Planning Your First Backpacking Trip

A Beginners Comprehensive Guide to Backpacking

Day Hiking to Overnight. You are interested in your first backpacking trip. Spending the night in the wilderness can add a whole new dimension to your hiking experience. There is something incredible about watching the sunrise with a cup of coffee. And sunset, such an epic time to take pictures. I fell in love with the whole process, the self-reliance and the independence of backpacking. Its a game changer.

Of course, at first, getting into backpacking might seem daunting. Where do I start? What do I need? And what if something happens? We have all been there. At least I certainly have. But planning your first backpacking trip doesn’t need to be an overwhelming experience.

The trick is to just get out. With the right preparation of course. Like anything, once you get out a few times, it just gets easier and easier. I’m here for you – let’s go!

Choosing the Right Trail

Simply start small. For your first backpacking trip, select a trail that’s easy for you. Think of this in terms of distance and difficulty. When carrying more weight, you will probably be slower and feel the difference. I always think it’s better to go back wanting more than over stretching yourself. Then never going again.

Perhaps even select a trail that you have day hiked before and are familiar with because it removes some of the unknown.

Looking for a backpacking trip in Washington, check out my favorites: 10 Best Backpacking Trips In Washington (thetrekkingmama.com)

What to Look for in a Trail

Do your research when you look at trails/ backpacking trips. Look for well-maintained and more popular trails. This way the chances of being alone are significantly less. It might add some comfort seeing others out on the trail.

It would be a good idea to start with a trail that has a reliable water source. This way you don’t have to carry all the water you will need with you. Make it as easy on yourself as you can, especially with weight.

Look for well-established campsites. Additionally, read the reviews on AllTrails or a more localized platform (such as the Washington Trails Association) to find out the most up-to-date conditions.

Setting the distance

Estimate the distance you think you can cover with plenty of time to spare. Additionally, plan for a pace you can handle comfortably. A good rule of thumb for beginners is to aim to cover 5-10 miles per day. However, this depends significantly on the terrain (elevation gain) and, of course, your fitness level. Again, I would air on the side of setting yourself up for success for your first backpacking trip.

A Few Helpful Tips

First off, prepare yourself physically. The better shape you are in the easier your hike will feel. Build your fitness level with day hikes. Try carrying a loaded backpack to simulate the conditions of your trip. I would focus on cardio, strength, and endurance.

Do a few practice runs with all your gear to ensure you know how to set up your shelter, cook your meals, and handle any other equipment. In fact, you can even do this in your own backyard. I have and its helpful.

Depending on your preferences and the trip length, consider bringing a lightweight camp chair, a book, or a journal. I find having something to do after the sun goes down helpful.

Go with a friend who has more experience. Share a list and split the weight. And adventures with friends are always more fun anyways!

Permits

Some areas require permits for overnight stays. Therefore, it’s essential to check online to see if the area you are interested in is permitted. But popular overnights that require permits can be hard to get. However, if you aren’t able to get early access or book permits in advance, some areas offer walk-up permits. One place to find out if walk up permits are available would be Recreation.gov.

What is a walk up permit and how do they work? These are permits you can pick up at the ranger station. They are usually available the day before or the day of your trip. However, I might recommend against this route in the beginning especially for your first backpacking trip.

What Gear do you Need?

Start with the big 3. Backpack, Shelter + Your Sleep System.

There is no way around these. And since these are typically big-ticket items, you might want to rent them for your first backpacking trip. REI has these items as part of their rental program. Activities – Camp, Cycle, Paddle & More | Rentals at REI Or of course, you could borrow them from a friend.

Backpack

You first need a backpack. The most important thing is that it fts well and of course, is comfortable. Choose a backpack that has enough capacity for your gear (45-65 liters for beginners). If you don’t know where to start, I recommend heading to your local outdoor retailer, like an REI. They will help you try on packs to get the right fit. They will even load them for you so you can get a better feel for how it feels when its packed.

