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Beginner backpackers: Start here || Advice, info, tips & resources

This page is a one-stop resource to help you learn to backpack. It establishes a philosophical basis, offers critical advice, and links to valuable resources and additional reading. I’ve kept the length manageable — it’s high signal, low noise.

I wish that I had found something like it fifteen years ago when I began to backpack. It would have saved me a lot of time, money, and heartache.

It is designed primarily for:

  • First-time and beginner backpackers, perhaps with some day-hiking or car-camping experience;
  • Longtime backpackers who need to update their approach.

It may be of some value to veteran or intermediate backpackers as well, if you are looking to expand or round out your know-how.

In a nutshell: How to backpack

I cannot put it more simply:

A backpacker should have the gear, supplies, and skills that are appropriate for their objective and the conditions.

This statement has five distinct elements — each one is underlined — and the remainder of this page will address them, plus a few other topics.

Additional reading: Actually, there is a “right way” to backpack


The ratio of time you plan to spend hiking or camping has a profound impact on the gear, supplies, and skills that you need. Left: These backpackers pack light so they can hike comfortably all day. Right: These backpackers prioritize in-camp comforts.

The ratio of time you plan to spend hiking or camping has a profound impact on the gear, supplies, and skills that you need. Left: These backpackers pack light so they can hike comfortably all day. Right: These backpackers prioritize in-camp comforts.

Objectives

There are two extreme styles of backpacking:

1. Hike all day, and camp only long enough to recharge for another full day of hiking. This is the endurance athlete’s approach to backpacking, and is best represented by thru-hikers who cover 25, 30, even 35 miles per day for months on end.

2. Hike a little bit (maybe), and spend more time on non-active pastimes like fishing, photography, and campfires. This approach is ideal for those who want a r&r-filled backcountry experience.

Most backpackers aim for a happy-medium of these two approaches, and vary their intentions based on their location, time available, and companions. Whatever your intended mix of activities, know that you will need corresponding gear, supplies, and skills.

For example, when I completed the 6,875-mile Great Western Loop in 7 months (33 miles per day pace), I carried lightweight gear and calorically dense food, and hiked efficiently by always taking care of my feet and avoiding navigational mistakes.

In contrast, when my wife and I hiked the 28-mile Aspen Four Pass Loop for our anniversary weekend, I carried a full-sized tent, her Kindle, and a powerful stove for coffee and a hot wash cloth at night. We moved well, but had more free-time for long breaks and swimming, and could hunker down in our shelter to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.

Warning: If you pursue a backpacking objective with the wrong approach, disaster ensues.

More reading: What inspires you to backpack? The hiking, the camping, or both?

On my first real backpacking trip, a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I did not understand how my objective should shape my other choices. Notice the size of my pack, lower-left -- it made the experience much more difficult than it needed to be.

On my first real backpacking trip, a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I did not understand how my objective should shape my other choices. Notice the size of my pack, lower-left — it made the experience much more difficult than it needed to be.

Do not confuse the hike-all-day style with “ultralight backpacking,” which:

  • Mistakenly defines backpackers by the weight of their packs, not by why they go;
  • Worships gear above all else, even though it’s not the primary factor in one’s success; and,
  • Assumes that lighter is always better, which patently false.

Additional reading:


As conditions change, so too should your gear, supplies, and skills. For example, In the Olympics (left), bring good rain gear and know how to stay comfortable when it's cool and wet. In Big Bend (right), add extra water capacity, and know how to protect your skin from the intense sun.

As conditions change, so too should your gear, supplies, and skills. For example, In the Olympics (left), bring good rain gear and know how to stay comfortable when it’s cool and wet. In Big Bend (right), add extra water capacity, and know how to protect your skin from the intense sun.

Conditions

After determining your trip objectives, you should research the conditions that you will likely encounter, which are a function of the location, time of year, and route. This ensures that you will be properly prepared, but not over- or mis-prepared. The most important conditions include:

  • Climate, e.g. temperatures, precipitation, humidity
  • Daylight
  • Ground cover, e.g. leaf-covered forest, granite slabs, snow
  • Vegetation
  • Sun exposure
  • Water availability
  • Navigational aids, e.g. blazes and signage, visibility, distinct topography
  • Insects and wildlife
  • Natural hazards like river fords and lightning

More reading: Be prepared? Yes, absolutely. But against what?

Resource: Sample: Environmental & Route Condition Assessment


My clothing and equipment for a 10-day outing in Kings Canyon National Park

My clothing and equipment for a 10-day outing in Kings Canyon National Park

Gear

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve some shopatherapy. Let’s buy some gear!

Well, maybe not quite yet. As a frugal person my recommendation is to first identify what you actually need for your objectives and the conditions. You wallet will thank you — willy-nilly experimentation gets expensive.

To help you do this, I recommend a book, written by yours truly.

Resource: The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, via Amazon or my online store

This may seem like a shameless plug, but I’m so confident that it’s a good recommendation that I’ll make a deal: If you don’t feel that it was worth several times its price, I’ll buy it back from you.

The Gear Guide tackles all the major product categories: clothing, footwear, shelters, sleeping bags and pads, stoves, water storage and purification, plus a few more. In each chapter, I discuss and pros and cons of the available options, and state specifically what I use.

Other good reads:

As you settle on specific items, drop them into a gear list to keep organized, estimate your pack weight, and budget for future purchases. For your convenience, I have created a comprehensive gear list template and checklist, and have shared some of my gear lists that can serve as guides for your own.

