Backpacking can be fun and exhilarating but it can also be confusing and even scary.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that backpacking is generally very safe and even a beginner can do it with ease. On the other hand, a simple mistake can make or break a backpacking trip and can even endanger a person’s life.
Therefore, the key to having a fun and safe trip is to avoid making these simple mistakes and in this post, I’ll help you to do just that.
Here are my top beginner backpacking tips that you can use to plan out your first backpacking trip.
1. Time Your Trip Well
A backpacking trip in the middle of the summer or the dead of winter is going to be much different than a backpacking trip done in early fall. Plan your trip around a time when you’re likely to get the best weather conditions and you’ll have one less challenge to worry about.
Also, remember that different areas will have different weather patterns at different times. I once went hiking in a state park just 250 miles south of home and was shocked at how much colder the area was. Being that I was headed south, I hadn’t even considered the possibility that it would be 20 degrees colder there. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to consider the altitude change between the two locations.
If you’re wondering what the difference is between hiking at high altitudes and low altitudes, check out this post on hiking up a mountain.
After a day of freezing, I ended up going to the local Tractor Supply store to buy myself a few extra layers of clothing. I can’t imagine how miserable I would have been had I been backpacking through the area instead of just day hiking.
Since this experience, I always check the average temperatures for the areas I’ll be backpacking or even just hiking through so that I’ll have a good idea of what to expect. Once the day of the trip gets closer, I start to check the weather reports as well. I’d highly suggest that you do the same.
2. Take it Easy
Be like the Eagles and “find a place to make your stand” but “take it easy”. What I mean by this is that you shouldn’t try to push yourself too hard on your first backpacking trip.
A day hike is much different than a backpacking trip and you could find that 1 mile with a backpack on feels more like 5 miles without one. This is especially true if you’re pushing yourself through tough terrain or through high altitudes.
My advice would be to take whatever you’d like to do and cut that in half. This means that if you were planning on doing ten miles a day, do five a day instead.
Remember, the thru-hikers that are pushing themselves to do twenty or thirty miles a day have acquired their, “hiking legs” over time and they certainly didn’t start out at thirty miles a day. Give yourself time to work your way up to the big numbers and you’ll drastically reduce your chances of being injured and you’ll probably have more fun as well.
3. Get the Right Gear and Bring Enough Food and Water
When you’re out in the wilderness, the gear, the food, and the water you bring with you may be the only things stopping you from dying. Take gear selection seriously.
For more details on the gear, you need to bring on a backpacking trip, read carefully through my post on backpacking essentials.
You’ll also want to bring enough food and water for your trip as well. You may be able to get water on your hike but you’ll probably need to purify it before it’s safe to drink.
Learn more about water purification at https://www.carandtent.com/backpacking-water-filters/.
4. Test Your Gear in Advance
Keep in mind that having the right gear won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use it. It also won’t do you any good if it’s broken before you even take it out.
For these reasons, you’ll want to test all of your gear out at home or in a controlled environment. Setting your gear up at home will give you the chance to make sure that nothing is broken, all of the pieces are there, and that you know exactly how to use everything. It’ll also give you the opportunity to return anything you don’t like before you get it too dirty to return.
Depending on the gear you’re testing, you may even want to bring it out on a hike or on a camping trip before your backpacking trip. You may find that the backpack that feels fine at home might be uncomfortable after a few miles on the trail so it’s important that you put it through its paces before you commit to using it on a longer trip.
5. Keep Your Pack Weight Low
You don’t have to be an ultralight hiker to go backpacking. This being said, you don’t want to go too heavy either.
A heavy backpack will make hiking more difficult and will increase your chances of injury. Overloaded backpacks are responsible for knee injuries, foot injuries, and even back injuries.
So what exactly is an overloaded backpack? How will you know if your backpack is too heavy? A general rule-of-thumb is that your backpack shouldn’t weigh more than 20% of your body weight. This means that a 125-pound person should try to keep their pack weight under 25 pounds.
The best way to keep your pack weight low is to leave behind things that you don’t need. Unfortunately, as a beginner backpacker, you probably won’t know exactly what you need so you may end up overpacking. Luckily, if you’ve followed my advice on taking it easy, you won’t be hiking too many miles so going with a slightly heavier backpack shouldn’t hurt you.
