In this guide to backpacking for beginners, we’ve outlined everything we wish we knew when we started our backpacking careers. Covering everything from planning your first trip, to necessary gear, and how to go to the bathroom, we’ve compiled all the information you need to start backpacking as a beginner!
backpacking for beginners
You’ve probably heard the term “backpacking” thrown around in various contexts and never quite understood what it really entails. The reality is that it means a few different things and they’re kind of similar, hence why the term can be confusing.
In the outdoor world, backpacking refers to any multi-day hike in which you load up all your gear into a backpack and spend the night camping in the backcountry. You may also hear the term backcountry camping, which generally means the same thing.
This is different from day hiking, which is when you leave and return for a hike on the same day. Many people who love to day hike will progress to backpacking, as it allows you to spend more time on the trail, explore areas deeper in the wilderness, and certainly pushes you to the next level of adventure.
Why should you go backpacking?
If the idea of lugging a heavy bag around for miles and adventuring far from civilization is giving you some hesitation, that’s totally understandable! When we were backpacking beginners, we definitely felt the same way. It’s not easy and honestly, it’s a little scary!
But trust us, if you enjoy day hiking, then you’ll love backpacking. There is nothing better than spending a warm afternoon lounging by an alpine lake, deep in the wilderness or watching the sunset over a mountain peak as you enjoy dinner, with nothing but the sound of nature surrounding you.
If you want to truly experience nature, away from other people and the constant distractions of everyday life, then you’ll love backpacking.
We love backpacking because it’s the perfect combination of physical challenge, outdoor adventure, natural beauty, and solitude. We love being alone deep in the wilderness, where you can truly enjoy the beauty of the world.
Only backpacking can give this feeling of deep connection!
Why you should trust us
So you’ve decided to take the leap and learn how to get into backpacking! Why should you trust us to help you!?
First, we’re avid backpackers! We travel all over the US and spend every summer in different locations, with the primary goal of maximizing our ability to backpack and tackle outdoor adventures.
We’ve backpacked everywhere from the desert of Joshua Tree to canyon country in Utah to the rocky mountains of Wyoming to the Andes mountains in Peru. We’ve spent countless nights sleeping under the stars in the backcountry in all types of conditions and environments.
And second, we didn’t grow up backpacking – everything we know, we’ve learned ourselves in the last few years. We were beginners to backpacking just a few years ago so we know what it’s like!
So keep on reading if you want to learn everything you need to begin your backpacking career!
You may also like
Planning a beginners Backpacking Trip
Because backpacking trips are multi-day adventures and most backcountry campsites require advance reservations, you will need to spend some time planning out your backpacking trips, especially as beginners.
Unlike most day hikes, you typically can’t just show up at a trailhead the day you’d like to start your backpacking trip and head out.
In this section, we’ve outlined each of the pre-trip planning activities you should do before embarking on your first backpacking trip.
- Pick a beginner friendly backpacking trail
- Plan your itinerary
- Secure a backcountry permit
- Invest in and test out your backpacking gear
- Pick out and pack your clothes
- Plan your backpacking meals
- Check local rules
- Check the weather
- Tell someone your plans
- Hit the trail!
1. pick a beginner friendly backpacking trail
This is probably obvious but the first thing you need to do when planning your first backpacking trip is to choose a beginner friendly trail! It can be fun to look at sweet pictures of different trails but it can also be overwhelming – there are so many great trails!
But here are a few tips for choosing a backpacking trail:
- Distance | Remember that you’ll be carrying a heavy bag, so do not expect to move at the same speed as you typically do when day hiking. For reference, we like to tackle about 8-10 miles in a typical day backpacking. Anything above 14 miles really pushes our limits.
- Daylight | Remember that daylight can be a limiting factor. You do not want to be trying to find your campsite, setting up your tent, and making dinner after dark. Not only does darkness make everything more complicated, you’ll also miss our favorite part of backpacking – enjoying some late afternoon/early evening relaxation!
- Elevation | Similar to our note about trail distance above, do not expect to be able to tackle the same amount of elevation gain at your normal day hiking pace. That bag will feel extra heavy and elevation gain is a real time and energy killer. No your limits before you choose a trail!
