I never thought the idea of walking 10+ miles up mountains and through the woods would be my thing, but never say never.
My interest piqued when I started listening to podcasts about thru-hiking. I entertained the idea of a thru-hike but ultimately decided it wasn’t for me after my first few backpacking trips. Backpacking satiated my desire to under the stars, watch sunrise from the summits, and feel a little less connected to the world below.
And so much more.
Spoiler alert: after your first backpacking trip, I think you’ll be hooked. I know I was! Not only for the views but for pushing my physical and mental capacities to their limits.
My first trip was with my sister. We opted for a popular trail so that there’d be others on trail with us, the trail we chose was of moderate difficulty – nothing unattainable, and we kept the mileage low. We overpacked, we took wrong turns, we hung our food over a campsite – so many mistakes but I’ve learned so much since then. Which is why I wanted to create this beginners guide to backpacking.
In this beginners guide to backpacking I break down how to even start, choosing a trail, what to pack, how to pack your backpack, gear recommendations and so much more. I wanted to cover everything to give you the confidence to head out on your own adventure. Let’s get to it.
How do I start backpacking?
One of the questions I get asked the most is ‘how do I start backpacking?’ By reading this Beginners Guide to Backpacking, you’re taking a step in the right direction! I always say the first step to starting something new is research. Gather as much information, listen to podcasts and read blogs, be as prepared as possible, look to experts or people who have experience and go from there. Of course, it will be hard at first, it may even seem impossible; but I promise you once you start everything falls into place.
I know how overwhelming it can be when it comes to planning your first backpacking trip. I’ve been there. My biggest recommendation is not to overthink it! As overwhelming as it is, try to focus on what’s within your control such as choosing a trail, getting all your gear ready, and finding a hiking buddy.
Beginners Guide to Backpacking: How to Choose a Trail
Choosing the right trail for your first trip sounds harder than it is. My tips for choosing a trail are:
- Find a popular trail to ensure that you’ll see other hikers, especially important if you’re solo
- Choose a trail that will allow for the right amount of daily mileage and elevation gain/loss as a beginner
- Stick to a one or two night backpacking trip for your first, it gives you a comfortable amount of time to familiarize yourself with this whole new world without feeling overwhelmed
- Reach out to hikers you know that have backpacked in your area for tips or specific trail questions
- Look on AllTrails to help decide which trail is best for you. This tool is super helpful in determining mileage, gain/loss, and difficulty. You can also read others reviews, look at photos of the trail and download the trail offline with the Pro membership.
Beginners Guide to Backpacking: Tips for packing your backpack
I like to break packing my pack down into zones: bottom, center and top. In the bottom zone, or the bottom of my pack, I keep items that I will not need until I reach camp. This often includes my tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pillow and any other bulky items. The center zone is where I keep my heavier items, like my bear cannister, Jetboil and clothes bag. That way the center of your back is bearing most of the weight rather than all of the heavy weight being at the very bottom of my pack. I can also access these items more easily if they are at the center of my pack compared to the bottom. At the top of my pack I keep the bulkier essentials like my down jacket, rain jacket, water filter, toiletries or anything else I might need quick access to. One of my favorite features of my pack by Gregory (more on it below) is the top ‘brain’ pocket. This is where I keep all of my snacks for the day ahead because it allows for easy access!
You can also keep items on the outside of your pack for quick access or ease of packing. Some of the items people typically loop or strap on to the outside of their pack are:
- Sleeping bag or pad
- Puffy jacket
- Tent and/or tent poles
- Trekking poles
I recommend packing your pack and practicing putting it on and off at home, before you hit the trail that way you’re comfortable and you can pack more efficiently when breaking down camp.
The 10 Essentials
In your research you might have heard of the 10 essentials. They are all outlined in this blog post but by definition it’s become a ‘systems approach to emergency preparedness in the backcountry.’ It’s recommended that you have the 10 essentials with you at all times in the backcountry, even on day hikes. The items in each of the systems can be tailored to the adventure you’re setting out on! Here are the 10 systems, or 10 essentials:
- Navigation like a map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon or satellite messenger
- Headlamp and extra batteries or way to charge it
- Sun protection such as sunglasses, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen
- First aid including foot care and insect repellent (as needed)
- Knife and a gear repair kit
- Fire matches, lighter, and/or stove
- Shelter carried like a tent or bivvy
- Extra food beyond what you think you’ll consume
- Extra water and a water filter
- Extra clothes beyond what you think you’ll need
Below I break the 10 Essentials down and provide personal recommendations based on my backpacking experience!
