Backpacking: How do I start?

September 24, 2015

Just you, the freedom of nature, and all your belongings on your back: That’s the magic of backpacking. It’s an idyllic escape from everyday life, and many people look to backpacking as a way of getting physical exercise and harmonizing with the outdoors – but what if you haven’t backpacked before? Sure, you could just find the nearest hiking equipment store, buy some gear and go, but there are a lot of factors that newbie backpackers should think about first.

Let’s take a look at some things you should consider if you’re looking to get a start on your adventures in backpacking:backpacking

Pick an appropriate destination

You wouldn’t set out to climb Mount Everest as your first mountain, and you wouldn’t pick one of America’s most challenging hiking trails as your initial backpacking journey. Take some time to research which hiking and camping areas are in your region, or if there are any moderate-difficulty trails you could make a trip to visit. It’s also worth taking into consideration if there are any landmarks or natural wonders you’d like to see, or if you’ll be bringing anyone else with you (including dogs!). And of course, you’ll want to pick a time of year when the weather is likely to be temperate, and any parks you may be hiking and camping in will be open to the public.

Speaking of camping, when it comes to putting down stakes for the night, it’s wise to decide beforehand just how long you’ll want to stay out in the wilderness. Here’s a great tip from REI on the length of time a beginner backpacker should consider: “A one-night trip makes sense for beginners. Keep the round-trip distance to 10 miles or less. It is reassuring to know that civilization is not too far out of reach.” The article goes on to suggest that if you have two nights, it’s a wise move to set up camp on your first night, then use the next day to hike before coming back to your “base camp” for night 2. This will reduce the amount of stuff you’ll have to carry, since you’ll only have a full tote twice (going there and going back).

Gear and clothes: quality counts

When it comes to sturdy backpacking gear, you don’t have to have the most expensive equipment and clothing of the bunch, but you shouldn’t skimp on quality either.

Also – and this is of utmost importance – don’t choose your maiden hike as the day to break in your nice new pair of hiking boots. You can’t be sure how well your feet will react to potentially rocky terrain (not to mention the fact that they can swell when it’s hot out), and if they start rubbing against a pair of boots that haven’t been broken in, it’s game over. Instead, buy your boots ahead of time and practice wearing them around the house to soften them up a bit. When the time comes to hit the trail, make sure you have good socks for hiking, and pack some bandages to help lessen any pain from potential blisters.

Know your limits

This should go without saying, but it’s best to know the limits that your body can take, and try to stay within them. You don’t need to be super ripped to be a backpacker, but taking time in the weeks beforehand to exercise your lower body and train your back muscles will pay dividends. This master list from The Beginner Backpacker contains some solid guidelines for how newbies should practice with weighted packs, as well as giving tips for which exercise machines to train on.

But if you do happen to overexert yourself on the trail, it’s even more reason to have a good first aid kit in your pack. Though, don’t overdo it – you don’t need a huge kit full of items (plus your backpack space is likely at a premium anyway). Just make sure you have bandages of all sizes, rubbing alcohol, sterile gauze, and ibuprofen.


When you’re starting out as a backpacker, it’s easy to fall in a number of camps: excessively over-prepared, too laid-back in choice of gear, or overly ambitious—to name a few. But if you do some research beforehand to ensure that you’re making well-rounded choices as you plot your route and pack your bag, then you may find that your first backpacking adventure definitely won’t be your last.

What’s your best tip for beginner backpackers? Let us know in the comments!