Beginner Backpacking 101
So you are highly considering or have already committed to scheduling a backpacking trip. If you are on the fence, I intend to do a separate post on why this – lifestyle, recreation, sport, past time – is worth trying out. Now you need to decide where, how, and what? Fortunately, I’ve made all of the beginner mistakes so you don’t have to.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” – John Muir (1901)
Where to start?
If this is your first trip, I have two recommendations before you even start planning. For the where? Honestly, I would not even start there, but concentrate on the type and length of trail. Start with a short trip, and at low elevations. Starting with a short trip is ideal because you will want to learn what you are capable of first, prior to attempting to chew off large mileage, while also learning what to bring and how much weight you can handle. Second, low altitudes are important for the obvious reasons. If you are not in good physical shape or used to higher altitudes, it does not make sense to add that variable. There are enough physical and mental elements already, and this is supposed to be enjoyable!
How to find the right trail?
My two favorite research tools are app based with fairly large communities. The mobile apps are Alltrails and Hiking Project (from REI). At this point, Alltrails is just a little bit more mature resulting in typically more trail options and reviews, but I really like the user interface experience on the Hiking Project. I personally would utilize Alltrails to narrow down the search, and then utilize the Hiking Project to download files (for GPS), and/or utilize during the hike. The nice part about both apps is that you can narrow down the general location, mileage, and difficulty ahead of time, so you are only exploring the types of trails that you feel personally up to. Lastly, if you really just can’t narrow things down – Google searches are always a decent last resort.
Side note: I personally have not purchased one of those “50 hikes in …” books, there is just too much information out there for me to constrain my search to a paperback book.
What to bring?
I am going to focus the equipment needs and essentials based on a normal hike during mild conditions. I will do separate entries later on to help focus in on different things you will need based on more extreme temperatures, or for an ultra light experience.
For most gear, I would bargain hunt. Some items might make sense to pick up at REI, but if you are on a budget, I would focus on clearance items at online stores or generic brands on Amazon. Steep&Cheap, Moosejaw, Backcountry Gear, etc are all viable places that I have bought gear from over the years. I’m not a brand snob (ok maybe just a little), but some of these items I want to choose a quality brand. For instance, I might sacrifice on my brand of water bladder or eating utensils, but hold firm on a sleeping bag which is going to be a major contributor to my nightly rest and comfort.
Tent – You are going to want a 3 season tent (4 season will be heavier and unnecessary for beginner backpacking). In general, you are looking to find a tent that is 2.5-3lbs per person. I honestly would not go for the best of the best, tent technology tends to improve fairly rapidly, and there are some high quality tents in the lower price points. I always recommend getting 1 more person size up if you would like to include your gear in the tent (or pets). Otherwise, if you get a 2 person, and have 2 people, at least some of your gear will likely need to stay outside.
My Beginner Backpacker Mistake – Fortunately, I have had great luck with my 3 tents. However, on one of my first trips, I made the mistake of not checking the weather before bed. Putting up the rainfly when it is pitch dark at 3am in a rainstorm is not fun!
Sleeping Bag – There are a couple of variables here… temperature rating and insulation type. For the late spring-early fall, I would recommend a 10-32 degree bag. For insulation, this is where you need to decide if you need to splurge (Down or Synthetic). Down tends to be a little warmer and more comfortable, but tends to hold moisture if it happens to get wet, it is also much more expensive. Synthetic is a little heavier, but dries quickly, and is less expensive. Again, if you are on budget, I would go with the synthetic and buy a liner to add additional warmth or comfort. The liner also doubles as a stand alone sleeping bag during the summer time.
My Beginner Backpacker Mistake – My first backpacking experience was in sub freezing temperatures with lows around 5-10 degrees. I bought a 20 degree rated bag without a liner. My assumption was I could sleep in long johns and jacket to ensure warmth. This was indeed a flawed assumption and made for a sleepless, shivery night. Get a bag rated 20 degrees colder than the lows you expect to sleep in, and get a liner just in case. Remember that your body tends to lose heat as you sleep, so although you may feel great working up a sweat during the hike, it will not be the same when resting.
Backpack – There are so many choices and much of it will depend on duration and how much weight you intend to pack. My recommendation is not plan on packing the kitchen sink and instead go for a pack in the 50 to 60 liter range for versatility reasons. Small enough for weekend hikes, but large enough for multi-day trips. You can drop below this range if you and your partner are going to split/share supplies. If you plan to go longer (although I don’t recommend for the first trip)….50-80L for 3-5 days, and at least 70+ if your hike is going to broach +5 days. My number one recommendation here is to stop at a brick and mortar retailer and try some bags on. Your pack is going to be on you for 8-12 hours a day, so you want it to fit right and be comfortable. Learn what size pack you need, and then if you want to save some money, use an online bargain retailer to actually buy the backpack. This item along with the tent are likely to be your most expensive starter purchases.
