Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking At Least Once—And How To Get Started

I'm a bit of a backpacking evangelist—here's why. Plus, how to plan your first trip so it won't be your last.

With about 1,000 pounds of very important gear stuffed inside my pack—including a full-sized bed pillow and a Tupperware container filled with plums (yes, plums, those hardy backpacking staples)—I felt well prepared. About twelve years ago, I stood with a pair of friends at the Chilnualna Falls trailhead in Yosemite National Park, excited to embark on my very first backpacking trip. But I felt sort of nervous. How exactly was I going to walk uphill for miles and miles with the kitchen sink lashed to my back? 

Ascending the granite steps alongside the waterfall, sweat beaded across my forehead, produced by both anxiety and my body’s overburdened inner A/C. By the time we reached camp hours later, my feet hurt, my muscles ached, and my bowels signaled it was time to get acquainted with the trowel shoved in my pack’s stretchy side pocket. After a bear quite rudely interrupted my very first cathole session, I thought—you know what, maybe I should stick to day hiking.


I thought—you know what, maybe I should stick to day hiking.


But then the magic kicked in. We camped on top of a granite bluff, and as we devoured what tasted like something out of a Michelin-starred kitchen, the sun descended, leaving a pastel sky in its wake, followed by the most brilliant starlight I’d ever witnessed.

The view was just as lovely the next morning. I practically floated down trail, flush with the high of not just surviving, but deeply enjoying my first slumber party in the backcountry. It felt like my soul had completely refreshed in that scant 36 hours. I was hooked.

Since then, I’ve become somewhat of a backpacking evangelist. If I’ve ever seen you walk more than a few paces on trail, I’ll do my very best to encourage you to shoulder a pack and join me for at least one night in the middle of nowhere. Or—I’ll just talk incessantly about how much I love backpacking while showing you beautiful photographs of the backcountry until you relent.

It’s not that I’m a sadist. It’s just that I know how transformative the experience can be. Backpacking gives us access to places we may never reach during a day hike, plus the opportunity fully immerse in the beauty of those places. Your body resets to the rhythms of nature, while your basic needs are reduced to figuring out where to pitch camp, eat meals, filter water, and, um, relieve yourself—with or without the company of otherwise nice bears who do not understand boundaries.


It felt like my soul had completely refreshed in that scant 36 hours.


Thanks to a delightful (or, for some, anxiety-producing) lack of cell service and internet access, you learn to instead focus on the moment. Which is why I often think of backpacking as a sort of walking meditation. The solitude can be absolutely incredible, an opportunity to spend time not just in nature, but also with yourself. (True story: I made the decision to leave a solid career in the music industry in favor of becoming a freelance writer during a two-month stint on the Pacific Crest Trail.) Of course, if you’re not quite ready for backcountry alone time, popular destinations usually come with ample opportunity to meet likeminded folks.

In addition, studies show that time spent outdoors benefits our mental and physical health—and backpacking is nothing if not a whole lot of time spent outdoors. Plus, backpacking can actually shift how you think about your body—and yourself. The challenges of shouldering a heavy pack and grinding out miles (especially uphill ones) help build resilience, but also boost your self-esteem and reframe what you’re capable of, both on trail and off. When the going gets tough at home, at work, or in relationships, I need only to look to my time on the trail before I realize that if I can poop five feet away from a snorting bear, then I can truly do anything.

So, do I have you convinced? Here are some tips for planning your first backpacking trip so that it—hopefully—won’t be your last.

Planning on the front end will pay off.

 

Poring over guidebooks, websites, and good ol’ fashioned paper maps can help you select your first route. But pay close attention not just to the total mileage, but also to your cumulative elevation gain. An elevation profile will show you all of the major ups and downs o you’re prepared mentally (if not physically).

Research possible campsites and water sources, and mark these on a map. I recommend carrying a paper map and learning how to use it with a compass. Even simply learning how to point yourself and your map north goes a long way toward orienting yourself in space. Phone apps are a great backup; be sure to download an area map since you’ll be offline. Finally, look up the weather forecast, road conditions, trailhead parking situation, requirements for critter-proof food storage and any permits that may be required.

Set modest expectations.

Dream big—and then dial it back a little. You don’t want to go so hard right out of the gate that you end up miserable. The focus of your first trip shouldn’t be on crushing miles, but rather, enjoying them. Think about your average day hiking mileage, then cut that down a bit. Make sure your mileage goal leaves you with enough daylight to arrive in camp well before dark, especially if this will be your first time setting up a tent or using cooking gear. While I tend to think that a two-night trip is the sweet spot for a backcountry quickie, since it gives you a full day immersed in nature, one night is plenty to test your gear, your food, your body, and your resolve to sleep on the ground.

Partner up.

Setting off on your first backpacking trip can feel intimidating. Wrangle a buddy, join a local hiking group to find potential partners, or sign up for a guided adventure to feel more comfortable and learn the ropes from those who’ve so boldly gone before you. While I love striking out solo, I’m also really grateful for all I learned from the way-more-experienced people who joined me on those earliest trips—like, perhaps, leave the giant container of plums at home.

Don’t worry about weight at first—focus on systems.

It might be tempting to blow your life savings on backpacking gear before your first trip—and if you enjoy the experience, you’ll definitely want to invest. But if you don’t, that’s a lot of returns to wrangle. Instead, consider renting the bigger items, like a tent, from local outfitters. Or borrow from friends, family or gear libraries. 

Don’t worry too much about gear weight; as you build your kit, get what you can afford at first. Then save up for what you want later down the line. What you do want to focus on is your “systems”—the gear you need for sleeping, eating, dressing, safety and hygiene. Sort these into stuff sacks inside your pack so that, say, all your clothing is in one place. It’s okay to bring some comforts along with the necessities—I’m partial to a book and an inflatable pillow (I learned my lesson).

Remember: Food is fuel, but it is also joy.

If you don’t like eating something at home, don’t think you’ll suddenly crave it after you’ve spent the day carrying the equivalent of a small child on your back. Bring what you like to eat, as long as what you like to eat isn’t located inside a heavy aluminum can or glass jar. On trail, I tend to eat fresh foods and meals that I’ve cooked and dehydrated at home, but using pre-packaged bars and meals definitely makes meal planning a lot easier your first time out. Just test-drive them at home first to see how your body—and palate—reacts.

Practice, practice, practice.

I met a handful of people on the Pacific Crest Trail who set out for a 2,600-mile backpacking trip having never spent a single night outdoors, but I wouldn’t advise this approach. Car camping and day hiking provide a great entry point before taking the next step, allowing you to practice using your gear and testing different food options before heading out for the backcountry. If you can, log some miles before your trip by taking your fully loaded backpack on a trail, around your neighborhood, or even up and down several flights of stairs.

Remember the “why.”

You might have to dig deep, say, during a difficult climb, gnarly thunderstorm or hairy river crossing. Or when your pack feels so heavy you’re wondering why you chose searing pain instead of hanging out on a beach somewhere. This is when you stop for a moment, have a snack, soak in the scenery and reflect on why you’re out here. Chances are, when you stand back up, that pack will feel lighter—and your heart will feel a little more full.