Backpacking 101: How to Get Started

Take these 21 trail tips to heart, and you're virtually guaranteed a good hike.

So much goes into a great backpacking trip—preparing food, getting gear, getting in shape—that it's no surprise that newbies sometimes feel apprehensive about jumping in. Never fear: Read these 21 tips on hiking for beginners, and you'll have a solid base to start hitting the trail.

tent campsite

Photo by hendry_670/Flickr

Plan Your Backpacking Trip

Be stunned by the beautiful vista, not an uncrossable river. An hour of guidebook research and a phone call to the rangers can make all your surprises happy ones.

  • Choose a destination within driving distance, so you can reschedule if bad weather threatens.
  • Stick to well-marked routes with easy terrain, established campsites, and plentiful water.
  • Plan on hiking no more than 5 to 7 miles a day.
  • Learn when the bugs are biting, if you need permits, what weather to expect, and where you can find a post-trip beer.
  • Let someone at home know your plans, and stick to your route so you'll be easy to find if necessary.

Resource: The Basic Essentials of Backpacking, by Harry Roberts

Pick the Best Backpacking Gear

Thanks to today's lightweight equipment, a backpack loaded with all your weekend supplies should weigh less than 35 pounds.

  • Rent a tent. Many outfitters rent shelter, packs, and other gear. It cuts initial costs and lets you experiment before buying.
  • Pamper your feet. Prevent blisters and other foot woes by getting lightweight boots that are slightly larger than your street shoes and matching them with wool hiking socks.
  • Pare your threads. Pack clothes for a 24-hour period, on trail and in camp, and wear the same stuff all weekend. Throw in extra socks to keep your feet happy.
  • Cook like a pro. Get a lightweight canister stove and one or two standard fuel canisters for a long weekend.
  • Sleep like a baby. Bed down on a sleeping pad that's 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches thick, and with dimensions that don't leave your limbs dangling off the sides. Likewise your bag should match your frame--try it in the store--and should be rated at least 10°F warmer than the temperatures you expect.
  • Go a little luxe. It's not a monastery out there. Sneak a luxury item into your pack: a deck of cards, a Lexan bottle of vino, a good book, or camera gear.

Prepare Your Backpacking Meals

Fine dining is simply a matter of smart menu planning: Use quick-cooking ingredients from your pantry and do prep work at home.

  • Write out a menu for the whole trip, and don't put off shopping until the last moment. Here's a sample menu for two people on a 3-day trip.
    2 breakfasts: 4 packs of instant oatmeal; cold cereal with powdered milk
    3 lunches: turkey sandwiches; PB and J; salami and cheese on a bagel
    2 dinners: angel hair pasta with pesto sauce and sliced red peppers; burritos made from dehydrated beans, tortillas, cheese, and salsa
    Snacks: Trail mix, dried fruit, energy bars, chocolate, and cookies
  • At home, repackage food and spices, leaving behind bulky, heavy containers.
  • Experiment with freeze-dried. Dehydrated food is fast, easy, and better than you think. One of our favorites: Mary Janes Farm.
  • Leave beer behind, but don't forsake other liquid vices. Bring your favorite dark roast and a lightweight filter for breakfast, plus an after-dinner something to toast your successful adventure.

Resource: More Backcountry Cooking by Dorcas S. Miller

Get Fit for Backpacking

If you can hike for a few hours, you can backpack for a weekend. But a little training will make the second day feel as good as the first.

  • Hike yourself into shape: The best way to train for any sport is to do it. Carry a full pack on your routine dayhikes--it's also a great way to test your gear.
  • Master the mountains: There's a reason hikers flock to alpine country. It's beautiful up there. Strengthen your hill-climbing muscles (quads, hamstrings, and calves) with regular workouts on a stairclimber.

Develop Backpacking Skills

Don't get caught with your pants down and no shovel. Learn how to dig a cathole and other essential skills, like pitching your tent and lighting your stove.

  • Read the directions. Ignore the neighbors and give your gear a test run in the backyard: Pitch your tent, light your stove, use your water filter.
  • Lose the bathroom anxiety. Never gone anywhere without modern plumbing? Don't fret. Pooping in the outdoors is as natural as walking, and many backcountry campsites have outhouses.
  • Learn good manners. Think of camping like being a guest in someone else's house: Don't mess it up. Camp on bare ground or rock, don't do dishes in the creek, and leave plants and animals alone. For more tips, check out Leave No Trace.
  • Find yourself. You'll never get lost if you stay attuned to your surroundings from the beginning. Locate yourself on a map, then stay oriented as you hike.

Resource: Camping & Wilderness Survival by Paul Tawrell ($25)

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