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Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking

Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking

Maybe you’re a longtime hiker ready to set out on your first overnighter. Or maybe friends have convinced you to join them on a weekend backpacking trip. There’s only one problem—you aren’t really sure what kind of pack you need, what to put in the pack, or where you should go. Don’t worry—we were all beginners once—and that’s why we’ve put together this handy guide to bring you up to speed before you hit the trail.

The Gear

First and foremost, you’ll need a backpack to carry all of your supplies. While a small pack is fine for your jacket, water, and a few snacks on a day hike, you’ll want something considerably bigger for a backpacking trip. If you’re going out for 1-3 nights, you’ll want a pack that can hold 30-50 liters. The best thing you can do is go to your local gear shop and try on some packs. Packs made for women fit differently than packs made for men, and you’ll want to go by torso length, not height. Other features you’ll want to consider include ventilation, access (does it open at the top or side panel), pocket placement (for example, pockets on the hip belt enable easy access to snacks!), and padding. Look for a pack that comes with a rain cover and hydration reservoir.

Other basic gear requirements include clothes, food, water, and a sleeping system. For clothing, you’ll want all of the layers, no matter when or where you are hiking. That means a baselayer, T-shirt, jacket, pants (or pants that zip-off into shorts), wool socks, a hat, and gloves. You may also want to bring a lightweight fleece for sitting around at camp.

There are plenty of easy recipes that you can throw together while camping, but for your first backpacking trip, you may just want to get a bunch of lightweight, freeze-dried meals that you just add water to. (If you go this route, try the meals out ahead of time to make sure they won’t upset your stomach once you get out there.) For water, you won’t want to (nor can you) carry enough water for the entire trip, so finding a water source is essential. Start out with a full hydration reservoir and then plan to purify water that you find along the trail. You can buy a water filtration system, boil the water, or use iodine tablets, though tablets can leave an aftertaste.

Your sleep system consists of your tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. The tent size depends on how many people will be sleeping in it, but regardless, you’ll want a 3-season tent. If you already have a camping sleeping bag, you might not want to buy a backpacking sleeping bag until you’ve tried it a couple times and are hooked, but they are generally lighter and pack down smaller, making them easier to carry long distances. Lastly, a sleeping pad may seem like a luxury, but the cushion and getting off the ground are essential for a good night’s sleep. If you’re trying to save space or weight, an inflatable sleeping pad is your best bet, but a closed-cell pad can be lightweight and cheaper as well.

Packing List

The more you can plan ahead, the more you’ll enjoy your backpacking trip. John Strother

The more you can plan ahead, the more you’ll enjoy your backpacking trip.

When you’re going with friends, you can divvy up some of the gear-carrying responsibilities for things that you’ll all use, but here is a basic list of what you can expect to carry:

  • Food

  • Water

  • Sleeping system

  • Cooking supplies (stove/fuel/lighter/utensils) if you aren’t relying on easy-to-eat pre-packaged meals

  • Water treatment tablets or treatment system

  • Clothes

  • Rain jacket

  • Beanie

  • Gloves

  • Sunscreen

  • Lip balm

  • Sunglasses

  • Hand sanitizer

  • Map or guidebook of area (or download one onto your phone)

  • Solar phone charger/extra battery

  • Bug spray

  • Whistle (many packs come with one—it’s that orange thing on the strap)

  • Headlamp or flashlight

  • Extra batteries

  • First-aid kit

  • Toilet paper

  • Trowel (a small shovel to dig a hole for bathroom needs)

  • Plastic bag for any waste that you need to pack out

  • Toothbrush/toothpaste

  • Multitool

  • Duct tape (it fixes just about anything)

  • Bear canister (if required)

  • Any permits that might be required for the wilderness area/park you’re backpacking in

How to Choose a Location

Don’t get too ambitious on your first backpacking trip—get some experience before pushing your limits. John Strother

Don’t get too ambitious on your first backpacking trip—get some experience before pushing your limits.

Go easy on your first backpacking trip and choose a place that is closer to home and easy to bail on if you forget something—or it’s not quite what you expected. Another critical consideration is distance. Even if you can hike for hours on a day hike, consider a shorter backpacking trip. Things will feel different when you are carrying 20 to 40 pounds of gear on your back.

Find a place that has established backcountry sites, ideally near a water source. Another option is a state or national park that that has a walk-in campground (they’re usually less than a mile hike), so you can set up camp and then spend your days exploring the park.

Do your research to know any regulations and to get required permits before you leave. Check the weather and always be prepared to cancel your plans if bad weather rolls in. Brush up on your Leave No Trace principles and leave the area better than you found it.

Preparing for Your Trip

Backpacking is a different beast than day hiking and training will make the experience much more enjoyable. The easiest way to prepare for a backpacking trip is to go on some day hikes with your loaded pack. This will get your body used to the additional weight and effort required.

Besides the physical preparations, practice the logistics—packing your gear, pitching your tent, learning first aid—so that you have less to worry about once you’re actually out on the trail. Once you get it all down, pack your bag a few days in advance so you aren’t doing anything last minute. A general rule of thumb is that your pack should weigh no more than 20% of your body weight, so packing early will give you time to make adjustments if necessary.

Your first backpacking trek is an exciting adventure that will likely lead to many more. With a bit of preparation and training, you are sure to have a great trip. So what are you waiting for? Go on and get out there!

Written by Abbie Mood for Matcha in partnership with Gear:30.

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