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10 Tips for Beginner Backpackers

I get a lot of email from experienced day hikers and car campers who want to try backpacking and are looking for help on how to plan their first overnight backpacking trip. Here’s the advice I give them.

Buy a local guidebook to plan your hike and a waterproof map that you can carry in the backcountry
Buy a local guidebook to plan your hike and a waterproof map that you can carry in the backcountry

1. Buy a Local Guidebook and a Waterproof Map

Buy a local guidebook to learn about different backpacking routes, trails, and campsites in the area you plan to backpack in. Chances are it will have some good suggestions for beginner backpacking trips for different ability levels in it already. A guidebook will also help you understand local weather patterns, what the terrain is like, what to expect in terms of wildlife and insect activity, and well as listing any passes or parking permits that you’ll need. While there’s a lot of information online these days, it’s not as well-organized or comprehensive as what you’ll find in a good guidebook.

Guidebooks are often sold together with a waterproof map set, so make sure you buy that too. They’re good for planning your trip and you’ll want to carry one on your backpacking trip since they’re one of the 10 essentials. But do yourself a favor: leave the heavy guidebook at home and just photocopy the pages you need for your trip to bring along.

100 Mile Wilderness, Maine Appalachian Trail
100 Mile Wilderness, Maine Appalachian Trail

2. Go on a One Night Trip instead of a Multi-day Hike

When you start backpacking, ramp up slowly by going on a bunch of one night trips, then two night trips, until you can go out for longer multi-day trips.  Your goal on these early trips is to figure out what you do and don’t know, not to suffer for it. I backpack a lot, but most of my trips are still only one or two nights in length because they’re much simpler to plan and orchestrate.

Hike a short distance so you have plenty of daylight left to set up camp and get organized before dark.
Hike a short distance so you have plenty of daylight left to set up camp and get organized before dark.

3. Hike a Short Distance

For your first few trips, don’t complicate things by doing a long hike before you get to your campsite for the night. Get an early start, but take your time. I’d recommend hiking 3-5 miles to a campsite on your first few trips so you’re not exhausted when you arrive and you have plenty of daylight left to get set up and make dinner before nightfall. These things can take a lot of time if you haven’t done them before and developed a routine. You don’t want to arrive at camp with huge blisters on your feet because you’re not used to carrying a pack. Plan a modest approach hike instead.

Camping at a site with a bear pole or a bear box eliminates the need for you to master hanging a bear bag, an arcane art at best, on your first backpacking trips
Camping at a site with a bear pole or a bear box eliminates the need for you to master hanging a bear bag, an arcane art at best, on your first backpacking trip

4. Camp at an Established Campsite

Camp at an established campsite that’s easy to find and has bear-proof food storage boxes or bear poles, so you don’t have to master hanging a food bag (if a bear canister is not required). Dirt campsites are better than campsites that require you to pitch a tent on wooden platforms, since they’re easier to stake out. You also want to be reasonably close to fresh water (within a quarter-mile) to make it easy to carry back to camp.

Camping near other people can alleviate your anxiety level in the backcountry
Camping near other people can alleviate your anxiety level in the backcountry

5. Camp Near Other People

Experienced backpackers tend to be very generous with newbies and will give you loads of free advice if you ask for assistance. We were all beginners once and other people showed us the ropes, so we’re happy to pass along the knowledge to newcomers. Camping around other people will also make you feel more comfortable in the backcountry (safety in numbers), so you’ll get a better night’s sleep. Most campsites will be occupied by other campers on weekends.
Mountain House: Dehydrated Food

6. Plan Simple Meals

Simple meals that just require boiling water are the best because they’re easy to prepare and easy to clean up. While you can simply rehydrate Mountain house style freeze-dried backpacking meals, one-pot meals such as ramen noodles or adding olive oil and salt to quick-cooking angel hair pasta are equally satisfying and generate less trash.

Practice pitching your tent before your trip to make sure you know how it works before you get to camp
Practice pitching your tent before your trip to make sure you know how it works before you get to camp

7. Practice Pitching Your Tent at Home before Your Trip

Practice pitching your tent at home, especially if you’re bringing a companion or spouse with you! Practicing ahead of time will keep the mood blissful instead of tense, and you’ll get settled in camp much faster, so you can start to kick back.

Postpone your trip if rain is forecast
Postpone your trip if rain is forecast

8. Postpone your Trip if it’s Going to Rain

Backpacking in the rain adds another level of complexity to a trip that is best avoided until you’re convinced that you enjoy backpacking. Pitching a tent in the rain and packing it up wet, cooking food in the rain, and drying your wet gear – these are more advanced backpacking skills and you’ll pick them up in due course. Check the forecast before you leave for your trip and if it looks like you’ll get rain, postpone your trip.

