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Backpacking 101: Tips and Tricks for Beginners

Backpacking is a great way to see the world without too much stuff weighing you down. Read this intro guide by camping and hiking expert Hannah Forkell to help you prepare.

Photo by Hannah Forkell

What is backpacking anyway? How is it different from camping, hiking, or just normal travel? Well, in a way, it is actually a combination of all of these activities. Backpacking means embarking on an adventure where everything you’ll need will fit right into your backpack. While this definition is loose, backpackers typically are light packers and will travel for an extended period of time on a low budget. Most backpackers tend to travel alone or in small groups. Backpacking typically includes a lot of camping and hiking, though backpackers may also roam cities, stay in hostels, and even dine at local restaurants. Below, I’ve provided some guidance to anybody getting ready to go on their first backpacking trip (or just looking to broaden their knowledge).

Craggy mountains with pools of blue water
Photo by Hannah Forkell

Who to Go Backpacking With

Backpacking with Your Partner

Backpacking with your partner is a great way to get started. Getting outside into the fresh air and challenging yourselves to try new things is an excellent way to strengthen any relationship. Though, with that being said, it is suggested that you begin with smaller backpacking adventures to better prepare yourselves for managing challenges that may come your way. From there, you can build up to long, ambitious, and even international trips with your partner!

Backpacking by Yourself

Solo-backpacking is a popular activity - and my personal favorite. While it may seem daunting at first, backpacking alone allows you to attain personal growth and learn an immense amount about yourself and the world around you. The solo-backpacking community is unlike any other; another solo backpacker is almost always guaranteed to become a new friend while sharing a coffee at a remote camping spot or a beer overlooking a unique city. Personally, while extensively backpacking throughout the past five years as a young, solo female, I have never experienced any serious danger. With that being said, always take precautionary measures when backpacking alone. Let others know your whereabouts, buy a SIM card or international phone plan if traveling through other countries, and be prepared with the right gear, food, and water.

A blonde woman in shorts and a tank top looks out at craggy mountains and water
Photo by Hannah Forkell

Backpacking with Friends

Embarking on a backpacking trip with friends can go one of two ways: It can be an experience of a lifetime or it can be a disaster. It is extremely important to choose adventurous friends who are like minded to yourself when backpacking. As with backpacking with your partner, it is suggested to begin with a smaller adventure before working up to longer and more ambitious trips. Make sure to discuss important elements of the trip beforehand so that you’re all on the same page. These discussions should be focused on location, daily activities, physical fitness level, means of transportation, and so on.

Where to Go Backpacking

Turquoise water, a beach, and rocky crags
Photo by Hannah Forkell

The first thing you should do when choosing a destination is ask yourself what’s important to you. Are you interested in day hikes? Climbing the tallest mountains? Doing a thru hike (maybe even the Appalachian Trail or the PCT)? Fly fishing for the biggest trout you can find? Or getting your toes sandy on the beach?

Understanding your personal preferences will help you narrow down on a location. Be sure to make a price estimate so you can budget properly. How much will a flight or gas cost to get there? How much does food cost at your destination? Will you be staying in hostels at all? All of these are important considerations. With the advancement of technology, blog posts have become a super useful tool to help you narrow down a destination; read the blogs of other backpackers to spark ideas!

U.S. Destinations

Photo by Hannah Forkell

The United States has infinite backpacking destinations, each offering different opportunities for physical fitness, personal growth, and a good time. If you’re looking to do some serious trekking, visit national parks, and have the beach at your fingertips, California might be the destination for you. While Yosemite is the most popular backpacking destination in the state, California is also home to Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and plenty other parks. Still thinking about the West Coast? The Pacific Northwest is another top backpacking destination. Oregon and Washington specifically are home to some tall mountains, amazing skiing opportunities, rivers, coastline, and unique cities.

While these are some of my personal favorites, the opportunities are endless. North Carolina and Tennessee offer the Great Smokies; Vermont and New Hampshire offer the Green and White Mountains, and Utah and Arizona offer some varying landscapes from deserts to mountains and everything in between.

International Destinations

Women in green skirts and white tops strum ukuleles and perform
Photo by Hannah Forkell

Backpacking internationally can be the adventure of a lifetime. Consider flight prices, geography and landscapes offered, safety precautions, weather, and culture when choosing an international backpacking destination. For a first backpacking adventure on international soil, Europe and Southeast Asia are both great options! These are each filled with backpackers and there are a lot of online sources and reading materials available to help you prepare.

