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A Beginner’s Ultimate Guide to Backpacking

Tents at the Karanga Camp.

Heading out into the wilderness with just a backpack is an unforgettable way to spend time outdoors. A backcountry expedition offers the opportunity to unplug from technology and unwind from the daily grind while providing the chance to admire jaw-dropping natural wonders, have intimate encounters with wildlife, and seek out epic stargazing spots. But, even for seasoned car-campers, making the leap to backpacking is a still big step. When you’re ready, here’s how to plan your first backcountry getaway.

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Choosing a Destination

While still sharpening your skills, start within your comfort zone, and choose a trip that doesn’t push your physical limits. Starting slow allows you to build confidence, as you work up to tackling more challenging routes. Consider your fitness level and navigational skills, along with external environmental factors, like the difficulty of the terrain, seasonal temperatures, and potential for extreme weather. Start with a trail that’s easy to follow, and save the bushwhacking for future trips, once you have mastered backcountry navigation.

What to Pack

Once you have a few backpacking trips under your belt, you’ll have a good idea of the type of the best multipurpose gear that will keep you comfortable on the trail – whether you like to pack ultralight or carry a few more creature comforts. But for starters, there are a few essentials you’ll need for any backpacking trip:

  • Tent or hammock. When choosing the best camping tent, be sure to consider seasonality, space, and weight. The standard 3-season tent can handle chilly temperatures in late spring or early fall, but won’t keep you comfortable in more extreme conditions. If you are heading to higher elevations, or a destination with the possibility of severe weather, like snow or powerful winds, it’s better to go with a sturdier 4-season tent to be sure you stay comfortable. Alternatively, for warmer trips sleeping in a backpacking hammock can be a perfectly comfortable option, and an easy way to cut weight in your backpack.
  • Sleeping bag and mat. When selecting the best sleeping bag, the first choice is between down or synthetic insulation. Bags insulated with down tend to be warmer for their weight than synthetic bags, and are easy to compress. On other hand, synthetic bags dry faster, and typically cost less than down. Whether you go with a down or synthetic option, don’t forget to check the temperature rating, to ensure your sleeping bag is warm enough for the nightly temperatures at your destination. Just like sleeping bags, there are plenty of options for backpacking and sleeping mats, too – whether you want something lightweight and compact, or a bulkier mat with a bit more cushioning. Pay attention to the R-value, a rating that indicates how much insulation your mat will provide —  and if you’re heading into chilly climes, choose a mat with a higher R-value.
  • Headlamp. Unlike a traditional flashlight, a headlamp lets you be hands-free – which is especially useful for cooking after sunset, setting up camp in the twilight, or making late-night bathroom trips.
  • Backpacking stove and fuel. Whether you are using a canister-style stove or a liquid-fuel stove, be sure your fuel is compatible. And, either way, don’t forget to bring a lighter, and a multi-tool or a pair of pliers to use as a pot grip for safely grabbing piping-hot cookware.
  • Navigational Tools. While navigational apps like Gaia GPS, Hiking Project, PeakVisor, and ViewRanger, and handheld GPS units are handy both for trip planning and finding your way on the trail, technology isn’t always reliable in the backcountry, so be sure to pack a map and compass, too.
  • Dry Bags. In wet weather, a waterproof dry bag keeps essential gear – like your phone – safe from water damage. For the rest of your stuff, lining your pack with a sturdy, plastic garbage bag will help keep essentials your clothes and sleeping bag dry.
  • Trowel. A sturdy, plastic trowel is the best option for digging backcountry cat-holes when nature calls.
A camp table filled with camp stove, mugs, and other camping accessories.

While your trail wardrobe will depend on the season and your intended destination, it’s good to start with a few core pieces:

  • Moisture-wicking base-layers, like quick-drying t-shirts, or long underwear for colder climates
  • Functional layers for hiking, whether you prefer to hike in shorts or pants, go with gear that will dry quickly.
  • A warmer layer, such as a fleece or down jacket, along with a wooly hat and gloves.
  • Rain gear. Be sure to pack both a waterproof jacket and pants. In a pinch, you can also don your rain gear for added warmth on chilly evenings, or for protection from irksome insects.
  • At least one pair of comfortable, moisture-wicking socks for the trail, and a spare pair for keeping feet cozy at camp.
  • Camp shoes. A spare pair of kicks, like lightweight running shoes or sturdy sandals, give your feet a break at the end of the day, and in a bind, can be a backup if something happens to your hiking boots.

