The number one tip we could give for planning a backpacking trip is to take your time and research EVERYTHING. Pick the right trail, buy the best gear, pack everything you need, and get in shape before you go. Read on to learn more in depth strategies for planning a memorable and safe backpacking trip.
In the grand kaleidoscope of life, few experiences offer the raw connection with the natural world, the sense of adventure, and the soul-stirring solace that backpacking does. It unites the thrill of exploring uncharted territories with the satisfaction of self-reliance, often leading to life-changing revelations and a deep appreciation for our planet’s breathtaking beauty.
Embarking on a backpacking adventure is an exciting and rewarding experience. However, it also requires careful planning and preparation to ensure your trip is safe, enjoyable, and memorable.
We hope this article serves as your comprehensive guide, brimming with practical advice, proven strategies, and insider secrets to help you navigate the wilderness like a pro, stay safe in unpredictable conditions, and curate an unforgettable adventure that’s worth more than a thousand photographs.
1. Research and Planning
Choose the Right Trail
One of the most crucial backpacking tips is selecting the appropriate trail for your skill level and interests. Research different trails and consider factors such as distance, elevation gain, terrain, and seasonal conditions. Make sure to choose a trail that matches your fitness level and experience to avoid any unpleasant surprises or difficulties during your hike.
Before setting off on your backpacking adventure, gather as much information as possible about the trail, its conditions, and any potential hazards. Consult guidebooks, online forums, and local authorities for up-to-date information on trail conditions, closures, and recent break-ins at trailhead parking lots. Additionally, take note of nearby emergency contact numbers and facilities, such as ranger stations and hospitals.
Create an Itinerary
Develop a detailed itinerary, including your planned route, daily mileage, and potential campsites. Share this plan with someone trustworthy who will not be joining you on the trip. This ensures that someone knows your whereabouts and they can take appropriate action if you don’t return as scheduled.
Tell Your Bank Where You’re Going
If you’re going backpacking overseas or in a different state, make sure to tell your bank where you are going. They will suspend your account immediately for any suspicious transactions and try to contact you to see if it’s legitimate – but you may be hard to get a hold of depending on where you are.
Set a Rough Budget – Plus Some
Speaking of money, save money and plan out a detailed budget of what you expect to spend, and be prepared to blow it out of the water. Give yourself extra money to work with, but know that life-changing experiences cost money. Being prepared can help you embrace spending your hard-earned money instead of feeling guilty for doing so.
Take it Easy the First Time
If you’re new to backpacking, choose something well-within your abilities. Pick a trail that’s close to home so you can bail out if needed, only go a few miles roundtrip, and pick something well-traveled that offers ideal conditions.
Our first backpacking trip was only 10 minutes from our house and about 6 miles roundtrip. We had a great first night and realized we were missing some key pieces of gear that would have been detrimental if we were out for a multi-day trek.
2. Gear Selection and Packing
Choose the Right Gear
Investing in high-quality, lightweight gear is essential for a comfortable and enjoyable backpacking experience. Prioritize items that serve multiple purposes to save weight and space in your pack. For example, a bandana can be used as a headband, neck gaiter, or pot holder.
Your ‘big three’ (backpack, tent, and sleep system with sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and pillow) are the three heaviest pieces of backpacking gear you’ll carry, and these will be the most expensive items you purchase. Spending more will keep them lightweight so resist the urge to cut corners.
Packing efficiently is one of the best backpacking tips for a comfortable trip, but it’s hard to find the right balance between packing too much and packing too little. Follow some ultralight backpacking tips to get you started.
Distribute gear weight evenly and pack heavy items close to your back for better balance. Use compression sacks and packing cubes to organize your gear and make the most of the available space in your backpack.
Plan on re-wearing your clothing, but not your underwear. I usually get two full days out of my quick-dry shirt, hiking pants, and socks, but put on fresh underwear every day. Once you get more used to backpacking, you may increase the duration which you wear each article of clothing.
Test Your Gear
Before embarking on your adventure, test your gear to ensure it is in good working order and that you are familiar with its operation. This will help avoid any unexpected issues or difficulties on the trail.
