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Backpacking: The Greatest Way to Be with Nature

There are few things that can connect you to nature like a backpacking trip, especially in the 21st century. As it gets harder and harder to get away from the hectic life we all seem to be living, outdoor pursuits like backpacking have more and more appeal.

This guide will serve as your introduction to backpacking, a jumping-off point to what, for most people, becomes a lifelong passion the moment they return from their very first trip!

Backpacking guide cover photo

Table of Contents

What is Backpacking?

Backpacking has been around for centuries; it’s a specific style of camping that takes you far from the trailhead, electricity, and running water. Instead of driving up to a campsite, you leave your car in the parking lot and carry everything you need on your back.

Backpacking trips typically last anywhere from 2-5 nights; more serious backpackers (or people with more flexible work schedules) sometimes plan trips that last up to 14 nights. There are longer trips, though those typically require planning for re-supply stops and fall into the subcategory of thru-hiking.

The one thing that distinguishes backpacking from other forms of hiking or camping is that you’re carrying 100% of what you need on your back, because your campsite is going to be miles and miles away, only accessible by foot.

This discipline gets its name from the most important piece of gear that practitioners need: a backpack. Without a quality pack, it becomes pretty much impossible to carry everything you need, at least not without giving yourself a lasting back injury.

Backpacking is Getting Bigger

Backpacking has grown in popularity in recent years. Hiking, which includes backpacking, has become more popular in the US every year since 2005; backpacking has likely done the same, although I couldn’t find a study to back that up.

What’s the reason for that growth? Let’s take a look:

In a sentence: backpacking is popular it’s crowded, and people want to get out.

Seeing those four facts lined up next to each other makes it easy to see why millions of people are looking to the wilderness for entertainment, exercise, and a connection with something more significant than the suburbs. Backpacking provides an outlet for your physical, emotional, and mental needs.

Backpacking is great for your body, it can relax your mind, and it takes you away from all the stresses you face in daily life; what’s not to love? Well, mosquitos, for one… but that’s another thing entirely.

Backpacking vs Camping: What’s the Difference?

Camping site by a lake
My wife and I went camping recently at Kelley’s Island State Park in Ohio – the views were pristine!

Oftentimes, you’ll hear people use those terms interchangeably, and that’s usually fine. However, there are some pretty distinct differences between camping and backpacking, which I’ll lay out below:

  • Camping typically takes place at drive-in campsites; Backpackers walk to backcountry campsites that are anywhere from 3-30 miles from trailheads.
  • When camping, you usually have access to running water and sometimes electricity; these luxuries are almost never available for backpackers.
  • Camping requires a fair amount of prep, but backpacking preparations are more crucial because you can’t easily replace an item you forgot.
  • Backpacking is far more physical than camping; camping may or may not be a strenuous activity, but backpacking requires solid fitness.

So, while you can use whichever word you want most of the time, it’s important to use the right word for the right type of outdoor adventure. I mean, just imagine a friend telling you that you’re going camping, and then you show up with your Yeti cooler to find your buddy with a fully-loaded 70L backpack!

bonfire at a campsite
Another benefit of camping: you get to have a bonfire!

Equipment Needed for Backpacking: The Basics

Backpacking is an activity that revolves pretty much entirely around two things: nature (go figure!) and equipment. If you don’t have the right stuff for a backpacking adventure, it’s probably not going to feel like an adventure at all. Rather, you’ll be either worried, exhausted, vulnerable, or just plain miserable the entire time!

More than that, there’s something really enjoyable about researching, shopping for, and buying backpacking gear. Every time I set foot in an REI, I just get tons of excitement thinking about the next mountain I get to tackle; buying a piece of backpacking gear, to me, just means that I’m one step closer to my next trip.

But, if you’re not already experienced with backpacking, how do you know what you need? Furthermore, how do you know which pieces of equipment are the most important? Below, I’ve detailed the five most important things you need before you leave the parking lot:

1. High-Quality Pack

backpacking pack on dirty ground
My Gregory Baltoro 75 sitting in some of my favorite dirt – the dirt at North Cascades National Park

People without much prior knowledge about backpacking often assume that they can use any backpack they like – provided it’s big enough – but that just isn’t true. That’s exactly what I thought before I first went backpacking, and before I started to research and settled on my Gregory Baltoro 75.

Your backpack (usually shortened to simply “pack”) is the single most important asset you’ll be shopping for. It’s not just about holding your stuff – it’s also about comfort, safety, and fit.

If your pack doesn’t fit correctly, every mile you hike will feel worse than the last. I’ve got sciatica and other back problems, so I’m very glad I figured out the difference between a backpack and a pack before I ruined my spine and hips forever.