6. Pack Your Gear Correctly and Efficiently
Your backpack isn’t going to feel very good if it isn’t packed right. Whenever possible, place your heavy items towards the center of the backpack. This distributes the weight better and will feel more comfortable.
Place softer items towards the part of your backpack that is against your back to provide cushioning against the harder pieces of gear that would otherwise stab into your back. Also, think about what items you need to access most often and place them at the top of your backpack or in the outer compartments of your backpack. This will make these items easier to get to and you won’t have to take other items out when you don’t need them.
7. Train in Advance
Your backpacking trip isn’t the time to get in shape. Get in shape long before your trip by doing strength training exercises as well as endurance exercises.
If possible, go on long day hikes with your backpack so that you can get used to walking with it. Try to vary the terrain as much as possible during these day hikes so that you’ll have experience with whatever elevations your backpacking trip will bring.
Start your training slowly and build your level of physical fitness up over time to avoid injury. Also, depending on your age and your level of physical fitness, you may want to consult with a physician before you begin this training.
8. Break Your Shoes in Ahead of Time
Most modern hiking shoes, hiking boots, and trail runners probably won’t need to be broken in at all. However, some of the leather models still will. If you’ve decided to wear military combat boots or some other form of heavy hiking shoes, you’ll want to be sure to break them in long before you head out on your trip.
I know from experience that breaking in a pair of leather boots is tough and the number of blisters and calluses you’ll develop will be high. Do this long before your trip so that you don’t have to worry about these blisters along the way.
9. Learn to Take Care of Blisters
Even with modern shoes or broken-in boots, you’ll still be at risk for getting blisters during your trip. These blisters make hiking painful but they generally aren’t dangerous.
Calluses that develop on your heels can be drained of fluid and taped up. You can do this using a sterilized pin or a sterilized pair of nail clippers.
I always prefer using the nail clippers to open up the bottom part of the blister to drain the fluid out but others prefer pins. Sterilization can come in the form of alcohol or a lighter.
Some people like to use moleskins on their blisters. Other people have told me that they find them uncomfortable.
I’ve used them a few times but never really felt like they were necessary. They aren’t that expensive, so you might as well bring a few on your trip so you can test them out yourself.
10. Consider the Climate
Your gear and even your plans will often revolve around the microclimates that you’ll be backpacking through. Because of this, you’ll need to know exactly what climates you’ll be backpacking through.
Will you need to travel through desert terrain? If so, you may need to pack more water with you. Are you going to have to hike up a snow-covered mountain? In this case, you may need to pack a set of traction cleats to go over your hiking boots.
On a long backpacking trip, you could end up traveling through many different microclimates. In this case, you may need to make plans to send some of your gear back home at specific times while picking up other pieces of gear at other times. Doing so will help you reduce your pack weight while still ensuring that you always have everything you need for the trip.
11. Learn to Navigate
One of the biggest threats to a backpacker is getting lost. A lost backpacker may run out of food and water, they may travel through rougher terrain than they’re prepared for, and they can often panic.
Unfortunately, getting lost on the trail is all too common these days. NPR reports that rangers in the state of New York must mount search and rescue operations on a daily basis.
In states with large national parks, this number is even greater. Yosemite national park mounts an average of 250 rescue operations every year inside the park.
You can reduce your chances of becoming part of these statistics simply by reviewing the areas you’ll be backpacking through in advance and learning how to navigate your way through them.
Start by learning how to navigate without a map and compass. Maps and compasses can be lost so you may not always have them when you need them.
Next, learn how to use a compass to shoot bearings without a map. This can be useful when you don’t have a map or when you simply can’t figure out exactly where you are on the map.
After this, you should learn how to use a compass with a map. With this knowledge, a map and a compass should be able to take you anywhere you want to go.
Finally, consider getting a GPS system with an integrated emergency messaging system. These should work off of satellites so that you can call for help when you need it.
12. Learn Basic First Aid
Get injured while you’re alone in the woods and you’ll have to become your own first responder. This means you should have a first aid kit with you and you should know how to use it.
You don’t have to become a doctor to give yourself first aid, but you should know the basics. Learn how to stop wounds from bleeding and learn how to splint broken bones and you’ll be better prepared to deal with the basic injuries that come from falls and animal attacks.
13. Bring Clean Clothes to Sleep in
One aspect that many beginner backpackers fail to realize is how dirty backpacking really is. After a day of sweating, you’ll want to have clean clothing to sleep in.
