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Backpacking 101

Author: Amanda Ellis

June 04, 2018

I wore cotton socks on my first section hike on the Appalachian Trail. An unexpected stream crossing left my feet miserably wet for the entire trip and left me with three blisters. I realized I should have been more prepared—and I threw out all of my cotton socks, investing in merino wool. It was a game-changer. And I did my research before setting out again. If you’ve never backpacked before, don’t let stories like that scare you; because with a little preparation, you can avoid some of the more miserable first-timer pitfalls. Here are a few tips that will help make sure your first backpacking trip isn’t your last—but instead, the beginning of many more fun trips to come.

What to Wear

Your layering system is just as important as the gear you bring. Avoid cotton at all costs — it takes a long time to dry once it’s wet, and in worst cases can lead to hypothermia. Pack the following: baselayers to wear underneath in cold weather, hiking layers you’ll wear while you’re moving, insulation layers, and rainwear, depending on the season and the weather. A good layering system lets you adapt to quickly changing conditions. Select moisture-wicking, quick drying fabrics.

Baselayers: Merino wool or synthetic fabric blends are recommended for your socks, underwear, and long underwear in cold temperatures. Merino wool stays warm when wet and offers odor resistance while synthetic fabrics provide durability. Shop women's Outdoor Research baselayers here, and men's Outdoor Research baselayers here.

Hiking layers: Comfortable stretch-woven hiking pants are quick drying and provide protection and from aggressive plants and insects. Wear convertible pants if it’s going to get hot and you enjoy hiking in shorts. A merino wool or technical synthetic T-shirt or long sleeve shirt make for a great top layer. Shop women's hiking pants and shirts. Shop men's hiking pants and shirts.

Insulation: A lightweight fleece and a puffy vest or jacket are the best forms of insulation to bring on backpacking trip. Packing lightweight gloves and a hat is smart, even if you don’t think it will get that cold. Conditions can change quickly. Shop women's insulation here and men's insuation here.

Rainwear: Always pack a waterproof breathable jacket, just in case the weather takes a turn for the worse. Rain pants are recommended in wet seasons or climates. Shop women's rainwear here and men's rainwear here.

Physical Preparation

You don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to enjoy backpacking—but being physically prepared can make it feel more fun and less strenuous. You’re probably going to need to be able to hike with a heavy pack for at least a few hours, and depending on your destination, possibly at a higher elevation where it could be harder to breathe. If you can, practice day hiking with a heavier pack beforehand. There’s no easy way to train for a backpacking trip — the best training is getting out there and doing it. 

Mental Preparation

Mental preparation isn’t just about getting in the zone before your trip. Familiarize yourself with all of your gear ahead of time. Set up your tent in your backyard or the park so you feel confident doing it in the backcountry. Light up your stove, and make sure you know how to use any electronic gadgets you’re bringing — even simple things, such as your headlamp. You don’t want to be stuck out in the wilderness at night trying to figure out how to unlock your brand new headlamp!

Learn necessary skills ahead of time, including wilderness first aid and map and compass navigation. If possible, complete a short course ahead of time. Having wilderness survival skills will make you feel prepared and confident in the backcountry. Look for opportunities through your local outdoor retailer or club.

If you’re going to camp someplace without a privy or pit toilet, you’ll need to learn how to go to the bathroom without leaving any trace. Here’s a very important tutorial for how to relieve yourself in the woods without leaving waste for others to find.

Managing Logistics

Depending on where you’re backpacking, many national forests and protected areas require backcountry permits, which you’ll likely need to attain in advance. Contact the area’s local ranger station to find out more information.

For your first trip, pick a manageable distance with a limited elevation gain, somewhere close to home, featuring a well-established camping area and easily accessible water source. Also, be aware of wildlife habits in the area and determine if you need to carry bear spray or a bear canister to store your food. You want your first experience to be memorable so keep it as simple as possible. Reach out to experienced hikers or guides if you have questions.

What to Eat

Meal planning for a backpacking trip can be fun—but if you don’t pack properly, it can just about ruin the experience. Remember: You won’t have a cooler, so perishables are mostly out of the question. Freeze-dried backpacking meals are your easiest and lightest option as you only need to add boiling water to them, but they are also pricey.

If you’re planning on eating cheap, avoid heavy items like canned foods. All-in-one packaged noodle or rice dinners are ideal choices for dinner. High calorie energy bars, trail mix, and jerky are great snacking options. For breakfast, oatmeal packets or breakfast bars are the easiest way to go.

The Gear You Need and How to Pack

If you don’t have all the items you need—like a stove or tent—consider borrowing from a friend, sharing with a backpacking partner or renting from a local gear store. Don’t let being one item short keep you from hitting the trail! You can always buy it later on.

The key to packing your backpack comfortably is to keep the heaviest items centered between your shoulder blades and close to your back. That, in turn, transfers most of the weight to your hips, which is ideal.

Pack your sleeping bag and pad at the bottom of the pack, and if you have a bottom opening on your pack, this will make both items easily accessible when setting up camp. Pack your tent, stove, and food — likely your heaviest items — on top and against your back, pushing up against your water bladder, if you’re carrying one. Organize the medium-weight and remaining items in the front, top, and the lid of your pack.

A few last tips: Use a checklist to organize your gear and don’t pack the night before! Forgetting something important can make for a miserable first trip. But with a little planning ahead, you can feel confident heading out on the trail for a backpacking trip that could spark a lifetime of adventure.

Amanda Ellis

Amanda can be found writing about the outdoors or playing in it, whether it’s adventure climbing in her North Carolina home or seeking out superior granite cracks. When she’s not writing or climbing, she’s skiing, surfing, or searching for the wild horses that roam the Outer Banks. She won the American Alpine Club’s ‘Live Your Dream’ grant to climb Bugaboo Spire in 2016 and since that experience has made her life goal to complete the most scenic alpine routes in the world.