Backpacking For Beginners – Comprehensive Guide

Backpacking is a great way to exercise and have fun whilst exploring the outdoors. It allows you to get amongst the trails, forests, mountains and lakes giving you a more immersive outdoor experience. We’ve put together this guide on backpacking for beginners so no matter what your experience level, you can enjoy the activity.

What is the difference between backpacking and hiking? 

Hiking can be carried out without any backpack or extra gear. Usually a hike might last a few hours whereas a backpacking adventure can take all day, and if you take along means of shelter you can stay overnight. 

Whilst backpacking your backpack must carry all of your life’s essentials to keep you fed, warm and safe. We’ll go over what to pack in this article. 

The main steps to a successful backpacking trip: 

We’re going to cover each of these steps in depth throughout this article. 

 

  1. Choose your destination – If you are just starting out then I would opt for a shorter route, which isn’t too far away from home in case you need to turn back. Always remember to check the weather for your chosen location so you can pack accordingly. 

  2. Pack your gear and clothing – Borrow or purchase some hiking gear and clothing. Remember to always wear your clothing in layers, so you can easily adjust your body temperature whilst doing activities in the outdoors. 

  3. Plan your meals – It’s always worth planning your meals ahead of time. You can usually pick up some quick camping ready meals which take up little space in your pack from your local camping store. And remember to pack some snacks for the hike – Breakfast bars which are high in energy are a great choice. 

  4. Pre-trip research and conditioning – The last thing you want is to set out on a backpacking trip and realise you can’t support all of your gear on your back. Start small and work your way up to the longer distance to condition your body. Once you know where you are heading, double check online if you need to take permits with you for camping overnight and if you’re allowed campfires (should you want one). 

 

If it’s your first time backpacking, it might be a good idea to take someone more experienced along with you, they can act as your guide and teach you the ropes. You can opt to do backpacking on your own, and the main focus of this article is to give you the knowledge to do so but taking a friend can give you the reassurance that you’ll be safe. 

1. Choosing your backpacking destination

backpacking checklist

Choosing your destination is often easier said than done, especially for first-timers. We always recommend that you opt for a slightly easier hike than a hard one. If it’s too challenging you just end up miserable, whereas if it’s an easy hike, you can spend more time working on your camp area and exploring the surroundings. 

 

Here are some tips to help you decide where to go backpacking for the first time:

  • Ask around and talk to more experienced locals/backpackers. Join a forum or Facebook page to ask some questions and advice about your local area. Hiking guide books are also a great choice.
  • Pick somewhere close to home. You want to spend more time backpacking than driving. This also ensures you have enough daylight to get to camp and set up properly.
  • Choose to backpack on a well established hiking trail and camp. It’s nice to know that there will be other hikers in the area who can give you a hand if you get hurt or lost.
  • Make sure you pick a backpacking location near fresh water so you don’t have to carry a large amount with you.
  • If you are new to backpacking and have no experience in setting up a good camp after a long day's hike, then look for ‘walk-in’ campgrounds. They are common around most national parks. It’s usually a good camping spot a short walk from a carpark. It’s a great way to transition into backpacking.

2. Packing your backpacking gear & clothing

Because you’ll be carrying all of your gear and tent on your back, it has to be lightweight and compact. That’s why most people struggle to backpack when taking all of their generic camping gear you would pack in a car, for example, your comfy camping chair. If you don’t have a backpack check out our review of the best choices under $100.

What gear should you take?

  • Tent: If you are backpacking with a friend and don’t mind sharing a smaller tent, then opt for a 2 person tent as it weighs less and takes up less space than a larger tent. If you can afford a 4 seasons tent and plan to use it whilst mountaineering then that’ll be a great choices. If you aren’t heading into really cold climates or high altitudes then a 3 season (spring, summer and fall) tent will do just fine.
  • Backpack: Before you purchase a pack, make sure it is the right size for your body and fits comfortably and also is big enough to carry all of your essential gear. Always take your pack out on a test run whilst loaded up to the max so you can be sure that when you head out on the trails for real it is comfy on your hips and shoulders.
  • Sleeping bag: Before you pick up your sleeping bag, consider the pros and cons of down vs synthetic for the environment and climate you will be camping in.
  • Sleeping pad: You can have the best sleeping bag and tent in the world, but without any cushioning on the ground, you won’t have a good night’s sleep. There are a few different types of sleeping pad which work well: closed-cell foam, insulated air pads and self inflating sleeping pads.
  • Cooking Stove: A standard single burner camp stove will probably work fine for your first backpacking trip. Remember to pack a full gas canister. Once you get more experienced and obsessed with reducing the load on your back then cooking equipment like a kelly kettle will be a great choice.
  • Water treatment: Occasionally, even clear, running water can hide bacteria and things you wouldn’t want to consume. The last thing you want to happen on your backpacking trip is to come down ill, especially when you have to hike all the way back home or to your car. There is bottles that include a water filer which work well, but if you are just starting out then an inexpensive alternative is to use water treatment tablets which can chemically treat the water and kill off any of the bacteria/viruses it might contain.
  • Kitchen equipment: Before investing in some dedicated backpacking cutlery and pans, it’s worth just starting out with your kitchen knives, forks and spoons. Take only the pans, cups and bowls you need to cook all of your meals. Also make sure you use biodegradable soap whilst washing up. A microfibre towel can come in useful for drying your pots and yourself - they also roll away tiny!

