How to take your first backpacking trip – Part 1: first-timer checklist

Planning your first backpacking trip can be intimidating, all the more so if you didn’t grow up doing at least some hiking and car/RV camping. I’m here to show you how to spend your first night in the woods with everything you need carried in on your back.

The best thing you can do is go with a friend who’s backpacked before, and ideally one you can borrow a lot of gear from. I wouldn’t recommend going alone on your first trip: it’s less fun, and you’ll feel less anxiety if you have another buddy along for the ride, even if they’ve never done it before either. You should also have hiked before (most important), and preferably gone car camping (less important) at least once so that you know what it’s like to sleep on the ground in a tent & cook, etc outdoors.

Here’s a quick checklist for your first-time trip, followed by specific packing & gear recommendations:

  1. Go for 1 – 2 nights somewhere within 2 – 3 hours of your house, and with water at the campsite. Signing up for a longer expedition gives you less room for error if you find out you’re in worse shape than you thought, your gear/food is inadequate, you get a lousy night’s sleep or twist an ankle, or if anything else goes wrong. Minimize driving time to maximize hiking & camping time, and leave yourself plenty of time before sunset to get to camp (estimate 2 miles per hour if you’re in very good shape, 1 miles per hour if you’re not.) Having water in camp, and hopefully along the trail, means less to pack and worry about. Plus, camping near a mountain lake or a rushing river is just really nice.
  2. Go with someone else, preferably a friend who has backpacked before.
  3. Borrow as much gear as you can from friends. Backpackers like me usually have enough gear for three or four people because we can’t help making upgrades and having different versions of things, so take advantage of ridiculous collections. Backpacking is a very cheap hobby when you amortize it over several trips, but it has a few items that can be expensive up front, so borrow as much as you can initially. I’ll teach you how to spend your budget intelligently later, but like many hobbies, the sky is the limit if you wanted to very best of everything.
  4. Pack light, but not stupid light. Everything on your back, including your pack, should weigh less than 25 pounds (20 pounds if you’re a lady.) The easiest way to be comfortable on the trail is to pack exactly what you need and nothing else. The difference between 15 pounds on your back versus 25, especially when going up hill, is vast. We’ll cover what to pack in detail in the next post, but your pack + sleeping bag + sleeping pad + tent portion should weigh 10 – 12 pounds. Also, don’t just trust what your backpacking friend tells you to bring. Most people tend to overpack which means you’ll have to work harder and have less fun if you make the same mistakes they do.
  5. Take the distance and elevation of your hardest hike and divide by two: Elevation gain– walking uphill– is the hardest part of backpacking, and my rule of thumb is to look up the elevation gain & mileage of the hardest hike you’ve done comfortably, and divide by two to determine the most you should do backpacking. If you’ve climbed Washington state’s Mount Si at 3,150 feet elevation gain and 8 miles roundtrip, go somewhere that’s no more than 1,600 feet gain and 4 miles in (one-way into camp.) Going mostly uphill the first day and downhill on your way home is also preferable since you might be a bit sore and more tired than usual after your day of hiking with a full pack. If you go for two nights, consider just staying put for the second night and day-hiking (or just lounging around camp) the second day to avoid having to repack everything and hike more. Don’t hike any further in than you’re prepared to hike back out the same day if necessary. People who have a bad first experience usually bite off way more than they can chew: a fit backpacking friend unthinkingly takes them on a long, forced march without making sure their pack is light and comfy, and the newbie has a rough time of it. Take it easy on your first trip.
  6. Go when it’s predicted to be sunny & warm, but aim for moderate temperatures and low exposure to sun to keep from overheating. A forested mountain trail in July or August would be great, or a shaded riverfront hike. Take your first trip in summer, and then branch out into colder, damper weather once you have a few trips under your belt. Autumn is actually my favorite time to backpack because there are no bugs, fewer people, and the weather hasn’t turned too bad yet. Also, tramping up a steep hill in cool October is more comfortable for me than in blazing August. The chance of rain increases as you approach winter, so early September is a safer bet than late October.

In the next post, I’ll show you exactly what to pack.

Author: Ward Williams

Personal finance blogger with an interest in saving, investing, and learning new skills and doing things for myself & others!

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