Backpacking in the wilderness is fun
Exploring wild places by the power of your own two legs gives you the time necessary to clear your head and absorb your surroundings with every sense. And with a pack strapped to your back full of the essentials, you have the freedom to set up camp practically anywhere to rest up, grub down, then wake up in the morning to hike even further.
However, like all worthwhile pursuits, wilderness backpacking isn’t without its challenges. And if you’ve never done it before, living out of a pack for several days and nights can seem a little daunting.
But rest assured, with proper preparation, just about anyone with the willpower to do so can plan and execute a successful backpacking trip. So if you’ve been dreaming about an epic multi-day hike into the wilderness, use the following ten tips to help you get started.
1. Break In Your Footwear Before You Go
Nothing will ruin a backpacking trip faster than sore, blistered-up feet. And nothing will wreck your feet faster than boots that either don’t fit right or aren’t broken in sufficiently. Therefore, it’s imperative you choose your hiking footwear carefully and give yourself plenty of time to break it in before you hit the trail.
How do you break in footwear?
It’s simple: Pull on your boots, lace them up, and start walking. Wear the same socks you plan hiking in. Give yourself at least two weeks to wear your boots before your trip and wear them constantly — around the house, to work, to the grocery store, and if possible, go on some light trail hikes close to home.
The purpose of this break-in period is two-fold: The materials of the boots will start to loosen up and adapt to the unique shape of your feet, and your feet will adjust to the boots. Pay close attention to any “hot spots” or blisters that form — you’ll need plenty of moleskin with you to protect these areas while hiking. If you notice right away that your boots are giving you too much trouble, swap them out for a better-fitting pair.
2. Keep Your Feet Dry (Or Don’t)
There are two schools of thought when it comes to hiking footwear: the old school backpackers who prefer traditional above-the-ankle hiking boots, and the new school ultralight backpackers who skip boots altogether and opt for lightweight trail running shoes.
Both groups of backpackers have good arguments for the boots vs. trail running shoe debate. Boots, though heavier, offer more stability over rough terrain. Trail running shoes are vastly lighter than boots, greatly reducing the hiker’s overall energy exertion. But all other points aside, one of the hottest points of contention surrounding hiking footwear has to do with moisture.
Most modern hiking boots have some amount of waterproof-ness. Trail running shoes, on the other hand, aren’t waterproof at all.
If you go with traditional waterproof hiking boots, it’s important that you take precautions to keep your feet dry. This involves actions like removing your boots to cross streams, wearing gaiters when hiking in the rain, and taking breaks to let your feet air out when hiking in hot, sweaty weather.
Marching in squishy-wet boots is one of the quickest routes to a miserable hiking experience. I have found Moosejaw to make an excellent hiking boot that’s durable, water resistant and comfortable.
With trail running shoes, you must commit to having and embracing wet feet. You splash through the stream, romp through the rain, then simply dry your feet off at night around the fire. The nice thing about trail running shoes is that while they let lots of moisture in, they also breathe and dry quickly.
Many ultralight hikers believe that since keeping your feet truly dry is impossible, the weight savings afforded by trail running shoes is worth the price of occasional pruney toes.
Just remember: If you go with trail running shoes over hiking boots, you still need to break them in and make sure they fit long before you leave for your trip.
3. Leave Those Extra Clothes Behind to Lighten Your Load
When you’re just getting started, chances are you’ll bring way too much stuff and your pack will be extremely heavy. Don’t worry, it’s normal. But if you want to hike faster, farther, and with less struggle, you must do everything you can to lighten your load.
Hardcore ultralight backpacker, Andrew Skurka, who’s known for his outlandishly long treks, sums up the beginning backpacker’s folly succinctly by saying, “Basically, you pack your fears.” You bring everything you think you need in order to survive, most of which you never end up using — it becomes dead weight.
And what’s the biggest culprit of dead weight in your pack?
Truly knowing what to pack and what to ditch only comes with experience. But even when preparing for your first trip, significant weight savings can be made by carefully editing the contents of your pack. Of course, you need to take into consideration the time of year, climate, and the weather forecast, coming prepared with rain gear and warm clothes if needed. But you should make every effort to cut as many unnecessary and duplicate items as possible.
Extra pants, shirts, and underwear seem like good things to bring, but there’s a high chance you’ll start and end your trip having never changed clothes. Don’t worry about getting dirty on the trail — that’s part of the fun.
4. Load Your Pack the Right Way
After you’ve compiled just the right amount of clothing and gear, it’s time to load up that pack. Seems easy enough, but did you know there are right and wrong ways to load your pack?
It’s all about distributing weight in your pack to achieve an optimal center of gravity. When you hike with a backpack, you naturally lean forward, which brings the weight of your pack directly over your hips. Loading your pack so that the bulk of the weight is concentrated at or slightly above the middle of your back capitalizes on this natural way of carrying a load.
