Backpacking for Beginners: How to get started

Wandering around in the wilderness and soaking up the beauty of nature can make you feel happier and help you live a healthier life. But, backpacking and hiking can be challenging hobbies to start if you’re not familiar with a few basics.

Let this backpacking for beginners guide illuminate everything you need to know. Before you know it, you’ll be hitting the trails and starting a new adventure!

Let’s get started.

Contents

Chapter 1

Planning Your Backpacking Trip

Chapter 2

Essential Backpacking Gear

Chapter 3

Backpacking Food & Drink Planning

Chapter 4

Essential Backpacking Skills

Chapter 5

Backpacking Trip Safety Planning

Chapter 6

It’s Time to Enjoy the Outdoors!

Chapter 1

Planning Your Trip

Before you tackle camping gear or hiking boots, it’s essential to plan your first backpacking trip! Your preferred camping style, camping locations, and recreational hobbies will help determine what kind of gear is best for you.

Hiker exercising outside to get in shape for a backpacking trip
Hiker planning a backpacking trip with a map
Compass wind rose for navigation on white background
Scenic view of beautiful snowy Vosges mountains

Determine Your Trip Objectives

Firstly, what do you want to achieve with your trip? Do you want to take a quick hike, then rest and relax? Are you keen to hike to a river and go kayaking or canoeing? Or are you interested in finding a remote spot in the woods and setting up camp overnight?

Each situation calls for a completely different set of equipment. Deciding what kinds of backpacking trips you’d like to have, early on, can mean the difference between an exciting, fulfilling trip and a disastrous excursion.

The type of backpacking will also help you figure out what kinds of skills you may need to master before setting out.

Choose Your Backpacking Destination

It’s tempting to take on the most gorgeous — yet dangerous — backpacking trails early-on. However, don’t let jaw-dropping selfies and views seduce you. Unless you’re in incredible physical shape and are an experienced camper, it’s best to start things slowly.

You can ensure that you maximize your fun and minimize your risk of physical injury by following these simple tips:

  • Pick a loop. It’s difficult to get lost on a trail that loops around!
  • Keep it low. When you’re learning to backpack, it’s best to keep your inclines and elevations to a minimum. Remember, you’ll have to compensate for the weight on your back, so keeping your balance may be an issue.
  • Go with a group. You could also choose to embark with a group of backpackers. You’re sure to meet plenty of interesting folks with similar interests! And with so many buddies around, you’re safer in the vast, wild woods.
  • Stay close to home. Choosing a backpacking site that’s close to home can help you feel grounded. If you ever happen to feel lost, you’re more likely to recognize surroundings and be able to find your way home.
  • Keep it short. Just as with exercising, it’s important to start things off with short routines. Over-exerting yourself is a dangerous thing to do and could leave you exhausted and alone in the wilderness. Hiking on short trails eliminates this possibility.
  • Go with a guide or experienced friend. If you have a question or concern, they’ll be able to help you right away.
  • Stick to popular paths. Some trails are popular for a reason, whether they’re safe, beautiful, or just fun to walk! Sticking to accessible pathways is a great way to meet fellow backpackers and stay away from troublesome individuals or dangerous wildlife.
  • Walk-in and walk out. Choose a campsite that allows walk-ins. This eliminates the responsibility of booking a site and staying overnight. If you feel like going home, you can.
  • Stick with established sites. Choose a reputable park, nature preserve, or campsite. You can start off on the right foot by browsing the many National Parks.
  • Research the trails beforehand. Most government-funded or owned parks have trail maps posted on their website, allowing you to become familiar with the park’s trails ahead of time. This is a great planning tool. Check out the best trails in the United States.

Research the Weather Conditions

Though you might not be ready to book a campsite just yet, that doesn’t mean you can’t get a leg-up on the weather. Make a list of your top ten preferred campsites. Use a reputable weather site, like the NOAA website, to research common weather conditions in those sites.

