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How to Get Started in Backpacking

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Thinking about getting into backpacking, but not sure where to begin? We've been there. There are so many things to consider: Where will you go? Where do you get gear from? How do you prepare? The list goes on and on. 

Getting started in backpacking can feel overwhelming with all of the logistics that go into. In today's article, we hope to help you feel more confident in your future backcountry endeavors by taking some guesswork out of the questions above and set you in the right direction for planning your very first backpacking hike!

Choosing a Location

Finding the perfect trail for your first backpacking trip is one of the most important things to consider in the planning stages and affects other aspects of your prepping, such as what gear you'll need and how much you should prepare physically ahead of time.

Ideally, it's best to choose a hike that is relatively close to home. Consider this a “safety net”, if you will, in case anything goes wrong, you find yourself not enjoying the backpacking experience as much as you expected, etc. It will save you some trouble and disappointment only having to drive an hour or two home as opposed to flying halfway across the country. You might also consider doing a trail you have done on a day hike so you're already familiar with the terrain and route.

Speaking of running into trouble, consider a trail that either isn't too remote or sees a fair amount of foot traffic. Say you're having trouble setting your tent up. Most hikers and backpackers will be happy to lend a hand.

Two other important aspects to consider are trail length and plotting your route. In many wilderness areas, you will probably end up connecting two or more trails for your hike. It's imperative to have a good map of where you'll be hiking, whether it be one you downloaded to your phone from the internet, finding it on a GPS device, or even a good old-fashioned waterproof paper map. Caltopo is a great website for plotting hikes, calculating trail lengths, and more. Don't get overzealous when figuring out your route. If you're used to day-hiking 12 miles, don't go too much over that. Wearing a loaded pack makes a lot more difference than you might think!

So, where can you find backpacking-friendly trails? There are several good places to start your search online. State and national forests usually have plenty of backcountry areas. You can also try doing a Google search for “backpacking trails in YOUR STATE”. AllTrails is a great place to look too, though some trails that may be acceptable for backpacking may not be designated as such and vice versa, so you'll still have to do some further research. Another invaluable resource is online hiking groups. Facebook has a number of them by state or even region. You can ask hikers who have “been there, done that” about trail conditions, lengths, and general backpacking questions.

Where to Get Gear

Having the appropriate gear can make or break a trip. What you will need partly depends on where you will be hiking and the length of your trip, but, in general, you will need the same basic gear for any of your backpacking adventures, such as a tent, appropriately rated sleeping bag, and food. Check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List for a printable checklist of all the items you will need.

As far as acquiring said gear, you have several options. Of course, you can always buy all of your gear outright. There are tons of outdoor retailers nowadays. Although it's convenient to shop online, some things are better to try out in person at a physical store, such as backpacks. If you don't want to spend an arm and a leg on gear right off the bat, there are plenty of inexpensive options out there. Just remember, when it comes to some things, you get what you pay for. Regardless, be sure to do some research and read reviews before purchasing items.

Another option is to borrow gear. Even if you can't acquire everything you need for your trip, it will still save you money. Plus, you'll get to try out items before you buy them. Ask your backpacking friends if you can borrow some of their items or even ask on a local online group to see if anyone is willing to share. 

You can also rent backpacking gear now. Many websites, and even the popular outdoor gear retailer REI, offer rental equipment. You can choose from a package of camping goodies or piece together your own set. Some even offer a rent-to-own option. Search “backpacking gear rental” or check out this list of rental companies on ReserveAmerica.

Preparing Physically

Chances are if you're reading this, you probably already do some regular hiking, but are ready to dive into some overnight trips. Great! You've already given yourself a good headstart on preparing physically for your backpacking trip. Depending on the length of the trip you have planned, you may want to start hiking more often if you're able and/or extend your hikes.

If you're not accustomed to hiking at all or very often, consider adding some day hikes to your everyday routine when possible. Even physically fit individuals can have a hard time out on the trail. It's a big change from running on a treadmill to walking with a 20+ pound bag!

Whether you're accustomed to hiking or not, it's also a good idea to practice with a loaded pack on your day hikes. Not only will you get used to the pack and make any necessary adjustments, but you will gain stamina and endurance for your extended trip.

Miscellaneous Tips

Other than the basics above, here are some other things to consider when preparing for your first backpacking trip.

  • Learn how to pack your bag correctly. This can make all the difference in your level of comfort. In a nutshell, pack your heaviest items close to your back, lighter items away from your back, and most often used items near the top. This Andrew Skurka video shows you step-by-step how to optimally pack your backpack. Be sure to practice this at home as you will have to re-pack out on the trail.
  • Practice setting up/using your gear. It would be frustrating, to say the least, to get to your campsite for the night and have trouble setting up your tent correctly or not know how to use your camp stove.
  • Practice using the restroom outdoors. This especially goes for the women out there. It's not uncommon to be “shy” when it comes to doing this outdoors at first. It's also a good idea to learn how to properly take care of your waste on the trail.
  • Practice making a fire. Fallen limbs can be easy enough to find and stack in the woods, but it can sometimes be tricky getting it to ignite. Plus, what if your tinder is damp? Be sure to look up different tricks for starting a fire in all conditions and practice them at home, if possible, ahead of time.
  • Tell a friend or family member where you are going. Whether it is your first time or twenty-first time, always tell someone trusted where you will be hiking and when you expect to return.
  • Travel with a friend. If you're not feeling comfortable about backpacking by yourself for the first time, see if a friend or family member would like to join you. Barring that, you can often find “trail buddies” in local hiking groups or even group backpacking trips. 
Although not exhaustive by any means, we hope this article has answered most of your big questions surrounding backpacking for the first time. Be sure to browse through our other blog articles as well. There are several on more specific subjects, such as hiking in bear country, trail etiquette, what to wear, and more.
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