How to Start Backpacking: A Guide to Multi-Day Hiking for Beginners
Backpacking is a great way to fall in love with outdoor recreation.
This is especially true if you already enjoy camping and hiking. You’re simply combining the two activities together and enjoying both worlds all at the same time.
If you want to evolve your hiking and outdoor abilities, backpacking might be the right step for you to take.
Best of all – you can do it with others (which is usually safer), or you can do it by yourself if you prefer to go on a solo trip.
In this guide, I’ll explain everything you need to know to start backpacking today. Just so you know, some of the links on this article contain affiliate links. That means if you buy something from them, I’ll earn a commission, but it won’t impact your price.
What is Backpacking, and Why Should You Start?
Backpacking is simple, really.
Take camping and hiking and smash it together. You’re combining the two outdoor recreational activities together to be able to enjoy both at the same time.
It’s different than day hiking.
When you backpack, you’re spending the night in the woods. You might be camping for one night or more than one night. The trip length entirely depends on what you choose. It’s best to start small and easy and gradually grow from there.
Backpacking is great for everyone, too. No matter if you want to go alone or with your pet, with others, or even with your kids. You can find an appropriate trip to take solo or with others.
You should definitely consider getting into it.
It’s a whole different world to experience life in the forest in a backpacking capacity. You’ll experience the changes from day to night and back to the day. It’s peaceful. It’s adventurous. It’s rewarding when you finish it.
Best of all – it’ll likely make you fall in love with the outdoors even more.
Unless you do it wrong, and it’s easy to do it wrong, which is why I had to create this guide for you.
How to Plan and Prepare for a Backpacking Trip
In order to enjoy backpacking, you have to plan and prepare for it. If you don’t, you might not only have a bad time, but you could even get hurt.
Get into Shape by Training Now
The best way to train for backpacking is to keep hiking.
There are, of course, good techniques to adopt.
First of all, buy and wear the boots and clothing you plan to use on your backpack trip. You want to break these items in on easier hiking trails before you spend an entire day and night (or more) using them.
Next, buy all the gear you plan to take backpacking. Slowly start adding the gear to your backpack on each day hiking trip. Before you go on your backpack trip, you want to be able to comfortably hike with a backpack loaded with all the gear you’ll need to take.
You can start with easy hikes with fully loaded gear and then gradually increase to harder and longer day hikes.
You should also consider non-hiking fitness to help you grow strength. Some great activities include cycling, running, swimming, and weight training. You want a strong lower body, but you also want a stronger upper body, too.
It’s always a good idea to shed a few unwanted pounds before you start backpacking. Losing weight will make the activity a lot easier to do.
If you have any medical conditions at all, please consult your primary care provider before attempting any backpack trip. Make sure you’re healthy enough and medically clear to do it before attempting it.
Train now, so it’s simple when you start your backpacking trip.
Understand the Logistics of the Tip
You need to plan for and understand the logistics of your backpacking trip.
The first step is travel and arrival. How are you going to get to the start of the trail? Will you be shuttling or driving yourself? If shuttling, make sure you have arrangements for a return trip transportation. If driving yourself, make sure that you will be able to park overnight.
Some trails may require permits for parking, hiking, and even camping. Sometimes, you might have to get a permit for all three of these activities. Some areas require a lottery permit system, meaning you might not even be able to get a permit in the first place.
You also need to plan for the logistics of your hike.
How many miles is the trail? How many miles a day will you cover? Are you capable of covering your desired miles? Have you planned for a rest day in case you must have one? How many days and nights will you be backpacking? It’s important to ask yourself these questions and have an answer to them before you start your trip.
Once you nail down the logistics of your trip, it’s going to be a lot easier to put things in motion and enjoy a successful backpacking experience.
Be Prepared Before You Go
Plan and prepare for your backpacking adventure before you go.
You need to find a route, understand how to navigate it, and know where the camping area will be located. This needs to be on a map or GPS application/device that you will be using for your trip. Make sure you’ve tested and understand how to use your navigation method before your trip.
Consider everything when planning for a backpacking trip.
Choose the season wisely. Understand the weather, wildlife, and nature hazards that come with each season.
Your first backpacking experience should be done on a shorter and easier loop trail. This will ensure you have a grand experience. As you get better at it, you can choose more moderate trails and backcountry if you enjoy it.