You can find out how likely rain, snow, and everything in-between is, no matter which month of the year it is. With this useful info, you can match your clothing, shoes, and gear to the expected weather conditions.

As always, it’s best to be prepared, so it’s a good idea to always keep rain gear, a first-aid kit, and other emergency items handy.

Get Physically Ready

One of the greatest challenges of backpacking for beginners is getting into better physical shape. However, proper aerobic health and strong shoulders, legs, and back are essential to comfortable and rewarding backpacking adventures.

However, here are a few tips and tricks that can help you tone-up and prepare for any trail.

Keep up with the training exercises. It’s easy to give up on getting fit after the first few days or so. It’s likely that your body may be sore and tired. But don’t give up! With consistent training exercises, you can master any trail.

Make a practice trip. Before setting out on your first real trip, it might be wise to choose a similar location and run a mock-trip. Bring your gear, come prepared, and test out the trail. You may just come away with a piece of useful knowledge — like remembering to bring mosquito repellent!

Figure out your current fitness level. You can choose to seek professional guidance from a physician, nurse, or nutritionist to determine your fitness level. If you live a sedentary lifestyle, you will need more time and exercise to become fitter, healthier, and a more capable backpacker.

Focus on the lungs and legs. When you’re performing your exercises, be sure to improve lung strength via aerobic exercises, and leg strength with leg-training exercises. Your body will thank you when you’re out in the woods.

Chapter 2

Essential Backpacking Gear

Now you’ve got a rough idea of where you’d like to go, for how long you’d like to be there, what the weather might be like, and what you need to do to physically prepare for the trip. The next step is obtaining the right gear for the job.

Camping with a backpack and a tent in the mountain
Backpacking accessories set on dark wooden background: backpack, boots, camera, flashlight, map, smarphone and others
Close up to a full-loaded backpack during a backpacking trip
Picture of a comfortable orange backpack lying on the rocks outdoor
Close-up and details of a backpack

Backpack

When choosing a backpack, you want to make sure you end up with something that is comfortable, large enough to fit your gear, and affordable. You may be tempted to get a super-lightweight backpack, but you may want to wait.

Ultra-lightweight backpacks tend to have less strap and back cushioning. When you’re just starting out on the trails, you definitely want to trade comfort for weight. However, this doesn’t mean that you should overload yourself with gear.

Bringing the essentials is crucial. If you don’t know what the essentials are, you could end up lugging around a lot more than you need!

Camping Gear

When you’re backpacking, it’s best to keep things as simple and light as possible. So, instead of packing a heavy two-person tent, you may want to consider getting a backpacking hammock with a bug tent and rain fly. These ingenious shelters allow you to rest above-ground while escaping the elements and pesky insects.

With a sturdy suspension system, you can hang securely from nearly any tree. And with the addition of a quality underquilt to block wind and conserve heat (and a cozy top quilt to snuggle up with), you may just find that your hammock tent is too comfortable.
However, you can also choose the more traditional route of a sleeping bag. In fair weather, a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad can be the best option. You’ll end up with an unforgettable show of stars — as long as you’re beneath trees of heavy clouds, of course!

And for those who prefer the comfort, space, and enclosed feeling of a tent, there are plenty of single-person tents for every terrain type.

Camping cooking pots, utensils and gear
Interior view of a dome tent set up for camping with backpacking gear
Backpacking survival kit gear on grass

Clothing

Wearing the right clothing is one of the essential aspects of a successful backpacking trip. There’s a lot more to consider than just socks, pants, a shirt. You’ll want to be familiar with all of the following.

Hiking Layers

While hiking, it’s likely you’ll encounter multiple environments and temperatures, especially if you’re hiking throughout the day. Wearing layers is crucial to keeping cool and warm. Hiking layers are layers of clothing specifically chosen to make for a comfortable hike.

Base Layers

The first thing you put on your body after taking a shower could be considered your “base layer.” This is the layer of clothing that rests directly on your skin. When backpacking, you want your base layer to be cool, absorbent, lightweight, and nonrestrictive.

