Backpacking can be a wonderful pastime when you know what you're doing. Before you take to the trails, it's important to get the right equipment, learn how to use it, and acquire the skills you need to enjoy this outdoor activity safely.
Beginner's Guide to Backpacking
This step-by-step guide will give you a good idea of what you need to do to prepare.
1. Invest in Proper Equipment
Having the right equipment is essential for backpackers of all skill levels. If you don't set out with the gear that you need from the very beginning, you're going to put yourself at unnecessary risk of injury and set yourself up to have a negative experience. At a minimum, you need a good quality, lightweight backpack and a pair of well made, properly fitted hiking boots. If you plan to engage in overnight backpacking, you'll also need a sleeping bag and a tent. Depending on the length of trip you plan and your meal preferences, you may also need a camp stove.
Other items you may want to purchase include:
- A compass - A military compass or an orienteering compass are your best choices. While backpacking, you need to be able to set waypoints and directional markers for yourself by choosing topographical landmarks. By referencing your topographical map and your surroundings, you'll be able to quickly set bearings and plan your route.
- A fire starter - There are many different types of fire starters out there, but it's smart to get a fire starter that will work in all weather conditions. Light My Fire sells a unique type of "Swedish fire stick," which is a magnesium fire starter that will work equally well at all elevations, and it will strike a spark even when it's soaking wet. You will need to dedicate some time to learning how to use these fire starters before heading out to the bush, though. They take a lot of practice to use reliably, especially when you are going to be using them in adverse conditions.
- A flashlight - A head lamp is the best option for backpacking since it allows you to keep your hands free to do other things. People often forget how much they rely on ambient light to do things like cook food or wash dishes. When you're out on the trail, you don't have the luxury of having ambient light and must rely on directional light. Having a light on your forehead that points light exactly where you're looking is a huge benefit for backpackers.
- Rain Gear - In some parts of the world, the weather can turn on a dime and a sunny day can turn into a rainstorm. It's smart to pack a windbreaker that is sealed against water. Make sure you find a jacket that has "pit vents" near your armpits. These zippered vents will let you vent body heat and stay cool while hiking with the jacket on. Without these vents, you'll sweat so much under the jacket that you'll end up getting just as wet as you would have without the jacket.
- A sleeping bag cover - This will protect your sleeping bag from getting soaked if you're caught out in the rain. If you're using a down-filled sleeping bag, this becomes even more important since a wet down-filled bag is essentially useless.
- A water purifier - You have a few options for water purification. You can use iodine tablets to purify water, but they will stain your water bottle/bladder and you have to let the water sit for a while before it's potable. There are also hand-pump filtration units that you can use, but you need to remember to change out the filters regularly. Finally, there are UV-based purification wands that use UV light to denature the protein shell around harmful microorganisms and render the water potable. The specific method of purification you use will depend heavily on your needs.
2. Get in Shape
Before you venture into the backcountry for a backpacking excursion, it's important to make sure that you are in good enough physical condition to participate in the activity. Get in the habit of walking on a regular basis during the weeks leading up to your outdoor adventure. That way your leg muscles will be ready for the challenge. Try to walk on terrain similar to the area where you'll be traveling, or work out on a treadmill that lets you program incline settings.
Keep in mind that your legs aren't the only parts of your anatomy that may need some toning before you take to the trails. Practice walking with your filled backpack on so you can get your arm and shoulder muscles in shape before your outing. You don't want to end up sore and painful during your trip.
3. Choose Your Location Wisely
When you're just getting started backpacking, it's a good idea to start out with a trail that's rated for beginners. You can often find out which trails are best for novice backpackers by calling local camping gear stores or park headquarters in the areas where you plan to hike. You can also check out hiking guidebooks written about the geographic areas that interest you the most, such as 50 Hikes in the North Georgia Mountains and 100 Classic Hikes Colorado.
4. Pack Correctly
Packing for a backpacking trip can be very challenging at first. It's essential to find the perfect balance between taking everything you need and avoiding placing extra weight in your pack. When you're in the backcountry, you're not going to be able to purchase supplies that you left behind, so you'll have to carry the weight of all your supplies and gear on your back at all times.
It's important to only pack things that you know you're going to use every day or that you know you would die without. While this may seem like a morbid consideration, it's something you need to keep in mind for safety's sake. You don't want to pack something "just in case" because you'd be surprised at how much "just in case" turns into "never". Ounces add up to pounds quickly, and you will definitely feel the difference while out on the trail.
Examples of things you'll use every day include:
- Your jacket
- Your pack
- Your tent
- Your stove
Things you may die without Include:
- Emergency medications
- A GPS beacon
Also make sure you have all the clothing, survival gear, and first aid supplies that you might need stowed in your pack. Also take care to pack water, water purification tablets, and a sufficient quantity of energy rich food that will stand up to the rigors of the climate in which you'll be traveling.
5. Have a Plan
Backpacking is inherently dangerous. You're stepping outside of the confines of the normal world where water and medical help are easy to find, and you need to look at it that way. This doesn't mean you should be scared of your trip at all. It just means you should have a healthy respect for the challenges you're going to take on.
If possible, you should always hike with a group of other hikers. This is especially true when you first get started. Not only is it safer, but it can also make the trip much more fun to have companions along. When you hike with a group, you can have certain people take care of specific aspects of the trip. This makes planning trips much easier
If you are hiking alone, either by choice or necessity, always leave a detailed trip plan with a friend back home. The trip plan should cover points such as:
- When you're leaving
- When you plan to return
- Where you plan to camp on certain days of your trip
If you get lost or hurt while you're out on the trail, this trip plan will show rescuers exactly where to look for you, which can exponentially increase your chances for a safe return home after a worst-case scenario.
More Resources for New Backpackers
Each of the following books are valuable resources on backpacking, and any one of them can help you build a base of knowledge that will serve you well in the backcountry. Customer reviews give each of these books a minimum rating of 4 out of 5 stars.
- Allen and Mike's Really Cool Backpackin' Book by Allen O'Bannon - This book is filled with tips about what to wear, how to set up camp, low-impact camping and just about everything else you need to know about backpacking.
- Long-Distance Hiking by Roland Mueser - The author tells you virtually everything you ever wanted to know about backpacking along the Appalachian Trail.
- The Backpacker's Field Manual by Rick Curtis - This updated and revised version of the classic covers everything from first aid, weather forecasting, and ultra light backpacking to using a GPS to navigate. Welcome to backpacking in the 21st century.
- The Complete Walker IV by Colin Fletcher - This is the completely updated version of the book that Field & Stream magazine considers the ultimate hiker's book, or "Bible" as they referred to it. Unique information includes critiques of essential equipment by brand, as well as an in depth look at being a responsible outdoorsman.
- Trailside Guide: Hiking and Backpacking by Karen Berger - The latest edition of this guide covers all of the latest advances in backpacking techniques, as well as a wealth of related information.
- Backpack Gourmet by Linda Frederick Yaffe - Learn how to prepare delicious camp meals, as well as how to dehydrate food and pack it properly. Over 160 recipes are included.
Take It Slow and Be Smart
While you need to be in decent physical condition and have the right gear to take on backpacking trips, these things are not as important as your wits. Even with the best gear on Earth, people who make bad decisions get bad results while out on the trail. In the end, your intelligence is the biggest asset you have when taking on these types of challenges. Being smart on the trail means making smart decisions while you're out. However, it also means making smart decisions before you ever leave for your trip. Only go on trips that you are confident you can handle, and don't push yourself into taking trips that are beyond your capabilities. Go slow and work up to those more difficult hikes.