How To Get Started With Backpacking

By Jess Fischer | 3.6.2019

So, you want to get into backpacking but you’re not entirely sure where to start? The good news is, it’s easier than it looks! As long as you’re willing to put in the time to make sure you’re prepared, you can absolutely go. Years ago, when I first got into backpacking the most difficult thing for me was just getting out for the first time. When I finally went, I laughed at myself for ever being so nervous to try it in the first place! At the end of the guide I’ll also include a packing list. Let’s get started with what you need to consider before heading out on your first backpacking trip!

Safety

First things first, safety! Before heading out for the first time, I studied up about safety around wildlife, what kind of first aid kit I needed and GPS trackers in case something happened out of cell service. I had been hiking my entire life, so I knew the basics from experience, I just needed a little extra knowledge on backcountry injuries or how to get in touch with rescue squads while I was out of cell service. This PDF by the Mountain Rescue Association was an amazing resource that helped me feel educated. Also, certain outdoor clubs offer backcountry safety courses! I recommend googling “backcountry safety course + wherever you live” to find one close to you.

Location

After researching safety, I then focused on finding a trail for my first overnight excursion. My recommendation is to pick a trail you’ve hiked before, that’s under 5 miles each day (10 miles maximum), only two nights maximum and doesn’t have a lot of elevation gain. By picking a trail you’ve already hiked, you’ll feel more at ease being in a familiar place; by picking a shorter trail with little elevation gain, you won’t have a terrible first experience or feel like you’re in over your head. Also, when picking a backpacking location, consider picking trails that have campsites close to water sources and that have established campgrounds. Having a few people around, whether on the trail or in camp, will help put your mind at ease. Be sure to research where you plan to go and make sure you have applied for and/or purchased all permits necessary. Also, I highly suggest going during the warmer months for your first trip. That way you don’t have to worry about the added gear/logistics of camping in the colder months where temperatures can plummet well below freezing in the mountains.

Gear

Now the fun part: gear! Gear might honestly be the most daunting part if you don’t already own everything you need. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to buy everything you need; there are tons of gear rental companies that you can rent gear from and test out products before you actually go to purchase your own. At the end of the article I’ll have a complete packing list, but here are some of the essentials:

  • Tent: typically, you want a tent that is one size bigger than the number of people going (2 hikers = 3-person tent). This will give you enough room to sleep and store your gear. Alternatively, if the tent has vestibules on either side, that can create additional space for gear, and you can consider a smaller sized tent
  • Backpack: if you need help picking a backpacking backpack, read this article here.
  • Sleeping bag: you’ll want a sleeping bag specifically designed for backpacking, not car camping. Backpacking sleeping bags will squeeze down into a very small size and can easily fit into a backpack without taking up a lot of space. Consider the time of year you are going backpacking and then choose a sleeping bag accordingly. If you are hiking in the hottest months, a sleeping bag with a temperature rating of 35° or higher should be sufficient. If you are hiking in the late spring or early fall when temperatures may be a little bit lower at night, I recommend a bag with a temperature rating between 15°-30°. While I don’t recommend your first trip being during the winter, you’ll need a bag that is 15° or lower.
  • Sleeping pad: Sleeping pads are not necessarily “essential,” but I highly recommend having one before you head out to backpack. Sleeping pads create a layer of protection between you and the ground and also will also provide a layer of insulation.
  • Stove: For me, the most important thing about getting a backpacking stove was that it boiled water (I didn’t care if the only setting was high) and something that was small and easy to pack up and maintain. For backpacking stoves, I would recommend a canister or liquid fuel stove, but the type is really up to you. Make sure you practice using the stove before going out into the backcountry! Alternatively, if you want to just bring food that doesn’t need to be prepared, you can forget the stove all together!

Clothing

When I first went backpacking, I didn’t go out and purchase a ton of new clothes. I simply went through my workout clothes and picked out a bunch of layers to take with me. I went in the middle of the summer, so I hiked with shorts and a tank top and regretted not wearing a t-shirt to protect my skin from rubbing against my backpack straps. You’ll need to pick moisture-wicking clothing and avoid cotton which takes a long time to dry. During the hike you’ll want a t-shirt (I recommend a shirt with SPF), shorts or hiking pants, wool socks (or something that wicks moisture away) and a sun hat if that’s your jam. For the night, pack long underwear (no matter how hot you think it may be, temperatures can unexpectedly dip at night), an insulated jacket, and a rain jacket. The goal is to be able to have layers for any situation. If a storm moves through or temperatures dip at night, you want to be prepared for any scenario. I also always bring an extra shirt (long sleeve) and pair of socks. In terms of shoes, I recommend hiking in whatever you’re used to hiking in, whether that be a trail runner or a boot. I also always bring a pair of lightweight sandals to wear around camp! If you choose to backpack during the winter, you will need to bring many, many more layers and prepare for more extreme temperatures.

