Backpacking may sound like a difficult and frightening activity, especially when it’s your first time. However, when you plan everything right and follow the steps for the beginner backpacker, then backpacking turns to an unforgettable experience. Many people choose backpacking for the quiet and remoteness it affords and just recharge themselves with new energies.
But, what exactly is backpacking? It is a real adventure that combines both hiking and backcountry camping. This way, you get to enjoy both worlds (hiking and camping) and have a rich and immersive outdoor experience that you will never forget.
Even if it’s your first time, don’t be afraid to just do it. But, before you do, I recommend that you thoroughly read this article and follow the necessary steps:
- Choose your backpacking destination
- Choose the campsite
- Pack the necessary gear
- Pack the necessary clothing
- Bring suitable shoes
- Pack food and water
- Get yourself ready for backpacking
This way you will be 100% ready and have everything you need for your unforgettable backpacking adventure. Let’s get into more details on every step. In addition, I will list important backpacking tips and recommend a few trails that can fit a beginner.
Choose Your Backpacking Destination
When you’re a beginner backpacker, it is important and even crucial that your first backpacking destination will be an easy one. You don’t want your first hike to be too long or too hard, as you wish to fully enjoy your experience. When you choose an easier trail, you have more time and energy to explore the environment.
For a beginner backpacker, I would suggest to start with state and national parks. The trails there are well marked, and you can find user-friendly and informative guidelines on the parks’ websites. In fact, whether you are a beginner and an experienced backpacker, the national parks are always a great destination by default.
Warren Doyle is the director of the Appalachian Trail Institute, who has educated hikers for more than 45 years. He suggests that as a beginner, you stay close to home and choose trails that are easy to access and well-indicated. Also, choose low-mileage trails and routes that are not too difficult. Prefer terrains that are easy to hike and avoid challenging terrains that can feature loose rock, boulders, and even a rat’s nest of roots.
As a beginner, you are not there to complete mileage. Keep it simple and enjoy your hiking and camping. You are there mostly to get away from society, charge your soul with new energies and just be part of the nature, at least for a while. You’re a beginner, so remember: easy does it, step by step.
Sites like Trail Finder and AllTrails are very much recommended for trail and route searches. You can search their databases by geography or zip code.
Here is a video about a few interesting hiking destinations around the world:
Choose the Campsite
According to Doyle, if it’s your first day, then it’s perfectly okay to set up camp just after a few miles. You can be tired and wish to rest, so there is no shame to camp even after a short hike. You can also use the campsite for adventures during the weekend.
If you plan to hike during the weekend, you can start hiking and then establish your camp on Friday night. This will allow you to hike during the day on Saturday with less gear on you, and then return to your camping base and enjoy a good night sleep in your sleeping bag and tent.
If you prefer, you can use hostel-hut systems, such as White Mountain Huts in New Hampshire and High Sierra Camps in California.
Pack the Necessary Gear – Backpacking Checklist
While backpacking, you carry everything you need in the backpack. So, it is advised that your backpacking gear will be lightweight as well as compact, to ensure easy and comfortable carry. If you backpack with friends, then you should also split the gear between everyone, thus making the burden easier for everyone. Correct camping trip planning will save you from a lot of headache. Now, let’s have at the backpacking checklist for your next adventure:
- Backpack: Whether you purchase or borrow a backpack, always try it on to see that it fits you and is comfortable. Load the backpack with items, until it weighs approximately 30 pounds. Then take it out on a test hike and see how it feels. For your first backpacking trip, the bag should be comfortable on the shoulders and the hips. I warmly recommend getting REEBOW GEAR Military Tactical Backpack, a number one backpack on Amazon. It can serve any backpacker for many years to come, thanks to its durable materials and smart design.
- Tent: If you plan going backpacking with a friend, you have two options. Getting two tents (one for each) or getting a two-person tent. I recommend getting the two-person tent, since it is much easier to carry one tent instead of two. A tent that is rated for three season (summer, fall, spring) is enough for you. No need getting a four-season tent because you won’t be mountaineering just yet. Get any of these highly recommended tents.
- Sleeping bag: Sleeping bags come in many forms, and are either synthetic fill or down fill. In the meantime, don’t worry about the differences. What you need to know is that for your first sleeping bag, go for the synthetic fill. It is much more versatile and cheaper than the down fill. If you wish to read more about them, here is my detailed guide on choosing a sleeping bag.