This can be as simple as setting it up in your front yard or driveway. Even if you did remember everything, at the very least it gives you an idea of how to set things up.
Make Sure to Bring Medication
Bring all prescription medication, plus some extra just in case. You should also bring some other medications in your First Aid kit, like Ibuprofen and Benadryl so you can treat minor aches and bug bites.
Don’t Forget Entertainment
My luxury item when backpacking is my Kindle – it’s lightweight and offers an endless supply of books as long as I pre-download them. I understand the weight may not be worth it for everyone, but consider bringing something for entertainment, even if it’s just some headphones so you can listen to podcasts on your phones. Just make sure your headphones are wired so you don’t have to worry about recharging them.
3. Health and Safety
Stay Hydrated with Drink Clean Water
Staying hydrated is crucial for maintaining your energy levels and preventing altitude sickness. Carry a reliable water filtration system for filtering water in the backcountry and know the locations of water sources along your route. Plan to drink at least 2-3 liters of water per day, and adjust your intake depending on weather conditions and your level of exertion.
When planning out your water sources, make sure they’re going to be flowing or active for the time of year you will be there. While we were backpacking the Four Pass Loop, we found that one of our last water sources was actually dry, forcing us to back track to get more water.
Know the Signs of Altitude Sickness
If your backpacking trip involves significant elevation gain, be aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness. Symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath. To prevent altitude sickness, ascend gradually, stay hydrated, and take time to acclimatize before attempting higher elevations.
Practice Leave No Trace Principles
Preserve the environment and minimize your impact on the trail by following Leave No Trace principles. These include packing out all waste, backcountry camping in designated areas, and respecting wildlife and other hikers.
For solid waste, make sure you’re aware of local regulations for how to handle it. Popular trails (like the Appalachian Trail) have toilets at almost every shelter, which are every 5-15 miles along the way. Some trails let you bury your waste but not your toilet paper, while others let you bury both. Some places even make you pack out your solid waste in WAG bags, so make sure you plan for that accordingly.
Plans your Meals & Snacks
For our first multi-day backpacking trip, I thoroughly researched ideal backpacking food and made an in-depth list of each day’s calories and food. I then put each day’s food in a gallon baggie and labeled each one with what was inside and how many calories each product had.
This is easily the best video on YouTube for understanding how to pack food for a backpacking trip.
The number one suggestion I have for this is to only pack stuff you know you like. It’s awful to finally sit down to eat dinner only to release the dehydrated meal you just made is disgusting. Try them out beforehand by cooking them at home for lunch or while day hiking.
Take Care of Your Feet
Your feet are your best friends when you’re hiking, and you must take care of them accordingly. This means breaking in your hiking boots before you go, or even re-waterproofing them if it’s been a while. Pair your boots or shoes with hiking socks and sock liners for ultimate blister prevention. If you hike in hot weather consider a pair of summer hiking socks, or if you’re frequently exposed to wet conditions check out neoprene socks or waterproof socks.
If you have a hot spot, immediately address the issue. Taking care of these spots will help prevent them from turning into blisters, which are one of the most annoying things that could happen while backpacking.
On my first multi-day trip, I got an awful ingrown toe nail that got infected. Looking back at it now, I think it was caused by having moist feet since my boots were GORE-TEX – they just held in that moisture. Now I only hike in breathable hiking shoes and air out my feet more regularly.
Check in Regularly
As mentioned earlier, you should always have a person who is aware of your location and planned route, as well as your estimated arrival time. They should know who to contact if you aren’t back by your designated time. You should regularly check in with this person, even if it’s every other day or every few days when you get a spot of cell service. We have a GPS texting device, so we check in every other day to let our point-person know all is good.
4. Navigation Skills
Carry a Map and Compass
Even in the age of GPS devices and smartphone apps, carrying a physical map and compass is essential for navigating the trail safely. Familiarize yourself with basic map-reading and compass skills before setting off on your adventure.
