For Beginners a Starters Guide To Know Before Your First Backpacking Trip
Whether it is limited travel due to Covid-19 or just the increase in popularity that was happening already more and more people are turning to backpack trips as their vacation adventure. You can do anything from a weekend overnighter to a 6-month long thru-hike and it is all backpacking.
But before you head out we should clarify what backpacking is. To put it simply, backpacking is hiking with all of your camping gear. Rather than heading home at the end of the day you find a spot and make camp. You can also use backpacking as a way to get to remote fishing spots or find a basecamp for taking photographs.
Once you have the skills and gear to head out for an overnight stay you can use it however you like.
What Type Of Backpacker Do You Want To Be?
There are a lot of flavors of backpacking as you can be a hiker who camps or a camper who hikes. What makes the distinction is how much emphasis is on each part.
Some people love to hike long miles only stopping just before the sun goes down to make camp. The hiking is the aim of the trip so the aim is to have a light, minimal kit so as to not be overburdened during the days hiking. Usually, you are too tired to make a fire and stay up late. Once you make camp you will make dinner and then head off to bed to do it all over again the next day. For the people who love running Tough Mudders or other challenging endurance events, this type of backpacking is right up your alley.
On the other hand, it can be fun to only hike in a few miles and spend more time making camp. The aim may be to spend some time fishing or just spending the day relaxing. Since you aren’t going as far you can get away with carrying more gear such as fresh food, a camp chair, and a hammock to lounge around in. If you see your backpacking trips as a way to unwind from a busy world then this can be just what the doctor ordered.
You don’t have to be one type or the other. One trip may be more relaxing whereas the next is an endurance test of 20 mile days.
Start Small and Test Your Gear Before You Go On A Real Trip
When beginning backpacking it is a good idea to start small and work your way up to harder trips. Keep the distances short and choose trails that are well-traveled so you aren’t on your own if things go wrong. Backpacking is a lifelong endeavor so you have time to work out the kinks.
Before you head out on your first trip in the wild it is a good idea to set everything up in the backyard to make sure you know how everything works. You don’t want to be setting up your tent for the first time in the woods only to discover that you are missing something. A good way to figure out your system is to actually sleep out in the yard as it’s easy to head inside if things don’t work.
If you live in an apartment then practice setting things up in a local park. Pack up all of your gear in your pack and hike down to work out how your pack feels fully loaded.
Learn Leave No Trace Principles
This is the practice of leaving no mark that you were there. Carry out all garbage whether it is yours or something you find along the way.
Visit Leave No Trace at www.lnt.org for more information.
Backpacking Gear List
This is a basic gear breakdown with an emphasis on only what you need. It is easy to overload your pack making your trip much less enjoyable than it could be. You don’t have to have an ultralight gear loadout but keeping the weight reasonable will be much easier on your body and make it possible to hike more miles with less fatigue.
You need a bunch of gear to go backpacking and your backpack is how you carry it all. A good guide is to look for an internal frame pack with a capacity of 50-70 liters. The size will be dependant on how compact your gear is. If you have a down sleeping bag, inflatable sleeping pad, and compact tent then you can go for the smaller size.
If possible test out the pack you are looking at in the store with weight in it. Pack fit varies from brand to brand and the only way you will know if it fits your body is to try it on.
When you get your pack also pick up a waterproof pack liner to put in the pack to keep your gear dry. Avoid rain covers as they don’t work at keeping things dry and tend to be awkward in the wind.
This isn’t something that everyone thinks of as necessary for backpacking but trekking poles have big enough benefits that they should. When hiking with a load on your back you are less stable than usual and when you combine this with the rough terrain you will be hiking over it makes you even more likely to stumble or roll and ankle. Trekking poles add to more legs making you both more stable and faster by involving the upper body muscles.
Additionally, they reduce the load on the knees when descending by up to 30% which can be the difference between debilitating pain which cuts your trip short and a great adventure you will want to do again.
While there are a number of different options for a backcountry shelter, when you are just starting out in backpacking it is best to stick to a tent. Unlike a hammock or tarp, a tent is simple to set-up if you follow the supplied instructions.
When shopping for a backpacking tent try to keep the weight under 2.5 lbs per person. Ultralight tents are available just expect to pay more and you will have to be careful as the lighter fabric is more fragile.
If you are out with others you can share the weight of the tent by one person carrying the fly and poles while the other person carries the tent body and tent pegs.