Leave No Trace (LNT)

Last but definitely not least, I HIGHLY recommend you studying up on LNT principles before heading out into the backcountry. Additionally, you should reach out to the ranger station (if there is one where you plan to go) to educate yourself on any procedures that are specific to the park/area you will be in. Depending on where you’re camping, they may ask you to poop directly into the ocean rather than digging a cat hole or give you more specific directions on where you can/cannot pitch a tent. There are so many LNT resources from how to pack out your waste, where you can pitch a tent, how to wash dishes in the backcountry and so much more. It’s up to you to uphold LNT principles.

Bonus: Packing Lists!

Gear Packing list:

  • Tent
  • Backpack
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Pillow (optional, you can also stuff a down jacket into an empty stuff sack as a substitute)
  • Water filtration system
  • Food
  • First aid kit
  • Sunscreen, chapstick, etc.
  • Trowel, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, menstrual products (if necessary), plastic bags, (for any waste) toothbrush, toothpaste
  • Rechargeable battery (charged to 100% before leaving)
  • Fire starter
  • Headlamp (always useful if you get caught after dark or if you need to get up in the middle of the night)
  • Compass
  • Knife
  • GPS device
  • Map (laminated)
  • Mess gear (any plates/bowls/cups/utensils/etc. you may need)
  • Bear canister or rope (if using rope I also recommend bringing a carabiner and an big extra gear sack to put all camp kitchen gear in)

Clothing packing list:

  • Base layers, bottom and top
  • Moisture wicking t-shirt
  • Shorts and/or hiking pants
  • Rain jacket
  • Insulated jacket
  • Socks
  • Boots or sneakers (whichever you prefer)
  • Camp sandals (optional)’
  • Underwear (sports bra, etc.)
  • Gloves and beanie

Jess Fischer

Jess, and her husband Michael, recently moved to Portland, Oregon from Richmond, Virginia. They were both born and raised Virginians, so they are excited to navigate life on a new coast! They are even more excited to document this new adventure on their blog. Check it out to follow along with their hikes and other adventures!

Jess Fischer

Jess, and her husband Michael, recently moved to Portland, Oregon from Richmond, Virginia. They were both born and raised Virginians, so they are excited to navigate life on a new coast! They are even more excited to document this new adventure on their blog. Check it out to follow along with their hikes and other adventures!

Jess Fischer

Jess, and her husband Michael, recently moved to Portland, Oregon from Richmond, Virginia. They were both born and raised Virginians, so they are excited to navigate life on a new coast! They are even more excited to document this new adventure on their blog. Check it out to follow along with their hikes and other adventures!

How To Get Started With Backpacking

By Jess Fischer | 3.6.2019

So, you want to get into backpacking but you’re not entirely sure where to start? The good news is, it’s easier than it looks! As long as you’re willing to put in the time to make sure you’re prepared, you can absolutely go. Years ago, when I first got into backpacking the most difficult thing for me was just getting out for the first time. When I finally went, I laughed at myself for ever being so nervous to try it in the first place! At the end of the guide I’ll also include a packing list. Let’s get started with what you need to consider before heading out on your first backpacking trip!

Safety

First things first, safety! Before heading out for the first time, I studied up about safety around wildlife, what kind of first aid kit I needed and GPS trackers in case something happened out of cell service. I had been hiking my entire life, so I knew the basics from experience, I just needed a little extra knowledge on backcountry injuries or how to get in touch with rescue squads while I was out of cell service. This PDF by the Mountain Rescue Association was an amazing resource that helped me feel educated. Also, certain outdoor clubs offer backcountry safety courses! I recommend googling “backcountry safety course + wherever you live” to find one close to you.

Location

After researching safety, I then focused on finding a trail for my first overnight excursion. My recommendation is to pick a trail you’ve hiked before, that’s under 5 miles each day (10 miles maximum), only two nights maximum and doesn’t have a lot of elevation gain. By picking a trail you’ve already hiked, you’ll feel more at ease being in a familiar place; by picking a shorter trail with little elevation gain, you won’t have a terrible first experience or feel like you’re in over your head. Also, when picking a backpacking location, consider picking trails that have campsites close to water sources and that have established campgrounds. Having a few people around, whether on the trail or in camp, will help put your mind at ease. Be sure to research where you plan to go and make sure you have applied for and/or purchased all permits necessary. Also, I highly suggest going during the warmer months for your first trip. That way you don’t have to worry about the added gear/logistics of camping in the colder months where temperatures can plummet well below freezing in the mountains.