Most people won’t heed this advice and don’t even know how to read a physical map or use a compass. If it’s important to you, consider taking a class to learn this skill. If you prefer digital maps, make sure they’re pre-downloaded and that you have a way to charge the device they’re stored on.
Stay on Marked Trails
Staying on marked trails is both a safety precaution and an act of environmental stewardship. Straying from the designated paths can lead you into dangerous, unstable, or environmentally sensitive areas. Furthermore, it can increase your chances of getting lost.
By respecting trail boundaries, you’re helping to preserve the wilderness for future generations, preventing erosion and unnecessary harm to plant and animal habitats. Remember, part of a memorable backpacking adventure is ensuring our natural treasures remain pristine and accessible for years to come.
Know How to React in Case of a Wrong Turn
Taking a wrong turn is not uncommon when you’re exploring the wilderness, but how you react can make a significant difference. First and foremost, don’t panic. Check your map and GPS if you have one to attempt to ascertain your location.
If you still find yourself disoriented, the best course of action is often to backtrack to your last known position. Avoid venturing further into the unknown, which may worsen your situation.
Keep in mind that a well-prepared backpacker always carries necessary navigational tools and familiarizes themselves with the route as much as possible before embarking on the trail – this will help prevent this situation from happening.
5. Campsite Selection and Setup
Choose a Suitable Campsite
Select a campsite that is flat, well-drained, and at least 200 feet away from water sources to minimize your impact on the environment and wildlife. Some regions may require that you camp in designated spots only, or spots that have already been worn down and have a campfire ring. Some places may not let you wild camp at all, while others encourage it. Get acquainted with these regulations for the entire length of your route.
Practice Proper Food Storage
Store food and scented items in a bear-resistant canister and cache it away from camp. Some places may allow you to use a Ursack instead, but we always prefer the canister. Always cook food away from camp, and don’t sleep with anything that could potentially smell (like sunscreen or Chapstick).
Leave Your Campsite Clean
Before departing, inspect your campsite for trash and other items, and leave it as clean or cleaner than you found it. Ensure you pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter. Respect public lands and the natural environment by leaving your campsite cleaner than you found it.
This simple act goes a long way in preserving the pristine beauty of the outdoors and ensures that fellow backpackers and future generations can enjoy the same mesmerizing landscapes that you did.
6. Weather Preparedness
Check the Weather Forecast
Before heading out on your backpacking trip, check the weather forecast and plan accordingly. Be prepared for sudden changes in weather conditions, particularly at higher elevations. If you’re thru-hiking where you may not have the luxury of getting off trail for adverse weather, make sure you have the proper gear to handle whatever Mother Nature may throw at you.
Dress in Layers
When you’re deep into your backpacking expedition, the weather can be as unpredictable as the trail. Dressing in layers allows you to easily regulate your body temperature as conditions change throughout the day.
Begin with a moisture-wicking base layer to keep sweat off your skin, followed by an insulating middle layer to retain heat, and top off with a waterproof and windproof outer layer (like a rain jacket or poncho) to protect against the elements.
This approach ensures you’re prepared for all weather contingencies, helping you stay comfortable, safe, and focused on the adventure ahead.
7. Trail Etiquette
Yield to Other Trail Users
Courtesy and respect towards other trail users are fundamental aspects of backpacking etiquette. Remember the rule of thumb—those going uphill have the right of way. Similarly, hikers should yield to equestrians due to horses’ unpredictability.
If you encounter mountain bikers, communication is key; usually, bikers yield to hikers, but sometimes it’s easier for hikers to step off the trail briefly. Being respectful and considerate enhances the trail experience for everyone.
Respect the Peace and Quiet
Respecting the serenity of nature not only contributes to your experience but is also an important aspect of outdoor ethics. The tranquility of the wilderness provides a rare chance to escape the urban cacophony and tune into the orchestra of nature, so avoid playing loud music or engaging in other disruptive behavior.
Additionally, maintaining peace ensures minimal disruption to wildlife. This principle goes beyond simply keeping your voice down or minimizing noise pollution; it encompasses a broader mindfulness towards the environment and other trail users who are also seeking solace in the same spaces.
