Written By : Holly Priestley
Heading into Fall, we’re moving into peak backpacking season in the southwest. When I talk about backpacking, I always get questions or excited responses like “oh take me next time!” or “I’ve always wanted to do that!”. I think I take it for granted that I was raised backpacking. I certainly didn’t think it was cool when I was a kid, I just wanted to stay home and hang with my friends.
But now that I’m an adult, it’s one of my favorite ways to experience nature and be super cell-phone-less.
So I’m going to give a little spiel about things you should consider when planning and preparing for your first trip - and a lot of these things can double as hiking tips even if you’re not backpacking.
If you want more advice, especially in regards to backpacking with family or any kind of multigenerational trip, read my recent article in Adventure Pro Magazine where I break down more tips.
Tip 1: Take It Easy
Backpacking is a challenge. Even if you’re an experienced hiker, I recommend doing an easy peasy trail your first time or three. A few miles should do it.
If you think “only hiking in a few miles isn’t worth it” you can always drop your pack at camp and continue on to do a longer day hike and add mileage that way.
Wearing a loaded backpack is so different than wearing a daypack or a fanny pack or nothing at all. It sits on your body differently and it’ll rub in new places. New joints will be sore or achy. New discomforts will pop up.
So keeping the mileage lower and easier on these first trips is a good idea to keep the worst injuries and pains away - you want to enjoy this thing, remember.
Tip 2: Use What You Have
Ultra-light gear is cool and brands are always and forever coming out with new gadgets, new tents, new sleeping pads, new sleeping bags - the list is endless.
Especially if you’re a beginner and haven’t gone before, DO NOT FEEL PRESSURED TO SPEND LOADS OF MONEY ON BRAND NEW TOP-OF-THE-LINE GEAR.
Borrow some gear if you can, a lot of cities have gear rental stores. Find an outdoor consignment store near you or even garage sales.
Sure, having nicer gear will make the experience better in some ways, but until you know this is something you love and want to do more of, keep it simple.
Tip 3: Bring Calorie-Dense Foods You Actually Like
My favorite hiking snack by far is gummy bears. There were years that I didn’t want to bring gummy bears because they weren’t sold in outdoors stores, they weren’t cool, and they weren’t an “official outdoorsy food.”
But they’re sweet, filled with sugar and energy, and I like ‘em and will actually eat them.
I used to carry Cliff Bars of all flavors but never ate them. Not only is this carrying unnecessary weight, it’s not going to give your body any fuel to keep going or to recuperate between miles.
It’s smart to bring lightweight foods if you’re going on a longer trip - 5-days worth of food can get heavy pretty quick. But if you’re doing a one-nighter for your first trip, you don’t need to worry about the weight of your food quite as much.
Tip 4: Be Aware and Mindful of Water
Depending on where you are in the world, water will be easy to find along the trail or at camp or…it won’t.
Do the research ahead of time. You need to know where you’re going, the likelihood of water being there, and bring some extra just in case there isn’t any, it’s dried up, you don't make it all the way, etc etc.
I use an old water filter pump that my Dad handed down to me. I also ALWAYS carry iodine tablets. Just in case.
Tip 5: Pack Smart
There are a lot of checklists out there for what to bring on a backpacking trip. I like this one by former podcast guest, badass illustrator (she did the design for my upcoming memoir!) and van-lady Brooke Weiber of Little Canoe.
A few tips from me:You don’t need as many clothes for as many days as you’re hiking. If you’re just going out for one night, you can hike tomorrow in what you hiked in today.
Bring layers. It’s often colder outside than in your house and you don’t want to be shivering all night long - I often wear a beanie to sleep plus some long sleeves, sweats or leggings, and socks. Plus, if it rains or snows or anything, you will want to have warmer layers to put on over your light ones. On the other end of the spectrum, if it’s just too hot in the afternoon but too cold in the morning, being able to peel off sleeves and long pant legs can be helpful.
Pro Tip: Be thoughtful when actually putting your gear in your pack. You want the stuff you’re going to need or use most often on the top and the things you don’t access much on the bottom. For me, this means I put my sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, on the bottom, then my dinner/breakfast foods, then my layers, then snacks on top. I also carry hiking snacks in my hip pockets and use the brain/top of my backpack for my small things that could get lost easily in the big bag - iodine tablets, first aid kit, knife, more snacks.
Tip 6: Bring a First Aid Kit and Extra Foot Health Paraphernalia
Part of your pack should absolutely be a small first aid kit. And be sure to add extra moleskin, bandaids, an extra pair of socks, and a tiny pair of scissors.
Like I said earlier, backpacking is DIFFERENT. Your feet will move in your boots or sneakers in a new way. The weight of the pack will change how your body moves and responds to your activity.
Hopefully you won’t have any emergencies and generally a backpacking first aid kit won’t solve the biggest problems, but it’s good for the more likely injuries - blisters, cuts and scrapes, etc.
Tip 7: Have Back-Ups and Back-ups for your Back-ups
One time, I went on a backpacking trip with friends and didn't bring my filter because another friend had just gotten a new one - one of those light pen things - and she was excited to use it. It was fully charged and ready to go.
When we got out to our campsite, the light wouldn't turn on. No reason for it, we tested it before we left her house, it just decided it wasn’t going to work in the backcountry. Luckily, I ALWAYS have iodine tablets in my bag no matter what and if I hadn’t had those, we would have been screwed.
Having back-up gear for especially the most important things is just smart.
A lot of tents come with small pole pieces that you can use if one of your poles snaps - it’s like a splint for your tent pole. Bring those. Back-up moleskin is crucial. Back-up food - don’t overdo it, but you never know when that extra bag of snacks will come in handy.
Backpacking can get heavy real quick but having back-up gear, snacks, and even plans can help you have the peace of mind you need and help avoid a potentially un-fun trip.
Final Tip: TELL SOMEONE WHERE YOU’RE GOING AND WHEN YOU PLAN TO BE BACK
If you’re going out solo, tell someone. If you’re going out with your best friend, tell someone. If you’re going out with an experienced guide, tell someone. Just TELL SOMEONE.
Accidents happen. Hopefully no one needs to call for a rescue for you if you don’t show back up after your trip but if you don’t TELL SOMEONE, no one will know you’re missing or where to start looking for you.Just TELL SOMEONE.…..I hope these tips have given you a starting point for planning your first backpacking trip!
As always, please feel free to leave any questions or comments. If you want to know more advanced backpacking tips, let me know and I’ll do a follow-up with more advanced advice!