Backpacking is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the outdoors. While I value the security of having my vehicle nearby and packing extra comforts when car camping, there’s just something so exhilarating about tossing all of my gear into a backpack, hitting the trail, and sleeping in the feral, rugged, and unpredictable wilderness.
Roads, vehicles, and people gradually fade into the proverbial rearview mirror as you traipse further and further into the woods, searching for that perfect spot to call home for the night. Satisfaction and pride from hauling pounds and pounds of gear on your back will carry you into the backcountry and away from comforts, civilization, and service.
If you’re ready to graduate from day hikes to backpacking trips, or if you’re even considering the daunting possibility, this guide is for you!
In this beginner’s guide to backpacking, I’m going to share with you everything you need to know for your first backpacking trip including how to research and plan your route, what gear to use, how to efficiently pack your backpack, and how to quell some common backpacking fears.
Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking
Plan Your Backpacking Trip
Before you hit the trails, it’s essential to research your route and plan your trip!
Reasons Why Planning is Necessary
- The weather will determine what you pack.
- The current road conditions will determine where you park.
- Checking for any necessary permits and reservations is essential so that you aren’t greeted with any unwelcome surprises at the trailhead.
- Trail stats like elevation gain, length, and terrain type will give you an idea of how difficult the trail is going to be.
Research the Route
For your first backpacking trip, I suggest picking a short and easy trail and one that isn’t at a severely high altitude. With the added weight of all of your gear on your back, you’ll find that it’s a lot trickier to walk a mile. Pick a trail that doesn’t maintain severe elevation gain.
Basically, you want your first backpacking trip to go off without a hitch so that you’ll want to venture back out into the woods a second time and a third time, and so on. If your first experience is miserable, you might be less inclined to give it another try.
Do yourself a favor and pick a trail that you’ve either hiked before or a trail that has relatively low elevation change and low altitude. Walk just a short distance; I’d suggest less than 5 miles for your first trip. Want to cut it to just a mile or two? There’s no shame in dipping your toes into the shallow water before diving into the deep end.
Recommended Trail Stats For Beginners
- Distance: 1-5 miles
- Elevation: 500 feet of elevation gain/mile or less (Example: A 3-mile hike should have no more than 1500 feet of elevation for your FIRST trip)
- Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Next, make sure you are camping legally. You can’t camp everywhere, and most areas have specific rules you must adhere to when backcountry camping, such as how far you need to set up your tent from trails, campsites, and water sources and what sections are off-limits.
Two easy ways to discover whether backcountry camping is legal and to dredge up specific rules regarding the area are conversations with local rangers or a simple Internet search.
There are a tremendous amount of blogs out there suggesting specific backpacking routes and detailing the rules of different trails, regions, and parks. And park websites like the NPS and USFS are chock full of information on camping rules and regulations, even down to the nitty gritty details of campfire laws, fire bans, and current closures.
Also, this is also a good time to see if any permits are required to hike or camp in the area. Sometimes, these permits can be obtained in person at the time of your hike, but other times, advance online reservations are required.
Research the route thoroughly. Ensure you know where you’re going, where you’re camping, and where each of the water sources, if any, are located. Be aware of how long the trail is, how much elevation you’re going to be gaining or losing, what style the trail is (loop, out-and-back, or lollipop), and what the weather is going to be like.
When you’re researching your trip far in advance, you may not know the exact weather forecast, but it helps to pop on Google and type in “weather” and the destination you’re going to, followed by the month. This will provide you with a rough idea of what type of weather to expect, so you’ll know whether or not you’ll need additional layers, snowshoes, extra sun protection, special camping gear, etc.
When you get out on the trail, it’ll be helpful to have a map, compass, and GPS. I use the Gaia GPS app and carry a paper map. You can also carry an emergency beacon like the Garmin inReach Mini to communicate with loved ones via satellite and call for help should you need it.
Educate Yourself on LNT
All hikers, backpackers, campers, explorers, and casual walkers need to be educated on Leave No Trace before they head out. Read my guide on how to practice each of these principles every time you hike or camp!
