The Basics of Backpacking: Everything You Need to Know

Last Updated: March 26, 2022
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

Spending time amid nature can be an exhilarating experience. For many, going on an outdoor adventure is like stepping into a different reality – one in which the issues in your everyday life seem distant and forgotten.

But before you head off into the great unknown, you’ll want to make sure you have a solid plan for your backpacking trips to keep you safe, healthy, and happy. This guide elaborates on the essential components of a backpacking strategy for first-time backpackers.

The Basics of Backpacking Trips

Backpacking holds a lot of potentials and is fun for anyone who tries it out. It's something that can be done solo, with a group of old friends, or as a way to meet new people on long-distance trails. Some of the most intimate and close relationships I have ever seen have been formed on the trail. So, how do you even start?

First, we'll look at the absolute basics

What is backpacking?

Backpacking, at its finest, is simply throwing everything you need into a pack you can carry and heading off for as long as you want. It's meant to be fully self-sustainable where you rely on no one but yourself and everything that you packed and planned ahead of time.

No matter where you do it, backpacking carries a single thread of familiarity through all of the different environments. Backpacking is tough work with high levels of reward. There is an intrinsic feeling of major success when arriving at camp after having put so many miles under your boots throughout the day.

The importance of planning and preparation

Here's where most of the problems that can arise while backpacking start. Anyone that heads out on a backpacking trip without the proper planning and preparation will surely encounter issues that could have been easily avoided. This is hugely important to anyone that wants to feel success their first time out and then will feel much more motivated to continue going out. 

Some National Parks even require certain levels of preparation, like bear canisters or permits. This is important for any beginner backpackers that may not know the rules and regulations without doing a lot of planning ahead of the backcountry trip.

Even experienced backpackers must look ahead to see what they need to do differently in certain areas. 

If you're unsure of what to bring along, old trip reports can serve as a great resource to find out what exactly you should expect. 

Basic backpacking checklist

There are many essential items for backpacking that you'll need whether you are trekking on the Appalachian Trail through North Carolina, or simply headed on a short trip overnight.

This short checklist will cover all the essentials, but as you gain more outdoor experience you will find out what essential backpacking gear is for you, and what can be left at home. 

  • Sleeping gear- A good sleeping bag and sleeping pad make all the difference after a long day of hiking through potentially brutal terrain. Overnight trips can be a great luxury, or you can find yourself sleeping on a rock with nothing in between you and the cold ground. 
  • Shelter- Some people prefer sleeping out under the stars, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't come prepared with a backpacking tent as an option to keep the rain away if it happens to show up. Even an expert backpacker can be made miserable without a good shelter in the wrong conditions.
  • Toiletries- Leaving the toilet paper in the car is one of my most often occurring mistakes, which can make things difficult. It may cut down on the overall gear weight, but it isn't worth it. Backcountry campsites don't come with the amenities of an RV park, which means you need to bring everything from soap to TP in order to keep yourself clean. 
  • Clothes- This should go without saying as most backpacking kits are packed with too many clothes, but don't forget the proper layers. Check the weather and bring what you need to keep yourself warm and dry, or cool and shaded. 
  • Food and cooking gear- A lightweight backpacking stove is a great option for those who want to operate in the backcountry with hot water and warm food at the end of a long day. Good cooking equipment is definitely essential backpacking gear because it will greatly affect how you can fuel yourself and increase your hiking time. 
  • Hiking Shoes- Here's another make it or break it item on the list. The best hiking shoes will support you through the day and into a comfortable sleep, blister-free. When you move through different places like Yosemite National Park or Yellowstone National Park, you'll find that a good pair of boots will make the trip much better. 
  • Protection from the elements- Be sure to bring along sunscreen, bug spray, and deterrents for black bears or brown bears. Many national parks have bear bags or a bear canister for rent from the ranger station but bring your own bear spray. 
  • Water- Not all water along backpacking routes should be drinking water. Water filters are designed to filter out all of the tiny microbes and bacteria that could make you sick along the way. An alpine lake or a running stream make a great option for drinking, but be wary, especially on any international travel. 

