Have you ever wanted to go on an overnight hike, but weren’t sure exactly how?
If so, this blog post is for you! We’ll be going over what gear you need and how to prepare for your first backpacking trip. You’ll also get tips on how to pack efficiently and stay safe out on the trail. This article will give you all the information that you need before heading out into nature for a night of adventure, whether you’re hiking solo or with a group!
What is Backpacking Anyway?
Backpacking is very similar to camping, but it requires spending one or more nights in the wilderness and you’ll be carrying all of your gear with you instead of relying on the comfort of packing everything in your car.
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A lot of people want to try hiking overnight but are intimidated by the idea of getting lost or not being able to find a place to camp. It is important that you know how and where you can sleep before you set out on your adventure!
Here are some tips that will help make your first hike more enjoyable and less stressful.
Backpacking for Beginners
The best way to overcome the intimidation factor is to practice! If you want to get comfortable with camping in general before taking a trip into the wilderness alone, make sure that you take at least one overnight trip every year until it feels like second nature. Start out with car camping at campgrounds or even in your backyard to simply test out your gear first.
If you are nervous about trying to figure out everything on your own, there are many options that can give you the knowledge and skills that you need. If there is a local outdoor store or outfitter near you, you can ask them questions about gear, clothing and see if they offer any classes.
You can also go online and find more backpacking classes here to master things like hanging your bear bag, basic navigation, trip planning, hiking safety and more.
Wilderness 101 Tips for Beginners
The wilderness is a majestic place with undeniable charm, but it can also be dangerous. Just like how driving isn’t that dangerous, but driving under the influence is very dangerous. Hiking or backpacking isn’t that dangerous, but heading out into the wilderness without any training or preparation is very dangerous. You need to know how to stay safe while exploring the great outdoors. Here are some tips for staying safe and having fun in the wild!
1. KNOW THE REGULATIONS
Before you go, make sure that you know the regulations of where you are going and what to do in an emergency situation. Things like which trails require permits and how to get them or whether or not it’s allowed for campfires depend on your location, so be prepared before leaving!
2. TAKE THE 10 ESSENTIALS
When you go on any hike, it’s important to take certain items. These are known as the 10 essentials and can help keep you safe in an emergency situation or make your trip more enjoyable. Most experts recommend taking a space blanket to stay warm and dry in cold weather, a whistle (for signaling in case of an emergency) as well as a first-aid kit and fire starter (with extra waterproof matches). You’ll also want to have a topographic map, compass, flashlight, sunglasses, and sunscreen!
3. KNOW THE WEATHER FORECAST
As with any outdoor activity, it’s very important to know what kind of weather you can expect. Pay attention to reports and weather alerts before setting out on your hike, not just the temperature but other hazards like wildfires, flash floods, and wet bulb temperature as well. My favorite place to check the weather is weather.gov because you can see the weather for specific mountain peaks, lakes, or other landmarks instead of the nearest major city.
4. PACK WELL
When packing for your trip, it’s important to think about both comfort and safety. It helps if you keep your backpack light and to the bare essentials, which is a good way to keep it comfortable.
For safety, you’ll want to pack plenty of food in case you get stuck out longer than expected, a knife or multi-tool (in case you need to make repairs on your gear), and a first aid kit with extra medicine.
5. BRING A MAP AND COMPASS
We’ve all heard horror stories about people getting lost in the woods, don’t let that happen to you — getting lost in the woods doesn’t have to be a scary experience if you carry the right supplies and know how to use them to navigate yourself to safety.
It’s always a good idea to bring a physical topographical map and compass that can show terrain features such as cliffs, dangerous wildlife boundaries, and changes in elevation. Remember to always stay aware of your surroundings! Pay attention to landmarks while you are hiking and try to notice any changes in direction. Never rely solely on your phone or GPS to help you, use your map, compass and the brain between your ears.
6. DRESS PROPERLY
Having the right clothing and layers is essential if you want to be comfortable out in the wilderness for several days. Stay away from cotton and instead choose clothing like wool or synthetics that will wick away moisture, dry fast, and keep you warm when it’s chilly outside.
7. BRING EXTRA WATER
It’s a good idea to carry more than enough water with you on your trip and make sure that you drink plenty of it throughout the day! It’s also essential to bring some water purifying tablets or drops so that you won’t have to worry about getting sick as a result of water from streams or lakes if you need to refill your water on the trail.
