So you’re ready to leave the campground behind and make the leap to bona fide backpacker. No crowds, no nightly fees, and miles upon miles of wild, open country… What’s not to love? Loading up the overnight pack, leaving the car far behind, and carrying everything you need on your back all up the ante from your standard day hike, but with a little planning and preparation, you’ll be set for some of the most memorable outdoor experiences of your life.
The first step in planning any multi-day backpacking excursion is picking a destination. The key is to pick a place that is inspiring, matches your skill set, and fits within your budget and time constraints—for example, if you love hot weather and are looking for a three-day hike on a well-marked trail system, one of the national parks in the Desert Southwest might be ideal. Outdoor magazines, regional guidebooks, and online backpacking forums can be great resources for choosing a destination and selecting a trail route if you don’t have one in mind.
Be sure to consider the best time of year to visit your chosen spot —midsummer is perfect for the High Sierra, while fall is prime time on much of the Appalachian Trail. The climate and terrain will also factor into how much clothing you bring, how much water you’ll carry, etc.
Will your route be a loop? Out and back to a scenic lake? Point to point? Will you need to shuttle a car? When determining how many miles to hike each day, consider the terrain and whether you’d like a leisurely pace or would rather cover as much ground as possible on your trip. Depending on where you’re going, budget anywhere from 3 to 10 miles a day.
Acquire necessary trail maps and guidebooks for the area you’ve chosen, and research popular trails online. Be sure to check local regulations before you go. Can you have campfires? Are bearproof canisters required? What permits do you need to hike there?
Much of what you end up carrying in your pack will be determined by where you go and what kind of weather you’ll likely encounter. Your gear should be organized into the following kits for the majority of spring-through-fall trips:
Internal frame backpacking pack, anywhere from 2000 to 5000 cubic inches.
When getting your gear together, consider the weight vs. cost tradeoff.
Lighter-weight gear might be more expensive, but it will allow you to move faster and more comfortably. Once your entire kit is assembled, think about what you can easily do without, or which items can do double duty, and pare down to the essentials.
Planning the meals for your trip is all about packing enough calories to fuel your high-output days without toting a ton of extra weight in your pack. Whether you choose to purchase pre-made dehydrated meals that come in a bag or assemble your own, be sure to create a meal plan for each day of your trip.
Remove any ingredients from bulky packaging and separate them out for each meal in a zip-top bag. Label them Breakfast #2, Dinner #4, etc. This will help avoid a yard sale once you’re in camp and keep your food bag or bear canister organized.More +
A gallon of water weighs more than 8 pounds, so one of the easiest ways to cut a good chunk of weight from your pack is to dehydrate your food. Pasta sauces, vegetables, chunks of fruit, and mushrooms can all be dried in a home dehydrator and reconstituted in camp. Choose meals with dry base ingredients such as oatmeal, couscous, or rice.More +
Carry at least two liters per person per day, and more in hot weather. Use either screw top bottles or a hydration reservoir with a drinking tube. Bring a water filter or purification tablets with you and check your maps ahead of time for water sources along your route so you’re not carrying more water than necessary. Check with the local ranger station on the status of natural springs, which can dry up in very dry places. .More +
Nothing boosts morale after a hard day on the trail like a good hot meal , so although weight is important, don’t sacrifice the little extras like a block of cheese, hot sauce, a few fresh veggies, or a chocolate bar that will help elevate the standard camp meal.More +
Whether it’s a chipmunk or a grizzly bear, you’ll likely need to protect your food from animals. At the very least, store your food in a durable, secure stuff sack, and when traveling in bear country, either hang your food from a tree as high as possible or carry a bearproof canister.More +
Be sure to check if anyone in your group has food allergies or special dietary needs when planning your meals. Nuts, beans, and whole grains are great ways for vegetarians to get much needed protein on the trail. For gluten-free trail buddies, substitute meal bases like pasta and bagels with energy-rich, gluten-free alternatives like quinoa and corn tortillas.More +
Packing a backpack properly isn’t just about making sure everything fits—where you put things will largely affect how comfortable your pack is to carry. A general rule of thumb is to put water, cooking gear, and other heavy items close to the center of your back and pack lighter-weight items around them. This will help you maintain balance by keeping the bulk of the load close to your center of gravity. Keep snacks, maps, and other small items you might need throughout the day in the side pockets or lid of your pack for easy access. Split the weight of communal items like the tent and the cooking gear by divvying up their components among the group.
Map, snacks. and other essentials
Clothing, tent components, other light/compressible items
Water, food, and cooking gear
Leave your trail itinerary, including where you plan on camping, with a friend or relative and give them contact info for local authorities in case you don’t return on time.
In very remote or challenging terrain, you might consider carrying a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), which can track your progress via GPS and when activated will send a distress signal to local authorities and Search and Rescue teams.
Hitting the trail with a good first aid kit, fire-starting materials, and some basic knowledge will prepare you for most minor mishaps. Know how to start a fire, where to collect water, and how to build a basic shelter. Take a basic first aid course.
Take a short overnight trip before striking out on a bigger trip or even just camp out in your backyard for a night with the gear you plan to use. Becoming familiar with your gear and making sure it works well before you leave can save you big problems down the trail.
Aim to start a basic exercise routine at least six weeks before your trip. Your cardiovascular fitness and leg strength will be of the utmost importance, so running, long day hikes, and walking uphill with a weighted pack are all great ways to prepare. Budget at least 2 to 3 workouts a week. In addition to a good cardio base, here are four exercises that will help develop specific fitness:
Strapping on a 50-pound pack and walking 8 miles in a brand new pair of hiking boots can quickly turn into a blistery nightmare. Wear your hiking shoes or boots on short day hikes or even to work to help break them in. Your feet will thank you.
Put your back against the wall and lower to a squatting position like you’re sitting in an invisible chair. Extend your arms out in front of you and hold the position as long as possible.
Grab two dumbbells of equal weight (start small and work up to your total intended pack weight), and find either a step-up box or the first step of a staircase. Step up with your left foot, match with your right, step down. Repeat, alternating the foot you step up with first.
Get in position like you are about to do a pushup. Hold this position for sets of 60 seconds.
You can do these either with a weighted pack, a standard gym barbell, or no weight at all. Arch your back, point your feet out slightly and lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Slowly reverse and stand up. Check online tutorials for proper form.
Prepping for your first backcountry backpacking trip can be a bit daunting, but if you do your homework and put in the time, it can open the gates to endless travels and a lifetime of epic trips.