Backpacking can be a little intimidating for beginners. In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about backpacking in an easy to understand and simple way. If you read this article, and our articles going into further detail on specific backpacking information, you’ll be knowledgeable enough to take the next steps comfortably. Bookmark this article, and you’ll have all the knowledge you need with just a little bit of reading.
What is Backpacking?
Backpacking is a combination of hiking and camping. Unlike day hikes, backpacking trips can last for a single overnight, days, weeks, or even longer. This means that you need to be prepared to carry all the food, water, and gear with you on your back. Backpacking enables adventurers to further immerse themselves into nature over traditional camping methods or staying at campgrounds.
Why go Backpacking?
There are many reasons to go backpacking. For some, it’s a way to interact with nature and get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Others view backpacking as an adventure sport – a way to explore new terrain and test their limits. And for others still, backpacking is simply the most efficient way to travel – it allows you to see more of the world in a shorter amount of time. No matter your reason for backpacking, one thing is for sure: it easily can be an experience you never forget.
- A great method of exercise for various reasons
- A great way to explore new places
- A great way to connect with friends and family, or even to meet new people
- A great way to reduce the cost of travel
- Like hiking, backpacking has many great mental, physical, and social benefits.
Step By Step Backpacking For Beginner’s Guide
Here, we go into the order of operations for planning a backpacking trip. Some of these may be daunting at first, but at the bottom of this section, we explain some resources you can utilize to improve your knowledge to plan all of the items below.
Choose Your Location
The first step in planning your backpacking trip is to choose your location. This will depend on a number of factors, including your fitness level, the amount of time you have, and what kind of scenery you want to see. If this is your first backpacking trip, it’s probably best to start with something relatively easy – like a short hike in your local state park. Once you’ve chosen your general destination, it’s time to start planning your route in more detail.
Planning Your Route
The next step is to map out your route. You need to know and plan:
- Where is your starting location, ending location, and each campsite in between.
- How many miles for each segment of your trip?
- How much elevation gain for each segment of your trip?
- How long will each segment of your trip likely take you to hike?
- How much food will you need to bring based on the duration of your hike?
- What is the weather you need to expect / prepare for on this hike?
- Do you need permits or passes for the location you are going?
- Where can you get water on the trail?
- What type of wildlife is in this area?
- What are your backup / bailout plans in case something happens?
This article on planning a backpacking trip helps go into further detail about how to answer and plan for each of the above questions.
How Can You Learn More About Backpacking?
Find A Mentor
Going backpacking with someone that has a lot of experience is probably the best way to learn as quickly as possible, and ensure you have a safe and fun experience. Here are a few options to help you find a mentor for your upcoming backpacking trip.
Hiring A Guide
Professional guides are often the best way to learn as they are trained in key information, and educational methods to help people pick up key backpacking knowledge and skills as quickly as possible. They can increase your safety, and speed up the education process for you. While some may not have the budget to hire a guide, if you do, this can often be the most effective way to learn quickly, have a great time, and stay as safe as possible.
Online Groups and Forums
You can use online groups and forums to find others in your area that have experience backpacking that may be willing to go with you. You can use these groups to connect with experienced backpackers and get advice on planning your trip. Facebook groups are often a great place to find others.
Look for Local Clubs & Organizations
Local clubs and organizations are a great way to meet other backpackers and learn about new trails in your area. These groups often have experienced members that are willing to share their knowledge and help you plan your trip. You can find these groups by doing a quick Google search or checking out Meetup.com.
Local Ranger Station Or Visitor’s Center
A ranger station or visitors center will have maps of the area and can give you advice on the best trails to take, potential options, and other helpful information.
Use The Internet Or Local Guidebook
Another great resource for planning your route is the internet to find websites or a local guidebook. There are a number of websites (like this one) and forums dedicated to backpacking, and many of them have trip reports that can be helpful in planning your own trip, as well as having the key information regarding the trail you plan on hiking. The best way to use these trip reports is to find one that is similar to the trip you are planning – same location, same time of year, etc. This will give you a good idea of what to expect on your adventure.
Take An Online Backpacking Course
We’ve partnered with Learn How To Backpack to bring you this super helpful backpacking course. Be sure to take a look at the course preview. Use coupon code “HIKEANDFISH40” for an exclusive 40% off. The course has a 30 day money back satisfaction guarantee as well.
Purchase a Trail Map
Trail maps are essential for planning your backpacking trip. They will show you the lay of the land and help you plan your route.
Key Backpack Planning Considerations
Before picking a specific destination as a beginner, you should determine how long you are comfortable going for. We recommend a one night trip for beginner backpackers to start. Selecting a duration will limit your trail options down to a an area that allows you to hike and camp for that amount of time.
Hike Mileage, Elevation Gain, Terrain, & Weather
We grouped mileage, elevation gain, terrain, and weather all into one category as they all play a major factor in how fast you can hike or backpack. Hiking lots of miles, or lots of elevation gain can slow you down substantially, but so can the type of terrain and weather. It is essential to know the terrain you are hiking in in order to plan your hiking time appropriately.
Snow you may come across, river crossings, boulder fields, and other features of terrain all need to be accounted for when estimating how long a trail may take.
