Alright kids, it’s time to go back to school to learn something your ancestors knew inherently how to do and something you should probably have learned when you were a teenager. What course am I talking about? Backpacking 101, of course!
Long before the invention of the modern combustion engine, the main mode of travel wasn’t horses like you might think. Though that was the fastest way to get around it was also one of the most expensive. So people took to walking almost everywhere they went. A quick jaunt to the next town could take two or three days so you had to know what gear to bring and how to pack it.
Now backpacking is considered a leisure activity and participants from around the world participate in what is becoming one of the most popular activities in the world.
There’s a lot more that goes into backpacking than simply stuffing some warm clothes and a sleeping bag into a backpack and taking off. There has to be a certain level of meticulous planning that goes into each trip and you have to have a certain mindset each and every time you step off.
If you are planning to go into your first backpacking trip, sit down, grab a notebook and a pen because class is in session.
Lesson 1: Don’t Get Your Feet Wet
The most important piece of equipment you have when you’re setting out on any trail is your footwear. Plain and simple, your footwear determines how far, how long, and how many days you want to hike in a certain time period. If your boots can’t keep up with the trail, you’re going to have a difficult time which will result in a miserable experience.
Depending on where you go backpacking, you’ll most likely encounter some sort of water obstacle along the way, whether it’s a full on river or a mud covered bog. It’s important to remember that the primary objective when encountering these obstacles is to keep your boots and socks as dry as possible.
Moisture causes skin to soften, an evolutionary mechanism designed to give you grip and traction when you’re submerged under water. The problem is, your skin doesn’t know when you’re completely submerged or your socks just happen to be wet. The constant presence of moisture will cause your skin to soften and become wrinkled.
The softening of the skin on your feet with the added traction of having you feet in socks and boots will lead to blisters if you don’t take the time to dry them out. As with most injuries, it’s easier to prevent blisters by keeping your boots and socks dry than it is to care for and render first aid to your soaked and painful feet. See our must-read piece on how to choose the best compression socks to keep your feet comfortable.
So if you have to cross a river and it’s your only crossing for the day, take your boots and socks off and wait for your feet to dry before pushing on down the trail. Check out our review of the best Gore-Tex hiking shoes to keep your feet snug and dry.
Lesson 2: Your Feet Are Going to Get Wet
If you’re hiking for any great length of time—a week or more—chances are your feet are going to get wet at some point. In fact, most of your gear will get wet at some point. It’s the nature of the beast (the beast in this case being weather). So while it is important to listen to lesson 1 and try your hardest to keep your feet as dry as possible for as long as possible, you have to be realistic and understand that you will most likely encounter a situation in which your feet, and everything else, will get wet.
Many thru-hikers are surprised in the first few weeks how often it rains or how often they wake up to wet clothes, a wet tent, and wet gear. As long as you understand that you will get wet at some point and don’t panic when that happens, you should be alright. It’s a mentality, either you embrace the terrible situation that is having wet feet, or you have a miserable experience.
Lesson 3: What is This “Extra” You Speak Of?
Whether you’re a rookie looking to try out backpacking for the first time or a seasoned veteran looking for new ideas, one of the most important considerations before starting any backpacking trail is pack weight. The less your pack weighs, the less your body will be fatigued and the further you will likely be able to hike in a day or week.
One of the biggest mistakes a new backpacker can make is bringing too many items or bringing extras of any items except socks and maybe underwear. You don’t need that extra can of propane when you’re backpacking for a week just like you don’t need that extra t-shirt stuffed at the bottom of your pack (you likely won’t wear it any way).
If you have the right backpacking packing list and buy the right types of items on that list (i.e. Buying the more durable stove rather than the cheaper stove) you shouldn’t need to bring extras of anything. If you think something might break or get lost, it probably isn’t important enough or of high enough quality to purchase in the first place. For the best in ultralight hiking gear, see our excellent reviews for more options.
Extra socks and extra underwear are about the only exceptions to this rule. You’ll want an extra pair of socks if your feet get wet (see lesson 2), and you’ll want an extra pair of underwear for sanitation and health reasons. Besides those two, leave the extras at home.
Lesson 4: Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate. Then Hydrate Some More
You may be surprised at how low this is on the list of lessons but bear in mind it is the most obvious lesson on this list. When you backpack, you sweat, when you sweat, you lose internal water needed to perform everyday biological functions, like digesting your food. So make sure you drink plenty of water, if you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.
Along the same lines, it’s important to have a good water treatment system as most rivers, lakes, and streams aren’t treated by the local city council. In this particular area you have plenty of options and can choose the best one for you.
Water filters are the most common type of water treatment system as they are the longest lasting and most reliable water treatment systems in the industry. This is also where the highest amount of innovation and technology is in use.
Modern filters use a basic hand pump system to push the water through a carbon filter which means sediment and most waterborne illnesses are kept from getting into your drinking water. The down side is some parasites can still pass through the filter and water with a high concentration of sediment can clog the filter rather quickly.
Treatment Pill / Drops
With weight such a high concern, many backpackers –thru-hikers in particular—choose chemical pills or drops to treat their water. Lighter than water filters, chemical treatments kill 99% of harmful parasites and waterborne diseases. Most will also neutralize the flavor of the water giving you water that will consistently taste like water.
The downside is, they won’t take out any sediment so if you don’t like dirty water, this is something you should consider.
Lesson 5: What’s That Smell?