Pack some comfortable clothes to change into each night and always be sure to change out of them as soon as you wake up. The clothing you choose to wear to bed will depend on the weather conditions you’re backpacking through. In some areas, you may be able to sleep in shorts and a t-shirt and in others, you may have to dress warmer.
14. Find Out What The Hygiene Rules Are for the Area
Are you backpacking close to a water source? If so, you’ll need to make sure you wash up far enough away from the water so that you do not pollute it. Even biodegradable soap can pollute waterways so you’ll want to make sure you’re at least 200 feet away from water before you clean up for the night.
Do you know what the rules are for disposing of your waste? In some areas, you can simply bury your waste. In others, you’ll need to pack it out with you. Find out what the rules are in advance and you’ll be prepared to do what’s best.
15. Learn the Food Safety Rules for the Area
In some areas of the country, rangers will demand that you bring a bear cannister with you on your backpacking trip. In other areas, a bear canister won’t be enough to protect you and your food.
Instead, you’ll have to hang your food up in a tree. Both of these food safety methods require very specific gear so you’ll need to know what to bring in advance or you’ll run the risk of violating the rules. Not only will this put you in legal jeopardy, but it could put your safety at risk as well.
16. Eat Some Camping Food at Home
Have you ever eaten dehydrated food? You might find out that you hate it or that it makes you sick. Wouldn’t it be better to find this out before you hit the trails?
There are many different food options for backpacking and everyone has different opinions when it comes to what’s best. Try a few different meals at home and then bring along the ones that work best for you.
For a ready to eat solution, you could go with a backpacking meal supplier like Mountain House. Otherwise, you could simply buy your own dehydrated food. A simple example of this could be a bag of oatmeal or a package of tuna fish.
17. Treat Sunburn Like It’s The Plague
Getting sunburn on a vacation at the beach is a hassle. It’s painful, it makes your vacation less pleasant, and in the long run it can lead to premature aging and even cancer.
Falling victim to sunburn on a backpacking trip can have much more serious and immediate effects. A bad sunburn can lead to nausea, dizziness, headaches, and even dehydration. This could lead to poor judgment and even a deadly fall.
Because of all of this, you really should treat sunburn as if it were the plague. By this, I mean that you should avoid it at all costs.
Wear lots of sunscreen, bring a hat, wear sunglasses, apply lip balm and wear clothing that protects your skin. If you’re backpacking through the desert or in other areas where you’ll be exposed to a lot of sun, you may even want to bring an umbrella.
18. Shake Your Gear
Your gear is going to be exposed to bugs, insects, snakes, and other animals. Before you put your boots and backpack on in the morning, shake them out. This will reduce the chances of you putting your foot into a boot with a snake in it.
I once shook my boots out and found somebody’s half-eaten sandwich inside.
A squirrel or some other small animal must have found it and decided that my boot would be a great hiding place for it. The sandwich was pretty disgusting but at least the animal wasn’t still in there with it. These days, I bring my boots inside my tent or sleeping bag with me to avoid the issue altogether.
19. Leave No Trace
The reason you have a wonderful place to backpack through is that the people that went through before you decided to take care of it. Please do the same for the people that will go through the area after you. The best way to do this is by following the, leave no trace behind principles.
These principles state that you should travel and camp on durable surfaces, properly dispose of all of your waste, refrain from taking pieces of nature with you, minimize your campfire impacts, and respect both wildlife and people that you meet along the way. They also state that you should plan and prepare ahead of time. For more details on these principles, you can visit the Leave no Trace website.
20. Choose a Busy Trail
Beginner backpackers should probably choose a busy trail. Choosing a busy trail will provide you with a few benefits.
For starters, you’ll have more people around to get tips from as well as aid if you need it. On top of this, you’ll get to meet other like-minded people.
Also, busy trails tend to be easier to follow. Easy-to-follow trails reduce the chances that you’ll accidentally wander off of them and get lost.
21. Use Common Sense and Take Personal Responsibility
This may sound preachy, but backpackers need to understand that their safety is theirs and theirs alone. Nobody will care about you more than you do yourself and you are your best defense against anything that might go wrong on the trail.
Take time to learn everything you can about the areas you’ll be traveling through as well as backpacking in general. Add a bit of common sense to the equation and you’ll end up having a fun and safe backpacking trip that you’ll remember for years to come.