Backpacking for Beginners – A Definitive Guide

by Christine Howland | Last Updated: February 26, 2021

In today’s post, we are going to talk about an excellent way to take a break from the general monotony: Backpacking!

If there is one thing that you need to check off your bucket list right away, backpacking needs to be it. It exposes you to the incredible outdoors, making for a memorable time. The best part about backpacking is that it is not limited to a certain group of people; it is for everyone to enjoy!

As a beginner, you are either thrilled to go backpacking or terrified…or both! Well, let us tell you that you do not have much to worry about. The initial feeling of nervousness and excitement is quite common among all backpackers.

Nevertheless, there are always some precautions that you could take as a fresher.  Read further as we discuss ‘Backpacking Tips for Beginners’. These tips and tricks will help you get prepared for your trip to avoid those little bumps in your journey!

Destination: Where to Go and How to Choose

As a new backpacker, it is essential to choose an easy destination. Generally, any place close to home is a safe option for beginners. Try to keep your trip short and finish it in a day or two. Keeping your trip short will give you enough energy to explore your surroundings. You may end up wearing yourself out if you plan a long trip your first time itself.

Pick a trail with high traffic to avoid straining yourself on your first backpacking trip. High traffic trails will allow you to seek guidance from other backpackers. These trails are also generally well-marked, greatly reducing the risk of your getting lost or hurt. A great idea is to backpack in a state or national park. The trails will be distinctly marked, and you will also receive specific guidelines from the park as well.

State and national parks are also an excellent option for experienced backpackers as well. They are easily accessible and a safer option than most trails.

Another point to keep in mind while choosing a trail which is low-mileage and not too challenging. As a beginner, achieving mileage should not be your objective. It is better to enjoy your first hike by keeping it simple. Make sure not to overexert yourself and focus on taking some quiet time away.  Avoid backpacking on risky terrains that have boulders and loose rocks.

Pay Attention to Weather Conditions!

Micro-climates and dynamic seasonal situations are quite common, especially in the mountain areas. Hence, it is crucial to understand the conditions of that area you have picked for your backpacking trip.

The weather of the area is going to impact your comfort levels during the hike. For example, you can prepare yourself with rain gear if the forecast says it is going to be a raining at the selected location. If you know the weather is going to be colder, you can pack warmer clothes and sleeping bags accordingly. It is natural to think that this information is rather basic. But trust us, there is a lot you can forget to do before your first backpacking trip!

As true as it is that you can hike throughout the year, many backpackers overlook the effect of seasonal changes. Therefore, use the required guidebooks and engage in research to see when the best time is to go backpacking in a particular area. This will also educate you on what plants and animals to expect during your hike. Contacting hunting, forest ranger or guide offices is also a great way to understand the dos and don’ts for given weather.

Setting Up Camp: When and Where?

On your first day, you can set up camp after the first few miles of your hike. You do not need to push yourself to complete a long hike before you set up. It is completely normal to feel exhausted after a few miles, so feel free to set up camp when you think you need to.

You can research all the campsites in your backpacking destination and select the one that suits you the best. Many of these sites have poles and offer animal-proof containers to safeguard your food.

Get ready to make some new friends too! You are exposed to more campers, many seasoned ones. They will surely guide you and give you the necessary tips for the rest of your backpacking journey. Interestingly, unestablished campsites with a decent source of water are great options too.

Here are some recommended websites to make choosing a trail around your area easier:

Food: What to Carry

The next essential aspect of your backpacking trip will be food. Many backpackers make the mistake of not packing their food properly. It is vital to pack enough food supplies that will last through your entire trip. Calculate the number of meals you will need based on the duration of your backpacking trip.

What you also need to pay attention to is the type of food you are packing. Make sure to pack healthy, nutritious food that will keep you fit and energised throughout the hike. We recommend carrying foods such as fruits, granola, nutrition bars, trail mix, etc. to fuel your body whenever you feel drained out. Packing sandwiches with tuna, hard meat or even peanut butter is also a great option as they are healthy and last a considerable amount of time.

Freeze-dried backpacking food is another brilliant option for your backpacking trip. It is a one-step process that involves adding boiling water to the food and voila! Food’s prepared!

