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Backpacking Beginners

Backpacking For Beginners: Hiker → Backpacker

In This Guide
  • Adopt the Right Mindset
  • Only Bring What You Need
  • Easy Ways to Practice and Prepare
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Backpacking for beginners doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it is. Unfortunately, the massive amount of information online, coupled with pundits’ strong opinions, can be overwhelming for many day hikers looking to make the switch. The good news is that backpacking is much simpler than you probably think, and in this guide, I’ll give you some simple steps to make your first backpacking trip easy.

Backpacking is Similar to Hiking

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Can you already hike with a backpack? If so, making the transition to multi-day backpacking is easy.

If you’ve already gone hiking and feel comfortable on the trail, you’re more than halfway there. If not, I’d recommend starting hiking first and learning the basicsBackpacking is simply hiking with some overnight stops. Don’t make it any more complicated than that.

Here’s what we’re going to do to make the transition from a hiker to a backpacker.

  1. Understand the minimum backpacking gear we need to stay overnight comfortably and learn how to use it.
  2. Learn how to find a good place to set up camp.
  3. Know what to expect overnight.
  4. Make an easy practice trip before your big backpacking trip.

Minimum Gear For a Comfortable Overnight

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Here’s the extra gear I carry for almost all of my backpacking trips. I use a larger backpack and carry the essentials to stay comfortable.

If you do some research on backpacking for beginners, you’ll invariably find many YouTube videos with clickbait titles like “the ONE piece of gear you MUST have” and similar. But it’s not like that; it’s all pretty common sense. Here’s what you need.

Compared to your normal hiking gear, you’re just adding a shelter, sleep system, and stove. So it’s not too complicated. Now, you can bring other things to make life comfortable. Some people carry a chair (way to heavy for me) or a sit pad, camp wear, cooking gear, the list goes on and on. But the important point to remember is the lighter your pack is, the more pleasant the backpacking trip will be. And with that in mind, there are lots of ultralight backpackers who will tell you to ditch the tent, pillow, etc. What I have here is what I think the minimum gear is to start comfortably. Do a trip with this set of gear, find out what you like, don’t like, or are missing, and then adjust your kit from there.

And if you don’t have backpacking gear and are on the fence about whether backpacking is for you or not, you can rent gear at REI or other outfitters. Otherwise, I have gear recommendations on my (always updated) gear page. I’ve chosen gear that is a good balance between light weight, durability, affordability, and ease of use.

Shelter

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Your shelter is your sanctuary. It not only protects you from insects and other critters, but it gives you mental space to feel cozy and safe in an otherwise foreign environment.

As you would imagine, there are a lot of tent options. I’d recommend a free-standing tent. Free-standing means that the tent will stand using poles that come with it. You don’t need to tie any special lines, learn any knots, or do anything complicated. There are three components to a free-standing tent.

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Most free-standing backpacking tents will have an inner-tent, or tent-body. Find a flat and dry piece of ground, and lay the inner-tent out. The inner-tent has floor to protect you from the ground, and a mesh upper to allow for ventilation.
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A free-standing tent relies on poles like this that collapse for storage, but then snap together into a frame. The poles mean that the tent can stand on its own wherever you set it up.
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The poles snap into attachment points along the tent material. A good tent like this one will have color-coded poles and attachments points to make it easy.
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Once you’ve snapped all of the attachment points to the poles, the inner tent stands on its own and is ready to use.
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You can then add the outer tent, called a fly sheet, to the outside of the free-standing tent structure. The fly sheet adds rain protection and privacy. It will usually attach to the inner tent with a series of snaps.
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The fly sheet is held taught by a series o guy lines and stakes that you push into the ground. This keeps it from flapping around in the wind. You can also use heavy rocks to give the stakes more support.
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Use the vestibule in the tent to store your backpack. You can keep most items inside the tent with you.
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Ideally you want to set your tent up in a spot that’s sheltered from the wind. Look out for dead trees and branches, which you want to steer clear of because they can be deadly if they fall.

Do I need a tent footprint? Tent footprints provide a layer of protection between the ground and your tent. If you know that you are going to be camping on rough ground, they can help prolong the life of your tent. But if this is your first time, you can usually give it a skip.

Lastly, I’d also recommend getting a 2 person tent for yourself (as 1 person). It will give you more room to relax, only takes up a small amount of space, and generally only weighs a few ounces more than a 1 person tent.

Sleep System

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Here’s what most people need for a good night’s sleep: a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and inflatable pillow.

If you get a good night of sleep, you will feel better on the trail. It’s an area that I don’t recommend skimping on when you start out. Hike, eat, sleep well, repeat. A good night of sleep can not only improve your mood, but it can also mean the difference between good and bad decisions in the backcountry.

