Backpacking 101: Planning your trip
You've decided you want to go backpacking. Now what?
Well hopefully, you will have taken a day hike before. If not, try some day hikes before leaping into overnights. Get comfortable with your hiking boots, confident in pacing yourself on trail and knowledgeable about the basics of hiking.
Overnight backpacking does require extra gear, extra planning, and extra knowledge and skills. Before you upgrade from day hikes to overnights, talk to friends who backpack. Try to schedule a one-night trip with someone who’s been out before. Take a class, or join a club such as the Mountaineers that leads guided overnight hikes.
If you're ready to plunge in and give backpacking a try this summer, we've put together some excellent planning tips. After you finished reading this article, check out its companion - Backpacking 101: On the Trail and a destination from our Overnight Backpacks piece.
Picking Your Route
When first starting out, it's good to try an overnight or two before heading off into multi-day hikes. Make an overnight of a favorite day hike by camping where you would normally turn around (just make sure you're allowed to camp there!). Not only will this give you a good idea of what to expect on longer hikes, it'll also help get you into backpacking shape.
Research is key when finding your backpacking route. Guidebooks are great resources, as are the WTA's Hiking Guide and Hike Finder. Once you've narrowed down your search, take a look at WTA’s Trip Reports to read what other hikers have encountered on the trail. If there aren't any current trip reports, call ahead to the ranger station to find out whether the trail is open and whether there are downed trees, river crossings or anything else that might make the route too difficult.
Passes and Permits
Getting back from a hike to find a ticket on your windshield is never a good thing. Most guide books, and the Hiking Guide , will tell you whether you need a pass or permit to hike a certain route. You can also take a look at the WTA's page on Recreation Pass Info, or call the ranger station nearest to the trail to find out.
Creating a Trip Plan
If you stick to trails and use common sense while backpacking, you'll probably never have to worry about getting lost or seriously injured. If you do run into trouble, though, creating a trip plan and leaving it with someone you trust can significantly increase the odds of a quick return to safety. (You can find a printable trip plan here.)
Plans should include details about who's hiking, the numbers of any cell phones you'll be carrying, when you plan to leave, where you're going (where you'll be parking, which trailhead will be your starting point, which routes and campsites you plan to use), when you're expecting to return and the license plate and make of the car you'll be using. Keep to the plan, and have this person initiate a search in the unlikely event that you don't return when expected. If you'll be hiking off-trail or are planning hikes along particularly challenging routes, it's also a good idea to drop off your plan with the local Ranger Station. If you plans change, let anyone who was given a copy of the plan know before you hit the trail.
You should plan to take your first backpacking trips on trails to avoid having to use extensive navigation. However, you will still need a topographic map of the trail and surrounding area, plus a compass, just in case. Know how to use them if you get lost.
Topographic maps from Green Trails and Custom Correct Maps are best suited for hikers since they're updated with current trail information. USGS topo maps have more detail, but aren’t updated as frequently. You can also print out maps from a variety of software programs, even on waterproof paper.
What To Bring: Gear
Packing for an overnight trip requires more gear than a day hike. (Print out a gear list to make sure you pack what you need.) When you're first starting out, you may want to rent or borrow gear before making such a significant gear investment. Keep in mind, though, that items like backpacks need to fit you well for maximum comfort, meaning borrowed or rented gear might not be as comfortable as gear that's been fitted to you.
More gear means more weight - a pack loaded with the necessary gear, food and water generally weighs between 30 and 40 pounds for a 2-4 day trip; longer trips require heavier pack loads, but that doesn't mean your pack has to weigh you down. The key is packing what's necessary without creating an impossibly heavy pack. Ultralight gear can help, if your budget allows, but sticking to the basics will allow you to backpack comfortably without spending thousands of dollars on new gear.
If there's one rule for clothes in the backcountry, it's layer, layer, layer. That way you can add or peel off clothing if you feel too cold or too hot. Make sure to avoid cotton: it's a poor insulator when wet, making you feel colder and increasing your risk of hypothermia. Look for synthetic or wool materials instead.
First (base) wicking layer: Tops and bottoms made of wicking material like Polypropylene, Capilene, Thermax, SmartWool or other fabrics help carry moisture away from your body and insulate even if wet.
- Second (middle) insulating layer: Warm insulator, like a fleece, down jacket or wool sweater (or a combination of these).
- Third, weather-proof layer: Windproof and waterproof pants and jackets made of water-shedding, preferable "breathable" material, like GoreTex is essential.
Other clothing to bring includes:
- Hats: Both a sun hat and a warm knit wool or fleece hat for cold nights.
- Gloves: lightweight in summer, insulated in colder months.
- Non-cotton t-shirt and long-sleeve shirts; lightweight pants and shorts, or convertible hiking pants.
- Socks and sock liners: Use hiking-specific socks for better cushioning and breathability; thin liner socks help prevent blisters (critical on long hikes!).
- Boots: Take a look at the article Finding Boots for your Hiking Feet for some tips on what to look for in fit, style, material, etc. And remember, fit is critical, so try on lots of styles! If it's not comfortable in the store, it certainly won't be on the trail.
You'll need a backpack that will provide enough space for all your gear without causing you discomfort. In terms of size, you should choose a bag with a volume between 40 and 70 liters (2400 to 4200 cubic inches) for most 2-4 day trips, and a pack of at least 70 liters (4200 cubic inches) for trips 5-days or longer.
