Some day you may come to the point where you are ready to leave the campground behind and move on to bigger and better things. It is time for you to make the leap to becoming a backpacker. It’s time to load up your pack, leave your vehicle behind, and start your overnight journey. Backpacking requires a bit more planning and preparation than average day hikes. But, it offers an outdoor experience and freedom that most campsites cannot offer.
What is backpacking?
Simply put, backpacking is traveling with all of your gear on your back. This can be through the wilderness, on long journeys via public transport, or traveling to lodging locations within cities. For this article, we will be focusing on the wilderness and camping side of backpacking. This practice has long been wildly popular around the world for people looking for an authentic outdoor experience.
Backpacking is sometimes seen as a young adult activity. But, it’s quite popular with older generations. There have been many retirees known to take on backpacking as a hobby in their later years. Backpacking is a very versatile activity and can be enjoyed by people of any age and any experience. Wilderness backpacking gives you an up-close experience with nature that will make you find a new appreciation for the environment and your surroundings. Trips can range from a day to several months and can take you on a journey of only a few miles or across the entire country.
Cross-country backpacking is a more extreme version of the sport and pushes participants to their limits. It requires extensive planning and preparation of routes and supplies to execute the trip safely. Even with months of preparation, unpredictable factors like bad weather or geological events can derail your voyage. So, this is best left to those with a little more experience. Don’t be discouraged, because every expert backpacker once started out as a novice. With practice, experience, and knowledge, you can become an expert and take on any backpacking excursion you can dream of.
What do I need to start backpacking?
Like previously mentioned, a successful backpacking trip is all about planning and preparation. A large part of that involves your gear. If you ask around, you will get a whole bunch of opinions about what gear you should bring. It may seem a bit overwhelming. But, the best thing you can do is stick to these essentials.
This is obviously the most important piece of gear you will carry because it holds all of your other items. Being such a crucial item, choosing the right backpack is not something to go cheap on. The first thing you will want to determine is what capacity you need. If you are just starting out, you will most likely not need a high-capacity pack, as your trips will only be for a day or two. A nice overnight or weekend pack should be plenty to fit all your gear and be light enough not to weigh you down.
You also want to consider all the features and compartments that pack offers. Having a few extra pockets for your phone or camera could be a huge selling point for you. Make sure you try on a pack before you buy it to see if it fits your body and for comfortable hip and shoulder padding. Choosing an ill-fitting pack could result in an uncomfortable hike and chafing. Other helpful features to consider are loops and bungees that allow your pack to hold even more gear. They’ll provide easy access and help when the inside of your pack is full. Always avoid buying a pack online without testing it in person first, or you are likely to waste your money.
When it comes to sleeping bags, you want something lightweight that will keep you warm and cozy at night. Kelty down bags does a job of achieving this and can be packed to impressively compact sizes. Determine the general climate you will be camping in, and choose a sleeping bag with the proper temperature rating. Packing a sleeping bag that doesn’t provide proper warmth can put you in danger. However, packing a sleeping bag that is too warm can add unnecessary weight. Luckily, you can find a broad range of quality sleeping bags at very reasonable prices.
This is the surface you will be sleeping on, because A) the ground will suck away your body heat during the night, and B) no one wants to sleep on the hard ground. Your main options are solid foam, air, or a combination of the two. Solid foam sleeping pads are dense and thick, which can be useful if you are camping in an area with rough terrain. Unfortunately, this type of sleeping pad is the heaviest. So, you’ll have to plan for that extra weight when packing your gear. Air mattresses are bouncy and soft and pack up extremely lightweight. This makes this type of sleeping pad the most common choice for ultralight backpackers who rely on a minimal gear weight. Combination sleeping pads have both air and foam inside and are usually the most comfortable option. Their moderate weight and small pack size make them the most versatile option of the three.