The Seven Leave No Trace 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 Others
Tell Someone Your Plans
Whether you’re going out solo or trekking with a partner or group, always inform at least one friend or family member of your itinerary. Tell them where you’re going and how long you’ll be in the backcountry.
Pack Your Gear
While the amount of gear you’ll need (such as clothes, food, and water) will be dependent on how long you’ll be in the backcountry, the gear list I’ve written (find it a couple of sections down) is universal and comprehensive.
You may not need everything on this list, especially the items listed under “optional,” so tailor the gear list to your needs, wants, and specific trips. And if you’re going with another person or persons, you can share some of the items to lessen your pack load like a tent, bear canister, stove, toiletries, emergency beacon, etc.
No matter what you decide to throw in your pack, make sure to carry the 10 Essentials:
- First Aid
- Sun Protection
What Clothes to Wear Backpacking
On this list are the things that I’d recommend wearing on your backpacking trip. This list doesn’t include the layers that you’ll pack in your backpack or the extra layers that you may need to wear on your hike, depending on the weather. You’ll want to carry at least three layers in your backpack, but I’ll discuss that later in the blog!
Did You Know?
You can get sunburnt on a cloudy day, and if you’re at a high elevation, the UV rays intensify. Sunglasses, sun hats, and neck gaiters are useful for a variety of weather conditions: clouds, sun, wind, snow, rain, etc.
Clothes to Wear While Backpacking
- Hiking Top. Smartwool Merino Tee (men’s version)
- Hiking Pants, Leggings, or Shorts. REI Co-Op Savanna Trails Pants, North Face Leggings, or Patagonia Everyday Shorts
- Merino Wool Socks. Long Darn Tough wool socks for the winter. Short Darn Tough wool socks for the summer.
- Merino Wool Underwear. Icebreaker briefs.
- Hiking Boots / Trail Runners. Keen Terradora‘s are women’s waterproof boots ideal for every terrain and weather condition. Columbia makes great men’s shoes like the Newton Ridge Plus.
- Sunglasses. Can’t go wrong with a pair of Ray-Ban’s.
- Neck Gaiter. Icebreaker Flexi Chute Neck Gaiter.
- Sun Hat. Columbia Bora Bora Booney sun hat.
What to Pack For Your Backpacking Trip
It’s time to gear up! This list is extensive, and you obviously retain the freedom to decide if you want to carry each and every item on this list.
This is personally everything that I carry and would recommend for the highest quality trip possible, but ultimately, you will be the one to decide what you deem necessary or not.
Some things, especially items in the optional category, are more luxuries than necessities. Others, like the 10 Essentials, are mandatory for safety and survival. The only way to find out what you really need in the backcountry is by trial and error; I’m just giving you a good place to start! Things you might not otherwise think of.
No matter which items you pack in your backpack, make sure they are light and durable. Space and weight are both crucial parts of backpacking because space is limited and you don’t want to have a ton of weight on your back. Lightweight and durable gear comes with higher price tags but will last a long time. You will be grateful that you have light and durable gear when you’re hiking a trail with everything on your back and relying on the gear to keep you warm and dry at night.
Tailor this list to your trip and tweak it based on what climate you’ll be hiking in, how long you’ll be gone, what your budget is, etc.
- Backpack + Rain Cover
- Tent + Footprint
- Sleeping Pad
- Sleeping Bag
- Headlamp + Batteries
- Map, Compass + GPS
- Emergency Beacon
- First Aid Kit
- Repair Kits (for your tent, your sleeping pad, basically anything that can tear or puncture)
- Bandana + Cold Packs
- Phone + Camera
- ID, Cards + Cash
- Required Permits + Park Pass
- Portable Charger
Food + Water
- Meals + Snacks
- Water Bottles
- Water Filter
- Stove + Fuel
- Lighter + Matches
- Food Storage Bags
- Trash Bag
- Camp Kitchen (backpacking sink, soap, sponge)
- Toothbrush + Paste
- Body / Face Wipes
- Lip Balm
- Bug Spray
- Toilet Kit (trowel, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, resealable bag)
- Vitamins + Meds
Clothes to Pack
- Baselayer Top
- Baselayer Bottoms
- Mid Layer Fleece Top
- Mid Layer Fleece Pants
- Waterproof Wind / Rain Jacket
- Rain Pants
- Extra Pair of Socks
- Extra Pair of Underwear
- Trekking Poles
- Bear Spray + Canister
- Bug Head Net
- Solar Lantern
- Camp Sandals
- Small Microfiber Towel
- Camp Chairs
- Playing Cards
- E-reader / Small Book
- Solar Shower
- Scrubba + Clothesline
- Mini Broom + Dustpan
How to Select Your Gear (Plus Gear Recommendations)
Backpacks are very personal in terms of fit and function. Depending on how much gear you have, how much space you need, if you prefer ultralight or budget, how long you’re going to be backpacking, and what types of functions you like in your pack, you’ll need a different pack type and size. Some people prefer ultralight and frameless while I personally like a backpack with padded hip belts, a mesh frame, and multiple zippered compartments for organization.