My Beginner Backpacker Mistake – My first trip was 2 nights and I bought a 90L pack. This was great in my eyes because I could carry so much more! Bad move. The “bigger is better” philosophy need not apply here, and will likely only encourage you to overpack. Your legs and back will thank me later.
Hiking Boots – Hiking boots a relatively straight forward. Wait, no there are a ton of options – low, mid, high tops. I do not advise skipping on these and wearing tennis/running shoes. Your feet are your most important asset on a hike, and most non-hiking shoes lack the support and the sole to absorb the beating you are likely to take along the way (rocks, boulders, logs, stream crossings, etc.). I recommend high tops to help with additional ankle support. I would also go for something that is at least water resistant, and make sure to test them out. You do not want to make the trail your first test drive in your new kicks! Like any shoe, break them in ahead of time to avoid blisters with heavier usage.
My Beginner Backpacker Mistake – I am lucky here… I would say my only mistake was trying to warm my feet up by the fire on a trip, but I was too tired to take my boots off. It turns out that my boots are not fire retardant (no you don’t need to buy fireman boots).
Other Essentials (*denotes emergency survival item)
- *Navigation – Compass and Map – You will get lost eventually, whether it’s the 1st or 10th trip
- *Proper insulation / clothing – Outer layers are dependent on the season, but I suggest moister wicking layers against the skin regardless of season… a rain jacket might be something to consider as well
- *Fire – waterproof matches / waterproof container, flint and steel for emergency survival
- *First aid kit
- *Knife and/or multitool
- *Hydration – Nalogene bottle, water bladder if your bag is hydration ready… Eventually you will want a water filtration device or tablets to avoid having to pack in all your water
- Field Notes – Utilize for the technical reasons (mapping, etc) or document the experience and write down your thoughts during the hike
- Sun protection – Depending on the season, you will likely want to protect your skin from the sun
- Sleeping Pad – This is a must for comfort. Also on cold nights it helps insulate you and keep you off the ground
- Tent Footprint / Ground Cloth – These serve a few purposes, additional insulation, water proofing, and protects your tent bottom from things on the ground. The last thing you want is that nice new tent getting a hole in the bottom from friction with rocks and sticks.
- *Meals / Nutrition – Freeze dried meals make light weight and easy choices. Beef jerky, granola / energy bars are also great on the trail when you need a boost
- Cookset – Fuel and buy a stove on amazon. REI and those places will absolutely destroy your wallet on stoves, but you don’t need anything fancy. This is great to have for ease/quickness of use or if you are unable to get a fire going (trust me, that will happen)
- Utensils – Combo utensils are great (think spork) and help cut down on weight. But if you are on a budget pull out a few from the kitchen drawer or grab those saved up plastic utensil packets from your favorite carry out place
- Sanitation – Hand sanitizer and hand wipes are great for before / after meals and for a backpackers shower
- Dishes or bowls – Collapsable bowls are great, but even packing a few paper plates is fine
- Hiking Socks – Protect your feet! I typically try to get socks that are mostly made of wool (10% wool is not a majority). Majority of people do not realize that wool is good for both winter and summer. Wool is moisture wicking, and you can decide on thickness based on the season.
- Headlamp – You are going to want to be handsfree at night walking around the camp, or if you want to explore a little bit at night
- Trekking Poles – This is one item I don’t recommend skipping on and has kept me upright many of times. The poles help to ease the pressure of having a 40-50lb pack on your back as you move. 1 or 2 poles essentially feels like additional legs to help you up/down a steep section or crossing a shallow creek.
- *Bear Canister – Depending on the bear population, you may need to buy a bear canister. Some parks and trails will even require it (enforced by park rangers). I will typically use bear proof plastic bags in areas with low populations (like Missouri or Kentucky), but anywhere else with more significant populations utilize the canister. In both situations, I will hang the food away from camp. If you are going to do hiking among bears, it is very safe as long as you follow some simple rules…. more to come in another post.
- Rain Cover – Keep your stuff dry on the trail when that pop-up rainstorm passes buy
- Playing cards – Something to pass time with friends at camp
- Collapsible coffee drip – This beats the insta coffee, but you have to really love coffee for this effort
- Folding saw – Great for cutting apart larger kindling
- Instant Hand Warmer packets for colder weather
- Anything that comes to mind!
- Check the weather for the time that you plan to be there and plan all clothing accordingly
- Get out and do a test trial with the pack if you have time – make sure the weight and pack are comfortable and manageable loads
- Plot out exactly how far you would like to go each day based on the pace during your test hikes, I personally do not like to rush these trips so I give myself a little wiggle room in case I need to cut a day short
- Contact local park or forest rangers that can let you know the conditions on the trail and if water sources (rivers and streams) are flowing.
- Make sure if any permits are required that apply ahead of time if necessary, most beginner hikes likely won’t require this, but always best to check ahead of time.
Now you are ready, enjoy the trip!
I can not express to you how fun and exciting the backpacking experience is. The anticipation of all the steps of preparation, driving to the trailhead, and then dropping off the grid into nature – “fountain of life” kind of experience.