Immersing yourself in nature beyond the car campground is where you’ll find the true wilderness experience. The attraction of backpacking stems from the concept of man vs. nature, as it feeds your endless hunger for pure adventure. Not only that, but it’s a genuine escape that allows you to broaden your horizons and learn what you’re really made of. Okay, that might be too extreme of a description for your first backpacking trip, but the experience will definitely let you find peace in a place that isn’t spoiled by technology. Once you’re out there and accustomed to your surroundings, you get to connect with Mother Nature.
It’s been suggested that 17th Century Italian adventurer Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri was one of the world’s first backpackers, so the concept is anything but new. However, modern backpacking can be traced back to the hippie trail of the 1950s to the late 1970s. These groovy explorers traveled light between Europe and South Asia, and tended to pick up and go wherever the action was at.
Today, backpacking includes backcountry adventures, local travel, as well as excursions to nearby countries. If you want to go on your first backpacking trip, you’ll soon realize that planning the whole escapade is a lot to sit down with. That’s why we’ve decided to get you started in the right direction and help you plan out everything you need to do and acquire in order to make your first backpacking trip a successful one. We’ll go over choosing the right location for your first adventure, the ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, packing the right food, preparing for the trip physically, and the gear you should bring along (complete with suggestions).
A Simple Disclaimer
Let’s shoot this straight and get to the point. For your first backpacking trip, we recommend that you go with someone who is well versed in the tricks of the trade. Going at it on your own sounds like a way more epic story, but if you end up getting lost or worse, then you’ll be plunged into a horror story and will be the inspiration for many memes by your family and friends. In all seriousness, we want you to put safety first. When you’ve got a few backpacking notches on your belt, then you can go rogue. Now that we have that covered, let’s get this all planned out.
Choosing The Right Place
It's All About Location
By “right place” we mean an easy destination. Stay away from difficult locations with hiking trails that are unforgiving. For example, you don’t want your first backpacking trip to be in Canyonlands, Utah where you have to tackle “The Maze,” a trail-less trail with dead-end canyons, dry washes, and sandstone features that blend together. If that doesn’t sound familiar, you should watch 127 Hours, where veteran adventurer Aron Ralston, played by James Franco, has a horrible few days in Utah.
Choose a place that is close to home, so that you spend more time hiking than you do driving. Talk to experienced backpackers about where the best locations and trails are in your area. There are plenty of hiking clubs you can join, allowing you to network with fellow adventurers. Also, you want to plan on shorter distances because walking with a heavier backpack than usual will slow you down and drain your energy much faster. Shoot for only a few miles round trip because you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. In addition, make sure the trail has less elevation gain than a typical day hike. A few hundred feet of elevation gain will do just fine.
Keep in mind that you want to pick a well-traveled trail with water nearby. This way you can talk to others who’ve covered the trail and read reviews online to see what it’s like. Some state and national parks have walk-in campgrounds that are worth considering for a smooth and safe transition into backpacking.
'Leave No Trace' Principles
Seven Rules To Follow In The Great Outdoors
“Leave No Trace” is a common phrase if you spend time in the great outdoors. But, what does it mean? The Leave No Trace principles are basically the best practices we should all follow to enjoy and protect Mother Nature. She’s been here longer than we all have, so showing the utmost respect by following these rules is the least we can do. There are over 100 million visitors who venture into nature and there are impacted areas that suffer from pollution, littering, trail erosion, and more. People who are just starting to strap on their backpacks and plunge into the outdoors may not have the knowledge to preserve the integrity of the outdoors, so we’ll go over the best practices to allow Mother Nature to thrive.
Plan Ahead And Prepare
By reading this post, you’re off to a solid start. It’s a no-brainer that you should plan your backpacking trip with heavy attention to detail. Without careful planning, fear or fatigue may lead you to make poor choices that end up hurting our natural spaces. Educate yourself thoroughly on the regulations of the area you’ll visit, go in a small group, prepare for extreme weather, learn to use a map and compass in order to avoid the use of marking paint, and repackage your food to reduce waste. These are some of the key factors of proper preparation and planning, but consider everything else in between.
Travel And Camp On Durable Surfaces
When you’re looking for a place to set up camp, make sure you choose a spot with a sturdy type of terrain. Established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses, and snow are all acceptable places to set up your temporary home in nature. You also want to keep the campsite small and perform activities in areas with no vegetation so that you won’t disrupt anything. Think about dogs popping a squat on your front yard. Well, the outdoors is Mother Nature’s front yard, so you want to at least avoid pristine areas where your unnecessary presence will affect the circle of life. To further help preserve nature, walk in a single file in the middle of any trail.
Dispose Waste Properly
Although this one should be obvious, there are many inconsiderate people who do not follow this logical principle. This best practice applies to everything from human waste to litter and rinse water. Ideally, you want to leave the space cleaner than you fund it. Anything that you unpack should be packed up and taken with you when you’re ready to move forward. For human waste, you want to dig a cathole that’s six to eight inches deep and at least 200 feet away from water. Also, the best practice for washing dishes is to carry water 200 feet away from the stream or lake you get it from and only use small amounts of biodegradable soap.
