How to Take Your First Backpacking Trip

Woman backpacking in the mountains of Colorado.

Want to try out backpacking but don’t know where to start? Then this post is for you!

Believe it or not, when I began my quest to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) at Amicalola Falls State Park on a warm, sunny day in March of 2018, I was not an experienced backpacker. I’d gone on a few short overnight trips throughout the years, and I was an avid hiker, camper, and traveler, but I’d never gone on a backpacking trip that was more than four consecutive nights long. And I’d really only ever been on a handful of backpacking trips in total. The only one that I went on within a year of starting the AT was a two-day “practice” hike in Pennsylvania with Ibex (with whom I hiked almost the entire AT) the summer before to make sure we’d make good hiking buddies before committing to the idea of the AT. Let that sink in. I quit my job, gave up my apartment, packed all of my belongings into my cousin’s basement in New York, and hopped on a flight down south, determined to make it all the way from Georgia to Maine without having ever been out for more than a half week-long trek.

Was I crazy? Quite possibly. Did I make it? Most certainly. And was it the wildest and best decision I’ve ever made in my life? Most definitely! So if I can do that, then you can get the courage to get yourself out into the woods for a weekend to try out backpacking, even if it’s something that brings you fear and discomfort. It will be worth it. Trust me.

Okay, so where to begin. First, you will need to identify a trail. Since this is your first trip, I would recommend not getting too ambitious. If you’re going out for a weekend, choose a trail length that is shorter than what you would normally hike in two days. For example, if you normally hike 15 miles per day, plan to hike eight to 10 miles per day. If you normally hike 10 miles per day, plan to hike five to eight miles per day. The weight of the backpack will not only weigh you down, but it will cause you to tire out more quickly. Leave yourself time to take a lot of breaks, to enjoy the scenery, to fill up and filter your water, and to take it slowly if you need to.

Next, make sure that the trail, whether it’s a state park, national forest, wilderness area, or the like, allows overnight visitors. Many state parks do not but national forests, wilderness areas, and Bureau of Land Management areas often do. Further, if overnight visitors are allowed, be sure to check that permits are not required (if they are, you will likely need to apply for one in advance) and that there are available water supplies (streams, springs, etc.) within your route. Read the rules of the particular area to learn where you can camp (many places allow dispersed camping while others insist that you camp only in designated areas), where you can park (this could be a loop or an out and back – make sure you take a look at the map and understand in advance how you will get back to your car), whether or not you can have fires, if there are privies or you will need to dig catholes (always plan for having to dig catholes just in case), and if bear boxes will be provided or you will need to bring a bear canister or hang your food. Most often, you will need to hang your food. This was my least favorite camp chore on the AT, and I tried to push it off on my tramily and other trail friends as much as possible. I just don’t have a good arm! But if you’re unsure what you need to do in order to hang a food bag away from bears, there are plenty of YouTube videos out there that demonstrate this, so I would recommend taking a look at one of those. Since I am a terrible bear bag hanger, I just do not feel that it would be right to give you advice about this! 😉

Once you have the where down, time to move on to the what. What to bring, that is. There is no right answer for what gear to buy or what to bring backpacking, but certainly there are some essentials, and the lighter you can make your load while bringing those essentials, the easier it’s going to be on you. My kit, for example, started off way way too heavy on the AT, and gave me a lot of knee pain at the beginning of the trail. I’ve since replaced quite a few pieces of gear in order to lighten my load, and my kit is forever evolving as I learn more and spend more time out in the woods. To make it easy for you, I’ve listed at the bottom of this article a list of gear that you should bring, and I’ve given examples of the brands and models that I use myself. You don’t need all this fancy stuff if you’re going on just one weekend backpacking trip — borrow the first time from a friend if you can! — but if you decide to keep on going out, it may be worth it to invest in decent gear.

Once you’re on your way on the trail, just take it easy and enjoy it. Don’t push yourself too hard on the first trip. Have a goal in mind for where you’d like to camp, whether this is simply finding a spot anywhere in the woods or at an established campsite. Be sure that there is water nearby, and if you have to dig a cathole, choose a spot at least 200 feet away from water sources, campsites, and trails. An important aspect of backpacking is minimizing your impact, and I would highly encourage you to read up on the seven principles from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Much of it is common sense, but the organization gives some fantastic tips on how to recreate in nature responsibly, and to lessen your footprint in the great outdoors. Even those of us who are more experienced could always brush up on our knowledge!

One additional note: always tell someone where it is you’re going and when you expect to return. Safety first!