How to find the right trail
You may now be asking, well, where can I find good backpacking trails to choose from? Anywhere you’d find day hiking trails! The internet is littered with endless information about the best backpacking trails wherever you’d like to backpack.
In places like national parks, they typically have a section of their website dedicated to backcountry camping, where they have more information about backpacking trails and camping options in the backcountry.
Below are a few beginner friendly backpacking trips that we love!
- Panamint Dunes in Death Valley | 7 miles roundtrip, 860 feet elevation gain
- Sawtooth Lake in Idaho | 10 miles roundtrip, 1900 feet elevation gain
- Cracker Lake in Glacier National Park | 12 miles, 1650 feet elevation
- Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase Escalante | 6 – 27 miles (depending on the trailhead and route)
2. plan your Itinerary
Okay, so you’ve scoured the internet and have the perfect trail picked out for your first backpacking trip. Next, you need to finalize your itinerary. How many miles will you hike each day and where will you camp?
If the trail you’ve chosen is a simple one-night out and back hike, congratulations! This step is done.
If you’re tackling a multi-night trip or your trail has multiple campsite options, you’ve got a bit more work to do! Itinerary planning can end up being one of the more logistically challenging parts of planning a backpacking trip. But it’s also fun and exciting!
In most places, backcountry camping is only permitted in designated areas or specific spots. You will need to review the available information for your desired trail to figure out where you can camp along that trail, and then map out hiking distances in between.
For instance, let’s say you’ve found a 16-mile loop that you want to tackle as a two-day, one-night trip. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to camp right in the middle of the 16 miles; maybe there is one site that’s 5 miles in and one that’s 12 miles in.
Maybe one site is right on a picturesque lake and permits are in high demand, whereas the other is not as pretty. You’ll need to figure these things out before choosing a site!
Tips for planning an itinerary
If planning an itinerary feels a little overwhelming, we get it! This is definitely one of the hardest parts of planning your backpacking trip as a beginner. Here are a few tips to help you plan:
- Purchase a paper map. This may sound old-school and outdated, but trust us, spreading out a big paper map on the floor makes itinerary planning much easier (and more fun)!.
- Read blogs. In a lot of cases, a blogger will have already done the itinerary planning for you! You can often find information about common backpacking itineraries for your chosen trail on blogs.
- Visit the park website. If your chosen hike is located in a national park or national forest, you can often find useful resources on their websites. Or better yet, call and speak with a ranger about your trip options!
3. secure a backcountry Permit
At this point, you have the perfect backpacking trip planned. You have your trail picked out and you’ve mapped out your perfect itinerary. Now, the hard part…getting a permit.
In most backpacking destinations across the United States, you will need to get a permit for your backpacking campsite.
At first, it may feel a bit frustrating to hear that your ability to do the trip you’ve chosen will be left to some random lottery or how quickly you can add a reservation to your cart, but it’s important for a few reasons:
- First, permits help protect the fragile backcountry environment and preserve it for future generations. By limiting the number of visitors to any given area, permits are an important means to reduce our impact on the environmental.
- Second, permitted backcountry campsites can help keep backpackers safe in certain areas by ensuring a campsite is available for use. Imagine you’ve been hiking all day through the desert or up the side of a mountain and just as you turn the final switchback you see that your planned campsite is already taken. Now, you’d need to scramble to find somewhere else to camp. With a permit, there’s no risk that you won’t be able to find a spot to camp before sundown.
- And finally, permits help the park keep track of whose in the backcountry. When you get a permit, you’ll need to provide your personal information and details about your trip. This allows the park to know where you’ll be and be able to look for you should something go wrong.
So, while permits may feel annoying, they are very important (and actually, kind of nice).
How to get a permit
That being said, it is pretty frustrating that each park has its own rules for applying for backpacking permits.
In some parks, you need to enter a lottery to get a permit. In other parks, permit reservations will open up at specific times each year. And in some parks, you can’t even reserve permits in advance – you just need to fill out a form at a ranger station.
No matter the reservation method, permits for many popular backpacking trails in the US are highly competitive so make sure you do your research well in advance.
5. Purchase & Test out your backpacking Gear
There is a ton of backpacking gear out there, and as beginners, it can be incredibly overwhelming to sort through what gear you really need and what you don’t!
There are endless different options and brands available for each item, making it even more confusing and overwhelming to know what you really need.