Backpacking Gear You Need
Backpacking requires carrying everything you need on you. That means your gear needs to be lightweight, and packable. It also means you need to make sure you have everything you need. Checking out our backpacking checklist is a great idea, but here are some essential items explained as well:
Tent / Hammock
Make sure you have a tent, hammock, or bivy to sleep in that can keep you dry in case it rains. If you have more than one person, make sure you have more than one tent, or a tent large enough for everyone in your group. Keep in mind, that a larger tent is heavier, and harder to pack. Make sure you practice setting up your tent before heading out on a trip. You don’t want your first time to be when it is raining, when it’s dark, or when you are super tired after a lot of hiking. Read our guide on the best budget backpacking tents.
Having a backpack that can carry all your gear, and fits you well is essential. Be sure to try out your backpack on a longer hike with 20+ pounds of weight loaded in it so you can make sure you can hike long distances comfortably beforehand. Read our guide on the best budget backpacks.
Even in summer, sleeping bags are essential. Make sure you have a bag that is rated for the temperatures you may be experiencing. Read our guide on the best sleeping bags for backpacking. This will also go into detail about the difference between synthetic vs down bags.
This is a lesser known items among beginners, but very essential. Sleeping pads are essential for keeping a sleeping bag warm, and they also enhance comfort for sleep, which is extremely important while backpacking. Read our guide on the best sleeping pads.
Footwear can be in the form of boots, trail runners, hiking shoes, or potentially even hiking sandals. Utilizing regular sneakers is not recommended, but is still possible for certain easier conditions. Footwear that your feet are used to is absolutely crucial. Blistering can lead to extreme pain and quickly ruin a backpacking trip. Read our guide on hiking shoes vs trail runners vs hiking boots to learn what is best for you.
A headlamp is essential for safety. Being able to move around camp, or hike at night is an extremely important safety factor while backpacking. Always be sure you have full batteries and even backup batteries. Read our guide on the best headlamps.
Stove, Fuel, Lighter
Having a backpacking stove with fuel and a lighter, or matches is important for cooking food or boiling water. This is a highly recommended item so that you can have a warm meal to better enjoy the evenings. Stoves can also serve a source for filtering water by boiling. Read about choosing backpacking stoves here.
Water Filtration / Treatment
Water is an essential item for backpackers. It is very difficult to carry enough clean water even for a single overnight hike, so all backpackers should be bringing water filtration tablets, water filters, or be prepared to boil water for drinking. Proper hydration is essential for safety, performance, and comfort. Read our guide to backpacking water filtration here.
First Aid Kit
You need to have a first aid kit in case of injury. Even small cuts or blisters can become big issues while backpacking. Know what to have in a first aid kit by reading our guide.
Utensils / Tools
This one is pretty straightforward. Be sure to bring a utensil to cook with and eat with. Knives are also helpful tools, and important for safety. Always bring utensils and at a minimum a knife or multi tool.
Map Of Area
Whether this is a digital map, a printed map, or both, you need to be able to navigate effectively. Be prepared to not have any cell service while backpacking, and be prepared for your battery dying on your phone.
Bear Box / Bear Bag / Bear Spray (depending on location)
Not all areas require bear boxes or bear spray, but when camping in bear country, you should be bringing both bear spray, and a way to store your food. This is also a requirement for many national park areas. Be sure to know the regulations of your backpacking area. Read our guide to camping in bear country.
Hygiene Products & Medication
Make sure you bring any medication you may need with you. This also includes items like epipens or inhalers for those who may need that type of emergency medicine. Long backpacking trips may require additional hygiene products. Particularly for women. Make sure you have what you need. Read our guide to backpacking hygiene for further info.
Sun Protection & Sunscreen
Backpackers are often exposed to the sun for extended periods of timing. Having sunscreen, sunglasses, and protective clothing is extremely important to prevent sunburn. Do not forget this. Read our guide on purchasing the best sunscreens.
This includes base layers, insulation (fleece, down jacket), rain gear, hats, gloves, and socks. Extra socks, and extra underwear. Be sure to have clothing that can cover a wide range of temperatures so you can be comfortable no matter what the weather is like. We have several helpful clothing guides and material guides for you:
Make sure you pack the right food and enough calories for your trip. When backpacking, you burn a lot of calories, and your body needs fuel in order to continue operating efficiently. You can use our calories burned calculator to help determine how many extra calories you’ll burn from your hiking.
Be sure to read our full guide to backpacking food.
FAQs About Backpacking
Do you need trekking / hiking poles?
The short answer is no, but they do have benefits. Read our in depth article on whether you should use trekking poles or not.
What size bag do I need for backpacking?
Check out our guide to backpack sizing to know exactly what size you need.
Do I need to bring a tent?
This depends on your backpacking goals. You do need some type of shelter. Even if you plan on staying in huts, it is often a good idea to bring an emergency shelter in case of any issues. For longer trips, you may decide to ditch the tent and go with a tarp setup or hammock instead. Read our guide to hammock camping if this interests you.
What are the best backpacking packs?
This is a difficult question because it depends on your individual needs. First you should understand the different types of backpacks, understand backpack sizing, and then check out our guide to the best budget backpacks.
We hope you enjoyed this complete guide to backpacking for beginners. Be sure to check out our other helpful backpacking articles we have linked to in this piece for more information on planning your next trip. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out and we’ll do our best to help
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about