Backpacking Tips for Beginners

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Learning to backpack is intimidating. Sure, enthusiasts will tell you “It’s easy!” and “People are so friendly!” And while that is all certainly true, it is tough to jump into a new sport while trying to muddle through the gear and the lingo, all while huffing and puffing and attempting to not get lost on the trail.

Am I right or am I right?!

Backpacking Tips

A few weeks ago, an Instagram follower asked me for some advice on backpacking for beginners. I started to think it through in an email response to her, but then I got a couple more emails after I wrote “The Death of Backpacking.” It appears y’all are interested in backpacking but are looking for a bit o’ help; happy to oblige!

Get In Shape

Sure, fitness is a relative term but let me be honest: backpacking is not easy! Not only are you climbing up the side of mountains but you are also carrying a really heavy pack! {And trust me: those backpacks always feel way heavier on trail than they do in your kitchen!} Bottom line: be aware of your fitness capabilities and don’t try to jump into the deep end of the proverbial pool if you aren’t ready. Jog a couple miles, do a couple squats and make sure you can handle the physicality that backpacking will throw at you.

Don’t Skimp on Gear

I’m sure someone out there will yell at me for this, but you get what you pay for when it comes to backpacking gear!

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Camping gear is expensive but honestly, the prices just rise as you consider backpacking gear. And while an inexpensive sleeping bag from Target may work while you’re camping 100 yards from your car, it just won’t cut it if you’re sleeping under the stars in the Alaskan backcountry. Cheap gear will likely weigh more, take up valuable real estate inside your backpack and truthfully, just won’t work as well.

I lived in Spain in 2002 and while there, some classmates and I trekked the last 100 miles of the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage trail in the northern part of the country. On our first day of hiking, a friend heckled me for my $300 Marmot sleeping bag. “Why did you spend so much on a blanket?!” he asked. “You just need something to keep you warm, right?!” He drove me crazy, but I’m not even ashamed to say that I got the last laugh on our first night. I woke up at midnight to find him miserable and cold: his bag wasn’t cutting it. In the end, I actually shared my mummy bag with him so that he didn’t freeze, but the lesson was learned. Don’t buy cheap gear!

Side note: I’m not saying that you can’t find good deals and some companies have more expensive gear than others. My advice is to go to a specialty store like REI to find specific gear like tents, sleeping bags and rain gear.

Test Your Gear Before You Hit The Trail

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Y’ALL! I can’t even tell you how important this tip is as I have seen so many newbies struggle with their brand-spankin’-new gear!

Maybe you bought a fancy new water filter or backpacking stove in preparation for your trip? Great idea and we all know how fun new toys can be! However, take it from me: you will definitely want to set it up and try it out before your first trip! If you’re trekking with experienced hikers, they will likely be able to help you function your new gear. However, what if your stove is some weird kind that no one has ever seen? If you can’t get it to work, you’re SOL on dinner that evening!

Avoid Ultra-light Until You Have Experience

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Ultra-light backpacking is the new rage and it’s easy to see why. After all, the thought of carrying less weight for dozens of miles is far more appealing than carrying more!

However, cutting weight comes with sacrifices and you really shouldn’t toe that line unless you are already comfortable in the backcountry. Sure, some weight-saving tips won’t make any difference to your safety. I mean, sawing a toothbrush in half doesn’t really alter your perspective on the world, you know?

But, other means to cut pack weight could be disastrous if you aren’t prepared to deal with the consequences. Ultra-light often means the bare minimum in food, water and clothing, but this is only a good idea if you absolutely know what you need for a trip. As a beginner, you’re likely dialing in your own system, so it’s best to err on the side of safety. Pack some extra water, some extra food, and some extra clothing. Sure, your pack will weigh a bit more but as least you know you’re covered.

Familiarize Yourself With LNT

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If you don’t know what LNT means then you aren’t ready for the backcountry!

LNT, or Leave No Trace, is the ethical code that helps backcountry enthusiasts play in the wild responsibly. It sounds simple but really, it’s a lot tougher than you would think!

In short, you want to leave the backcountry the exact same {or better} as it was when you arrived. Obviously, this means no littering, but it is so much more complex than people realize.

Brushing your teeth? “Broadcast” the spit {or spray it everywhere} so that it doesn’t collect in one single area.

Eating from a dehydrated food bag? Drink the “gray” water instead of dumping it out. Gross, but necessary.

Pack out your toilet paper.

Don’t have any campfires if you can help it as they scar the environment. This is especially true if you are camping at high altitude or near lakes. And yes, this applies in the winter too! {unless you’re in a survival situation, obviously!}

Truthfully, I am still learning more and more LNT from Will and it’s been eye opening. There are plenty of courses and books to educate you on the topic, so definitely check it out before heading out on your next trip!

Learn How to Pack

Sometimes I am great at this and other times, I just plain suck. Regardless, it’s always a happier trek when I remember to pack my backpack the proper way!