Mid Layer

The layer, or layers, between your base layer and the outermost layer, is known as the mid layer. Mid layers tend to be light, long-sleeved shirts or t-shirts and vests. They are easy to remove and store.

Shell

Your shell is the outermost layer of your outfit. For colder conditions, this might be a heavy jacket or coat. In warmer climes, this might be a light jacket or even a t-shirt, weather permitting. However, it’s important that your shell clothing is as protective as possible. This layer is your first line of defense against insects, wildlife, poisonous plants, and sun damage.

Socks

When choosing socks, you want to choose a pair that are absorbent, thick-yet-breathable, and equipped with reinforced heels and toes. Wool-spandex blends are popular and effective options.

If you are traveling to high altitudes, you should consider a pair of compression hiking socks. These will help prevent blood clotting and may reduce symptoms of elevation sickness.

Hat

The general rule to choose a hat you’re comfortable wearing. But your favorite baseball hat might not do the trick while backpacking. A hat made of breathable material, and with a wide brim, is preferable for most climates. This is especially true of hotter, sunnier campsites.

However, campers traveling in the cold will naturally want to choose a thicker hat that protects the ears as well as the scalp. There are thousands of options — your personal preferences, campsite plans, and budget will help to guide you in the right direction.

Gaiters

Soggy socks and soaking shoes aren’t a joke when you’re on the trail. They can seriously break you. That’s why it’s important to have a lightweight, effective set of gaiters with you. If you’re going anywhere where there’s streams, rivers, lakes, or swamps, you’ll be glad you brought your gaiters.

The best backpacking gaiters are lightweight, easy to use, rugged, and secure. There are several models that strap directly onto your footwear and fold away for convenient storage.

Rainwear

Umbrellas might be a lovely way to stay dry in the city, but in the woods, they can become a nuisance in no time. Lightweight rain jackets and rain ponchos are definitely some of the best options for backpackers.

Many are so breathable that they can be worn in regular weather without too much discomfort. Be sure to look for one that is water repellent, not just resistant. A hood, securable wrists and neck straps, and pockets are additional features to watch out for.

Shoes

The right backpacking shoe varies from person to person, nearly as much as a fingerprint. However, there are a few consistent features to look for. High-quality hiking or backpacking shoes should have plenty of grip and traction. Without friction, your shoes may slip across rocks or fallen tree limbs.

Your shoes should also be comfortable and lightweight. You’re going to be carrying yourself and all of your gear across unpaved pathways. You need to lighten the load whenever possible. It’s important to remember that every hiking boot or shoe requires a few weeks to a couple of months to properly break-in.

During this time, your feet will likely swell. While out on the trail, your feet naturally swell due to gravity, pressure, and exertion. A wide shoe, or a half-size up in your shoe size, may be a worthwhile option to prevent discomfort, pain, and blistering.

Cooking Supplies

Every camper needs a solid set of cooking supplies. Collapsible metal dishware, like bowls and silverware, is a great option. Hard plastic food containers, water bottles, and mugs are easy to wash and are lightweight.

All-natural soaps, like castile soap, stow away in a cinch and provide an astounding amount of power per drop. No matter what cooking supplies you choose, be sure that they’re sturdy, lightweight, and easy to clean!

Stove

Camping stoves come in a few shapes and many sizes, but a great backpacking stove will always be lightweight, simple, and (typically) collapsible. A single-flame butane heater or something similar is all it takes to boil water, heat-up food, and make a decent meal.

Other Necessary Items

You may also want to include the following items in your backpack:

  • Compass
  • Firestarters
  • Flashlight
  • Knife
  • Personal Hygiene Products
  • Sunglasses and Sunscreen
  • Water-Repellent Tarp
  • Toilet Paper
  • Topographic Map
  • Trekking Poles

Of course, your destination, your hike, and your skill levels will help determine what items you absolutely need to bring with you. However, backpacking checklist may help.

