Backpacking: Getting Started

Part of Mark’s Backpacking Guide

One of my joys has been introducing people to backpacking and wilderness experiences. Some people love it, others just couldn’t adjust. They were too used to climate controlled environments, were scared of wild life, and wanted a modern bathroom. Other “city people” jump right in and get into the spirit of things.


  • Find a local person who can help and be an informal “guide”.
  • Don’t go to an outdoor store and buy “everything you need”. Check around to see what you can borrow and think about what you use in daily life that would work.

A great example of a city girl who took to backpacking was Cyndy. On her first backpacking trip (also her first real camping trip) she adapted to the backpacking life quickly. One small example. The first night she used her plate, bowl, cup and multiple utensils, and cleaned the cup between different beverages. She watched a few of us the first night.  The second night she just used her bowl and a spoon, licking it clean between courses, used it for her hot chocolate, and finish up with hot tea which pretty much cleaned the bowl up. She recognized that while she might not do this at home, there were a lot less dishes to wash. Most people, enjoy the experience of backpacking, but have a few  issues they need to work through. This articles attempts to identify several of the common issues that people new to backpacking might struggle with.

Find Someone Experienced

I generally recommend taking your first few backpacking trips with someone who is experienced. A live person on site is vastly superior to static advice from a web page or book. So the very first step I generally recommend is to find someone local who can help you get started. There are a number of way to go looking for experience backpackers. Personally, I favor a light or ultralight approach to backpacking. This is not yet the norm, so it take a bit more work to find someone with this sort of orientation. I would suggest checking out some of the online forums I list on my light-weight backpacking resources page. Find an online community that is comfortable and then ask who on the list is near you and interested in helping a beginner.

If you are planning to take a more traditional (heavy-weight) approach, then there are a number of ways to find experienced people.

  • Find the nearest outdoor / outfitting store and see what groups have posting information on their bulletin board or classes offered by the store.
  • Nature oriented organizations like the Sierra Club often have a backpacking section
  • Local adult education or park & rec departments
  • Women empowerment groups often run backpacking class
  • Regionally organized electronic communities like will often have local backpacking groups

Are You Ready?

There are two broad classes of people who are interested in learning about backpacking. The first are people who are already used to spending time outdoors and in natural settings. This would include people who are avid day hikers, serious birders, camper, outdoor climbers, or hunters. An interest in backpacking typical comes from a desire to extend time in the outdoors or reach destinations that aren’t possible without backpacking. If you are experienced with the outdoors, you will want to skim the next section or even skip it and pick up again at the Preparing for Your First Trip.

There are numerous people I have talked with in the past who have spent their entire lives in a climate control environment. They had almost no experience in the outdoors, but became interested in backpacking because it sounded interesting, exciting, challenging, or maybe romantic. If this describes you, then I would generally suggest that you work your way up to backpacking rather than jumping directly into backpacking.

I think the first step toward exploring backpacking is getting some experience with day hiking. Start by selecting an area close by where you can take extended day hikes (~10 miles) and which might also offer the possibilities of 1 or 2 night hike-in overnighters. People in your area should be able to suggest good destinations. Take a day hike. If you have never taken a day hike before, go with someone who has some experience. Anytime you are more than a few miles into the wilderness it is recommend to carry the fourteen essentials (map, compass, sunglasses, sunscreen, extra food, water, extra clothing, flashlight, first aid kit, fire starter, matches, knife, whistle, bug protection). If you don’t know how to use a map and compass make sure you go with someone who does. Ask them to teach you, and agree never to separate.

If you have never been camping before, take a camping trip where you can drive up to the campsite. Get the experience of sleeping out in the open or in a tent, laying on a backpacking sleeping mat (foam, thermarest, etc) rather than on a thick mattress that you likely have at home. The nice thing about car camping is that you don’t need to worry about how heavy or big items are. So it’s easy to use items from your day to day life. You can use your kitchen pots and a portable grill to cook over. If you don’t already own a warm sleeping bag you could use a number of warm blankets or quilts to sleep under. Many people love camping… if you do, then exploring backpacking makes good sense. If you hate camping, then stick with day hikes.

Take a long day hike when the weather is not perfect. Why? Some people have no experienced spending time outdoors when the weather isn’t pleasant. If it’s raining, activities are often postponed. When backpacking, the weather can change during the trip and you are stuck with bad weather. You don’t need to enjoy bad weather, but you need to be able to tolerate it. Otherwise stick with day hikes.

Ok… You enjoy walking in the outdoors, and you don’t mind sleeping out and getting a bit dirty. Rain doesn’t scare you. Great! It’s very likely you will enjoy backpacking. 

Preparing for Your First Trip

Now is the time to get ready for your first trip. I recommend taking your first few trips with someone who is an experienced backpacker. That way you will have someone who can help you get over any problems you encounter early on when you are learning a lot. That said, it’s good to learn a bit before you go. I suggest read a book that presents a common-sense approach to backpacking. This will help you avoid many mistakes. At some point this guide will be finished and have everything that necessary to give the reader a good start. For people who hate reading, I would recommend Allen & Mike’s Really Cool Backpackin’ Book which is short, fun read with humorous illustrations. For additional options see my  backpacking resources.

Make Sure Shoes Fit

The biggest joy killer I have seen has when someone didn’t have comfortable footwear. Especially bad is when someone who lives in running shoes and sandals  goes out and gets a brand new pair of heavy weight hiking boots just before leaving on a trip because that’s what they are suppose to wear. They end up with monster blisters, hot and tired feet, and maybe a bruised shin if the boots are really wrong. And then they have to walk with those same feet the next day. Ugh! People should use shoes or boots that have have worn for a while before they head off into on a backpacking trip. If a pair of shoes isn’t comfortable enough to wear non stop around town for several days, they aren’t going to be good on a broken trail while carrying a backpack. As I have noted on my recommended footwear page, unless a heavy pack is being carried, trail runners (or even running shoes) are often very appropriate for backpacking.