That’s really all there is to it, friends. To recap:

  • Do your research in advance to choose a trail. Make sure overnight visitors are allowed and know where you’re allowed to camp.
  • Know the rules of the area.
  • Know where to expect water sources, and have a backup plan in case the source is dry.
  • Pack the essentials. Make sure you have enough layers and have a backup set of clothes in case yours get wet. Pack an extra half day’s worth of food, just in case.
  • Know how you will get back to your car.
  • Practice the Leave No Trace principles.
  • Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

That’s about it! You’re ready to go! If anyone has any questions, or is confused about anything as they’re planning their trip, please let me know and I will do my best to help. Don’t overthink it – just get out there and HAVE FUN!

Packing List (I tried not to forget anything, but I’m sorry if I did!):

  • Backpack. A normal-sized backpacking backpack is about 45 to 60 liters. Do not let anyone at REI talk you into buying a pack that’s more than 65 liters. The bigger it is, the heavier it tends to be (and the more unnecessary stuff you can fit inside), and you just don’t need more room than that. I carried an Osprey Aura on the AT, which was quite comfortable (until my waist shrunk and it no longer fit me well), and it held up for the entire trail. However, this pack is over four pounds, so I have since switched to a Gossamer Gear Mariposa in order to save weight. The Mariposa is a favorite among thru-hikers, weighs in at under two pounds, and basically has stellar reviews everywhere. However, I do have to admit that I miss the Osprey suspension system a bit. The best advice I can give is to get something light and comfortable. Or for your first trip, borrow one if you can!
  • Sleeping bag. What you need is going to depend on how hot or cold you sleep. I’m a cold sleeper, so I need something more intense. I started the AT with a Kelty Cosmic Down, which is one of the cheaper backpacking sleeping bags on the market, but that also means it’s one of the heaviest. It’s affordable and comfortable, but weighs over four pounds, so you have to take that into consideration. I’ve since treated myself to a Western Mountaineering Ultralite 20 F Down, which is supposed to be among the lightest and warmest bags on the market, but it comes with a hefty price tag. It also feels like sleeping inside a cloud — it’s so comfortable! If you’re going to be a three season backpacker, make sure to get something rated down to at least 20 degrees. If you’re only going in the summer, you can get something that’s rated a little higher. I also used a Sea to Summit sleeping bag liner in addition to a sleeping bag. Like I said, I sleep cold!
  • Tent or hammock. Whether you carry a tent or hammock is based on personal preference, of course, and I know nothing about hammocks. But as far as tents go, again, keep in mind the weight (I think lighter is better for everything), think about if you want a standalone tent or are okay with one that requires trekking poles to set up, and how spacious you need it to be. Most backpacking tents are tiny, so I’m inclined to go with a two person, which will fit you and your backpack. If you’re a couple, I’d go with a three-person tent so you don’t kill each other. I carried the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 2 on the AT and totally loved it. It was easy to set up, the perfect size for me and my pack, and it fit in small spaces. It was not fantastic in wind storms and I did get flooded out when a thunderstorm dropped five inches of rain on top of me within a span of two hours, but you’ll have that. Other popular brands are ZPacks and Gossamer Gear.
  • Sleeping pad. This will keep you both warmer and more comfortable, as we tend to lose heat to the ground. The higher the R rating on the pad, the warmer it will keep you. With these, you can go with a foam pad that folds up or an inflatable pad, which I prefer. I had a Thermarest Prolite Women’s on the AT and totally dug it. It held up for the entire AT, and unlike many of the lighter-weight pads, did not create a lot of noise to move around on. My only complaints were that it took up too much room in my pack and was heavier than a lot of other pads. I’ve since switched to the Thermarest NoAir Xlite for these reasons, though it is much noisier to sleep on.
  • Stove. Many places do not allow fires at various times of the year, so backpacking stoves are definitely the way to go in terms of cooking. The MSR Pocket Rocket and Jetboil are both popular, lightweight brands. Don’t forget the fuel to go along with these. You just screw the fuel canister onto the stove, turn on the fuel, light it up, and you’re ready to go.  Easy peasy.
  • Cookware. I recommend getting titanium cookware/dishes simply because they are the lightest options. Bring a pot, cup, and long-handled spork.
  • Rain jacket. Had an L.L. Bean one on the AT (which did not keep out the rain at all!) and now have a Marmot PreCip women’s, which does a better job of keeping rain out, is pretty affordable, and is super lightweight. Plus, they Marmot tends to have great colors!
  • Water filter. When it comes to water filtration, I have not seen anything easier than the Sawyer Squeeze. I am a huge fan. These come with water bags that you simply fill with creek/ stream/ spring water, screw your Squeeze to the top, then squeeze the bag, and clean water comes out of the filter. Pro tip: do not get the mini. It’s soooo slow. Sawyers also fit onto Smart Water bottles, which is a huge reason why so many thru-hikers carry them.
  • Bear bag or canister. I used a Zpacks bear bagging kit on the AT and had no complaints. It even comes with a rope. I’ve yet to need a bear canister, though thru-hiking the PCT in the future will change that.
  • Dry bags. Some folks prefer to line their packs with plastic trash compacter bags, but personally because I run so cold, I know that if my stuff gets wet I’m in big trouble. I put my sleeping bag and my extra clothes in their own dry sacs even though it adds a little extra weight, and I like the ones from Sea to Summit.
  • Hiking shoes. There is a lot of debate in the hiking community as to which is better: boots or trail runners. They both have their pros and cons. Boots are heavier and more durable. They tend to last longer and give your feet more support. Trail runners are lighter and dry out quicker. I prefer boots, and I keep buying Oboz Sawtooth Lows over and over. I met a lot of trail runner people with plantar fasciitis (though they swear it’s not the trail runners), but I never had a single foot problem on the entire AT. In addition, I have back problems, so the boots offer some extra shock absorption. Oboz are comfortable and easy to break in.
  • Food. They say you carry your fears on your back, and I always have way too much food in my pack. I guess running out of food must be my trail fear. Make sure you bring foods that are quick and easy to eat or cook, lightweight, and nutritious (well, as nutritious as backpacking food can be). Some of my favorites are granola with powdered milk, Kuju coffee, Luna bars, Rx bars, candy bars of all kinds, string cheese, dried fruit, peanut butter, ramen, Knorr pasta sides, Nuun tablets,  and Indomie (fancy ramen).
  • Trowel, toilet paper, and pee cloth. For, you know. I like the Tentlab Deuce of Spades. It’s super light and gets the job done. I also just started carrying a Kula cloth (pee cloth), which is an artistic and more sustainable alternative to toilet paper for the ladies (and their social media is killer)!
  • Portable phone battery charger. I’ve had a great experience with Anker. These are useful for traveling and long day hikes as well.
  • Trekking poles. I know they look goofy, but I never hike without these babies anymore. They have saved my life and my knees SO. MANY. TIMES. I love my Black Diamonds.
  • Socks. It is so so important to have comfortable socks when you’re backpacking. Your feet go through so much and if you get blisters you are done! I’m totally obsessed with Darn Toughs. They’re super comfortable, have a lifetime warranty, and the only time I ever got a blister on the entire AT was after I got caught in a rainstorm so intense that a river ran down my legs, filling up my shoes. They didn’t dry for several days because it continued to rain rain rain. But otherwise, not a single blister on the entire AT. These socks are amazing! I also wore sock liners and found my Walmart ones held up way better than my REI ones.
  • Other things to pack: clothes (quick drying/ layers!), puffy coat, pillow, sunglasses, hand sanitizer, bug spray, sun hat, sunscreen, personal hygiene items, small sponge, knife, trail map, gloves, hat, etc.