Luckily, we’re already written extensively about our favorite backpacking gear, complete with a downloadable spreadsheet for you to easily make sure you have all the gear you need!
Our biggest piece of advice for picking out your backpacking gear as a beginner is to make sure you test everything out before hitting the trail! You don’t want your first time using anything to be 10 miles into the backcountry. Set up your tent, blow up your sleeping pad, practice using your water filter, test out your Jetboil stove, and figure out how to use your GPS device.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to test out packing your backpack in advance. You’ll want to check that everything fits in your bag and make sure your pack is a reasonable weight. A good rule of thumb is that your pack shouldn’t exceed 20% of your body weight.
6. pick out and pack your Clothes
Luckily, if you’re already an avid hiker, you likely don’t need to purchase many additional clothing items to round out your backpacking closet.
Much like hiking, the key things to consider when purchasing clothes for backpacking are layers and versatility. Even if you start your hike with bluebird skies and warm temperatures, not only can the weather change quickly the farther you go into the backcountry, but it’s also likely that nighttime temps will drop significantly.
Make sure you have plenty of layers to keep you warm no matter where and when you are backpacking (except maybe if you’re in the desert during the summer) and be prepared for any type of weather. Don’t underestimate the need for sturdy, water-proof gear!
Perhaps the only other consideration to be aware of related to backpacking gear is weight and packability. Remember that you’ll be carrying all the clothes you need in your bag, along with all your other gear.
Meaning, that items that are lightweight and can be packed down small are more valuable. Don’t plan on bringing that large ski jacket or bulky sweatpants!
7. plan out your meals
One of the most common questions we get about backpacking for beginners is what to eat. To the surprise of many, you’ll actually be able to eat quite well while on the trail if you plan it right!
As you surely know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day and this feels doubly true when you’re in the backcountry. You don’t want to get your day started on the wrong foot!
In terms of backpacking breakfasts, our go-to meal is oatmeal, usually with a peanut butter packet to add some extra calories and protein. We love oatmeal because the individual packets are lightweight, pack down small, and it’s super easy to make in the backcountry. Even better, you can eat it right out of its packet for easy cleanup!
Waking up on a chilly morning, bundled up in our sleeping bags, enjoying some warm oatmeal is a perfect way to start the day!
When we’re backpacking, we typically don’t stop and eat a big lunch. Usually, we prefer to just snack throughout the day while we’re hiking so we can keep moving and don’t need to unpack a bunch of equipment from our bags.
But, when we do bring something for lunch on a backpacking trip, our go-to is a chicken bacon ranch wrap, which consists of a packet of chicken, tortilla, a little powdered ranch mix, and if we’re feeling fancy, some bacon to sprinkle on top.
Our backcountry chicken bacon ranch wrap is perfect for backpacking because everything is pre-packaged, lightweight, and will last in any conditions.
Alright, let’s cut right to the chase – backpacking dinners are way better than you’d think!
There are many different brands that make tons of tasty meals such as chicken pad thai, chicken alfredo pasta, yellow curry, and lasagna with meat sauce. There is a meal for every palate!
If you’re a bit skeptical about the quality of these meals, we’ll put it this way: no, you won’t be eating 5-star, perfectly cooked lasagna with meat sauce on the side of a mountain, but it’s definitely better than you think!
Besides the insane variety and high-quality of backpacking meals, we also love them for their simplicity and packability. Just boil water, pour it into the self-contained cooking bag, let it sit for the prescribed amount of time, mix it all together, and enjoy!
Importantly, be sure to check how many calories or servings are in each packet. Many brands will have two meals in each packet, which takes the convenience to another level. But even if the package says its two servings, make sure you’ll actually have enough food for two people.
For example, many brands will say that each pouch has two servings, but if each serving is only 400 calories, that’s not enough to sustain you in the backcountry. Dinner is usually our biggest meal of the day so we like to squeeze in as many calories as possible. We usually look for something that’s at least 600 calories per person.
In our opinion, proper snacking is the key to good nutrition on the trail.
Breakfast and dinner are a bit easier because you can take the time to boil water and make something of more sustenance like oatmeal or a backpacking dinner. But when you’re hiking up a mountain in the intense sun with a heavy pack, you’ll be burning through calories like it’s nothing. Having good snacks available to keep you moving throughout the day is crucial.