8. BRING FIRST AID SUPPLIES AND MEDICATION
It could take well over 8 hours or even until the next day for search and rescue teams to get to you. Be sure to carry enough first aid supplies and basic medications to take care of yourself and your hiking buddies for the entirety of your trip. Grab my complete first aid kit checklist for hikers here.
9. BRING A GPS
I know this can be a big, upfront expense, but having an emergency GPS with two-way communication is invaluable if you or someone in your group has an emergency while hiking or backpacking, especially in areas without cell phone service. I use and love the Garmin InReach Mini.
10. CHECK YOUR GEAR BEFORE YOU SET OUT ON THE TRAIL
Before you set out on your trip, make sure to give your backpacking gear a quick once-over. Lay it out and make sure there is nothing missing or damaged. Make sure you have your tent poles, your stove starts, no consumables are expired, and that you haven’t forgotten anything essential.
11. USE YOUR HEAD AND LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Backpacking can be a fun way to get out and enjoy the outdoors. Follow these tips and have a great time! Just remember, if you’re not sure about something or if you start feeling a little too tired for your own good, remember to listen to your body. This is what will keep you safe on the trail!
Choose an Easy Backpacking Destination:
For your first backpacking trip, you don’t want to go anywhere that will be too strenuous and challenging. You want to make sure that you have a good time by picking an easy destination. Look for places with low elevations in flatter areas of the country so that you can get started without too much trouble.
Even if you think of yourself as very physically fit, just consider this first trip as an easy shakedown hike to test out your gear and see what it feels like to be outdoors 24/7 with all of your gear on your back.
Where to go backpacking for the first time
Don’t overdo it here, choose a short, easy(ish) trail that is relatively close to home. It may even be somewhere that you’ve already day hiked before so you’re a little familiar with the area.
Aim for less than 8 miles per day, or even as little as 3-5 miles if you’re unsure of your ability. Choose an easy trail with less than ~600 feet of elevation change per day, or try for less than 1,000 feet if you live in a mountainous state.
Find a trail that is close to where you live and relatively easy to get to for your first trip. You don’t want to add on any extra stress by choosing a far-away trail and having to figure out how to fly with your gear, where to buy fuel when you land and how to get to the trailhead or resupply when you have no vehicle.
Keep it simple, at least in the beginning. My hope is that you feel ready and excited for your next trip – not ready to call it quits on backpacking!
Essential Backpacking Gear and Clothing
It’s important to bring the right backpacking gear and clothes for your first trip. You don’t want your trip to be ruined because you forgot something really important, like a tent or rain jacket.
The easiest way to prepare is by creating a packing list of what you need in advance. We created this PDF checklist of essential backpacking items that should help get you ready!
Basic Backpacking Checklist (Free PDF Download)
What Clothes to Bring Backpacking
Bringing the right clothes and shoes backpacking, without packing too many clothing items is an art that is usually learned over time. But I’d like to try to expedite that process for you. In a nutshell, you only need one outfit for hiking during the day, that can be worn in rainstorms or river crossings, and one outfit for sleeping that is designated to always stay dry. Just like you only need one pair of hiking socks and one pair of sleeping socks.
Definitely don’t pack a new outfit for every day or even every night. I promise it’s not worth the weight. While some people claim they’re not necessary, I always always always pack a pair of ‘camp shoes’ to change into at the campsite to give my feet a rest and a breather from my hiking boots. While I don’t pack a new outfit for each day, I do appreciate leaving a clean pair of clothes in my car to change into at the end of my trip so I don’t have to drive home in my stinky hiking clothes.
Read the full guide to hiking clothes here
How to Plan a Backpacking Trip
Planning your first backpacking trip can seem like a daunting task. With so many items to pack and decisions to make, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But don’t worry! We’re here with some tips for planning the perfect backpacking trip from start to finish.
First, you’ll want to decide where you want to go based on how much time you have (a weekend or week), what type of terrain and difficulty level you can handle, and any other factors that might be important for your particular needs such as the time of year or the weather.
Once you have an idea of where you’d like to go, it’s time for research! You should look up the trail map ahead of time so that you know exactly what kinds of trails will be available to you during your trip. It’s also good to look up a little information about the trail ahead of time so that you have a basic overview of what kind of terrain to expect, how difficult it might be, and if there are any other particular wildlife or weather conditions that you should prepare for.
I love using Hiking Project to initially search for trails in any given area and check for recent comments from other hikers on trail conditions. Then once I have an area or trail in mind, I buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for that trail and carry it with me for navigation. The Hiking Project app can also be a quick, easy way to check where you are on the trail – but don’t rely solely on your phone for navigation, in case it dies, breaks, crashes, etc. Too much could go wrong there.
