OUTDOOR BASICS

How to Plan a Backpacking Trip: Leave Nothing Behind

How to Plan a Backpacking Trip
Jessica Bayne
Written by Jessica Bayne

You finally get to your campsite, you’re ready to get your tent unpacked, only to realize you’ve left your stakes behind. And your sleeping bag. And the means to start a fire. Leaving behind some essential part of your hear is something all campers go through, but you can avoid this problem by learning how to plan a backpacking trip, which we’re about to teach you.

Having to remember every single thing that you need to take with you on your trip can be daunting, especially if you’re preparing for the trip all by yourself. Thankfully, we’re going to make planning a backpacking trip look a little less formidable by providing you with an easy checklist to remember. That way, your next trip will be that much more enjoyable when you realize that you have everything you need with you.

Backpacks on the Ground

So stop scrambling around your home, sit and take a breather, because we’re about to make your backpacking experience a lot easier.

Weight Versus Cost

Firstly, it’s important to remember that when considering what gear to bring with you, you may have to consider the trade-off between cost and weight. Lighter, minimalist gear is going to be a little more expensive, but you’ll be able to travel much farther and be more comfortable throughout your trip. Cheaper gear, on the other hand, is going to be slightly heavier, and it may end up breaking after a few uses.

Budget the cost of your gear by focusing on the most important parts of your kit. Tents and sleeping bags are two of the most important parts of your gear, so you’ll want to consider spending more money on these elements to ensure that they’re in working order.

Backpacking Tent

Once that’s taken care of, you’ll want to look at food. There’s more wiggle room here, as canned foods are great to have, and are extremely cheap. You can choose to go a little more expensive too, if you want to take dehydrated fruits, soup mixes, and other kinds of dried food with you.

The rest of your gear, such as clothing, GPS units, compasses, emergency kits, to name a few, are all a matter of preference. Given, cheaper items may not do the job as well, but it’s not a guarantee that your trip will be ruined if you choose to save money on these items rather than going for the most expensive products.

Going with Friends or Solo

There’s nothing like having some peace and quiet, away from the rest of society. If you’re one of those backpackers who’s interested in hitting the trail solo, then you should definitely keep in mind that you’re going to have to be doing everything yourself.

watching start near solo tent

That means setting up camp, taking it down, preparing your meals, ensuring everything is tied down properly, and being in charge of your travel route. That’s a lot for one person to do, and if you don’t have a lot of endurance or patience, all of that responsibility can wear down anyone.

However, that shouldn’t deter you if you plan on trekking it alone. It can be thrilling to be in charge of every aspect of your trek and survival. But you should definitely tell somewhere where you’ll be going and how long you plan to be backpacking so that if something does happen, they’ll know where to contact the authorities to look for you.

Backpacking with Friend

On the other hand, backpacking with other people can be just as fun. Delegating duties makes it easier for everyone so they all get a chance to relax. It also means that you can carry more gear to ensure everyone’s comfort level, but you will have to bring more supplies and food to do so.

Destination

The first thing you want to take into consideration when packing for your trip is where exactly you’ll be going. This can be somewhere that inspires you, allows you to set back and relax, or gives you a challenge that you’re eager to conquer. But doing some research beforehand is better than winging it, as this will set the precedence for what you’re going to need to bring with you.

Are you going to be heading somewhere that has warm climates throughout the year? Are you going to be hiking up a snowy mountain? Knowing beforehand will help you figure out what’s essential and what you can choose to leave behind.

Person is Taking Photos

It’s also important to consider the time of year you’ll be traveling. Spring and fall temperatures are usually the easiest for most people to work with, as it never gets too hot or too cold that requires extreme measures of preparation. But if you do choose to travel during the summer or winter months, you’re going to have to do some extra planning.

  • Summer: hydration and sunburn are the biggest threats you’ll face. Be sure that you have a constant supply of clean drinking water; this can be in the form of bottled water you carry with you, iodine/chlorinating tablets that you can add to your water, or having bottles with filters in them to remove bacteria and protozoa that live in bodies of water. To combat sunburn, bring some sunscreen, and breathable clothing that covers the skin.
  • Winter: the low temperatures themselves will be the biggest challenge you face. Pack lots of clothing that you can layer over each other to trap essential body heat, bring meals that are easy to make that you can heat up over a fire, and invest in four-season tents and sleeping bags to help you stay even warmer.

