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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.