Typically, we trying to keep our bodies fueled with lots of carbs and some protein. Here are a few of our favorite backpacking snacks:
- Bars | Clif bars, Lara bars, Kind Bars etc. I love these Pro Bars, which not only taste great, but are lower in sugar, high in fiber, and squeeze in a lot of calories to keep you full.
- Cheese crackers | Cheez-its, Goldfish, etc.
- Pretzels or crackers
- Beef Jerky
- Dried fruit
- Nuts and trail mix
Separate from snacking on the trail, we are huge proponents of what we like to call “backcountry charcuterie.” We always pack some form of hard sausage, such as salami, pepperoni, or summer sausage and pair it with some hard cheese like extra sharp cheddar, parmesan, or asiago to enjoy as a tasty appetizer before dinner.
Now technically, you’re supposed to keep all of the items listed refrigerated, but we’ve always been okay with eating them, as long as it’s during the first few days of a trip and hasn’t been too hot outside.
Sometimes Sarah even likes to pack a little serving of red wine to pair with her backcountry charcuterie: It’s the simple things!
8. Check local rules and regulations
Before departing on your first backpacking trip, make sure you spend some time reviewing any rules specific to the area you’ll be visiting.
These rules can cover everything from where you need to pick up your permit (yes, some parks will make you pick up your permit in-person), to bear safety, water regulations, bathroom etiquette, choosing a campsite, and waste disposal.
This is a super important step for beginner and seasoned backpackers alike. Make sure you do your part to help keep the area you are visiting safe and well-preserved!
9. Check the weather
When we say to “check the weather,” we mean two different things.
First, before spinning up grand plans for an epic backpacking trip, make sure it’s a good time to hike in the area which you’ve selected. This often takes more research than you’d imagine.
For instance, we’re originally from Virginia and one of the first big backpacking trips we did was in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. We booked our trip to be during the first week of July, which in Virginia is the middle of the summer. Surely, we’d have no concerns about the weather, or so we thought!
But little did we know that parts of the trail would be covered in snow well into July!
Every area has their own peak season, which can vary slightly year-to-year based on precipitation, heat waves, and wildfires. Make sure you do your research well in advance!
And second, closer to the actual departure date of your trip, make sure to keep a close eye on the weather forecast in the area. Remember, you’ll be far from civilization, so weather can change quickly and temperatures can often be much colder than expected at night, especially in higher elevations. Be prepared for anything!
10. Tell someone your plans
Before you hit the trail, it’s super important to leave your detailed backpacking plans with a trusted friend or family member.
Let them know where you’re headed and when you expect to return to civilization. If something does happen to you, it’s crucial that someone not only knows you’re missing but will also have a general idea of where to look for you.
It’s really easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of planning a backpacking trip, but in the event that you should encounter trouble out on the trail, it’s so important that someone knows exactly where you’re planning to hike.
11. Hit the trail!
After extensive planning and preparation, it’s finally time to hit the trail! As a beginner to backpacking, you’ll surely be feeling a wild mixture of excitement and anxiety as you prepare to head out.
Continue reading to make sure you’re prepared with all the skills and knowledge you’ll need out it the backcountry.
Backpacking for beginners FAQS
Now that you’ve planned the perfect beginner backpacking itinerary, gotten your permits, and selected the best pieces of gear, you’ve likely still got a lot of questions about life on the trail! It’s time to make sure you are fully prepared for your big adventure in the backcountry. In this section, we’ll answer some frequently asked questions that cover key backpacking skills for beginners and share a few of our best tips to help your trip go smoothly!
- How fit do I need to be to backpack?
- How do I choose a campsite?
- How do I find my way on the trail?
- How do I get fresh water?
- What do I do if something goes wrong?
- What do I do if I encounter wildlife (bears)?
- How do I handle inclement weather?
- What do I do with waste?
- How do I go to the bathroom?
1. How fit do I need to be to backpack?
If you’re an avid day hiker, then this may seem obvious to you but backpacking does require a high level of physical fitness. Even if you’re just going for one night, your bag is going to be loaded down with food, clothes, a tent, and sleeping equipment.
Do not underestimate the level of physical fitness needed for backpacking! It’s important to plan on less elevation gain and mileage that you are used to day hiking.