Beginners Guide to Backpacking: Gear List
Now that we’ve covered how to choose a trail, let’s get to the next important piece: choosing gear. No beginners guide to backpacking would be complete without a gear list! It’s important to test all of your gear before heading into the backcountry! This means setting up your tent, blowing up your sleeping pad, using your Jetboil, testing out your SOS/navigation device, opening and closing your pocket knife, packing and unpacking your pack and anything else that may come with a learning curve since it will be your first time backpacking. Being as prepared as possible in the backcountry is of the highest importance! And I know, it may feel redundant to do all of this before heading out, I promise it is worth it!
Gear List at a Glance
- A well fitted backpack
- Broken in hiking boots
- Camp shoes
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Stove and fuel
- Hiking Poles
- Animal proof food storage
- Water bottle/water reservoir + electrolytes
- Water Filter & treatment supplies
- Clothes and layers
- Navigation + SOS Device + Chargers
- First aid kit
- Toiletries + Trash Disposal
- Sun + bug protection
- Post hike kit
Beginners Guide to Backpacking: Gear Breakdown and Recommendations
Below I breakdown the backpacking gear mentioned above and provide recommendations based on equipment I’ve used or has come highly recommended.
A well fitted backpack can make or break your experience on trail. I recommend going to REI to get fitted for a pack properly. My biggest piece of advice is to take the time to try on different brands, fits and sizes. Every pack will fit differently so you want to be sure you are choosing the best possible fit for your body.
In terms of pack features, I look for bags that offer some organization (pockets and loops), comfortable and padded hip straps, hip pockets, adjustable torso, a water reservoir pocket, optional day pack included in the pack, and a rain cover. My pack is the Gregory Maven 65L, it has all of those features and is very comfortable to wear on long days in the backcountry.
I’ve always went with a 50L-65L pack no matter how many days I’ll be in the backcountry for. This can change if you’re splitting the weight of some of the items with your hiking buddy like your tent and food. That said, I like to spend no more than 4 night/5 days in the backcountry and I find my Gregory Maven 65L to be the perfect size for a 4 night trip or even a one night trip! If you’d like something smaller and know you’ll only be doing overnights at a maximum, maybe go for a 35L-50L pack. Anything beyond 4 nights, upping your pack to a 75L is a good choice because you’ll likely be packing more clothes and food.
Some people prefer trail runners, I am not one of those people. I prefer hiking boots with plenty of ankle support. Finding the right hiking boot for you is just as important as finding the right pack for your body. I opt for boots that are waterproof, lightweight, with a bigger toe box, contragrip rubber outsole, and a larger heel to toe drop (as I lead with my heel when I walk).
The Danner Inquire Chukka
- Weight: 1 lb 11 oz
- Vibram Megagrip rubber outsole
- Open-cell OrthoLite® footbeds and Plyolite™ EVA midsoles offer cushioning and rebound
- Bigger toe box
The Salomon quest 4 GTX
- Weight: 1lb 4.8oz
- Contragrip rubber outsole
- Ortholite liner with EVA heel cup adds support and dry comfort
- Bigger toe box
- Rubber heel and toe box
But again, what works for me might not work for you! These two boots have received great reviews on gear sites and are ultimately why I chose them. They lived up to the hype for me and can last miles on miles in the backcountry all the while keeping my feet comfortable and dry.
I keep my sleep system as lightweight as possible (tent, sleeping pad, pillow and sleeping bag). I am no ultralight hiker but I do like having gear on the lighter side because ultimately it contributes to the overall weight of the rest of my pack.
My tent is the Microlight UL-2 Person Backpacking Tent by L.L. Bean. This has been a great introductory tent for backpacking. Here’s why I love it:
- Dual vestibules and doors
- Breathable no-see-um mesh tent body
- Ripstop Nylon full coverage fly
- Storage pockets inside for holding small essentials
- Dimensions: 7’6″ x 4’6″
- Comfortably fits two people and their packs
I backpack during the Summer and into Fall so I don’t need a very thick sleeping bag, I stick to the 20° degree range. The L.L.Bean Down Sleeping Bag with DownTek has worked great for me. Here are a few specs I love about it:
- Insulated with RDS-certified 650 fill DownTek.
