Moving through the backcountry at the pace of your feet is one of the greatest pleasures there is. I should know, I hiked the 2,189 mile Appalachian Trail in 2015, and in 2017 I hiked 2,700 miles on the Continental Divide Trail. To say the least, ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking play a very important part in my life and I absolutely love talking about both of these interrelated topics.
However, I realize that for some, the thought of spending a night in the woods can sound scary or unattainable. Statistics show that every year, more and more people are choosing to get out and spend a night in the wilderness. If you’re looking to join them, I've rounded up some backpacking tips for beginners that will help prepare you for your first backpacking adventure.
Before I jump in, I want to take a step back and say that day hiking is a great option for those just starting out and doesn’t involve expensive gear or a huge time commitment. A lot of the principles in this post also apply well to day hiking. I encourage you to try a few day trips before planning an overnighter.
Ease Into It
For your first overnight trip you want to ease into and give yourself the best possible chance of success. There’s nothing worse than biting off more than you can chew and being cold, wet and hungry on a backpacking trip. I recommend doing some research on accessible hiking trails nearby and starting there. Plan to spend just one night in the woods and don’t hike in more than four or five miles. Leave your car at the trail head so that if you forget something or the weather turns bad then you can bail.
Phone a Friend
I definitely enjoy some solo trail time but some of my best hiking trips have been with friends. Call up that friend who is always up for anything and invite them along. It’s easy to get inside your own head when solo backpacking but hiking with a friend will keep the feeling relaxed and carefree. You can share gear, cook food together and reminisce about old times around the fire.
Beg and Borrow
Spending a night in the woods means you need to have certain equipment with you for a safe and comfortable time. It’s easy to walk into your local sporting goods store and drop a lot of money on the fanciest, shiniest new gear. It’s not necessary when starting out though. There’s a good chance that friends and family will be happy to loan you the necessary gear. Call them up and ask to borrow whatever they have, maybe even invite them along. The more the merrier.
Don’t Take the Kitchen Sink
The days of carrying big, heavy backpacks into the backcountry are thankfully behind us. With the technological advances in backpacking gear, it’s possible to carry a lightweight backpack. Carrying a lighter pack won’t weigh you down and makes hiking a much more enjoyable experience. A big part of what I do is teach people about Ultralight Backpacking on my website and I can talk about it for days. The main thing is to avoid taking unnecessary gear into the backcountry that doesn’t serve a purpose. Once you’ve borrowed all the gear you can, pack the lightest items that will keep you safe and warm in the woods. Leave the kitchen sink at home.
Footwear is Key
Good footwear is one of the most important factors to consider for an enjoyable experience in the mountains. There’s a good chance you already own suitable shoes if you’re starting out. Many people like sturdy hiking boots for hiking and if you have them, use them. In the ultralight backpacking community, most people use trail running shoes. The support that boots offer is not necessary if your backpack is light. Lightweight footwear makes hiking easier as you remove excess weight from your feet. Trail running shoes with good traction are ideal. But if you have comfortable running shoes that will do the job, use those on your first foray into the wilderness. Good socks will help prevent blisters by allowing your feet to breathe. I’ve hiked hundreds of miles in the Blister Resist Quarter Sock and highly recommend them. The sock’s mohair yarn and Dynamix fiber construction keeps your feet temperature regulated and blister-free.
10 Quick Fire Backpacking Tips for Beginners
Now that I’ve covered some of the key aspects in getting started I’m going to give you ten quick fire tips to get you ready to go out on your adventure.
1. Use synthetic or wool clothing - cotton kills on a backpacking trip. Synthetic and wool garments dry quickly and will thus keep you warm in the woods.
2. Bring lightweight backpacking foods - food is one of the heaviest things you’ll be carrying. Do some research into lightweight foods that you enjoy eating. Check out this comprehensive video series I made about backpacking foods for some inspiration.
3. Plan your trip around good weather - make life easy on your first trip and find a window of good weather to go hiking.
4. Be safe - tell a friend or family member exactly where you’re going and when you expect to return. Hike in a location that matches your experience level and be smart.
5. Use your smartphone as the ultimate multi-use item - a modern smartphone can be your camera, GPS/Map, communication device and trail journal. Use it!
6. Try hiking with trekking poles - trekking poles help if you have injuries or are getting in shape for the trail. They take some load off your joints and can make hiking downhill more gentle on the knees.
7. Carry a method to treat questionable water sources - I recommend Aqua Mira drops for the beginner. They make water safe to drink, weigh very little and are a low cost option
8. Enjoy every single minute - time in the outdoors should bring a smile to your face. Enjoy the views, after all, you earned them.
9. Get in shape - hiking over rugged terrain is a great workout. Go on walks around your local area to build up your hiking muscles; you’ll thank yourself later.
10. Be patient - building up the skills and knowledge to be comfortable on a hiking trip takes time. Be patient, do your research and enjoy the journey.
Many of us spend a lot of our time indoors, attached to technology and removed from our natural environment. Hopefully this article motivates you to get outside and takes you on a journey to becoming comfortable and experienced in the woods. If I can answer any questions and make your journey easier, please reach out. Happy to help and happy trails!
Paul “Pie” Ingram is a Brit living in Finland and hiking long distance trails all over the world. He’s hiked the AT and the CDT and will be setting out on the Pacific Trail in 2020 to finish the Triple Crown. He runs pieonthetrail.com and a youtube channel where he talks about ultralight backpacking, thru hiking and all things gear related. In the summer of 2019 he’ll be linking together a series of trails in the High Sierra.