So how do you go about achieving that ideal weight distribution?
You’ll have to play around with what works for your setup, but use these guidelines as a starting point:
- Bottom of pack — Sleeping bag
- Center of pack — Heavier items like food, water, and cooking gear
- Top and sides of pack — Clothing, tent, rain gear, and other lightweight or compressible items
- Lid of pack — maps, snacks, camera, and other items you need to access quickly
5. Learn How to Setup and Use Your Gear
When you’re getting ready for your backpacking trip, especially if it’s your first, try to eliminate all guess work pertaining to your gear. This means taking the time to learn how to setup and use all your gear before you get into the woods.
At your first campsite, you don’t want to be fumbling around with your tent, figuring out which pole goes where, or realize that you bought the wrong kind of stove fuel.
6. Stay Organized and Prepared with a Gear List
Backpacking is a gear-centric activity. As you progress from your first trip to your second, third, fourth and beyond, you’ll start to get a good feel for what you need and don’t need on the trail. You’ll start to understand what “fears” you’re packing like we discussed in tip #3.
But how do you use this experience-earned gear-related insight to your advantage?
By keeping an up-to-date and minutely detailed gear list.
When packing for your trip, simply write down all the items you’re bringing. Pen and paper work well but Excel spreadsheets can also be put to good use.
Then, when you return from your trip and start unpacking, revisit your gear list and note all the items you didn’t use. These unused items are things that you should consider leaving behind on your next trip to reduce your pack weight.
Plus, having a gear list on hand makes it super easy to load your pack quickly and with peace of mind knowing you have everything you need for your next trip.
7. Buy Used Backpacking Gear to Save Cash When Getting Started
We’ve talked a good bit about gear so far, and if you’re just getting into backpacking, you’re probably seeing those price tags add up. But the truth is, you don’t have to spend a ton of money to acquire the gear you need for successful backpacking.
Great deals on quality used backpacking gear can be found if you’re willing to do a little digging. If you have a tight budget, the price savings can be well worth the effort. Prime candidates for used backpacking gear are the more durable items on your list such as tents, camp stoves, trekking poles, and possibly your pack, though it’s important to take your time to find a pack that fits properly.
Classified sites like Craigslist can be a good place to start. The classified sections of online backpacking forums are even better. Don’t rule out local garage sales either, especially if you live in a city with close access to backpacking trails. If you live near a REI, be sure to check out their annual garage sale event when they sell off returned and gently used items for screaming bargains.
8. Train Up So You Won’t Give Up (Or Throw Up) on the Trail
Backpacking is unlike any other form of physical exercise most guys do in their normal lives. When else do you spend a full day walking up and over hills with weight on your back?
If you’re in relatively good shape, you’ll probably be okay showing up at the trailhead without prior training. But if you want to ensure you have the best possible experience, even a small amount of hiking-focused training will go a long way.
What kind of exercises should you do to train for backpacking?
Pretty much anything that works your legs and lungs.
At the gym, stair steppers and ellipticals will get your legs and lungs working simultaneously. Box step-ups will tone up those glutes, hamstrings, and quads and will help you prepare for the uphill slogs you may encounter on the trail.
Another great way to train for backpacking is to load some weight into your pack (sandbags work great) and go hike hills. If you don’t have ready access to hills, seek out the staircases of multi-story buildings. Go up and down, putting in as many reps as time allows.
9. Invest in a Quality Backpacking Guide Book For Your Region
These days, there is a huge amount of information about the best trails for multi-day backpacking trips. The problem is, there’s almost too much information out there and choosing a trail for your first trip can be overwhelming.
Get a reputable backpacking guide book for your state or region. Falcon guidebooks are some of the best out there, and they have guides for just about anywhere you want to hike. Then, when you find a trail in a guide book, you can use the internet to find out more specifics and up-to-date information about the area.
10. Choose a Loop or Out-and-Back Route for Your First Backpacking Trip
Once you have all the necessary gear and know how to use it, backpacking is inherently simple. But when you’re first starting out there’s definitely a learning curve.
So when it comes time to plan your first trip, start small with a trail you feel confident you can handle. Wait until you have a few weekend trips under your belt before you attempt to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
In terms of specific trail types that are ideal for beginners, loops and out-and-back type trails are ideal. With a loop route, you basically park at the trailhead then hike a big loop through the wilderness that brings you back to the trailhead.
An out-and-back route is similar, only instead of hiking a loop, you hike a trail to an end point, then turn around and hike the same trail back. That way you won’t have to worry about arranging a shuttle and making matters more complicated than they need to be.
Even a single night backpacking trip can be a deeply rewarding experience. As you grow in experience, you’ll be able to tack on the miles and spend more and more time in the woods. If you keep things simple to start and make sure your boots are well broken in you’ll be set up for success wherever the trail takes you.
This article was authored by Guy Counseling Outdoor author special correspondent, Niklas Isaac.