How to start your first BACKPACK adventure

Backpacking can be a daunting task if you’ve never done it before. In this article, we’ll cover the foundations of what backpacking is, why we’d want to do it, and how to get started so you can get out there sooner rather than later!

 
Backpacking in the mountains with a view.
 
 
 

What is backpacking and why do it

Backpacking at its core the act of hiking while carrying your belongings in a backpack.  It’s not defined by any specific style or whether you backpack one mile or a thousand. As long as you’re hauling yourself into the backcountry, spending the night, and returning home, you’ve officially backpacked.

How you do that is up to you. There’s no right or wrong way to backpack, only different styles. The only way you can go wrong backpacking is to never do it.

Backpacking provides a way for people to reconnect with themselves by means of the natural world.  Be it for hunting, bird watching, thru-hiking, or photography, we all have our reasons why backpacking has come to play an important role in our lives.

This guide will help you get you on the right path to your first outdoor backpacking adventure.  In time you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work for you as an individual. You’ll make good decisions and bad decisions and improve upon your experiences.

One thing is for sure, there will come a time when you’re out there and it hits you. You’ll get a feeling inside that is unexplainable and it will be clear in that moment that your decision to learn how to backpack was worth it.  Every ounce of effort you put in will be returned to you somehow. It’s up to you to go find that moment.

 
Packing up a backpack.
 

How to start backpacking

The hardest part of backpacking is getting started.  The desire to experience wild places might be strong and it may even eat at you inside, but if you’ve never spent a night in the woods it can be too daunting of a task to even begin.

All backpackers have had to go through that initial barrier of starting out.  Everyone has their “my first trip” story and they vary wildly on the scale of how it went. Yours will too, but if you continue to find reasons to put it off then you’ll never have a story of your own.

My first real backpacking trip was a flop, but something great came from it.  I recall very vividly the emotional and physical toll that trip took on me because I had bitten off more than I could chew, wasn’t prepared for the trail conditions, and didn’t understand how to manage my body throughout the day.

There was a point during that trip that I almost swore off backpacking altogether. When I returned home something in me knew I could do better. I knew backpacking didn’t have to be hard, so I set out to learn everything I could.

Starting out is the single most difficult thing about backpacking.  Figuring out what to eat, what to bring, how to find resources, how to deal with weather, knowing where to go and how to get there are big questions to you right now and for good reason.  You could spend a lifetime finding those answers but it wouldn’t be much fun because you’d never be out there learning for yourself.

There comes a point when you simply have to do it.  There’s no getting around it. Don’t expect to be Thru Hiking, camping at a beautiful lake, or walking through an old growth forest anytime soon if you never even start.  You can’t see those sunrises and sunsets if you’re not there in the first place. There will always be questions to be answered and in time you’ll find them, but if you’re looking to know all of them before your first trip, you’ll never step foot down a trail.

This article is not meant to answer all the questions, but rather to get you started on the right foot.  I can’t carry your pack or hike the miles for you. To start backpacking, you just have to do it.  You have to take the leap and learn from good experiences and bad..

One day you’ll look back and see how far you’ve come.  You’ll have photos and memories that will last a lifetime.  At some point, you’ll come across someone who’s looking to get into backpacking and you’ll tell them the story of your first trip while watching their eyes light up in wonder and curiosity. Then, with all that knowledge you’ve learned over the years, you’ll tell them if they want to go backpacking, they just need to go.

 
Backpacking through snow in the mountains
 

Backpacking safety

Anytime you venture into the wilderness, safety should be at the forefront of every decision you make.  Mother Nature doesn’t care who you are, how much money you make, or how good of a person you are. She does what she wants and it doesn’t matter if you’re the world's most experienced climber or a newb, if safety doesn’t come first, then bad things can happen.

I’ve witnessed some situations in the backcountry that could have no doubt been completely avoided.  While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, my group came across a hiker who was not doing well. His speech was slurred and he was barely moving down the trail.  After assessing him, we realized he was experiencing heat stroke. As we sat him down and pushed fluids on him, his condition improved.  We called an ambulance and got him the medical attention he needed.

All of this could have been avoided. The hiker was ill prepared for the heat of the day, the desert climate, and didn’t remain hydrated.

When preparing for a trip, it’s imperative that you not only research the trail for best case scenarios, but that you also think through a few “what if” scenarios.  This means looking at alternate routes of returning back to your vehicle or an alternate trailhead in case something goes wrong. It could also mean looking at various spots along the trail that might be more dangerous than others and coming up with a plan B, C, and D.