*This post may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something using these links, I may receive a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you, and I would never recommend a product or service that I don’t use myself and love!

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Published by Audrey

Hi! My name is Audrey, otherwise known as Glowstick on trail. I've always been into hiking, adventuring, and the outdoors, but these things took a backseat as I worked on my career in public relations for several years in Washington, D.C. In 2018, I decided that I was discontent with city life. Instead of working on my career, I needed to work on my happiness. So, I reprioritized. I quit my (amazing) job at World Wildlife Fund, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and relocated to beautiful Boulder, Colorado, where I work in climate communications and climb mountains every chance that I get.

5 thoughts on “How to Take Your First Backpacking Trip

  1. Great informative post.

    I would add that for new (and old) backpackers to check the night time low (both forecast AND seasonally possible) for where they plan to hike for that time of year and consider their sleep gear appropriately.

    Love my black diamonds as well. Tried Leki’s for a minute but want to go back to my black diamonds.I actually put on a little upper body muscle on the AT for using and abusing them so heavily instead of losing muscle. I just re-tipped them, the ‘right handed’ one was ground down past it’s nub.

    Keep up the writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes!! Great tip, Hot Dog. Thanks for adding this. Up in the mountains, it can get much colder than down in the lowlands, so towns are often much warmer than wherever you are camping. Always better to be overprepared than under! And haha YES I often have sore arms after a difficult hike for that very reason!

      Like

  2. This is so much great information for beginner back-packers! I definitely am more of the short hike type right now, but I’ve always been intrigued by the AT. It sounds like you learned a lot and had an amazing trek!

    Liked by 1 person

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