- Sleeping pad: Sleeping bag is one thing, but if you want to have a real good night sleep, you should take care of cushioning as well. As for the pad, your choices range from closed-cell foam pads to insulated air pads and self-inflating pads. If you have no problems sleeping on a super-firm surface, then you should get the closed-cell pad. It will save you a lot of money and weight. If you can compromise between value and comfort, go for the self-inflating pad.
- Kitchen supplies: Remember not to bring too many items with you. Just bring enough plates, pans, pots, cups, and utensils for you to cook and dine. It is also advised to bring a small sponge and some biodegradable soap to wash the dishes. You can bring a small towel for drying, too.
- Treating the water: Before drinking water from nature and the wild, it is best to purify it. No matter how clean and clear the water source seems, it may always contain bacteria and other unwanted parasites you don’t want inside your body. You can purify the water by adding tablets or drops to the water or by using a water filter for clean and safe drinking water. In fact, there are several proven ways to purify water that you should be aware of before attempting backpacking.
- Stove: For your first backpacking experience, try getting a stove that weighs less than a pound. Also, when purchasing a stove, you’ll need to consider fuel types. Many beginner backpackers choose the gas-canister stove as it is easy to use and not that pricey. Remember to pack the right type of fuel for the stove. You can pack it in a canister or a bottle. Alternatively, consider getting BioLite Campstove 2 from Amazon. This high-quality camping stove uses an integrated battery to charge your mobile device while it cooks dinner.
These are the essential items you will need for your backpacking trip, but consider taking with you the following optional items, too. They will significantly improve your backpacking gear list:
- Sunscreen: Protection against the sun rays.
- Sunglasses: Protect your eyes and don’t walk around blinded on a sunny day.
- Bug spray: Protection against insect bites.
- Lighter: An easier way to start a fire.
- Topographic map: Know the terrain and route to avoid unnecessary surprises.
- Compass: Navigate your way if you don’t have a GPS device or have no cell reception.
- Whistle: In case of an emergency, whistle 3 times if you got lost or are in need of help.
- Fire starter: In case you need to start an emergency fire.
- Flashlight: Use at night and dark places. Extremely important if you intend to hike at night.
- Extra batteries: To use on your electronic devices and appliances.
- First-aid kit: In case you need to treat injuries or even save lives.
- Knife/multitool: A versatile tool for a large variety of tasks. See my post on how to choose the best multitool.
- Duct tape: Serves you during emergency repairs.
- Keys/license/cash/credit card: Identification papers and if you wish to make a purchase
Additionally, if you wish to save on hiking and camping gear, here is a buyer’s guide on low cost camping gear.
Pack the Necessary Clothing
You don’t have to go and buy special and expensive hiking cloths. Simply choose cloths made of fabrics that dry quickly and are moisture-wicking (pull away the sweat from your skin in order to keep it dry). Such clothes are made of polyester and nylon. Avoid clothing made of cotton, as this material absorbs water and also takes a long time to dry if the clothes get wet.
Here is the clothing you will need:
- Long underwear: You should wear long underwear, because the nights can be cold even if the days are warm. So take no chances and stay warm at night as well.
- Nylon pants: These can be zip-off or rollup.
- T-Shirts: Choose shirts that dry fast and drive sweat away.
- Hat: Protect your head from the heating sun.
- Puffy vest/jacket: This is for insulation, to keep yourself warm when it’s cold, especially during the night.
- Gloves/warm hat: To keep yourself warm (if needed, depending on the weather and temperature). I wrote a separate article in which I recommend the best survival gloves and how to choose them.
- Socks: This is not mandatory, but consider wearing wool socks, which are ideal for hiking and trekking. They keep your feet warm in the winter and dry in the summer.
- Breathable/waterproof jacket: Depending on the weather. Its purpose is to keep you warm and dry.
- Rain pants: Depending on the weather. Bear in mind that rainwear can also prevent mosquito bites.
This way, you are covered from head to toe no matter the weather condition. So, whether it’s hot or cold outside, you have whatever it takes to stay warm and hot or cool and dry.
Bring Suitable Shoes
Shoes are probably the most important item during your backpacking experience. Because you will be walking most of the time, you need to feel comfortable and easy going. There are backpackers who prefer hiking boots that are supportive over-the-ankle, while others prefer trail running shoes that are more lightweight.
