Photo: Bkrzyzanek/Shutterstock

How to Get Started Backpacking

Hiking Camping
by David DeFranza Jun 11, 2009
Stepping onto a trail with everything you need provides a unique kind of freedom: the ability to escape the crowds and explore the backcountry on your own terms. Here are the basics to get started today.
What You Need

Depending on where you will be traveling, whether or not you need to pack for winter, and your level of experience, your pack on a multi-day trip can be a hulking behemoth or a featherweight sack barely heavier than your day pack. Regardless of your destination or the season, however, one rule governs the packing for every backpacking trip: Light is right.

You will be carrying that bag for hours everyday, while negotiating difficult terrain. It is essential that you bring only what you absolutely need and avoid everything else.

That said, there are three main areas to consider when compiling gear for a backpacking trip:

Food: Hiking with a heavy pack burns a lot of energy and you will need lots of food to replace those calories. Most backpackers try to balance heavier foods with lighter quick-cooking meals. This is an important consideration because you will also be carrying all the fuel needed to prepare each meal. Cheese, bread, sausages, pasta, and instant dinners and sides are the most commonly carried foods.

Another important consideration when selecting and packing food is its packaging. Cans and jars are heavy and leave you with large containers that must be carried out. Most foods come in extra paper and plastic wrapping that also must be packed out. Instead of filling your pack with boxes, repackage your food in single plastic bags. Most people cut the instructions off the original package and place them in the new bag, just in case.

Shelter: While camping under the stars is great in mild weather, you need some protection from wind, rain, and insects. Many ultra-light backpackers favor tarps but usually you will want a free-standing tent with mosquito netting and a separate rain fly.

Clothing: Generally, the thing that separates the packs of new backpackers from experienced ones is how many clothes they contain. Experienced backpackers know that you do not need much clothing on the trail. A single pair of comfortable shorts with a built-in liner eliminates the need to carry underwear. Regularly rotating between two pairs of socks, and rinsing one pair before bed, means that you only need a single extra pair. Accepting that you will get dirty and smelly means you only need a single tank-top or t-shirt.

The clothes you do need include: an insulating layer (either a light fleece or light wool sweater in summer) and a rain shell that is breathable enough to hike in. It doesn’t seem like much and that’s the entire point.

Essential Skills

Before you begin backpacking, it is important to practice the skills required of both hiking and camping. Some of the most important ones include:

The Bear Necessities: Bears love to eat camper’s food, especially when it’s easy to find in the roadside parking lots and campgrounds of a busy national park. When you venture into the backcountry, however, it is even more important to protect yourself, your food, and the wellbeing of bears and other animals by hanging anything that smells (this includes toothpaste, deodorant, and feminine products) in a bear bag.

To make a bear bag, place all your smellables in a stuff sack or two, tie it to a rope that is strung between two branches 10 feet from the tree trunk and at least 15 feet off the ground. Obviously, this is easier said than done. Practice setting up a bear bag at home before you leave for your first trip.

You are Here?: Even if you plan to stay on well-established trails, some basic map-reading and orienteering skills are necessary. At the very least you should be able to orient a map to a compass bearing and read a topographic map. Not only will this help estimate your general location if you get turned around or take the wrong trail, it will also allow you to identify interesting landmarks along the way.

The motto of every backpacker: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.

Playing Doctor: Knowledge of some basic first aid, like cleaning and dressing a wound, is very important when venturing into the backcountry. More important, however, is knowing how to prevent and treat blisters, hypothermia, heat stroke, and dehydration. These maladies are much more common on trail than the fractured femur that requires a traction splint to be made from a ski pole.

Take Only Pictures: Along with “light is right,” the motto of every backpacker is “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” This is an easy way of invoking the core principals of Leave No Trace. The ideas are simple, but practicing them with diligence is vitally important.

Where to Go:

Once you have the gear and the skills you need to start backpacking, it’s time to hit the trail. But where should you go?

National Parks: In the United States, backpacking is an exceptional way to experience national parks. While the roadside campgrounds are crowded and cost money, the backcountry sites, some only a mile or two down the trail, are free and often empty even at the peak of the summer. Once you get a day or two from the road, it is like you have entered an entirely different place: one marked by solitude, wildness, and pristine natural beauty.

The Appalachian Trail: On the East Coast, the Appalachian Trail offers a 2,175 mile venue for backpacking. A complete “thru-hike” is the dream of many experienced backpackers, but hiking even a small section of the trail over a weekend is a great way to introduce yourself to the pursuit.

International Trekking: Almost every country, from Nepal to Papua New Guinea, Borneo to Peru, Laos to Bhutan, and many more, offers an opportunity for some truly spectacular trekking.

Backpacking gives the hiker a new feeling of independence, self sufficiency, and responsibility. It also provides an opportunity to escape the modern world and enter one in which nature still rules. As John Muir said,

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.

Community Connection


We’re running a mini-contest here at Sports! Give us 2 or 3 paragraphs on your first backpacking trip. Where did you go? When? What happened? What did you pack that you never used? What did you find you needed but didn’t have? What happened along the way?

Just add your story to the comments below. We’ll choose our favorite–and the winner will receive a copy of Alexandre and Sonia Poussin’s books Africa Trek Vol 1. from Cape to Kili and Vol 2. from Kili to the Sea of Galilea.

Alexandre and Sonia Poussin walked the length of Africa entirely on foot, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sea of Galilee, over three years, eleven countries, and staying with 1,200 families, without sponsors, or a support team.

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