Almost every backpacker remembers his or her first trip like it was yesterday. Mine was the 38-mile Trans-Catalina Trail during a sweltering Labor Day weekend. My excitement was palpable as I stepped off the ferry and marched towards the trailhead in my new hiking boots and a 65-liter backpack stuffed to the gills with everything I needed for my three-day backcountry adventure. Or so I thought.
I left that first adventure a bit lighter than I’d started it. Specifically one stick of deodorant, a pharmacy-sized bottle of ibuprofen, and a second-edition Harry Potter and the Sorcerers’ Stone lighter. My tenacity got me to the other side of the island, but at the cost of painful shin splints, heat rash, thigh chafe, and blisters so painful I couldn’t wear closed-toed shoes for the next two weeks.
Planning a backpacking trip involves a lot of moving pieces, and if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and overlook minor details.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to prepare for your first backcountry adventure including:
- How to find a beginner-friendly backpacking route
- How to train for your backpacking trip
- How to plan transportation to and from the trail
- What gear to bring on your backpacking trip
- What (and how much) to eat on trail
- Beginner backpacking do’s and don’ts
Backpacking Pre-trip Planning
Choose a Trail
Choose an easy route with low mileage and modest elevation gain for your first overnight trip. It’s tough to keep your usual pace when carrying an extra 30 to 40 pounds on your back. Exciting as it is to plan your first overnight backpacking trip, remember to be realistic and recognize your limits.
We route the complete guide to finding and planning a route. You should read that in depth guide here.
As soon as you know where you want to hike, check if you need a permit. Some permits you can pick up at the trailhead on the day you start your hike, while others require an application.
Several popular trails, such as Mt. Whitney and the Enchantments in Washington, are highly competitive and awarded by lottery. If your schedule isn’t flexible, pick a backup location that’s easier to get permits for or doesn’t require them at all.
Be aware of additional guidelines and notices about the trail you’re hiking on, like bear canister regulations, trail reroutes, campground closures, etc.
Finally, reach out to friends, family, co-workers, or social media users who have hiked the trail to get advice or ask questions not covered in your trail maps or guidebooks.
Create a Trip Itinerary
Plan your hike in advance by studying the elevation profile, natural landmarks, creek crossings, and general terrain, then create a hiking itinerary for each day.
To save time and ease the burden of planning, you can also skip this and the previous step altogether by going on a commercially guided backpacking trip. The best thing about guided trips is that they take the stress out of planning; all you have to do is show up and have fun!
Backpacking requires good core strength, coordination, and upper body strength to help you carry your heavy pack, climb steep hills, and keep your balance on rocky, uneven terrain. Physical preparation will help you go faster without feeling fatigued, cover more distance, and meet your daily mileage goals without feeling like you’re racing the sun.
A well-balanced workout regimen for backpackers should include hiking with a weighted pack at elevation, strength training, cardio, and mobility exercises. Check out our training guide for thru-hikers and backpackers alike for more guidance.
Getting to the starting point of your hike can be tricky, depending on the trail. When hiking a point-to-point trail, for example, you have several options to choose from: stage two cars at each end of the trail, hitchhike, pay for a local shuttle service, or bribe a friend or family member to pick you up. A hiccup in your travel arrangements can derail your hiking plans, so make sure you have a backup plan.
What Gear to Bring On Your Backpacking Trip
A good backpacking tent differs from your typical car camping tent. Most backpacking tents are made from lightweight nylon and polyester materials designed to withstand the elements, accommodate up to four people, and are easy to pitch. Unless you plan to backpack in winter conditions (which I don’t recommend for first-timers), a 3-season tent will do.
If you’re unfamiliar with backpacking gear, renting a tent or borrowing one from a friend may be a good idea. Several outfitters, like REI, lend out tents, backpacks, and other equipment to let you try before you buy.
Beginners should prioritize comfort and support above weight when shopping for backpacks. Look for a 40 to 60-liter pack that ticks all your boxes and have it professionally fitted by your local gear shop. Most associates at specialty gear retailers can measure your body to recommend a pack that fits your needs. Learn how to choose the best backpack for your needs, and how to select the right size to carry everything you need in our comprehensive backpack size guide.
You have two big choices when it comes to sleeping bags: fill material and temperature rating. Most 20-degree bags will keep you warm in 3-season conditions if you’re a cold sleeper.
Next, choose your fill material; down or synthetic. Synthetic sleeping bags are versatile, easier to care for, and usually cheaper than down. If you’re willing to spend a little more, down sleeping bags offer a higher warmth-to-weight ratio than synthetic and have a longer lifespan when properly cared for. For information about the differences between down and synthetic insulation, read this guide before committing to a sleeping bag.
Like your sleeping bag, a good sleeping pad keeps you warm and comfortable at night. You can choose between inflatable and foam sleeping pads. A cushy inflatable pad will offer more comfort and better insulation from the ground, while foam pads are great for budget-conscious beginners and camping in warm weather. If you’re leaning towards an inflatable pad, we curated a selection of our top inflatable sleeping pad picks here.
Canister stoves are lightweight and pack down small, making them perfect for backcountry use. A simple setup like a Soto Windmaster stove paired with a lightweight titanium pot and spork covers all your backpacking kitchen essentials. Learn more about choosing the right backpacking stove for your adventure here.