Gear

Now the fun part: gear! Gear might honestly be the most daunting part if you don’t already own everything you need. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to buy everything you need; there are tons of gear rental companies that you can rent gear from and test out products before you actually go to purchase your own. At the end of the article I’ll have a complete packing list, but here are some of the essentials:

  • Tent: typically, you want a tent that is one size bigger than the number of people going (2 hikers = 3-person tent). This will give you enough room to sleep and store your gear. Alternatively, if the tent has vestibules on either side, that can create additional space for gear, and you can consider a smaller sized tent
  • Backpack: if you need help picking a backpacking backpack, read this article here.
  • Sleeping bag: you’ll want a sleeping bag specifically designed for backpacking, not car camping. Backpacking sleeping bags will squeeze down into a very small size and can easily fit into a backpack without taking up a lot of space. Consider the time of year you are going backpacking and then choose a sleeping bag accordingly. If you are hiking in the hottest months, a sleeping bag with a temperature rating of 35° or higher should be sufficient. If you are hiking in the late spring or early fall when temperatures may be a little bit lower at night, I recommend a bag with a temperature rating between 15°-30°. While I don’t recommend your first trip being during the winter, you’ll need a bag that is 15° or lower.
  • Sleeping pad: Sleeping pads are not necessarily “essential,” but I highly recommend having one before you head out to backpack. Sleeping pads create a layer of protection between you and the ground and also will also provide a layer of insulation.
  • Stove: For me, the most important thing about getting a backpacking stove was that it boiled water (I didn’t care if the only setting was high) and something that was small and easy to pack up and maintain. For backpacking stoves, I would recommend a canister or liquid fuel stove, but the type is really up to you. Make sure you practice using the stove before going out into the backcountry! Alternatively, if you want to just bring food that doesn’t need to be prepared, you can forget the stove all together!

Clothing

When I first went backpacking, I didn’t go out and purchase a ton of new clothes. I simply went through my workout clothes and picked out a bunch of layers to take with me. I went in the middle of the summer, so I hiked with shorts and a tank top and regretted not wearing a t-shirt to protect my skin from rubbing against my backpack straps. You’ll need to pick moisture-wicking clothing and avoid cotton which takes a long time to dry. During the hike you’ll want a t-shirt (I recommend a shirt with SPF), shorts or hiking pants, wool socks (or something that wicks moisture away) and a sun hat if that’s your jam. For the night, pack long underwear (no matter how hot you think it may be, temperatures can unexpectedly dip at night), an insulated jacket, and a rain jacket. The goal is to be able to have layers for any situation. If a storm moves through or temperatures dip at night, you want to be prepared for any scenario. I also always bring an extra shirt (long sleeve) and pair of socks. In terms of shoes, I recommend hiking in whatever you’re used to hiking in, whether that be a trail runner or a boot. I also always bring a pair of lightweight sandals to wear around camp! If you choose to backpack during the winter, you will need to bring many, many more layers and prepare for more extreme temperatures.

Leave No Trace (LNT)

Last but definitely not least, I HIGHLY recommend you studying up on LNT principles before heading out into the backcountry. Additionally, you should reach out to the ranger station (if there is one where you plan to go) to educate yourself on any procedures that are specific to the park/area you will be in. Depending on where you’re camping, they may ask you to poop directly into the ocean rather than digging a cat hole or give you more specific directions on where you can/cannot pitch a tent. There are so many LNT resources from how to pack out your waste, where you can pitch a tent, how to wash dishes in the backcountry and so much more. It’s up to you to uphold LNT principles.

Bonus: Packing Lists!

Gear Packing list:

  • Tent
  • Backpack
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Pillow (optional, you can also stuff a down jacket into an empty stuff sack as a substitute)
  • Water filtration system
  • Food
  • First aid kit
  • Sunscreen, chapstick, etc.
  • Trowel, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, menstrual products (if necessary), plastic bags, (for any waste) toothbrush, toothpaste
  • Rechargeable battery (charged to 100% before leaving)
  • Fire starter
  • Headlamp (always useful if you get caught after dark or if you need to get up in the middle of the night)
  • Compass
  • Knife
  • GPS device
  • Map (laminated)
  • Mess gear (any plates/bowls/cups/utensils/etc. you may need)
  • Bear canister or rope (if using rope, I recommend bringing a carabiner and extra gear sack to put all camp kitchen gear in)

Clothing packing list:

  • Base layers, bottom and top
  • Moisture wicking t-shirt
  • Shorts and/or hiking pants
  • Rain jacket
  • Insulated jacket
  • Socks
  • Boots or sneakers (whichever you prefer)
  • Camp sandals (optional)’
  • Underwear (sports bra, etc.)
  • Gloves and beanie

Jess Fischer

Jess, and her husband Michael, recently moved to Portland, Oregon from Richmond, Virginia. They were both born and raised Virginians, so they are excited to navigate life on a new coast! They are even more excited to document this new adventure on their blog. Check it out to follow along with their hikes and other adventures!

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