Backpacking in the Winter

Distance

How far are you going to be traveling on a daily basis? Are you going to be making small hikes at a time, or are you seeking to complete day-long journeys? Planning ahead how many miles you’re going to be traveling each day on foot, as well as the kind of terrain you’ll be working will determine the kind of gear you’ll bring with you.

Short hikes mean that you’ll be able to carry a little more gear, so that you can still have the energy to set up and take down everything again each day. Longer hikes, however, require you to be a little more minimalist with your gear and to only focus on the bare essentials that you’ll need for survival. The same can be said for upwards trails, as you don’t want to be burdened with a lot of heavy gear that will make climbing even more strenuous.

Hiking

It’s also essential that you plan your route beforehand. Flying by the seat of your past may seem freeing, but if you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to figure out how to get back? Planning a route will also help you to budget just how far you can walk each day, as well as where the best camping spots will be. Look at aerial view maps of the area you’re going to be backpacking in so that you can be somewhat familiar with the topographical features you’ll be encountering.

Working Out

Backpacking, in and of itself, is a grueling trek, even if you’re not carrying all of the gear by itself. Being out of shape will reduce how many miles you can get in a day, so it wouldn’t hurt to engage in some workout routines before your trip. Two to three workouts per week should be fine, and should involve some cardio and working on your leg strength. Your endurance will improve over time, so you can walk for much longer than you would without.

Testing your Gear

How are you going to be able to function at your campsite if you don’t know how to make anything work? Setting up your minimalist tent could be more difficult than you originally thought, so instead of fumbling around in the woods, it’s a good idea to take all of your gear for a test run.

Testing the Tent

Camping in your backyard is a great way to do that. See how your tent is put together, how much space is inside for all of your gear, and whether your sleeping bag has enough cushioning against the ground or if you need to bring a footprint. See if your backpack is the right size bay shoving all of your essential gear into it. Is it too heavy for you to carry? Do the straps need to be altered so that it feels more comfortable on your back?

Do you know how to use your firestarter kit? Reading the instructions is all well and good, but you won’t know how to make it work without a few test runs. We’re not saying to clear out your lawn in preparation for a roaring campfire, but it wouldn’t hurt to gather a few bundles of twigs and sticks to see just how hard it will be to start a fire on your own.

Testing Fire Starter Kit

Testing out your gear will also help you to figure out what’s faulty before your trip so that you can have it replaced. You can’t do that if you’re already on your trip. Once you’ve figured out how all of your gear works, then you’ll have much easier time setting everything up once you get to your campsite. That means less time wasted figuring it out and more time spent enjoying yourself.

Essential Gear

Now that we’ve discussed what to do before your trip, it’s time to take a look at what you should be packing. This section will be divided up into the various essentials to make it easy for you to create your own checklist: clothing, food, camping-related gear, and general/emergency gear.

Clothing

Your clothing is your last barrier of defense between you and the elements you’ll be in. What clothing you choose can make or break your trip, as they need to be suitable for the climate of your backpacking area. It may feel like a failsafe to just bring a wide variety of clothing, but this can end up overburdening you with gear you’ll never use.

Two Woman Backpacking

It will take up space that you could have used for other, more important gear. This is why it’s important to research the area you’ll be in beforehand, as well as taking the time of year into consideration.