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A sleeping pad might seem unnecessary, but it does wonders.

In my younger days I’d tough it out without a sleeping pad, but today, I wouldn’t camp without it. First, it will protect you from bumps, rocks, and sticks on the ground. It will also keep you warm. Look for a high r-value, which is the amount of heat it will reflect back to your body. And then the obvious thing, which is that it gives you a soft place to lay.

I recommend starting with an inflatable sleeping pad that you can roll up and stick into your backpack. If you are a beginner it’s easier to pack and manage than a hard sleeping pad, which folds and gets lashed to the outside of your pack.

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Today you can choose between a quilt (seen here) or a sleeping bag. Also note my big green inflatable pillow, which is worth the few extra ounces to me.

A sleeping bag will give you good overall coverage, but if you roll around when you sleep, a quilt, which works like a blanket, is easier to sleep naturally with. If you use a quilt, make sure you have a good sleeping pad with a high r-value.

You’ll notice that sleeping bags and quilts have a temperature rating. Take these as a general guideline. I prefer to always use a sleeping pad with a high r-value (warmer) and then choose a quilt or bag for the lowest temperature that I’m going to be in. I’d rather be warm and simply adjust the bag or quilt if I get too hot. Otherwise you’ll be too cold, and that’s a tougher problem to have (said from experience).

Here’s how I decide on the bag temperature to use.

The 15-30F bag seems to be a nice sweet spot for me that can handle most situations.

I like to carry a small inflatable pillow. It’s very comfy and only weighs a few ounces. You can also fill a stuff-sack with clothes and use it as a pillow.

If you want to keep your bag clean, or give yourself a few extra degrees of warmth, try a sleeping bag liner. They also work great for camping in very hot conditions. Just use the liner without a bag.

Food

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Learn how to ditch the cookware and eat out of a bag. It’s simple and satisfying after a long day on the trail.

Okay, let’s talk about cooking food. What we’re going to do is boil water, pour it in a bag of freeze-dried food, let it sit, and then eat out of the bag with a long spork. Obviously you can get a lot fancier, but this is an easy way to start (and what I still do).

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Your best bet is to get an all-in-one cook system. You have the fuel canister, the burner, and the pot/cup. In a cook system there’s usually a built-in wind-screen, and the components will pack nicely together into the cook pot. Attach the fuel to the burner, light it, and boil your water in a matter of minutes.

Picking out food is generally hit or miss. You can read reviews and see what people think of different dishes, but a lot is personal taste. Expect it to be salty and loaded with carbs. If you’re backpacking all day, that combo is usually satisfying, even if it’s not your normal choice. I get one “2 serving” pack for each meal.

If it’s raining, use your stove in the vestibule, not inside the tent. You want to be able to vent any fumes and avoid catching the tent on fire.

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It’s a safe bet to use filtered water even when boiling for food.

I’m not going to get into it too deeply, but water is an important aspect of backpacking. Ideally you can carry minimal water, refilling with a filter as you hike and when you make camp. The best campsites are ones by running water where you can refill and clean your spork. Don’t forget to rinse your empty food package out when done too.

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Here’s what a bear hang looks like, which is a way of keeping your food away from animals.

Food storage is a big consideration when camping. Essentially you want to keep anything with a scent (including toiletries, sunscreen, etc.) out of reach of critters, big and small. Before you camp you need to check with the park and see if there are any food storage requirements. Some parks mandate things like bear canisters, and some even have food storage lockers or hanging posts.

There are a lot of strong feelings in the community about food storage, and I think your best bet is generally to use a bear hang, which also protects food from rodents (way more common) and other opportunistic animals looking for an easy meal. I keep my scented items contained in a scent-free bag, and then hang them, and I’ve never had any problem. Check out my guide to bear safety to learn more about storing your food.

Odds & Ends

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While a headlamp might be a “sometimes” item when day hiking, it’s crucial for backpacking when you need to perform crucial tasks at night.

These are things that you should have with you as essentials in your day hiking kit anyway, but I’ll mention them again now because they’re so important for backpacking.

If you watch YouTube or go to REI, you’ll see dozens of other things you can bring with you backpacking. Maybe you want a sit pad, or a coffee cup, or a camp frisbee. The possibilities are endless. For this first trip though, let’s leave that stuff at home, keep it light, and focus on the essentials.

Do you need ankle support or beefier boots for backpacking? For me, on anything from a 1-5 day trip, I’ve found that my regular hiking footwear works fine. I’d start there and adjust if needed.

Your Overnight Backpack

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While my normal day pack is 30L, for overnight trips, I need a bigger option like this 55L pack. What I like about a pack like this is that the top rolls down, allowing me to eliminate extra space inside and keep everything secure. There’s also an outside pocket that’s great for carrying wet gear. You can see what pack I’m currently using on my gear page.