Consider the following when planning your trip;

 

1. Route

  • Do you know where you’re going?  

  • How familiar are you with the area?  

  • Do you have maps? Navigation?

  • Is the area within cell service?

  • Does anyone know where you’re going and how long you plan to be gone?

  • Are there bail-off points?  

  • If something goes wrong, have you researched other routes that might lead you back to your vehicle or to a different trailhead?

 

2. Weather

  • What’s the weather going to be like?  Check this daily leading up to your trip.

  • Are you prepared for weather systems to move in?

  • Does your gear match the conditions you’ll be in?  If it’s raining, do you have rain gear? If it’s cold do you have warming layers?

 

3. Skill Level

  • Does the trail match your skill level and that of the others in your group?

  • Is everyone in your group aware of what your hike entails?  If someone has a fear of water, it might not be a good idea to cross any large bodies of water.

 

4. Preventative Measures in Bear Country

  • In areas that have a high volume of bears, there may be a requirement to carry a bear canister.  Is the area you’re headed into such a place?

  • If not, do you have plans to hang your food or have some other solution?

 

5. Emergency Beacons

  • Do you have an emergency beacon? There are a lot of options these days for satellite tracking and communication.  With the push of a button, you can alert the authorities and rescue will be on the way.

 

6. Navigation

  • What navigational tools do you have on you?  Map and compass? Stand alone GPS? Mobile applications for your phone?

  • Do you know how to use these?  

  • Do others in your group have any of these devices and know how and when to use them?

 

7. First Aid and General Nutrition

  • Do you have what you need if an injury were to occur?

  • Does everyone in the group know where the first aid kit is?  Do they have their own?

  • Does everyone in the group have the proper amount of water and food for the trip?

 

By eliminating variables, you’ll find yourself not having to worry so much about “what might happen.”  We always hope for the best case scenario, but it’s also a good practice to think through what the “worst case” might be. While the worst may never happen, there’s always a chance that it could so coming up with plans to address those scenarios is just good practice.  Not every trip is the same so you’ll want to think through all of these items each time you head out. Eventually, it will become second nature and you’ll do it without even knowing it.

Always be safe and make the right choice based on yourself and those in the group.  If someone isn’t comfortable with a situation, don’t push it. Their hesitation might put you and everyone else at risk.

 
Making camp after a long day of backpacking
 

What to prepare for a backpacking trip
(food, water, shelter)

The outdoors can be a wonderful and inspiring place, but if you’re not prepared for you adventure with the minimum requirements, your experience will be less than idea.  Each and every person stepping down the trail has their own budgets, preferences, styles, and desires when it comes to gear and how it’s employed so it’s important to keep that in mind when you’re sorting through websites and gear reviews during your search for the perfect thing.

One thing that all of us have in common though is the need for food, water, and shelter.  These three things have been essential in bringing us all from the caves of yesteryear to the towering skyscrapers in New York City.  Regardless of your adventure, you must have these items, but they come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

 

Backpacking food guide

Feeding your body throughout your adventures is likely one of the most important things you could do if you hope to have a good time.  If we’re not properly fed we lose focus, energy, and mental sharpness.

When you’re exerting your body in the backcountry, you need to make sure that you’re replenishing the energy you’re putting out by eating the proper amount of food.  Because everyone has varying dietary restrictions and preferences on taste, we won’t be specific in the exact foods you should be eating, but we can help point you in the right direction with a few pieces of advice.

 

The Magic Food Formula

  • Every 5 miles = 500 calories & 1 liter of water

 

Eat at Least Once for Every 2 Hours of Hiking

  • I’ve personally made some big mistakes early on in my backpacking by waiting until the end of the day to eat.  We’re either distracted by the trail, the views, or just not hungry because your body is focused on pushing blood and energy to your legs and not your digestive system.  Meanwhile, regardless of how far you’re going and the terrain difficulty, our body is using up energy and if it’s not replenished regularly, it will become sluggish and tired which turns a great trip in to a not so fun one.  Even when you’re not hungry, it’s important to eat.

  • If you’re moving all day long, eating becomes even more important.  Eat well and you’ll perform well!

  • Leading up to a climb, I’ll take a break and eat some energy rich foods so that by the time I’m in need of that energy, it’s there waiting for me.  When I’m done with the climb, I’ll return to more fatty snacks.

