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Backpacking for Beginners: Join a Club

This post is for people who are interested in overnight backpacking as an adventure sport for themselves or their families but are still in the beginner stages trying to figure out what gear to buy or where to go one their first trip.

Hiking on Vermonts Long Trail with the Appalachian Mountain Club
Hiking on Vermonts Long Trail with the Appalachian Mountain Club

If you’re at this stage, I have some basic advice that I give to everyone: join a backpacking club or a larger outdoor organization that offers regular day hiking and backpacking trips. For example, in the eastern US, the big clubs are the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and the Green Mountain Club (GMC). You can find other clubs in your area by checking out my long distance hiking trail page or by going to meetup.com and looking for day hiking or backpacking groups in your area.

Meetup.com is a social networking site that I use a lot to find rock climbing events in my area that offer free instruction or where more experienced climbers help more junior climbers learn the ropes (yuk!). There are literally dozens of backpacking, walking, and day hiking groups all around the country that you can hook up with through meetup.com and it’s likely that these enthusiasts can also point you in the direction of the established clubs in your area.

Established backpacking clubs usually offer formal instruction and a wide range of day hikes or backpacking trips for people with different skill levels and physical abilities. They will often let your borrow or rent gear, which can save you a lot of money in the early stages when you are still trying to decide what you gear needs and preferences are. One club I still hike a lot with is the New York-New Jersey Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club which in my opinion has the best backpacking schedule of any club on the east coast and the best trip leaders. Here’s a link to their fall schedule of trips to give you a taste of what a good club has to offer.

Ok, so you’ve joined a club or found a meetup group that hikes in your area. My next piece of advice is to do a lot of day hiking with the group and then by yourself. I mean a lot. Like try doing 25 day trips in a year and gradually build your mileage up to 10 miles a day. Plus the benefit of group hiking is that you can see what gear other people have and ask them about it.

Next, start doing those day hikes with a 15 lb pack that holds some of the things you need on day hikes, like a 3 liters of water, a water filter, clothing layers, food, etc. As you get more skills and experience, the gear you need or want will become more obvious and if you have to carry it on those day hikes, you’ll quickly see the motivation for going lightweight.

At this stage, the transition from day hiking to overnight trips will happen naturally as you get bored with day hiking and you meet more and more people who do overnight trips. You just need to remember that backpacking is an adventure sport with risks. That’s why I’d advise that you ease into the sport and learn the survival skills you need before you start backpacking on day one.

Although I do a lot of solo hiking these days, backpacking is a very social activity and there is a strong tradition in the community of mentoring beginners. It’s also a lot of fun to hike and backpack clubs members and you may form some lifetime friendships with the people you meet. I have and I hope you will too.

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  1. This posting reads like an advertisement for the types of trips done by the Boston Chapter of the Appalachian Mountian Club (AMC). I am currently leading backpacks and dayhikes along the Long Trail for the AMC. This weekend, about five of us will backpack roughly 24 miles, from Rt. 4 in Killington south to Rt. 140 near Wallingford. We will use three different types of stoves, two different water filters and sleep in a shelter or use a variety of tents, tarps or hammocks. We are all experienced, but we will have opportunities to learn.

    The distances covered in my Long Trail Series make the trips unsuitable for true beginners, but there are plenty of dayhikes and shorter backpacks offered by the AMC in the White Mountains. The AMC also offers classroom sessions and beginners trips as part of their Spring Hiking and Winter Hiking programs. The lecture portion of Winter program begins in November in Boston. The trips and programs are great ways to learn in a safe environment and to meet others with similar interests.

  2. Hi Philip,

    I like this post a lot and is very good advice. Not really a club person myself but can certainly see the advantage of joining a group and gaining experience from others.

    I got most of my early experience in the Scouts and it has been a great basis for not being worried about camping out in the "wild" and being confident with my own abilities. i.e. prepared to "have a go" or "take a risk" and try it out, rather than die wondering.


  3. thanks for the post. Seems like the article was written for me .I have day hiked for years but haven't gotten to the over night part yet. I have some interested friend we have are bases coverd with everything but the "survival skills". We both are in good shape, working out twice a week at a gym along with biking and running. He is a paramedic and I am an EMT so I not worried about injury its the knowing what to bring and going with some one experienced first .

    thanks again

  4. I learned a lot of my basic backpacking skills from more experienced friends and trip leads. I went on a lot trips over the years that were sponsored by the different clubs I belonged to and eventually built up the confidence to experiment on my own and hike solo. Like you, I still have things to try and learn, like winter backpacking and mountaineering, but I plan on taking courses with the Appalachian Mountain Club in those areas, and learning from trip leaders and my peers to come up those learning (and gear!) curves.

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