That smell, my friend, is you. Backpacking is an inherently smelly activity, you’re miles away from anything that resembles modern plumbing (if you’re doing it right, that is), so you will not smell good when you go backpacking. That being the case, leave the deodorant and perfumes at home, you’re just going to over power their positive smells with your own stench anyway. Save some weight, ditch the deodorant.
Smell is also important to remember because bears and other animals have extremely good senses of smell. On the list of things bears like to eat: any and all food. Bears and rodents will eat anything that smells like food (including your toothpaste). A hungry bear will eat your food, no matter how much you Cross Fit, you won’t be able to stand up to a bear when it wants the food you happen to be holding in your hand.
With that in mind, make sure you bring some sort of bear defense system for you food, whether that be a bear canister or a suspension style bag. The canister is actually required in some places where the presence of bears or the scarcity of medical facilities is high. Check where you’ll be backpacking if a bear canister is required. Most parks that have a requirement will have canisters you can rent for a small fee.
Lesson 6: Is it Right or Left?
Knowing where you’re going and which way to turn at certain junctions is almost as important as knowing which way you should drive when your wife is going into labor. The route is something you’ll want to know in both cases.
With modern technology what it is, there are numerous applications that enable you to download maps of the are you’ll be backpacking in and will show you your location in airplane mode or when you’re out of service. Though most will cost you a small fee, there are several that are free and work just as well as the ones that charge. It makes navigation easy and should keep you from getting lost.
If technology isn’t your thing and you want paper maps, there are several companies that can print out contoured maps of the area you’ll be in on waterproof paper. At some companies you can even get different filters, showing you where there are local water points, camping sites, and places to avoid. Depending on the service, you can customize your maps however you like.
If you do happen to get lost or your phone dies, Personal Locator Beacons (PLB’s) may be something you want to consider. Using GPS satellites, PLB’s are great for emergency situations and help local search and rescue efforts when you need them. Simply press the distressed button and help will be on the way to assist you. It should be noted that the cost of the PLB does not cover the cost of any fees rendered by search and rescue or local law enforcement.
Lesson 7: Calories Are Your Friend
The average person expends around 6,000 Calories per day while backpacking, an amount that is nearly impossible to eat—unless you have a mobile McDonald’s traveling with you. With that in mind, you should pack accordingly and try to carry nutrient and Calorie dense foods with you.
The hard part is trying to find food that is Calorie dense but doesn’t weigh a lot or take a lot of equipment to make. Simplicity is best when it comes to cooking while you’re backpacking so anything that can be cooked by boiling water is a major plus.
One of the most popular foods on long distance trails is peanut butter as it offers one of the highest Calorie to weight ratios. It’s high in fats which is great for the aerobic activity that is backpacking. Your body will use the fat-dense peanut butter and will sustain you for longer periods of time than simple carbohydrates.
Tuna is another great food to pack with you, especially now that most companies pack tuna into single serving pouches and come in a multitude of flavors. The high-protein fish will keep you going for hours and the different flavors will keep you from getting bored. It also mixes great with most pastas and sauces.
Lesson 8: Your Home Away From Home
Being that you should be prepared for rain at any moment no matter where you plan to go hiking, your sleeping shelter is one of the most important things on your packing list. A lot of research should go into the different styles and brands before you buy one.
You should consider where you’ll be backpacking and what kind of conditions you should expect prior to purchasing a tent. High winds or large volumes of rain can and should greatly influence what type of tent you decide to take with you.
It’s also important to remember to set up your tent before you do anything else when you arrive at your destination for the night. Almost anything you need to do at the end of the day can be completed in your tent should it start to rain and you want to stay dry (see Lesson 1).
Lesson 9: Stay Warm When You Sleep… But Not Too Warm
Your sleep system is important when you’re recovering from a long day of hiking and can save your life should you need it in a survival situation. Don’t just take any sleeping bag or the one you’ve had in the garage for the past five years because you don’t want to spend money on a new one. Make sure you take the time to research the sleeping bag you plan to take and make sure the temperature rating is adequate for your specific needs.
An important part of your sleep system is the base layer you plan to wear while you sleep and it’s important to note temperature ratings for sleeping bags are based upon the users wear of a base layer while they sleep. So make sure you bring along your long johns and knit cap or you may be shivering through the night.
Being cold during the night and waking up several times because you’re cold can prevent your body from adequately recovering. You’ll not only wake up sore and achy, buy you’ll risk doing permanent damage to your muscles and, potentially, your central nervous system.
Lesson 10: Stay Alert, Stay Alive
Though your task may be simple enough, it’s important to stay alert and mind your surroundings anytime you’re out on the trail. Remember that you are only a small part of a much larger ecosystem and there is a lot happening around you.
The weather can wreak havoc on any backpacking trip, particularly if you are unprepared for high amounts of rain. A simple weekend trip into the mountains can become catastrophic if you fail to notice the weather turning or you aren’t prepared. So do your homework and check the weather forecast, but also keep a wary eye on the clouds.
If you’re out in the woods for any length of time, you’re sure to encounter the wildlife native to that area. Make sure you keep an eye out for potential predators and be cognizant of what season it is when you venture outside. If you happen upon a bear during late spring, you’re likely to see bear cubs as well.
There you have it, the basic lessons you need to know for your next backpacking trip. Remember it’s all about the basics and being well prepared. Preparation has made a lot of good situations great and kept a lot of bad situations from getting worse. Don’t forget to prepare your mind as well and make sure you have the right attitude before you step out on the trail. Have fun and happy trails. Class dismissed.
So what do you think of our backpacking guide for beginners? Do you have other tips that you could share on how to go backpacking? The comment section is down below.