The joys of backpacking may be simple, but preparing for it is anything but.
If you’re a veteran car-camper who’s daunted by the idea of an overnight hike, here are some tips to help you boost your camping game:
Where Are You Going?
Choosing your destination may seem like a no-brainer, but hear us out. When preparing for a backpacking trip, it’s crucial to thoroughly research where you’re going and plan for what you’re going to encounter along the way.
Most of what you need to learn will be available through online resources. For example, if you’re venturing into a National Park, you’ll find tons of information about trails, mileage, elevation gain, facilities, and updated trail closure information on the National Park Service’s website.
Aside from hosting info about all of the country’s 61 national parks, the NPS site also has a section on special park passes, itineraries, notable monuments, and other cool stuff that you might want to check out during your trip.
State park websites are also helpful resources, and if you’re venturing into the backcountry, apps like Hiking Project can help with details.
Maps, Permits, And Supplies
Once you’ve established your trail and destination, print out a copy of the map, or buy one from either an outdoor retailer or park visitor center. The beauty of backpacking is getting away from your cell phone and GPS, so make sure you know how to use your map and a compass.
Many state and national parks will require a permit for backcountry camping (often called “Wilderness Camping”), so make it a point to check the rules for the park you’ll be entering. Most parks will have designated areas for backcountry camping. Pinpoint them on the map and make a plan for where you’ll be staying.
If you want to light a campfire on your trip, make sure to research and find out if there’s a fire ban in the area, too.
Depending on the area you’re venturing into, you may need additional safety supplies (bear canisters, for example), so while you do your trail research, take the time to learn about the local flora and fauna of the wilderness you’ll be exploring.
Once you establish your route, check the weather forecast. Park websites often provide this information since it can be challenging to get an accurate forecast from regular weather websites.
Gear, Gear, Gear
Backpacking is all about learning to live without— unless you enjoy carrying your body weight in gear.
There are some obvious basics you wouldn’t want to leave at home like your sleeping system (sleeping bag and pad), your shelter (tent, tarp, or bivvy sack), and cooking equipment.
However, there’s a myriad of other small things that can and will make your backpacking trip far more enjoyable. Here’s a list of what we always carry when we head outdoors:
- Backpack. This one’s essential. Make sure your pack fits! If you need to buy one, head to a specialist who can help adjust the straps to optimize comfort and safety for your back.
- Sleeping bag. Consider your sleeping temperature, and be sure to bring a bag that is appropriate for the season and overnight temperatures of where you’re going.
- Sleeping pad. An inflatable pad takes up less space in your pack, but folding foam mats are also comfortable and can be lightweight. Remember, you lose a lot of heat through direct contact with the ground, so make sure to bring a sleeping pad with you.
- Shelter. Even if you love sleeping under the stars, it’s wise to bring some form of shelter. Whether it’s a small tent, tarp, or even a bivvy sack, it could save your life if the weather turns unexpectedly on you while you’re out.
- Cooking equipment. Your cooking equipment can vary significantly, but any basic backpacking stove will do the trick. Some people choose the one-pot-wonder approach, using one small backpacking pot for cooking, eating, and drinking from, which will also save you having to pack any plates, bowls, or cups for your trip.
- Clothing. Now, depending on the length of your trip and your willingness to put up with body odor, you may only need one set of clothes. It may be a good idea to bring an extra pair of underwear and socks, but here’s the rundown: shorts or pants, t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, heavier fleece or hoodie, and a raincoat. When choosing your layers, avoid cotton at all costs: it soaks up sweat, dries slowly, and absorbs body odor quickly. Better options for material include polypropylene, nylon, or wool. These fabrics are known for their moisture-wicking properties. For your pants or shorts, choose a quick-dry material — no denim.
- Hat. A warm beanie and a baseball cap usually do the trick. If you want a multipurpose alternative, though, pack a shemagh or a “tactical scarf”. Aside from protecting your head, you can use the shemagh as a water filter, a makeshift bag, pillow, or towel.
- Hiking shoes or boots. Know your terrain, and choose footwear appropriately. If you can avoid it, don’t take your brand new shoes or boots on a backpacking trip — you’ll be asking for blisters. Instead, go with footwear you’ve broken in and can trust won’t leave your feet a blistery mess.
