces. Don’t build a fire pit if there isn’t one, and never chop living trees for firewood. Minimize your impact as much as possible. You don’t want anyone to be able to tell you were ever there.  Always check for dead hanging limbs (known aptly as widowmakers) before pitching your tent. Choose an area that is sheltered from wind, and take care to not set up in an area that will fill or flow with water if it rains. That’s never fun.

Let someone know where you’re going

Someone should always know where you’re going, and when you plan to be back, Just in case. If you’re not back within a specified window, this person should contact the local rangers. Leave detailed directions, a specified route, and where you plan to camp.

Leave no trace

This, is something I can’t stress enough. Leave only footprints. Please, pack out all of your trash, and leave the wilderness how you found it. Don’t build new camp spots, and bury your waste. Never wash your dishes or use soap directly in water sources. Take water with you at least 100 feet from these valuable sources to avoid contamination. Soaps and foods can actually poison, or kill plants, animals, and people from the pollutants, even if it’s “all natural” or “biodegradable”. The wilderness is precious, and becoming increasingly rare. Please, leave no trace. For more information please read Leave No Trace.

Final tips

Keep your food and scented items out of your tent at night. This includes tooth pastes, lip balms, deodorants, etc. Bear and other critters are attracted to these.

Always check your pack list before heading out.

Headlamps and first aid kits are always recommended in the backcountry.

Never trust the weather forecast. Always assume there will be rain, and it will be cooler than forecasted.

Never drink untreated water. It looks great, and probably tastes great, but a good case of Giardia is the last thing you’ll ever want to experience in the woods.

If you have local bear populations, bring Bear Mace. It works, in the unlikely event you’ll ever need to use it.

Check out my How To section to find more tips. There is always more to learn! Get out there, be safe, and have fun.

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5 thoughts on “A Beginners’ Guide to Backpacking

    • Oh great. I hope it helps. If there is any specific topic that’s not covered that you’re curious about, let me know. I’m actually writing an entire book on this topic…and it was quite hard to choose what to put in, and what not to.

  1. This is absolutely brilliant!! Now, I have never camped in tents. I am going to start with a place I am familiar with..Is there a post on what kinds of tents are available and which one I should be buying?

    • That’s a great question. I’m currently writing an article on my favorite equipment from 2015, and tents will be included. I highly recommend Sierra Designs or Big Agnes products. You can’t go wrong with any of them.

      • When looking for Gear, always try sierra trading post. you can usually get last year models for 50 to 75% off. They carry most name brands.

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