- Lightweight 650-fill DownTek absorbs 30% water and dries 60% faster than untreated down.
- Exterior shell and interior lining made from silky, downproof ripstop nylon.
- Draft tube on zipper prevents cold air from seeping in.
- Water-repellent coating on outer shell.
- Baffling holds insulation in place, preventing shifting, clumping and cold spots.
- Hood provides warmth, range of motion and adjustability.
Having a sleeping pad and pillow is a non-negotiable for me! I can tell you, from experience, that sleeping on the solid ground is no good, especially when backpacking. My sleeping pad and pillow are by Sea To Summit. Both considered ultralight! Here’s the breakdown:
- Insulated sleeping pad is lightweight and comfortable for your adventures
- Nylon construction is soft to the touch yet durable for years of rugged use
- Three-season performance is intended for use from early spring to late fall
- Included Airstream pump ensures convenient inflation when setting up camp
- Two-inch thickness provides excellent cushioning on uneven campgrounds
- Exkin insulation supplies an additional layer of warmth for shoulder-season
- Included stuff sack and repair kit add convenience for regular use
- Synthetic fill and wicks moisture
- Soft and durable
- Curved and cradles your head
- Easy to inflate and deflate
Your cook system can be as elaborate or as simple as you want it to be. For me, I keep it simple. To keep my pack weight low, I opt for dehydrated meals which only need boiling water to cook! And because I only need to boil water for my meals (and coffee!), I use the Jetboil MiniMo Stove. It comes with a pot for boiling water, separate burner for cooking, ignitor and only weighs 14oz. The fuel is sold separately.
For my utensils and bowls, I use the Sea to Summit Delta Camp set. It comes with a plate, bowl, mug and 3-piece cutlery set. Depending on the length of the trip and what I have planned to eat I’ll either bring all of it or leave some items behind. Typically, I bring the bowl and cutlery set. And more often than not, you’ll find me eating right out of the dehydrated meal bag for dinner. So, no bowl necessary! In addition to the Delta set, I have the Summit X-Seal & Go Bowl. It comes with a cover which is great for those times I can’t finish a full meal in one setting. For coffee in the morning I use my Stanley Titanium Camp Mug, keeps my coffee warm for up to 2 hours!
Food + Coffee
My favorite brand for dehydrated meals is a Maine based company, Good to Go. I think they’re the most delicious backcountry meals on the market! They use clean ingredients, offer vegan options, are all gluten free, and are packed with flavor.
In addition to dehydrated meals, I am a big snacker on trail! And I learned the hard way that most meal replacement bars or ‘protein’ bars are loaded with sugar. This is good for a quick blood sugar fix but not for sustaining long term energy. Some of my favorite trail snacks are peanut butter and honey on wraps (they pack well), EPIC bars, RX Bars, nuts and seeds, oatmeal, turkey pepperoni, dried mango, apples, and ProBar Energy Chews.
My go to coffee situation on trail are the Kuju Coffee PourOver packets. It’s truly the best tasting coffee I’ve ever had in the backcountry and I pair it with the Vital Proteins Collagen Creamer. It’s almost like my at home cup of joe, except I’m someplace way more epic!
Depending on where you are backpacking, your food storage may differ but regardless, it’s not something you should take lightly. From mice to bears, having an animal get into your food is perhaps one of the worst-case scenarios on trail. When I’m backpacking in bear country, I store all food and scented items in a BearVault Food container. There are a couple of different sizes, the BV500 is great for longer trips in the backcountry (2+ nights with 2 people) and the BV450 is great for shorter trips (overnights or 2-3 nights in the backcountry for one person).
When bears are less of concern, but pesky rodents are a-plenty I use an aluminum rat sack, an odor proof bag and the hanging method. In the off chance that there is a hole in the odor proof bag, the aluminum rat sack is an added barrier as mice and other small rodents can’t chew through it. So, they might smell it but they can’t actually get to it through the aluminum.
Here is great resource by REI about properly storing food in the backcountry, from bear cans to the hanging method.
For those early starts before the sun rises to late night bathroom breaks and everything in between I use the Petzl Actik Core Headlamp. I love this headlamp because the battery is rechargeable, the head strap is adjustable, and you can easily change the beam range.