 

Do What’s Best for You and Your Body

  • Everyone is different and the formula listed above is just a good place to start from.  Talk with your doctor before you head out so you can ensure that your health comes first and foremost when you’re out there.

 

Water tips for backpacking

Water is essential to success in the backcountry and you really only have two options for attaining it; bring it or find it.  Both come with their good and bad, so depending on what your situation is, how far you’re going, and what resources you’ll have on hand will cause you to lean in one direction or another.

At times you may have no other option but to carry all the water needed for your trip, but by far the most weight savings method is to find water when you’re backpacking.  Water weighs a lot so if you know you’ll have access to water along your route or at your destination, do yourself a favor and just plan on getting water from natural resources like streams, ponds, snow, or springs. Our modern immune systems are not used to the bacteria that may be hidden in these sources so you’ll need a method of ensuring you won’t get sick.  This will either be done via filter or other sterilizing method.

How to make clean drinking water is essential and there is no doubt more than one way to do it effectively.  You’ll have to decide for yourself how you want to do this depending on your situation. I use a Sawyer Squeeze.  It’s small, lightweight, and is simple to use. There are other filters that require pumping that work just as well. If you’re in an area that has more pools of water than running streams, then a pump style filter might work best for you.

There are also some non-filter options such as a Steripen that uses UV light to kill bacteria in a bottle of water or Aquamira.  Aquamira is a product you mix into your water to kill bacteria. The downside of these methods is if there is sediment or anything floating in your water, you’ll either drink it as well or have to strain it out somehow.

There is no right or wrong way to filter or sterilize water in the backcountry just as long as you make a plan to do it.  Going without treating water is just a risk that isn’t worth the pain and discomfort that comes along with drinking water straight from the source in the backcountry.  If you’re not sure what method works best in your area or the area you’re head into, contact a local outfitter, guide, or ranger station to find out what they recommend.

Just like food, water plays a key role in performance.  If you’re not hydrating, you’re putting yourself at risk and depending on the time of year, things can go from good to bad real quick.  Having a plan for how you’ll remain hydrated while backpacking is not something you’ll want to overlook and it’s important to plan ahead before you ever step foot down the trail.

 

Shelter selection & buying guide

Shelter in the backcountry can mean a lot of things, but most will agree that without some form of it, you risk not only a bad time, but your overall safety as well.  From bivy sacks to ultralight pyramid style shelters (or tipi’s), backcountry shelters come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. With those shapes and sizes come a myriad purposes.

Choosing a shelter can be confusing.  Before you go walking into your local outdoor store for a hands on experience, just know that shelters are a personal choice and for every person you ask, you’re going to get a different answer.

Each tent is designed with a specific user in mind and if you’re not that user then you’re going to be carrying more tent than needed, not enough, or something that just doesn’t work for what you’re doing.  Just like picking the right trail, you need to define for yourself what you need in a shelter.

 

To help hone in on the right tent, consider the following;

**Note to the reader: Tents are one of the heaviest items in a backpack…choose it wisely.

 

1. What time of year are you backpacking?  

If you’re headed out in the snow, you’ll probably want a 4 season tent.  But, if you’re like most backpackers, you’re probably backpacking during summer months and in fair weather conditions so you just need a 3 season tent.

 

2. Choose a reputable brand

There’s nothing wrong with choosing a shelter from a cottage brand, but just do your research before you spend that kind of money on a tent you’re not sure suits your needs.

Going with a brand you might find in stores like REI offer a sense of comfort in that those stores aren’t likely going to put something on their shelves that have a high rate of returns or that make the customer experience complicated.

For an initial tent, I think a great way to go is to choose a product from one of those bigger brands just to get your feet wet. When you’re ready to move on to a cottage company, you’ll know what you like and don’t like and have the comfort knowing you’re basing your sometimes expensive decision on your experience with a standard backpacking shelter.  

 
Topographical Map for backpacking
 

Finding your hiking trail

So you’ve spent the time sorting through all the various gear options, purchased said gear, and now you’re ready to hit the trail, but you have to find the right one for your experience level.  There’s nothing worse than having this big trip planned out only to find that a few miles in there are trail conditions that you’re uncomfortable with. Safety is paramount in the backcountry because Mother Nature doesn’t really care who you are and part of staying safe is choosing a route that is within your abilities.

