Backpacking is an adventure that blends hiking with backcountry camping. It lets you broaden your horizons beyond the car campground to enjoy a richer, more immersive outdoor experience. A key distinction from day hiking is the size of your pack—your backpack must carry all of life’s essentials on your back. And you must choose those essentials with care.
Choose an Easy Backpacking Destination
The key advice here is to err on the side of easy. If the hike is too hard, it can make for a miserable experience. If it's too easy, then you simply have more time to explore the area around your camp. Follow these tips when you decide where to go backpacking for the first time:
- Consult with experienced backpackers: Hiking club members love to make trip recommendations. Hiking guidebooks are a valuable tool—you'll find the best selection for a given area in local stores and other local outdoor retailers. Pick a place close to home. You want to spend more time hiking than driving. You also want to have ample daylight hours to reach camp before dark.
- Just a few miles roundtrip is fine: Plan on shorter distances than your typical day hike because walking with a heavier pack is slower and more difficult.
- Aim for a few hundred feet of elevation gain: If you've hiked much, then you know that mileage alone doesn't tell the full story. So also choose a trail with less elevation gain than your typical day hike.
- Pick a well-traveled trail and well-established camp: It's nice to have hikers and backcountry campers nearby who can give you a hand if you run into difficulties.
- Make sure there's water near camp: If your source will be a lake or large river, you should be fine. Streams and springs can dry up, though, so double check with local land managers before relying on a small water source.
- Consider going without Junior or Fido on your first trip: Though they can both be great fun, their presence will complicate things a little.
- Seek summer weather: Unless your destination is one where extreme heat or fire danger can be an issue, go in mid-summer to maximize daylight hours and your odds of comfortable conditions. Always check weather forecasts and don't hesitate to cancel or turn back if a storm moves in.
Get Essential Backpacking GearKeep your initial investment low by borrowing or renting the priciest items—your tent, sleeping bag and pad. Because they must fit you well, boots, and to a lesser extent packs, need to be your own personal gear.
What Gear to Bring Backpacking.
Because you have to carry and fit it all into your pack, backpacking gear has to be lightweight and compact. That’s why, with a few exceptions, it’s not practical to simply repurpose car camping gear. Remember, too, that you’ll be splitting up gear like tents and pots and stoves when you hike with a friend. The following are essential items you'll need for any backpacking trip:
- Tent: Plan to share because a two-person tent weighs less and is more economical than two one-person tents. Bring a tent rated for three seasons rather than a four-season tent because you're not ready for mountaineering just yet.
- Backpack: If you do borrow a pack, try it on first to be sure that it fits comfortably. Load it up with assorted items to about 30 pounds, and take it out on a long test hike. If it's comfortable on the hips and in the shoulders, it's probably fine for this first backpacking trip. If you decide to buy a pack, have an pack specialist measure your torso so they can properly fit you. Don't be tempted by an ultralight model for your first backpack because it will be less padded and have a less supportive structure than a more deluxe model. If you're determined to minimize weight, look first at ultralight tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads.
- Sleeping bag: If you decide to buy a bag, consider the pros and cons of down fill vs. synthetic fill, especially in terms of the weather conditions you're likely to encounter. For your first bag, synthetic is a good choice because it's versatile and generally more affordable than down.
- Sleeping pad: Cushioning is crucial to a good night's sleep. Insulation is, too, which is why you can't take a pool float and hope to sleep warm. If you buy a pad, consider the virtues of each type. If you can sleep well on a super-firm surface, then a closed-cell pad can save a lot of weight and money. For a good compromise between comfort and value, choose a self-inflating pad.
- Stove: If you own a single-burner camp stove that weighs less than a pound, it's probably fine for your first backpacking trip. If you choose to buy, you'll have to consider fuel types first and then make your stove choice. A lot of beginners go with a gas-canister stove because they're affordable and easy to use. And be sure to pack along a full canister or bottle of the right type of fuel for your stove.
- Water treatment: Even pristine-looking sources can hide things you'd rather not drink, so it's wise to treat all water in the wilds. You can borrow a filter, but an ultralight and simple option for your first trip is chemical treatment: tablets or drops you add to a bottle to purify your water.
- Kitchen supplies: Save money by scrounging from camping gear or well-worn items from your local thrift shop or home kitchen. Bring just enough pots, pans, plates, cups and utensils so that you can cook and eat each of your planned meals. Bring a small sponge and some biodegradable soap for washing dishes. A tiny towel also comes in handy.
Plan Your Backpacking FoodFor an overnight backpacking trip, plan for dinner, breakfast and a couple of lunches. Freeze-dried backpacking food is your lightest and easiest option for entrees, but it's also pricey. Save money by going to the grocery store instead. You won't have a cooler, so perishable things like fresh eggs can't be on the menu.
Avoid canned food (too heavy) and try to accurately project how much you'll eat because an excessive amount food adds weight and bulk to your pack. You need some extra food, though—enough for an added day in the wilds. Here are some specific meal-planning tips for your first backpacking trip:
- Dinner: Look for all-in-one meals such as packaged noodle or rice entrees. Boxed meals can be removed and placed in a plastic bag for easier packing.
- Lunches and snacks: Bring high-calorie, high-protein energy bars and trail mix to munch on during the day because backpacking burns a lot of metabolic fuel. Keep thing simple by making lunch a trailside affair with ample snacks and a longer rest. Other backpacking lunch options include bagels, jerky, dried fruit and nuts.
- Breakfast: This can range from a cooked entrée to hot oatmeal from a mix to two or three breakfast bars. You have to weigh the advantages of starting your day warmed up and fueled up versus hitting the trail earlier. If you can't go without your caffeinated beverage, your simplest option is an instant coffee mix or tea bags.