Backpacking Tips, Advice and Resources for Beginners
The allure of backpacking lies in the commune with nature that one experiences during the trip. Backpacking takes hikers off the beaten path to view incredible scenery and spend leisure hours in meadows, next to gurgling steams, under forest canopies and to the tops of jagged mountains. Mammals scurry, birds chirp, the wind energizes the trees, and the jokes with friends…. well, let’s just call them ‘inside jokes.’ Backpacking is a lot of fun and this Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking has all the info you need to get started.
It’s easy to think of backpacking as an activity for your extreme nature friends who roll around in the dirt all weekend, but the reality is that backpacking doesn’t require extensive outdoor skills, especially on the right trip with the right guides.
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Backpacking Myths Debunked
Backpacking is too hard.
It doesn’t have to be! There are many great backpacking trails with short distances and even facilities at the camp site. Planning a short, single-night hike in nice weather requires less food and gear, meaning you don’t need to carry a huge pack.
I have to sleep on the ground.
No way! Most backpackers will say you’re crazy if you tell them that. Backpackers carry a lightweight inflatable (or foam) sleeping pad to cushion themselves from the ground. Alternatively, you can leave the ground entirely by sleeping in a hammock.
Only if you want it to be. A little research goes a long way in finding the right place for a backpacking trip. This is the sort of thing we’re here to help you with at We All Roam. Naturally, warmer areas and warm time of year are ideal, but also look to see if campfires are permitted at established backpack campsites. Lastly, the right clothing layers will also make all the difference in keeping you warm.
We have to eat bad food.
This is up to you. I bring anything from dehydrated meals (lightweight), to a roll of peanut-butter’d bagels (cheap sustenance), to delicious meals I’ve prepped at home: carne asada burritos, veggie sausage sandwiches, etc. On many guided backpack trips, your guide will have all the makings for a delicious meal and will even prepare it for you!
I’m bad at directions – I’ll get lost.
Hey, this is why we learn about hiking trails and navigation from professional guides. Even experienced backpackers should never enter a wilderness area without preparation and research.
I need all sorts of expensive gear.
Most guide services have backpacking gear to rent, so no need to buy anything aside from your clothing and personal items.
Backpacking Gear for Beginners
Backpacking gear can be broken down into three categories: group/communal gear, personal backpacking gear, and personal gear. The reason that we break personal gear into two categories is because you don’t really need the personal backpacking gear to get started – you can rent it or borrow it from friends. You probably don’t want to ask to borrow their undershirt though!
Group Backpacking Gear
These are often communal items, or items shared between several members of your backpacking group. The gear is usually dispersed evenly between group members (to distribute weight). Realistically, this category is the last set of gear to purchase as you work towards becoming a bonafide backpacker.
There are many different camp stoves (aka burners) available for backpacking. Some are ultra lightweight, and others are more robust, with a more powerful flame and larger pot support arms.
There are some very cool stackable pot systems designed for backpackers – from solo to group sized. We could geek on these for a long time, but in the end, they are all geared towards heating water and food. Utensils will range from ultralight plastic sporks to full aluminum fork/spoon/knife sets. Also included here is biodegradable dish soap, sponge and collapsable camp sink (often just a heavy-duty bag), a plate/bowl to eat in, drink mug, and maybe even something to stir with while cooking.
Water Treatment Device
Water treatment also takes many forms. There are filters and pumps designed to fill up reusable plastic bottles and bladder hydration systems (held in your pack with a long tube to drink from). You can also go old-school by dropping Iodine tablets in your water to purify it. Lastly, on a group trip it’s always a good idea to have a backup water treatment device on hand in case the primary stops working for any reason.
Depending on the area, a bear can is required for storing food while backpacking. This is for safety since bears are attracted to food (yum) and cannot open the bear can. In fact, in many parks and popular backpacking areas, the bears recognize the cans from afar and won’t even bother to approach. Close bear encounters are extremely rare if you’re storing food properly.
Personal Backpacking Gear
This is the gear you need for a comfortable backpacking trip and is probably the first gear to start investing in once you decide backpacking is awesome.
Backpacks are designed to achieve a very specific fit, and as a result, there are many different backpack designs for women and men in various sizes. Many backpack models have built in adjustability to dial in the fit perfectly for your torso. The waist belt should be supporting most of the weight of the pack, while the shoulder straps keep the load close to your back. There is even an art to packing your backpack, with heavier items inside about 1/3 from the bottom of the bag. Backpacks will last a very long time and have quite a few uses, so they’re a great investment. I use mine for backpacking, hiking, rock climbing rope when jumping spot to spot, camera gear, freedive gear and more.