Unlike your stays at a campsite, you are not going for luxury or comfort with your tent. You want to minimize pack weight, which means you don’t want to pack a tent larger than necessary. Your tent should be large enough to accommodate you comfortably. It should also be sturdy enough to stand up to weather conditions and protect you from the elements. If you are sleeping solo, there are several great options for solo tents that are small, lightweight, and low-priced. Just make sure that your tent is made of a sturdy material that is durable and won’t tear easily.
The simpler and more lightweight, the better it will be. During your trip, you won’t be carrying food that needs precision. Something that boils water quickly is all you really need. I recommend getting a JetBoil. They pack up small, and you can boil water for your morning coffee within seconds. You can also use them to warm up a can of soup or a ready-to-eat meal.
Tin cup or aluminum mug
This is used for boiling water and eating. It doesn’t have to be large, and tin and aluminum are extremely lightweight. If you have a stove with a built-in mug, like a JetBoil, this is not necessary but can come in handy if the other gets dirty.
Unless you really don’t mind eating with your hands, bring along some eating utensils. Sporks will be the most compact option but have an awkward shape that makes using it difficult. Bringing a fork and a spoon will not noticeably increase your pack weight or volume, so if you don’t like the design of a spork, take both.
According to Gizmodo’s awesome backpacking article, it is recommended to be able to carry at least three liters of water with you on your trip (http://gizmodo.com/so-you-want-to-go-backpacking-for-the-very-first-time-1592756068 ). You can choose how you would prefer to carry them. You can carry individual water bottles, one large canteen, or use a hydration pack. Individual water bottles can be heavy and take up a lot of pack space. Plus they move around in your pack and can get lost easily. Large canteens and hydration systems allow you to keep all of your water in one place, so you always know where to access it. While hydration systems have a more high-tech design and can be more convenient, they are rather expensive. Canteens are a cheaper option that accomplished the same goal of storing the water for your trip.
Water filters and purifiers
There may come a time where you deplete your water supply and are not near a safe supply of fresh drinking water. So, it is always a good idea to pack a water filter or purifier in your gear. Water filters work by physically filtering out harmful bacteria and pathogens found in water. Water purifiers go beyond this and use chemicals to eliminate viruses that could be in the water. If you are only traveling in the US and Canada, a water filter is usually all you will need. Water purifiers come in handy when you are backpacking in undeveloped countries or areas that have dangerous viruses in the water. You can buy large pump filters, but these are bulky, expensive, and not practical to take on a backpacking trip. Small straw filters provide a compact and easy-to-use way of giving you safe drinking water, and they are relatively low in price. No matter how much water you pack, and how certain you are that you have enough, you should always pack a water filter just in case emergency strikes.
While a pocket knife can be useful for cutting and whittling, a multi-tool can provide means of repairing your tent and other equipment. You don’t need the most high-end or fancy multi-tool, but you will at least want one that has pliers. Experienced backpackers suggest carrying both because they’ll provide you with more options for fixing problems that might occur.
It is a good idea to go for a reliable LED flashlight that you can rely on to last you the entire trip. Some companies also make headlamp bands that allow you to mount your existing flashlight to it. This can come in handy when you are working with your hands setting up camp or cooking food. Your flashlight should be bright enough that you have no problem seeing what you’re doing or where you’re going.
Map and compass
When you finally choose where you will be taking your journey, you should bring a map of the area. This will allow you to see where you are at on your course, and plan your days accordingly. Bringing along a compass will keep you oriented and heading in the right direction. Sometimes, a GPS is enough, but if it fails or breaks, you always want to have a backup.
When you’re out in the woods hiking all day, the last thing you want is to be hungry. The food you bring should provide a balance of nutrition and convenience to keep you fed on the trails.
Pack something lightweight and quick. Packets of instant oatmeal provide carbs and whole grains that will keep you energized. All you have to do is boil some water. Consider making a batch of homemade granola before your trip that consists of your favorite nuts, dried fruit, and sweetener.