Understand that trails less traveled are not always the best trails to choose for multi-day hikes. Sometimes, they might turn out to be the hardest trails you’ll ever experience because less traveled trails don’t get the use and maintenance as those that are more popular.
Let someone know where you’re going. Print out a map and circle the area. Note the start and finish of the trip. Try to point out where you will be camping. Then, if you never make it home, this person with this information will become vital to rescue operations versus no one knowing where you are.
The more you plan and prepare for your trip, the better experience you’ll have.
Backpacking Gear and Clothing Recommendations
If you have the right gear for backpacking, you’ll increase the likelihood that you’ll have a very good experience while hiking and camping out in nature. Gear is important when you’re living out in the woods on a temporary basis.
Backpacking Gear List
You should follow the advice that most backpackers will give you. Take the 10 essentials of hiking gear with you when backpacking. These essentials include:
- Navigation – You should carry at least three forms of navigation to be safe. I recommend bringing a map, compass, and a GPS or an app on your smartphone that you can use to navigate your trip.
- Lighting – Bring a headlamp and a flashlight with you. Make sure you bring extra batteries for both. A headlamp is great for hands-free light when trying to do important things.
- Skin Protection – Bring plenty of skin protection. This is stuff like sun protection, which would be sunblock lotion, a hat, and items like that. It also includes insect repellent, chapstick, and other things meant to protect your skin from the elements of nature.
- First Aid – You should bring a basic first aid kit with items that you know how to properly use. Your kit should include things like band-aids, gauze, blood clotting powder, tweezers, shears, blister aid products, alcohol pads, triple antibiotic ointment, and medical tape. Include any medication you may require, too, such as antidiarrhea and antihistamines.
- Repair Kit and Tools – Bring a basic repair kit to repair your gear if needed. A good kit includes some duct tape, a small sewing kit, and some paracord. You also want a few tools, such as a multitool and a knife.
- Kitchen Kit – Bring a kitchen kit that includes items like a fire-starting kit, a portable backpacking stove, a fuel canister, cookware, a spork, plates/bowls/cups, and stuff like that.
- Shelter – Bring your tent or hammock, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and a pillow if you need one. You may need some extra gear for colder weather, including a footprint, sleeping bag liner, and items like that.
- Food – You need to bring plenty of food with you. You should bring extra food with you to ration to yourself in case of some kind of incident where you’ll be required to stay longer than you had initially prepared for. Your food items should be made for outdoor use.
- Water – Bring plenty of water with you. Your water should be your heaviest item. Make sure you bring a water filter (know how to use it and test it before use). Bring any hydration additive you have to help you regain needed electrolytes when backpacking in the backcountry.
- Extra Layers – I recommend a layers kit. Mine is simple. I have extra winter socks, an insulated long-sleeved running shirt, and a pair of insulated running tights. The tights and shirt are made to be worn alone by runners in colder weather, so they can be your main clothing if you were to get your other clothes soaked. These options are good for all genders, too. The items are extremely lightweight and easy to pack and forget about until you need them.
You might find other gear items that are not included on the list above. That’s fine. But make sure you don’t overpack the capacity of which your backpack can hold.
Get a big enough backpack for overnight use. I use an 80-liter backpack for multi-day hikes.
You should also get lighter-weight gear for the best results. The less weight you have on your back and shoulders will be better for you and your backpacking adventure.
What to Wear on Your Trip
Clothing choices are important when backpacking.
You can definitely wear the wrong clothing. If you wear stuff like cotton, denim, or leather, you’re going to likely have a bad experience. That’s because those materials hold in moisture (sweat) and don’t wicker (breath). If it’s cold, you’ll freeze. If it’s warm, you’ll stay wet and sticky the entire time.
Stick to moisture-wicking materials like synthetic wool, nylon, polyester, and spandex.
Wear hiking or athletic clothing designed for outdoor use. If you choose to wear tight clothing like spandex and compression, just make sure it breaths and stretches enough to give you a free range of motion. Baggier clothing can also help with moisture control and breathing.
Layer up when you need to. This allows you to balance your body temperature with the temperature outside. You can add more layers if you’re cold or take away layers if you’re getting too warm.
When it’s cold outside, make sure you cover the more sensitive areas of your body to help regulate everything. That includes your feet, hands, ears, and head.