Lightweight water filters like a Sawyer Squeeze or Katadyn BeFree, combined with a hydration reservoir, offer the most efficient way to purify and filter water in lieu of potable water sources. We put together additional tips for finding the best backpacking water filter along with the highest-rated filters on the market here.
If you’re hiking somewhere with questionable or unreliable water sources, bring a bigger hydration reservoir and a backup method of filtering your water, like iodine tablets.
As a general estimate, you should plan to carry around 1.5 lbs of food (or 3,000 calories) for every day that you’re on trail. However, elevation gain, speed, distance covered, and personal factors like age, metabolism, and weight will affect how much and how often you eat.
If you’re planning your first adventure, grab a few Backpacker’s Pantry or Mountain House meals as dinner options. While on the pricier side, these freeze-dried meals satisfy and are easy to whip up (just add hot water), removing the need to plan, shop for, and prep your backpacking meals in advance.
By the way, we created a calculator to help you plan your food and calorie consumption on your backpacking trip. Try it out here!
Clothing and Footwear
While quality hiking gear can stand the test of time, it doesn’t come cheap. So before you hit up your local outfitter, dig through your closet for workout gear made from moisture-wicking, quick-drying fabrics. Cotton is generally a big no-no because it soaks up water and takes a long time to dry.
Check out our guide on how to choose the right clothes and layering system for your backpacking trip.
Along with what you’ll be hiking in, pack a set of baselayers to sleep in, two extra pairs of wool socks (a rotating pair for hiking and another for sleep), and warm layers like a puffy or fleece jacket.
Don’t forget your footwear! If you already have hiking boots or trail runners you like, use them. But if you’re in the market for your first pair of backpacking shoes, over-the-ankle hiking boots may offer more comfort, insulation, and protection from the stray pebble or thorn that finds its way into your shoe. Trail runners are better for shorter trips or those who prefer a lighter load due to their lightweight construction and quick-drying properties. If you’re still on the fence, check out our definitive guide to hiking boots and trail runners.
No matter your preference, always give your new shoes a test run before hitting the trail. There’s nothing worse than having a fun backpacking trip soured by painful blisters.
Downloadable Backpacking Checklist
We put together a Google Sheet, downloadable Excel Sheet, and a Table containing the ultimate backpacking checklist. Grab yours here!
Beginner Backpacking Do’s and Don’ts
Do: Take It Slow
You’re not backpacking to set speed records. Besides, what’s the rush? When you’re just starting out, aim to hike no more than 7 to 10 miles per day. You can always increase your daily mileage as you gain more experience. If you’re making great time on the trail, use the opportunity to take longer breaks and arrive early to camp to snag a good spot, even detour to nearby peaks or lakes for a fun side quest.
Don’t: Skimp on Food
The last thing you want is to run out of food on your trip, but you also want to avoid overpacking to the point of feeling like you’re carrying your fears. Don’t focus on your food if you’re trying to reduce your pack weight. If this is your first backpacking trip, bring more food than you think you’ll need. There’s no telling how hungry you’ll get while on trail. Pack food and snacks that look tasty and exciting to keep you motivated to eat.
Do: Practice Leave No Trace
You’re probably already familiar with Leave No Trace, but if not, you can learn more about the core principles here. Leave No Trace centers primarily on respecting the land you’re on, but it also involves extending that respect to your fellow hikers. That means leaving the Bluetooth speaker at home, keeping your voice down if you get to camp late, and being considerate of others on the trail.
Don’t: Wait to Test Your Gear
Gear can make the difference between a memorable or miserable backpacking experience. Be sure you know how to use your gear before your trip. Break in those hiking boots, practice setting up your tent, and make sure the backpacking stove you bought off Facebook Marketplace works.
Do: Take a Few Creature Comforts With You
Backpacking isn’t all about suffering. Don’t be afraid to indulge yourself and pack a few home comforts for a cozier backcountry adventure. Whether it’s a pair of camp shoes, coffee maker, camp chair, Kindle, or stuffed animal (seriously), make room in your pack for the things that’ll bump up your fun and comfort level during your trip.
Don’t: Feel Like You Have to Do It Alone
It can be overwhelming and scary to start something new. Learning everything about backpacking on your own can lead to frustration and anxiety. Finding like-minded friends and more experienced hikers to learn from can cut down on the guesswork and take some of the pressure off when you’re just starting out.
Need help finding hiking and backpacking buddies? You can join Facebook for local hiking meet-up groups, go on a guided trip, or check fliers at your local outfitters!
One last thing…
This guide, while helpful, can only prepare you for so much. There’s a reason why so many people refer to backpacking as Type 2 fun. You’ll make mistakes on your first backpacking trip – just look at how many I made! It’s important to remember we all start somewhere.
Something will go wrong. Lessons will be learned. It’s all part of the adventure.
And when it’s all said and done, you’ll walk off the trail with more stories and memories than you can fit into your pack!
Ash Czarnota is a freelance writer based in Southern California with over 3,000 trail miles under her feet. She is the founder of Go Galavanting, an online community to celebrate adventurous women and highlight emerging thought leaders in the outdoor industry. A PCT alumni, Joshua Tree enthusiast and burgeoning climber, Ash uses her outdoor experiences to craft content that educates and inspires a rising generation of adventurers to embrace their inner wild. Connect with her on Instagram (@salty_millennial).