In terms of size, I’d suggest at least a 45-50 liter for overnight backpacking trips. If you’re going to be gone longer, you’re going to backpack in the winter, or your gear is a bit bulkier, I’d consider at least a 70-liter. The Osprey Sirrus series is great. I have the 50-liter pack, but that one is discontinued, so I linked the 46L. I did also find this 56L Osprey Kyte that seems to be comparable albeit a little bigger (men’s version here). This Osprey Lumina pack (men’s version here) is 60L and is a bit more lightweight than the Sirrus. Hyperlight makes ultralight gear; here is the 55L pack.
Choosing a tent is quite difficult. This, along with sleeping bags and backpacks, are called “The Big Three” because they are usually the hardest to pick out, the most expensive, and the heaviest pieces of gear. If you can swing the price, I’d urge you to buy an ultralight tent off the bat. These are going to be significantly more expensive than the heavier options, but I promise you, your back will thank you. Shaving several pounds off your back will be a game-changer when you’re walking through the wilderness with an oversized pack.
The size of the tent you buy will depend on how many people you’re wanting to fit in it. If you like a bit more room, don’t want to be squished inside the tent, and want to keep some gear inside the tent with you, I’d suggest getting a “one-person size up” than you’re attempting to fit. For example, if it’s just you who’s going to be sleeping inside, I’d get the two-person. If you and your partner are going to be sleeping inside, I’d get the three-person. This will allow you to have a bit more room for yourselves and your gear. I like the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL series.
Read my guide about how to properly care for your tent, including how to protect, clean, store, and repair your precious home away from home!
There are sleeping pads that fold like an accordion and sleeping pads that are inflatable and fold down to the size of a can of Coke. There are pads that are an inch thick and some that are four inches thick. There are extra-long pads, mummy-shaped pads, and regular-length pads. Ask yourself how comfortable you want to be, how much weight you want to carry, and how much money you want to spend.
Sleeping bags are rated on temperature scales. If you’re primarily going to be hiking and camping in the summer, you will probably just need a 30 to 45-degree bag. Winter camping trips call for a 0-15-degree bag. There are different sizes, shapes, and warmth ratings so make sure you pick the one that works for you and your trip.
I don’t usually tent camp in less than 40-degree weather so I purchased the Big Agnes Lost Dog 45-degree bag; there is also a 15, 30, and 0-degree version of the bag.
Camp pillows are considered luxuries to many backpackers. Many ultralight backpackers opt to wad up their puffy jackets and lay their heads on them. But since backpacking pillows don’t weigh much, and they make a pretty big difference to me in terms of comfort, I always bring some form of a camp pillow while I’m in the backcountry.
As with most backpacking gear items, there are many different types of backpacking pillows. The Nemo Fillo is nice if you’re looking for something high-end; it’s inflatable, small, lightweight, easy to inflate, and contains a layer of thick comfortable foam. The Sea to Summit Aeros is a great budget option. The Therm-a-Rest Stuff Sack Pillow doubles as a stuff sack, so this is great if you’re into ultralight backpacking.
Headlamp and Lantern
One of the 10 Essentials is light. Since light is deemed a survival tool, it’s vital to have adequate sources of illumination. While certainly not necessary, you can carry a solar lantern along with your headlamps. I use headlamps for night/dusk/dawn hiking and around camp while the solar lantern gets placed inside my tent. My favorite solar lantern is the Luci Lux; I charge it on my hike and it’s ready to illuminate my tent when I turn it on at camp. Plus, it’s a great backup if my headlamp were to stop working on the trail.
