I love introducing people to backpacking, and have taken many friends out on their first-ever trip. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about how best to approach it, and what makes for the best possible experience. My basic philosophy and recommendation is that you go into mountain-guide mode, and treat your beginner friend like a guest in your home. As a host, you’ll feed them, shelter them, and plan out everything for them, so all they have to focus on is having fun and learning as they go. Below are my 12 tips for ensuring your beginner friend has a wonderful time on their first multi-day hike.
1. Establish goals
Before you start researching a destination, ask them what they want out of the trip. Some people simply idolize backcountry lake camping, while others might request a challenging itinerary, or for the hike to be focused seeing particular types of flora and fauna. Or maybe they don’t know what they want. No matter, it’s always helpful to ask, as the answer will help inform your planning strategy.
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2. Handle all of the trip planning
Aside from agreed-upon dates, you—the experienced backpacker—should take care of all of the trip planning. Any decisions pertaining to destination, itinerary, navigation, permits, commute and conditions should be made by you. Logistics are stressful, especially when options are nearly limitless, so the less they have to plan, the better. Your experience will help you make better, more informed decisions leading to a more successful trip.
3. Don’t get too ambitious
Never assume your friend can hike as long, as far or as fast as you can. Choose a conservative itinerary. Only in special cases should you count on going more than 10 miles per day. While it may seem like normal walking, backpacking is extremely taxing on untrained legs and pain and/or discomfort is likely to pop up in the least expected places. Your friend is never going to fall in love with backpacking if they only associate it with discomfort.
4. Help them pack
Packing is complicated and just about everyone screws it up at first. Work with your friend to provide a list of everything they need to bring, and consider scheduling a review of what’s in their pack a few days before the trip. Offer to loan them items that they may not own, or help them shop for new stuff. A blend of both is good, because the opportunity to try out new gear helps get people stoked.
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5. Manage all of the food
Choosing and rationing the correct types and amounts of food is one of the greatest challenges in backpacking. So I always offer to pick up all of their food for them by simply doubling my own menu when I shop. This makes one less major logistical hurdle and point for them to stress about. Plus, a superior menu will help keep your friend happy and energized on the trail. If you’re a really strong hiker, offer to carry some of their extra food for them. Even with the added weight, you’re still probably faster and more endurant.
6. Provide and carry all of the group gear
In order to reduce your friend’s pack weight, prep work, and responsibilities, I also volunteer to provide and carry all of the shared gear such as shelter, stove, first aid, bear storage, etc. This makes their packing job much easier and lightens their load on the trail. Hiking with a fully weighted pack for the first time can take some getting used to, and any efforts to reduce the weight they carry will likely increase trail happiness.
7. Offer to drive
If you’re able, offer to drive! Driving is just one more thing that can stress people out. Traffic, backroad navigation, gravel, potholes, or simply being at the wheel are all things that may reduce happiness. The more psyched and less stressed your friend is when they arrive at the trailhead, the more ready they’ll be to handle the hardships of backcountry travel. Pro tip: Surprise them with donuts on the ride.
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8. Double check their pack at the trailhead
No matter how meticulous you are in helping your friend pack in advance, something extra and unnecessary will always make it into a first-timer’s kit the night before. I highly recommend spending 10 minutes before hitting the trail double checking every item they’re bringing. You never know what you’ll find. Rambo knives, three extra tee shirts, five pounds of pancake mix, and gifty outdoor knick-knacks (like flint) are often chief suspects.
9. Teach as you go
Every decision made in the backcountry is a potential teaching opportunity. Use your best judgement to give micro-lessons as you hike without going overboard and drowning your friend in info all at once. Good example questions to answer could be: “What is LNT?” “Why are we preemptively taping a hot spot on my foot?” “Why are we camping at this specific site?” “Why are we peeing away from the lake?” “Why aren’t we storing food in the tent?” Why are we filling up water here?” You get the idea.
10. Be the campsite manager
As the veteran backpacker, it’s your job to manage all aspects of the backcountry campsite. It’s okay to assign your friend jobs or have them help, but never assume they know what to do or how/when/why to do it, and be sure to give them cues as you go. You should take charge of picking the site, setting up the tent, retrieving water, food prep, cooking, campfire-building (if appropriate), maintaining a clean area, bear storage and every other aspect of camping.
11. Become the leader
If it wasn’t readily apparent in my other tips, it is explicitly your job to become the trip leader. No matter your relationship or personality types back home, if you’re a more qualified backcountry decision maker, you should always be leading the charge in every aspect of the trip. Define your roles at the start and invite them to ask questions as needed. Be confident in giving them direction or telling them what not to do and why. If you struggle with leadership skills, this is also a perfect opportunity for personal growth.
12. Make sure they get their coffee
Last but most importantly, check in with your friend about their coffee habits and make sure they’re provided with as much as they could possibly want. There’s no faster way to ruin a trip than by depriving a caffeine addict.
Some might question the validity of doing this much of a beginner’s work for them, but I think it’s the perfect approach to teaching backpacking. Between common misconceptions around bears, freezing, starving and getting lost, the experience is daunting enough without having to worry much about logistics. If a person has a great time on their first trip, they’re more likely to come back to it for a second time, or better yet, for a lifetime. And they have all their future trips to master the logistics and camp chores. Like everything else, the key to hooking in a first timer is simply having fun!