5 Backpacking Tips for Total Rookies

Photo by  Tristan Pineda  via Unsplash

Photo by Tristan Pineda via Unsplash

I’m so proud of you! You’ve decided to make the leap from camper to backpacker. You’re about to join the ranks of a particularly cool, wonderfully adventurous group of people. Welcome!

Here are a handful of tips for beginner backpackers to help make your first trip a phenomenal success.

1- Don’t let your gear make you miserable.

(It may be controversial to start a list of tips with a “don’t”, but I live life on the edge.)

Having the right gear is crucial.

Photo by  Edho Fitrah  via Unsplash

Photo by Edho Fitrah via Unsplash

I encourage borrowing or renting the majority of your gear, especially the big, pricey stuff like a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. It’s cheap and you get to take things for a spin without commitment. Be sure, very sure, that whatever you’re renting or borrowing is in good, usable shape and is going to be comfortable to carry for the next 24-48 hours.

Things to check for:

Sleeping bags-- Make sure the filling isn’t compacted. A fluffy, well-stored bag is a warm bag. Check for functional zippers and, if its down, that the feathers aren’t leaking out everywhere.

Tents-- Make sure all the poles are present, as well as the rain fly. Check that zippers work and that there aren’t any large holes. Mosquitoes love big holes in tents.

Sleeping Pads- If it’s inflatable, blow that puppy up. Make sure there are no holes or leaks. If it’s a foam type pad, test it for bounce and springability (it’s a word). A matted, compressed sleeping pad isn’t going to be comfortable and you’ll feel every rock, stick, and dirt clump.

This is not the time to use grandpa’s vintage external frame pack, no matter how much it makes you feel like a badass Arctic explorer. Get thee to your local gear store and have a pro help you find a pack that fits your body well and is big enough to fit all your goods.

What do you need to pack in that pack? Check out this excellent list over at the REI Journal.

And probably, definitely don’t borrow boots. A good pair doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, and will more than pay for itself in comfort. You want your boots formed to your foot and no one else’s. Buy a pair at least a couple of weeks before your trip and wear them often so they’re nice and broken in by hike time. Blister prevention at all costs is the goal here.

2- Bring one luxury item.

This is your opportunity to take backpacking up a notch. Take a minute to think of an item- just one- that would help you feel comfortable in your new environment.

It can be anything- a pair of down booties to keep your toes toasty at night, a portable french press because you can’t function without morning joe, a book (because reading!), flip-flops to wear at camp instead of stinky hiking boots, dice or cards to play during downtime.

The sky’s the limit here! Make your trip a little plush. Remember that whatever you bring you’ll also have to carry, so maybe leave the mini fridge at home.

Photo by  Teddy Kelley  via Unsplash

Photo by Teddy Kelley via Unsplash

3- Consider your menu carefully.

You’ll be spending a large portion of your day hiking with a 40-ish pound pack on your back, so you want the most nutrient bang for your buck to fuel all that work. Think high fat, high protein, high energy. Your food also needs to be compact, non-perishable, and pretty easy to prepare.

Tried-and-true choices include:

  • Nuts

  • Dried fruit

  • Pouches of tuna or chicken

  • Beef jerky

  • Protein or granola bars

  • Instant oatmeal

  • Powdered eggs or milk

  • Single-serve nut butter

  • Ramen

  • Instant rice or potatoes

  • Pancake mix of the “just add water” variety

Of course, there are less conventional options.

Examples? I almost never backpack without Pop Tarts (you’re welcome), a block of cheese, a stick of butter in colder weather, a pouch of wine (boxed wine without the box), and tea bags.

Or go whole-hog and buy your suppers ready-made from a source like Harmony House, Backpacker’s Pantry, or Good to Go. A pricey, but easy, option.

4- Do your research.

Surprise parties on your birthday= tons of fun. Surprises on the trail= not fun, and potentially dangerous.

Avoid surprises as much as possible by getting to know the area you’ll be backpacking.

  • Does the temperature drop 30 degrees come nightfall? 

  • Are there bears in the area?

  • Where are the water sources located on your route?

  • Does it rain every day between 2pm and 5pm?

  • Are there portions of the trail that aren’t well marked?

Knowing the answers to questions like this before heading out means that you can be that much more prepared for anything mama nature tosses at you.

Sources like All Trails and Gaia GPS are great for finding out specifics for your trail and getting tips from folks who have already hiked them.

5- Shift your perspective.

This is perhaps the most important tip I have. No amount of preparation, planning, or waterproofing your tent will add up to an amazing backpacking experience if you don’t go into it with an open mind.

It’s no secret that living outside is not like living in a house. For one, there’s no Netflix. Understand, and embrace, the fact that everything is going to take a little bit longer and be a little bit dirtier.

Remember why you decided to go backpacking in the first place.

You wanted to feel sun on your face while drinking your morning tea. You wanted to swim in a dancing creek far away from crowds. You wanted to sleep under sparkling constellations, and to feel the earth crunch underfoot as your strong and capable legs carry you down the trail.

You wanted to step away from technology and responsibilities to reconnect with what really resonates with your heart.

Make your first backpacking trip an incredible experience. One that kindles joy and connects you with the rhythms of nature.

Heed the call of your inner dirtbag, my friend.

We’d love to hear about your first backpacking experience. Drop a story in the comments below!

Jess DavidsonComment