Taking your first backpacking trip

posted Oct 1, 2014, 10:10 AM by Paul Wagner   [ updated Oct 7, 2014, 2:37 PM ]
We get a lot of requests for advice on a first backpacking trip.  People have a lot of questions, but most of them are pretty basic.  We thought we'd put all of this in one place, so you can consult it over and over again.  And we've now added this to our main menu, all in the hopes of encouraging more people to hit the trail!

Backpacking isn't hard.  And it's even easier if you follow this tips for a positive experience on your first trip:
  1. Pick the right trail.  For a first trip, the perfect trail would be not too hard or long.  This is not the time for an epic journey.  When they launch a new sailboat, they often take it on a shakedown cruise---just to make sure that everything works before they head out across the ocean.  That’s the idea here.   The perfect hike would be something four miles or less—so that if things really go haywire, you can hike out in a couple of hours and try again some other time. 

  2. For a first hike, go where there are other people.  You may be a bit worried about what you’ll experience in the wilderness---that’s normal.  So pick a spot that will have some other people around.  That will feel reassuring.  If you forget your lighter or matches, you can probably borrow some.  Of course, if you pick a nice short trail to a beautiful location, you won’t have to worry about this.  There are no nice short trails to beautiful locations that don’t have other people camping there! We have a list of started hikes in our destinations section.

  3. Watch the weather.  You want perfect conditions for your first hike.  Sure, you can probably handle a little rain…but for your first hike you won’t want to have to deal with anything other than ideal conditions.  Once you’ve done a couple of hikes, you can see what it’s like to tackle the same kinds of activities under less than ideal conditions.  By then you’ll be more confident, and you’ll have most of your trail routines worked out.

  4. Make a checklist for everything you need.  We have one here on this site that should be just fine—but there are certainly others on the web that are equally good.  Take everything on this list for the first trip---and take anything else that you think you might need.  You are only going four miles, and the extra weight won’t kill you.  After you’ve done two or three hikes, you’ll look at that axe and decide that you really don’t see any need to carry it any more. 

  5. Practice at home first.  We do this with every new piece of equipment we buy.  Put up your tent in the backyard, and then take it down again.  Do it two or three times, so that you really know how to do it.  Sleep in your sleeping bag for a night, so you know what that feels like.  Light your stove a few times to make sure you know how it works.  Cook a freeze-dried meal for dinner at home.  Pump enough water through your filter to fill a couple of bottles.  Sure, your neighbors may think that you have lost your mind, but it really helps to have practiced all of this stuff.  Four miles from the trailhead is no place to find out that the only food you brought requires cooking---and you can’t get your stove to light.  If you can’t do this at home, do it in a local campground next to your car. 

  6. Don’t just practice using the equipment, also practice hiking.  Take a few day-hikes that are at least as long as your planned backpacking hike.  And when you hike them, take your full-sized pack.  Fill it up with your ten essentials (of course!) but also take along a few other things, so that you get a sense of what it is like to carry a full pack.   And whatever you do, make sure that you have worn your hiking boots/shoes for a few days around town before you hit the trail!

Of course, most people will have done some of this already.  They have taken day hikes that are at least as long their backpacking itinerary.  They’ve car camped.  They know how most of their equipment works.  Just fill in the rest, and you’ll be fine.  Really.

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