There are many opinions swirling in the hiking community when it comes to hiking poles. However, for me, they are essential. Unless the hike is under three miles. For me, they help with balance and take some pressure off of my knees on the way down. I use the Hikelite’s by L.L. Bean. These hiking poles are lightweight, adjustable and are antishock which helps absorb some of the impact and bumps!
Water bottle/water reservoir + electrolytes
Hydration will contribute greatly to the success of your backpacking trip! I use this water reservoir by Osprey. I really like the way the straw securely attaches to the reservoir and the way the bladder closes (from the top). I’ve never had this leak in my pack – on day hikes and 3-night backpacking trips!
In addition to my reservoir, I always have a water bottle with me that carries electrolytes! I have a couple of go to’s when it comes to water bottles! I love this Stanley tumbler. It has a straw (easy for a quick sip), has a handle, comes in so many fun colorways and keeps my drinks icy cold all day long. My second favorite is the Classic Easy Clean Water Bottle. Its hinged cap ensures I’ll never lose it (I’ve watched plenty of my water bottle caps roll off summits) and it’s leak proof! And sometimes just your standard Nalgene!
I swear by the Katadyn Gravity BeFree Water Filter system. It is fast, efficient and removes 99.99% of protozoa and 99.9999% of bacteria to EPA standards. The system easily and quickly filters water into your water reservoir. What’s great about gravity filters is that they can be hung on a tree, with your water reservoir below and freely filters water, hands-free! This lets you tend to other things like snacking, setting up camp or cooking dinner. Also included is a carry bag and separate bag for the outlet hose to keep it clean and avoid cross-contamination. Always, always, ALWAYS keep your unfiltered water reservoir and the reservoir you drink from separate!
Here is a great resource on how to properly filter water.
Clothes, Layers and Camp Sandals
I am the type of backpacker that loves a fresh set of clothes every day and every night and I typically pack it all in a lightweight Sea to Summit Dry Sack. I like to keep my clothes in a dry sack for organization and to (obviously) keep them dry in the off chance my reservoir leaks! Here’s a quick breakdown of what I pack for a backpacking trip. Of course, this varies depending on the weather and seasonality:
I like to hike in shorts and I find I sweat a lot less when I do so! Which means I can wear them again them if I need to. Both the Trekkie and Skyline shorts are super comfy, flattering and functional. Occasionally I’ll hike in pants or leggings. The Savanna Trails Pants are versatile and can double as my rain pants and the Chockstone tights are great for chillier days in the backcountry. I always opt for bottoms with pockets to help keep my essentials organized.
I am all about comfort, functionality and simplicity when it comes to my hiking tops. The Aurora Rib Crop has just the right amount of compression and stays in place. It doesn’t have a built in bra but I don’t need to wear a bra with it, because of the compression. I also love the thicker straps on the shoulders because it helps add a little extra cushion when wearing my pack, helping to cut back on chafing. Plus, it keeps everything in place and is super comfortable. The Strappy Back Tank is another tank with compression that I wear while backpacking. Smartwool is a go to brand, the functionality of the fabrics and ability to control moisture are unparalleled. On cooler day’s I’ll opt for the t-shirt or long sleeve linked below.
I keep it simple and lightweight! After I give myself a lil baby wipe bath I change into my sleep clothes which are typically leggings and my boyfriends oversized tee! If I’m chilly I’ll throw on the fleece listed below too.
Rain or shine, I want to be prepared and the weather in the mountains is unpredictable.
No matter the forecast, these are always in my pack!
- Patagonia Fleece Pullover
- Patagonia Puffy or L.L. Bean Ultralight Down Hooded Jacket
- Trail Model Rain Jacket
I overpack, always, on undergarments! Like hygiene, it’s one of my non-negotiables. So, I’ll pack two pairs of underwear per day (hike underwear and sleep underwear), a pair of socks per day and depending on the tops I am wearing a sports bra per day.
That said, if I know I’ll wear one of the tanks listed above I’ll bring less sports bras because I don’t need to wear one with those tanks. I’ve found the socks linked below by Darn Tough work best for me in terms of moisture wicking, cushion and blister mitigation. They fit my feet perfectly and there’s just the right amount of cushion. Moisture wicking socks are key when it comes to preventing blisters! These ExOfficio Underwear are lightweight, quick dry (easy to wash in streams), breathable, and odor resistant. And this sports bra is my go-to because its seamless! Sometimes sports bras have thicker seams which are super uncomfortable for me. Again, there will be a lot of trial and error but ultimately you will figure out what works best for you!