Sleeping bags for backpacking should be light and compressible. Once you start shopping you’ll research the difference between down vs. synthetic, warmth ratings, fill counts and size/shape. I highly recommend buying (or making) a sleeping bag liner to use as well – even if you’re renting or borrowing a bag. The liner will give you a few extra degrees of warmth and keep the bag (or you) clean for a much longer time (you just wash the liner instead of the bag). You can even use the sleeping bag liner on sketchy beds when traveling.
Make sure to have a sleeping pad, because even dirtbags don’t sleep directly on the ground. Not only does the sleeping pad add a layer of air or foam to pad the ground, but it keeps you warmer since you have that layer between you and the ground. Shopping for a sleeping pad will involve size and weight comparisons.
Like all backpacking gear, tents come in many shapes, sizes, weights and prices. In the end, it comes down to deciding on the capacity of the tent you’d like, and then the weight vs. price investment. Generally a 3 season tent is a good way to go, since it can take whatever conditions most backpackers will face on out the trail.
Personal Gear – The Essentials
Chances are high that you already have most of the personal gear you’ll need for a backpacking trip. In general, backpacking clothes are made of quick-drying, moisture-wicking fabric (cotton is not a great idea). The exact packing list will vary depending on temperature, but in general you will want the following:
Wicking Base Layers
This is your first layer and essential for colder hikes, whether during the day or in the evening after setting camp.
With such variable conditions in mountain areas, convertible (zip-off) nylon pants are a great idea. One moment you have shorts and the next you have pants. Not only are the pants good for some warmth, but they keep the sun and bugs off your legs. Try not to use pants with a big belt, as it could rub with your backpack waist belt. Yoga-style pants are also becoming popular on the trail.
T-shirts or other wicking shirts are great here. If the sun is out in the desert or at elevation, have a sleeved option for sun protection. After this, you can start adding a fleece, puffy jacket and rain shell for additional warmth and protection from the elements.
Hiking Boots & Socks
Most of us can get good use out of hiking boots, so make sure to get a pair that fits well. Waterproof boots are, well, waterproof, but they don’t breathe as well as boots that are made with lighter materials. The choice is up to you depending on the conditions you’ll hike the most. For backpacking, we generally stay away from trail runners, instead opting for a mid-length or hightop boot.
Socks are also very important. Wool socks are wicking, warm and provide padding against blisters.
There are a few basic rules to keep track of when on a backpack trip. If you keep these in mind, you’ll impress even the most experienced of backpackers.
1. Leave No Trace. There are many expressions about this, but the best rule is to leave the trail and campsite better than you found it. In fact, try to leave with one extra piece of trash. To learn more, check out the Leave No Trace website.
2. Respect other backpackers. This is pretty straight-forward. If you hike to a secluded vista and find other backpackers quietly admiring the sunset view from their camps, respect their space (you shouldn’t be the one to crank up the tunes and start telling obnoxious jokes).
3. Concede right of way to people (or bikes or horses) traveling uphill. They should do the same when you’re traveling uphill.
4. Help other backpackers. If you pass backpackers on the side of the trail who look a bit distressed, simply ask if everything is alright. You’d appreciate the same if you were in a predicament.
Backpacking Tips for Beginners
1. Bring reusable water bottle if using water bladder inside your pack. Why? Because your water bladder is often pressed against the back of your pack, and while getting it out is easy, reinserting it when full is not going to happen (without unpacking). The reusable bottle allows you to pour water into the bladder without removing it from the pack.
2. Keep your camera accessible. Great moments are often fleeting.
3. Always carry a first aid kit in the group. This should have supplies for blisters, cuts/scrapes, burns, bee stings, etc.
4. Always prepare for sun exposure in the desert or at high elevation – it’s surprisingly easy to get burned.
5. Have fun! Preparation can seem intimidating, but as soon as you start down the trail it will be a blip in your tail light.
Favorite Guided Backpack Trips
We see a lot of backpack tours and trips at We All Roam. Here are a couple of our favorites!
Utah Star Gazing
Want to watch the stars from the dark sky in Utah… without having to carry a heavy pack? Check out this unique overnight llama trek, complete with gourmet meals and a professional telescope! Utah Star Gazing Llama Trek
Rio Turbio Patagonia Adventure Trip
Pack Rafting in Argentina’s Chubut Province – yes please! This pack rafting trip means you get to do some amazing hiking in Patagonia while rafting between camp sites. Add in some local culture and this is an epic 11-day experience. Rio Turbio Patagonia Adventure Trip
Havasu Falls Guided Backpacking Trip
Have you seen those photos of Havasu and Havasupai Falls on social media? Visit all the best spots in this area of the Grand Canyon on this 4-day guided trip. Havasu Falls Guided Backpack Trip
Lost Coast Guided Backpack Trip
Hike along Northern California’s largest stretch of untamed coastline – the rugged Lost Coast. Ask any backpacker about this hike and odds are you’ll get a smile and nod of approval. Lost Coast Guided Backpack Trip
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Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll help you find the perfect trip.