You’ll want to choose a headlamp that has a red-light option and a variety of brightness levels. Using a lower setting saves battery life, brighter light can be used if you’re hiking in complete darkness or need to see longer ranges vertically and peripherally, and red light saves your night vision and prevents you from blinding your group.
The Petzl Actik Core Headlamp is a great lightweight option that has all of the features you’ll need in an illumination source. It’s perfect for all kinds of outdoor activities. The Black Diamond Cosmo is a bit more budget-friendly with relatively the same features as the Petzl.
While it’s not necessary, it’s certainly nice to have an emergency beacon for two reasons: one, in case you find yourself in an emergency situation and don’t have cell phone reception, and two, so you can communicate with loved ones with the use of satellites. Both the Garmin inReach Mini and the SPOT Gen4 are great emergency beacons. I favor the Garmin because of the two-way messaging feature and the ability to activate the device when I need it and suspend it when I don’t need it.
First Aid Kit
No matter how long I plan to be gone in the backcountry, I always carry a first aid kit with me. Factors like how long I’ll be on the trail, what the terrain will look like, what the weather will be, and what current medical concerns I may have for myself or my group will depend on what items and what quantities of those items go in my kit, but as a general rule of thumb, this is what I pack in my first aid kit on a backpacking trip:
- Gauze and dressing
- Medical tape
- Blister pads
- Tweezers and tick key
- Antiseptic wipes
- Sting relief
- Bug spray
- Cold packs
- An assortment of pills (ibuprofen, anti-diarrheal, allergy)
I wrote a whole guide on first aid basics for hikers and campers, which includes not only what to pack in your first aid kit, but how to recognize, prevent, and treat common trail injuries. Give it a read!
Food and Bear Storage
There’s no food prep easier than a dehydrated backpacking meal in the backcountry. All you do is boil some water and pour it into the bag and BAM! You have a hot, delicious meal. Some of my favorite dehydrated meals are Mountain House Chicken Fajita Bowl and Backpacker’s Pantry Lasagna. If you’re not super interested in these meals, it’s also super easy to pack non-refrigerated fruits and vegetables, trail mix, protein bars, mac and cheese, summer sausage, blocks of cheese, or pre-made, homemade DIY dehydrated meals. I go into more detail about what foods to eat (and how much to eat) on the trail in this blog post.
If you’re hiking in bear country or you don’t want little critters like raccoons and squirrels to ravage your food supply, put your food in a bear canister or bear bag. Bear canisters are bulkier but are less expensive and approved everywhere while bear bags are lighter but generally cost more and aren’t approved everywhere. Keep in mind that you’ll also have to store your trash, toiletries, and other scented items in the bear storage as well.
I have an entire blog post on how to hike and camp safely in bear country including exactly how to store your food, how to react to bear encounters and attacks, and how to set up your campsite properly in bear country.
Water Bottles and Filter
The CamelBak Eddy 1-liter bottles are my go-to in the backcountry, but the HydroFlask Trail bottle would be great if you want to keep water icy cold on those extra-hot days. I like the Stanely Camp Mug for hot beverages like tea and coffee.
Whether or not you think you’ll need more water than you can pack, I’d bring a water filter. The reason for doing this is just in case you find yourself out in the backcountry for longer than you planned, you’ll have a way to filter natural water sources. To filter water in the backcountry, you can bring a water filter or carry iodine tablets. Water filters are generally more effective and are definitely quicker, so I’d suggest buying either the Katadyn BeFree filter or the Sawyer Squeeze.
Stove and Cooking/Eating Gear
Stoves aren’t required by any means, but sometimes it’s nice to have a hot meal after hiking. Let’s face it: protein bars and trail mix don’t always cut it, so boiling up a pot of soup, a vat of pasta, or a skillet of stew are things to look forward to and savor once you’re settled into your backcountry campsite.
