Backpacking is a fantastic way to explore the world less seen and experience new parts of the world. It can be an exciting and rewarding adventure, but it does require some preparation. This guide to backpacking will provide you with essential tips on how to plan for a backpacking trip, from trails to look for, choosing the right gear, and how to stay safe while traveling.
You’ll also get helpful advice on what to look for when selecting the ideal backpacking destination and the best strategies for staying within your budget.
Why Should You Go Backpacking?
Before we start this guide to backpacking, let’s get clear on why we love it. If you need any more convincing on planning a proper backpacking trip, this is a friendly reminder of why putting in the preparation is well worth it.
Backpacking is a great way to explore the outdoors, see national parks, and an even better way to see the world. Whether planning a weekend outing or a round-the-world adventure, packing your life into a backpack brings unique challenges and rewards. Backpacking allows you to escape the hustle of everyday life and all its distractions.
How To Choose a Backpacking Destination
Every route will have unique needs you’ll want to cover, depending on the climate and the time of year. We’ll get more into this in our recommended gear section.
You can use this list and guide to backpacking trips in the US to find destinations for beginners to more advanced treks.
If this is one of your first backpacking trips, we recommend starting with an easy trail. Each trail will have a rating indicating the terrain and how many miles to get in and out. Once you’ve decided where you’d like to trek, the next step is to pick a date and plan your trip.
This will also give you a good idea of the weather conditions and where the ranger station is in case of emergencies.
Day Hiking Vs. Backpacking
This guide to backpacking covers the best practices for day hiking and backpacking, but it’s essential to know the differences. Day hiking and backpacking are both popular, but they offer different experiences.
Day hiking is a great way to enjoy the outdoors without committing to an overnight stay. Great for testing new gear, like breaking in new boots.
It’s perfect for beginner backpackers who want to explore nature and exercise in a few hours. Day hikes are shorter than backpacking trips, ranging from a couple of hours to a full day.
If you have shorter trails nearby, day hiking is a quick way to see if trekking is a hobby you’ll enjoy.
Backpacking, on the other hand, requires more preparation and planning than day hiking. It also offers a deeper connection with nature and the opportunity to experience remote areas that aren’t accessible by day hikes alone.
Backpackers need to be prepared for everything from weather changes to wildlife encounters, making it an adventure that requires both physical and mental stamina.
Getting Ready for Your Backpacking Trip
If you’re planning a backpacking trip with a group, you’ll need to set hard dates that everyone can make. If your plan is a solo trip, you’ll have more flexibility, but there are other considerations you’ll need to consider and plan for.
You can use this Women’s Solo Hiking Guide to get an idea of what’s required. While it’s specifically a guide for women, it’s full of good practices for anyone.
Let other people know when and where you’ll be starting. Just as important, let them know when you should be returning. We recommend you do one final “check-in” before you leave your vehicle and when one more when you get back.
Some places also require passes on the trail. You’ll need to determine what is necessary for that location and get permits during this planning stage.
What Gear to Bring Backpacking
You’ll need to cover special items required depending on the area. If hiking in California, you’ll most likely need a bear canister for food storage (a bearproof container will carry all your food). This is something that is required in bear country and backcountry camping.
Hiking above 11,000 feet, no open flames without a shut-off valve. This is why the first step was deciding on “where you’ll be hiking” to get the equipment you must have out of the way.
Besides specialty items, you’ll need basic camping and hiking gear. There are exceptions to every rule, and everyone has their way of doing something, especially experienced backpackers. This isn’t a specific packing list, but it will give you a good idea of what’s needed.
So remember, these items are “best practices” that will help you along your way.
Every backpacking checklist is going to start off with a tent. The sizes of camping tents are not universal. If the size you read online says “3-person,” it can be the same size as another manufactures “4-person” tent.
Make sure to find the “footprint” size. This will show the actual floor size of the tent and should give you a good idea of how many people can fit inside.
For us backpackers, weight is just as significant as the size of the tent. It’s okay with us to sacrifice some creature comforts to reduce weight.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but there are a few key things to remember.
When it comes to hiking backpacks, you get what you paid for. You can find some deals, but we recommend not choosing the lowest option. There’s nothing worse than being miles away from anything and the shoulder straps snapping on your 50lb backpack. Hiking can already be strenuous, but trekking for miles while holding 50 lbs with two hands in front of you isn’t worth saving a few bucks.
For more details, follow this illustrated guide on hiking backpacks. There has also been a lot of debate on internal and external frame packs. For your first backpacking trip, you should generally stick to an internal frame backpack. If you want to dive deep into this, you can find more information about internal vs. external frame hiking backpacks here.