As soon as you know where you’re going, it’s time to start preparing for the trip. Print out a checklist of all the things you’ll need, make sure you have all of your important gear items assembled (and in a bag that is easily accessible), and highlight the things you still need to buy. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get everything ready!
Plan Your Backpacking Food
Planning your meals ahead is always helpful in ensuring that you have enough calories and variety over the course of your trip. In general, you’ll want to pack lightweight, shelf-stable food that’s easy and enjoyable to eat. I try to pack around 1-1.5 pounds of food per person per day, and 2,000-4,000 calories per full day of hiking.
Backpacking alone for the first time
Hiking or backpacking alone can be intimidating, though that doesn’t have to be the case. If you get prepared ahead of time and practice your skills like hanging a bear bag, setting up your tent, cooking on your stove, etc. you’ll soon find yourself feeling more confident about your upcoming trip!
The most important thing is being mindful of safety while also exploring new places by yourself. Here are some things to keep in mind for solo hiking:
-Pack as light as possible so it’s not too difficult to carry everything on long hikes. You don’t have the luxury of relying on a hiking buddy to share their gear or food with you. You need to carry everything you need.
-Bring a map and compass, and know how to use them! Bring a GPS device if possible. It’s always a good idea to bring a GPS device even if you’re really familiar with the trail.
-Ask a friend or family member to check in on you to make sure you return safely.
-Bring waterproof matches or a lighter and a fire starter, and first aid supplies along with enough water purifying tablets or drops for your entire trip.
Yes, of course, there are risks and dangers in backpacking alone – but it’s no more dangerous than living in any US city alone. I’d even argue that solo hiking in the wilderness is actually safer than most US cities, but I digress.
How to Physically Prepare for Backpacking
When it comes time to head on an overnight hike, you’ll want to make sure that your body is ready for the task. Training in the months and weeks before a backpacking trip can help prepare your body for the strenuous activity of hiking all day, every day, up and over mountains, with a ~30-pound pack on your back.
The best way to get prepared for backpacking is to start gradually by hiking local trails and mountains with a lighter load and less elevation gain until you are comfortable enough to handle the heaviest gear that you plan on using during your trip.
Here are some other tips for physically preparing for a backpacking trip:
-Hike at different elevations: hiking at higher elevations will prepare you for what to expect on a trip.
-Do a variety of cardio exercises and strength training before your trip. This includes everything from running, swimming, biking, and elliptical to circuit training or any other type of workout that gets your heart rate up enough to simulate the experience of backpacking.
-Pack your backpack with everything you plan on bringing and wear the pack for short walks around town when you are just getting used to having a backpack. This will help you get accustomed to how it feels while also learning how to adjust straps and load your pack properly.
Make sure that every time you go hiking, you gradually increase either the distance or the elevation gain. This way, you can build up your endurance and strength before your trip while also increasing your comfort with weight from a backpack.
Stretches and Exercises
Backpacking can take a toll on the body, especially the legs, hips, and back. Some of the best stretches for hikers include :
-Hamstring Stretch: you can do a simple hamstring stretch by sitting on the ground and bringing one leg in front of your body, pointing your foot out to the side. You should feel some gentle tension in the muscles behind your thigh. Hold for 15 seconds, then switch legs.
-Groin Stretch: this is another stretch that targets your lower body. With one leg straight out in front of you, bend the other knee and place your foot on the ground behind you. Lean forward from the hips until you feel a stretch in your inner thigh and groin muscles. Hold for 15 seconds, then switch legs.
-Knee Stretch: this is another great one if you spend a lot of time sitting: while seated on the ground, bring your left knee in toward your chest and hold for 15 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.
-Thigh Stretch: you can do this stretch while standing up or walking to help target those muscles you use most often when hiking. While standing up, raise one foot off the ground and point your toe. Hold for 15 seconds, then switch legs.
-Arm Stretch: this stretch focuses on the muscles in the back of your arms and shoulders. Grab one wrist behind your back with the other hand and gently pull until you feel a slight tension in your arm muscles. Hold for 10 seconds, then switch arms.
These stretches are simple and can be easily done in just a few minutes every day. Just make sure that if you have any pain or injuries, consult your doctor first before trying to stretch the area yourself. Some of the best exercises to do before hiking include:
-Calf Raises: this exercise is pretty simple and will help with leg endurance. Stand on a step or curb with your toes hanging off the edge, then raise yourself up on the balls of your feet as high as possible before slowly lowering yourself back down. Repeat for 10 to 20 reps–or however many you feel comfortable doing.