A good pack will balance the weight of all your gear, preventing pressure from building up in one spot. Packs for backpacking have a padded waistband that, when drawn tight, takes the weight off of your shoulders and allows you to move freely.

When you’ve got the right pack, you’ll hardly notice any weight on you, and you’ll be shocked at how light you feel. As mentioned, my pack is the Gregory Baltoro 75. It’s perfect for me, supporting my back and holding all of my clothing (which, due to my size, takes up a lot more space than most people’s)!

2. Sleeping Gear (Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad, and Pillow)

Hiking 15 miles on Day 1, after you’ve woken up in your own bed and had a nice hot breakfast, is one thing. Hiking 15 miles on Day 2, after you’ve woken up sore and exhausted because you didn’t have the right sleeping gear? That’s another thing entirely.

Sleep is crucial at home, but it’s twice as important when backpacking. That’s why you’ve got to have the right sleeping stuff:

  • Sleeping Bag: there are tons of different things that go into choosing a sleeping bag, but the two things you should be most worried about are whether or not it feels comfortable and whether or not it’s warm enough for where you’re going.
  • Sleeping Pad: your sleeping bag will be cozy, but it won’t be firm or thick enough to make cold, hard ground feel better. A closed-cell foam or inflatable sleeping pad makes the ground feel much softer while simultaneously insulating your body against the ground.
  • Pillow: a light, packable pillow will be one of the most precious things in the world to you after a long day in the sun (or rain if you’ve got bad luck).

If you want to learn more about sleeping while backpacking, you can read my short guide on it.

3. Food and Cooking Equipment

jetboil flash and accessories for cooking on backpacking trips
This is what most of my meals look like on the trail. It’s a bit more expensive, but it’s just so convenient to use!

As you’d expect, choosing and packing enough food to sustain you through long days of hiking isn’t always easy; this is a backpacking skill you need to have down pat. You’re going to be burning a lot of calories, which means you need to pack 500-1000 more calories for each day of your backpacking trip than you’d normally eat at home.

It’s not just the amount of food you bring, either – it’s also the type of food. Many backpackers, including myself, bring a lightweight backpacking stove (like the Jetboil Flash, which I reviewed here) and use it to boil water for cooking dehydrated meals. Alongside those meals, I always bring a healthy amount of nuts and fruit to keep me going during the day.

Although your food and water gear list may vary, you’ll usually need most of the following:

  • Backpacking stove
  • Cooking/eating utensils and dishes
  • Food
    • Dehydrated meals are perfect for lunch and dinner
    • Nuts, jerkies, granola, and fruits are all suitable for longer trips
    • Protein bars can quickly replace lost calories and give you an energy boost
  • Water purification and storage
  • Bear canister (if necessary)

4. Tools and Other Items

When I say tools, I mean things like knives, spades (essential for backwoods poopin’!), first-aid kits, and the like. The things that, while they don’t belong in a specific category of items or feature prominently in those romanticized Instagram posts, are absolutely crucial for survival and success:

5. Clothing for Backpacking

The clothes you wear backpacking don’t have to cost $80 per item, nor do they have to come from REI or specialty outfitter. But, you do have to put some thought into what you’re going to wear. Here are some things you should be thinking about:

  • Weight/volume: every type of fabric has a different weight, and the types of fabrics you choose are going to decide how much you can fit in your pack. For example, because I’m floating around 280 pounds, bringing denim clothing means I have less room for just about everything else, so I stick to the thinnest fabrics I own.
  • Breathability: this one’s obvious: if your clothing isn’t breathable, you’re going to smell like a donkey in a swamp by the end of your first day. Days 2, 3, and so on are going to be worse; there are no washing machines in the backcountry!
  • Moisture-wicking: Sweat. That’s why.
  • Coverage: Most of the time, being more covered up is preferable to letting a lot of skin show, especially in places with extreme heat and harsh sun. In more casual climates, you can wear just about anything you want, but in places where sunburn and heatstroke are a risk, you’ll want lightweight, long-sleeve shirts and long pants.

6. Lightweight Backpacking Tent

You’ve got to have a place to sleep, and, when you’re backpacking, it’s likely going to be a specialized camping tent. Backpacking tents are built to be light, to pack small, and to protect you from the elements without any frills. As such, these tents are usually a tiny bit cramped; I can sit up in my two-person tent, but that’s about it.

Choosing a tent is a big endeavour, but, to be honest, most simple backpacking trips don’t require a highly specialized, top-of-the-line tent. Rather, you should be fine with just about any tent that’s small enough to fit in your pack.