Carry a Comfortable Backpack

One of the most common complaints from new backpackers is that the destination was great, but the hike was no fun at all. Often times, the same people who not have had any problems if it had been a day hike. What’s the different? They were carrying a backpack. This is something I understand very well from personal experience. When I was growing up, I was able to do 30 mile day hikes, but I was unhappy after 5 miles backpacking, and was dead after 10 miles. I thought that pain on the trail was the cost of getting into the back country. I was wrong… but it took more that 20 years for me to discover than I didn’t have to be in pain.

The most common issue is that a first time backpackers carry too much weight. There have been a number of studies that find carrying more than approximately 10% of a person’s lean body weight will be fatiguing. While most people can carry 30-40% of their body weight, this should not be the goal. The solutions is to carry less and to carry lighter weight items.  In the next section I will address taking the right things.

The second most common issue is that the backpack doesn’t fit well. Sometimes this is because the backpacking isn’t well adjusted. Sometimes it’s because the backpacking being used is the wrong size or shape.  This should be easy to catch before going on a trip. Have someone experience adjust the pack and load it up with say 10% of the persons body weight. If they notice the pack or find it annoying, try something different.

The final issue reason I have seem backpacks be really uncomfortable is because a pack is being used way beyond it’s design criteria. I have often seem people who are enamored with ultra light thru-hikers, adventure racers, etc so they pick up some ultralight backpack such as the frameless packs made by GoLite. Then these same people try to stuff 35-40lbs into said packs. What happens? Pain. Don’t carry more weight in a pack than it was design to comfortably carry.

Bring the Right Stuff

I have numerous other pages about selection light weight and performant gear. I start by helping a new backpacker make a  gear list and do a “pack” check before we leave town. During the pack check we remove everything from the pack, discuss if the item is useful (removing those that aren’t) and identify anything that might be missing. I think it’s best for a pack check to be done by someone who is an experienced light weight backpacker who will be able to encourage a newbie to leave behind things that aren’t needed, without pushing the newbie too far out of their comfort zone. Hardcore ultra light backpackers are sometimes not so sensitive.

I generally suggest that people start out by borrowing or renting as much specialized gear as possible until they have enough experience to know that they enjoy backpacking and have a good sense of what they want. When purchasing I gear I strongly recommend purchasing items while are well suited for your area and weather conditions you expect to face. If you decide to wander far from home later you can buy gear designed for specific conditions at that time. Especially as you are starting backpacking, examine items you have for other activities, camping, running, kayaking and consider if they will be useful for backpacking. Many clothing or safety items work well in many contexts. Some general camping equipment works well for backpacking, but often times, camping items will be too heavy or bulky for backpacking. If you have to purchase things, do what you can to keep costs down

I encourage experiences backpacker to hold onto some extra gear that they would be willing to loan out. I realize this is not within everyone’s means, but it is an excellent tool when trying to help people get started.

Stay Comfortable: Don’t Overheat or Freeze

A big part of staying comfortable is bring the right clothing, but understanding how activity level impacts thermo-regulation is just as important. Most people focus on staying warm enough, but when you are exercising a bigger issue is often being too warm and sweating. When doing a hard push up a hill, you need 1/4 the amount of insulation as when you are sitting around in the identical conditions. Make sure you understand how engaging in aerobic exercise radically alters how much insulation you need and that the moisture you generate while sweating can sap your energy and really chill you when your activity level drops.

Get a Good Night Sleep

Getting a good night sleep is extremely important. Even if a day was difficult, a good night sleep can make it easy to set aside the previous problems and start afresh. Many  experienced folks, especially those with the mental toughness to thru-hike will say you just lay down and go to sleep. If you can’t sleep, then you haven’t worked enough during they day. But this doesn’t work for everyone, especially someone who is backpacking for the first time. It’s only natural for a first time backpacker to be a bit anxious which makes it harder to sleep.

Rather than write a lot of text here I would suggest reading my stand alone article Getting a Good Night Sleep in the Outdoors. The first section covers a number of the psychological factors I should have cover in the above section but didn’t.  The second section explore what sort of foundation (e.g. pad, hammock, etc) might be needed. The final suggestion is about how to stay warm enough at night, a common problem for first time backpackers.

Physical Fitness

The more fit you are, the better time you can have. Be sure to warm up before you start hiking at full pace. Take good care of your feet with ideas from Footwork Publications. Several years ago I have found the book Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness by Musnick & Pierce valuable. A number of people have reported that  training in Tai ChiThe Alexander Technique, or Feldenkrais Method ( feldenkrais materials) has been useful, especially after an injury.

Avoid Common Mistakes

Below are common mistakes I have seem people make on their first trips:

  1. Wearing boots or shoes that you just purchased
  2. Bringing too much water when the are water sources along the path
  3. Bringing too little water when it’s hot and there aren’t good sources along the path
  4. Starting too late and end up lost in the dark
  5. Assuming that a pack that feels comfortable after wearing for a couple of minutes will continue to be comfortable after several hours.
  6. Bringing a first aid kit, but having no idea how to use it.
  7. Wearing heavy cotton clothing
  8. Not bringing a map, or bringing a map without knowing how to read it
  9. Planning for the weather you hope you will see rather than what the forecast indicates might happen
  10. Not listening to the ranger’s advise
  11. Forgetting to tell people where you are going and when to expect you back
  12. Carrying lots of useless stuff. In the bay area it’s common for people to bring way too many high tech gadgets.

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