Starting backpacking can be a very overwhelming experience. There are so many different moving pieces to try and figure out. You need to figure out where to do, check trail conditions, make sure you have everything you need to survive in the wilderness for at least a night, push outside of your comfort zone, and so much more.
It’s no wonder that it takes most people a while to even get started with it! It’s a lot! If you’re getting started with backpacking, check out this blog on how to get started. And read through this blog with my entire backpacking packing list.
In this blog, I’m going to cover my top essential tips that you probably didn’t even think about when getting started with backpacking.
Test Out Your Gear At Home
The last thing you want to do when you get out there is realizing that you don’t know how to open your tent, use your headlamp, or turn on your backcountry stove.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories from people who didn’t test things out at home, got out there, and then couldn’t even figure out how to make dinner. The movie Wild paints a very vivid picture of what happens when you do that.
You’re in for a very unpleasant experience.
So my top tip is to test everything out at home! Set up your tent in your living room or backyard. Blow up your sleeping pad. Light your stove and try to boil water. Play with the zippers. Pack your bag and unpack your bag.
Test everything out at home so you know exactly how to use it when you get out in the backcountry.
Always Check the Weather Before Heading Out
Even if you checked the weather a week ago or last night, always check the weather before you leave home. In the blink of an eye it could turn from blue skies to thunderstorms, especially if you’re going to the mountains.
I like using Mountain-Forecast to see weather forecasts for different altitudes. Remember, the weather can change depending on the altitude! If you’re hiking a 14er (14,000-foot mountain) for example, the weather will be completely different at 14,000 feet than it will be at 10,000 feet.
Make sure to also check trail conditions. You can do so by calling the local ranger station. If you’re planning on hiking in mountains in the early spring months, there could still be snow on the trail if there was a heavy snow year.
The key with backpacking confidently is taking safety into your own hands and not leaving things up to chance. Always know what you’re heading into and be prepared.
Know What Wildlife is in the Area
Will there be black bears? Will there be brown bears/grizzlies? What kind of snakes will you run into? Are you going to see moose or elk? Or perhaps stumble upon bison?
Research what kind of wildlife to expect on your backpacking trip so you know exactly what to expect. This goes back to the point I made above, the key here is taking responsibility for your own safety and not leaving things up to chance. Always do your research and know what you’re heading into.
Also while you’re researching what wildlife you can expect in an area, also research if there are any specific food storage regulations. Especially if you’re backpacking around bears, you most likely will need to bring a bear canister.
Plan for Elevation Gain, Not Just Miles
A common mistake I see people doing is thinking they can handle more miles than they really can. There’s nothing wrong with being honest with yourself and hiking fewer miles and not being miserable. As you get out there and backpack more and train, you’ll be able to cover more and more miles.
Keep in mind, that if you’re used to day hiking 10 miles, you might not be able to backpack 10 miles in one day because now you have the added weight of the pack. As an example, on a day hike, I’m comfortable doing 12 to 15 miles. But on a backpacking trip, I keep my daily milage to 8 to 10 (maybe 12 miles). I’ve done a 16 mile backpacking day before, several times, and I can just say I was miserable at the end there.
For starting out, stick with what you’re comfortable with. You don’t need to try and prove yourself to anyone. Remember, you’re hiking for you.
Don’t just plan for the miles you plan on doing, plan for the elevation gain. Elevation gain means how much elevation you’re climbing in a day. A hike might be only 8 miles, but with 7,000 feet of elevation gain, you’re basically going straight uphill. That’s going to be far more taxing than a hike that’s 8 miles but only 1,600 or 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Neither is wrong, just be prepared for what you’re getting yourself into.
If you’re just getting started, pick something that’s more mellow towards elevation gain.
Read Up on Any Camping Regulations
Different areas have different camping regulations. Those regulations also might change year to year. Just because your friend did a hike several years ago and it didn’t require permits and you could camp anywhere you wanted, doesn’t mean the same still applies today.
Take Half Dome, for example, I can’t tell you how many times I hear about how Half Dome used to not require permits to climb the cables to the top. That’s great and all, but today, Half Dome does require permits so you need to get a permit. I promise it’s really not that hard.
Or maybe you’re planning to go to a lake that was open last year but this year could be closed to restoration. Or maybe you can only spend one night at that lake and not the three that you were planning.
Maybe you’re planning on doing a campfire for dinner and cooking your fish over the fire. But there might be a fire ban in the area because of high fire conditions, or because that’s just an area that never allows campfires.
Or perhaps there was a rock slide and now that trail is closed.
Always check any trail reports and camping regulations before heading out and as part of your research. Just because your friend who went there last year or a few years ago said it’s ok, don’t take their word for it! Do your own research and be an empowered hiker.
Leave the “I love hiking” cotton shirts at home, and don’t wear jeans and running shoes. When you’re dressing for a backpacking trip, dress accordingly.
The key with dressing for backpacking is to layer. Temperatures can go from being 85 and hot during the day to below 30-35 degrees. I’ve been in those situations. On one of my days on the John Muir Trail, it was incredibly hot during the day. But the next morning, I woke up to frost on my bear canister.
You just never know. And if you’re trying to outsmart Mother Nature, I can guarantee that you will always lose. The key is to work with nature, not against it
So you need to layer correctly.
Start with a moisture-wicking base layer (your shirt, pants, bra, underwear, and socks). Then layer on a fleece and a puffy as needed. But don’t forget to bring your rain jacket, you never know when it could start raining, even with clear skies. You can also bring thermal pants with you, just in case the weather gets pretty chilly.
Bring a Physical Map
Always bring a physical trail map and compass with you and know how to read/use it. You never know when you might take a wrong turn and end up lost.
Knowing how to read a map and use a compass will not only prevent you from getting lost, but it will also help you find your way back to the trail if you do get lost. Plus! You’ll no longer be afraid of getting lost if you know what to do when you get lost.