Whatever you choose, make sure that your shoes or boots are well broken-in before you start backpacking. This way, your feet will feel freely inside the shoe or boot, and won’t press against them. Also, wear synthetic or wool socks, so that your feet won’t be sweaty, yet remain warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Consider bringing with you another pair of shoes that are ultralight, or even water sandals. You could wear them around camp or when you’re resting (but not during the hikes).
Pack Food and Water
Plan your meals and amount of backpacking food needed according to the length of time you’re planning to backpack. If you’re planning to backpack overnight, then you should plan meals for dinner, breakfast and also a couple of lunches.
The easiest and lightest option when it comes to backpacking food is freeze-dried backpacking food. All you need to do is add boiling water and your food is ready. The downside of this option is that it’s a bit expensive. If you wish to save money, you can purchase your food at the grocery store.
Your food should be lightweight, portable and not too bulky. These can range from burrito bowels to tuna noodle casserole. Avoid taking canned food with you, as it adds weight to your backpack. Generally speaking, know how much you will eat so you won’t pack too much food. You do need some extra food (in case you stay another day in the wild), but plan wisely the amount to take with you.
Here is my suggestion for your first backpacking meals:
- Dinner: For dinner, you can have an all-in-one meal. This can be packed noodle or rice entrées. If some of the meals come in boxes, you can transfer the food to plastic bags, and thus make it easier and lighter to carry.
- Lunch: For lunch, you would want to have high-protein and high-calorie energy bars as well as trail mix. Backpacking burns a lot of energy and metabolic fuel, so you would want to get some of this energy back into your body. Of course ,there are other options when it comes to lunch, such as dried fruit, nuts, jerky and bagels.
- Breakfast: For breakfast, you can enjoy a cooked entrée, hot oatmeal (from a mix) or 2-3 breakfast bars. If you enjoy your cup of joe in the morning, there’s no reason not to have one during your backpacking breakfast. Either cook yourself black coffee on the stove, have an instant coffee mix, or drink some tea if preferred using tea bags. The breakfast is indeed an important meal you don’t want to skip. You have to be warmed up and fueled with energy before you start your new day’s hike.
Because you’re carrying food with you, and you’re in the wild, here are a few safety rules and precautions to follow:
- Keep a distance away from animals.
- Don’t come between large mammals and their cubs/young.
- Store and secure all your food as well as scented items and products away from camp. You can collect everything together, and with a nylon cord hang it on a high tree branch (during nighttime).
- Another option to store your food at night is using a product called a bear canister.
For more information, please read my post on cooking while camping.
As for water, I mentioned earlier that it’s possible to treat and purify water from a natural source. However, if you prefer to pack and bring your own water, it’s important that you read about the right amount of water to drink when hiking.
Get Yourself Ready for Backpacking
You now have an idea of all the gear you should pack, what to wear and even what to eat. However, backpacking requires that you as an individual will be ready as well for the amazing journey that lies ahead of you. So, in order to be mentally, physically and logistically ready for your first backpacking trip, here is how you should prepare:
- Getting ready physically: As you already know, backpacking involves hiking, and even a short trip can be demanding. You can get ready for your first backpacking trip by doing a lot of daily hikes and train on similar trails to the one you plan to backpack on. Eventually, you will be comfortable with your route. You can also do some hikes with your backpack. Load it until it weighs at least 30 pounds and hike with it for training.
- Getting ready mentally: It is crucial you familiarize with your gear and know exactly how everything works prior to going on your backpacking trip. Set up your tent, fire up the stove, and see that you know how to use a medkit. Also, know to read a map and navigate with a compass. Even filter water before you embark on your journey. See that you can operate everything and that it all works perfectly.
- Logistics: Know your trail and everything that lies ahead, so you won’t be surprised during the trip. Also, be sure to have all the necessary permits if needed, as destinations that are highly popular may require them. Check with local land management agency about the permits you may need. Also, consider checking with land managers about trail conditions, fire restrictions and other valuable and useful information that you must have in order to stay updated.
- Notifying a friend/family members: Notify your family members and/or a friend regarding the plans for your trip, especially if you’re hiking solo. Include details about where you’re going to be, hike, camp, stay, and also when you’re expected to be back from your trip. This way, if help is needed, they will know how to update the rescue team with all the details of your trip.
