So you’re curious about going backpacking but have never done it before? Overwhelmed with the options, gear, and strategies you’ve seen?
Fear not. This beginner’s guide to backpacking will get you organized and ready to tackle the Appalachian Trail soon. Well, sooner than if you don’t read it.
You’ve heard the phrase, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” haven’t you? Well, substitute “preparation” for “prevention” and it still holds true. Proper hiking preparation is critical to let your body acclimate to the demands of backpacking.
You’ll need the basics if you’re going to spend a night or two out on the trail. This includes a good backpack, sleeping bag, tent, stove, small pot for boiling water, lightweight bowl/plate/spork, and a few other things dependent on where you’re headed and for how long.
Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to other “essential” gear. But since this is a beginner’s guide to backpacking, here is a list of ten essential items to include:
1. Map – even if you’re not going far, it’s never a bad idea to have a map along in case you lose your way.
2. Compass – without a compass, number 1 might be pretty useless.
3. Sunglasses and sunscreen – you’ll save your eyes from a lot of strain and body from some bad burns.
4. Extra clothing – especially just starting out, you need to make sure you have enough clothes to stay warm and dry, even in summer.
5. Headlamp/flashlight – I prefer a headlamp because it allows hands-free operation for cooking or finding something in your tent.
6. First-aid supplies – very important – see the Health section below.
7. Firestarter – you can backpack without a fire, but it’s always good to bring a firestarter for emergency situations.
8. Matches – you’ll need these depending on your stove type, and make sure they’re waterproof.
9. Knife – a knife is essential for far more than you realize while backpacking, so don’t forget it at home.
10. Extra food – initially bring more than you think you’ll need, but see the Trail Nutrition section below for more details.
You’ll be pleased to know that if there was ever a time to ignore all the latest diet trends and indulge a little, this is it! You don’t want to skimp on calories while on the trail, as food provides your fuel to keep hiking. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) estimates that backpackers burn between 2,500 and 4,500 calories per day! And the more rugged the terrain or if you’re winter camping, the higher your need for calories.
That being said, this also means additional weight to carry so you need to pack smart. Dehydrated meals are a good solution, and you can find a wide variety of options at most outdoor stores. Another thing I like to do is combine all dry ingredients for a meal together in Ziploc bags, so that you only need to add water.
I like to prepare a good breakfast, snack throughout the day, and then eat a hearty dinner (generally followed by an indulgent dessert). My favorite snack options include jerky, nuts, dried fruit, home-made GORP (look it up if you don’t know), and various candies for a sugar boost.
As this is a beginner’s guide to backpacking, I cannot stress enough to stay hydrated while on the trail! Have a plan in place on how you can re-fill your bottle along the trip, whether it’s boiling water, chemically treating it, etc.
Regardless of how long your trip is, it’s a good idea to bring along a first aid kit of some sort. Don’t bring the whole medicine cabinet, but certainly bring along some common items.
I generally carry the following items with me, and the quantities vary depending on the length of the trip: adhesive bandages, moleskins, athletic tape, antibiotic ointment, pain medicine, and a couple gauze pads.
Pulling it all together, how can you effectively apply the tactics in this Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking?
First, load your gear efficiently within your backpack. Keep items you’ll need more often or first toward the top of your bag, and stow items for later further down. Toss in your sleeping bag first, and then try to load most of the weight near the midpoint of the pack and towards your spine. Most people don’t realize you carry the bulk of the weight on your hips instead of your shoulders.
Let someone know where you’re going (and when you plan to return). I like quick extended weekend trips most, and these are often the easiest option for beginners as well.
Set out from the trailhead early on the first day to get to your camp site and unpack. The next morning, eat a hearty breakfast and go explore the area on a quick day hike, snacking throughout the day, but coming back to your camp site. If you’re hiking far, you definitely won’t forget dinner! The next morning, pack up camp and head back to the vehicle.
If you’ve prepared well, you can cover a lot of ground with this approach and it’s easily doable as a beginner. However, after a couple trips, you’ll likely extend the length of your trip or even attempt a thru-hike, where you start at point A and end at point B.
Study up, prepare yourself, and I’ll see you out on the trail!
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