Backpacking for Beginners

By Kelly Conroy

Kelly Rathburn Conroy
Kelly Rathburn Conroy

If you’ve ever considered going backpacking, there are tons of resources to help you prepare. REI’s expert advice page, for example, is a great place to learn all about backpacking gear, preparation, and even packing checklists. Of course, I didn’t look at any of that before heading out on my first ever backpacking trip this summer.

After years of car camping, I decided I was ready to take it to the next level and carry my overnight supplies up a mountain for three days. I was up for the challenge of a new outdoor adventure and figured I could piece it together with some light preparation.

While the trip itself was incredibly rewarding and left me with a hankering to backpack again (after the blisters and blackened toenail heal), I learned my beginner backpacking lessons the hard way. So, if you’re planning a last minute trip just before summer ends, or getting a jump start on next season’s adventures, keep in mind the ABCs of backpacking for beginners:

A – Always know your route

Take the time to understand the details of your hiking route and plan your days to hike a comfortable amount of mileage (I maxed out at 7 miles a day and it felt like 100). Is your route exposed with lots of sun? Does it have significant elevation changes? How many miles between water sources? Knowing these specifics about your route will help you pack the right type of gear and the right amount of food and water. Also, bring a map. Even if you’ve memorized every theoretical inch of your trek, trail conditions can change which means your route may need to be flexible.

B – Bring less

I’m serious. If you think you’ve packed the bare minimum, take at least five items out and leave them at home. You will wear the same, sweaty shirt at least twice, you will not be brushing your hair, you do not need comfy campfire clothes because you will likely be in your tent and exhausted as soon as the sun sets. Every single item you bring is hitching a ride on your very own back and it will only take a couple miles before you wish you had brought less. Keep in mind that food and water are often the heaviest sections of your pack, so plan to keep yourself well fueled without leftovers.

C – Check your attitude

Backpacking is hard. You’ll be tired and stinky and craving In-n-Out and questioning why the hell you did it in the first place. But, backpacking provides you the opportunity to escape into nature and away from e-mail and freeways. It will give you incredible views and new comfort zone boundaries. Backpacking will show whether or not you are afraid of the dark or short tempered. It will also show you how strong-willed and optimistic and brave you can be. As with anything else in life, you get out of backpacking what you put in. So, do your best to enjoy the adventure while it’s happening, and give yourself some serious props (and a celebratory beer) when you’re done.

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