Leave your stuffed animals and bathrobe at home
Leave your stuffed animals and bathrobe at home

9. Minimize the Amount of Gear You Bring

While it’s ok to bring some comfort items along on your first trips, you can probably leave your stuffed animals and bathrobe at home. Seriously, bringing less gear will make it easier to pack and carry your backpack and keep it all organized in your tent. Leave the stuff you’re probably not going to use at home.

Familiarize yourself with the local backcountry regulations before you go
Familiarize yourself with the local backcountry regulations before you go

10. Look up Backcountry Regulations Before You Go

Read up on the backcountry regulations before you go one your trip so you have all the gear you need. Are bear canisters required? Do all tents have to be pitched on platforms? Do you need to filter your water? Do you have to pay a fee for using a tent site? Is there a privy at the tent site or will you need to dig a cat hole? Are campfires or open flames permitted? Are there restrictions on where you can camp? The purpose of these regulations is not to limit you, but to help preserve the backcountry so that others can experience its grandeur.

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12 comments

  1. Good list for newbies and experienced backpackers taking a newbie along on their first trip. I do the exact same things on the Intro to Backpacking trips I lead for the FTA. Typically we hike in 4-5 miles to a campsite I have scouted before where I know there is water and good tent sites. (Plus some good trees for m to hang the hammock) Stay one night and then hike out the next morning. It is enough time and distance so people get a good feel for being outdoors and to try their equipment but not so long that it becomes a death march or bad gear selection becomes an issue. Also, I like to have a bail out option near the campsite in case there are any problems.

  2. Friends who ask me about my adventures after reading my FB posts about my trips I give them the following advice. #1. Borrow or Rent all your initial equipment. #2. Do not over reach or over do it the first time out. In order words make it a “Fun Trip” and not an “ordeal”, those will come soon enough. #3. Find a place where you can hike in for about two hours max to set up camp. A number of National Forests have Trail Shelters or designated campsites that are less than 3 miles from the Trailheads or even closer in some Forests. Then thoroughly Research that site by any means, Maps, Aerial Photographs National Forest Information etc. etc. Once done, pick a date and check on the Weather expectations…#4. Bring Food that you enjoy at home #5. Read a least three books on Backpacking Techniques from three different Authors, but start with Colin Fletchers Classic, The Complete Walker. then two others.. My next suggestion is to read another Classic, “Backpacking, A Hedonists Guide” by Greenspan and Kahn. Finally a book of their own choosing…

  3. I think it’s nice to bring little surprise luxuries for first-time overnighters, anything from a flask with something tasty, to well-packed eggs for breakfast, to a soft stuffsack-type pillow as a gift. I’d also recommend a ‘put away the watch/phone’ rule, which helps people relax a little more.

  4. Well, last weekend I didn’t do #4 or #8. This wouldn’t have been so bad if I had done a bit better with #3. And there certainly were no #5s around.

  5. My daughter’s froggy pillow was a piece of essential, functional equipment – not a frivolous stuffed animal! (and we were car camping when you took that photo)

  6. My uncle (now age 71) always sneaked a full pack of sandwich cookies on our backpacking trips. Night two they would come out and be gone in minutes. Now that my brother and I are middle-aged (and our kids are teens), we sneak the cookies. It has become a fun tradition on 3-4 day hikes.

  7. If you have an inflatable pad, try to inflate it once before going on the trip, to see what degree of effort is required. I cheated and bought a “useless gadget”, a 3 oz battery operated pump that fits in your pocket. Attach, start, and in 3 minutes a big pad is full of air and not spit. Thermarest apparently bought the pump from the inventor, who sold it through Scouting sites.

  8. My #0: if you have a friend who is a backpacker, get them to hold your hand through the details of the first few trips. I don’t need to enumerate all the pluses of taking this approach.

  9. Timothy Dannenhoffer

    I am a 47 year old experienced backpacker that hasn’t been able to get out often enough due to lack of backpacking companions. I have allowed myself to get a little out of shape so it’s kind of as if I have been knocked down to beginner again! (I have the gear and knowledge and desire – my stamina and endurance may only allow me to backpack 5 to 10 miles depending on elevation gain / loss. Can anyone here recommend organizations where I can meet other backpackers? NOT hikers, backpackers! If I had the companions I’d love to get out at least once a month, many trips of 3 / 4 days….and perhaps annually a big week long trip in the backcountry of major national parks and wilderness areas. I live in downstate NY and the Adirondacks are where I usually, and love to, go.

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