Backpacking is not really a sport, per se. It’s more like intensive walking meets speed camping.
Or, it’s a complete sufferfest because you forgot something, got lost or didn’t check the weather. When you’re camping out of your car, you can get away with being spontaneous — and you can throw half your garage into your trunk. But when you’re backpacking, you have to follow the Boy Scout motto.
Be prepared! While there’s something romantic about just slinging on a pack and hitting the trail, it’s only romantic if things mostly go right.
It’s not that great to schlep all your stuff up to a mountain lake only to realize you forgot your lighter and now you have to chew on dry pasta.
Of course, when you really nail it, backpacking is an incredible experience. The simple cycle of walking, camping, eating and sleeping can be extremely gratifying and peaceful.
Your first consideration is where and when you’re hitting the trail. This sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how many wilderness-minded people don’t check the weather. Weather, location and temperature affects everything.
For example, let’s say you’re going camping in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Because you’re camping on the drier eastern side, you won’t get as much snow or rain as the west. But, because the mountains block the setting sun, that means you’ll have much less daylight, especially in the fall. That means you should be on the trail early and plan for sudden shifts in temperature. You’ll want layering clothes, a sleeping bag and tent rated for real cold. You’ll also want your heavy-duty winter hat and a sun hat.
Do your research, either online or in person. Make sure to check your local ranger station and their website.
Depending where you’re going, you might need a bear canister or a line to put your food up in a tree. Most stations have these for rent.
Your station will also appraise you of permits, the water situation and whether you can start fires or not. You should also bring a small shovel for... leave no trace purposes.
It’s important to know what’s going on in an area where you probably won’t have cell service. Sometimes floods destroy part of a trail. There might be bacteria blooms in local water sources, a raging forest fire a few valleys over, bears, killer clowns, who knows?
Get a trail map, ideally on paper in case your phone dies. Topographic maps can be tricky to read if you’re planning on going off-trail. So, you should have a decent idea of your route, elevation gain, distance, water availability and expected temperature. Again, a ranger can help you out here.
Make sure you know when the sun goes down. This will affect how much daylight you have and if you need extra flashlights.
No matter what, try to time out the hike so you’re not setting up a tent in the dark.
When it’s dark and you’re tired, you make mistakes, like not staking down your tent in a windstorm. Nobody likes their tent turning into a U.F.O.
When you’re carrying a heavy pack, your speed dramatically decreases and you’re going to be really tired and hungry at the end of the day. So it’s best to be a little conservative and give yourself extra time. You won’t always be thinking clearly, especially at high altitude.
Most importantly, don’t forget to tell friends and family where you’re going, what trailhead you’re on and your itinerary. Remember 127 Hours? A simple text can ward off a tragedy.
Do a quick search for a basic backpacking checklist and print it out. There are so many little things you need while backpacking: clothes, knives, good socks, bandaids, food supplies, headlamps, books, water filters and so on. Any one of these items can be the difference between having fun and not. This is all magnified if you’re going alone or in a small group.
Again, match your gear with trail expectations, seasons, weather and wind chill.
Don’t bring a summer tent and light sleeping bag to the top of a mountain at the end of fall.
Don’t go cheap on your pack, your hiking shoes or socks. Wear hiking shoes with ankle support and break them in before your trip. Blisters and foot pain are the best ways to make sure you’re miserable. When you actually do start hiking, your goal should be to immediately stop and tape up hotspots to avoid blisters. Bring a change of socks in case your feet get hot and sweaty.
The Workout Tee is a great moisture-wicking option for long hikes - it will keep you cool and comfortable long past your summit. Layer on The Quarter-Zip Pullover when temps drop. As for bottoms, The Workout Shorts are insanely light and comfortable - you'll hardly notice you're wearing or carrying them.
Because you’re stressing your back with anywhere from fifteen to fifty pounds, it’s also worth picking up trekking poles. They’re dorky, but they absolutely reduce knee pain.
If you’re expecting rain, also have a solution to not only keep yourself dry but your pack contents as well. If your pack doesn’t have a rain fly you may want to line it with a waterproof garbage bag. Nothing is worse than a wet sleeping bag at the end of the day.
Once you have everything, now consider what not to bring. If it’s warm, you might be able to get away with a camping hammock instead of a big heavy tent. If you know you’re hiking next to a good river, you can get away with carrying less water and having a good filtration system. Carrying even five less pounds will make a huge difference over a long day.
That said, “what should I bring?” is the hardest question of backpacking. It takes experience to think strategically, and even the experts get this part wrong sometimes. So, for your early sojourns, we’d recommend you go on shorter hikes with more stuff. Take a big pack and take your warm clothes, lots of food and that bottle of whiskey. You’re better off having everything you want than trying to get fancy and leaving the good jacket behind. Save that for when you have a bit of experience in the wilderness, then you can experiment with ultralight long-distance backpacking.
A few final essentials: don’t forget your mosquito repellant (if necessary), toilet paper and a first aid kit, along with some sort of emergency system if you’re going on a really long adventure.
When you’re ready to pack, consider how the pack will sit on your back. Try to put the heaviest, bulkiest items toward the bottom of the pack, weighted center.
Put your quick-access items – like clothing layers, water, snacks and flashlights — towards the top or in pockets so you don’t have to dig around for them.
Always wear your waist belt, and try to cinch it around your hips, not your belly. Ideally, your hips are carrying the load more than your shoulders. You might need to have your pack professionally fitted if this part is tricky.
Food is an extremely important part of your planning because your desire for tasty treats comes into direct conflict with weight. While really long trips will need a resupply stop planned, even shorter trips have to be fairly meticulous. It’s wise to think about dried goods, freeze-dried meals and things that are simple to cook. Consider food that doesn’t perish quickly like pasta or rice. Most backpacking stoves are ultra simple, with only a single burner, so stick to single pot meals.
Remember, your meals don’t need to be tasteless. Pick up some miniature plastic bottles and fill them with your cooking essentials — olive oil, hot sauce, soy sauce, dish soap, seasonings, etc. Don’t forget a little scrub brush to keep things clean.
Food will be the bulk of your weight, but it’s definitely worth it. Don’t skimp on this one. Knowing you have a tasty dinner at the end of your hike really boosts morale.
You’ll want much more than you’re used to at home because hiking with a heavy pack will exhaust you. Not only will you want three square meals per day, but a few snacks along the way too. You’ll want high fats, carbs and protein. Eating like a beast is half the fun of this sort of thing. Also, consider bringing lightweight tupperware so you can use it as a bowl, but also keep your leftovers from the night before as lunch.
Finally, don’t skimp on getting cozy! Expert backpackers are not suffering — they’re thriving. Bring a good book, your favorite beverage, a spare change of warm, dry socks for the tent, a cozy hat and campfire sandals.
We hope these tips help! Enjoy yourself out there!