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In essence, you always want to keep your heaviest items in the center of your backpack and close to your spine. Typically, your sleeping bag goes on the very bottom {and some packs have separate compartments for that very purpose.} If you put your heavy items on top of your sleeping bag, you’re likely packing smart. If the heavy stuff sits too high, your backpack will feel wobbly and almost like it is going to tip. If the burlier items sit too low in the bottom of your pack, it will sag and weigh against your shoulders.

Additionally, you’ll want to come up with a system that works for you. I like having snacks accessible while hiking so I tend to cram bars in the waist pockets so that I don’t have to stop to get to food. It’s also clutch to have set pockets for certain items. For example, I always put my headlamp in my front pocket so that I can easily find it, even after dark.

And don’t forget ziploc bags or dry bags for anything that absolutely can’t get wet! It’s always ideal to get a laminated map but if you can’t, stick it in a bag so that it isn’t ruined in a rogue rainstorm.

The Ten Essentials

These aptly-named items are clutch for your safety and success in the woods. Learn them. Love them. Live them.

Backpacking Tips for Beginners

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Obviously there are a ton of tips to include, but any glaring items that you’d like to add?

21 Comments

  • Reply Kayla at

    “You’re so wise. You’re like a miniature Buda, covered in hair. ” 🙂 Please don’t tell me if you don’t know what I’m taking about.

    • Reply heather at

      Sigh. I don’t know…but hold on! Google tells me this is Ron Burgundy! (But no, didn’t know that on my own!)

  • Reply dixya bhattarai at

    i have never done backpacking in my life but it was very informative post. thanks.

    • Reply heather at

      You should give it a try! Do you have any interest in it?

  • Reply Christy at

    When I started I was lucky to have a friend that was very experienced in backpacking to help get me started, I still love the Osprey pack that I bought with her help. Great post!

    • Reply heather at

      Osprey makes great packs! I didn’t have anyone to teach me so I definitely learned by trial and error. I brought all canned food on my first backpacking trip!

  • Reply Lynn at

    Don’t forget to be prepared for the weather! I can look back at my first backpacking trip in Washington (wet!) in the North Cascades (wet!) in October (wet wet wet!) and laugh at my hoodless, non-waterproof jacket that I bought. That was a very damp couple of days.

    • Reply heather at

      Truth! And that kinda makes me laugh 🙂 It doesn’t rain as much here obviously, but I definitely learned my lesson after bringing a comfy soft shell that was merely water resistant. You’ll only make that mistake ONCE!

  • Reply Kate at

    I have found that doing a little research and knowing some small details about where you are hiking through or to (geology, plant life, ect), makes a world of difference in keeping motovation going. To know you are going to see a rad glacially carved alpine lake or watching the plant life change from subalpine to alpine. Doing this may seem like a givin, but it is often over looked by people.

    • Reply heather at

      This is so true and such a good point! If I know we are camping at a beautiful lake or an awesome waterfall, it is just that extra bit of incentive I need to keep going. And I always find myself wishing I knew more about geology because I see such cool stuff during the hike that I have no explanation for!

  • Reply Heidi @BananaBuzzbomb at

    Excellent tips! Sharing!! I know I’ve said it already but really digging the new look. Love how much it features the photos. =)

    • Reply heather at

      Thanks Ms. Buzzbomb! And you actually nailed one of my goals of the redesign. I think Will’s photos are so gorgeous and wanted to showcase them a bit more. Now, if it was just my iPhone photos, I’d have hidden them in a corner somewhere, but fortunately, I’m pretty sure I have his photos FOR LIFE 🙂

  • Reply Julianna at

    thank you so much for sharing! i really appreciate all the tips 🙂

    • Reply heather at

      You’re welcome! Let me know how Oregon goes!

  • Reply Laura at

    This was so helpful – thank you! I am new to Colorado so have a lot to learn 🙂

    • Reply heather at

      Let me know if you go– curious to hear what you think!

  • Reply Julie at

    Good post. Why do you say it’s better to broadcast your toothbrushing spit?

    • Reply heather at

      Hey Julie! I was taught that you want to broadcast because you don’t want globs of toothpaste spit to collect on shrub leaves or grass; if it does, animals can eat it and get sick or it can contribute to defoliating the bush. If you spread it out as much as possible when broadcasting, it’s less of an impact {Just don’t spray into the wind or your face will be sad!}

  • Reply Essential Reading – Campfire Chic at

    […] Heather shared some backpacking tips for beginners […]

  • Reply Kam Altar at

    These are great tips, I’d like to add that while the gear may be expensive up-front, it’s going to last you for YEARS. Sure, my stove was $120, but after taking it out on a ton of trips (and some barbecues!) it’s paid for itself so many times over. I’d much rather pay for a $50 shirt once than have to buy a $10 (probably uncomfortable) shirt for each trip I take.

  • Reply Monica Sharma at

    Hey Heather, really a great share I have never tried backpacking but after reading this article you inspired me to try backpacking and also this article gave me tons of information on beginning my trip as well as does and don’t.Thanks for inspiring and sharing such a wonderful article.

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