Make sure you have practiced setting your tent up beforehand so you aren’t fumbling around after a hard day on the trail.
This is your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and pillow. The bag keeps you warm from above, the pad cushions and insulates below you and the pillow works as pillows do.
When looking for a sleeping bag you need to choose between synthetic and down insulation. Down is lighter and packs smaller but more expensive. It is a worthwhile investment though as it will last longer than a synthetic bag helping spread the cost over a longer lifespan.
Sleeping bags come in different lengths so you should try them out to get one that fits. You don’t want too tight but too larger is a problem as well as you will have a lot of extra space you will have to heat wasting energy on cold nights. If you do have a sleeping bag that is too big for you a trick to help is stuff your spare clothing into the foot of the bag to take up the spare space. It will mean you also have warm clothes to put on in the morning.
When looking for temperature ranges get a three-season bag as it will cover everything from summer nights and just below freezing. You can adjust the temperature range by varying how tightly you do up your bag, what you wear, and even adding an insulated sleeping bag liner to extend the temperature range.
Sleeping pads are available as foam pads, self-inflating models, and inflatable in order of price. Foam pads will keep you insulated from the cold of the ground but don’t offer much cushion and are bulky to carry. Self-inflating pads are a little more comfortable and pack smaller. Inflatable sleeping pads are the most expensive but offer options that are the lightest, most comfortable, and smallest pack size.
A self- inflating pad that is 1.5 inches thick would be a good place to start as it will be a good compromise between price, weight, and comfort.
For a pillow, you can get a backpacking specific inflatable pillow or stuff a bag with your spare clothes. Some people find they are comfortable without a pillow while others get a sore neck and back without it.
Experiment at home to find what you need for a good night’s sleep as sleeping in your sleeping bag on a pad isn’t the same as being in a bed.
When out for even just one night you have to make the choice of whether you are going to cook food or just eat pre-prepared foods like trail mix and peanut butter sandwiches.
Going with a no-cook system can save you a bit of weight but will limit your options.
If you choose to cook then a simple system of an iso-butane stove with a single pot would be our recommendation. All you have to do is screw the stove onto the gas canister, turn the gas on and light it. A stove like the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 is simple to use, lightweight, and very reliable. Bring a lighter to ignite your stove even if you choose one with a built-in ignitor as you want a backup if it fails to work.
For a pot, you can choose either aluminum, titanium or stainless steel. The aluminum will be the best compromise between weight and cost. If you are out solo or with just one other person a 750-1000 ml pot will be big enough to boil water or make oatmeal. A pot this size will be big enough that you can pack the gas canister, lighter, and stove inside for transport.
If you are out by yourself then just eat straight from the pot so you don’t need to bring a bowl. If you are sharing then a small plastic bowl will be perfect for your portion of the food.
An aluminum spork (combo spoon and fork) will be all the utensils you need unless you get into fancy cooking.
If you like coffee in the morning, or a cup of hot chocolate at night then bring a plastic mug. A good light weight mug can be universal as a bowl for mixing ingredients or eating soup.
A plastic scouring pad is good to have on hand to clean your dishes and spork. I take a full-size pad and cut it in half. It will fit in the pot with the rest of your cook gear.
For your first trips, it is a good idea to keep the food simple. Pack things that don’t require a lot of cooking. Anything that only requires hot water will be the easiest.
Aim for foods that are calorically dense if you want to keep the weight low. 125 calories per ounce of food is a good target to maximize your calorie to weight ratio.
Freeze-dried camping meals are easy to prepare as you only have to add boiling water to the bag. You can eat right from the bag so you don’t have any dishes to clean afterward. These can be picked up from most camping stores or online. Meals from Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry are very tasty and calorically dense.
Other great options are ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes, instant rice, and oatmeal. You can add beef jerky to the noodles and mashed potatoes and it will rehydrate giving you a softer chew.
For breakfast, instant oatmeal with protein powder can be a good high energy start to your day.
For snacks throughout the day, I aim for high-calorie foods that won’t go bad such as trail mix, energy bars, chocolate, beef jerky, and bagels with peanut butter. I save the fancy food for when we stop on the drive home.
Water is heavy so you don’t want to be carrying more than you need for half a day. This usually means two liters. If you are trekking in areas like the desert or high alpine areas then water sources might be further apart increasing the amount you have to carry. A combination of bottles and hydration bladder can get you up to 6 liters pretty easily.