What Gear to Bring Backpacking

Backpack

A backpack is the most essential piece of gear for backpacking - after all, that’s where the name comes from! First, it’s important to decide on a size. What will you be packing into your backpack? For most trips, a bag between 45 and 65L will be the ideal size. Some of the most reputable brands are Osprey and Deuter, though there are plenty to choose from! Certain websites will allow you to compare different brands and their specs. Choosing the right pack will make a huge difference when backpacking - make sure it is comfortable and has enough space for your belongings (though, be sure not to overpack).

Tent and Sleeping Bag

For both of these items, it is important to purchase ultralight options. Tents and sleeping bags come in all different shapes and sizes, so make sure to compare specs when shopping!

For a tent, I would recommend purchasing one that is easy to set up, comes with a rainfly, and weighs less than 5lbs. One of my favorite brands for ultralight tents is NEMO, though brands like Marmot and Mountain Hardware also make some good ones!

When purchasing a sleeping bag, the first thing you should consider is climate and time of year. Will you be in cold weather at all? What is the minimum temperature that you will be sleeping in? Make sure that your sleeping bag will suit this - you can always unzip your bag if it’s warmer! Will you be in rainy weather at all? If so, I would suggest a synthetic sleeping bag. Synthetic bags dry much faster and will still keep you warm when wet. Some of my favorite sleeping bag brands are Marmot and The North Face, though there is a huge selection out there so do your research!

Clothing and Apparel

Again, the most important factor to consider here is climate. Will you be in colder temperatures? Definitely purchase a solid base layer (Columbia makes some great ones) or a puffy jacket that packs small. Plan on trekking through humid, buggy environments? Make sure to have long pants that are quick drying. Make sure to always be prepared with a lightweight, packable rain jacket as well!

If you plan on doing a lot of walking, it is essential to invest in a durable pair of hiking boots. I would always recommend going waterproof with hiking boots because you never know when you’ll be crossing a stream or stuck in a rainstorm. There are some pretty fashionable hiking boots on the market now that can double as day-to-day shoes as well! In addition to hiking boots, I would recommend a pair of sandals or flip flops that can be used for showering in questionable places or more casual activities.

A person walks across a wooden beam suspended over the water
Photo by Hannah Forkell

Food and Water

Decide how much you will be eating out versus cooking. Will you be trekking and tent camping the entire time? Definitely invest in a Jetboil. A small camping stove may also do the trick, though this may take up more space in your pack. There are plenty of dry food options on the market, though you can never go wrong with a PB&J.

Make sure to plan how much food you may need ahead of time - know where the closest supermarket will be and how often you’ll have access to one. If you plan on eating out a lot, that’s fine too! When backpacking internationally, it is a good idea to learn some basic food vocabulary in the local language. It’s a good idea to have certain translations memorized or written down in your smartphone, such as “vegetarian” for example.

It is just as important to appropriately plan for water. How much water will you be drinking each day? Will you have access to a safe drinking water source? Even if you will almost always have access to drinking water, it is a good idea to carry a package of purifying tablets on you at all times. Of course, make sure to always have a reusable water bottle or a bladder in your backpack!

Other Recommended Gear

While this list covers much of the gear that you will need to embark on a backpacking adventure, every trip is unique and each individual has different personal preferences. I would also suggest looking into a sleeping pad, a camping pillow, trekking poles, a first aid kit, and a headlamp. Some of these “extras” are commonly called luxury items. Is bringing a portable coffee maker important to you? While this probably isn’t entirely necessary, it could make your trip significantly more enjoyable, hence the name “luxury item.”

A man with large backpacking pack looks out at a foggy forest
Photo by Lalu Fatoni

How to Physically Prepare for Backpacking

Backpacking can be mental as much as it can be physical. This guide is a great starting point to mentally prepare for a backpacking trip and what kind of or how much gear you will need. The internet is your best friend - research and talk to others to spark ideas and adequately plan. If you plan on embarking on a super physical adventure, make sure to plan for that! Go on long walks carrying a heavy backpack, eat healthy, and always stay hydrated! Remember, the most important part of backpacking is to always have fun!

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Written By
I am currently living in Wisconsin, but soon to be living out of my conversion van and traveling throughout North America. I am seeking out the tallest mountains to hike, the prettiest lakes to kayak, and remote camping spots. I love to travel internationally as well - I have backpacked though over...

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