That being said, there are backpacking routes of all different difficulty levels. As a beginner to backpacking, pick an easy trail with minimal elevation gain. Once you’ve got your first trip under your belt, reassess how much your body is able to handle and perhaps step it up a notch on your next adventure.
2. How do I choose a campsite?
In most parks, when you get a backpacking permit, you’ll be assigned a specific campsite, which means you won’t be responsible for choosing a campsite once you’re out in the wilderness. Most of the time, the campsites will be marked with a little sign on the trail.
But if aren’t assigned a specific campsite, you’ll be on your own to find a place to lay your head for the night. This can be harder than it sounds!
You’ll need to find an area that has enough soft (not on rock) flat ground to fit a tent that’s close to a water source (ideally), and is cleared of all underlying brush and shrubs. This may sound easy but when you’ve already hiked 10 miles and just want to rest, finding a good campsite can be a real pain in the butt!
Be sure to check local regulations regarding where you are allowed to set up camp. In some areas, you must camp a certain distance from water sources and trails.
One piece of advice – don’t let good be the enemy of perfection. If you find a good campsite, take it. We often pass up good campsites in the hopes of finding an even better one. News flash: we very rarely find a better one.
3. How do I find my way around?
Navigation is one of the most important backpacking skills for beginners.
New devices, such as the Garmin InReach Mini 2, and services, such as the AllTrails App, have made backcountry navigation much easier than it’s historically been, but that doesn’t mean you can forgo important navigational skills. Make sure you have hard copies of relevant maps and know how to use a compass in case something goes terribly wrong.
We also recommend investing in the Pro version of AllTrails. It’s only $5 per month and allows you to download trails for offline use, meaning you can track your progress on the map even without cell service.
AllTrails Pro makes navigating in the backcountry significantly easier, but keep in mind that AllTrails maps can often be inaccurate and require keeping your phone charged! It’s best not to rely solely on AllTrails.
4. How do I get fresh water?
There are many different ways to get fresh water in the backcountry and it’s critical you understand where your water sources will be located before you leave on your backpacking trip.
Do not assume water will be readily available no matter where you are backpacking. If you are unsure about water sources, talk to a park ranger familiar with the area.
We’ve done backpacking trips through the desert where there is no water available anywhere. In these areas, you’ll need to pack in all the water you need for multiple days (using bladders like these Platypus bottles) or figure out a way to cache water along the trail.
In areas where you expect fresh water to be available, remember that just because you see a small pond or stream on a map, do not assume it is still there! Especially late in the summer, small ponds and streams have a tendency to dry up.
how to filter water
If you’ll be in an area where freshwater is readily available, you’ll still need to filter the water to remove any parasites, bacteria, or dirt. To make one thing abundantly clear: you need to filter any water you find in the backcountry!
On very rare occasions, you can drink right out of a natural spring or from glacial runoff, but these circumstances are very, very rare. In the overwhelming majority of cases, you’ll be drinking water from a pond, lake, stream, river, or puddle. And no matter how clear or fresh the water looks, you still need to filter it!
5. What do I do if something goes wrong?
When you’re in the backcountry, your safety is your responsibility. You will generally not have cell service and you’re often very far from other humans. If something bad happens, you will be responsible for assessing the situation and deciding what to do. Help is not around the corner!
We always recommend carrying a first aid kit and a GPS device like the Garmin InReach which can be used to call for help even when you’re not in range of cell service. The Garmin InReach with a subscription allows you to track your route, communicate without cell service, and call for emergency services no matter where you are in the world.
But do not let carrying a GPS device give you a false sense of security. You are still ultimately on your own! Calling for help using a GPS device should only be done as an absolute last resort, as the resources and cost (that you will need to pay) to get you help can be exorbitant.
Staying flexible in the backcountry
There’s probably a better way to phrase this but backpacking requires what we’re calling mental flexibility. When you’re in the backcountry, something will inevitably go wrong, whether you are an experienced or beginner backpacker.
Usually, it’s something minor like you forgot your favorite fleece or maybe your water source is a long walk from camp. But of course, sometimes really bad or unsafe things can happen in the backcountry. Whatever happens, you’ll need to keep a positive attitude and be adaptable on any backpacking trip.