Since there aren’t any taps in the wild then you will have to process safe drinking water from untreated sources like streams and rivers. The water can contain bacteria, parasites, and occasionally viruses depending on where you are. Research the water in the area you are going to find out what the pathogens present are likely to be.
An inexpensive way to do this is will be with chemical treatment. Tablets are the easiest to use. Most are measured out so one tablet will disinfect one liter of water. Choose a brand that contains chlorine dioxide as this will kill just about anything you might encounter including cryptosporidium. Make sure to follow the instructions and wait long enough for it to make the water safe. It generally takes 20-30 minutes for it to kill bacteria and viruses but longer for some parasites.
Another simple method is micro-filtration but most of these filters will not remove viruses. If you are in most places in North America then this isn’t a problem.
To be the safest you can filter and then treat the water with chemical tablets.
In a pinch boiling water will also work but is a slow process and wastes fuel so just keep it as a last resort. If you choose to boil then bring it to a rolling boil for 1 minute ( 5 minutes if you are over 5000 feet of altitude due to the lower air pressure).
For your first backpacking trips, I would suggest keeping it to the warmer months so you aren’t at risk of hypothermia. This will mean you don’t need to pack for freezing temperatures.
Keep your clothing to synthetic and wool fabrics to help manage moisture. Anything cotton will get wet and stay wet.
For a weekend trip, you only need one set of clothes and a change of underwear. Lightweight hiking pants that zip off and turn into shorts are popular for their versatility.
A rain jacket and warm fleece sweater will help you if it rains or the temperatures drop.
Bring a long sleeve top and bottom base layer to sleep in. This can be added to your clothing layers if you hit unexpectedly cold temperatures.
Whether you wear hiking shoes or boots will have a lot to do with the terrain and how strong your ankles are. If you are hiking in rocky, mountainous terrain then boots will offer more support and protection.
Whichever you choose make sure that they fit well and have enough room in the toes that you won’t bang against the end when you are descending hills. Bring a spare pair of shoelaces that are the right length for your footwear.
Merino wool hiking socks are recommended to wick away sweat and reduce the chance of blisters. Bring two pairs to wear and a third to sleep in.
Bring a headlamp with extra batteries. A waterproof model with 200-300 lumens of brightness will be good for hiking at night and making your way to the bathroom in the dark.
Hygiene and First Aid
For hygiene, you will need toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and wet wipes. It is okay to bury the toilet paper when you go to the bathroom but you should take the used wet wipes out with you. Bring a 1-gallon zip lock bag to carry out your garbage.
Make sure you use hand sanitizer after you use the bathroom or before you are going to handle food.
In addition to a basic first aid kit make sure to add in any medication you may need plus a pain killer/anti-inflammatory (ibuprofen), diarrhea medication(Immodium), and allergy medication (Benadryl).
Getting lost is one of the most common wilderness emergencies and can often be avoided with the right skills and tools.
Learn to navigate with map and compass. Bring a waterproof map of the area you are going to backpack in.
Also, load a hiking app like All Trails on your phone. You can download maps for use when you are out of cell service.
A handheld GPS is also a good investment. Garmin Inreach equipped units are mapping GPS with a satellite text communicator and emergency locator beacon built in so you have a way to reach the outside world if you have a problem.
Bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen to avoid sunburn. A severe sunburn can be a major first aid issue that can be easily avoided.
Bring bug spray and even a bug jacket with a hood if you are going to be in areas that are known for high bug activity.
If you are going to be in tick country then pre-treat your clothing with Permethrin. Bring a tick removing tool in your first aid kit and check each other for ticks each night.
There are a few items that you should also have with you in case things go wrong.
A knife or multitool will come in handy for everything from food preparation to first aid.
Bring some duct tape for emergency repairs. Rather than bring a whole roll, just wrap your water bottles with duct tape and you can peel off what you need to repair a ripped tent or jacket.
For being able to call for help bring a whistle. Three sharp blasts repeated every few minutes is an easy way to let people know you need help and the sound carries much further than your voice.
Also, have a way to start a fire. An extra lighter and some cotton pads with vaseline make an effective fire starting kit.
How Heavy Should Your Pack Be?
With all that gear you want to try to keep your pack as light as possible. Limit your pack weight to 20-25 percent of your body weight. This can be hard with less expensive gear but this is why you don’t bring anything you don’t need.
This means for a 160 lb person the maximum weight would be 40 lbs with all gear, food, and water.
People do carry more than this but it will be more fatiguing and increases the risk of injury.
