The Basics: A Beginner’s First Guide to Backpack Camping

Why Backpack?

There is something profoundly gratifying about carrying your home on your back; to be able to make a roof of the sky wherever your boots take you a particular day. I find the simplicity to be enlightening- in an almost philosophical way. After all, when stripped to the barest essentials of existence, what more do we need than a pack with sleeping gear, shelter, medical supplies, and food?

Ok, I might be over-selling the sentiments of backpacking- but for those who enjoy the outdoors, it is the closest activity to simulating the nomadic traditions of our ancestors. It is the activity that separates more dedicated outdoorsman from the common day-hiker. Indeed, there is a striking difference between experiencing a landscape in the daytime, and actually spending the night there. Backpacking offers a next level intimacy to a particular landscape. In short: If you enjoy hiking in beautiful places, and want the next level experience- you should try backpacking.

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Getting Started:

Ok, first things first: you do not need to spend upwards of $2000 on new gear to get started backpacking- despite what some sources might suggest. Sure, the newest, lightest gear might make your life easier, but they are not a requirement for your first backpacking trip, and should not be a hindrance in getting started. For example: A basic backpack that can carry a sleeping bag and small tent are good enough. As a beginner, your standard sleeping bag- probably weighing 4-5lbs is sufficient. If you travel in a group, the tent and food supplies can be divided evenly. There are many thrifty options for how to make this work. I will give a detailed gear list below, but the point is this: don’t feel obligated to drop serious cash for your first backpacking trip.

Second, you don’t need to go far, or go big, for your first backpacking trip. Think small and intimate- just dipping your feet in the experience. If your expectations are too big, you might get intimidated and bail on the last minute. Think really small- like, one or two miles on a trail, and only a single night out. Even a mile from the trailhead can offer that treasured feeling of solitude you hadn’t experienced in a night’s sleep elsewhere. Going far your first time might make you exhausted, give you blisters on your feet, create stress injuries on your joints- and more; all factors to ruining your first experience. Take it easy and enjoy your night in the outdoors.

Third, consider backpacking inside of a National Park your first time. These trails are usually clean, and easy to follow; and their backpacking campsites are groomed and set up in safe, beautiful locations. It never hurts to have Park Rangers close by at all times to offer advice or answer your questions.

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Gear:
Assuming this beginner’s guide is written for three-season backpacking trips (spring, summer, and fall), as opposed to the cold, harsh winter- this gear list might only vary slightly based on location and climate, but in general, it will mostly hold true across the board.

I like to think of my backpacking kit as separated in 4-categories:
-Shelter
-Kitchen
-Personal Care
-Tools

Shelter: This kit is your home for the night.

-Tent: 1 – 4 person is practical for backpacking situations, depending on group size. If you are travelling with a big group, say 8 people for example, its probably more practical to carry two, 4-person tents, as opposed to a giant 8-person tent, that way the supplies (and especially the weight) can be distributed evenly. 5-10lbs per tent is the maximum weight you want to take your first backpacking trip. (Examples: Kelty Salida 2-Person Tent, Alps Mountaineering Lynx 4-Person Tent )

-Sleeping bag: a conventional synthetic filled mummy or rectangular sleeping bag rated around 20 to 30 degrees fahrenheit is adequate. A basic set-up will weigh about 4-5 lbs. (Examples: Slumberjack Latitude 20- degree bag)

-Sleeping pad: Depending on age and health, a sleeping pad might be unnecessary, or it might be a make-it-or-break-it item. There are two basic kinds of sleeping pads: foam pads, and inflatable pads. On the cheaper and lighter end, a Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest Classic is good. On the higher comfort and cost end, a Therm-a-Rest Prolite is good. And there are many options in-between. Expect a sleeping pad to weigh between 9 ounces, and 2 lbs.

Kitchen:

-Kitchenware: for your first backpacking trip, basic utensils will suffice. Its hard to beat a metal coffee mug, and a spork (or even plastic fork and spoon). You usually don’t need more than this for a personal kit.

-Food: if you are staying out only one night- which I suggest for a person’s first backpacking attempt- a stove is not necessary. You can get by with pack-able food you would normally eat: sandwiches, burritos, chips, beef jerky, candy bars, trail mix, granola bars, etc…

BUT, if you insist on eating hot meals, there are plenty of cheap isobutene stoves on the market. I really like the Lixada Pocket Stove. Don’t forget a bottle of isobutene fuel. And if you go the stove route, you might as well bring dehydrated food, which will save you plenty of heavy weight. Mountain House, Backcountry Pantry, and AlpineAire are common ones. And if you are a coffee lover, bring some pouches of instant coffee (I like Starbucks Via). Don’t forget to bring easy to reach snack food for when you are actually hiking on the trail.