- Pack ahead of time: You don’t want to wait the night before your trip to pack and load your bag. It is advised to start your packing several days before the day of the trip. Check your bag’s weight and see that you didn’t pack too much. Remember this rule of thumb: your bag should not weigh more than 20% of your body weight. If you see that it weighs more than that, figure out what you can remove and leave at home.
Now you know almost everything there is to know about your first backpacking trip. However, I have saved some important tips for the last:
- Experienced backpackers: Consult with the backpackers who have experience in the field, and check out recommended hiking guidebooks. You can also learn a lot from the site Hiking Project.
- Close to home: As discussed earlier, for your first backpacking trip, choose a place that is close to home. This will also allow you to hike more than you drive and enjoy more daylight during the hike.
- Trail and camp: Pick a trail that is well-traveled and a camp that is well-established. It’s always nice to have more campers and backpackers around you, especially if you need help or guidance, and not just for the company.
- Short distances: For your first backpacking trip, plan a trail and route that is not too long. Walking with a heavy backpack can be difficult and slow you down, so even a roundtrip of a few miles is perfectly fine for starters.
- Elevation: Try to gain for a few hundred feet of elevation at first. This way, you’ll enjoy a hike, but it won’t be too difficult or dangerous.
- Prefer the summer: For your first backpacking trip, choose the summertime. This will allow you to enjoy comfortable conditions as well as a lot of daylight. However, avoid destinations that can be dangerous due to extreme heat or fires in the summer.
- Water: Make sure there is water near your camp. If your source of water is a river or a lake, then it’s fine. On the other hand, springs and streams may dry up. Always have water on you and know your water sources ahead. Also, remember to purify the water if needed.
- Follow the rules: Hike only on trails and paths that are designated, and camp only on sites that are designated for this purpose. If you can, avoid starting a fire at all. But if it’s necessary, light your fire only in the established fire rings.
- Clean up: Remember to clean every campsite before you leave it.
- Avoiding blisters: Apart from having good hiking boots or shoes, a great way to avoid blisters is to change your socks frequently.
Here is a great video on this topic from Hey Nadine:
Backpacking Trails for Beginners
Before you head out for more serious and adventurous trails and hikes, I would like to recommend you some U.S. trails that are easy, short, sweet and fun to backpack.
- High Sierra Camps Loop (Yosemite National Park, California): In the backcountry of Yosemite National Park are 6 ersatz lodges (aka High Sierra Camps). You can access them only by foot. The 6 camps are spread between them along a loop trail which runs around the Yosemite Valley. The camps have group tents, some with showers and even canteens.
- Appalachian Trail (Delaware River, New Jersey/Pennsylvania): The long Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, and it is actually for expert backpackers. However, beginners can hike a 16-mile trek that is spread out over 2 days. Beginner backpackers should start the trail at the evocatively named Rattlesnake Swamp Trail. This trail meanders North through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. You will enjoy hawks circling Kittatinny Ridge, glacial Sunfish Pond, incredible views of waterfalls, and more.
- Hawksbill Gap (Shenandoah National Park, Virginia): This is a backpacking trip that is a little bit longer, but still easy enough for beginners. The trail is a 23-mile journey that takes you through Blue Ridge Mountains. Don’t be alarmed by the 23-mile trail. Simply divide your hike to sections of 5 or 7 miles and you’ll manage it just fine. Enjoy streams and waterfalls along the way. Have someone picking you up when you finish the trail at the South River Picnic Area in Elktown, as this trail is not a loop.
- Crystal Lakes (Breckinridge, Colorado): This trail is pretty easy. It is a 2.5-mile jaunt from the Spruce Creek Trailhead, which makes it a great place to break in your new hiking shoes. You can hike for half a day or set up your tent on the banks of the lower lake and then hoof it to the upper lake, lying another two miles away. Enjoy wildflowers, elk, bighorn sheep, marmots, mountain goats, and more.
- Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land (Cutler, Maine): This is a 2.8-mile Coastal Trail. Here, you’ll enjoy amazing views of the roiling ocean, rock-lined coves, and craggy cliffs.
So there you have it, a complete guide for backpacking beginners. Hopefully I was able to answer a lot of your questions, and you feel more confident about hiking and backpacking in the wild.
For further reading, I would recommend that you check my articles on reading the weather while hiking, heating your tent and starting fire without matches.