Backpacking Tips for Beginners: 15 Lessons from a First Time Backpacker

By Brooke Bergen

brookeinboots.com

 

Is backpacking on your bucket list? Mine too! After years of day hiking, I was finally ready to take it to the next level. The problem? I had absolutely no idea what I was doing!

This post originally appeared on BrookeInBoots.com. It is reposted here with permission.

That’s when my friends at World’s Best Adventures offered to show me the ropes during a 3 Day / 2 night trip in North Carolina. Not only did I survive my first backpacking trip, I LOVED it – and I learned some invaluable backpacking tips along the way. If you’re planning a backpacking trip for beginners, these are the 15 biggest lessons that can help you as a first-time backpacker.

Pick a Beginner Friendly Route 

The biggest make-or-break decision when planning a first backpacking trip is picking the right route. Sure, planning a 10-day trek through the Sierra Nevadas might be on your bucket list one day (samesies), but stick to something a little more manageable on your first time out.

Pick a trail that is rated easy to moderate. Avoid trails that have significant elevation gain, rock scrambling, or ice and snow.

You’ll have plenty to adjust to on your first backpacking trip: including carrying a 30+ pound pack, filtering your own water, and sleeping outside. So now probably isn’t the time to push the limits of your hiking abilities as well.

Decide How Many Days You Will Hike

Beginner backpackers should aim for 1-2 nights in the backcountry on their first backpacking trip. My first trip with World’s Best Adventures was 3 Days / 2 Nights. That gave me enough time to adjust to life on the trail, without totally overwhelming me.

Decide How Far You Will Go

Most backpackers average a walking pace of 2 miles per hour. A good backpacking tip for beginners is to limit your distance to 5 to 10 miles per day. Any further and you run the risk of exhausting yourself on Day 1!

As someone who hikes 6+ miles fairly regularly, I still found a 5-mile backpacking day pretty tiring on my first trip.

Where Will You Camp?

Going backpacking means you can just throw down your tent wherever you’d like, right? Not so fast. Some state and federal lands only permit backcountry camping in designated locations. Make sure to research all regulations ahead of time and plan your intended camping spots in advance.

One of the great things about going on a guided backpacking trip is that all the logistics, like planning a route and campsite locations were taken care of for us! Our World’s Best Adventure guide, Alex, made sure to explain exactly why we chose this route, how far we would be walking each day, and how to pick a safe and comfortable campsite each night.

Check Weather Forecasts

Before starting out on your first backpacking trip, make sure to check detailed weather forecasts for the duration of the trip. Take note of possible storms, cold fronts, heat waves, and wind conditions.

Before my first trip, I kept an eye on a rainstorm headed our way. Thankfully, we were all prepared for a soggy first day out on the trail when the storm did hit and got to hike through beautiful clear skies the next day.

What I didn’t check for was the wind. While the temperature never dropped below the 30s, windy conditions plunged the perceived temperature into the 20s, making for a very chilly night! If I had checked, I probably would have packed some warmer gear.

Remember that conditions can change quickly, especially in the mountains and desert. Even if the forecast calls for clear skies, bring a rain jacket or emergency poncho just in case.

Physically Prepare for Your First Time Backpacking

My biggest worry before my first backpacking trip was how my body would physically handle lugging a 30+ pound backpack over 15+ miles and several thousand feet of gain.

Thankfully, I spent a few weeks leading up to my trip with World’s Best Adventures doing some basic strength training, particularly my legs, shoulders, and back, and cardio endurance training.

At a minimum, make sure that you’re comfortable hiking the distance and difficulty of your planned trip with lots of similar day hikes. If you already own your own pack, wear it during your day hikes, and make sure it is loaded with the weight you plan on backpacking with, usually 30-40 lbs.

Read more about backpacking training tips for beginners here.

Go With a Beginner-Friendly Guided Backpacking Tour

Backpacking is an investment. Both physically and financially. In fact, a huge reason why I had never backpacked before was that I didn’t have the necessary backpacking gear like the “big 3” (more on those below) and I didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars (or more!) on gear I wasn’t 100% certain I’d love.

Choosing an all-inclusive backpacking guiding company like World’s Best Adventures saved me all the hassle (and tons of $) because the price includes basically everything. A guiding company can provide quality backpacks, tents, sleeping pads, cooking supplies, and most importantly, a reliable and experienced guide.