If you’re just looking for a portable, lightweight stove to boil water quickly for dehydrated meals and prepare instant coffee and tea for up to two people, I’d suggest the Jetboil Flash. The Jetboil MiniMo is great if you need to simmer foods or have a larger group to feed. Note that there are many different pieces of cookware and accessories that you can buy separately for the Jetboil stoves like the Summit Skillet to cook foods like eggs, bacon, and burgers or the Ceramic Cookpot to boil larger quantities of food or water. You’ll need the Pot Support to attach to your Jetboil before putting a cookpot or skillet on top!
The MSR PocketRocket Stove is a good ultralight option.
- For your baselayer top, Smartwool Classic Thermal Merino. (Men’s version)
- For your baselayer bottom, Smartwool Classic Thermal Merino. (men’s version)
- For your mid layer top, Patagonia Better Sweater (men’s version)
- For your mid layer bottom, Stoic Tech Fleece Leggings for women, Smartwool Merino Fleece Pant for men
- For your top outer layer, Columbia Arcadia Rain Jacket for women, Columbia Watertight Jacket for men
- For your bottom outer layer, North Face Antora Rain Pants or Stoic Insulated Snow Pants for women, Columbia rain pants or Stoic snow pants for men.
While trekking poles are certainly optional, I rely on them, especially in rugged terrain and especially when backpacking. They’re super helpful to distribute your weight so that your knees don’t take the brunt of the terrain. Your knees take a huge hit every time you step, and the strain enhances the more weight you have on your back. Trekking poles like the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork are built for rugged topography and are constructed to last. If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, I’d try the Kelty Upslope or Stoic Powerlock Cork poles.
Camp chairs are definitely optional and tend to be a topic of heated debate in the backpacking and thru-hiking community. While some may think camp chairs are a waste of space and weight, I personally am super grateful to have them when I’m out hiking and backpacking.
Having a place to sit that isn’t a log or the cold hard ground is a relief whether you’re at your campsite, needing a place to collapse after a long day, or on the trail, when you just need to rest your body for a few minutes while it recharges. There’s nothing wrong with sitting on a tree stump, the ground, or even your sleeping pad, but sometimes it’s nice to collapse into a chair with full back support. You’ll just have to give it a try to see what I mean.
Efficiently Pack Your Backpack
Once you’ve got your gear purchased and lined up in front of you, the item load can seem overwhelming. Doubts and questions will surely be reeling through your mind.
How will all of that gear possibly fit in the backpack? What if I put something I need at the bottom and I can’t reach it when I desperately need it quickly? What if I can’t get everything all back in once I’m packing up at camp? These are all common concerns, and I am going to do my best to address all of them by sharing with you how to pack your backpack.
Pack your sleeping bag first by stuffing it at the very bottom. Some backpacks even have a separate compartment at the bottom that perfectly fits the sleeping bag. Some people like to store their sleeping bag in a compression sack but I find that it’s easier to keep it loose and stuff it to the bottom so that it forms like a liquid at the base.
Next, put the heaviest things and items you won’t need until you get to camp above the sleeping bag. I slide my tent along the side of my pack right above my sleeping bag. Then I shove my bear canister right beside it (if I need it). This space is for things like your tent, bear canister, sleeping pad, pillow, stove, fuel, camp dishes, etc.
Finally, put things you might need to access at the very top of your pack and in the lid like your first aid kit, toilet kit, rain jacket, headlamp, etc. Slide things like a snack, a knife, and/or lip balm in the hip belt pockets. If you’re in bear country, strap a can of bear spray attached to a holster around your hip.
Don’t Forget to Pack a Post-Hike Kit!
Have a post-hike kit waiting for you when you get back to your vehicle. At the end of your backpacking trip, you’ll likely feel a lot of emotions: exhaustion, elation, gratefulness, etc. But three things are for certain: you will be wiped out, starving, and basically tearing off your shoes, heavy pack, and dirty clothes as soon as you reach your car.
Do yourself a favor and have a post-hike kit in your vehicle!
Post-Hike Kit Ideas
- A change of comfortable clothes such as socks, underwear, hoodie, and sweats.
- A cooler stocked with your favorite cold beverage and a snack or yummy meal.
- Compact toiletries bag with luxuries like deodorant, an electric toothbrush, face cleanser, and moisturizer.
