Your first backpacking trip will never be your most successful, but it will always be your most meaningful. That said, the more you learn before your trip begins, the better your chance of having a perfect first time is. With that in mind, I put together this list of 10 things for beginner backpackers to remember.
Nothing I’m about to say is groundbreaking, but that’s kind of the point. The following tips will help you have a good first time backpacking because they’re mostly just the fundamentals.
1. Backpacking is Safe…
Safety, for many beginner backpackers, is a chief concern. It can be a bit scary to remove yourself from civilization and place yourself miles from food, running water, and emergency services. But, the fact is, being in a state or national park is far, far safer than living in most US cities – even the safest ones have a higher death rate than wilderness areas.
So, while it’s okay to wonder about your safety, you should know that there is no reason to worry any more than you do on a regular Saturday afternoon. Backpacking is one of the safest things you can do…
2. … But Only If You’re Smart
Backpacking is incredibly safe if you do it right, but incredibly dangerous if you do it wrong. If you’re not diligent about being prepared, aware, and responsible, you run the risk of hurting yourself, someone else, or the environment around you.
Make sure you know where you’re going, what you need when you get there, and what you should do on the off chance that trouble does find its way to you. If you are intent on being underprepared, reckless, or both, I wouldn’t say that backpacking is a safe idea unless you’re with a truly exceptional guide.
3. Your First Backpacking Trip Should Be Easy
Thinking about hitting the John Muir Trail and trekking 200+ miles over 12 nights on your first backpacking trip? Think again.
While you may be able to finish that trip on your first try, it’s going to suck. Your feet will be on fire, your bones will feel like they’re being ground into dust, and none of the incredible views and sights will help.
Go too heavy on your first backpacking trip – too many miles, too many nights, or too much elevation – and you’re going to regret that you didn’t take it easier to that you could truly enjoy it.
The first time you do anything will never be the best, and that’s true for backpacking, too. You’re going to have too much gear, the wrong gear, the wrong food or too much food, too much clothing or the wrong clothing… the list goes on and on.
So, instead of doing your bucket list trip on the first go, it’s better to choose a shorter, easier (but no less scenic) so that you can make mistakes, learn, and truly, deeply enjoy the trip!
4. You Probably Need New Hiking Boots
One of the easiest ways to hate your first trip is to choose the wrong type of footwear. Running shoes, gym shoes, sandals, and old hiking boots are (for most but not all people) the wrong type of footwear.
Get yourself a good pair of hiking boots, making sure they fit your feet before you pay for them. And, don’t throw away your receipt until you’ve walked a few miles in them. It may take you a couple of tries, but it’s more than worth it to find hiking boots that are perfect for your feet, preventing soreness, blisters, and misery on a backpacking trip.
5. Don’t Cheap Out on Backpacking Gear
When it comes to backpacking equipment and hiking gear, there are two ways to waste your money:
- Buying equipment that you don’t need and/or is too expensive at outdoor shops because it’s cool.
- Buying garbage equipment because it’s cheap.
Buying the cool stuff is fine, but only if you’re fine with spending the money. Buying cheap stuff, on the other hand, is worse. Simply put, the quality of gear you’ll find at Target and Big Lots “outdoor” sections is far below the bare minimum; buy a tent or backpack at one of these stores and you might as well make an appointment in your calendar to buy a nicer one the moment you drive by an REI.
6. Bear Country Means Extra Preparation
Backpacking in bear country isn’t inherently more dangerous than anywhere else; bear attacks are so incredibly rare that even the most anxious person in your group has little to worry about.
That said, backpacking where bears live does mean that you’re going to have to prepare a little more. Bring or rent a bear canister or bear-proof bag to store your food in and keep it more than 200 feet away from your tent at night. That way, no bear will get a whiff of your food and come too close for comfort. In many national parks, national forests, and recreation areas, bear canisters/bear hangs are required by authorities.
You should also consider bringing along bear spray, a bear horn, or both. Bear spray brings a huge peace of mind, knowing that you can deter a charging bear in a once-in-a-lifetime scenario. Bear horns, on the other hand, are used to let bears know you’re there so they can keep their distance (which they mostly prefer to do).
Read more: Do air horns deter bears?
7. Preparing the Body is Crucial for Beginner Backpackers
Even if you’re moderately active already, a backpacking trip is going to be physically challenging. If your muscles can take the exertion, your joints might not be able to handle the impacts. If your lungs are tough enough for high elevation,
In the weeks leading up to your trip, try to plan walks or local hikes that equal about 80% of your planned daily mileage. For example, if you’re planning on covering 12 miles a day, a great pace for most people, you should prepare on hiking 9-10 miles at least once in the run-up to your trip.
You can skip the training if you want, but you’d better be 100% sure you can handle your selected backpacking trip before you make that decision!
8. Tell Someone Where You Are Backpacking
Never start a hike without at least one person back home knowing about it. Even in nearby state parks, somebody should know where you are, how long you’ll be there, and when you plan to get back.
It’s obvious, I know, but there’s a sad correlation between fatal backpacking accidents and forgetting this obvious step! Many people who die in national parks could have survived if they’d told someone where to find them, and when to call emergency services if they don’t hear from you.
You might also want to consider purchasing or renting a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) that lets you communicate via satellite with chosen contacts. I rented a Garmin InReach unit during a trip last year, and the peace of mind it provided was priceless. I was able to send SMS messages to my mother, giving her anxiety a break, every night.
9. Don’t Skimp on Nutrition
Backpacking, as a physical discipline, has a lot in common with long-distance racing. Whether it’s running, cycling, or hiking in national parks, the longer you’re moving, the more important your nutrition is. And, for backpackers, the more intense your miles, the more important your nutrition, too.
It’s very important that you get enough of the following nutrients (at an absolute minimum):
You can’t just load up a plastic bag with trail mix and call it a day; you need to have a well thought-out plan to make sure you get the calories you need in the right way.
This resource on backpacking nutrition is more helpful than anything I can type up for you; if you want to learn more about how to eat on the trail, I recommend checking that out!
10. You Really, Really Do Need a Map
It’s the age of 5G, GPS, and 24/7 connectivity, but you still need a map for backpacking, and I recommend having two. One digital map, downloaded onto your phone, and a secondary physical map just in case you lose access to one of them. Even on well-established, highly-trafficked trails, you are much safer with a map than without one.
Backpacking safely isn’t really rocket science. You don’t have to be a wilderness or survival expert to have a great time or protect yourself in a sticky situation. Rather, you just need to be responsible, prepared, and aware – all you have to do is follow the fundamental rules, and you’ll be just fine.