-Squats: these are a great exercise for mainly your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart then slowly lower your hips until you feel a slight tension in the muscles on the back of your legs. Hold for 10 seconds at the bottom of each rep, then repeat as many times as possible.
-Jumping Jacks: these are great for cardio and will help you warm up your muscles before a hike. Start by standing upright with your feet together, then jump while spreading your arms to each side. You’ll end up in a sort of starfish position, with one foot on the ground and the other in front of you, hands above your head. Bring your feet back together and lower your arms, then repeat for 10 to 20 reps.
While you’re out on the trail, there are plenty of exercises that you can do to stay in shape as well:
-Pushups: these will work mainly your chest and triceps muscles. While on an incline if possible, get into a pushup position with your hands shoulder width apart and your feet together. Lower yourself until you feel a contraction in your chest and triceps, then push back up to the starting position. You can do knee pushups if you don’t have enough strength or can’t balance well enough for regular ones.
-Situps: these will work your abdominal muscles. Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat on the ground, then bring your hands to the small of your back so that they’re touching. Your knees should be pointing up toward the sky. Now lift yourself up off the ground by bending at your hips, bringing them toward your chest until you feel a slight tension in your abs. Hold for a few seconds, then return to the starting position and repeat.
-Bridge: this exercise will work your butt muscles. Lie on the ground with both knees bent at 90-degree angles and feet flat on the ground (you can rest them against a log or rock if they’re not). Put your arms out to your sides, parallel to the ground. Now lift yourself up off the ground until you form a bridge, and hold for 10 seconds before lowering yourself back down.
-Sprinting/Jogging: these are great cardio exercises that will also work your leg muscles. You can do sprints or jogs of varying distances, depending on what you’re most comfortable with. Just make sure you’re wearing appropriate shoes for the kind of terrain you’ll be on, and try not to stray too far from your campsite or car. Jogging or sprinting up hills will increase your endurance and strength, even if you start off with extremely short and intervals and distances – just think about different ways you can push and challenge your body, no matter how small.
Improving your lung capacity
It’s important for hikers to have a strong lung capacity. Hiking is a strenuous activity and can be quite demanding on the lungs. If you hike often, you may find it difficult to breathe when your body is fatigued because of low oxygen levels in your bloodstream.
You might also feel shortness of breath or an increased heart rate as well as dizziness if you’re not breathing enough deeply or fast enough. One way to increase your lung capacity is by adding exercises that help with this aspect of fitness into your daily routine. It doesn’t take much time at all–just 10 minutes per day will suffice! Here are some great ways to get started:
-Breathe deeply from the diaphragm: Breathing from the diaphragm will help you to expand your lungs and stomach area so that oxygen is distributed into your bloodstream. Doing this each time before you go on a hike will make it less strenuous than normal and lower the risk of fatigue or shortness of breath during exercise.
-Breathe in for four seconds and breathe out for four seconds: This breathing technique is an excellent way to regulate your breathing as well. By taking deep breaths for longer intervals of time, you can fill your lungs with more air and oxygen than before.
-Practice Box Breathing: Building on the last exercise, breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds and repeat.
This is only a basic list of exercises that will help you achieve better lung capacity. There are many other types of exercises that will work just as well, so don’t be afraid to experiment a little!
Mistakes To Avoid Your First Time Backpacking
Some of the worst mistakes first-time backpackers can make are packing the wrong gear and not being prepared for all situations that may arise.
-Forgetting your rain gear: One of the biggest mistakes you can make on your first backpacking trip is forgetting important items, like a good pair of hiking boots or rain gear, for example. It’s essential that you remember to bring along something that will keep you warm and dry when you need it most.
-Wearing an ill-fitting pack or shoes: Wearing the wrong pair of shoes is a huge mistake that many new backpackers make–but it’s easy to fix! To avoid this problem, try on several different pairs before choosing one. Test out your potential new pair of shoes by wearing a weighted backpack and walking around in the store for a while, going up and downstairs and up and down an incline ramp to really see how they feel.
-Getting separated from your buddy or group: It’s important that you don’t wander off alone onto unfamiliar trails. You should always stay within a distance that you could finish walking back to camp in less than one hour if necessary, and make sure you tell people where you’re going so they don’t start looking for you!