How to pack a backpack?

Our comprehensive guide to packing a backpack is the best place to start for this, but we can give a quick how-to for starting to backpack. 

For starters, follow the ABCs of packing a backpack: Accessibility, Balance, and making things Compact. 

You want to be able to reach any gear that you may need while hiking, such as water bottles, quick snacks, bear spray, a hat, or a camera. As you spend more time backpacking, you'll know what kind of things you need quick access to.  

Your backpack weight is something important to pay attention to while packing, but the balance of the weight is also important. Any backpacker that has gone out on the trail knows that backcountry travel requires a lot of gear. The heaviest items, like a backpacking tent and backcountry cooking gear, need to be balanced in the pack so you don't fall over while walking on the trail. 

Finally, you want to make sure everything is compact. Backcountry travelers are well known for buying lightweight backcountry camping gear. It can be more expensive, but is often worth it, as carrying a lot of weight quickly adds up over hours of hiking, especially up with a lot of elevation gain/loss. 

Step-by-Step Guide to Planning a Backpacking Adventure

Starting your backcountry camping trip all begins with planning and preparation. One of the best backpacking tips I have received is to have a detailed list of gear you need to bring to avoid any epic backcountry blunders.

Stuff you can forget on your backpacking gear list

This backpacking checklist is a good place to start before hitting the trail:

  • Navigation gear- The easiest way to avoid getting lost while out in the field is to learn how to use navigation gear. There's the classic compass and map, but today GPS devices are highly compact and easy to use. They tend to get signals in the most remote places out there, but they can still be finicky, as all technology can be. A quick backpacking field guide to the region you're in, whether it be outside Salt Lake City or in the depths of Rocky Mountain National Park, is a great way to find a small map. Grab one while getting a backcountry permit, but don't rely on the ranger station to have them available. 
  • Backpacking food- Backpacking meals can be just as delicious as anything you eat at home, but you need to do it right. There are a lot of dehydrated meals available for you to buy, or to make at home on your own. A dehydrated chicken alfredo sure beats a pack of instant oatmeal for dinner, but any good cooking kit has variety. The more time backpacking, the more desirable a complex meal list becomes. Backpacking food is what you make it. You need food that cooks quickly, often in boiling water, but a good backpacking stove can do almost anything. 
  • Additional emergency items- The most important emergency item that backcountry travelers need to have is a first aid kit. It should be included in any guide to backpacking, but people can easily forget them at home, even when they're on a list. There are a lot of first aid kits that come pre-prepared available for purchase so you don't even need to put it together yourself. Hours upon hours of hiking can become dangerous as you get more and more tired. It's important to watch out for signs and symptoms of dehydration, heat exhaustion, frostbite, and general fatigue. Most epic backcountry blunders come from people who are too tired to think straight and make a huge mistake. 

Location and time

How does terrain affect hiking?

Terrain can make a backcountry trip into a pleasantly enjoyable stroll, or a rigorous, demanding trek straight uphill. Elevation gain/loss plays a big part in how much backpack weight you can handle, how much fun you can really have, and how you pack for your trip.

Pay attention to the terrain and if you'll be hiking through the desert, rainforest, or just up a lot of hills. 

Camping location

Location is often similar to terrain, as the weather changes drastically whenever you change locations. From the desert surrounding Salt Lake City to the stunning mountains on the John Muir Trail, general preparations are going to change as your environment does.

A comprehensive list will cover most of the essentials, but you need a lot more sunscreen in the desert than in a shaded forest, for one example.

Choosing your trip dates

The best time for backpacking is the spring and fall, but any time backpacking is really the best time. A good backpacking field guide for certain areas will include the best time to come, but you can still make any time of the year work.

For those who are bold, winter backpacking trips can be stunningly beautiful and incredibly quiet. 

Weather forecast and elevation

Harsh weather conditions can set in at any moment, especially when you're in the mountains at elevation. In the summer, there are storms that swing through almost every afternoon no matter how sunny the rest of the day is.