8. Emergency Preparedness
Carry a Basic First Aid Kit
A well-stocked first aid kit is an essential item for any backpacking trip. Include items such as adhesive bandages, gauze, tweezers, pain relievers, and any personal medications. You could also include anything that you require personally – for example, I always carry a knee brace for when it starts to bother me.
Know Basic First Aid Skills
Familiarize yourself with basic first aid techniques, such as treating blisters, cuts, and sprains. Consider taking a wilderness first aid course for more in-depth knowledge and skills.
We took a NOLS Wilderness First Aid course several years ago, and we still talk about all the stuff we learned. It may seem expensive at first, but you can’t put a price on being knowledgeable about safety. At the very minimum, take a CPR class – they’re readily available through the Red Cross.
Carry a Communication Device
In the vast and unpredictable wilderness, a communication device can be your lifeline. While the joy of backpacking often lies in unplugging from our digital-dominated lives, the safety benefits of carrying a phone, satellite phone, or a personal locator beacon are hard to overstate.
These devices can help you navigate unfamiliar terrains, provide crucial weather updates, or call for emergency assistance if needed. Remember, a backpacking adventure can quickly turn sour without a reliable way to communicate with the outside world or send an SOS signal in case of danger.
9. Wildlife Awareness
Maintain a Safe Distance from Wildlife
Encountering wildlife is an unavoidable part of the backpacking experience, but it’s crucial to remember that we are visitors in their natural habitat. It’s imperative to maintain a safe distance from animals for your safety and theirs.
Approaching too closely can stress wildlife and may provoke defensive behavior. Keep a respectful distance and use binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens to get a closer look without causing disruption. Remember, our goal is to enjoy nature’s splendor without interfering in it.
Know How to Respond to Wildlife Encounters
Different animals require different responses, so it’s essential to educate yourself before setting off on your backpacking adventure. Understanding how to respond correctly can make a significant difference in ensuring your safety and the animal’s well-being. Taking the time to learn about the wildlife you may encounter is a key part of preparation for any backpacking trip.
10. Enjoy the Experience
Take Time to Appreciate the Scenery
Backpacking is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. Take the time to truly appreciate the unique beauty of your surroundings. Breathe in the fresh air, marvel at the stunning vistas, listen to the sounds of nature, and enjoy the simple pleasure of being outdoors. These moments of pause and appreciation not only foster a deeper connection with nature but also create lasting memories that define your adventure.
Make New Friends
While backpacking often provides a chance for solitude and self-reflection, it also offers unique opportunities for camaraderie. Interacting with fellow backpackers can enrich your adventure with shared stories, tips, and even companionship for parts of your journey. It’s a chance to form bonds that transcend cultural, geographical, and generational divides, shaped by the shared love for adventure and nature.
So don’t hesitate to strike up a friendly conversation at the trailhead, campsite, or during rest breaks—you never know what you might learn or who you might meet.
Photos are the best souvenirs, especially when you can’t sacrifice the extra weight to carry much more. Take lots of pictures, even if you feel goofy taking selfie after selfie. One day, you’ll look back on all those photos and be glad you did.
That being said, don’t let your search for the perfect photo interfere with your experience. Be present, and take photos when it feels right.
Be open to new experiences, meeting new people, and doing things outside your comfort zone. Have a flexible schedule – that way if you run into something you want to do, you always have the ability to say ‘yes’.
As we reach the end of our journey through each essential backpacking tip above, it’s important to remember that each adventure provides an opportunity to learn, grow, and deepen our connection with nature.
By prioritizing safety, respecting wildlife, observing trail etiquette, and leaving no trace, you not only ensure your well-being but also contribute to the preservation of these treasured landscapes.
Always remember, the essence of backpacking lies in balancing our thrill for exploration with the mindful respect for the natural world.
So, lace up your boots, shoulder your pack, and step confidently into your next adventure, equipped with knowledge and a renewed sense of responsibility.