Here are some freeze-fried backpacking food choices that we recommend:

The only disadvantage of freeze-fried backpacking food is their cost. These packets are relatively more expensive. Therefore, it is better to stick with grocery store food if you are on a tight budget.

Here are some great nutrition bar options you can check out:

Another point to note is the weight, compactness, and portability of your food. Make sure that you are not storing heavy, bulky food in your backpack. Stay away from canned food and similar food supplies to avoid carrying extra weight. It is important to carry some extra food just in case you lose some to the weather, wildlife, etc. However, do not go overboard with it and wisely pack the amount of food you require for your trip.

Meal Planning

Here are some meal recommendations for your backpacking trip:

Dinner

The first meal you are most likely to have on your trip is dinner. It is natural to want to pass out because you will most likely be exhausted after dinner. But make sure you take a little time for dinner! You will feel energised in the morning and ready for the rest of your day. Great dinner options are freeze-fried backpacking food, ramen, and other instant meals. If you are carrying your dinner in plastic boxes, a good idea to reduce your backpack weight is by storing the food in plastic bags instead.

Lunch

For lunch, go for meals that are high in proteins and fats. This includes energy bars, protein bars, jerky, trail mix, dry fruits, etc. It is essential to consume enough calories in proteins to compensate for your metabolic rate during the hike. So, try to eat food that will give you the boost of energy that you require.

Breakfast

Oatmeal or breakfast bars are good options for a healthy breakfast. If you are a morning coffee person, feel free to make yourself some black coffee. The saying “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” holds for your backpacking trip as well. Make sure to have a nice, satisfying breakfast before you start your hike.

Click here to find out some meal ideas for your backpacking trip!

Proper Storage of Food

It is important to store your food properly during your trip. You can not only make the food last longer, but you will also keep your food safe from animals. So, ensure using appropriate containers to store your food effectively.

Using smell-proof backpacks is a great way to protect your food from wildlife in the area. These backpacks trap the smell inside, preventing it from leaking into the surroundings. This way, you also greatly reduce having any potential encounters with wildlife.

Learn more about proper food storage and handling for backpackers

Water: How to focus on Hydration?

The next point: Drink LOTS of water!

Water is a vital commodity during your backpacking journey. It is not practical to be carrying all the water you will be drinking during your trip with you. Therefore, make sure you are familiar with all the sources of water along your trek.

Don’t forget to boil the if you are drinking from a freshwater stream. Make sure you give it enough time to get rid of all kinds of harmful microbes and toxins.

On a normal day, the body requires at least half a gallon of water to remain healthy. And when you’re backpacking, it is much more than that! Every backpacker must consume at least a quarter a gallon of water each hour to keep hydrated. You don’t need to gulp this water all at once, you can take it slow by sipping small amounts.

If your backpacking trail does not offer that many options for a water resource, you will have to carry all the water you need with you. Make sure that you do not run out of water at any cost. Calculate the amount of water you will need based on how long your trip is. This includes all the water required for drinking and cleaning your belongings.

Here are lightweight water filtration system options to keep yourself from falling sick:

An excellent idea to save space is by having collapsible water bottles. Collapsible water bottles hardly take any space when they empty. Hence, they are a useful investment to make for your trip. Here are some collapsible water bottle recommendations:

Backpack: What to Pack?

The most important thing to remember while packing is that the weight of every item you pack counts. Many beginner backpackers make the mistake of packing luxury items and other unwanted things that add unnecessary weight. You may think the bag you pack weighs alright at home. However, after the first couple miles of your trek, you may feel otherwise. It won’t be long before you start feeling like you are dragging around a big bag of rocks! Think of the exhausted-you when you pack and keep your backpack as light as you can. Only carry what think is necessary.

Even though water carries a lot of weight, it is not an area that you can compromise on. If you are carrying it with you, make sure to cut down the weight in other parts of your backpack.

Here are some backpacking essentials we have listed for you. You don’t need to carry each one of them. A lot of things you carry are also greatly dependent on the weather of your destination and the length of your trip. So, understand your requirements and pack accordingly.