When choosing a backpacking company, make sure you pick guides who have plenty of experience backpacking in the area you are headed. (Alex and the team at WBA are all experienced backpackers in North Carolina, and the Smokies, and Appalachian Trail Thru-hikers, a big plus for me).

Not only does this help ensure your safety, but it also means you’ll have a huge amount of backpacker knowledge available 24/7 on your trip. I spent the weekend picking our guides’ brains on the best camp stove, best tent, best camping pillow, etc.

No one to hike with? Group trips solve that problem too. I left my husband at home for this trip, but even my introverted self had no problem making friends with our group members and other hikers on the trail. You’ll already have so much in common – a love of the wilderness and a desire to backpack.

Overall, I left my weekend with World’s Best Adventures with a load of knowledge and the experience I needed to conquer bigger backpacking adventures on my own.

Plan Your Meals (and Don’t Forget Snacks!)

Planning meals in the backcountry can be difficult for the first-time backpacker. Since you’ll be carrying all your food and cooking supplies in your pack, you want to carefully plan all your meals (and snacks) in advance

Backpacking Food Tips for Beginners

Bring foods that maximize your weight to calorie ratio. Avoid heavy cans, glass jars, and bulky items.

That means picking foods that are nonperishable and lightweight but dense in calories. Why? The average backpacker burns at least 3,000 calories per day while hiking.

A good backpacking tip for beginners is to pack at least 2,000-3,000 calories per day (now is not the time to stick to your diet!).

Here’s an example of what I ate during a full day on the trail:

  • Breakfast: Dehydrated meal (Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy) + Coffee
  • Lunch: Flavored Tuna packets, tortillas with peanut butter, and honey packets
  • Snacks: Beef jerky sticks, and granola bars
  • Dinner: Dehydrated meal (Peak Refuel Chicken Pesto Pasta) + candy bar

Backpacking Tip for Beginners: If you aren’t ravenously hungry, you can easily split a dehydrated meal between 2 people plus some small snacks. I wasn’t able to finish an entire packet myself!

One of the huge bonuses of going with a group is that you get to share the weight of your food and cooking essentials, and indulge in some extra treats! For example, our guide Alex carried some salami, hard cheese, nuts, dried fruit, and crackers for us to enjoy a campfire-charcuterie before dinner – not too bad for the backcountry!

Our tour also provided us with a huge selection of freeze-dried backpacker’s meals to choose from when packing our bags. My personal favorites were the Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy, Peak Refuel Chicken Pesto Pasta, and of course, the Backpacker’s Pantry Dark Chocolate Cheesecake Mix. (I’ve seriously considered buying that Cheesecake Mix for home – it was that good! 😅)

As you gain more experience, you might want to test out non-dehydrated meals to cook while backpacking, but as a beginner, these freeze-dried meals are perfect, and relatively tasty intro to backcountry cooking.

Cooking Supplies

A simple backpacking stove, like the MSR PocketRocket or the Jetboil Flash Cooking System, can quickly boil water for your coffee or dehydrated meals and weigh less than 1 pound. Pair your stove with a lightweight cooking pot (included in the Jetboil), camp mug, and a long spork for a complete backcountry kitchen.

Remember, NEVER cook inside your tent or enclosed spaces. This can cause deadly carbon monoxide poisoning or a fire!

DON’T Pack Too Much (or too Little)

Overpacking is the #1 mistake that beginner backpackers make. When you have to carry everything on your back, its easy to underestimate how much your total pack will weigh! Aim for a pack weight of around 30-35 lbs for a 3 Day /2 Night trip.

For your first trip, stick to the following essentials. Once you have some experience under your belt, you’ll be able to gauge how much, or how little, you feel comfortable carrying.

Backpacking Packing List for Beginners:

  • 55L+ Backpack
  • Hiking Shoes / Boots
  • Clothes: Socks, Moisture Wicking Shirts, Hiking Pants, warm base layers (double as sleeping clothes), gloves and hat, underwear
  • Rain jacket
  • Down or Fleece Jacket (both if cold weather is possible)
  • Sleeping Bag + Sleeping Mat
  • Backpacking Tent
  • Water Bottles + Water Filtration System
  • Sunscreen, toothbrush/toothpaste, cleansing wipes, deodorant, hand sanitizer + any medications
  • Toilet Paper, Kula Cloth, Trowel
  • Knife/multitool and emergency gear repair (duct tape, or Gear Aid tape)
  • Headlamp
  • Trekking Poles
  • Waterproof backpack cover + waterproof dry bags (or ziplock bags) for clothes + organization
  • Camp Stove, lighter, food, and wildlife-safe food storage system
  • First Aid Kit
  • GPS + Map
  • Phone / Camera + Portable Charger
  • Camping Pillow (optional)
  • Camp shoes (optional)

But Don’t Under Pack

I was so worried about overpacking that I UNDER packed for my first backpacking trip! Next time, I will pack some more substantial wool base layers as well as a fleece and down jacket when backpacking in the early spring.