More reading: A gear list: Its importance & functions

Resources:

Finally, before handing over your credit card, especially for big purchases, you may want to read online reviews. Beware of the source: too many “reviews” are simply a regurgitation of sell sheets, and are not based on legitimate personal experience. Also, be skeptical of sites that are never critical and that pitch every item as the “best” and a “must-have.”

Examples of trustworthy gear reviews:


Four full days of food, less one dinner, plus a bag of extra food that I’ll leave in the car in the event that we finish up later than planned.

Supplies

As a thru-hiker, my supply list included food, water, stove fuel, sunscreen, topographic maps, toilet paper, and even socks — basically, everything that I would “consume” during my trip and need replenished.

Now, my trips are usually less than 10 days, and I carry everything from start to finish. So for simplicity, I account for non-food supplies in the same aforementioned gear list. Food is the only supply that is treated separately.

Footwear and food solicit more divergent opinions than any other categories. What works great for one backpacker will be a complete failure for another. My recommendation: Experiment until you find solutions that are right for you.

More reading:


Skills

The difference between a beginner backpacker and an expert is not their gear or their supplies, which can be bought easily with a credit card.

Instead, it’s what they carry between their ears. An expert backpacker has skills.

Examples of backpacking skills:

Skills cannot be mastered by reading or watching videos, although that helps. Better yet, take a class or a course. The best, though, is to get out there — there is no better teacher than experience.

Classes and courses:


Fitness

A quick review. So far you have learned to:

  • Determine your trip objectives;
  • Assess the environmental and route conditions;
  • Select your gear and supplies, and develop your skills.

This process would get you a long way, but there is one more notable variable in your ability to successfully undertake a trip: your fitness.

I generally consider fitness to be a skill. It can’t be bought — it must be acquired through hard work and dedication. But it’s different than other other skills in at least one regard, so it deserves special treatment.

Our fitness is naturally governed by our DNA, which is why not everyone can be an Olympian. Some itineraries will always be out of reach despite your gear, supplies, and other skills. In contrast, nearly everyone can learn to operate a compass.


Sunset and the St. Vrain Glaciers, as seen from the Continental Divide near the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness

Locations

In most parts of the country, there are backpacking opportunities within easy driving distance. Quality varies, of course.

While local options may not be as inspiring as California’s High Sierra or the Colorado Rockies, they’re actually more important. You can reach them quickly and for minimal expense, and they are a useful training ground for a larger stage. Plus, it’s fun to really know where you live.

The US has an extensive network of long-distance hiking trails. You have probably heard of some, like the Appalachian Trail, but there are dozens more.

Resource: List of long-distance trails in the US

Unfortunately, long-distance trails make for challenging logistics — a point-to-point itinerary requires a car shuttle or hitchhike, which eats up hiking time. Instead, I prefer to find a girthier area of public land where I can do a loop.

Trip planning resources:


Next steps

It’s time for you to get out there.

But if it’s dark, cold, or dreary, maybe you should wait another day or month. In the meantime, peruse my favorite backpacking blogs, websites, and forums for more information.


Disclosure. This website is supported mostly through affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors, at no cost to the reader. This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

5 Responses to Beginner backpackers: Start here || Advice, info, tips & resources

  1. Jay C February 3, 2017 at 3:09 pm #

    I’ve been an off-and-on backpacker and/or car camper my whole life—the only thing that’s been consistent is day hiking (things changed when I was in college and changed again when I got married and again when I had kids and so on, but getting out for a day or an afternoon in the woods/desert is always doable).

    No matter what you do, the book can be a great resource. It was really helpful to me as someone who already had most of the gear and skills I needed to do most of what I wanted to do outside, but was looking to get back to it.

    What the book (and this website and some others) really did was help me clarify for myself the philosophical underpinnings that drive my desire to not just be outside but to do things outside. And that’s what’s helped guide my gear choices as I replace old stuff with new stuff. Not toward specific brands or products (or even necessarily product classes, though some of that). More toward thinking about things that are more in line with *how* I want to enjoy being outside, rather than just buying whatever looks good in the middle-ground price range that I can afford at REI.

    Opening up a world of the outdoors beyond the (seriously awesome, but seriously unattainable) extreme mountaineering/skiing/and so on books and documentaries that the commercial/mass market outdoor industry pushes so hard. Meru is cool, but I’m probably never going there. Section hikes on the Arizona Trail though? Well, that’s in my backyard.

    Even though you’ve been self-critical about your more extreme attitude in mk1 of the book, and you’ve talked about a more open-minded stance in the second edition, I think compared to the outdoor industry at large, you were already out in front a good distance.

    Anyway, just wanted to give the book a plug. It really is at least as good as you think it is.

  2. ArgeyMum July 19, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

    Andrew, this article is superb. My daughter and I are finally ready to tackle our first overnight backpack trip. We live only one mile away from a section of the Pennine Way in the UK, so we will tackle a small bit of that track and know we aren’t far from home. We read this list before we bought our supplies so we were very thankful for the ease of your articles. Thanks again.

  3. Gement October 27, 2017 at 5:32 pm #

    This is all great stuff. I am a million years late, but can you recommend any gear reviewers who are assessing women’s-cut clothing?

    Most recommendations are gender neutral, but when we get into things like puffies, the folks with more curves have a lot fewer options for finding out what fits and holds up.

    • Andrew Skurka October 27, 2017 at 7:57 pm #

      Sorry, can’t help you. I follow quite a few female bloggers, but none are prolific with their reviews.

      • Gement October 30, 2017 at 3:41 pm #

        Thanks for responding anyway! I appreciate how much you connect with individual questions here.

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