Backpacking 101: What You Need to Know to Get Started

Backpacking 101: What You Need to Know to Get Started

By Monica Prelle
For ReserveAmerica.com

People with backpacks

Sleep under the stars in a remote wilderness destination, fall asleep next to a babbling creek, and sip coffee while the rising sun casts a golden light on your backcountry camp. Yes, backpacking is as inspiring as it sounds.

Backpacking is essentially the combination of camping and hiking, but even if you are a seasoned camper, there are a few things to consider before you hit the trail and go backpacking for the first time.

Get Fit Before You Go

Many first-time backpackers complain about their aching back and shoulders, or those darn blisters on their feet. If you get fit before you go backpacking, you’ll feel better and have more fun.

This includes breaking in your hiking shoes! Simply wearing your boots around town while you run errands or taking a few short hikes will help break in your boots. Remember to wear the socks that you will be hiking in to assure a proper fit.

You should also get your body in shape for backpacking. Wear your backpack on short hikes so your body can get used to hiking with the added weight of a backpack. Start with a half-loaded pack on and gradually increase the weight and the distance of your training hikes.

Test Your Gear

Before you walk for miles into the backcountry, you’ll want to know how to set up your tent, use your water filter, and cook on your camping stove. Create a list of the essentials that you’ll need like a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, water filter and stove, and make sure you know how each piece of equipment works. You may realize that you’re missing a tent pole or that your borrowed sleeping bag has a hole in it.

It also helps to pack all of your gear into your pack before walking out the door to go backpacking. You’ll want to make sure everything fits, that your pack isn’t heavier than you can handle, and that you know how to pack according to weight distribution.

Plan your Backpacking Adventure

A little bit of research and planning will help make sure your backpacking adventure is fun, safe and enjoyable. First, find a friend to go with you. It’s safer to have a backpacking companion and easier since you can share the basic equipment.

Next, select a destination within your hiking capability. Get a map of the area you’d like to visit and calculate mileage and elevation within your comfort level.

If your trip starts and ends at different trailheads, make sure there is transportation to help you get back to your car, or bring a second car for a shuttle. Another option is to base-camp in one spot for the duration of your trip and spend the extra days relaxing, day hiking, climbing or fishing.

When planning your destination, make sure to look into the water sources in the area. You’ll need to filter your water and want to know that your destination has a reliable water source.

Once you have decided on a destination and route, you should contact the ranger district to get information about permits and regulations. Before you go, check the weather so you’ll be prepared, but also keep in mind that weather patterns can change and you’ll want to be prepared for anything.

Hit the Trail

Now that you are in shape, you’ve tested your gear, and planned your route, it’s time to hit the trail and go backpacking! Keep backpacking etiquette and the environment in mind while you’re in the wilderness.

Most backpackers walk into the wilderness for peace and solitude, but you will most likely see others along the trail and possibly at your destination. Whenever possible, don’t camp directly next to someone and always camp in an existing campsite if available. Remember that your voice carries in the quiet setting of the great outdoors.

Always set up camp 100 feet from water and never wash your dishes directly in a creek or lake. You’ll need to bury your waste more than 6 inches deep, and away from freshwater sources. Though toilet paper is biodegradable, it is best to burn or pack out your paper products. If campfires are permitted, make sure to keep them under control at all times and to drown all campfires before going to sleep at night.

RAReserve a campsite.

Monica Prelle is a freelance writer and outdoor adventurer. She lives with her husband and dog in California’s Eastern Sierra.