OUTDOOR BASICS

Backpacking 101: Tips for Hitting the Trail for the First Time

Backpacking 101
Jessica Bayne
Written by Jessica Bayne

After a few trips car camping, some people look for an experience to get them closer to nature, a little further away from a tent pad with a parking spot right next to it and a bit away from the crowds. Backpacking is a great way to get into the backcountry and into more of a wilderness setting.

The thing is that there are some differences between car camping and backpacking though. If you know these beforehand your first outing can be a lot smoother than learning on the fly. Consider this your backpacking 101 or a guide on how to go backpacking.

Person Backpacking

Like any 101 course, we will just be touching the surface on a wide number of topics, almost all of them could have, and many do have, books written on them. This should serve as a jumping off point. At the end of this article, you will at least have some idea of the things to consider for your first backpacking trip.

What is Backpacking?

Generally speaking, backpacking is a type of camping that you carry your gear with you from campsite to campsite. While backpacking can include going from hostel or hostel or even hiking next to a highway, the classic picture that comes to mind is a small group of people wandering through the backcountry, miles away from any other person.

The backcountry is another term that is rather difficult to define, everyone is pretty sure when they are in the backcountry and when they aren’t, but the dividing line is something of a gray area. The easiest definition might be to go simply is that the backcountry starts one step further than you are willing to take your cooler.

Backcountry Backpacking

As we look through our definitions you will quickly note the biggest difference when it comes to backpacking. When we talking about carrying all your gear and not wanting to bring the cooler, we need to think about size and weight of every item that is coming along. A major challenge is bringing the gear that you need to have and leaving home a good chunk of the extra stuff that you might just want to have along.

Packing Guide

Since we are looking at that gear, let’s break down the gear that you may need. Remember that this, just like any backpacking packing list that is not made by the person going on the trip is a suggestion at best. There are some backpackers that won’t leave boot trodden footprint number one without knowing that they have their special pillow in their pack.

Backpacking Packs

Others will cut most of the handle off their toothbrush to save a few ounces. You need to make the decisions of what you are able to carry, what you are willing to leave back at home and how much of each you are bringing.

Pack

It isn’t called backpacking for nothing. Your pack, perhaps more than any other single piece of gear will make the difference between a pleasant trip and a grueling forced march that you never want to repeat. There are quite a few factors that go into your pack. The first is the size of pack that you need. This is the volume of gear that you can carry with you.

Many times, you’ll find this given in liters, if you are going for just a night or two you might want to look at something in a 40 to 50 liter pack. Up to 5 nights normally take a mid-sized pack, those can range from 50 to 70 liters. Expedition packs are meant for longer journeys and can go from 80 liters up to 110 liters and beyond. Remember the larger the pack the more weight that you may be tempted to add to it.

Backpacking Backpacks

The next consideration is the style of pack. At a basic level, you have internal and external frames. Each has their perks and their drawbacks. If you are looking for a guide to picking the right pack, you’ll want an article based solely on that to discuss all the ins and outs. You’ll find that no matter the style though they all tend to have padded shoulder pads and a padded belt. Unlike a regular school style pack, this one the weight will sit mostly on your hips and the shoulder straps are there for balance.

Shelter

Now that you have a place to put your gear while you are hiking, you’ll need a place to stay overnight. Now, there are some styles of backpacking that people stay in hostels or hotels or even other’s couches. However, if you are in the backcountry, you are going to be responsible for your own shelter.

This is another area that you will have to make some choices based on where you are going, who you are with, how much weight you want to carry and how comfortable you are sleeping outside. Your shelter can take a number of different forms. You may be able to get a good night sleep with merely a blanket and sleep out under the stars.

One Person Backpacking Tent

For other people, they may be more comfortable in a tent with a sleeping bag and pad. There are a wide variety of steps in between these two as well. As far as tents there are options that can sleep a single person, two people or even more. Bigger tents can add more weight, but you can divide up among a number of people in your group.

As for sleeping bags, most of the ones taken backpacking tend to be mummy style bags. These are more tampered, while it means that you have less room in your sleeping bag, there is also less air for your body to heat and you will generally be warmer. These bags are also usually made from synthetic materials which both keep the bag lighter and help it dry quicker.

Gear

So many people learn camp cooking with a two-burner propane stove. However, these don’t fit really well into a pack. There are a wide variety of stoves that have been designed for backpacking. They generally have a single burner. They either run off a canister of fuel or have a fuel tank that you can pour a separate liquid fuel in. While there are some highlights to a separate fuel, many people starting out like the simplicity of a canister.

 

Best alcohol stove

As far as kitchen gear, the biggest change tends to be going from all the pots and pans you can cram into your car to just a few. As you start planning your menu you might quickly find that you can make most of the meals in either a single pot or pan. There are some kitchen utensils that are made to save weight for backpacking, many people will just take a limited number of tools that they can use in a number of ways.

Depending on where you are going, you could come in contact with wild animals. This means that you may have to take precautions to keep your food safe. The two main methods tend to be hanging your gear in a tree or placing them in a food vault. The tree method means less gear, as you just need a rope, which you probably already packed. The food vault is a plastic container designed to keep wild animals out. Many locations now recommend a food vault over the tree method.