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Sitting around a campfire with a warm glow is a backpacking staple that invites you to share stories and reflect on life. Admiring the hypnotic, dancing flames while the rest of nature is draped in darkness is a soothing experience. However, starting excessive campfires can be destructive to the environment. Keep your fires small and use only sticks that can be broken by hand. Whenever you can, use a lightweight stove to cook your meals and a candle lantern for light. After you’re done having a moment by the campfire, be sure to put it out completely. Also, it may be tempting, but do not bring any firewood home because wild wood can introduce new pests or diseases to your living space.
Leave What You Find
The whole goal here is to admire nature, not alter or disrupt it. Take plenty of photos, but leave everything intact. Avoid building structures, rearranging any natural objects, and taking souvenirs. Nature isn’t an amusement park. It’s also advisable to clean your boots soles, kayak hulls, and bike tires thoroughly between backpacking trips so that you don’t transport non-native species.
Respect The Wildlife
When you’re trekking through the backcountry, you’re visiting the home of a vast number of animals. Leave them alone and admire them from afar. Avoid stalking or feeding any of the animals you may encounter so that you don’t disrupt their natural behaviors. In addition, you should always store your food and beverages securely, especially if you’re leaving your campsite for a while. If you can, try and avoid scheduling a backpacking trip during mating or nesting periods.
Be Considerate Of Others
You’ve heard this rule in the form of “treat others the way you want to be treated” since you were in elementary school. It applies to everything in life and backpacking is no exception. Be kind and courteous to others, improving the quality of everyone’s experience. The great outdoors is for everyone to enjoy, so cut down any loud noises and enjoy nature’s soundtrack.
Gourmet Meals By The Campfire
For your overnight backpacking trip, plan for dinner, breakfast, and two lunches. Although it’s pricey, freeze-dried backpacking food is your lightest and easiest option for an entree. All you have to do is add boiling water and voilà, you have delicious sustenance to energize you for the trail ahead. You’re not going to have a cooler, so perishable items are out the picture and canned foods are too heavy to lug around. When you’re prepping the food you’ll bring, make sure it’s easy to prepare, delicious (by backpacking standards), and lightweight. Packing 1.5 to 2.5lbs of food, which is about 2,500 to 4,500 calories), for yourself per day is a solid amount.
Skipping breakfast and starting your trail earlier is definitely not recommended. Start your day warmed up and with a full tank. Anything from cooked entrées, such as pancakes or hot oatmeal from a mix of a few breakfast bars will do. If you’re a coffee guy or need something to wake you up in the morning, instant coffee mix or tea bags are your best options.
Lunch And Snacks
Your first backpacking trip should be a short one, so don’t take a prolonged break for a midday meal. Make lunch a trailside event during your breaks. Take high-calorie, high-protein energy bars, and trail mix to keep you energized during the day, as backpacking burns plenty of metabolic fuel. Some options to consider for lunch and snacks are beef jerky, dried fruit, bagels, fig bars, energy bars, and mixed nuts.
Treat dinner as a reward for a day of hard work on the trail. You can go all out and grill a steak over a campfire if you’re up for it, but the trail can take a toll on your body that leads to choosing the more convenient option of prepackaged freeze-dried or dehydrated meals. A prepackaged meal doesn’t sound too appetizing now, but after a few miles, it will taste exquisite. Pasta is another backcountry gourmet option that isn’t difficult to cook. Other options include instant rice, ramen noodles, instant potatoes, tuna, and instant soups. For more flavor, consider bringing a few spices.
Getting Ready The Grueling Workout Of Trekking Through Nature
Backpacking isn’t a marathon, but it is a strenuous activity. Even a short backpacking trip can be a physically demanding adventure. You will feel better on your backpacking trip if you prepare for it physically. It’s one thing to have all the best gear for the trip, but being physically ready for your backcountry escapade is also essential.
The best way to prepare for your backpacking trip is to go on day hikes. It’s no surprise that going on pre-trip hikes that are the same level of difficulty while carrying a backpack load of 30 lbs or more is the ideal way to prepare. If you’re able to, try to find a hiking trail with a similar elevation to your backpacking destination. Working your way to the appropriate intensity level is the goal.
Although taking pre-trip hikes is the best way to get ready, there are other workouts you can do if you simply don’t have the time to hike. Mimicking the up and down movement with varying loads can be done at home or at the gym with resistance training. Remember to do a five to 10-minute warm-up before you start any workout. For three days a week, you can do a variety of resistance workouts, including step-ups on a plyo box, rotating upward chops with a resistance band, side planks with hip dips, front squats with free weights, and dumbbell bicep curls.
Throwing in interval cardio workouts would also help you get to the level of intensity you need for a backpacking trip. Hop on an elliptical, run, or cycle to get your cardio fix. Start off by doing a moderate five-minute warm-up, and then do 30 to 90 seconds of a high-intensity workout followed by a two-minute light-intensity interval. Rinse and repeat for 30 to 60 minutes and finish your workout with a cool down to get your heart rate back to normal. You’ll want to train your body for a few months before the big trip, but don’t overtrain. Set two to three rest days a week to lessen the chances of injury.
