Beginner’s guide to your first backpacking trip

Editors Note: This post was written by my partner, Billy. I’ve yet to go backpacking, mostly because the initial start-up cost of gear is significant. *However* his beginner’s experience taught me that backpacking is a lot more beginner-friendly than I had assumed, and I thought it was important (and helpful) for him to share it!

So you’ve decided you want to go backpacking but you don’t really know where to begin. It can be intimidating and everyone who does it seems so advanced that you could never do it too. I felt that way, too, so I’ll share my own experience and some tips for how you can get started. I hope you’ll make the leap, because views like this await, miles from civilization.

Amazing view from a lookout point along the Goose Creek Trail in the Lost Creek Wilderness

Buying all the gear you need for backpacking can be pretty expensive, so I’d recommend renting the first time. There are several companies that have full backpacking rental kits, including REI and Outdoors Geek. These kits will come with most, if not all, of the equipment you’ll need for your first time out. You’ll likely still need to augment the rental package with food, clothes, and a couple other items.

What do I need to bring?

Here’s a basic packing list:

  • Backpack (50-60L capacity is great for beginners)
  • Tent, tarp + groundcloth, or hammock (the size of your tent should be the number of people + 1, so if you have two people, get a 3 person tent unless you like getting *really* cozy)
  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping bag
  • Cookset (stove, fuel canister, pot – if you’re buying one, this Soto is a great cookset)
  • Utensil (plastic spork works great)
  • Water (reservoir with hose or water bottles), ~2L per day
  • Simple water filter (Sawyer Squeeze is great)
  • Food bag (Ursack bear bag or bear canister if in bear country)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Basic first aid kit (here’s one I like that’s already pre-made)
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Food (2,500-3,500 calories per day)

Optional additions:

  • Trekking poles (we love the Black Diamond Distance Z, but less expensive ones will also work just fine)
  • Trash bag liner for keeping sleeping bag and clothes dry inside backpack
  • Lightweight camping chair (Helinox chairs are expensive but great, REI Flexlite chairs are a less expensive alternative)
  • Toilet paper or wipes + Ziploc to pack them out
  • Toothbrush & toothpaste
  • Physical map (Nat Geo maps are the gold standard, but AllTrails app on your phone can download maps for offline use with the Pro version if you don’t have a map)
  • Headnet for mosquitos

Here’s what my gear looked like all spread out prior to packing up my backpack.

Prior to packing my backpack, here’s everything laid out

I had to do quite a bit of research to feel comfortable with what I was getting into, so I’ll try to address some of the things I was more uncertain about to help give you a bit better starting place.

How do I figure out where to go?

The most important thing for your first time backpacking is to have a good experience and learn something while you’re at it. There’s no need to push the limit of what you think you’re capable of this time around.

Keep it simple and scout out the trip ahead of time so you know a bit about what you’re getting into for preparation and peace of mind. Go somewhere within an hour or two drive from your home if possible just to lower the pressure. And make sure you’re going at a time of year when the weather is reasonable. Ideally, you want highs no warmer than 85 or so, and lows no colder than 40.

For my trip, I chose Colorado’s Lost Creek Wilderness because it’s at slightly lower elevation (8k-10k feet) and less difficult terrain compared to many other backpacking options in Colorado. The trail also crosses at least two creeks, so water was relatively plentiful. And I chose to delay my trip by two days due to an abnormal early season snowfall. As I mentioned before, your goal should be to have a good experience, not to win the Olympics of suffering.

There’s a ton of information and trip reports available by just googling “best beginner colorado backpacking trip” and substituting your state or area for Colorado. Then you can cross reference whatever trail you’re considering with trip reports and websites like AllTrails and Google Maps. There, you’ll find reviews of the trail and useful information like the best season to go and whether the road to the trailhead requires a high clearance vehicle.

How far should I go each day?

When you’re scouting out your trip, try to plan for a realistic amount of hiking based on the elevation, terrain, and elevation gain/loss. A reasonable rule of thumb for most people is averaging 1 mile per hour uphill, 2 miles per hour on flat, and 3 miles per hour downhill.

Be sure to leave plenty of margin for the mileage being somewhat off or taking more breaks than you expect. Nobody wants to be setting up camp at 9pm in the dark after 12 hours straight of hiking. And if you plan overly conservatively, you can always set up camp early and then go for a short afternoon or early evening hike to explore the area before dinner with a lot lighter pack!

What food should I bring backpacking?

Packing food was one of the things I was least confident about ahead of time. It’s a tricky balance to figure out how to keep your pack weight (and size) down while also ensuring you’re getting enough calories to keep you going in the backcountry.

A good rule of thumb is that you want to consume 2500-3500 calories per day. But you’re limited in what kinds of food you can realistically bring, just because a lot of food is heavy and doesn’t pack down small enough to fit in your backpack.

I had good luck with a combination of dehydrated meals for breakfast and dinner, and bars and summer sausage for snacks. To keep the size down, especially for longer trips, you can repackage two or more of the same dehydrated meal into a larger Ziploc bag, and only bring one of the original foil packages to use for re-hydrating each meal.

For lunch and snacks, I decided to try to find the highest calorie per size/weight thing I could find. I opted for Range Meal Bars, which are 700 calories in a bar that’s quite small, and Pro Bars, which are 380-410 calories in an even smaller package. Both of these taste pretty decent, especially the Pro Bars with fruit. My favorite Pro Bar is “Wholeberry Blast,” which doesn’t taste like cardboard like many high-calorie bars out there. Snickers bars also make a great mid-afternoon pick-me-up during a grueling hike, so consider throwing a couple of those in.

In packing food, be sure to segregate your food bag from the rest of the contents of your pack, especially overnight, and put any toiletries or other scented items in your food bag also because they can attract bears and critters.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to use an Ursack bear bag even from reading the description, and this video was really helpful. If you’re a beginner backpacker, please do not try to hang a bear bag. It’s impractical, really challenging to do correctly, and potentially dangerous. Ursack bags have decent resale value as well, so if you aren’t able to find a good option to rent, consider buying one and then resell it on eBay or Craigslist if you don’t plan to use it again.

How do I take care of the environment while I backpack?

Check out the Leave No Trace principles ahead of time and read up on wherever you’re headed so you know what to expect. It’s worth reading through each of the 7 principles ahead of time, but the biggest things I found useful are understanding how to poop in the woods, learning what kinds of wildlife are in your area and what to do if you encounter them, and practicing fire safety especially in fire-prone areas.

The bottom line

Regardless of how much you plan, you’re almost certainly going to forget something or wish you were better prepared at some point along the trail. So just try to lean into that uncertainty, know you’re not alone in being worried about it, and get out there and enjoy yourself and appreciate the opportunity to get out into nature.

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