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Backpacking 101: 8 Tips for Beginners to Start Backpacking

Traci Salisbury | Oboz Ambassador

Back to How-To

You’ve day hiked most, if not all, the trails near your home and spots within a weekend car camp’s radius. Now, you want to go further and explore places for longer periods of time detached from technology and our modern world. When the day hike options are exhausted, it is the natural next step to want to interact with the natural world as a backpacker. Backpacking is an amazing way to unplug and immerse yourself into the wilderness. 

When day hiking doesn't cut it anymore, check out these eight helpful tips on how to break into backpacking.  

1. Research and Invest in your Backpack

When you feel ready to make the jump from day hiking to backpacking, you will need to get a pack to carry your overnight gear into the backcountry. This is the one area you absolutely do not want to skimp on. Plan to drop some money on a good pack that fits your needs. Make sure to try on various backpacks at a local outfitter—REI is great, as they have weighted items you can stuff in the pack and trained professionals to answer gear questions. 

Spend a while at the store experimenting with all the straps on the backpack, giving it time to settle in on your hips with the weight inside, to truly assess how comfortable it is to your body type. I use the Women’s Gregory Deva 60L and adore how it fits my petite frame.  

2. Start Slow and Scale

Backpacking is very different than day hiking, so start with a low mileage trip and give yourself enough time to set up camp, cook a meal, and relax at your intended spot. It will be surprising how much longer everything takes when you are brand new to the activity. Even a hike you do quickly day hiking will be surprising with a full backpack on. Packing your pack for the trailhead, hiking in, pitching your tent, all these things will take longer than expected when doing it for the first few times as a novice backpacker. Use it as an excuse to practice Leave No Trace ethics and “plan ahead and prepare”.  

3. Crowdsource Your Route and Destination

We live in an age of information. There is so much information to be had on all sorts of backpacking trips. Sites like The Outbound Collective, All Trails, and backpacker blogs are great places to search for a trail that inspires and calls to you. 

Keep it simple for your first trip—aim for low mileage, routes with known and reliable water sources, and well-marked trails/campsites. Consider inviting a friend along, too, so your first trip isn’t a solo epic.

4. Rent all Other Gear

Backpacking can cost thousands of dollars to truly invest in a setup you love and are comfortable with. It will last you years if you treat the gear right. However, for someone who is starting out and wants to see if the backcountry is for them, I recommend renting everything besides your backpack. 

In most major cities or outdoor gateway towns (re: Saint George, UT) there are universities with outdoor programs that rent backpacking gear out for college student prices. I have done this for most outdoor sports I have wanted to try. 

Once you decide if backpacking is for you, then look into investing in your dream mountain adventure setup.  

5. Know You Will Not Be an Expert Right Away

Any new skill takes time. The learning curve for backpacking is extremely steep—usually in one overnight trip expect to feel fairly proficient at things like tent pitching and backpack packing. With that said, keep perspective and remember that backpacking is all about systems and proper planning, both of which take time and practice to master. 

Hold space for yourself to mess up, experiment with the way you pack your bag, and which simple meals you can cook outside.  

6. Develop Your Layering System

As a backpacker, you will need to carry all of your items on your back.  So, it is essential to pair down your clothing, so you are not hauling around a walk-in closet in the wilderness. 

Go through your items at home and aim to find base layers, hiking layers, insulating layers and outerwear/rain gear. Moisture wicking clothing is important to invest in to keep you cool and dry. I like to have one set of sleep clothing and “sacred socks” set aside. I use two hiking shirts if my trip is longer than three days, and I bring tights for sleeping/baselayer in the cooler months. Never forget a warm beanie as nighttime temperatures drop lower than you expect at elevation.  

7. Learn the Basics of Navigation

Real talk: it is critical to have a base understanding of how to navigate in the wilderness before setting out on your first backpacking trip. This idea can range from understanding how to read the signs up to a mountain lake campground and back, or following rock cairns in the slickrock deserts of our southwestern states.  

Take the time and teach yourself how to read a topographic map and how to shoot a bearing on a compass. REI and local communities host events that teach basic map reading skills and navigation. 

Set a goal to learn this skill out of the gate and you will excel tremendously in the wilderness. This will also help to boost your self-confidence and you will be able to vary up your terrain faster.  

8. Meal Plan

Backpacking doesn't have to mean mountain house meals. Sure, if those are what you like, go for it! Otherwise, I find it really enjoyable to plan my personal menu before a trip, prep, and shop. That way you can try out new backpacker meals, and go as simple or complex as you like. Especially if your first trip is short; in the summer, chances are you will have evening downtime in which to cook for yourself after you've reached your camp spot.

Moving into backpacking is a rewarding change from day hiking. You will learn new avenues to push yourself, how to embrace minimalism, and venture further into the wilderness for extended periods of time.

Traci Salisbury is a hiking and backpacking guide for Wildland Trekking.

Traci Salisbury

Name: Traci Salisbury

Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah

Where I’ve Been: I have many memorable great hikes, and one of my favorite is completing California's Lost Coast Trail with my best friend. There was also the time I led Wildland Trekking clients on a 6-day llama trekking trip into the backcountry of Yellowstone during a rogue September snowstorm.

Why I Hike: The beauty and the mystery. The first time I camped out west, in Colorado at 9,000 feet, the view of the Milky Way was something I had never seen before when I was growing up on the east coast.

Lead The Way: I'm a guide with Wildland Trekking and I live #vanlife; my home is a converted Chevy E250 van.

 I solo hike and explore with others; my favorite memories are formed around camaraderie and a shared experience. 

Ambassador Focus: #protip

Find Me:

Instagram: @wildlandtrekking

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