Top view of camping gear like flashlight, swiss army knife and walkie talkie
Chapter 3

Food & Drink Planning

One of the worst sensations in the world is being caught out in the wilderness without food or fresh water. But with proper food and drink planning, you can avoid this awful scenario.

Herbal tea with wild rose berries in a camp pot
Cooking breakfast on a campfire during a backpacking trip

Pack Enough Food

Prepackaged foods might not be the healthiest, but a plastic-wrapped brick of ramen lasts a lot longer than a fresh head of lettuce. That’s why it’s smart to load-up on prepackaged foods and snacks. Resealable plastic bags can help keep foods fresh while minimizing scavenger-luring smells.

You can choose to invest in some quality dehydrated fruits and vegetables for your trip if you’d like to keep things healthy.

You could also get an at-home dehydrator and make your own trail snacks and meals! Whatever you decide to do in terms of food, do not bring items that need to be frozen or refrigerated.

Canned goods are also a no-go. While they might be tasty and satisfying, canned meals are weighty and bulky thanks to their water content. It’s better to just keep them at home.

Pack Enough Water

Since you’re not lugging around extra water weight with canned foods, you’ll have plenty of room for fresh water. Or, at least, just enough room. Under-the-clothes water packs can help with thirst during the hike, and packaged water is great for cooking and campsite cleaning.

The average person needs at least one liter of water every two hours. Of course, this figure fluctuated depending on the person’s age, average water intake, fitness level, and campsite selection. Shadier, cooler campsites can result in lower water consumption, while hotter sites can increase it.

Still, taking breaks to stay hydrated is vital. Heatstroke can strike very quickly and can become debilitating and life-threatening just as fast. If you’re unable to carry enough clean water with you for the journey, be sure to bring water treatment tablets, a heat source, and a sturdy metal pan for boiling water.

Always be sure to include how much water your meals might consume when figuring out how much water you’ll need for your trip. Otherwise, you may end up hauling a bucket of river water half a mile to camp nearly dusk. That’s never fun or safe.

Meal Suggestions

Here are three basic backpacker meals that can help you make the most of your trip! Remember, you might not be able to enjoy three meals every day, but when you can, you should. The energy you’ll get can help propel you through another blissful hike!

Breakfast

Breakfast should be light. Coffee, tea, or fresh water are an excellent way to start the day. Adding a little instant oatmeal, peanut butter, crackers, or nuts to the plate will give you an additional boost of energy to get going.

Hiker cooking porridge for breakfast in a campsite

Lunch

Lunch can be a bit heartier, with bread, hard preserved meats, preserved chicken or tuna, and even cheese coming out to play. These foods are savory, satisfying, and provide a greater, more long-term surge of energy. Your hike may almost be finished by this point in the day, but your work is probably only beginning!

Dinner

After a long day of hiking or setting up camp, it’s nice to have a simple, filling dinner. Instant mashed potatoes, powdered soups, ramen, and other high-carb items make their debut at dinner time. These foods will make you feel sleepy and full, but they’ll also help you start off the next day, raring to go!

Snacking Strategy

Just as hydration breaks are a must while backpacking, so are snack breaks. If you pack your snacks right, you won’t even have to stop to enjoy a quick burst of energy! Keeping to three solid meals can be tricky when exploring longer routes. Chowing down on a handful of goodness every few hours or so is a fine way to supplement your backpacking diet.

Energy bars, jerky, nuts, crackers, trail mix, and chocolate are excellent snack ideas. You could even make a few dried fruit bars or homemade granola bars!

Hiker holding backpacking granola bar covered in hand
Hiking snacks in zippered reusable bags
Chapter 4

Essential Backpacking Skills

There are quite a few skills that beginners can build and potentially master before and during a backpacking trip. Some of these skills may save your life in a tough situation, while others will help you to enjoy a practical and worthwhile trip.