Sleeping Bag and Pad
Backpackers love to talk about the best sleeping bag they love, but it comes down to personal taste. What is comfortable to someone might not be the best fit for you.
Eventually, you’ll end up with a few different sleeping bags. A thinner, more comfortable envelope-style bag, and another that’s a high-end goose-down mummy-style bag.
Whatever sleeping bag and pad you decide on, it is essential to note that men’s and women’s sleeping bags are cut differently. For the sleeping pad, keep overall weight in mind.
Backpacking Stove and Fuel
We’ve been huge fans of Jetboils for years. The first time using a Jetboil felt like jumping forward in time. Cooking food was more straightforward, quicker, and more fuel efficient. Unless you have a specific need for something else, just get a Jetboil. Dedicated backpacking meals are easy to prepare with a Jetboil.
Hiking Boots or Hiking Shoes
Having the proper footwear is crucial for a comfortable and safe experience. Hiking boots and hiking shoes are two popular options, each with advantages and disadvantages. To help you decide, let’s go over their differences.
Hiking boots offer sturdy ankle support and protection against rugged terrain. They are typically made of heavier materials and have thick soles that provide excellent traction on rocky or uneven surfaces. Hiking boots also tend to last longer than hiking shoes due to their durable construction.
However, they may be less breathable and take longer to break in before becoming comfortable on long hikes. A trick to breaking in hiking boots is to walk around your neighborhood to break them in a bit. Do this for a few days before your hike.
On the other hand, hiking shoes are lightweight, flexible, and more breathable than hiking boots. They allow for greater freedom of movement in your feet while still providing a decent grip on most terrains.
Maps, GPS, or Both?
When it comes to navigation, backpackers have a choice to make. Should they rely on traditional paper maps, modern GPS technology, or both?
On the one hand, paper maps offer a tangible and reliable means of navigating your way through unfamiliar terrain. They don’t require batteries or charging and can be used in areas where GPS signals are unavailable. Plus, they provide a bird’s eye view of the entire area you’re exploring so you can easily plan out your route ahead of time.
On the other hand, GPS devices offer unparalleled accuracy and convenience regarding real-time navigation.
To play it safe, why not use both? Keep paper maps with you, and take the time to learn how to use them.
Heading out on a backpacking trip means packing light, including your food. When you’re miles away from civilization, the last thing you want is to be weighed down by a heavy pack of snacks and meals. Therefore, choosing lightweight foods with high nutritional value is essential to sustain you throughout the journey.
Firstly, consider dehydrated or freeze-dried meals. They are easy to prepare and weigh less than canned or packaged foods. Many brands offer various options ranging from pasta dishes to soups and stews. If you haven’t had these in a long time, they’ve improved their taste over the years; they are pretty good now!
Secondly, protein bars and trail mixes are ideal for quick energy boosts on the go. Make sure they contain a blend of carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats like nuts or seeds that provide sustained energy during long hikes.
Make sure to get your calories in. Plan on eating around 200-300 calories per hour on heavy hikes. Add this to your regular calorie intake (roughly 1,500 to 2,000 calories) to get an idea of the amount of food you’ll need.
Backpacking Safety First Aid
As a backpacker, you’ll be exposed to all kinds of hazards, including falls, cuts, bites, and illnesses. That’s why it’s crucial to pack a comprehensive first aid kit before setting off on your adventure.
When putting together your backpacking first aid kit, consider the types of injuries and illnesses you’re most likely to encounter on your trip.
Typical items include:
- Antiseptic wipes
- Anti-inflammatory medications
It would be best if you also considered including supplies for more serious emergencies, such as wound dressings, sterilizing agents, and even a tourniquet.
It’s also important to know how to use each item in your first aid kit before heading out on your trip. This, along with knowing where your water sources will be, will prevent illness on the trail.
Get Ready for Your Backpacking Adventure
In conclusion, backpacking is an advantageous and enriching experience that can bring you closer to nature and help you discover the world’s beauty and even places near home that are undiscovered by you.
It allows for a sense of independence and self-sufficiency and provides a great way to challenge yourself. With some planning and preparation, your backpacking adventure will be filled with life-changing memories.
This article originally appeared on Savoteur.
Featured image credit: Simon English
About the author
Troy De Ville
Troy De Ville is an outdoor backpacking enthusiast and founder of Core Mountaineering. His passion for the outdoors began when he was young and has only grown over the years. He's been able to explore some of the wildest and most beautiful places on earth. His mission is to inspire others to get out there and experience nature in all its glory.