What You Need to Know for Your First Backpacking Trip: Tips and Tricks from the Pros
Hiking into the wilderness with your house on your back connects you to the land. There’s a magic in bringing only the essentials and enjoying a night under the stars without the distractions of modern life. The challenges, rewards and isolation are what make backpacking in the wilderness such an incredible experience. Here’s a look at everything you need to know about backpacking.
Preparing for Your First (or 100th) Backpacking Trip
Before you hit the trail for the weekend make sure you’re prepared with a little outdoor knowledge. First and foremost, you want to develop a trip plan. Essentially, a trip plan enables you to stay organized while also providing someone with knowledge of your whereabouts should something go wrong.
Complexities and details of trip plans vary based on the intensity of the trip, but at the very least they should contain where you are headed, what you are doing, and when you expect to be back. Always leave your trip plan with a trusted friend or family member and give them instructions on what to do in case of an emergency.
Is Backpacking Similar to Hiking?
Backpacking a trail varies from hiking a trail, simply because you’ll be carrying more weight. This means you’ll also consume more food and water while you’re on your journey. My Ultimate Guide to Hiking gives you an in-depth look at how long various terrain takes to cross. When you’re backpacking, you’ll want to build in a little more fluff with your timing, especially when you’re just starting out.
The biggest difference in your day is that high quality, life-giving liquid, water. Even on a short backpacking loop, you’ll want to be aware of where to fill up on water. Sometimes, you’ll be camped at a dry spot where there is no deliciously cool spring to slurp from. In this case, you may want to consider your last fill-up point and bring an extra water bottle for cooking and drinking in the evening. Use a map to locate water sources and try to find past trip reports on your route in order to see if seasonal streams and water is widely available.
How to Discover the Perfect Backpacking Route
I’m sure you would love to know how I find all of these incredible off-the-beaten-path backpacking spots. Truth be told, I’ve honed my system in over the years. I started with simple, more popular routes like various segments of the Colorado Trail. What I discovered in doing this, was that I really didn’t like all of the crowds.
First, keep in mind that virtually any trail (barring permits and overnight parking at the trailhead) can be a backpacking route. Typically, I look for an area of interest, such as an alpine cirque or remote peak. Then I’ll find a route, either on or off the trail that will get me to that point. I started with small trails at about five to seven miles each day and slowly made my way up to the 12 to 15-mile trails I can handle today. The key is to figure out what it is you want to see, then go see it.
Backpacking Off Trail
Off-trail, bushwhacking or cross-country travel is the ultimate feeling of being in the wilderness. You and you alone are responsible for navigating and staying safe. There is no trail to guide you. Although it is a romantic notion to simply be wandering the wilderness, it is not to be taken lightly.
Off-trail travel involves a complex understanding of navigating and minimizing your impact on the virgin environment. Prior to setting out, have a complete understanding of how to take a bearing both off of a topo map and in the field. Be sure to know how to cross-reference this with your GPS device. Also, don’t ever have a fire or camp on top of vegetation when traveling off-trail. Instead, camp in barren patches, such as under a tree, and avoid having a campfire, which could scar the landscape.
Fit Your Pack Like a Pro
The number one cause of pain while backpacking is a poorly fitted pack. First, you want to be sure that the pack sits flush to your back. To do so, loosen all the straps on your pack. Next put your arms through the shoulder straps and lean forward. Then buckle your hip strap making sure that the strap goes directly across your hips. Tighten your hips strap first so all the weight sits on your hips. Lastly, adjust your shoulder straps by cinching them tight against your body then using the top load strap to make sure the back of your pack sits flush with your back. You don’t want any gaps and you want most of the weight on your hips.
When you pack up your gear you want to put all of the heavy gear closest to you to avoid having unbalanced weight in your pack. Put heavy items toward the middle of your back when possible in order to balance your pack. Lastly, keep items such as snacks, maps, GPS, hat, sunscreen and any layers you may need throughout the day in an easily accessible compartment.
What to Pack for a Backpacking Trip
When you first begin your backpacking journey, you’ll immediately notice two things. One, lightweight gear is astronomically expensive. And two, you’ll want to bring everything and anything. Let’s talk about what you really need for your big trip.
There are a few ways to get around the high cost of gear. First, use what you have. If you’re missing a key piece of equipment, such as a sleeping bag, tent or pack, consider renting it or borrowing gear from a friend.
Avoid packing the kitchen sink. Keep in mind you’ll carry everything you have. If you don’t have ultralightweight gear, expect your pack to weigh between 25 to 30 pounds for a weekend away including your water. Therefore, you’ll only want to bring what you need. Your essentials for sleeping, food and a way to cook, some basic toiletries, the Ten Essentials, such as a toothbrush and hairbrush, and a few key pieces of clothing like a jacket and hat. If you’re feeling fancy, bring a change of underwear. However, expect to wear the same clothes for the entire weekend and anticipate being dirty.