Food

Since we have mentioned that you aren’t going to be dragging a cooler into the backcountry, you might think that you are somewhat limited as to what kind of food you can bring with you. While it is true that you aren’t going to be bringing fresh milk and cans of food, there is a wide variety of options that you can bring.

Dehydrated Salad

The easiest method of having food in the backcountry is to go with a dehydrated option. This normally calls for water to be boiled and added to the pouch the food is in. Another option is to bring other food that does not to be preserved. While this method does limit your options somewhat, there are generally enough options to last for a couple days on the trail.

Clothes

When you start looking at going backpacking you will want to think about what to wear. Just like the other things on the list weight matters. A number of companies offer clothing that has been designed to use lightweight fabrics that are still designed to feel comfortable and still work well on the trail.

Person Backpacking

Perhaps the biggest thing to consider when packing for a trip backpacking is that you don’t need a whole new outfit every day. While on the trail it is ok to wear some pieces for several days in a row. Less clothing packed means more room for other things, like pillows and food.

Footwear

Yes, your shoes are important enough to be considered separately from the rest of your clothing. While you are toting your pack, you will be covering some number of miles carrying gear, normally over uneven terrain. This means that you need to have shoes that not only have a good grip, but that will keep your feet comfortable and ready to do more miles the next day.

Backpacking Shoes

Even though through most of this pack list we have hit the point of saving weight and considering leaving things at home when it comes to shoes you want to think about an extra pair. Many people find that it is a wonderful feeling to make camp, take off their hiking boots and then put on a pair of camp shoes. These are generally lightweight and open to let your feet breath.

Other Considerations

Now that you have a good feel for what gear you need to bring with you on your trek, you’ll need to consider some of the other differences between backpacking and car camping. Some of these won’t be much of a change, but others will add a good bit of planning forethought to make sure you have things in place to be handled.

Water

For most of us, we don’t need to think about where our water will come from. We walk to a faucet, turn it on and water comes out. It is clean and ready to be consumed. When you are out in the backcountry that isn’t normally an option.

You can start out carrying a chunk of water and many people will have a number of bottles with them, but with water tipping the scales at about 8 pounds a gallon, you probably aren’t going to want to carry all the water you’ll need from the beginning.

Water Source on the Trail

The other option is to find a source of water on the trail. This could be a river, stream or stopping by a more civilized area to get water. If you are getting water from a wild source, like a river or lake, you need to consider getting your water clean. Even if the water looks clear, it may contain microscopic bugs that can make you ill. Luckily, there are tons of methods to purify your water.

Wildlife

As we mentioned in our packing list you have to consider wildlife as we think about what to do with our food, but there are other areas that we need to think of these animals as well. Since you are out further than most people go, you are more likely to come across some animals. These could be animals that might cause you some harm. While most animals aren’t out to get you, it is best to be ready.

If an animal charge at you, turning and running is a bad idea. Normally the animal then sees you as prey and will generally move faster than you. A better idea is to stand your ground and make yourself seem as big and as loud as possible.

Taking Photos of Wildlife

On the other hand, you can get a view of different animals that most people might not come across. And since the majority of animals aren’t going to just up and charge you, you will end up with some memories and possibly photos that will stay with you forever.

Physical Training

Backpacking isn’t hard. At its base, it is walking with a backpack on, which is a set of skills that most people can accomplish. However, before you strap on a pack and hit the trail, you need to be honest with yourself about how in shape you are. There are plenty of trail options that have easy trails without much of an elevation gain. There are other trails that have rough terrain and lots of mountains. You need to match your physical level with the level of the trail you are on.

Emergencies

While it is great to get away from everyone, when things go wrong you are still away from everyone. This means that you might need to do a little more planning in this area than you might otherwise have to. There are some areas while you are out on the trail where you can get great cell phone reception and on the same trail a little way further down there might be no reception at all. You can’t always count on calling for help.

Looking for Cell Signal

This means that the first aid kit that you carry is more important. It is a good idea to know how to take some time to understand the first aid procedures for the most common problems. There are also a number of signal beacons that don’t rely on cell phones to get a signal out to someone else.

If you are very concerned about the problems that might arise, there are a number of first aid courses that focus on being in the backcountry and having to rely on only yourself or your group.

Wrapping Up

Keep in mind that this backpacking guide is only the 10,000 ft view of what you need to know. Backpacking does not have to be difficult or to be feared. This is a type of camping that can take you away from the crowds and give you a number of views and experiences that you won’t be able to get if you are tied to car camping.

People Backpacking

There are some difficulties that you can come across that you might not otherwise, but with the proper planning, these can be easily overcome. We haven’t dived into the depths of all the solutions for these issues, but we have highlighted a few that you can look into more to come up with a solution that you feel comfortable in.

Lastly, we’d love to hear your opinions on the subject as well. What are some of the things that you think a first timer should know before picking up their pack and getting some miles on their hiking boots? Let us know in the comments section below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Bayne

Jessica Bayne

Jessica believes that the only things you need to explore the world are a good backpack and a bit of courage to make the first steps. She also loves the beauty of a sunset seen from the mountaintop and the delicious flavor of a meal prepped over the camping fire. Ready to start a new adventure at any given time, Jessica knows how to be prepared for any situation and understands how important is to find the right gear. She also knows a lot about the type of gear to have and how to choose the products you actually need.