-Water: Once again, if you are going only one night out, and aren’t hiking very far away, you can bring all your own water with you. In fact, in an arid environment with no access to water, you might want to bring a lot. (Recommendations are 64 liters per person).

If you do have access to water, it would help you immensely to bring either a filter or water-purifying tablets with you. The filter is heavier and usually costs more money, but the water is pumped quickly and can be drank right away. (Some options are: Sawyer PointOne Squeeze filter, and Katadyn Hiker filter ).

Water-purifying tablets are super lightweight, but the downside is they sometimes taste funny, and if the water has lots of particles, the tablets only purify it, they don’t clear out debris. (example:  Potable Aqua,).
Regardless of what route you take for water carrying, it helps to have at least one 32 ounce bottle per person to transport water when you are hiking, or back to camp when you are cooking.

Personal Care:

-Medical Kit: There are plenty of good options for a pre-made medical out there ( Adventure Medical Kits). For your first overnight trip, you can get by with building your own. Some items to include: Athletic tape, a roll of sterile gauze, a pack of Band-Aids in various sizes, alcohol wipes, antibacterial cream, and pain killers (ibuprofen, aspirin, Tylenol, etc… Keep in mind, for high altitude places, aspirin is a blood thinner, which can greatly help with altitude related illnesses when taken in the recommended dosages. Disclaimer: Consult a doctor before taking any medications.)

-Personal: Don’t forget a roll of toilet paper- and a ziplock bag to store it in. Also, if necessary, feminine hygiene products. Toothbrush and toothpaste (mini-travel sized). Sunglasses.

-Clothing: As mentioned, this list might vary slightly based on condition, but in general, it will hold true. Use commonsense in deciding what to bring, based on your comfort level and needs.
-Rain jacket shell, with hood.
-Beanie.
-Ball cap.
-T-shirt (NOT cotton- when wet, from rain or sweat, cotton does not dry very fast, and can cause hypothermia in extreme conditions.)
-Long Sleeve shirt or fleece jacket/pullover (Again, no cotton).
-Pants (No cotton).
-Wool or polyester underwear and socks, and probably a set of spares, if so desired.
-If it gets below 50 degrees fahrenheit , perhaps an insulated jacket is good, with synthetic or down insulation).
-Footwear: On shorter hikes, with little elevation change or rocky trails, running shoes are perfectly fine for your very first trip. Ankle high hiking boots add more comfort and support, and as the elevation and intensity of the trails increases, they can become a necessity.
-Light gloves (No cotton!) can be useful for chilly mornings and evenings (and to keep bugs away).
-Athletic shorts: I usually never carry shorts alone, as a main piece of clothing, since many camping conditions require pants- be it from weather, brush on the trail, or pesky insects. If I bring shorts, they are super light, and only used to bed, or if it gets really hot while hiking the trail.
-Long underwear- tops and bottoms- if it gets really cold at night, or you are a cold sleeper.

Tools:

-Backpack: As mentioned, you don’t need much for your first backpacking trip. A basic backpack with 3500 cubic inches, or 65 liters is perfectly fine. (Some examples would be: The North Face Terra 65, Jansport Katahdin 50, Teton Sports Scout 3400, etc…- There are so many options available. Try out one that fits you). Internal frames (meaning, the back support is built on the inside of the pack) are usually the best; external-frames (traditional backpacks, where the cloth pack sits on the outside of a stiff, bulky metal frame) are heavy and bulky.

-Pack cover: If you expect rain, get a pack cover to protect your backpack, or at the least, a large trash bag that can cover the pack.

-Trekking poles: If you are in good shape, and don’t have any joint pains or health issues, trekking poles are optional items. If you are in steep terrain, or hiking far with a heavy pack, trekking poles might be a good option (Example: Trailbuddy Trekking Poles)

-Knife: Nothing makes a backpacking trip feel more natural than a knife. Even if you don’t use it for cooking, cutting, or repairing gear- it is a huge confidence booster for the mind to have it within reach. You can carry a fixed-blade (Meaning a tradition knife blade with handle- a blade that cannot fold), or a folding knife (which means the knife folds into the handle). (fixed blade knife option: Cold Steel Outdoorsman Lite) ( My favorite folding knife is a Kershaw Cryo)

-Flashlight: I like to carry a headlamp as my main light source. It is almost a necessity to have light on your head in order to free your hands (examples: Petzl Tikka, Black Diamond Ion ). I like to have a spare light in case something happens to my headlamp.