-Forgetting the first aid kit: Having a first aid kit on hand is important in case of emergency–but avoiding injuries altogether is even more important. Always be aware of your surroundings and ask someone to keep an eye on you while you’re hiking if you’re not sure about a trail’s safety.
-Not carrying or drinking enough water: It sounds silly, but many new backpackers will neglect to bring along enough water for their trip! Make sure you have enough with you–you’ll need at least one gallon of water per day if hiking in hot weather. If it seems like a lot, remember that this is the bare minimum.
-Not bringing a physical map: If you’re new to backpacking, one of the most important things that you can carry with you is a good map of the area where you’ll be hiking. It’s always better to be prepared and not need it than to end up getting lost in the wilderness without a map!
How to Leave No Trace While Backpacking
If you’re new to backpacking, you might not have heard of Leave No Trace or LNT. The Leave No Trace principles are essential because they help backpackers to minimize their impact on natural environments.
-Plan ahead and prepare: Every wilderness area is slightly different, so it’s important to become familiar with the regulations that apply to your area! For example, some parks require you to carry bear canisters if you’re camping near black bears. Other parks may have more relaxed rules on campsite size or the number of people allowed at each site, while others may require permits. You’ll also need to research and plan ahead for the weather, water sources and what kind of wildlife you might encounter.
-Use designated campsites and trails: When you set up camp for the night, always try to use an existing site that has been previously used by others and never cut down any trees or clear a campsite of your own. The forest floor can take years or decades to recover human tramplings like this. Stay on the designated trail that is already cleared for you and let the forest floor, and all the critters and micro-organisms that live there, be in peace off the beaten path.
-Dispose of waste properly: Disposing of trash improperly is an all-too-common mistake among new hikers. When you go home from your trip, throw away all leftover food and garbage, but never bury it or burn it! Burying it will only attract animals to dig it up and spread it around your campsite area and virtually no trash will ever burn completely in a campfire, again leaving it available for animals to get ahold of. This also includes disposing of human waste properly – never leave wet wipes behind or bury them, some parks don’t even allow toilet paper to be buried and it must be packed out with you. Don’t be gross, always use the bathroom at least 200 feet away from all water sources, trails and campsites, and bury your poo in a cathole at least 6 inches deep and cover it properly. Or pack out your poo in a poop tube in places that require it.
-Leave what you find: Nature is full of interesting rocks, plants, bugs, small animals, etc–but don’t take anything with you! Instead of taking it home with you, just remember to appreciate nature as it is, snap a photo, and leave it for future hikers to enjoy as well.
-Reduce fire impacts: Fires are not allowed in most national parks, and also not allowed in much of the western US for much of the summer–and even if they are, they’re usually only allowed in a designated, metal ring, fire pit. Building a fire can not only hurt the plants around your campsite, but it can also spark forest fires in many areas, which will get you hefty fines and likely jail time.
-Respect wildlife: Animals are often afraid of humans and can react by hurting you if they feel threatened–so it’s important that new backpackers learn to respect wildlife while traveling through the wilderness. When encountering animals, always give them space and try not to make a lot of noise or sudden movements. Avoid feeding wild animals, and never touch them.
-Be considerate of other visitors: Basically, don’t disturb those around you, we go to the woods specifically to escape people and the hustle and bustle of residential areas. Leave the portable speaker at home and use headphones if you must. Keep your dog leashed at all times unless at a dog park or private property, eVeN iF hE’s FrIeNdLy, nobody wants to be bum-rushed by your dog, not other hikers and not the local bear, moose, elk, etc who actually live there. If you see someone who is dispersed camping or cowboy camping, meaning just camping at a random spot off-trail, not at a designated campsite, don’t go and camp right next to them. That’s a little creepy and stalkerish, and chances are they want to camp alone, I promise. If they wanted to camp with others, they would have booked a site at a campground or stayed at an established shelter or designated campsite.
If you’re interested in backpacking for the first time, we hope that this blog post has helped to answer some of your questions and demystified what it takes. When the time comes for your first trip, head outside with confidence knowing that we have your back! Let us know if there are any other questions or concerns about your first backpacking trip. Happy trails!
About the author, Mallory Moskowitz:
After studying Recreation, Park & Tourism Management, Mallory spent several years teaching environmental education, guiding hikes, and leading backcountry trips. Her life-changing trek from Georgia to New York on the Appalachian Trail is what sparked the creation of Your Adventure Coach, to share backpacking tips and resources with as many new hikers as possible.