Apparel and Shoes: What to Wear?

Apparel

Since you will be outdoors, for the most part, you are prone to many environmental changes in the duration of the hike. So, you need to find clothes that will suit you through the hot day, cold night and possible rains. It is most important to feel comfortable in what you choose to wear. You can achieve this by correctly layering your clothes.

Here’s a little information about clothing layers as given by REI professionals:

  1. Base layer: To control moisture
  2. Middle layer: For insulation and warmth
  3. Outer layer: To protect you from showers and keep you dry

Bottom line is that you will need moisture-wicking, lightweight, flexible, compact clothing for your trip. This does not mean you have to empty your pockets looking for expensive hiking wear. You can pick more economical options that are available. Here is a list of clothing you could use during your hike:

To find out more about what to wear while backpacking

Shoes

The shoes you wear is a vital aspect of your backpacking journey. Since you will be hiking, for the most part, it is extremely important for your feet to feel comfortable. Many backpackers use hiking boots. Hiking boots have ankle support that keeps your feet rather secure. Nevertheless, some others prefer more lightweight options such as trail running shoes for their hike.

Another tip that helps is to break your shoes in before you set off hiking. This will greatly help your feet feel more comfortable and flexible inside the shoe. You will not feel the surface of the shoe pressing against your feet. You can also throw on some synthetic or woollen socks to keep yourself warm and dry. Keep in mind that the skin on your feet is prone to blisters and cuts. This is generally due to the moisture that makes the skin soft. Therefore, make sure to carry enough pairs of socks to change a couple of times during the hike. This will keep your feet dry and skin firm.

Packing an extra pair of lighter footwear is a useful addition to your backpack as well. You can wear these when you are hanging out by the camp.

Check some of our footwear recommendation for your hike:

For men:

For women:

How to Prepare Yourself

Now that you are familiar with what to carry in your backpack, it is time to get yourself prepared. This involves performing the necessary training and taking precautionary measures to ensure a smooth backpacking trip. Here are points that will help you get ready for your trip, both physically and mentally:

1. Practice Setting Up Camp

Imagine being exhausted from your hike, finally ready to settle down. You unpack your camping equipment only to realise that you do not know to set up! Therefore, this tip is an important one.

You can get started by first learning how to set up camp. You can avoid any trouble that you could potentially face by getting it out of the way before your trip. Try pitching your tent in your backyard a couple of times. Become fully seasoned to pitching a tent, cooking in the outdoors, and taking the tent down. You can cross-check whether you have all the pieces required and after practice, you will know where each one goes.

Practising this will also allow you to identify anything faulty with your camping equipment. This greatly helps because it is relatively more difficult to sort such situations out in the wild.

Check out these easy steps to pitch a tent for extra assistance!

2. Try to Pack and Unpack Your Backpack

This tip is often overlooked by many backpackers, even the experienced ones. There will be so many times where you will be unpacking and packing your backpack again. Since you will be doing this numerous times, it is useful to learn the quickest way to do it. Knowing how to efficiently pack and unpack will save you both time and energy.

Learn how to categorise and organise all your belongings. Keep the items that you use frequently close to the top to make them easily accessible. This way, you will not have to unpack your entire backpack to reach them.

3. Begin Training Your Body

Start training yourself at least ten days before your hike. It is even better if you give your body a month to get into shape. You need to work on improving your lung capacity and overall body strength.

One great way you can start getting fit is to go on small hikes every day with a loaded backpack. You can increase the difficulty level by changing terrains every few days. Try to practice on terrains like the one you have picked for you hike.

Make sure you engage your body in cardio at least 4 times a week. This will boost your lung capacity and will not leave you panting as much. Continuously pay attention to your pace and time yourself to understand how long your hike will take. This will also help you understand the effect of each kind of terrain on your hike. We highly recommend following this tip. Ensure making time to train your body even if you only have a couple of days.

Here is how you can get in shape for your hike!

4. Get First Aid and Survival Training

Always remember that you cannot always know what to expect from your first backpacking experience. There is a good chance you may face situations you are not prepared for.