Make sure you bring extra layers and rain gear, just in case.
Your choice of clothing will often dictate your experience while backpacking in the elements.
A Guide to Layering
Layering is your best bet when backpacking during the colder months and winter.
There are three areas of layering to focus on. They are:
- Base Layer
- Outer Layer
- Shell Layer
The base layer is the next-to-skin layer. You should wear breathable compression clothing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be insulated. Its job is to help reduce moisture on your skin by acting as a wicking layer. I’ll typically wear compression shorts or tights and a synthetic t-shirt or long-sleeve shirt as my base layer.
The outer layer is what you’ll wear on the outside. It’s meant to keep you warm and may have insulation properties on it. For this layer, you can wear a hoodie or sweater, insulated leggings or hiking pants, winter socks, gloves, and a beanie.
The shell layer is meant to repel elements such as rain, snow, sleet, and wind. This can be a jacket, rain gear, or a windbreaker. Sometimes, you’ll simply pack these layers in your backpack until you need them.
As temperatures change or your body temperature starts to balance, you may need to add or reduce layers as needed.
Plan Your Food and Water Routine
It’s important to plan your food and water routine and logistics before you go backpacking.
Eating and drinking are the most important things you can do on your hiking trip.
Without food and water, you’ll die. This might be the most important thing to plan for.
You need to research the area you’ll be in. Does it have creeks and springs available for water filtering? Is there a drought or anything else happening that would hinder your ability to filter water?
Do you have a water-filtering device? If you do, make sure you learn how to use it and test it before you use it. If you don’t and it fails to work while you’re out there, it could be devasting for you.
How much water can you carry? How can you ration it if you need to? Ask and answer these questions yourself before you go out there.
Make sure you bring plenty of food. Your food should be high in calories to help you replenish your fuel intake so you don’t bonk out of the hike.
Bring food that’s easy to pack, easy to cook, and easy to eat. Freeze-dried backpacking food is often the best choice. Don’t bring anything that requires a specific temperature in order to stay fresh. Summer sausage is a good addition if you want to add more meat to your diet.
Bring plenty of snacks and store them in a way that is easy to access, such as in the hip pockets of your backpack.
Don’t sacrifice food and water to save weight on your trip. These items are the most important items that will keep you safe and alive.
Backpacking Safety Tips
It’s important to put safety first when backpacking.
You must research potential safety hazards and risks in the area you will be hiking in. These hazards often include dangerous wildlife like bears and venomous snakes, hazardous plants such as giant hogweed and poison oak, biting insects like ticks and black flies, and natural hazards such as creek crossings, high bluffs, and avalanche dangers.
Take every precaution you need to take in order to keep you safe while out in the backcountry. At the end of the day, you are in charge of your own safety.
You can prevent just about any safety hazard that will come your way by using common sense and putting safety first.
Your Perfect Campsite
You need to make sure you plan for the perfect campsite so that you know what to look for in your research or while you’re on the trail.
Be aware of the dangers that are imposed on your campsite. These dangers can be stuff like bears, flood-prone areas during heavy rain, and wildland fire dangers due to drought conditions. Knowing what dangers are likely can be predicted through simple research before you go hiking.
This way, you can have your kitchen away from where you sleep. You can keep your tent out of areas where water will pool or rush through. You can decide whether or not a fire is appropriate. Research and preparedness will always win.
You also want to make sure you observe the area when you arrive. Don’t camp under dead trees (widow makers), for example. You want to be closer to a water source so you can filter and clean your kitchen stuff.
You’ll know your best campsite when you walk onto it based on what you’ve researched and how you’ll know it when you see it.
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is a very important part of hiking and backpacking.
Leave No Trace allows you to reduce your negative impacts on the environment. It helps the environment, which is important to our health and wellness as human beings. However, Leave No Trace also helps to preserve natural areas for generations after us to be able to enjoy these areas as we did. There are seven different principles of Leave No Trace that you should read about further and follow.
To sum up all seven principles into two frameworks of thought, these frameworks are: Pack out what pack in and Leave It Better You Found It. These two frameworks will make you an advocate of the Leave No Trace movement, which is important to those after us to be able to enjoy and live in these areas as we have.
Leave No Trace is a responsibility that everyone shares, especially those of us who are using the backcountry as an outdoor recreational environment.
