You’re thinking of going backpacking for the first time and hit the internet looking for the basics. All of a sudden, there are hundreds of videos telling you what to do and what not to do and they don’t all match up.
That’s because backpackers are opinionated people who want to help but also think their way of doing things is the best way.
The truth is, there’s no right way to backpack. There’s no right equipment. There’s no right amount of mileage in a day. There’s no right food to eat.
Everyone is unique with their own preferences and style.
In the end, focus on your goal. Are you trying to pound miles and push yourself, or are you trying to get away and experience great things? These are both valid goals, they just require different preparation.
Before you get too far into gear, let’s talk about a few basics.
Learn What You Can About Gear
There’s a lot of information out there and you’ll hear “you must get this,” or “don’t ever buy this,” but take this with a grain of salt. No one should be telling you what to do or buy.
Listen to why people say something is good or bad. You’ll begin to understand the pros and cons of certain equipment and, once you add your own preferences, narrow down what you personally do and don’t like.
This is why it’s important to follow several different people.
Visit local outfitters to check out equipment in person. For example, it’s helpful to get a sense of the difference between synthetic and down sleeping bags.
Don’t stress about weight but be thoughtful about how it’s adding up as you select gear. Also, watch your wallet. Have a budget and stick to it because backpacking gear can add up if you’re not careful. Choosing gear is a balance between weight and cost. Lower-weight items are pricier in the backpacking universe.
Know that your first trip will be your heaviest. You don’t know how much food you’ll need, or if you’ll prefer a long or short-sleeved shirt to sleep in. Sure, it’s extra weight, but you’ll also figure out your preferences faster. After a few trips, you’ll find it easier to drop weight just by packing fewer items.
Here are a few resources to help you out.
Clothing for Backpacking
Most people find they feel warmer backpacking than day hiking. Layering is important when backpacking because you’ll need to adjust throughout the day. When you stop for lunch or when you’re sitting at camp in the evening, it can feel colder than when you’re moving.
You don’t need to buy all new clothing for backpacking. The most important item is a base layer that wicks moisture away from you. Many gym or running shirts do this well and can be used.
Here are a few tips to help you think through your clothing.
Think Through When and Where for Your First Trip
Plan your first trip in warmer weather like spring or summer. You’ll have a safety net if things go south because hypothermia is less of a concern.
Also, consider somewhere like a State Park. There will be other people around, primitive campsites generally have bear lockers, and water tends to be more reliable. It’s a great way to practice as you get your systems together.
By system I mean how you’re going to set up camp when you arrive, manage your food, and pack things up in the morning. The first thing you’ll do when you get to camp is pitch your tent and set up your sleep system. Next, I like to pull everything with a scent together so I’m not finding items that need to go in the bear locker at midnight. Filtering water is best done in daylight so you’ll want to get that done too.
If you haven’t done this before, you’ll be slower. As you go through the motions, you’ll learn you prefer doing things in a different order, and you may rethink how you’ve packed everything. Most backpackers have their system down after 3 to 4 trips.
On your first trip, aim for lower mileage. I recommend keeping it at 6 miles or less per. If you don’t live in the mountains, an 800-foot elevation climb can be more taxing than you think. Also, the pack is a great equalizer. I’ve seen people who run 5 miles 3 times a week tank on day one. I’ve also seen people that seem out of shape do well.
You really don’t know how it’s going to go until you try. Backpacking is an odd mix of cardio and strength in the right ratios.
Once you’ve got your system down and know your pace and comfortable mileage, the sky’s the limit.
Planning Your Trip
Spend time planning your trip. I see people take hours if not days figuring out what to pack, then spend 15 minutes planning the actual trip.
Where are the trailheads? Where can you park? Do you need a permit? Are bear canisters required? Where are the campsites? Is there reliable water at camp or along the route? Where’s the last place you can get water before camp?
What’s the route? Do you need to switch trails to make a loop? Is there any information online? Do the GPS apps have information on the route? Can you get a map of the area?
If it’s somewhere you’ve never been, it should take at least an hour or two to plan the trip, and that’s an easy trip. More complex trips to wilderness areas may take longer. It all depends on what you can find online.
Wrapping Up Backpacking Basics
The most important thing about backpacking is confidence. Once you realize you can handle anything that comes your way, you’ll find it easier to pack and plan trips.
And don’t forget to have fun. That’s what it’s all about.