How to Backpack – A Travel Guide for the Beginners

Backpacking is like a mix of hiking and camping in the wild. It takes you far beyond the regular campgrounds, offering a more immersive outdoor adventure. 

Unlike day hiking, the difference is that everything you must fit in your backpack. Thus, you’ve got to choose your essentials wisely for this on-the-go experience.

1: Choose Where You Want to Go

Keep it simple when choosing your backpacking adventure. Opt for an easier hike to avoid a miserable experience or too much driving. Here are some tips for your first backpacking trip:

  • Get advice from experienced backpackers: Ask hiking club members or REI store staff for trip recommendations. Hiking guidebooks can also be helpful.
  • Choose a nearby location: Spend more time in hiking rather than driving. Pick a place close to home with aa lot of time reach your camp before dark.
  • Keep it short: Plan for a few miles round trip, considering that walking with a heavier pack is slower and more challenging.
  • Limit elevation gain: Select a trail with a moderate elevation gain, making it more manageable than your typical day hike.
  • Opt for a well-traveled trail and established camp: Having fellow hikers nearby can be helpful in case of difficulties.
  • Ensure a water source near camp: Check with local land managers about water availability, especially if relying on streams or springs.
  • Consider leaving pets and kids behind: Their presence can complicate things, so it might be best to go solo for your first trip.
  • Choose summer weather: Aim for mid-summer to maximize daylight hours and increase the likelihood of comfortable conditions. Always check weather forecasts.
  • Explore “walk-in” campgrounds: Some parks have campgrounds close to car campgrounds, providing a smooth transition into backpacking. Use the maps of Muir Way to get more information in this regard.
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2: Pack the Essentials

To keep your initial costs low, consider borrowing or renting the pricier items like your tent, sleeping bag, and pad. Boots and, to some extent, packs should be your personal gear as they need to fit well. Here’s a rundown of essential backpacking gear to bring:

Tent: Sharing a two-person tent is lighter and more economical. Opt for a three-season tent suitable for spring, summer, and fall. Check out guides on how to choose and the best options available.

Backpack: If borrowing, ensure it fits comfortably. Load it with about 30 pounds for a test hike. If buying, get properly measured by an REI specialist. Avoid ultralight models for your first trip; they lack padding and support.

Sleeping bag: Consider the weather conditions and choose between down fill and synthetic fill. For starters, a synthetic bag is versatile and more affordable. Learn more about choosing the right sleeping bag.

Sleeping pad: Cushioning and insulation matter. Closed-cell foam pads, self-inflating pads, and  insulated air pads, offer different benefits. Choose based on your comfort preferences. Learn more about selecting a sleeping pad.

Stove: If you have a lightweight single-burner camp stove, it should suffice. Gas-canister stoves are popular for beginners due to affordability and ease of use. Pack the right type of fuel. Learn more about choosing a backpacking stove.

Water treatment: Treat all water in the wild, even if it looks clean. For your first trip, consider chemical treatment options like tablets or drops. Learn about water filter and purifier options.

Kitchen supplies: Save money by using camping gear or items from a thrift shop. Bring enough pots, cups, plates, pans, and utensils for your planned meals. Don’t forget a small sponge, biodegradable soap, and a tiny towel for cleaning dishes away from camp and water sources.

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3: Clothes You Need to Bring

No need to splurge on special “hiking clothes” for your first backpacking trip. 

Just rummage through your workout wear and pick items made of moisture-wicking materials like nylon and polyester. 

These fabrics pull sweat away, keeping you dry. Make sure to steer clear of cotton—it soaks up water and takes forever to dry, which could lead to chilling or, worst case, hypothermia.

Organize your backpacking clothing into layers:

  • Base layers (long underwear): Essential for chilly nights, even after warm days.
  • Hiking layers: Consider nylon pants (rollup or zip-off), T-shirts, a sun shirt, and a sun hat.
  • Insulation: Pack a a lightweight fleece pullover, puffy vest or jacket, and a warm hat with gloves.
  • Rainwear: Bring a waterproof jacket; whether to include rain pants depends on the weather forecast (also helpful against mosquito bites).

Layering lets you adapt quickly to changing conditions and provides a sturdy defense against sudden storms bringing cold and rain. 

If you have yoga pants orathletic tights , they can become either your hiking pants or base layer. Just note they might lack stash pockets and be more prone to snags and abrasion.

4: Bring the Right Shoes

Choosing the right footwear is key for a successful backpacking trip, as your feet are crucial. Some go for supportive over-the-ankle boots, while others prefer lightweight trail running shoes.

Make sure whatever you choose is well broken-in before you head out. Opt for synthetic socks and think about packing water sandals or ultralight shoes for camp and creek crossings.

5: Consider What You Want to Eat

For an overnight backpacking trip, plan meals wisely: dinner, breakfast, and a couple of lunches. Freeze-dried backpacking food is easy but can be pricey. 

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Save cash by hitting the grocery store instead. Since there’s no cooler, skip perishables like fresh eggs. Check out Meal Planning for Backpacking for more details.

Avoid heavy canned food, and estimate your food needs accurately to prevent excess weight. Pack extra for an additional day in the wild. Here are meal-planning tips:

  • Dinner: Opt for all-in-one meals like packaged noodle or rice entrees. Transfer boxed meals to a plastic bag for easier packing.
  • Lunches and snacks: Pack high-protein , high-calorie energy bars as well as trail mix for on-the-go fuel. Keep lunches simple with snacks and a longer rest. Consider bagels, jerky, dried fruit, and nuts.
  • Breakfast: Choose from cooked entrées, hot oatmeal, or breakfast bars. Decide whether to start the day warm and fueled or hit the trail earlier. For a caffeine fix, go for instant coffee or tea bags.

Note to Remember: Follow common-sense measures on the trail, like keeping a distance from animals. At night, secure food away from camp using a spare stuff sack hung from a tree branch or a bear canister to prevent rodent theft. Check out Food Handling and Storage for Backpackers and Campers for more tips.