Check the weather forecast before heading out and the general weather patterns of the area you're headed to hike into best to avoid the harshest weather conditions the area has to offer. 

Safety-first measures

  • Carrying the essentials (tent, first aid, navigation, knife, extra layers, etc.)- All of the basic human needs take priority while backpacking. You no longer worry about charging your phone, but you do need to be aware of how you can eat, stay dry, and be healthy. 
  • Carrying optimum water and food- There's not going to be a grocery store along the way, and there's not always the perfect water source. This means you need to know how much food and water to bring, which again requires a lot of planning for the pre-trip backpacker. Backpacking meals are often lightweight, but you need to pack enough for any emergencies as well. 
  • Preparing for wild animals- Before hiking, you need to bring all of the essential protection for wild animals. While hiking, not giving food to animals is key. This isn't always the obvious hand-to-mouth feeding, but not keeping food out of reach is another way of feeding them. 
  • Preparing for extreme weather (always having a plan)- Always be prepared to handle any situation that's thrown your way. This means extra clothes and weather protection, along with a plan of how to get away if harsh weather conditions set in. 
  • Partnering with another hiker- Bringing someone else along is a great way to give yourself another mind on the job if any emergencies arise. Simply having someone around to be supportive when you need it is worth having a friend along with you. Almost any backcountry permit will allow multiple people without any changes. 

Other backpacking basics

How to choose the perfect backpack for you? 

Finding the right backpack makes all the difference. This is what you have strapped to your body all day long and it won't be comfortable if it doesn't fit you right. Put the extra effort in beforehand and find the right pack so you're in a good spot for starting any trail. 

How to choose the perfect walking stick

If you like to hike with hiking poles then you should bring your own. A good walking stick is a great option that can be found while hiking so you don't need to spend any money on poles or carry any extra weight.

Choosing a good pair of hiking boots 

As I mentioned earlier, a good pair of hiking boots make all the difference. Do what you can to bring the best boots that are already broken in and comfortable to avoid getting any terrible blisters along the way. 

Don't Make These Mistakes

We all make mistakes, but a lot of the ones that are made while backpacking are easily avoidable. These are some of the more common mistakes that you can make without knowing if you go in unprepared. 

  • Overpacking - Weight adds up quickly and there are a lot of things that you want to bring along that you don't actually need. 
  • Unaware of the amount of ground you're going to cover- On a map, distance looks a lot shorter than it actually is. Be sure to measure and get a feeling for what hiking seven or eight miles actually feels like if you're new to it. 
  • Unaware of what the weather will do (stay aware of hot or cold weather)- Weather can change on a dime and it's necessary to be aware of how it can change in the location you're backpacking in. Know the trends and be aware of what could possibly come your way. 
  • Don't know how to use the allocated equipment- Use all of your gear at least once before going on a long trip. It's important to know how to use everything you have with you because the time may come to try and use a water filter, simply to realize it's missing a piece. 
  • Not having a map and compass-orienteering skills- Orienteering skills can save your life out in the woods. Learn how to use these tools before trying to apply them in the real world. 
  • Disregarding foot care- Your feet are your only mode of transportation while backpacking. Take good care of them and you'll have a much happier time on the trail. 
  • Disregarding the environment- You're out on the trail to enjoy the environment around you. Be sure to dispose of all your waste properly, respect the Leave No Trace principles, and leave everything better than how you found it. 

Conclusion

Getting away from the concrete jungle to thrive in the outdoors is a refreshing break that everyone needs a bit of in their lives. Even for beginners, backpacking can be a fantastic new hobby that doesn't take much investment or time to get into. It's a lifestyle that is healthy, fun, and can take you to new places across the world. 

Hopefully, this guide can get you started on the right foot. Once you start, you'll get a ton of backpacking experience and learn the tricks of the trade before perfecting your entire life out on the trail. Happy backpacking!

Ian Standard is an outdoor educator and wilderness guide based in Anchorage, Alaska. Most recently, he worked part-time at Alaska Crossings, a wilderness program for at-risk youth, and is currently studying for a Master of Science in Outdoor & Environmental Education at Alaska Pacific University.
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