Navigation and SOS Device
It’s important to know where you’re going, and how to return to the trailhead safely! I typically use AllTrails to navigate the trail. With the Pro subscription you can save maps offline to easily navigate when you don’t have service. I also love the app Gaia for wayfinding. On that same note, packing a battery charger for your phone is a must because these apps totally drain your battery. I always recommend a paper map of the trail and a compass.
The Garmin inReach Mini is my go to satellite communication device. Its palm sized, but don’t let that fool you, when you don’t have cell service this communicator is your lifeline. You’ll need a subscription to their satellite service (plans start at $30/month) in order to use the device but you can cancel whenever you’re not using it. You can send messages to preloaded contacts as well as send out a distress signal. Being able to send messages when I get into camp puts me and my loved ones at ease because they know I’m safe and exactly where I am.
First aid kit
This is not your mother’s first aid kit. For me, this is what works. It might vary depending on the hike, type of terrain, distance, and simply what makes you feel most at ease. In my first aid kit I carry a pocket knife, hand sanitizer, bandaids, duct tape (for patching tears), leukotape and moleskine for blisters, antiseptic cream, Ibuprofen and Diamox if I am at elevation. I keep it pretty simple and this is within my comfort zone. That said, know your limits and know what you need to feel safe and secure on trail.
Waste and Trash Disposal in the Backcountry
Here is how to dispose of waste properly in the backcountry. It will differ based on your location so be sure to look for signs at the trailhead and research ahead of time! To cut back on toilet paper waste, I bring the antimicrobial Kula Cloth with me. This is a reusable cloth meant to be used instead of toilet paper when wiping after you pee (only used for pee!).
I like to have a bag designated for toilet paper and a bag for food waste- just to keep things separate. As always, pack out what you pack in!
Toiletries and Personal Hygiene
Personal hygiene a big one for me. For some, they’re able to leave all the comforts of cleanliness behind and embrace the stink on trail. But for me, not so much. In my pack, I always have facewipes and feminine wipes to freshen up, hand sanitizer, a hair brush, deodorant, toothbrush/toothpaste, contact solution and case, biodegradable soap and a small tube of unscented lotion. Unpopular opinion but I think this is all necessary, at least for me! Having all of this with me makes me feel like I have a little bit of the comforts of home on trail.
Sun + Bug Protection
Here in Colorado, we don’t have to worry much about bugs but more so the sun. Regardless, growing up and hiking in Maine taught me to ALWAYS have bug protection – no matter what. I like to keep the products I use as close to natural as possible, without sacrificing efficacy. I use Badger’s anti-bug spray – and yes it actually works. For sun protection, I use Badger’s SPF Lip Balm, 30 SPF (yep also Badger), and Biossance Squalane + Zinc Mineral Sunscreen for my face.
Post Hike Kit
I keep this in my car and its usually a spare set of baby wipes, pants, top, undergarments and my Birkenstocks! I also keep extra water and snacks, snacks that I didn’t have on trail to be exact. Because there is nothing worse than coming back to your car, ravenous and having to eat the same thing you’ve eaten for the last few days!
Beginners Guide to Backpacking: Final Thoughts
As you begin your backpacking journey, remember to have patience with yourself and your body! This experience can be so rewarding but so challenging at the same time. It’s tough mentally and physically but the reward is well worth it. Once you get into a groove, feel your pack, understand how all of your gear works – you’ll get more comfortable.
When I think back to my first backpacking trip, I remember turning to my sister after the first incline and saying, “I don’t think I can do this.” It was her first time backpacking too. We kept going, took it slow, had patience with ourselves and each other until we finally reached camp. It’s the constant reminder of ‘one foot after another’ and the ‘I can do anything for X number of miles’ mentality that keeps me going.
I hope this beginners guide to backpacking was helpful, eased a few of your reservations and made you feel empowered and ready to take on backpacking!
Finally, please remember to follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principles. These 7 principles provide the framework for how we can ethically recreate outdoors. Whether it’s in the park, on a trail or just in our neighborhood. These 7 principles are foundational for the future of recreating.