Backpacking for Beginners

Backpacking for Beginners So, has the time come to plan your first backpacking trip? Outstanding! Keep a few pointers in mind.

Things To Know

  • Wilderness lands are not theme parks. Out here, there are no handrails, no water fountains, no flush toilets, no snack bars, no trash cans, no cheery attendants directing you to your next attraction. You are on your own, completely dependent on your individual skills, energy and knowledge. If you're careless, you could get hurt, or worse. If complete self-reliance is unappealing to you, think twice before you attempt an overnight trip.
  • Nature is utterly indifferent to your presence. Roaring wind, searing heat, freak snowstorms, rockslides, idyllic summer afternoons, magnificent sunsets, revelatory moments of stillness and silence—the good and the bad of nature are both present in the backcountry, and it can be difficult to predict which face nature will reveal to you on any given day. The faint presence of danger is what gives backcountry exploration its distinctive appeal. Always be prepared for the unexpected.
  • Backcountry travel requires a change in thinking and behaving. Wild lands are special, even sacred places. "The clearest way into the Universe," wrote author John Muir, "is through a forest wilderness." In this development-minded civilization, our remaining parcels of wilderness are treasures that should be approached with joy and a degree of reverence. Tread lightly as you travel. Avoid boomboxes, litter, commotion and other byproducts of urbanization. Wrote Muir: "Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter."
  • Teach children to respect the land. Kids might think it's entertaining to paint words on rocks or gouge initials into trees or cut switchbacks. Adults must be diligent to help children appreciate the fragile qualities of wilderness lands. Teach them to leave rocks, flowers and natural features undisturbed.
  • Pack out what you pack in. That's a familiar old bromide that still rings true, right along with "Take only pictures, leave only footprints," and "Only you can prevent forest fires." In the wilderness, no one comes along and cleans up after you. You must take responsibility for all your actions. Leave no lasting impact on the land. Make sure people coming behind you can enjoy the same sensations of peacefulness and beauty that you experienced.

Other points to keep in mind:

  • Stay on established trails; when traveling cross-country, choose to walk on rock or snow rather than soil.
  • Camp in established campsite whenever possible.
  • Dispose of human waste far from water sources and trails.
  • Use a camp stove rather than building fires in order to minimize impact.
  • Keep your food away from wildlife, and never feed animals intentionally; it alters their natural foraging habits.

Planning Your Trip

So, has the time come to plan your first backpacking trip? Outstanding! Keep a few pointers in mind:

  • Pick a partner. Avoid going solo on your first overnighter in the woods. Team up with someone who has some backcountry experience, who shares your ambitions (in terms of distance, elevation gains, etc.) and, importantly, who agrees with your idea of a comfortable hiking pace.
  • Pick a destination. If possible, choose a backcountry area not too far from home, one that involves an established trail, regular visitation and established campsites. Maybe limit your first backcountry excursion to a 1-night stay so you're within a day's walk of an exit point—just in case things aren't working out.
  • Think ahead. Research and select a trip suitable for your skills and conditioning. Consult guidebooks. Confer with the information staff at a ranger station or visitor's center when you secure your permit (which is usually required). Ask about up-to-date trail conditions. If, for example, you're hiking in the Sierras, ask about bear activity. Some Sierra backcountry camping sites have "bear boxes" for storing food. Is your chosen site equipped with one? Or will you be required to carry a bear-resistant food container? Educate yourself about wilderness food storage techniques before you go.
  • Prepare. Do some local day hikes before the Big Event to acquaint yourself with walking in wilderness terrain. Break in your boots prior to your overnight jaunt. Blisters can literally stop you in your tracks far from a trailhead. Show courtesy to others on the trail. Seek out updated weather forecasts. Pick up additional advice from REI's online clinics and Tips and Tricks in our Community section. You can print out a page or two of our tips and carry them with you in the field. Store them with your map for handy reference.
  • Gear up. Refer to an REI checklist to consider what items your particular trip will require. Print one out. Relax: You won't need everything a checklist mentions, but it will help you plan so you don't leave behind any items important to you.

    Tip: Consider renting or borrowing equipment for your first trip. REI stores offer rental backpacking equipment. Experience in the field will help you shop smarter for gear that suits your personal long-term needs.

  • Make it fun. That's the whole point.