Close-up on hiker's hands holding trekking pole
Hikers using the compass in interaction with a map

Basic Navigation

If you’re planning a short trip, it may seem pointless to learn basic navigation skills. However, if you’re ever involved in an emergency situation, you’ll be glad that you can tell east from west. A compass can definitely come in handy in a tight spot, but you’ll need to know how to read it, and what can make it malfunction.

Map-reading is another crucial component of learning basic navigation. If you can read topographical maps, you can avoid climbing a mountain and instead take a riverside route to safety!

Proper Trekking Pole Usage

Trekking poles can be an excellent way to support yourself on a long hike. Be sure to invest in one that is the proper height and material. Metal poles may rust in humid or wet conditions, and thinner wooden poles may splinter with time. Sturdy wooden options or metal-plastic hybrids are often the best options for beginners.

Pre-Outing Practice

Never head out on the trail without becoming friends with your camping gear. The pre-outing practice is just as important as pre-outing fitness and planning. It’s as simple as taking your tent or hammock and setting up in your yard.

You should put up (and take down) your gear several times before trying it out in the woods. Not only will you feel more comfortable, but you’ll be able to set up camp more quickly.

Gear Inventory and Weight Distribution

Take a physical inventory of your gear before packing it. Then put it all into your bag and get it ready to go, as if you were just about to leave. Now, take a luggage scale or a bathroom weight scale and figure out how much your gear weighs.

Is it too much? Can you afford to lose a few things? Remember, you’ll be walking for a while with all of that weight on your back. You’ll want to divide the weight evenly in your pack, ensuring that you don’t store all of the heaviest items at the bottom. Items that you use frequently should be stored on your person or at the top of your backpack.

This will ensure that you don’t dig through a ton of stuff looking for a tiny flashlight or firelighter. Packing items that are multi-use and lightweight is key to having the perfect backpack.

Whatever you do, don’t bring everything you own with you. Otherwise, you’re more likely to spend your backpacking trip moaning and groaning over your back than enjoying your beautiful surroundings.

Campsite Selection

Where you decide to set up camp and plant your flag is partially up to you. Personal preference plays a large role in campsite selection. However, all campsites should be fairly far from water, protected from wind, private, free of predatory scavengers, and at a higher altitude.

Camping near water can result in an oppressively humid campsite that’s full of insects, which is why dry spots are far better. And a campsite in the middle of a flat field is a target for high winds. Loud fellow campers of strangers can completely disrupt the peace of camping, so privacy is important.

And, of course, no one wants to deal with a curious, hungry bear or serious flooding. Staying away from scavengers and low-lying areas is a must.

Focus on topographical map
Orienteering compass

Using the Toilet in the Outdoors

Most campsites will have a shared toilets facility, but primitive sites typically won’t. That’s why it’s important to know how to use the toilet out in mother nature.

Conscientious campers will always dig a hole that is at least 8 inches deep and far away from water sources, food, and preferably at a higher elevation. They will then “use” this hole, burying it afterward.

You can use hygienic wipes, easily degradable toilet paper, or a homemade bidet to keep yourself feeling fresh and clean. Be sure to bag any used waste paper or moist towelettes!

Chapter 5

Trip Safety Planning

No matter what kind of trail you plan on exploring, or what kind of gear you’re bringing along, safety should always be your first concern and priority. Here’s a handful of helpful hints to keep you safe during your fantastic outdoor journeys!

Black bear cinnamon color in the mountain
Hiker applies a ankle tensor bandage

Don’t Feed Wild Animals

Though you may encounter some ferociously cute — or ravenously hungry — wildlife will backpacking, it’s important to remember that feeding them is never okay. Also, you’ll need to keep food, deodorant, or other smelly items out of reach of dangerous wildlife.

Food and garbage should be disposed of in the proper receptacles, or suspended from the ground. Never, ever, keep your food, trash, or sweet-smelling belongings in your tent or backpack, as they will become instant targets for predators.