It can be hard to keep this meal compact. Packets of tuna fish don’t take up much space in your pack and provide you with protein and fats to boost your energy levels. Eat it on top of some crackers for added carbohydrates. Peanut butter is another high-calorie and low volume option. Eat it with crackers, an apple, or on its own for a quick meal that will keep you full until you are ready to set up camp in the evening.
As much as you may want to, this is no time to bring along a pack of burgers or a steak. I suggest sticking to ready-to-eat camping meals that only require adding hot water. These meals are usually packed with calories, and you can usually find ones that don’t taste too bad. The biggest downside to these meals is that they can be pretty expensive, so just stick to eating them for one meal a day.
I suggest taking plenty of snacks along as well. Pack a couple of protein bars or some homemade trail mix that you can easily access when your tummy starts to rumble.
What you wear is the most important gear of all. It keeps you warm and protected, while not adding unnecessary weight to your pack. Before you pack for your trip, check to weather, and make sure to account for increased elevation. Pack clothes that allow you to adapt to changing weather conditions.
A bad pair of shoes can put you at risk of injury when hiking across uneven ground. So, you need to invest in a good pair that fits your feet properly. You don’t just want to go on looks for this either. You need to try on several pairs, and buy whichever one you feel is most comfortable. They should be thick and sturdy enough that rocks and sticks cannot penetrate. But also, they should give your feet and ankles proper support while you’re carrying weight. You will likely be crossing streams and rivers on your journey, so getting a shoe that is waterproof is always a good idea. Most importantly, never go backpacking in brand new shoes. Break them in first, so you won’t have to deal with blisters in the middle of the forest.
You’ll want to buy a few pairs of comfortable hiking socks. They can be thick or thin material, depending on your needs, and should also be breathable. Always pack at least one extra pairs of socks just in case the ones you are wearing get wet.
Notice that this specifies pants and not shorts. Shorts are not a good idea, regardless of how hot it may be. Walking through the brush in shorts will cause you to scratch up your legs. You’ll want to wear a pair of pants that is thick enough that thorns and twigs will not penetrate it. They should also allow flexibility, so you climb over rocks and obstacles. Jeans are perfectly suitable for hiking, so you don’t have to buy a new pair of special hiking pants.
Like pants, it is not necessary to buy any special hiking shirts. You can wear any t-shirt, just make sure it is comfortable enough for you to wear for a long time. If you are exploring an area where you will be exposed to the sun or bugs, you’ll want to consider wearing a long-sleeved shirts.
Hat and Sunglasses
You will be out in the sun all day, so you will want to protect your face, head, and eyes. Bring a pair of sunglasses that fit snugly to your face and won’t fall off while you’re walking. If you are in a cold climate, wear a hat made of a thick material that will keep your head warm. For especially cold areas, a balaclava can keep your entire face warm while you travel. In warmer climates with a lot of sunlight, a lightweight baseball cap will protect your face and head from the heat.
Typically, the clothes you wear will get heavy and waterlogged when they are hit with rain. Purchase a lightweight, hooded rain jacket that you can pack with your gear and put on over your clothing in the event of rain.
Under layered clothes
This applies to those of you planning to go backpacking in colder regions, or areas where it tends to get chilly at night. Base layers should fit tight to your skin, but not so tight that they are uncomfortable or a struggle to put on/take off.
A nice, thick sweater or a fleece pullover is nice to keep in your pack just in case you need a little extra warmth at night. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. It just has to be comfortable and keep you cozy.
How fit do I need to be to start backpacking?
With any new activity, you should consult your doctor if you have concerns about your physical ability to engage in backpacking. If you are already a fit person, you can start out with a few small trips to build your endurance and experience. Also, consider lifting weights to strengthen your legs and arms, and don’t skip the cardio!
How do I handle fast-moving water?
You’ll want to avoid it if possible. If you absolutely have to cross a fast-moving river or stream, find the shallowest point where you can cross. It is very dangerous to try and cross in water that is above knee level. If you can’t see the bottom, don’t try to cross at that spot. You’ll want to avoid getting your boots waterlogged. So, river-crossing should be done in old socks or a pair of sandals.
