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How to Plan Your First Backpacking Trip

Planning your first backpacking trip can be a daunting task. I still remember my very first trip like it was yesterday. The first few days were great. We made fantastic time and we stayed on target to finish 25 miles in 4 days.

Then on the last day we took a wrong turn. We ended up miles off our course on the wrong side of the mountain in the middle of a downpour. Luckily we found a campground with a 24-hour laundry mat that offered shelter for the time. Finally we made contact with our drivers and scheduled a pickup for 2am. A lot of trouble could have been avoided through more careful planning.
"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." – Lao Tzu
On the flip side, you can never really be completely prepared for every situation. But you can take certain steps to put yourself in the best position for success. It all starts with 3 simple steps.
  1. Build an experienced squad
  2. Plan a simple route
  3. Pick your gear

Step One: Build an Experienced Squad, Your A-Team

Backpacking is always better with friends. But it’s especially important for your very first backpacking trip to find someone with past experience. A friend with backpacking experience can recommend great gear, help you plan a perfect route, and teach you how to navigate in the wilderness.

If you can’t find anyone to guide you on your first trip, consider finding a backpacking class. Classes with pro guides are often cheap and offer a great first look at the backpacking world.

Step Two: Map Your Route

A few things to consider before picking your first route:
  • Fitness: Your current level of fitness is important. Be honest with yourself. If you are not in at least decent shape do what you can to get in shape before day 1 of your hike.
  • Available time: How many open days you have to use on a backpacking trip.
  • Distance: Best broken down into how many miles you want to cover in 1 day for the duration of your trip. For example, let say you know that you have 3 days and want to cover 18 miles. 6 miles a day would be your target goal.
  • Elevation: What elevation gain are you comfortable with. Are you used to hiking up mountains or do you live in an area without so much as a large hill. For a first hike aim for a realistic incline; attempting Mount Everest on your first trip would be asking for failure. Start small and build up gradually.
  • Weather: What will the weather be like on your trip? What is the time of year you plan to leave, and where do you plan to go. Naturally locations closer to the equator will be warmer than those further north or south. Winter in one area compared to another can be extremely dry, wet, cold, or just plain moderate. Do your research and plan ahead.
  • Logistics: Here is where we get down to the nitty-gritty. There are basically 3 options when it comes to picking a route: out and back the same trail, loop trail, and from one point to another. If you choose to hike from point A and finish at point B, you need to plan rides in advanced. Also make sure to arrive at the campsite every night with plenty of sunlight to set up camp.

Step Three: Packing the Right Gear


Nothing sucks worse than arriving at a campsite just before dark ready to jump in a nice warm tent and then realizing the tent is at home on the couch. Don’t leave your home without first checking multiple times that you have the backpacking essentials. You will be royally hosed without these 10 items!

[READ: Backpacking Essentials: Survival Gear Guide]

Group Gear

At least one advantage of choosing an experienced friend to hike with you is bumming from his secret stash of glorified gear. Maybe you’re not big into communal living, but sharing on a backpacking trip is more than just caring. Sharing lightens your load (literally) and helps you cover more miles over a single day. Here is a list of all the great things you can share with your partner:

Water treatment: Carrying a water purifying system may not add a whole bunch of weight by itself. But if you think about how much the average person needs to drink, bottling purified water and splitting it up evenly among your mates spares you the burden of carrying it all by yourself.

Stove: Perfect for boiling large amounts of water relatively fast. For larger groups, cooking larger meals at one time saves energy and spreads the weight out evenly among hikers. An option could be that one person carries some of the food and another carries the stove along with the rest of the food.

Tent: Probably the best way to split up a large amount of weight is by breaking down the tent into parts. One person carries the pole, another the fly, and a third the body. Larger tents will most certainly add weight but may be worth it in the end if the weight is evenly distributed.

[READ: How to Pick a Backpacking Tent]

Personal Gear

Below is a list of gear every backpacker will need. Before going out and dropping a grand on top dollar products, consider borrowing gear from a friend or buying it second hand to see what style suits you.

Backpacks: Backpacking backpacks differ from a normal school backpacks. REI experts recommend a backpack that can hold at least 45-60 liters of goods. (1) Before you ever step foot on that trail, take your pack for a test run loaded with the exact same weight you intend to use on the trail. If this is impossible consider buying weights you can conceal inside a backpack on your way to the office.

Sleeping bag: Picking the right sleeping bag for you will depend on your individual size and the type of season you intend to backpack in. Every sleeping bag will come with a recommended weather rating, or a minimum temperature the sleeping bag will still keep you warm in.

Sleeping pad: The right sleeping pad depends upon your personal comfort level and the distance of your trip. Backpackers on longer hikes tend to cut weight at all costs and look for the lightest possible sleeping pad. The 3 sleeping types of pads are closed-cell, air, and self-inflating. Each have their individual pros and cons.

[READ: How to Pick a Sleeping Pad]

Backpacking food: Backpackers must think about the best way to pack the most nutrient-rich food with the least amount of weight. One tip would be to bring high energy, high protein granola bars. Freeze dried meals are easy to pack, light, and quick to prepare. Whatever food you choose be sure to keep in mind how many calories per gram it contains. Foods with higher amounts of calories per gram weigh less and offer more calories than other types of food.

[READ: Ultimate Backpacking Food Guide]

Backpacking footwear: Crazy to think about but your feet on a backpacking trip are one of the most valuable assets you have. Protect your feet and walking miles will feel doable. Ignore your feet and blisters or cuts could derail your entire trip. The best way to pick a shoe is by what is most comfortable to you. You also need to take into account the weather and type of terrain you will be crossing. Whatever you pick make sure to break the shoes in before the initial hike.

Backpacking clothes: Just remember that cotton is killer on a backpacking trip simply because it soaks up moisture. Moisture makes it tough to stay warm in the winter and cool off in the summer. Pick basic clothes made of moisture-wicking fabrics. In order to be prepared, pack layers of clothing, insulation, rain gear, and sleepwear.


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