Essential Backpacking Gear
What You Need To Survive And Enjoy Your Stay
Since you’ll be carrying your entire life for the duration of the trip in your backpack, make sure your gear is lightweight and compact. That’s why it’s not practical to repurpose car camping gear. If you’re camping with a friend or two, you can share some of the gear you’ll be bringing, such as pots, tents, and stoves, cutting down the weight of your load.
Before we get into our recommendations for essential backpacking gear, let’s go over the types of clothes you’ll be packing. There are four layers that you’ll want to pack to ensure maximum comfort outdoors.
Base layers: These are next-to-skin layers that will help you keep warm. Even if it’s warm during the day, you can expect a cold night.
Hiking layers: This consists of nylon pants, breathable t-shirts, a sun hat or baseball cap, and shirts with sun-protective fabric.
Insulation: A puffy vest, jacket, lightweight fleece pullover, warm hat, and gloves can all come in handy to keep you from feeling like a popsicle, especially at night.
Rain Jacket: Bringing a waterproof, breathable jacket never hurts when you’re outdoors. Not only is rainwear effective at keeping you dry, but it can prevent mosquito bites as well.
After you have your clothing layers covered, you can concentrate on picking up several crucial items for your trip, including a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, backpack, portable stove, water filter, and hiking boots. The following are some of our recommendations:
Jetboil Flash Cooking System
With the click of a button, this cooking system lights up and can provide you with two cups of boiling water for coffee, instant soup, or a gourmet freeze-dried meal in only two minutes. The burner secures the igniter to protect it from any bumps or falls, making it one of the safest cooking systems on the market. There’s a cooking cup that clips into the burner, preventing accidental spills, and it also has a fuel canister tripod for further stability. Finally, the system has a color-changing indicator that signals when contents are hot.
Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter System
Perfect for group camping, this high-capacity, gravity-fed water filter system meets all EPA/NSF guidelines for removal of 99.9999% of bacteria and 99.9% of protozoa. There’s no pumping required, as the reservoir fills easily in 2.5 minutes and can hang from a tree to hold four liters of clean water. This American-made water filter system includes two 4-liter reservoirs, hollow-fiber micro-filter, hoses, shutoff clamp, and storage sack.
Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX Hiking Boots
Constructed with a new 4D advanced chassis design that connects directly to the sole to stabilize your heel, these hiking boots enable more forefoot flexion for a stable stride even on rocky terrain. The ‘Quest 4D 3 GTX’ provides a better overall grip on any surface you stomp on while keeping your feet comfortable on the trail. These Gore-Tex performance hiking boots are light and cushioned with nimble running shoe technology.
Sierra Designs Cloud 800 Sleeping Bag
Made from 15D nylon ripstop, Sierra Designs Cloud 800 Sleeping Bag comfort and ultralight. It has an innovative zipperless design, featuring a convenient flap for easy entrance. The sleeping bag is designed to wrap around your body while you’re lying down to seal in precious heat during those cold outdoor nights. In addition, the down is treated for water-resistance to prevent damp nights from getting you sick. Finally, there’s a half-sleeve underneath the bag to secure your sleeping pad and form an integrated unit of warmth retention.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Sleeping Pad
This four-season inflatable sleeping pad is excellent for backpacking trips, as it offers maximum warmth, making it perfect for wintry conditions. It utilizes reflective ‘ThermaCapture’ technology that holds in heat while its ‘Triangular Core Matrix’ construction provides stability and helps to reduce heat loss. It also has a tapered design that reduces its weight without sacrificing warmth and has no-slip fabric, ensuring the sleeping bag doesn’t slip around during the night.
NEMO Dagger 2P Tent
Utilizing advanced technology and innovative design, the Dagger Tent maximizes usable space without being bulky. Taking a look inside, there are overhead light pockets, two doors with vestibules for gear storage, a built-in privacy panel, and mesh panels for proper ventilation. This ultralight, packable tent is ready for adventure, as you can set it up to be a minimal shelter tent, using only the poles, fly, and footprint. The Dagger Tent also comes with a guy-out cord, sturdy metal stakes, a dual-stage drawstring stuff sack, and a repair kit.
Arc’teryx Bora AR 63 Backpack
Made with a ‘GridLock’ shoulder strap harness system, this backpack allows for custom fit whether you’re carrying it vertically or horizontally. It also has a ventilated back panel to help keep you cool, two designated spots for ice axes, a thermo-molded ‘Tegris’ frame sheet with aluminum stays, and a patent pending ‘RotoGlide’ hip belt that reduces chafing by adjusting to your movements. In addition, there is weatherproof AC2 fabric in areas of high exposure to rain or snow.
How To Navigate Without GPS
So you have everything planned out for your backpacking trip and you’re doing pre-hikes to develop your trekking skills. Another important skill that will benefit you greatly in the great outdoors is navigation. Check out our thorough guide on how to navigate without GPS to be even more prepared for your backcountry adventure.