First things first before ever stepping foot down a trail, just be honest with yourself about where your experience level is in the backcountry.  Are you prepared for steep climbs? Side-hilling? Snow fields? Off trail navigation? How about river crossings? Have you prepared mentally and physically for the conditions that might appear on the trail of your choosing?  Everyone is at a different place in backpacking when it comes to what they’re comfortable with and it’s not a bad thing that you’re not yet okay with crossing a snowfield next to a cliff that sits above an ice cold river.

 
 

Want to be successful in backpacking and have a great time?  Choose the time and place to push your boundaries and skills, but hone those skills on trails that suit your experience level.

 




Finding a trail can be a bit of a messy process.  Asking your alpinist friend what he or she suggests might result in a lot of steep climbs, but asking your foraging friends might find you deep in a forest with no views to be had.  Start by asking yourself what kind of backpacking trip you want.

Use the following to get started…

 

What do you want to see when backpacking?

    • Grand views?

    • Forest?

    • Desert?

    • Mountains?

    • Lakes or rivers?

 

How many days or nights can you go backpacking for?

  • If you only have one night, you might not have time to reach those high peaks so either extend the trip or pair it down.

 

What time of year are you backpacking?

  • If it’s winter, or even early spring, then you’ll be dealing with snow at higher elevations.

  • If it’s late spring and the trail you’ve chosen crosses a river at the bottom of snow capped mountains then you may see higher water levels that could put you in a hairy situation for fording the river.  

  • Late summer trips might be great for temperatures and overall comfort, but that could also mean less running water.

 

What’s your level of fitness?

  • If this is your first trip, don’t go crazy.  Backpacking requires a different set of muscles, so do yourself a favor and start small.  Maybe aim to have that multi-day 40 mile trek be at the end of the summer when you’ve had time to get into shape and work out the bugs with your equipment.

  • Choose a trail and distance that matches where you’re at physically.

 

How far do you want to go on your backpacking trip?

  • Part two of the above fitness question… again don’t go crazy right out of the gate.  Hiking all day can be fun, but I also really enjoy a nice 4 mile weekend overnighter.  You can take your time, explore a little more, and relax. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good long trip from time to time, but not EVERY time.  Backpacking doesn’t have a minimum amount of miles required so mix it up. All that matters is that you’re out there doing it and loving it.

 

What will your gear allow you to do?

  • Do your best to match your gear to the trail.  By this I mean you probably don’t want to spend a night in the snow with a tent made for summer backpacking.  If you want to hike long distances and camp in a new location each night, you’ll want a small and lightweight setup so covering miles isn’t as taxing.  If, on the other hand, you love your creature comforts and your gear is built more for lounging around, consider finding a trail that ends up at a lake or something so you can camp, relax, and enjoy those quiet moments before returning to the world again.

 

How far do you need or want to travel to the trail head?

  • Are you wanting to stay local or drive a significant distance to reach your destination?

 

If you ask yourself any number of these six questions, you’re going to narrow in on the kind of trail you’re looking for.  Next you just have to find that trail.

I use a number of tools to find trails to hike.  At a minimum, you can simply search the internet for “hiking/backpacking trails near me (or some other location).  Here’s a short list of how I might go about finding a trail to backpack.

Once you have a short list of trails that you think might suite your style, take the time to explore in detail what these trails might be like and require of you via the resources listed above.  At first this is going to seem very tedious, but doing the work up front now so you can enjoy yourself later. Eventually you won’t have to do as much research, because you’ll naturally be prepared for varying trail conditions.  Your gear will match your style and what was once a big deal will be an afterthought or a fun portion of the trail.

The last step is to just go find out for yourself what that trail is like in person.  This is the backpacking part and why you’re doing this in the first place! You’ll never fully know EVERYTHING about a trail, but that’s the fun part.  This entire exercise is built to put your mind at ease and increase enjoyment. It’s not a perfect science...it’s backpacking!

 
Backpacking through an alpine meadow
 

Take action and do it!

This is the part where you get up and make it happen! There’s really only so much research you can do before you have to experience for yourself.

Take it from a guy who sat around far too long wanting the adventure but never having it. At some point you have to decide that the sunrise, sunset, or expansive view won’t come to you, you have to go to it and that’s where the adventures begin!

Backpacking is an art. It can challenge us in so many ways but the payoff is is great that it’s worth every minute of it.

Now get out there and start backpacking!

 

By Land,

Emory R. Wanger