As you get into backpacking you will inevitably upgrade gear to lighten your load. As long as you don’t skip any necessary items, a lighter pack is always more fun and less wear and tear on your body.
Where To Go?
Depending on where you live there may be backpacking in your local area or you may have to travel a bit. Do a Google search for “best backpacking in (your state or province)”. This can be a great start to finding good routes.
The website alltrails.com is another useful resource in finding trails. They also have an app that lets you take the maps on your phone for offline use.
The local camping or outdoor store is often a treasure trove of useful information. The people who work in those stores are often happy to share cool stories and places to go.
For your first few trips keep them conservative. Limit your distances to under 10 kilometers or 9 miles per day. Hiking with a full pack is more challenging than people think. Take your time and enjoy yourself.
For your first trips consider a state or provincial park with well-marked trails and established campsites. This way you are within a distance of getting help if something goes wrong.
Depending on where you plan to go and how long you need to decide whether you are going to hike a loop or do an out and back route. Try to plan to get to your campsite at least 3 hours before sunset so you aren’t rushing to get camp set up.
Before you go on your trip set up a check-in buddy plan with a friend or family member. Let them know where you are going, what route you plan to hike, when you will call to check in with them, and who to call if you don’t check-in.
This way if something goes wrong it isn’t days before the rangers or first responders start looking for you. This will help you and make their job easier.
Setting Up Camp
Set up your tent at least 25 feet away from where you have a fire so embers don’t burn a hole in it.
Look up and make sure there are no dead branches or trees that can fall on your tent in the spot you have chosen.
Try to find the flattest spot to set up your tent. If you are on a slight slope make sure that your head is on the uphill side or you can wake up with a bad headache.
Try to cook and eat at least 60 feet away from your tent so you won’t attract animals to where you sleep.
How To Pack Your Pack
At the bottom of your pack, you want items that you don’t need ready access to like your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and spare clothing. This should all be packed in the waterproof pack liner to keep it dry.
The heaviest items should be high in the pack and as close to your back as possible. This is usually your food bag.
Waterbottles fit in the side pockets. Most packs have in internal pocket for a hydration bladder that puts it close to your back.
If your pack has a top lid then put your headlamp, first aid kit, maps, and other items you want quick access to.
You can either strap your tent to the outside of your pack in the supplied stuff sack or split it up. This method carries the weight better. Put the tent body in your pack on top of your pack liner. If it is dry out then you can put the fly in as well. If the fly is wet I would suggest putting it in the outside mesh pocket that most packs have to keep the inside of your pack dry. The tent poles and pegs can be put under the compression straps on the side of your pack next to your water bottles.
Play with different packing styles at home until you have a home for everything.
What About Bears?
What to do about bears is one of the most common questions I get. Contrary to what you see in movies or tv shows, bears aren’t out to get you. But they are wild animals so need to be treated with caution. If you do see one, give it a wide berth.
If you are in bear territory the most important thing is to manage your food. Don’t cook or eat near your tent. In the evening you should hang your foot 12 feet off the ground at least 150 meters away from your camp. Alternatively, you can store your food in a bear-resistant canister. Some areas such as the Adirondacks in New York or the Sierra’s in California require you to store your food in a bear canister.
Bear spray is available which can add to your peace of mind. If you do carry bear spray make sure you keep it attached to the belt of your backpack so it is readily available.
How To Poop In The Woods
Our final thing is very important but not talked about enough. In parks and busy trails, you are sometimes lucky enough to have outhouses but often there are no facilities for going to the bathroom. Since we don’t want to be hiking trails that are covered in human waste there are a few best practices to follow when you have to do a number 2.
- Move 150 feet from a trail, water source or campsite
- Dig an 8 inch deep hole
- Squat down and poop in the hole. Holding a tree can help with balance.
- Wipe and put the toilet paper in the hole
- Fill the hole back in with dirt and make it look like you were never there.
Backpacking is an awesome pursuit but you want to make sure you are prepared before you go into the wild. It might seem overwhelming at first but it will all become second nature with time.
Double-check your gear list, file a trip plan with a check-in buddy and be ready for the unexpected as nature has a habit of throwing out curveballs. We all started out as non-backpackers and had to learn the ropes so keep a good attitude and have fun with it. Before you know it you will be the old pro teaching new backpackers all of your tips to help them have a better experience.
written by: Winston Endall – Outdoor Adventure Seeker with a Passion for life lived outdoors