Don’t Be Afraid
Sometimes fear is what stops a lot of people from taking the leap and heading out on a backcountry adventure. While it’s understandable to have these fears, I’m going to try my best to quell those fears so that you are able to make the jump and head out into the wilderness!
How to Pee & Poop in the Outdoors
I wrote an entire blog post on outdoor hygiene, including how to go to the bathroom outdoors. Other topics discussed in that blog post are how to brush your teeth in the backcountry, how to bathe and wash your clothes outdoors, and what hygiene products are essential for your trip and which can be left at home.
Here is a snippet from that blog post. Read the rest here!
Peeing Outdoors Basics
- Move to a spot that is at least 200 feet from trails, campsites, and water sources.
- Choose whether you want to squat or use a pee funnel.
- Choose your method of wiping.
- Pack out any wipes or toilet paper that you use. Never leave it outside, even in a hole.
- Follow Leave No Trace.
Pooping outdoors is a bit trickier than peeing. Not only because it’s physically more difficult but because rules about this action vary from place to place. It’s important to do your research on the place you’ll be hiking, camping, and/or backpacking because some parks declare that it’s okay to poop outdoors as long as you dig a cathole while others say that you must pack out all human waste. Also, it can sometimes be difficult to find soft ground to dig a hole, like in the desert, so you’re left with no choice but to pack it out.
If you’re in a place that doesn’t require human waste to be packed out, this is how to poop outdoors:
- Move to a place that is at least 200 feet away from trails, campsites, and water sources.
- Dig a hole with a trowel (or stick or rock that you might find) that is about 6-8 inches deep.
- Poop in the hole.
- Pack out your toilet paper in a plastic sealable bag.
- Fill the hole back in. Place a rock on the hole if possible so that animals don’t try to dig it up.
- Use hand sanitizer to clean your hands.
If you’re in a place that requires human waste to be packed out, this is how to poop outdoors:
- Go directly in a biodegradable poop bag.
- Pack it out.
- Use hand sanitizer to clean your hands.
How to Prepare For and React to Bears
I wrote an entire blog post on bear safety, including how to prepare for bears, how to hike in bear country, how to set up camp in bear country, how to store food properly in bear country, and how to react to encounters and attacks. I’d encourage you to give it a read but for now, here are some tips for hiking and camping in bear country that are directly pulled from that blog post:
- Research which species of bears are in the area you’ll be hiking and camping. Know how to act around their territory, react to their presence, and protect yourself against them.
- Hike in groups.
- Don’t be afraid to make some noise in bear country so that when you round a corner, you don’t startle a bear.
- Hike in the daylight hours. Bears are most active at night, especially at dawn and dusk.
- Avoid dense forests and trails riddled with tight switchbacks if you’re hiking near sunrise or sunset.
- Pay attention to your surroundings.
- Don’t listen to music in bear country.
- Carry bear spray on your hip if it’s allowed in the area where you’re camping and hiking.
- Don’t litter. Leaving food or wrappers on the ground not only leaves a trace but attracts bears.
- Properly store your food, trash, and scented items in a bear canister, bear bag, or bear locker.
- Make sure your bear canister or bear bag is 300 feet (100 yards) from your tent and your kitchen area. The three areas should form a triangle, each being 300 feet from the other. Your kitchen area and food storage should be downwind from your tent.
- Use unscented soap to wash dishes and clothes.
- Don’t wear clothes to bed that you wore while eating.
Backpacking is such a wild experience, one that I wish everyone to experience at least once in their lives! Those of you who are day-hiking pros and are nervous about taking the next step into backpacking are definitely cut out for a night in the wilderness.
Trust me, you’re going to get addicted to the smell of campfire smoke that will linger long after you’re home, the pleasant sounds of nature that will buzz and stir well into the night, the luxurious solitude you’ll experience in the middle of nowhere, and the display of twinkling stars that will light up the velvet sky above your tent.
So pick a trail, gather some gear, load up, keep your fears at bay, and head out.
Hopefully, this blog post gives you all the tools you need to get started, and if you ever have any questions or concerns about ANYTHING outdoors-related, comment on this post, reach out to me on socials, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you on the trails!