Backpacking is an adventure that blends hiking with backcountry camping. It lets you broaden your horizons beyond the car campground to enjoy a richer, more immersive outdoor experience. A key distinction from day hiking is the size of your pack—your backpack (and you) must carry all of life’s essentials on your back. And you must choose those essentials with care.
To get ready for your first backpacking trip, follow these steps:
- Choose an easy destination: Short overnight hikes close to home are best.
- Get essential gear and clothing: Borrow and scrounge gear to save money.
- Plan your food: Just-add-water meals can be found at your local REI, or find easy to cook options at regular grocery stores. Also pack plenty of snacks for trail fuel.
- Get ready for your trip: Condition yourself to do the planned hike with a fully loaded pack; get your permits; brush up on Leave No Trace principles.
If you have an experienced backpacking friend who knows you well, invite them along and they can be your guide. But you can also do this backpacking thing on your own—that’s the focus of this article. We advise you to bring a friend regardless of their backpacking knowledge, though, because that makes any trip safer and more fun.
Travel-style backpacking, where your pack holds urban essentials for extended touring, isn’t covered here. But we’ve slept in our share of hostels and can offer some advice on ways to stretch your dollars in our budget travel tips article.
1: Choose an Easy Backpacking Destination
The key advice here is to err on the side of easy. If the hike is too hard, it can make for a miserable experience. If it’s too easy, then you simply have more time to explore the area around your camp.
Follow these tips when you decide where to go backpacking for the first time:
- Consult with experienced backpackers: Hiking club members and REI store staff love to make trip recommendations. Hiking guidebooks are a valuable tool—you’ll find the best selection for a given area in local REI stores and other local outdoor retailers. Online sites like the co-op’s Hiking Project are another great resource.
- Pick a place close to home. You want to spend more time hiking than driving. You also want to have ample daylight hours to reach camp before dark.
- Just a few miles roundtrip is fine: Plan on shorter distances than your typical day hike because walking with a heavier pack is slower and more difficult.
- Aim for a few hundred feet of elevation gain: If you’ve hiked much, then you know that mileage alone doesn’t tell the full story. So also choose a trail with less elevation gain than your typical day hike.
- Pick a well-traveled trail and well-established camp: It’s nice to have hikers and backcountry campers nearby who can give you a hand if you run into difficulties.
- Make sure there’s water near camp: If your source will be a lake or large river, you should be fine. Streams and springs can dry up, though, so double check with local land managers before relying on a small water source.
- Consider going without Junior or Fido on your first trip: Though they can both be great fun, their presence will complicate things a little. If and when you decide to have them join you, check out our articles on Backpacking with Dogs and Backpacking with Kids.
- Seek summer weather: Unless your destination is one where extreme heat or fire danger can be an issue, go in mid-summer to maximize daylight hours and your odds of comfortable conditions. Always check weather forecasts and don’t hesitate to cancel or turn back if a storm moves in.
- Consider “walk-in” campgrounds: Some state and national parks have campgrounds that are within a mile or so of a car campground. Staying in one of them is an excellent way to transition into backpacking.