Should I scale small cliffs to get to my destination?
Unless you are properly trained and have the necessary equipment to safely allow you to into a cliff, do not attempt this. When you are planning your route, avoid traveling along a path that requires scaling any cliffs. If you come across an unexpected cliff, check your map and find an alternate route to your destination.
What if I get a heart attack?
The best defense against having a heart attack while backpacking is prevention. Properly assess your fitness level before going on your trip with an expert. If you think you are having a heart attack notify your party immediately and have someone call emergency services. If you are backpacking alone, you should call emergency services on your phone, and try to make your way to the nearest road to flag down help.
How should I handle lightning storms?
On the days leading up to your big backpacking adventure, you should be checking the weather. If you see any signs of a storm, reschedule your trip for another time when the weather is more suitable. If you are caught in the middle of an unexpected lightning storm, find a small group of trees surrounded by smaller trees and seek shelter there. Try your best to avoid open areas and high elevations, and make yourself a small target by crouching down.
How do I avoid hypothermia?
Avoid hypothermia by following these two rules: Stay dry and stay warm. If you know you are backpacking in a cold climate that puts you at a higher risk of hypothermia, pack warm clothes and dress in layers. This is no time to worry about the weight of your gear. Letting your body temperature drop too low can be extremely dangerous to your health. Pack a rainproof jacket and pants that will keep you dry in the rain and an extra sweater to put on while you are sleeping.
What about dangerous animals like mountain lions and bears?
This is one of the most common fears of new backpackers. While the forest is riddled with wild animals, the odds of you running into a bear or mountain lion are close to nonexistent. However, if you do happen to be lucky enough to encounter a black bear at your camp, make yourself look large by waving your arms over your head and scream. Black bears tend to just want your food and are not usually aggressive. They will likely be scared away by your noise and movements.
The same approach goes for mountain lions. You have to make them think you are the scary predator, not the prey. Look the in the eyes, yell as loud as you can, and back away slowly. To reduce your risk of running into one of these animals, make sure to hang your food up high in a tree at night, so hungry animals will not come looking for it.
What should I do about bugs?
Bugs tend to love wet and humid environments. Pack a strong, waterproof bug spray that you will not sweat off during the day, and re-apply it often. If you are worried about bugs while you sleep, invest in a bug net to put around your tent or hammock. It will block even the most persistent mosquitos.
What should I do if I see a snake?
If you spot a snake on the trail, take a close look at its body language. A tense, coiled snake is probably about to strike, so you’ll want to back away quickly. Even if the snake is not coiled, give them some space just in case they are easily agitated. Remember, this is their home, so respect them and bring them no harm.
Should I avoid stagnant water?
The short answer is yes, avoid drinking from any standing water. Stagnant water sources have no inflow or outflow. They are a breeding ground for potentially harmful bacteria and diseases. If you are desperate for water, you can drink from standing water if you have a water filtration or purification device. A purification device is preferred because it uses chemicals to destroy both bacteria and viruses. It greatly reduces your chances of getting sick.
Additional backpacking tips
If you’re traveling with a partner or a group, it’s important that everyone is fully prepared and geared. If one person does not have the proper gear, others might be forced to give up some of theirs to help, which can put everyone at risk. Also, never let any members of your group go off on their own. You should all stick together because it can be easy to get lost out in the wilderness.
Finally, no matter how prepared you, your partner, or your group members may be, you always need to notify your family or friends of where you will be in case of emergency. Give them a map of the area if you can, and give updates on your location as you feel necessary. Ensuring others know where you are is your best chance of surviving an emergency out in the wilderness.
Backpacking gives you the opportunity to ditch the campgrounds and explore the wilderness on your own time. While a little extra preparation and planning are required, anyone can make the jump from camper to backpacker. You don’t have to jump into a week-long trip right away. Just start off slow, build experience, and enjoy the great outdoors.