Consider a Guided Backpacking Adventure
As we are nearing the end of this backpacking guide, it’s important to know your options.
If you’ve never gone on a multi-day hiking adventure alone, you should consider going with someone else or a group. However, this isn’t always available if you don’t know anyone who also gets into the same thing. There are way more people who prefer day hikes versus overnight hikes. Overnight hiking is a fear factor for some, but the experience is nothing more than amazing.
If it’s available in your area, consider guided backpacking. That’s when you pay someone or a company to take you on an overnight hike, so you don’t have to worry about everything involved to make it successful. It’s a great first experience and learning opportunity to get you started in the activity.
Don’t go alone if you can help it, even if that means hiring something to make your first experience the best experience.
Here are some commonly asked questions and answers focusing on backpacking and multi-day hiking adventures.
What are some of the biggest mistakes backpackers make?
There are many mistakes you can make as a backpacker. In order to cover them all, I’d have to write a separate article. But for now, let’s cover the main ones. The first is packing too much gear or not enough gear. You can prevent this mistake by following the 11 essentials of hiking gear. Another mistake is not planning for the trip. By planning for the trip, you can prevent most of the mistakes. Continue to research other backpacking mistakes so that you know what to avoid.
How many days and nights should your first trip be?
This is up to you based on what your abilities are. However, I would recommend you start small. My first trip was two days and one night. I hiked 6 miles the first day, camped, and then hiked 6 miles that lap day. The route was a 12-mile loop with a primitive campground in the middle. I was happy that I chose an easier route for the first time, as it allowed me to learn from my mistakes.
What is ultralight backpacking, and should I do it?
Ultralight backpacking is when you carry a very minimal amount of gear, wear minimal clothing, and focus on as little weight as possible. Most ultralight backpackers sleep under tarps and aren’t as comfortable as most backpackers who carry everything they need. Ultralight hiking is fine and can be an adventure, but it’s best experienced by those who are seasoned and experienced in traditional multi-day hiking. Try to gain some experience before jumping it.
Should I sleep in a tent or a hammock?
This depends on you and where you’re hiking. In terms of you, it depends on if you enjoy sleeping in a hammock or not. For some people, it can be very uncomfortable. You should sleep in one at a drive-up campground before you try to take it on an overnight hike. It also depends on the area you’ll be hiking at. Will there be plenty of trees to hang the hammock on? If there aren’t, then you’ll be sleeping on the ground.
Can I just use a regular backpack that a student would wear to school?
You can, but you’ll likely have a bad experience. Regular backpacks are not designed for backpacking trips. They will likely tear and break with too much weight, causing you uncomfortable ways of having to carry the broken pack. They also do not provide support for your hips, back, and shoulders. Carrying a traditional backpack will likely result in pain and discomfort. Your best bet is to get a real hiking backpack that is capable of carrying all your required gear.
What if I have to use the bathroom on my trip?
Find a place off the trail and away from any streams, creeks, or bodies of water. If you have to pee, then pee, and that’s it. If you have to poop, you should dig a cathole and bury your waste after you’re finished. You can use biodegradable toilet paper and bury it with your waste, or you can bring a Ziploc bag to take your used toilet paper or wipes with you. The important thing is that you bury what you have to leave behind.
What do I do if I experience a bear or mountain lion?
Stop and stand your ground. Scream or yell to look bigger than what you are. Take your backpack off and hold it above your head to seem larger. Throw rocks and sticks at the animal if it tries to become aggressive or charges at you. If you have defensive spray, use it if necessary.
What do I do with my trash?
Take it with you. There are no trash pickup services along backpacking trails. Leaving your trash behind is just as bad as littering, and it’s not a very nature-friendly thing to do. If you can’t carry your trash back, you shouldn’t be out there in the first place. Carry a small trash bag and take your trash with you. Remember to Leave No Trace when you’re enjoying the outdoors and nature.
Final Thoughts About Backpacking for Beginners
Backpacking is a wonderful way to further enjoy the adventures of outdoor recreation. Many mistakes can be made to prevent you from having a good experience. However, if you consider the advice mentioned throughout this article, you’re more likely to have the best experience you’ll ever have.
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Founder, Hiking with Shawn
Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. Click here to learn more about Shawn Gossman