There are countless amazing backpacking trails around America just begging to be explored.
If you’ve only done day hikes, preparing for your first overnight backpacking trip might feel overwhelming, but with the right information and planning you can have a great first experience.
Choose Your Travel Buddies Carefully
Consider leaving the dog and young kids at home for your first trip into the backcountry. It’s best to reduce the number of variables for your first time out. It will also increase the likelihood that they will have an awesome first experience with you in the future.
Instead, go it alone or invite a friend who is an experienced backpacker. Veterans usually love introducing people to the joys of backpacking. A veteran backpacker can share tips and tricks along the way and help you avoid rookie mistakes.
Choose Your Distance Wisely
Beginner backpackers often overestimate the number of miles they can reasonably cover. A recommended length for your first trip is 8-10 miles total. This will give you plenty of time to pack, arrive at the trailhead, and hike at a comfortable pace to the campsite.
Choose Your Route Carefully
For your first backpacking trip, choose a comfortable route erring on the easy side. It’s better to start off too easy and ramp up than to start off too challenging and have a miserable time.
Shorter and easier routes will also give you time to adjust to hiking with a heavy 30 to 40 pound pack and allow you to get to your campsite and set up before dark—this is especially important if you are using new or unfamiliar gear.
Loop hikes or out-and-back trips are the easiest to plan. If you are considering a point-to-point trip, you will need to drop a car off at each end of the route and those logistics can add unnecessary complexity. (If you do settle on a point-to-point trip, don’t forget to bring the keys to BOTH cars with you! Learn from my rookie mistake.)
If you are particularly hesitant about the transition into backpacking, consider a “walk-in campground”. Some state parks and national parks have campsites within a mile or two of a parking lot or car campground.
Some great places to learn about ideal first backpacking trips are:
- Local guidebooks: they will give clear descriptions of the trails, campsites, water sources, and other important details.
- Many websites have trip reports and Q&A forums for you to ask any questions you might have about local backpacking.
- Hiking clubs, outdoor organization, and meet-up groups, are an often-overlooked resource for the beginner backpacker. Don’t hesitate to pick the brains of local adventurers who often have up-to-date info on trips, trail conditions, and other things.
Know the Route Details
After you choose your route, make your detailed plan. Get a topographical map and make sure you are very familiar with the route to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Don’t rely solely on GPS maps, even out in the woods. You never know when your GPS unit might die or malfunction. So, it’s best to be very familiar with the paper map even if you plan to use a GPS unit.
Identify on your map the campsite and water sources you intend to use. If the water sources are smaller streams, check with local officials or guides to make sure there is water flowing—particularly in the drought months.
Know what kind of terrain and elevation gain/loss the trail will have. Remember, easier is better. There is no shame in going small for your first trip.
Get Your Permits
Make sure you know the rules and get the proper permits or passes before you head out. Federal or state parks have different requirements. Some wilderness areas that are especially popular or strictly protected (like the Grand Canyon or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and many others) require you to get a permit through an annual lottery system.
Know the Wildlife
When heading into the backcountry, be aware of the local wildlife. Most of the time, you will only need to be concerned with small scavengers like raccoons or mice that like to take advantage of the snacks you brought in.
Do a bit of research to learn what other wildlife live in the area like bears, cougars, or venomous snakes. Local rangers or park officials will have updated information and recommendations. If you are headed into bear country, consider taking bear spray with you as a precaution.
Also be aware of any biting insects and plan accordingly. Insect-repellant sprays and clothing are a worthwhile investment for comfort and to prevent insect-born illnesses (like Lymes Disease transmitted by ticks or West Nile Virus spread by mosquitos).
Collect Your Gear
Renting gear for your first time out is a good option to save money. Quality gear is expensive.
Renting or borrowing gear is a good way to spread the cost over time and gives you the opportunity to try different products to get a better idea of what you like before making big purchases.
Many hiking and outdoor clubs have gear for rent or use by their members. There are also online services that rent the more expensive items like tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, and stoves.
If you are traveling with a friend, decide ahead of time who is bringing what gear so you don’t wind up with duplicates and unnecessary weight.
While this is not an exhaustive list, here’s a list of gear “must-haves” to get you started:
- Navigation: Bring your map in a waterproof sleeve or bag, a compass, and a GPS if you have one.