  • Synthetic clothing is going to be key, as its breathable, light, and is moisture-wicking. This is great for keeping the sweat off of your body so that you can feel cooler and won’t be bogged down with sweat-laden clothing. Synthetic clothing is also available in brighter colours, making it easier for others to spot you amongst the trees.
    Convertible pants give you the control of staying warm or cooling off. Just undo the zippers or snaps, and your pants become a great pair of shorts. An invaluable item to have especially if you’re going to be doing a lot of hiking or climbing.
  • Waterproof clothing is a must; you never know what Mother Nature is going to bring your way, and the last thing you want is to get drenched while you’re in the middle of your hike. Again, look for synthetic materials such as those made with Gore-Tex, or look for items that have received DWR treatment.
    On the other hand, you could save some money by purchasing spray-on DWR products and treating your clothing yourself. Just keep in mind that you’re probably not going to get exactly the same experience, and that you’re going to have to reapply the product in the future in order to get the same protection.
  • Thermal underwear and mid-layer fleeces will be great for those cooler months out of the year. They’re thin enough that they can be layered under other clothing, but work great at trapping your body heat and keeping you warm. You can also sleep in them instead of packing extra pajamas. Also consider adding a beanie and a thin pair of gloves just for an added bit of protection.
  • Puffy jackets, usually filled with down or synthetic stuffing, are great against snow and strong winds. Their synthetic material will keep out any wind while still maintaining your body heat. More expensive versions are breathable so that you’re not sweating under all those layers.
  • The shoes are one of the most essential items of climbing, as they essentially determine how much walking you’re going to be doing. Hiking boots are a great choice, as they have wonderful treads on the bottom that provide you with grip to keep moving forward. However, they can be a little on the hefty side, so it’s best to try them on in the store to see what your ankles and knees can handle.

Shoes for Backpacking

You may also choose to just go with sneakers during the summer months as they allow your feet to breathe more easily, and are much lighter. No matter which you choose to go with, be sure that they’re broken in before your trip so that they’re comfortable.

Meals

Do you plan to cook over an open fire or do you want to prepare on cookware? The former allows you travel lighter, but you’re slightly limited in the kinds of meals you’ll have. The latter does require some extra preparation, but there’s nothing stopping you from making scrambled eggs, wonderful burritos, and a hot bowl of macaroni and cheese.

If you’re going to be traveling with other people, it’s also important that you take everyone’s dietary needs into account, especially food allergies. Having someone with anaphylactic shock is not a great way to spend your backpacking trip.

Lunch in Lunchboxes

To plan ahead, you should plan a menu for every day. This way, you know how much food you should really bring. For example, some dinners can double as leftovers for breakfast the next day so you won’t have to bring food to prepare every single day. If you’re traveling with several people, then the best estimation is to bring 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of food per person during the warmer months, and at least 2 pounds per person for the winter months.

  • Non-perishable foods: these are your dry ingredients like pasta, rice, and beans. They take a long time to spoil, and are versatile enough to be combined with any of the other foods you’ll be bringing with you.
  • Perishable foods: these include meat, cheese, vegetables, as well as canned foods. These are items you should get right before your trip and keep them in a cooler so that you’ll get the most out of them before they start to spoil. It would be best to keep them in a travel cooler during your trip.
  • Seasonings: it’s fun to eat bland meals every single day, so transfer small amounts of your regular spices (especially salt and pepper!) into smaller containers that you can bring with you. You’ll be glad that you have something to add a little extra flavour to your cooking meat.
  • Water: to ensure you have enough for everyone, bring at least two liters per person, and more in hot weather. Water filters and purification tablets will help you to resupply from sources of water when you’ve run out.
  • Cookware: many people choose to go for the cast iron set, as they’re durable and won’t rust, but they can be a bit heavy. However, they do do a great job of cooking your meals evenly. Stainless steel cookware is easier to clean and lighter, but they can rust over time and so duffer from hot spots that can lead to uneven cooking.

On Site Cooking

In order to ensure that you have enough space for all your food, remove them from their containers and place them into ziplock bags. Feel free to bag them in proportional sizes and label them which meal you intend to have them with. That helps you to see just how much food you’ll have on hand.

Also remember to bring food that you enjoy eating. Who wants to be stuck out in the woods eating meals that they don’t like?

Lastly, it’s a great idea to carry animal-proof containers to store your food in while you’re sleeping. You’re not the only one who thinks your meals smell great, and nosy critters will want to scope out your food for themselves. To deter bears, the best thing to do is to place food in a stuff sack and hang it from a tree as high as possible so that they can’t get to it.

Bear Canister

Camp-related Gear

This is the catch-all for everything else that doesn’t fall into the above categories. This includes maps, compasses, tents, sleeping bags, and other means of making your camping experience enjoyable.

