A Quick & Dirty Guide to Getting Started with Backpacking
Little compares to spending a night in the backcountry after a long day of hiking. Add to that the feeling of accomplishment of carrying everything you need on your back, and you’re setting yourself up for a sweet adventure. Backpacking is a fun way to get outdoors and is perfect for hikers of all ages and abilities. Most people get hooked by hiking on local trails with established campsites, but as your confidence and knowledge grow, you’ll naturally progress to longer excursions and more epic destinations. Here’s our guide for getting started on the right foot.
Get the Gear
You’ll be carrying more gear than in your regular daypack, so you’ll feel the weight of each mile, ascent, and descent more intensely (literally). Lower your mileage goals as you get used to carrying 20-25 pounds of gear, which usually includes a tent, sleep system, hardgoods, food, and water. Don’t break the bank buying ultralight specialized items for your first trip, but compromise with accessible, streamlined options. Aim for a base weight of less than 20 pounds (not including food and water).
The majority of your base weight is what we call the “Big Three:” your pack, sleep system, and shelter. Choose a 45-65 liter pack with an internal frame for support and plenty of pockets for organizing gear. You’ll also want comfortable straps, a top pocket (“lid”) for quick access, and a reservoir pocket if you hike with a hydration reservoir. Above all, make sure the pack distributes weight evenly and fits well. For comfort with larger loads, the Baltoro (men’s) or Deva (women’s) are great options. These packs have significant padding and support, plus plenty of pockets for organization. If you plan to move faster and carry a lighter load, the Paragon (men’s) or Maven (women’s) will be your best bet. All of these packs distribute weight effectively, have ample organization, and are highly adjustable.
For solo camping, opt for a single-person tent to save weight or a two-person model for increased space. Choose a semi-freestanding tent with ample shoulder room, a sizeable vestibule, and simple assembly. If you’re hiking with a partner, look for a two- (or three) person tent with two entrances. Crawling over your partner for a midnight bathroom break isn’t fun. No matter what tent you choose, always practice setting it up before you hit the trail.
A sleeping bag and sleeping pad make up your sleep system. Pads come in inflatable or closed-cell foam varieties, and there are pros and cons to both. Choose your sleeping bag based on temperature rating, weight, and packability. Down insulation is more compressible than synthetic, but it doesn’t retain insulating properties when wet. A good option is a mummy bag with treated down in the 15-30 degree range.
Clothing and Hardgoods
You’ll need a few basic clothing items regardless of your destination—wicking base layer, windproof shell, and insulating layer—but specifics depend on forecasted weather and conditions. Unless you’re heading to the desert with zero chance of rain, bring a single-layer waterproof shell, and always pack a compressible down coat to throw on at camp. Choose hiking pants or shorts with a high waistband that sits comfortably under your hip belt. For cold nights, a warm top and bottom will be crucial. Wear shoes with a rugged outsole and plenty of support, and make sure they’re broken in before you leave. Choosing between boots and shoes is personal preference—trail runners offer more breathability and flexibility, but mid-rise boots have increased support for rougher trails.
Hardgoods include a stove, cookset, and fuel (if you plan to cook), a water treatment system, a headlamp, and stuff sacks for organizing gear and protecting down items. If you’re concerned about your knees, trekking poles are a great option to help uphill propulsion, take pressure off your knees downhill, and provide balance over tricky footing.
How Much Food Should You Bring?
This is a tough one. No one wants to go to sleep hungry, but you also don’t want to weigh down your pack with ridiculous amounts of food. Bring one meal for each night (two servings per person—you’re going to get hungry), a quick, high-calorie breakfast for the morning, and at least four servings per day of salty, sweet, crunchy, and chewy snacks for lunch and breaks. Choose calorie-dense foods that don’t take up too much room in your pack, and make sure to bring a variety so there’s always something you want to eat.
For dinner, a freeze-dried backpacking meal is an easy option, or you could bring a few packets of quick-cooking pasta. On-trail lunch can be as simple as tortillas with jerky, peanut butter, or tuna packets. Snacks like gummies, energy chews, or protein bars are high in calories, easy to eat on the go, and won’t get smashed in your pack. Breakfast can be something fast like Pop-Tarts or an energy bar slathered in peanut butter.
Choosing Your Trip
A two-day loop or out-and-back is your best bet. Again, your mileage will likely be lower with a full pack, and you want to get used to the feeling of carrying weight before attempting major peaks or extended miles. Pick a trail with an easy-to-moderate grade in a familiar area. Aiming for 6-9 miles of hiking per day is a good starting point.
Where Should You Camp?
Always follow the principles of Leave No Trace to reduce your impact, which means don’t just set up your tent or build a fire anywhere. Do your research and look for established campsites at your destination. If there are no established sites, find a stealth location on a durable surface where you won’t damage plant life. Be sure it’s at least 200 feet from water sources.
Stake your tent on a flat section of ground without large roots or rocks. If the ground has a minor pitch, sleep with your head on the “uphill” side. Look around and make sure your tent site isn’t in any sort of depression or bowl… if it rains, your tent will flood. Bear-active regions require backpackers to hang a bear bag.
Always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. Some avid backpackers carry a SPOT (a satellite GPS messenger) or backcountry GPS, but you are usually fine with a map and a solid game plan.
Make sure you understand the route, trail markings, and landmarks. Know your trail, and be aware of potential hazards. Is it a wildlife-dense region? What are the expected conditions? Any water crossings? Be sure to have protective layers, enough water to get to the next source, and an understanding of the basic hazards of backcountry travel.
You’re Ready to Go
If you can walk and follow a trail, you can complete a non-technical backpacking trip. Choose the right trail and carry comfortable gear and you’ll have a great time. Backpacking is one of the best ways to explore the most amazing parts of our country, and your gear and skills can be taken anywhere, no matter where the trail goes.
Written by RootsRated for Gregory Mountain Products.
Featured image provided by Toa Heftiba