Shelter

Sleeping options include tents, hammocks, and bivy sacks. For beginners, a lightweight, easy-to-assemble tent would be the best choice. Practice setting up your tent before you are out in the wilderness. Several reasons for this. 1. Know how to set it up. 2. Make sure you have all the parts and pieces. 3. Get comfortable in the space. The more I use my tent, the more it feels like home.

Sleep System

I cant stress enough, the importance of getting a good night sleep when on the trail. Investing in a good sleeping bag or quilt will pay off in spades. You want to pick a sleeping bag that is rated for the expected temperatures. With sleeping bags, you have down filled sleeping bags and synthetic. I personally prefer a down sleeping bag, but the advantage of synthetic is it performs better if it gets wet.

You will also need a sleeping pad for insulation and of course, comfort. Pay attention to the R value of a sleeping mat. This identifies the amount of insulation. This will prevent the cold from the ground from turning you into an ice cube at night. I recommend heading to an outdoor retailer and trying out a few. Typically, these retailers have the products they sell on display for you to test them out.

Clothing + Footwear

Layering is key. Firstly, pack moisture-wicking base layers. Secondly, insulating mid-layers (fleece or down) and lastly, a waterproof outer layer. Don’t forget a hat, gloves, and extra socks. Avoid cotton and stick to synthetics and moisture wicking materials. I have found that this is the one area that I tend to overpack.

Sturdy hiking boots or trail runners are important. But what is most important is to break them in before your trip to avoid blisters. Don’t hit the trail for your first overnight with brand new shoes. It won’t end well. For your feet anyway.

Hydration

Water purification methods (filters, tablets, or UV purifiers) are crucial. This is the one item that I double up on. I always carry a backup of iodine tablets in addition to my water filter. I personally love the sawyer squeeze attached to the top of a water bottle. Specifically, a smart water bottle. The two fit together perfectly.

Cooking + Food

For cooking bring a lightweight stove, fuel, and a cookpot that support your packed meals, or you can simply pack an “all in one” like the Jetboil. If you pack dehydrated meals, you will only need to boil water, no real cooking involved. Bring enough food for your trip, plus an extra day’s worth. Similar to the tent, I recommend trying out your stove before you hit the trail.

Plan for 2,500-4,000 calories per day. opt for lightweight, non-perishable options like dehydrated meals, trail mix, and energy bars. My favorites are a cru-de-tes of sorts, including hard cheeses, dried meats, hard boiled eggs and dried fruit.

Map and compass/GPS

Carry a map, compass, and/or GPS device. Know how to navigate with them and always have a backup. I always have a printed map as well as a downloaded map. Just in case your energy source runs out.

Light Source

You will need a light source for once the sun goes down. Pack a headlamp or small flashlight and always bring extra batteries.

Sun protection

Packing sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat are a must.

First Aid Kit

First aid kit – Bring a first aid kit and know how to use it. Familiarize yourself with basic first aid procedures. This is one where yes, you can buy one but its also fairly easy to put one together yourself. And its half the price.

Tools

Fire-starting materials (matches, lighter, Firestarter) and a multi-tool or knife. I also like to include in this list patch kits for your sleeping pad and sleeping bag. I typically like to strip these kits down to make them as light as possible.

Bear Canister

Are you headed into bear country? If so, you might need a bear canister? Some areas require a bear canister. Most of the overnights on the coast of Washington do and in the Olympic National Park.

Communication

Always let someone know your itinerary and expected return time. Always. Consider carrying a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon for emergencies. And it’s a nice way to communicate with your family if they aren’t headed out with you. I I have a Garmin Mini2 and I typically say good morning and good night to my husband each time I am out. It makes me feel at ease.

Leave No Trace

Always practice and follow the Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact on nature. This includes packing out all trash, camping on durable surfaces, and respecting wildlife.

Conclusion

Backpacking for the first time, with some preparation, and some practice can be easy experience. Just make yourself a list and check off each item as you put it in your pack. Test out some of tips above, like doing a practice run in your backyard with all your equipment. You got this! Let me know down in the comments if you have any questions or I can help further.

Eventually you might even want to backpack solo. If you are curious, check out these tips: Tips for Solo Backpacking As a Woman – The Trekking Mama

Now get out and enjoy yourself!

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