If you already having a hiking pack, you’ll probably need a bigger backpack to carry the extra overnight gear. Some folks like to strap things to the outside of their pack, but I’ve found it much easier to just throw everything inside. That way there’s nothing outside that can fall off or snag on brush. I’ve found that a pack in the 50-60L range gives me enough room to carry food and gear for up to a week.

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Some gear, like sleeping bags, are made to compress down into a small bag. Don’t be shy about stuffing it into the sack. You don’t need to roll it or do anything special; just grab a handful and stuff it in

When you pack your gear, start with a pack liner to protect everything from the rain. You can buy a pack liner or use a heavy-duty trash bag, which is a bit clunkier but still effective. I’ve found a liner to be much more effective than a rain cover, which goes on the outside. Use Zip-Loc bags or stuff sacks to organize your gear. Don’t forget to bring Zip-Loc bags for dirty laundry and trash.

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Most backpacks have several compression straps at various points. Loosen them completely when packing, and then pull them snug when everything is inside. This will keep the gear from moving around inside the pack.
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Use your hip belt correctly, which helps you carry the heavier load on a backpacking pack. The belt should fit comfortably sung around the top of your hips. This takes the weight off of your shoulders. Hip belts are often used incorrectly on day packs because the weight is lighter and it just doesn’t make a difference.

Gear Shakedown

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Make some space in your garage, backyard, or living room to gather all your gear, pack it, unpack it, and set it up before hitting the trail.

This step is important. The thing you don’t want to do is buy something, rip the packaging off, throw it in your backpack, and then figure it out when you are in the wilderness. Instead, you should at least have used your gear once, know that it works, and feel confident that you could operate it when you set up camp, miles away from Google and YouTube explainer videos.

  1. Gather all of your new backpacking gear in your living room, backyard or garage.
  2. Set up the tent. Watch a video or read the manual online to help you through the process.
  3. Same thing with the sleeping system.
  4. Use your stove and cook a meal (best done outside).
  5. Take a nap or do an overnight in the tent. I’ve done this on my living room floor and it’s fun.
  6. Then pack it all up, and put it into your backpack.

There are several strategic packing methods, but try this method to start. Put your sleeping gear into your backpack first. Then add clothing and your stove. Put your tent in last, or if it’s too long, put the poles down one side and the rest on top. When you reach camp, you can grab and set up your tent without having to pull everything out of the pack. If it’s raining, set up your tent, bring the backpack inside, and then unpack. Keep any smaller items that you need to get to easily (like a headlamp, trowel, & toilet paper) in the side or hip belt pockets.

Shakedown Trip

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Your shakedown trip is low-risk but does wonders for your confidence. Finding a tent site that you can drive into like this is a great way to do it.

Once you feel good about using your gear, I recommend doing a short hike with it all and using it in the field. This isn’t a special trip, but rather something you can fit into your normal weekday schedule. If you have a backcountry area nearby, simply do a short hike, set up camp, and stay overnight. Another good option is official campsites that you can drive into. Go to your spot, do a short hike with your gear, then come back and set up camp. If you need to bail, your car is right there.

It’s important to note that if you do stay at a “regular” campground where people can drive in, they are almost always much louder and dirtier than a backcountry camp. Camping in the backcountry is almost always nicer and more peaceful. This trip’s focus is on carrying the gear, setting it up, and sleeping well.

Your Backpacking Trip

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All the prep work pays off when setting up is easy and you can just enjoy your scenic campsite.

Since this is a beginning backpacking guide, I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of planning a backpacking adventure. All I’d say is try to start small (2 days / 1 night) and camp at a place that has water. Depending on where you are, you may have to stay at a designated campsite, or you may be able to do what is called “dispersed camping,” where you can set up anywhere. Whichever way you go, do your research and have a plan in mind.

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Backcountry campsites, sometimes referred to as “trail camps” can have toilets, which definitely makes things easier.
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If you are doing dispersed camping, look for sites that other backpackers have already cleared. The ground will be smooth and prepared already, and you will have minimal impact on the landscape.

A couple of other things to note when choosing a dispersed campsite. It’s generally bad practice to camp near or under trees, especially dead ones. Sometimes you won’t have a choice, but ideally you are not in a place where a branch or tree can fall on top of you. Next, make sure you aren’t in a place that might flood if it rains. For example, a sandy beach next to a mountain stream may flood if it rains.

Enjoy Yourself

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You’ve done a lot of prep work to make it here. Keep an open mind, know that it’s not going to be like sleeping in your own bed, and enjoy your surroundings.

Next Steps

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Once you have your first backpacking trip under your belt, you’ll gain confidence, and a whole new world of (overnight) adventures will open up to you, like this one on California’s Lost Coast.

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