I also recommend bringing headphones, and a few audiobooks or e-books downloaded to your phone. Some hikers also brought playing cards for some post-dinner entertainment. Light sleeper? Don’t forget some earplugs to shut out the noise of your fellow hikers.

Re-wear Your Clothing

One of the best ways to save weight is to re-wear your clothes. While you may cringe at the idea of wearing your sweaty hiking clothes multiple days in a row, I promise it’s one of the first things you’ll get used to on the trail – especially when you see everyone else doing the same!

That said, I was plenty glad for a fresh pair of underwear every day and suggest you do the same. I also brought an extra pair of socks for sleeping and to protect my feet from sweat-induced blisters.

Backpacking Tip for Beginners: Wear your clean, warm, base layers to bed.

To help with hygiene, make sure to bring clothes that are moisture-wicking and antimicrobial.

Carry a GPS and Personal Safety Device (and have a way to charge them!)

I always carry my Garmin InReach Mini while hiking and backpacking. This mini-satellite communicator allows you to contact emergency services (but only use it in a TRUE emergency) Not only did I love the extra peace of mind of knowing that I could access Search and Rescue, but I was also able to text my husband goodnight every night and let him know we were doing OK! ☺️

If you aren’t going with a guided tour (and even if you are), I highly recommend also bringing a GPS-equipped device and a map.

Lastly, don’t forget a power source for any of these important items! While my Garmin InReach can last many days without a charge, I brought a small battery pack to keep my phone (which is also my camera, e-book, etc.) charged.

Invest in Your “Big Three”  

Your “big three” are the 3 heaviest and most important pieces of gear you’ll need on a backpacking trip. These items are your backpack, your tent, and your sleep system.

Backpacking gear can get expensive (yet another reason I went with an all-inclusive group for my first trip!) but resist the urge to completely cut corners here. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but picking quality gear that is right for your body and your trail conditions is one of the best backpacking tips for any beginner.

Backpacking Pack Tips for Beginners

A comfortable, properly-fitting backpack is the most important investment a backpacker makes – after all you’ll need it for everything else on this list! A well-fitted pack means good weight distribution, functionality, and comfort.

Quality packs allow you to adjust the back panels, hip, and shoulder straps to achieve a perfect fit.

I strongly suggest purchasing (or at least trying out) a backpack in person before buying. Outdoors stores like REI can help you select the best pack for your trip length and your body shape.

Backpacking Tent Tips for Beginners

While car camping tents are roomy and full of bells and whistles, backpacking tents are designed to be lightweight and minimalist. To save weight, only pick a tent that sleeps as many people as you need (Hiking solo? Stick to a 1p tent. Hiking as a couple, get a 2p tent.).

When backpacking as a couple or a group, you can easily split up the tent pieces between hikers to minimize your weight.

I used a Marmot 1person tent on my trip. It was lightweight, super quick to set up, and spacious enough so I could sit upright and keep some of my gear inside the tent.

Backpacking Sleep System Tips for Beginners

Your sleep system includes both your sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Not only does sleeping protect you from discomfort, it insulates your body from the cold ground, which can zap your body heat.

The higher the “r” value of a sleeping pad, the more it insulates against the cold. Sleeping pads come in 3 styles:

  • Air Pads – inflatable air pads are compact, lightweight, and usually pack down to the size of a water bottle. Make sure to test your air pads before your backpacking trip to identify any leaks or punctures.
  • Self-Inflating – self-inflating sleeping pads are a combination of air pads with foam insulation. These pads are “self-inflating” because opening the valve allows the foam to expand and brings in air. These pads are often bulkier and heavier than air pads.
  • Closed Cell Foam Mats – These pads are made of dense foam. They are less comfortable than air pads but are lightweight, inexpensive, and you don’t have to worry about punctures.

Learning to sleep comfortably outside is an art form and one I have not totally mastered yet. If, like me, you toss and turn or have difficulty sleeping on hard surfaces, consider sacrificing weight for a thicker sleeping pad, or double down with a stacked air pad and foam pad underneath.

