Backpacking can seem like an intimidating leap into a realm with many unknowns and risks. These days I spend much of each summer backpacking, but I still remember contemplating if backpacking was something that was feasible for me. Was I capable of carrying a heavy load on my back for miles at a time? Were the day hikes I was doing sufficient enough to prepare myself for what I’d endure while backpacking?

In retrospect, taking the plunge into backpacking was one of the best decisions I ever made because it led me to my passion and built upon the love I already had for the outdoors. Besides, day hiking and backpacking aren’t actually all that different from each other. When you think about it, backpacking is essentially just an extended day hike that results in adding camping into the mix.

I’m here to break down the reservations people may have about backpacking and to assure you that if you’re a day hiker, there’s no doubt that you can become a backpacker in a few easy steps.

4 Tips to Get Started Backpacking

how to acquire backpacking gear

1. Acquire Your Gear

This part of backpacking can be equally fun and frustrating. How are you supposed to know what to bring, especially when everything has to fit in a single backpack? A good place to start is with what’s called “The Ten Essentials”, which are ten items you should always bring into the wilderness to keep yourself safe and prepared. These essentials are as follows:

  1. Navigation – map, compass, GPS
  2. Sun Protection – sunscreen, sunglasses, hat
  3. Insulation – jacket, gloves
  4. Illumination – headlamp, lantern, flashlight
  5. First Aid Supplies – first aid kit
  6. Fire – lighter, matches
  7. Repair Kit and Tools – knife, duct tape, scissors
  8. Nutrition – food, salty snacks
  9. Hydration – water, water treatment supplies
  10. Emergency Shelter – tent, space blanket, tarp
sleep system for backpacking

Trust me, your body will thank you for a good night’s sleep after a long day of hiking with a heavy load on your back. This is why acquiring the right sleep system for your needs is important. A typical sleep system consists of a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and a pillow. The main factors to consider when acquiring these are weight, temperature, packability, and comfort.  One of my favorite pieces of gear that hits the sweet spot for all of these factors is the Therm-a-Rest Hyperion 20-degree sleeping bag. I’ve spent years of relentlessly searching for the perfect sleeping bag for backpacking trips and the Hyperion has the warmth and comfort I need while also packing down small enough to leave ample room in my pack and light enough so that I barely know it’s there.

Aside from sleeping, other gear items you should consider when building your kit are a cooking system, toiletries, and “luxury” items. A luxury item is anything that is not crucial to your survival but beneficial to you, like books or a fishing rod.

Accumulating the right gear can be a lengthy process that sometimes ceases to end, as it can take time to learn what works best for you. But remember, the most effective way to figure that out is simply by trial and error. So get out there and put your gear to the test!

If you are looking for ways to lighten up the ten essentials, check out another post on the subject.

relaxing on a summit taking in the views

2. Let Go of Your Fears

Many people consider backpacking a risky endeavor based on the idea that the unexpected could be lurking around any corner. It’s true, the unknown is inherently frightening. But confronting is a big part of the ultimate satisfaction of backpacking.  So if you’re a worst-case scenario thinker (like me), don’t fret because there are a number of ways to mitigate unintended events and prevent mishaps from occurring in the backcountry.

Common fears associated with backpacking include getting injured, getting lost, or encountering wildlife. Bring a properly stocked first aid kit (one of those Ten Essentials) and become familiar with what’s inside before hitting the trail. You can also bring along a first aid guidebook or build your confidence by taking a wilderness first aid course.

For those of you who might be a bit more navigationally challenged and worried about losing your way, the best piece of advice I can give (in addition to bringing along a GPS or map – another Ten Essential) is to do your research beforehand. This research should entail not only getting familiar with the correct route and landmarks for the area you plan to hike but also reading recent reports about the trail conditions. Usually, these reports will offer valuable information and notify you of any hazards on the trail or if additional gear is recommended.

Since going into the wilderness usually means entering into an animal’s territory, wildlife encounters are a very real possibility. Before you start channeling your inner flight response, try learning about the wildlife species in the area and inform yourself on what to do if you encounter one. Rest assured, you’ll find that animals are more scared of you than you are of them most of the time. If you’re still not convinced, you can take extra precautions and pack sprays, whistles, or horns designed to deter specific kinds of wildlife.

3. Educate Yourself

It’s important to know that the information you bring on a backpacking trip can be just as vital to a wilderness experience as the collection of gear you carry on your back. We all have a responsibility to understand the impact we have when we step foot into a wilderness area. Leave No Trace principles should be practiced throughout a trip. These are seven principles established by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics that provide guidance on minimizing our impact when spending time outdoors. They are especially important for backpacking, as extended time spent in the backcountry can have a negative impact on the surrounding environment. The seven principles are:

  • 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

In addition to Leave No Trace, you should also become familiar with the specific set of rules and regulations for the forest, park, or wilderness area in which you’re backpacking. Often, these regulations will be listed on your permit, which you can use for reference during your trip. The big one to pay attention to is food storage. If you’re in bear country or if those pesky marmots are around, you’ll want to store your food properly to protect yourself, your food, and the local wildlife.

Aside from the official rules, hiking etiquette is an informal set of guidelines to take with you on the trail. Most of these are fairly common sense practices, like saying hi to passing hikers and taking snack breaks away from the trail. Those etiquette tips that might not be as obvious include yielding to uphill traffic while hiking and not pitching your tent near others to preserve both theirs and your intimate experience.

4. Have Fun & Reap the Benefits

Backpacking once is like trying to eat a single potato chip. Why? Because an enjoyable and profound wilderness experience removed from the hustle and bustle of city life makes it easy to get hooked. With your only obligations consisting of hiking and simple tasks like setting up camp and cooking food, it’s impossible not to live in the moment, connect to your surroundings, and focus on the bigger picture themes in life.

Backpacking is also a great way to strengthen personal relationships, as conversations are usually more impactful when distractions are eliminated and teamwork is built on the problem-solving circumstances that are bound to occur. And yes, while it’s a bit more involved than day hiking, backpacking gives you an undeniable sense of accomplishment. Carrying everything you need to survive on your back while also exerting energy is no easy feat, but I can guarantee it is a worthwhile one that will give you all the confidence in the world.

If all of this still seems overwhelming, remember that you don’t have to dive straight into a week-long backpacking excursion. In fact, a quick overnight trip can be just as satisfying and allow you to gradually get comfortable with the process before really immersing yourself in a longer and more intense adventure. In any case, backpacking is an experience that belongs to YOU. Go at your own pace, travel as far as you’re comfortable with, break when you feel like it, and create your own memories. It’s all out there waiting for you, so don’t be afraid to reach for it.

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Updated. Originally published in 2019.