- Headlamp or flashlight. A headlamp will allow you to see (hands-free) while you cook, set up camp, and negotiate your campsite in the dark. A robust tactical flashlight, on the other hand, will be very useful in case you need a bright beam to explore the area or signal for help.
- First aid kit. Even a simple kit is better than nothing. You can buy pre-made kits or cobble together something at home, but try to include the following: antiseptic wipes, antibacterial ointment, an assortment of band-aids and bandages, gauze, medical tape, blister treatment, pain relievers, antihistamines, tweezers, safety pins, and a multi-tool.
- Toiletries. This includes some personal hygiene supplies like soap, deodorant, TP, and wipes. Some hardcore backpackers will chop the handle off their toothbrush to save on weight, but we’ll leave that one up to you.
- Food and water. We’ll discuss this further as we go along.
This isn’t an exhaustive list; instead, it’s the bare bones. Optional additional items include a personal locator beacon or satellite phone to use in emergencies, a weather radio, trekking poles, and purifiers/sanitizers.
Learning to live without is one of the best things about backpacking. And in the meantime, you’ll learn to get creative with what you do have.
For example, instead of a pillow, you can stuff your extra clothes into a jacket, zip up the front and tie the sleeves together. Instead of a lantern, strap your headlamp to a water bottle, light shining inwards, to create a glowing orb to play cards by. These types of hacks are endless and have the added benefit of impressing your fellow hikers.
Packing food can be the hardest part of preparing for a trip. On the one hand, you don’t want to starve; on another, you don’t want to lug around such a heavy backpack.
What’s a newbie to do?
One easy way to eliminate weight is to stock up on freeze-dried meals. Often, they’re bulked out, packing plenty of calories, and are extremely easy to prepare. They do require water, though, so if you’re not close to a water source, you’ll need to carry extra to account for the meal prep.
Sample backpacking meal plans are easy to come by, and usually, involve carbs aplenty. Hiking requires a huge amount of energy, and a constant supply of carbs will help fuel you while you tick off the miles.
It’s also a good idea to pack plenty of snacks. Granola bars, nuts, and peanut butter sandwiches are hiking staples because they’re easy to stash in a pocket or on top of your pack for some on-the-trail snacking.
Lastly, remember to always bring at least one extra meal in case of emergencies.
After you’ve selected your meals, be sure to check on water availability on your route. If there’s a water source such as a lake or river, you’ll have a few options for purifying water:
- Boiling. This is one of the easiest options, so long as you have a stove with plenty of fuel for cooking. Boiling for 3 minutes will kill all parasites and make it safe to drink (allow for a full three minutes if over 6,500 feet).
- Water filter. These are popular because they’re lightweight, but require either squeezing or pumping to work, which can be time-consuming or annoying.
- Steri-pen. This method utilizes UV light to purify, and works quickly: typically one minute or less to treat water.
- Chlorine pills. Chlorine tablets and pills are a very lightweight option but will require some wait-time, usually 30 minutes before it’s ready to drink.
Logistics & Weather
Now that you have your bag perfectly packed with gear and supplies, recheck the weather. This is especially important in the mountains, where the weather can change quickly and without warning.
While you’re at it, tell someone about your trip before you go. Make sure it’s a reliable friend or family member who can raise the alarm if you don’t return home when planned. Tell them a specific time to expect your return, and be sure to tell them to report it if you haven’t returned on time.
If this isn’t possible, you can also leave a note on your car that says where you’re going and when you plan to return. That crucial information could help rescuers know where to look in the unlikely case you run into trouble on the trail.
Leave No Trace
Ingrain the Leave No Trace philosophy.
It boils down to seven principles:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare.
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
A basic rule of thumb is, leave the area better than you found it. Pick up any trash you see on the trail and educate others where possible. Set a great example, both for your fellow backpackers and those you pass on the trail.
Preparing for a backpacking trip may take a bit of time and effort, but it sure is worth it. Unlike car-camping, an overnighter out in the backcountry allows you to be in the zone and bask in the unique wonders of nature— and that’s pretty hard to beat.
Are you excited for your first backpacking trip? Which trail will you take on first? Let us know by leaving a comment below!