Protect Your Food and Gear from Wildlife

An easy, but dangerous, a mistake that beginner backpackers make is forgetting to properly secure any food or scented items – yes including your toothpaste, trash, and other toiletries.

Properly securing your food is about more than just avoiding a hungry critter making off with your dinner, it can be the difference between life and death – for hikers AND wildlife.

Animals who associate humans with food may become aggressive towards people, causing serious problems with tragic outcomes.  Large predators, like bears, who become aggressive looking for human food must occasionally be euthanized to protect campers and hikers. By properly storing food you save bears, coyotes, and other wildlife from a tragic fate.

Research any food storage recommendations and requirements along your backpacking route. Use bear boxes and cables where available, and store belongings in scent-proof bear canisters and bags.

DON’T forget Hiker Hygiene

Backpacking is a messy endeavor. Make sure to follow these backpacking hygiene tips for beginners to stay clean, safe, and sane on the trail:

  • Sanitize frequently! Have hand sanitizer available and use it before and after using the bathroom, eating or cleaning any cuts and scrapes.
  • ALWAYS camp, clean, and use the bathroom 200 feet from the trail and water sources.
  • Follow Leave No Trace Principles when it comes to using the bathroom.
  • Take wet clothing off at the end of the day and change into dry clothing. Wet clothes can cause blisters and all sorts of infections.

DON’T Ignore Your Feet 

If you take care of your feet – your feet will take care of you! Your feet are your most important asset to protect when backpacking. After all, they’re your only form of transportation!

Backpacking Tip for Beginners: IMMEDIATELY address any foot discomfort, like rubbing, hot spots, or pain. Blisters can be incredibly painful, and the best solution is to prevent them in the first place.

Buy and wear quality hiking socks. I prefer wool socks from Darn Tough or Smartwool. Wool is moisture-wicking and naturally antimicrobial.

Bring at least one extra pair of socks when backpacking. Keep your feet and toes clean and free of blister-causing debris. If weather permits, consider letting your feet air out in the sunshine for a bit, or bring “camp shoes” – lightweight sandals to wear after you’re done hiking for the day.

Stay Hydrated on the Trail 

If you’re backpacking for more than 1 night, you’re most likely going to need to find and filter your own water. Most hikers use the Sawyer water filter system (which conveniently can be screwed onto the top of a SmartWater bottle)

Backpacking Tips for Beginners: ALWAYS designate your “Clean” and “Dirty” water containers and don’t cross-contaminate!

For your first backpacking trip, I recommend hiking in an area with reliable and frequent water sources. Camp near (but more than 200 feet from) a water source and filter water before and at the end of each day.

Research and practice using your water filtration system before hitting the trail. If you are hiking solo, consider bringing a backup emergency filter, like a Lifestraw or Iodine and Chlorine tablets.

Understand and Practice Leave No Trace

Backcountry camping and hiking is an extraordinary opportunities to connect with nature. But it also means more opportunities to leave a negative impact on the wilderness around you!

Before heading out on your first (or second, or third…) backpacking trip, take a moment to review the Principles of Leave No Trace.

Remember that Mistakes are Inevitable

Becoming a backpacker is a series of trial and error. The only way to get better is to go out there and do it! As long as you are safe and lean into having fun – even your dumbest mistakes become a hilarious story after you return.

Some of the memorable mistakes I made on my first backpacking trip included:

  • Not properly adjusting my backpacking pack for several hours – I could have saved myself from some sore shoulders here!
  • Bringing makeup. I know 🙄. To each their own, but seriously, you won’t wear it. Bring some moisturizing sunscreen and deodorant if you must and call it a day.
  • Not bringing a warm enough sleeping bag. Don’t forget to factor in wind chill when picking your sleeping bag!
  • Bring a camping pillow. In an insane attempt to prove how “tough” I was, I decided to just curl up with my clothes as a pillow instead of packing the extra weight. I think my neck still hurts. If you have the space, bring a compressible pillow – you’ll thank me later!

And the number one mistake I made on my first backpacking trip was: Not going sooner! For way too long I let nerves and fear of backpacking hold me back. And it didn’t have to!

I’m so grateful to our guide Alex, and everyone at World’s Best Adventures for getting out of my comfort zone and turning me into a backpacker! I can’t wait to hit the trails with them again soon!

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