Not everyone enjoys high-intensity activities like biking or jogging, but backpacking is different since it’s an activity more of endurance than speed. While it is by no means always easy, backpacking allows you to slow down and appreciate the world around you. Whether you have no prior backpacking experience or just need a refresher as you head into backpacking season, here’s how to plan a successful backpacking trip.
Choose Your Destination
Before you even think about planning anything else, first choose a general destination for your backpacking trip. As you select your destination, don’t forget to consider your group’s level of comfort and experience with backpacking, the kind of scenery you’d like to see on your hikes, your ideal trip length, and the weather of the area. If you or your group are new to backpacking, you probably won’t want to start out with a hike through the mountains—flatter, easier terrain would be the better option in this scenario.
Plan Your Route
After you’ve chosen the general area that you want to backpack through, plan out your route in detail. How much distance do you want to cover on your trip, and how much per day? Which paths will you follow? Which camping sites will you stop at for the evening? Once you’ve planned out your route, research the trails and your camping sites in greater detail and get any permits you might need to hike through or camp in a certain area.
Pack the Right Gear
Now for the fun part: packing your bags. To first-time backpackers who don’t know where to start, this process can seem overwhelming; but when you know what gear you need to bring, packing well becomes much easier. When packing, it may be helpful to find a complete list of the essential backpacking gear online, but to get you started, here are some of the basic gear you’ll need anytime you go backpacking.
Backpacking is an active activity—you may start off your hike feeling chilly only to start overheating about thirty minutes in. To stay comfortable, it’s important to wear the right clothes for the weather. Always choose clothing made out of non-cotton material, as cotton will quickly absorb and retain moisture, making you feel cold and wet for the rest of your hike. In addition to choosing clothing of the right material, bring clothing that can be easily layered to keep you comfortable.
Regardless of the season, you’ll need to wear a sweat-wicking base layer while you’re out hiking. A base layer will keep you cool and comfortable in hot weather and warm and dry in cold weather. If you are backpacking in winter weather or a cold environment, pack some winter thermals to combat the chill. Base layers should be made of merino wool, synthetic materials, or a combination of both.
In chilly weather, pack an insulating mid-layer like a sweatshirt, long sleeve shirt, or light jacket. This layer can be easily put on or removed when you’re too cold or hot.
On any hike, a weatherproof outer layer is a must. In cold weather, your outer layer will provide additional warmth. In warmer weather, an outer layer, like a jacket, should protect you from the wind and rain.
Underclothes and Accessories
Don’t forget about bringing extra underclothes and accessories! Pack a few pairs of underwear that are made of non-cotton material. If you have the space or your trip calls for it, bring along a pair of hiking gloves, a hat to shield you from the sun, and any other accessories you think you’ll need.
Hiking Shoes and Socks
On any hiking trip, you’ll be on your feet for long periods of time, so it’s wise to invest in a good pair of hiking shoes or boots. Choose a durable pair of shoes that are comfortable and fit you properly. Hiking boots may provide more ankle support, but hiking shoes are suitable for less intense hikes. Wear a comfortable pair of non-cotton socks along with your hiking shoes.
Hiking is only one part of your backpacking trip, so in addition to the right clothing, you’ll need to pack the right camping gear. Here’s an overview of the basic gear that every camper needs.
It makes sense that you’ll need to bring a backpack on your backpacking trip, right? Choose a hiking backpack that is large enough to hold all the gear you’ll need for your trip. Your backpack should fit you properly, and the majority of the weight should be carried on your hips. Remember that you’ll be hiking with this pack on your back—don't choose one that’s too large or heavy for you to manage.
Unless you’re camping in a cabin, trailer, or car, you’ll need to bring a tent along on your backpacking trip. When choosing a tent, consider how many people will need to fit in it and what kind of weather it will need to withstand. For extra weatherproofing, bring along a tarp to set up on the ground beneath the tent.
Sleeping Bag and Pad
You’d be surprised how hard the ground can feel when you’re trying to fall asleep on it. To keep warm and make your stay at your campsite more comfortable, bring along a warm sleeping bag and a sleeping pad to place underneath it.
In order to prepare your meals outdoors, you’ll need to bring along some cooking gear. Some good supplies to bring include a small, portable stove and fuel, metal pots, pans, bowls, and spoons.
Don’t get lost in the woods! Pack all the navigation gear you need, including a map of the area with your route marked on it, guidebooks, and a compass to direct you.
No matter how short your trip is, don’t forget to pack a fully-equipped emergency kit. This kit should include medical supplies, a knife, flashlights and extra batteries, some extra food and water, and any other supplies you might need.
Bring Backpacking Food
On any backpacking trip, you’ll need to bring enough food and water to last your entire journey. Take into account how many days your trip will last and plan accordingly to bring enough food for every meal. Since you won’t have access to many complex cooking supplies, it’s best to pack food that can be prepared quickly and easily, like freeze-dried meals or instant meals. Make sure you have an ample supply of clean water for both during your hiking and when you make camp—if you have access to water near your site, you can bring along water filters and purifiers to clean that water or boil it. When your food isn’t in use, be sure to store it properly to avoid attracting animals. Whenever you leave a campsite, leave no trace behind you, so the site is as clean as (or cleaner than) you found it.
Get in Shape
Even if you know exactly how to plan a successful backpacking trip, it won’t be nearly as successful or enjoyable if you’re completely out of shape. Before you leave on your backpacking trip, take some time to exercise and train for the hiking. Practice hiking with your packed backpack on to get used to carrying the extra weight, and experiment with terrain that is similar to the path you’ll be taking on your trip. With a little extra time and training, you’ll be better able to enjoy the unique outdoor experience that backpacking has to offer.