10 tips for your first backpacking trip
Our 10 tips for your first backpacking trip make sure you avoid common backpacking fails, and learn to love overnight adventure for life
Your first backpacking trip is an adventure you'll never forget. Mine was to Turquoise Lake, just outside of Vail, CO about fifteen years ago and I can still remember every detail of preparing, hiking in and camping in the beautiful bowl of Mount Jackson. If you’ve been hiking for a while now and you know you love the outdoors, there’s no reason why you’re not going to love it. Perhaps you did some car camping as a kid and you remember that lovely feeling of drifting off to sleep swaddled in your sleeping bag, and the feeling of the sun streaming through the tent walls in the morning. But paired together, hiking and camping means a lot more planning and skill, and without a little help in the beginning, it can be disastrous. Read on for 10 tips for your first backpacking trip to make sure you avoid common backpacking fails, and learn to love overnight adventure for life.
1. Build up to it
If you’re planning on a backpacking trip, you probably already hike a lot, but hiking with a daypack containing your water bottle and a fleece jacket is a lot different than hiking with a 20lb pack. It’s harder work on your legs, for starters, and can make it more cumbersome to retain your balance on trickier sections of the trail. You can start to add weights to your daypack as you walk, and even try a day hike or two wearing your packed backpacking pack in order to build your stamina and get used to the sensation of hiking with a load. Walking with trekking poles for balance can really help, too.
2. Start with a one-nighter
A one-night backpacking trip can seem like a lot of work for a single night, but trust me, it’s easier to plan and prepare for. In addition to your overnight gear, you’ll need food and it’s quite enough to plan for lunch on the hike, one dinner when you arrive, breakfast in the morning and perhaps another lunch if it’s a long way back to the trailhead. One night is easier to plan and execute, and lets you get a feel for the whole backpacking experience before you throw yourself into a weeklong adventure or a thru-hike.
3. Borrow gear
If you’re not already kitted out – and there’s no reason why you should be – borrow as much gear as you can for your first trip. This can mean temporarily purloining a tent and sleeping pad from a friend back home, or in my case it means going with a friend who had the essentials, and sharing their tent, camping stove and first aid kit. That way I just had to bring my sleeping bag and pad. This cuts down on the initial investment, or at least delays it, until you figure out if you really like backpacking and want to do loads more of it.
Hot tip: if borrowing a sleeping bag seems gross, get yourself a sleeping bag liner.
4. Go with an experienced friend
Solo backpacking trips really can be a thing of great beauty, but for your first few, it’s strongly advised that you go with someone else, and ideally with someone who has done a bit of backpacking themselves. They can help you get to grips with finding the perfect spot to pitch your tent as well as operating all your gear. In my case, it was super helpful to have someone teach me how to hang a bear bag, because that wasn’t something I learned growing up in Scotland. He also helped me stay calm when we met a bear the following morning on our descent. After a few adventures, it all becomes second nature, but it’s a lot to learn your first time out!
5. Check permits
Sure, you can camp legally anywhere in Scotland, but elsewhere you may need a permit to go backpacking. Most National Parks require a permit, for example, while BLM land, Wilderness Areas and National Forests may be fair game to everyone who follows the principles of Leave No Trace. Make sure you know your permissions before you hike six miles in with a heavy pack.
6. Test your gear
For any gear that you’re personally bringing, make sure you test it out at home first. That means you need to pitch your tent in your living room and practice using your stove in the back garden. Sleeping in a collapsed tent and eating a cold camping meal will definitely ruin your fun, fast.
7. Don’t go too far...
Because backpacking can be a fair sight more difficult than day hiking, it’s a good idea to pick somewhere that’s not too much more than three miles down the trail. It might not sound like very far, but that’s plenty of mileage to get lost in the mountains, and you can ensure that you don’t tire yourself out before arriving. My first trip was actually six miles, but we were able to cheat a little and ride a ski lift up the mountain, which shaved off the first couple of miles, and the steepest section.
If you keep things on the enjoyable side, you’re much more likely to give backpacking another chance than if you try to tackle a ten-miler and fail. And remember, you have to hike out again tomorrow!
8. Or too high
If you’re backpacking in an alpine area, also take care with vertical feet. It can be easy to want to head up a mountain for the best views, and that can be amazing with the right training and gear, but it gets a lot colder overnight at high altitude, and if you’re above treeline then the risk of lightning strikes is higher too. Seek out sheltered lakes that are cradled in mountain bowls and lower elevation areas where you won’t need your winter tent and 4-season sleeping bag even in summer.
9. Pick a well-established trail
If you’re going much more than a mile or two, because the backpack can make the walking more burdensome, it’s a better idea to pick a well-defined, easy-to-travel trail than try to bushwhack or do a lot of scrambling. We got a little adventurous on our way out and tried a different route, which resulted in a long bushwhack, a fall and a stick in the eye for me, the aforementioned bear sighting and being late for work. It was memorable, but if I could go back in time I’d tell 2009 Julia to go back the way she came.
10. Research your destination
Examine a topo map and read trip reports to get a feel for the area where you intend to set up camp for the night. What’s the elevation? Is there a water supply? And what kind of terrain can you expect – is it rocky ground and are there clearings where you can camp away from trees? Are fires allowed? Ideally, you can find some flat areas of dirt that have previously been camped on, near a water source and with lovely views.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.