Backpacking Guide for Beginners

girl backpacking on the john muir trail
girl backpacking on the john muir trail

Backpacking can be one of the most incredible experiences, but also one of the most stressful. Not only with planning it, but also going as a beginner.


You’re pushing yourself physically and mentally outside of your comfort zone. It’s completely natural to feel scared and overwhelmed. But don’t shy away from backpacking because you’re scared. You’ll never feel 100% ready.


On my first backpacking trip, I was anything but ready. It was a last-minute decision, I didn’t have the right gear, even decided to do a 14er for my first trip. I made a whole bunch of mistakes with gear, it hailed on us, we were cold all night, and that’s just the start of those mistakes. Since then, I’ve learned the ins and outs of backpacking and have gone on to summit 14ers and even thru-hike.


In this blog post, we’ll go through beginner backpacking tips to help take the overwhelming part out and help you get outdoors faster.


Training for the hike

This is where many people get stumped and one place so many hikers overlook. Training is an essential part of being able to hike and backpack harder trails. Many underestimate the physical demand for hiking and end up either huffing and puffing while feeling miserable the entire time, or they end up getting injured because their bodies aren’t trained correctly. But you don’t need to wait until you hit peak fitness level to get out and backpack.


My personal favorite thing about training is that it allows you to not be limited within your body. You can move as you want to without the risk pulling something or injuring something, and it allows you to step into physically being limitless in your abilities.


Not to mention just hiking and walking aren’t fully strengthening your body the way it needs to be, which leaves some areas weak and can lead to injury. Do you really want to risk it?


To help you increase your training and fitness level, here are a couple of blogs to read through:


Start Training For Hiking


How to Stick to Your Fitness Goals


How to Get Back to Training After a Long Break


Recover After a Hike Without Losing Your Gains


Planning for the hike

Planning can be one of the more overwhelming parts of backpacking. There are so many moving pieces. But especially as you’re starting out, keep it simple and easy.


Just like starting with the trails that match your fitness level, look for trails that don’t have a lot of moving pieces while you get the hang of things.


Then, read through this blog post on how to plan a hiking trip and apply the same strategies to planning a backpacking trip.


Miles and Elevation Gain

This is a mistake I made when I first started planning my own backpacking trips. I would look into the miles and see how much I wanted to cover without factoring in the elevation gain or altitude.


If you’re coming up from sea level, give yourself time to acclimate. I learned this lesson the hard way and have gotten altitude sickness a couple of times. As a general rule, climb high, sleep low. I try to sleep around or below 10,000 feet in elevation, especially the first couple of days of acclimating. It’s hard to sleep at altitude if you’re not acclimated.


Then when planning your itinerary look into what the daily elevation gain will be. The elevation gain is the total elevation gain you’ll be climbing that day (not the altitude). If you have high elevation gain day, try to reduce the miles, if it’s a flatter day, you can increase the miles.

Getting Hiking/Backpacking Gear

This is where most people get stumped. You walk into an REI (or even look online) and feel completely overwhelmed. What gear do you need? What do you start with? Is it worth the price?


As you get more into backpacking, you will want to upgrade to more ultralight gear because weight does matter, but when you’re starting out, you can use what you have. If you’re going to invest in gear, I recommend doing the research and investing in quality over something that’s cheaper. My first sleeping bag was a $40 one from Big 5 and I was freezing all night mid-July in the mountains. I ended up spending more long term on backpacking because I needed to get the pricer gear anyways.


I was fresh out of college when I started backpacking and couldn’t afford expensive backpacking gear. So I found ways to get scrappy and afford the quality gear without always paying the expensive price tag. Here are my recommendations for how to save money on gear.


But if you already have a couple of pieces of gear, just use what you have or borrow gear from a friend.


My first backpacking trip my pack was around 45 pounds. Yours most likely will be around that weight too. Don’t be afraid and just go for it.


If you need some help with what to pack and a breakdown of recommended gear, here is my full backpacking pack list.


As you get out there more and more, you’ll realize what you need that’s unique to you.


Packing Food and Water

Food is fuel, so make sure to bring enough and the right kind to get you through your trip. The trail is not a place you want to go low fat and low calorie. You’ll be burning so many calories you don’t even need to worry.


Carbs and fats will help fuel your body through the duration of the hike (so get a good balance of both) and protein will help your body recover after the long day of hiking. For more on backpacking food and nutrition, read through this blog post.


Bring meals but also snacks!


Make sure to also bring enough water with you, or if there will be water along the trail or by camp, bring a water filter. Filtering water will help protect you from getting sick from anything that’s in the water like giardia. Bring a specialty filter like a Sawyer Squeeze. For more on filtering water, read through this blog post.

Care for Your Feet

Your feet will be doing most of the heavy lifting, so don’t neglect them.


It’s important to wear comfortable shoes that are also right for the conditions that you will be hiking in, moisture-wicking socks, and to prevent blisters.


If you’re hiking in hot conditions, wear non-waterproof shoes so your feet can breathe, and if you’re hiking in wet, rainy, and winter conditions, then wear waterproof shoes to keep your feet dry.


Change out your socks mid-day to help keep your feet dry and make sure you’re stretching out your feet at the end of the day. They’re made up of muscles too and need some TLC. For more on how to care for your feet, read through this blog post.


Wildlife in the area

Know what wildlife will be in the area that you’re hiking in so you can be prepared.


1. Bring a bear canister. It’s bulky but it helps prevent bears from getting into your food, prevents unwanted bear encounters and ultimately protects bears. Here is more info on why you should bring a bear canister when hiking around bears.


2. Don’t feed wildlife. This goes for animals like bears and squirrels. Protect the wild by not feeding wildlife. It reduces unwanted encounters with wildlife, helps prevent wildlife from becoming problem animals or dependent on humans for food, along with a bunch of other environmental benefits.


3. Know what to do in a wildlife encounter. If you’re prepared, not only is it less scary to head out, but you also save your life by knowing what to do. Here are a couple blogs that will help:

Guide to Bear Safety While Hiking

Guide to Snake Safety While Hiking


Check the Weather

Before you head out, always check the weather. There could be thunderstorms, flash flood warnings, snow storm, etc.


For the most part, during the research phase, you’ll know what weather expect when you go, but Mother Nature can change things on us in a blink of an eye. You don’t want to get stuck with unfortunate weather. Not only is it dangerous, but it also will make for a miserable trip. So always check it before you go.


Mistakes Will Happen

You will make mistakes when you first start out, your pack will be too heavy, you’ll forget a layer, you won’t always make it to the summit or destination. It will happen.


Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, it’s all part of the journey you need to go on to become the limitless hiker you want to be. So don’t hold yourself back because you’re afraid.


Fear isn’t the enemy, waiting to stop being afraid of it. Courage comes from taking action despite fear.


And making those mistakes says absolutely nothing about you, your capabilities, or what you can achieve. Allow yourself to release the meaning you’ve assigned to fear, failure and mistakes.


Go for it, learn, make mistakes, come home, reflect, and improve. Here’s a good rule of thumb to remember, be in student mode 30% of the time, put what you learn into action 60% of the time, and then reflect to improve 10% of the time.


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