My backpacking tent is pretty cheap, but it’s effective and has yet to let me down. I use the Hyke & Byke Zion 2P tent, which is about $200 cheaper than top-notch tents from companies like Nemo (although I would definitely spend the extra money for a Nemo if I had the spare cash!):

Different Types of Backpacking

Person hiking on a long trail

As with most outdoor pursuits, there is more than one way to go backpacking. Below, I’ll share a bit about each of the different subcategories of backpacking; one of them may appeal to you far more than a simple 2-night trip:

Ultralight Backpacking

This is a discipline that is primarily concerned with weight. The idea here is this: the lighter your backpack and gear are, the less restricted you’ll be and the less energy you’ll need to conquer the trail.

Ultralight backpackers geek out about weight savings and will do anything to save a few grams, even to the point of filing down their toothbrush just to get rid of the unnecessary weight. Many ultralight enthusiasts also eschew any form of comfort, leaving the tent at home in favor of a simple tarp and even cutting off the bottom half of their sleeping pads.

The typical pack weight for an ultralight backpacker is under 20 pounds; my pack weighed 42 pounds on a recent 3-night trip to North Cascades National Park. You can imagine the role that extra weight played on the trip, and the havoc it wreaked on my knees! Maybe these ultralight fanatics are onto something…

Winter Backpacking

Winter backpacking isn’t necessarily a different discipline, but the amount of preparation goes through the roof when temperatures are cold enough to kill. Winter backpacking also necessitates new and specialized gear purchases – snowshoes, microspikes, and ice axes, to name a few.

Thru-Hiking and Section Hiking

Thru-hiking is what you do on the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and similar trails. It’s the same as backpacking, but longer, more intense, and powered by resupplies – arrangements that are made to have your food, water, and gear replenished every 7-21 days. Thru-hiking trips can last just a couple of weeks or 6+ months, depending on the trail.

Section hiking is a subset of thru-hiking. Instead of doing the entire 2000+ miles of the Appalachian Trail in one kick, section hikers tackle it chunk by chunk, returning home after they complete each section. It’s a great way to experience the iconic Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide trails without having to quit your job.

Fastpacking

Are you a racer at heart? Miss your cross-country or track glory days, but want to move into something new? Fastpacking might be for you. As the name implies, Fastpacking is backpacking, but… fast. Many fastpackers time their trips and move as quickly as possible to set new trail records.

For instance, the trail record for the Pacific Crest Trail that runs between California and Washington state is just 51 days. That’s right – somebody was able to walk the entire 2,560 miles in 51 days!

Bikepacking

Got sore knees? I do – and that’s why I’m eagerly prepping for my first bikepacking trip, probably sometime next year. Bikepacking is exactly what you think it is – backpacking, but riding a bike across roads or paved/gravel trails.

Bikepackers use different gear storage than backpackers, loading their stuff into specialized bags that attach to their bike frames. If you’ve got a passion for long weekend rides, bikepacking might be the adventure you’re looking for!

Backpacking FAQ

How much does it cost to start backpacking?

Of course, there are a million factors that can change the exact dollar amount you’ll spend, but we will try to keep it simple here. Starting from scratch, shopping at REI or similar outfitter chains, you’re going to spend about $800-$1,500 to get every item you need for backpacking. I spent about $1,100 to outfit myself a while back, buying most of my stuff from REI.

Is Backpacking different in Europe?

Kinda – in the US, we use the term “backpacking” to describe extended trips into wilderness areas, using your feet for transportation. In Europe, backpacking has the same meaning, but can also refer to extended trips from city to city, staying in hostels and taking trains or walking from place to place.

What are the benefits of backpacking?

From personal experience, the two biggest benefits of backpacking are improved health (I lost weight, gained muscle, and increased my cardio health all at once) and a sense of peace. Backpacking is undeniably relaxing and leaves you feeling mentally reborn even if you are physically spent.

What is the difference between backpacking and mountaineering?

Mountaineering works similarly to backpacking in the sense that you travel by foot and live with only what you can carry – but that’s where the similarities end. Mountaineers are incredibly skilled with technical climbing, scrambling, and not freezing to death. None of those skills are required on a normal backpacking trip, and that’s why I’m never going to be a mountaineer!

Should I be worried about bears when backpacking?

Not really – while I am personally terrified of bears, I sleep easy with the knowledge that bear encounters are rare and seldom dangerous. Also, there are tons of different things you can do to keep yourself safe from bears, like carrying bear spray or using a bear horn to announce your presence before you get too close.

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