Bringing Enough Food and Water

On a backpacking trip, running out of food or water can be a disaster – so it’s worth taking the time to plan your meals. Start with the standard guideline that adults should consume 2,00o to 2,500 calories per day, and then consider the level of exertion required for your route. For starters, plan the breakfasts and dinners and for each of the days you plan to be out, and then supplement with calorie-dense snacks for the trail. Freeze-dried backpacking meals are convenient, and can reduce the amount of cookware you have to carry, but staples like pasta, rice, or oatmeal packed in ziplock bags work great on the trail too. And, to add a little flavor to your cuisine, dried herbs and spices are worth their weight in the backcountry.

Of course, water is just as important as food. First of all, take stock of the water sources along your route, noting the number of opportunities to resupply – whether it’s a trailside spring, a mountain stream, or water-piping into a backcountry campground. In general, plan to carry at least two liters of water – and to drink about a half-liter of water for every hour of hiking. And, to ensure your water is safe for drinking, be sure to bring a water filtering or purification system, or water-purifying drops or tablets.

Picking a Campsite

A campsite set-up.

When selecting a spot for camp, there are two main factors to consider – safety and sustainability. Before setting up your tent, check for natural features that could potentially be hazardous – like dead trees that could drop limbs, precarious ridgelines that could be hard to navigate in the dark, or streams prone to flooding. And then, think about reducing your impact on the wilderness by camping on a durable surface, like rock, sand, or gravel instead of more delicate vegetation.

Planning Ahead

Doing a little research on your route makes for a more seamless trip. First, be sure to check for any necessary permits or travel restrictions for your location, and then study the trail to identify any destination-specific challenges — like river-crossings or highly-exposed ridgeline traverses. Knowing a little background can also enrich your trail experience, and help you keep an eye out for overlooked historic sites, obscure natural wonders, or rare wildlife.

And, don’t forget to do a practice run to test your gear – even if it’s just in the backyard.

Being Ready for Emergencies

While taking a break from technology can be one of the highlights of time in the wilderness, in the case of an emergency, it’s good to have a lifeline. In the backcountry, cell phones aren’t always reliable. Instead, there are a variety of gadgets designed to keep you connected on the trail, including satellite messengers and personal locater beacons like the Garmin inReach Mini Satellite Communicator, the Spot X Satellite Messenger, or the .

And, even for short backpacking trips, a fully stocked first aid kit is essential. For starters, pack items like bandages and for treating common wounds and injuries, medications, and ointments for common ailments like insect bites and stomach bugs, along with other essentials like tweezers, duct tape, and a heat-reflecting Mylar blanket. For starters, the National Park Service has a good list of basics. And, be sure to tailor your first aid kit to your specific destination – whether you are planning a few days in the desert, an alpine ascent, or a stint in a soggy boreal forest.

Respecting Wildlife

A close up shot of a black bear.

From bald eagles cruising serpentine rivers to elk bugling in the midst of the mating season, spotting wildlife along the trail is often among the highlights of any backpacking trip. But, it’s still important to give wild creatures a wide berth. Be aware of any critters that could pose a threat to humans – like venomous snakes, mountain lions, or moose. In the United States, one of the key animals to consider is the bear.  Of the country’s three bear species, black bears are the most common, found in 40 states, while grizzly bears (a subspecies of brown bears), live only in a handful of states, including Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming. When backpacking in bear country, it’s important to securely stash food, either in a hanging bag or a bear bin – and be sure you don’t cook near your tent. At night, keep anything that smells like food – including toothpaste, soap, or deodorant –in a bear bin or hanging bear bag, to keep curious bruins from visiting your tent. And, as a precaution, consider carrying a can of bear spray. The aerosol spray works as a deterrent for bears by emitting a cloud of eye and nose irritating capsicum derivatives.

Read more: Outdoor Survival Tips

Minimizing Your Impact in the Wilderness

Whenever recreating outdoors, it’s important to minimize our impact on the natural world, and ensure these wild spaces can be enjoyed by other visitors. As a starting point, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has developed seven basic principles for spending time outdoors, whether camping in the backcountry or just trail running a local park.

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