The Best Gear for Backpacking
If you’ve backpacked a few times and you’re totally addicted, it makes sense to throw down some money on gear. After years of testing, I’ve assembled a list of the gear you’ll need to bring to go backpacking along with a breakdown on where to spend your hard-earned dollar.
Comfort is key in the backcountry and that starts with your clothes. Footwear is extremely important, as are the clothes on your back. My Ultimate Guide to Hiking Clothes for any budget will point you in the right direction for all of your hiking clothes needs.
Training for Backpacking
Just like you would train for a big hike, consider training for backpacking. It is important to have a strong core, sturdy legs, and shoulders to bear the burdens of the trail. The best way to train for backpacking is to mimic real-world conditions. Take your pack to the gym and load it up while walking on a treadmill. Or take your workout outside. Building up endurance-based cardio and overall muscle strength will enable you to go further, longer.
Leave No Trace on the Trail
It doesn’t matter if you’re day hiking or on a thru-hike, always practice Leave No Trace Principals. With more and more people getting out into the wilderness, many of our outdoor spaces are feeling the pressure of human impact. Do your part and educate yourself about Leave No Trace. Be sure to pass that knowledge on to others. Pack out all of your trash, including your dirty toilet paper.
What to Do About the Poop
Going to the bathroom outside can make many folks uncomfortable. It’s ok, I used to have stage fright too before I started spending every minute of my free time outdoors. Be sure to use the bathroom off of the trail and at least 200 feet (70 adult steps) away from a water source. Simply dig a hole six inches deep (four if you are in the desert) and pop a squat. Many people who are not used to squatting can feel uncomfortable, that’s ok. Remind yourself to relax and take your time. Always use hand sanitizer when you’re finished.
Us ladies have special considerations while dealing with number one. Peeing in nature is more of a pain for us ladies. I’ve solved the problem by using a female urinary device. I’ve gotta say, it changed my life and I’m happy to report that peeing is no longer a problem. If you still squat, consider using an old bandana as a pee rag and let it dry in the sun by attaching it to your pack.
How to Find Camping on the Trail
Before you head out it’s important to note any areas where there may be camping. Look at a topo map and find any flat spots (where the lines run further apart). Typically along established trails, you’ll see campsites made by previous backpackers. Opt to use those if they follow Leave No Trace Principals (200 feet from lakes and streams please!). This will minimize further impact on the environment. Look for a bare patch to pitch a tent, don’t pitch on vegetation. Also, be aware of any dead trees in the area, try to avoid pitching your tent where there is a danger of dead treefall or rockfall.
Avoiding Wildlife: Protect Yourself from Bears and Other Critters
Nothing ruins a backpacking trip like a chipmunk that got ahold of your food bag. Be sure to keep all scented items (this includes deodorant, Chapstick, toothpaste, etc.) in odor-proof bags. If you’re traveling in bear country, take extra precautions and use a bear canister.
Here in Colorado, I typically put my food and trash in separate odor proof bags, then place my food in a dry bag that I hang in a tree. This keeps both black bears and ground critters out of my food stash. Trust me, I’ve left the bags laying on the ground and pika chewed through both the dry bag and the odor proof bag to get a nibble on my dog’s food!
What to Expect on Your First Overnight on the Trail
The thought of sleeping in a tent, deep in the wilderness might sound a bit scary. To be honest, it’s a bit unnerving at first. That’s ok. Try to relax. Earplugs really helped me on numerous occasions. Remember, the more you sleep outside the more comfortable you’ll feel. It’s ok to have a rough first night so don’t get discouraged.
What Do You Eat When You Backpack
I’m a total food-slut on the trail. I like to aggressively dig into all of my friend’s backpacking treats and learn all of their secrets. In doing so I’m constantly learning new and innovative ways to eat on the trail. Over the years, I’ve determined that the best foods for me are the ones I make myself. I’ve created an extensive look at how to prepare and make your own backpacking meals. If cooking isn’t your thing, check out some companies like Good to Go that create delicious backpacking delicacies for your trail dining.
Backpacking with a Dog
It doesn’t get better than backpacking with your bestie. Many four-legged friends love to backpack and both dog and human feel a closer connection. When you take your dog, you can either train them to wear a pack too or carry their food. Nina, my adventure-pup is a bit older, so we carry her supplies. Dogs generally do alright on their own, but be prepared to share your pad, sleeping pad, whatever. A simple Z-lite sit pad by Therm-a-Rest makes a great sleeping pad for your pup. We noticed that Nina stopped invading our space once we bought her one.
Be sure to keep an eye on your dog’s paws. Dog’s don’t have boots, but their feet take a beating over rough terrain. Carry this simple first aid kit can help your pup’s paws stay in trail shape.
This summer, hit the trail all day and night with a little backpacking trip. Expand your stay in the wild and enjoy backpacking in the wilderness with these pro tips