What clothes should you wear?

backpacking clothes

 

If you are just starting out in the world of backpacking, then there is no need to buy a bunch of specialized hiking clothes. Find some sports-wear and clothing made of moisture-wicking fabrics like nylon and polyester. (Moisture-wicking pulls sweat away from your skin to keep you dryer and prevent you from getting damp and cold). Remember to always layer your clothing, let’s explore that in more depth.  

 

You should plan out your clothing in layer:

 

Base Layer: Base layers are often referred to as your ‘second skin’. It has the ability to keep you both warm and cool depending on the climate you are in. 

Base layers provide a layer of warmth via the air trapped between the fabric and your skin, whilst at the same time, absorbing any excess moisture and sweat away from your skin. This is referred to as ‘wicking’.

 

Mid Layer: As the name suggests, the middle layer is worn over your base layer and underneath the outer layer. The mid-layer is where you should focus all of the main insulating duties. It’s also the piece of clothing you’re most likely to take on and off depending on the weather conditions. 

In cold weather, most people will opt for a thicker mid layer like a down or synthetic filled jacket. In moderate and warmer weather, you could opt for a thinner synthetic or lightweight fleece.

Outer Layer: The outer layer’s main purpose is to protect you from the elements, whether it be high speed winds or a torrential downpour. It’s always worth packing an outer layer that can handle the most extreme weather as you never know what you might encounter! 

 Learn more about layered clothing here.

What shoes should you wear whilst backpacking?

backpacking shoes

Regardless of where you are heading,  your feet are important! Especially when you might be hiking over rough terrain and carrying extra weight on your person. Shoe buying ultimately comes down to personal preference and the climate you are in. Some backpackers will opt for lightweight hiking trainers which are nimble and comfy. Whilst others will opt for more supportive high ankle boots which are more protective. 

 

Your boots or shoes should be well worn and broken-in before you go. The last thing you want is a blister!.Wool and synthetic socks will keep your feet warm and comfy. If you have space, a lightweight pair of sandals or trainers can be great for wearing when you get to your camp.

3. Plan your meals

If you are backpacking overnight, then you’ll want to plan a few meals for you to consume throughout both days and over night. Dinner, breakfast and a couple of lunch meals should do the trick, and any snacks you will enjoy! 

Freeze dried backpacking food is the lightest and easiest option. You usually just add boiling water and then eat. If you prefer freshly cooked food options, then head to your local grocery store but be cautious that you do have to pack and carry the food/drinks. Also remember that you won’t be carrying a cooler with you, so opt for non perishable goods. 

 

Canned food seems like a great option initially and one or two cans spread amongst your group will be fine, but a lot of cans can get very heavy in your pack.

4. Pre-trip research & conditioning

If you aren’t mentally, physically or logistically prepared for your backpacking trip then you might not have the best experience outdoors and we would hate that! Follow the following steps to prepare for your backpacking trip and ensure that you have an awesome time.

  • Condition your body: You may already be an avid hiker or runner, but the dynamics are drastically altered when you are carrying a 40lb pack on your back. We won’t sugar coat it, over rough terrain and a high % incline, you will tire quicker and your muscles will burn! You aren’t training for an ultramarathon but even the shortest backpacking trips can be physically demanding on your body. Always do a few pre-trip hikes with your pack to get used to the demand on your body and properly prepare yourself physically and mentally for your adventure.
  • Mental preparation: If you’re a new to backpacking, all of the intricacies and details can quickly become overwhelming. Familiarize yourself with your gear ahead of time, learn to properly pitch your tent, cook your meals, learn basic first aid and how to use a map and compass. It’s better to know these things, even if you don’t use them regularly, it will give you more confidence whilst outdoors.
  • Logistics: There are a few logistical things you need to plan ahead of time. Such as your car journey, the directions from the carpark to your camping spot, what kind of permits do you need to camp overnight (popular spots are likely to require them), fire restrictions and other information which is valuable for the place you are exploring. A quick google search should tell you all you need to know.
  • Leave a trip plan with a friend or family member: Include details about where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Hopefully they won’t need to give this information to the authorities, but it’s worth the effort incase!

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