Something that will help you feel more confident about your hike is first aid training. You can find various online classes and articles related to this. This way, if you or someone around you is injured, you will know how to deal with it.

You can also go through some fundamental survival skills before your backpacking trip. Here are some basic wilderness survival skills you can check out.

5. Beware of Wildlife

Any trail that you select is home to the wildlife. There are many species of animals that inhabit each of these areas. Understand the fauna around the trail and know what to expect.

Try your best not to mess with the wildlife. The best choice is to go for your hike and keep it all undisturbed. Make sure not to come in the middle of a mammal and her young ones. It is also important to prepare yourself in case of any wildlife encounters. Learn how to correctly pack your food. This way, you can avoid unnecessary and dangerous interactions with the animals.

6. Don’t Wear Yourself Down

Try not making your first backpacking trip too long. Since it is only your first hike, you can go for about a day. Once you see how things go, you will be all ready to plan even week-long excursions! Small backpacking trips also keep you closer to home. In this case, you will not be too far if you require help.

Just ensure that you plan your backpacking trip smartly. No first-time backpacker understands what to expect during the hike. You will also be carrying all the backpacking gear which will surely slow you down. So, keep in mind your limitations and make sure not to overexert yourself. Remind yourself that going slow is completely fine. Take time to enjoy nature and its details, without trying to hurry to get on top. Because by the end of it, the most important part is to pay attention to your surroundings.

7. Inform Friends and Family About Your Trip

Don’t forget to inform some friends and family back home about your backpacking trip. Let them know details such as when you are going, where you are going and when you are planning to return. This way, god forbid something were to happen to you during the trip, your loved ones can notify someone immediately.

FAQs for Beginner Backpackers

1. When do I need to start planning my trip?

Planning 2-4 weeks in advance is good enough for any backpacker. Don’t hurry by giving yourself a week or less. Preparing for the trip for more than a month in advance is also not required. As a beginner, you may require relatively more time to assemble all your gear and purchase what is required. You can start packing a week before the date you leave.

2. I am backpacking for the first time. How long should my trip last?

For first-time backpackers, one overnighter or a 2–3-day trip is the appropriate time. Even some experienced backpackers tend to keep their trip this long. Hiking with all the gear on your shoulders to a campsite is so much tougher than easily pulling up there. Your body will need sufficient time to get used to it. You will most likely face some uncomfortable situations. But trust us, it will all be worth it in the end!

3. How far should I hike each day?

A. A newbie backpacker should generally keep their hiking miles between 5 and 7 each day. It sure does not seem like much but you also need to consider the heavy weight you will be carrying on your shoulders. You could face harsher seasonal changes as well. Therefore, keeping all this in mind, 5-7 miles a day is a healthy amount. Nevertheless, if you have been training long enough and have built enough strength and endurance, you can go for 7-12 miles per day.

4. Can I wear my old tennis shoes to hike?

Hiking boots are the most essential part of your backpacking gear. It is important because the shoes you wear have to go to be comfortable. Most tennis shoes do not provide sufficient support. You are prone to blisters and ankle injuries while hiking in tennis shoes. Wearing tennis shoes is a risk that you should be willing to take. However, we recommend investing in a pair of good hiking boots.

5. The most important question- Will I have Wi-Fi or phone service?

Ah, this might be our last FAQ but let’s face it, this is what we wanted to know from the start! This is purely dependent on where you are hiking and its amenities. But we recommend you stay off the grid and be truly present in your trip. Keep your phone away because nothing is worth missing the fresh and spectacular views. Set your phone on aeroplane mode and only use it for maps, a camera, or emergencies.

Final Words

We have finally reached the end of this post! We hope that our article ‘Backpacking Tips for Beginners’ helps you have a safe, smooth and exciting backpacking trip. Your first backpacking trip is truly going to be an experience you are going to cherish.

However, as scenic, as it can be, the outdoors can also be rather dangerous. So, it will always help beginners to learn some basic survival techniques before you set out to explore. Also, don’t forget to take frequent breaks if you feel like you need them. Let your body take its time to feel revitalized for the rest of your hike. Remember to follow all the tips to make it a hassle-free, worthwhile experience.

Happy Backpacking!