Of course, thorough preparation is always the best way to minimize the chances of encountering any serious problems in the backcountry.
6. What do I do if I encounter wildlife (bears)?!
Whether you’re in the desert of southern Utah or the alpine terrain of Glacier National Park, you should be aware of wildlife common to the area and what species may pose a risk to your safety.
In the desert, this is mainly snakes and scorpions. But in most of the forested mountainous terrain, this means bears, which require some advanced planning and education.
Bear safety and food storage
If you will be backpacking in bear country, you’ll need to have a plan to safely store any food or scented items overnight while camping. We are big fans of Bear Vault’s bear cans, as they are easy to use and safe.
You should always store your bear can at least 100 yards from your campsite. Keep it away from steep hills or drop-offs so that a determined bear isn’t able to roll it away. Remember that all scented items must be properly stored, and yes, this even includes toiletries like deodorant and toothpaste.
There are other methods of proper bear food storage, such as hanging your food between trees, but many wilderness areas require the use of bear cans, so be sure to check local regulations when planning your trip.
- You can read more about bear safety from the National Park Service.
7. How do I deal with inclement weather?
Having as much knowledge as possible about the upcoming weather before you leave on a backpacking trip is very important.
It’s critical to remember that weather can change rapidly in the backcountry and just because your Weather App is predicting warm temps and clear skies in the town near the trailhead, that doesn’t mean it will be the same as the weather deep in the backcountry.
Also remember that if you’ll be gone for multiple days, you won’t be able to see an updated forecast once you’re out of cell service. Stay alert, keep an eye out for threatening weather, and be prepared for anything.
If you’re hiking in an area prone to thunderstorms, you may want to brush up on what to do in case of lighting in the backcountry.
8. What do I do with waste?
These last two items – trash and going to the bathroom – are two of the most popular questions we get about backpacking from beginners. What do you do with your trash? And where do you go to the bathroom?
Let’s get into some of the messy details.
Dealing with waste is actually quite simple. You need to pack everything out!
Typically, we bring a plastic grocery bag and use it to collect all of our trash over the course of the trip. We also stuff smaller pieces of trash into larger pieces of trash to help keep things compact and organized.
Do not, under any circumstances, leave trash in the backcountry. Please do your part to help keep these beautiful wilderness areas pristine for fellow backpackers and generations to come.
9. How do I go to the bathroom?
If it wasn’t already clear, we’re talking about number 2 here. And the answer to the question, “Where do you go to the bathroom?” depends on the area where you’re hiking.
Digging a hole
In most wilderness areas, you’re required to dig a small cat hole about 6-inches deep, do your business, and then cover it back up. However, you must always pack out your toilet paper!
Contrary to popular belief, toilet paper does NOT decompose quickly! It can between 1 to 3 years to decompose completely. Leaving your toilet paper behind can damage fragile backcountry ecosystems, pose a danger to the animals who live here, and impairs the experience for other hikers.
We recommend making some “bathroom bags” before you leave. We roll up some toilet paper in small sandwich bags and then use the toilet paper and put it back in the bag once we’re done before packing it back out. We typically bring one “bathroom bag” bag per day on the trip.
Using a wag bag
In certain areas, it’s required that you pack everything out. Yes, that means even your #2! This is most likely to be required in fragile desert environments or areas that get excessive backpacking traffic.
We prefer to use Toilet Kit Waste Bags in places that require backpackers to pack everything out. They come with a resealable bag and toilet paper.
To use them, open up the bag, tie it around your waist so it rests under you when crouching, and let it fly. You can throw your used toilet paper right in the bag as well. When you’re done, seal up the bag (side note: it’s worth double and triple checking the bag is closed) and throw it in with the rest of your trash to pack out.
Other useful resources
Looking for more backpacking and hiking resources? You may also be interested in these articles!
- Our Must Have Backpacking Gear List with Downloadable Spreadsheet
- What Do You Really Need to Pack for a Day Hike
- 12 Best Day Hiking Lunch Ideas
- Best Hiking Clothes for Summer: Men’s & Women’s
- Complete Guide to the Best Hiking Clothes for Women
We hope this guide to backpacking for beginners has been helpful! If you have any questions, drop them in the comments below and please don’t hesitate to reach out!