- Tent and ground cloth (to put under the tent)
- Headlamp (with fresh batteries)
- First Aid Kit (including blister care… just in case, a whistle, and a fire starter)
- Fire: matches, flint, or lighter (having more than one is a good idea)
- Water filtration or purification (there are many options)
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Backpacking stove and fuel (unless you aren’t planning to heat or cook food)
- Cook set and eating utensils (a size appropriate pot can double as a cooking pot and plate / bowl)
- Small quick-dry towel and biodegradable soap (for cleaning cookware)
- Water bottles (Nalgenes or other options)
- Rain gear (rain jacket, rain pants, hat, and pack cover)
- Food and snacks
- Backpack (check out our post about choosing a hiking backpack for guidance)
Bring The Right Clothes
The key to trail comfort is to layer up. Opt for clothes that are quick-dry synthetic blends or wool. Cotton takes a long time to dry and can cause chaffing. If you are hiking in the sun, consider investing in clothes that offer UV protection.
Consider packing a pair of sandals to keep your boots and socks dry if your route takes you through lots of streams or other water. It’s also good practice to pack one extra pair of socks. Caring for your feet is a must while out on the trail and damp socks often cause blisters or other foot problems.
Food and Snacks
Plan to bring between 2,500 and 4,500 calories per person per day (how far you are hiking, elevation, and speed will impact how often and how much you eat). Carrying a 30-40 pound pack burns more calories than light day hiking.
Keep your backpacking meals simple and lightweight, especially on your first trip. Freeze-dried, pre-packaged meals are easy to pack and only require boiling water. Avoid canned or bottled foods, as they are heavy and bulky.
I place all the food items for each meal in a separate Ziploc bag or reusable bag, and put all my snacks in another baggie. I write on the outside of the bag (or label it) what meal it contains and any cooking instructions I may need that are not printed on the food packages. Include a few strips of paper towels in each meal bag. Leave behind cardboard boxes and any extra packaging to reduce waste. When I’m finished eating and cleaning up, I use the empty Ziploc bag or reusable bag to pack all the trash.
It’s good practice to bring a little extra food in case of an emergency. But a common packing mistake is to bring far too much food. Over time you will learn how much food your body needs while out on the trail and be able to pack more efficiently.
There are many websites and books with tasty backpacking recipes and meal prep pro-tips.
Fill all your water bottles before you hit the trail and know ahead of time where you plan to refill your water.
As a personal practice, I bring an additional full water bottle to leave in my car. It’s better to be prepared just in case you finish the trip and have run out of water.
There are many water purification options from filters to iodine tablets. It’s really a matter of personal preference. But remember, you aren’t just filtering out dirt and “floaties”; you are filtering out bacteria and parasites that can make you sick (like giardia).
Filters are easy to use, fast, and usually small and lightweight. They work by running the water through a series of screens and filters that trap the impurities. Filter systems last for years if well maintained and usually have replaceable filters.
Water purification tablets often require letting the water sit for 30 minutes (or longer) and sometimes leave your water tasting funny. It’s easy to cover up the iodine taste with sports drink mixes (like Gatorade, Nuun, or other electrolyte mixes that come in powder or tablet form) and the added benefit of electrolytes, especially in summer months, is a healthy plus.
Tablets are cost-effective, lightweight options when just starting out backpacking if you want to put off investing in a more expensive filter.
Wildlife and Food
Be prepared to secure all your food and toiletry items at night in a bear bag hung high in a tree or in a bear canister. Raccoons and other rodents are always prowling for an easy snack and will gladly help themselves to your breakfast if given the chance.
If you opt for hanging a bear bag, you can use one of your stuff sacks and bring some lightweight nylon rope to hang it.
Keeping human food away from wildlife protects the animals and reduces the number of unsafe interactions between wildlife and humans. The more comfortable animals become with humans and the more they develop a taste for human food, the more aggressive they can become.
Before You Leave
Practice setting up your tent and using any items you are unfamiliar with before your backpacking trip. Consider setting up all your gear as if you are at the campsite to make sure you have everything you will need and you are comfortable using everything. Then, pack everything up and make sure the weight in your pack is manageable.
Tell someone where you are going! Give a friend or family member your itinerary, your planned route, and intended campsite. Let them know when you plan to leave and return. Decide together at what point they will contact authorities if they have not heard from you (leave a reasonable time buffer…. Many things take longer out on the trails).
Leave the information for your emergency contact and your basic itinerary under the front seat of the car you leave at the trailhead. In the event of an emergency, this will give authorities vital information.
Check the weather again to be sure you are prepared. It’s ok to cancel if the forecast looks iffy.
Now you’re ready to hit the trail for your first backpacking trip! Where are you planning to go? Share in the comments. Happy trails!