Starting a new hobby and learning something new, like backpacking can be a daunting thing. Especially when it’s a field that isn’t as mainstream. Backpacking is one of those things that is not only subjective, but it’s also growing and changing all the time. New types of gear are being introduced, fancy fabrics and designs, and a push to save as much weight as possible in your gear. All of this can not only be overwhelming when first getting started, but it can also be a barrier to getting started if you aren’t ready for the learning curve.
Backpacking at its core is an amazing activity that simplifies the hustle and bustle of life and allows one to take minimal gear necessary for living in the backcountry. We give up a lot of comforts when we decide to load up a pack and go spend time in the backcountry. Everything from fancy kitchens to cook, big beds with memory foam mattresses, to hot showers and more. But the experience of backpacking is developing the mindset that leaving those things behind is okay and even a challenge for many people. If you’ve just discovered the addiction of backpacking and you’re looking for ways to enjoy your experience more, then sit back and read on, and enjoy these 5 tips for new backpackers.
Tip #1: Get A Backpack That Fits You Correctly
It’s no secret that we are all different shapes and sizes. So it should also not a be surprise that when it comes to backpacks and the companies making backpacks, they are not all created equal. Hence this being the first tip of the 5 tips. Your experience in the backcountry will be positive if you do your homework and due diligence before hand. This means that if you take the time to go get fitted for a pack, rather than just buying any pack off the shelf or internet, you will be setting yourself up for success. Backpacks for backpacking are developed with a lot of variables and things to consider. Talking to someone who knows the ins and outs of various backpack models will make a huge difference in your decision of what pack to buy. Things like torso length, how much weight you will be carrying, framed versus frameless packs, suspension style, liter capacity, etc are all contributing factors to how you might choose a pack for yourself. A pack that I am passionate about and carry, isn’t necessarily going to be the best pack for you.
What if I choose a pack that doesn’t fit me? It can’t be that bad right? Wrong! Consider squeezing into a pair of pants that are too tight and wearing shoes that are too small. It doesn’t take long for your feet and such to start screaming at you, “this isn’t comfortable and it hurts!” Same thing goes with a pack that doesn’t fit right. For the first mile or two you make think, oh this is fine, but then more time on the trail and the weight of the pack starts to wear you down. A pack that’s too small will put extra strain on your shoulders and clavicles. A pack that’s too big won’t allow you to carry the weight on your hips like its designed to. Then on the morning of day 2, you’ll get out of bed, pack up camp and go to put your pack on and instantly notice all of the areas where the pack was causing pain. A proper fitting pack will heavily limit the impact on your body.
Tip #2: Do Your Homework – Planning A Backpacking Trip
Now I understand that this seems general, but let’s break it down. Education is key to having a successful backpacking experience, and that comes in many different forms. Obtaining good backpacking gear is just one piece of the puzzle and if you get too focused on gear, then you are leaving out a lot of other things that go into a backpacking trip. Do your homework means that you are taking the time before a trip to do the necessary planning. Everything from planning your mileage, knowing what water sources are available, what risks are involved, understanding and planning out your route, and much more.
Trip planning is far more important that I think a lot people give credit for. Take the list of items above and consider planning a trip to the desert. A few things that come to mind from that example is, that I need to be aware of where I can get water, what are the temperatures going to be like, what is my route and what kind of obstacles might I encounter. These are the types of questions you should be asking yourself, and the more information you can put together before you leave for a trip the better.
Another important item to consider is that there may be restrictions and requirements for the area you are visiting. Do you need to obtain backcountry permits to go where you’re going? Does the area have certain gear requirements? This could be something like a bear canister for the Sierras in California. The last thing you want to do is show up to the trailhead and not have the necessary paperwork, permits, or gear to get on the trail. So do your homework, learn about the area, get on forums and ask about the area and make a detailed trip plan.
Tip #3: Focus On The Experience
This is a conversation that I have with my backpacking students quite often. The whole reason that you are going out into the backcountry is to have an experience that is different from sitting on the couch at home, or going to a football game. When I go out into the backcountry and I know that I am going to be walking several miles to get to a beautiful place, I like to make sure that I am doing everything I can to enhance that experience. I want to smell the smells and feel the feels. Now that sounds cheesy, but it’s true, at least for me it is important. When I drop my pack and start to setup camp, I look for ways to enhance my experience. Is there a really nice place to setup my tent where I can watch the sunrise or sunset? I like to ask myself those kind of questions when I hit the trail and make sure that my time away from the hustle and bustle of life if focused on where I am.
Something that I go back and forth on many times is whether or not I listen to music while out. There are trips that I say no to it completely, and my phone gets used for taking photos only. But there are trips where I will actively listen to music while in camp as it may be part of the experience and who I am sharing that time with. Most importantly here is that you take time to make sure that you are focused on the experience you want to have while out on the trial.
Tip #4: Use Gear You Have Access To and Don’t Spend Unnecessary Money
There is a trap that you can easily fall into when it comes to backpacking gear, and particularly when it comes to lightweight backpacking gear. If you are new to backpacking, it is hard to know and understand all the different brands out there, the options, and what all of the types of gear are made from. All of that knowledge comes through time and experience, and so I always suggest that in your first few times going backpacking that you wait to spend a bunch of money and take the gear you have access to. That may mean you spend a little bit of money to get gear that is simple, but if you can borrow a tent, sleeping bag, pad, and other items, then that will help you find pieces of gear that work or don’t work for you.
You can waste a lot of money buying things you think you need, but then you find out that you don’t need a zero degree sleeping bag, or your pack is too big, etc. The more time you get on the trail, the more you will figure out what you like and don’t like. Also, when you borrow gear, don’t be that guy, and make sure you take care of the gear.
Tip #5: Become An Advocate For Leave No Trace
This tip could be its own series of tips and education, but for the sake of this list of tips for new backpackers, we will focus on the outer most layer. Leave No Trace is an organization that focuses on taking care of the places we recreate in.
The 7 Principles Of Leave No Trace:
- Plan Ahead And Prepare
- Travel And Camp On Durable Surfaces
- Dispose Of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate Of Other Visitors
Becoming an advocate for Leave No Trace early in your backpacking career will change how you choose to visit areas and how you plan your trips. Understanding Leave No Trace will allow you to better plan your trips, and when you are out hiking and ready to select a campsite, you’ll have a better idea of guidelines to follow that will allow you to take care of the area you’re visiting.
There is a lot to learn when it comes to backpacking and depending on where you live, things can be very different and your planning and preparation for a trip will be different. If you live in the eastern United States, your access to public lands will be different than if you live in the western United States, where public land is the majority of where backpacking and outdoor adventures take place. Whatever your area, these tips will help you have a successful and fun backpacking experience.