-In places with high bear density, carrying a can of pepper spray, and a bear-proof-food container is recommended (sometimes, required). If you decide to backpack near a National Park where these items are required, you can usually find a gear store, or forest service office to rent them from.

-Stuff bags: Its good to separate all your gear items into waterproof bags. Your tent and sleeping bag will most likely come with their own. I like to keep my clothes in one bag, my food in one bag, and my small gear items in one bag (Examples: Seal Line Stuff Sacks ).

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Where to Go:
I have given four examples of National Parks throughout the country that offer practical first time backpacking experience. These parks all have plenty of access to numerous trail systems with varying difficulty. Each government website representing these parks also lists all the regulations, permits, maps, and advice to undertake your trip.

West Coast: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California
https://www.nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/backpacking.htm

Rockies: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping.htm

Midwest: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
https://www.nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/camping.htm

East Coast: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
https://www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/campbc_prepare.htm

 

 

A First Time Backpacker Case Study:

I was probably around 12 years old when my father presented my two brothers- aged 13 and 10- and I, with brand new red backpacks from Sears. They were not fancy name-brand bags, but they were sturdy and aesthetically appealing. We noticed they were much larger than the school backpacks we were used to carrying. Inside, we found a puffy black sack, stuffed with a mummy shaped sleeping bag. The bags were much too big for us, and inside the house, were unnecessarily warm. But we slept in them every night for the next few weeks leading up to our big Colorado family vacation.

My dad had been talking up our planned backpacking trip for months, describing the difficulties of carrying our gear on our packs into the wilderness. “We need to carefully count the weight of our gear!” he said. “Some people even cut their toothbrush in half to save that extra ounce!”

I’m not sure what he had in mind by his idea of “cutting weight”, because by the time the trip rolled around, we ended up carrying hotdogs, liquid egg yolks, buns, ketchup, mustard, summer sausage, lamps, shovels, extra jackets, and more not-quite-necessary items. I’m sure he decided it was best to give us plenty of comforts for our first backpacking trip, so our experience would be a positive one; an experience we would want to repeat in the future. Man, did we have a blast that trip.

With fresh energy we pushed up the trail eagerly, unable to keep an easy pace. Our poor dad carried both tents, trying to lighten our load enough to make us enjoy the hike in. We were so eager to move in fact, we missed the fork in the trail, and ended up hiking far into the high country, 8 miles. Under a rock ledge we found a deer carcass pulled far into the corner, which spurred talk of mountain lions the rest of the day.

Even though we were in the Rocky Mountain National Park- one of the most popular parks in the US, with an annual average number of over 4-million visitors- by evening, most tourists had left the farther stretches of the trail. Even when we returned to our missed trail, which was probably 3 miles from the car, the evening rendered the landscape quiet, pristine, and lonesome. For all we cared, we could have been 1000 miles away in the Alaskan backcountry.

That night, after arriving to our designated camp site in a secluded spot, we set up our tents. As night fell, we sat by the cooking stove, clenching our pockets knives and peering about in the darkness suspiciously. The energy and excitement spurred by our first “real” camping adventure in the wild was almost palpable. I remember crawling into my tent with my older brother and thinking: What more could a person need than a backpack with shelter and food?

The next day, we returned the way we came, reaching the trailhead much faster than I remember it taking. And despite the late morning crowd overflowing in the parking lot, I hardly remember there being any other hiker out there, when I think back on the memory. The map and compass, and knife, and medical kit, and extra jackets were never used that trip; like most overnight trips, this one was not as scary or eventful as an unexperienced person might expect. But the profound simplicity of sleeping in the woods offered the same unmeasurable enjoyment then as it does for me now on bigger, wilder expeditions.

map study beartooth wilderness

 

 

( Backpacking , National Parks , Hiking )

 

(I like to be transparent, and I believe its important to let my readers know, some- but not all- of the links on this site are affiliate links; meaning, I get a tiny commission from the merchants of any item purchased through these links.)

 

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