Getting Started

A lot of people have asked us for basic advice on their first backpacking trip.  It's been some time since we went on our first trip (something over fifty years for P!) but we've given the question some thought, and would make these basic suggestions:
And wonderful reflections...©http://backpackthesierra.com

1.  Start with something easy.  Keep the mileage around five miles or less, and make sure that there is some kind of water at the end of the trail, either a lake or a creek.  A shorter trip allows you to bail out more easily if something doesn't go according to plan...like you forget to bring matches to cook all your food.  (Don't laugh, it nearly happened to us a few years ago...) And if you do choose this kind of hike, you can be pretty sure that you won't be the only people there.  Nice hikes to lakes within five miles of a trailhead are usually popular.  For a first timer, that's a good thing, because you may just want to ask someone a question or two...or even borrow some matches. 

The Chef prepares dinner ©backpackthesierra.com
2.  Don't sweat the latest equipment.  P's first trip was famously made with a pair of his dad's pants tied up into a backpack, into which he threw his basic boy scout sleeping bag.  And he had a great time.  Take a tent, take a sleeping bag, and take enough clothes to keep you warm and dry.  You may think you need more than that, but the more you hike, the less you are likely to take.  Everything you take weighs more than anything you leave at home.  your "list of ten" items should include a flashlight, map, matches or lighter, bug repellent, sunscreen, first aid kit, etc.  But you don't need the family size of any of these things--P has been using the little airline tubes of toothpaste on the trail for years.
 

3.  Don't sweat the food. You won't starve to death on an overnight hike (you can live for a couple of weeks without food) but take enough to feel good about eating it.  It doesn't have to be freeze-dried.  We know some long-distance hikers who prefer to avoid the time it takes to cook food, so they live on ready to eat things like dried fruit, energy bars, and GORP.  On a recent trip, we took ramen noodles for dinner one night, instant mashed potatoes for part of another meal.  They were both light, nutritious and reasonably tasty.  And we got them at the local supermarket.  And don't worry about liquor.  You can live without it for one night, and it weighs too much to carry it. 

4.  Do test all your equipment BEFORE you leave home.  Set up your tent in your backyard, or in your living room.  Light your stove and cook a meal on it in your kitchen.  try you water filter to make sure you know how it works.  The time to find out this stuff is way before you get out of the trail.  And this is not just advice for newbies.  We do this with every new piece of equipment we take on a trip.  It's just common sense. 
And we're OFF!  ©http://backpackthesierra.com

5.  Do sweat the navigation.  Staying found is a lot easier than getting lost, and getting found again.  Take any kind of navigation tools you want, from GPS to SAT phones, but always take a paper top map and know what it means.  P learned navigation as a sailor, where tracking your course is an absolute must.  Every time you come to a junction, a big turn, a lake, or other obvious landmark, mark it on your map (maybe even with the time, too).  That will not only allow you to backtrack more accurately if you do get lost, but it will also allow you to make a rough estimate of how long it takes you to hike each section...and plan for future hikes accordingly.

6.   Do sweat the weather report.  We've cancelled trips because of lousy weather, and will do that again in the future.  While it is possible to sit in a tent for fourteen hours in the rain, it isn't fun.  Go on your first trip when the weather will be nice, and don't be afraid to bail out if the weather doesn't cooperate. 
A few rays of sun hitting Echo Peaks underneath the dark sky  ©http://backpackthesierra.com

7.  Be smart and have fun.  Despite the stories you have read and seen on TV, backpacking is not about you against the primal elements of nature.  It's about having a lovely time in a beautiful place.  Don't be stupid and make it epic.  Be smart and make it pleasant.  If you really want epic, you can binge-watch something horrible on TV.  This includes crossing rivers in high water, climbing steep snowfields, or taking a look over the edge of that cliff, just for a second.  There are no guard rails in the wilderness.  The guard rail is your brain.  Please use it. 

In the pages that follow, we have additional advice on all sorts of things.  But this should get your started!
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