  • Maps and GPS: getting lost in the woods is easier than you think, because everything can start to look the same. Plot your route before you start traveling, and make sure that you’re staying on course by checking your GPS unit every now and again. Expensive units can even tell you how high you’re going, as well as the barometric pressure around you, which is great for determining whether it’s about to rain soon or not.
  • Tents: these are sold based on season and how many people can fit inside. They usually come in two-, three-, and four-seasons, which determines how much protection you’ll get from the elements as well as how well they can handle different temperatures.
    The sizing of the tent is also important if you want to be comfortable. If your tent is sized based on how many people can fit inside, keep in mind that this is shoulder to shoulder, so if you’re not a fan of being cramped, it’s a good idea to get a tent that’s more than the number of people traveling with you. This will also provide you with enough space to keep all of your gear while you’re sleeping instead of leaving your backpacks outside.
  • Sleeping bags: these come in down or synthetic, and there are pros and cons to both. Down sleeping bags are the ultimate choice in providing warmth, and aren’t very heavy. However, they’re not water-resistant at all, and tend to be more expensive than synthetic sleeping bags. Synthetics are cheaper, are more water-resistant, and can roll up easily to stuff in your stuff sack when you’re ready to go, but won’t provide as much as warmth as down.

Backpacking Gear

General/Emergency Gear

When push comes to shove, you’re going to need some extra tools with you to ensure that when things hit the fan, you’re prepared to deal with them. That means taking along extra gear to ensure your safety, as well as taking care of any mishaps that may occur with your gear.

  • Rope/Paracord: if your tent gets destroyed, you can still tie up the fabric with some Paracord to make a makeshift shelter. It’s a lot better than just sitting in the rain. Paracord also has plenty of other uses, such as helping to make a sling for an injured arm, tying a stabilizing board for a splint, replacement shoelaces or belt, or you can completely unravel the Paracord to use the threads as sutures for wounds. The many uses make this invaluable.
  • Lighter/matches/firestarter kits: having the means to get a fire going is essential to cooking meals as well as staying warm once the sun has set. It also provides a sense of comfort, especially since you’re out in unfamiliar territory.
  • Headlamps/flashlights: since you can’t carry around torches in the middle of the woods, you’re going to need something to light your way. There are more options than the typical flashlight, such as those that are solar-powered and store the energy, or use rechargeable batteries.
  • Pocket knife: a sharp enough blade is good for skinning game, cutting rope, breaking down sticks and twigs to use as kindling, or sharpening them to make into weapons. A knife can also be used as a defensive weapon, should you encounter something (or someone) that doesn’t like having you around.
  • First aid kit: accidents do happen, and it’s good to be prepared to take care of injuries and cuts. An infection can settle in a lot quicker than you think if you don’t care of it properly, and that can jeopardize your trip as well as your health. Pack the essentials, such as bandaids, cloth bandages, burn ointment, allergy medication, bite and sting ointment, anti-itch lotion, tweezers, antiseptic wipes, and medical tape. Add to this for those who have special medical needs, check expiration dates on all items before taking on your trip, and replace the ones that have expired.

First Aid Kit

Securing Permits

Also be sure that you have all of your paperwork in order. Some parks are absolutely free and don’t require any climbing permits, while others require you to apply months in advance. There are also permits for starting campfires, as well as setting up tents. Look into the rules and regulations of the area you’re going to be in to ensure you’re not going to break any federal law in place, as the fines can be pretty hefty.

Leave it As you Find It

The most important rule of your entire backpacking trip should be to leave your camping area as you found it. There’s nothing more disheartening than coming across a site where someone has been before, and finding it littered with garbage. But this involves more than picking up your garbage: you’ll have to learn what to do when it comes to getting rid of your excrement, carrying out your used toilet paper, and where to set up your tent that minimizes its impact on the surrounding area.

Tent

The woods belong to the animals and nature, so you should pay it the same respect you’d want guests to pay you if they were in your home.

Overview

We know that this is a lot to take in, but we hope that you’ve found our information invaluable in preparing for your trip. It’s a healthy dose of information, but being over-prepared is better than being under-prepared. Build a checklist from the details we’ve laid out for you, modify it to your specifics, and start preparing!

Do you have a backpacking story you’d like to share with us? Did you have an experience with a certain piece of gear you’d like to tell us about? Please do so in the comments section below, as we’d love to hear from you.

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.