Young alpine ibex on a mountain ridge

Leave a Trip Plan

Leaving a trip plan or itinerary for family and friends is a smart way to stay safe. They can check in with you to ensure that you’ve arrived at your campsite safely, or that you’re on the way home. Should anything happen during your trip, local police can use this plan to help find you and get you to safety.

Abstract topographical map
Top view of blank notebook to write a backpacking trip itinerary

Bring First Aid

A basic first aid kit isn’t expensive, and there are many compact models that are perfect for backpacking trips. No matter what brand or size kit you decide to get, it needs to contain:

  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Anti-itch ointment/spray
  • Antibacterial ointment
  • Blister treatment ointment
  • Adhesive bandages
  • Medical adhesive tape
  • Bandage adhesive
  • First aid manual and instructions
  • Antihistamine ointment/medication
  • Butterfly bandages
  • Sterile gauze

An emergency whistle, sunscreen, and aspirin/ibuprofen are also excellent additions to any first aid kit.

Top view of white first aid kit
Emergency foil space blankets isolated on a white background

Bring an Emergency Shelter

Accidents do happen, including the loss of your shelter. While your backpack is probably plenty heavy, your tent could fly away in windy, inclement weather. Or, if you’re not wise with your food storage practices, it could end up being trashed by a hungry bear.

No matter what, you must have some form of protection from the elements. Consequently, an emergency shelter, or bivy, is a necessary safety item. It may not be the most luxurious accommodation, but it will help to keep you alive in the event of an emergency.

Chapter 6

It’s Time to Enjoy the Outdoors!

There’s so much to see and do, and so little time to see it and do it in! Take advantage of your newfound knowledge as soon as possible.

Hiker taking a rest during a mountain backpacking trip
Portrait of smiling hiker during a mountain backpacking trip

Enjoy Your Journey

Life isn’t perfect, so if your first few outings don’t go precisely to plan, don’t feel discouraged. The more you practice backpacking, the better you’ll get at it. When you’ve mastered your first trail, you can move onto a more challenging one.

Chances are, you might mess up a few times then, as well. Just keep at it! Each location presents different challenges, so experience and time will make you a backpacking champion.

Collage of polaroids about a backpacking trip and a green leaf isolated
A photo of a beautiful flower during a backpacking trip
Trail sign in the french Alps
Hiker with camera catch good shot at nature
Top view of a travel sketch book

Document Your Trip

Nowadays, everyone has a computer, a camera, a microphone, and a calculator in their purse or pocket. That’s right! Your smartphone is probably going to be your best friend when it comes to documenting your trip. You can take photos, videos, and make virtual scrapbooks for your trip.

However, you could also choose to keep a pen-and-paper travel diary. This will surely prove to be an excellent way of looking back at early triumphs and defeats and could be a treasured keepsake one day. You could fill the pages with drawings, photographs, leaves, flowers, whatever you’d like.

Track Your Trip

Technology is an amazing thing, and with smartwatches, apps, smartphones, and excellent GPS tracking capabilities, you can track your entire trip. You can record your progress, route, heartbeat, and more.

This tracking feature can be a helpful way to keep records of your progress and outings. It can also be accessed by loved ones to ensure that you’re safe. You can even share your hikes with other enthusiasts if you want to get a little competitive. Overall, tracking your backpacking trip is a fantastic idea.

Minimize Impacts to Wilderness

Whenever you decide to take to the trees and hike around for a bit, it’s important to remember that you’re visiting the home of thousands of creatures. You’re a guest. So, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.

Litter, such as food trash, plastic bottles, cigarette filters, and more, can cause serious harm to wildlife. Think about how you’d like someone to treat your home if they were visiting, and do the same to Mother Nature. It’s that simple.

A Few Final Thoughts

Whenever you decide to take to the trees and hike around for a bit, it’s important to remember that you’re visiting the home of thousands of creatures. You’re a guest. So, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.

Litter, such as food trash, plastic bottles, cigarette filters, and more, can cause serious harm to wildlife. Think about how you’d like someone to treat your home if they were visiting, and do the same to Mother Nature. It’s that simple.