For comfort, style is less important than fit. There are two general styles, internal and external frame, and either one can make a perfect backpacking pack. The key is to make sure that 80 percent of the pack weight is carried by your hips. This is ensured by proper fit, particularly with internal frame packs. Get good advice from an experienced outdoor gear retailer and try on many varieties to find one that feels best.
To find a tent, consider when you'll be camping, where you’ll generally go and how many people will use the tent. For most backpacking, three-season tents work great. They're a snap to set up, are great in most weather, and their parts can be split up between your backpacking buddies to reduce weight. Take a look at this page on How to Buy a Tent for tips on purchasing your first tent.
For extra protection, you can opt to bring a ground tarp. Just make sure the it's two inches shorter than the edges of the tent, since larger ground covers can funnel water to you, leaving both you and your tent soaked.
Sleeping Bag and Pads
Choosing the right sleeping bag and pad can mean the difference between a good night's sleep and a long, uncomfortable night followed by a tired, miserable day.
Sleeping bags are generally rated with a degree, which indicates the lowest temperature at which the sleeping bag will keep you comfortable (e.g. a "20 degree" bag should keep you warm in temps above 20 degrees). When choosing a bag, keep in mind that even in summer, night temperatures can dip below freeing in the mountains. This means it's a good idea to choose a "three-season" bag that's rated between 0 and 15 degrees - it'll keep you warm even when cold and, if it's too warm, you can always unzip it slightly to let in cooler air.
Sleeping pads insulate you from the cold and from any rocks or roots on the ground. Many backpackers like Therm-a-Rests or other “self-inflating” pads, but if you’re looking to save weight or money, an inexpensive closed-cell pad can often fit the bill nicely.
The 10 Essentials and First Aid Kit
On top of the big ticket items, there are a few smaller pieces of gear that you should never enter the backcountry without. You'll find more details here, but for the meantime make sure you always pack these 10 Essentials:
- Map and Compass (See above)
- First Aid Kit (read here for what you'll need)
- Extra Layers and Rain Gear
- Firestarter and matches
- Multi-tool or knife
- Flashlight or headlamp and extra batteries
- Sun screen and sunglasses
- Extra food (see below)
- Water and a way to purify it (see below)
A note on First Aid:
Before heading into the backcountry, make sure that your First Aid kit is well stocked, and check to make sure nothing's out of date. It's also a good idea to take a Wilderness First Aid (or better yet First Responder) course so that you're prepared in case of emergency. Find out more about that here.
Other Misc. Items
- Small plastic trowel (for digging "catholes" where you'll do your business) and toilet paper
- Biodegradable camping soap and toothpaste
- Duct tape (not required, but useful; wrap it around your water bottle for easy packing)
- Plastic bags for trash
- Repair kits for tent, stove, sleeping pad, etc.
What to Bring: Food and Water (and the kitchen!)
It should come as no surprise that water is one of the Ten Essentials. Backpacking can be hard work, and you'll need to keep hydrated, especially on hot days. A good rule of thumb is to drink a liter and carry a liter at all times, that way you can be sure to have extra in case of emergency.
Of course, you can't just drink water straight from the stream. Even the purest looking water can contain pathogens like giardia, which can cause serious illness in the backcountry. Luckily, there are a number of ways to treat water to make it safe for drinking. The simplest and most effective method is simply bringing water to a boil. (No need to wait a certain length of time after it starts boiling- the heating process is enough to kill any pathogens). When you're not at camp, though, you can use chemical water treatments or filters to make water drinkable.
Eating is pretty important when you're burning around 5,000 calories a day, if not more. It's so important, in fact, that we've dedicated an entire section to backcountry cooking, including recipes and meal ideas. One thing to think about when shopping for backcountry foods is weight to calorie ratio. Look for lightweight foods, like dehydrated refried beans or hummus mix, rice, and noodles, that will fill you up and give you energy without loading you down. Avoid cans, bottles or bulky packaging that you'll have to carry out later. If you have the budget for it, pre-packaged dried meals can be a good choice, though certainly not a necessary one, as this article points out.
Breakfast options range from the old standby — instant oatmeal — to more creative ideas, like homemade granola, instant soups, toaster pastries, or even pancakes laden with fresh mountain huckleberries. Hot cocoa or Tang can make waking up on a cold morning that much easier.
Lunch is almost always eaten on the trail and usually consists of dense, calorie-rich foods such as bagels, cheese, nuts, salami, trail mix, dried fruit, powdered hummus, jerky, M&Ms, drink mixes (such as powdered Gatorade) and energy bars. Snack throughout the day to keep energy levels higher and to avoid feeling full.
Dinner is probably the most flexible of the meals. Once you make camp, you have plenty of time to prepare more involved recipes, if you so choose, or you can keep it simple with pre-packaged mac-and-cheese (just make sure to bring dehydrated milk) or dehydrated refried beans with instant rice. If you have a sweet-tooth, you can even opt for backcountry desserts.
Your backcountry kitchen can be as complex or simple as you choose. The most basic kitchen needs little more than a lightweight backpacking stove and fuel, a pot and pot grip, a large metal spoon (for cooking), and bowls, spoons, or even dutch ovens.
Stoves generally break into two categories: white gas and butane/propane. White gas stoves have a metal fuel bottle you refill with camping gasoline, and these generally burn hotter than canister stoves. You usually need to prime the stove, which adds time to the cooking process.
Canister stoves are simpler to light. Fuel is contained in a sealed cylinder that you toss out when empty. Some downsides include more expensive fuel, and more waste. But canister stoves are extremely lightweight and easy to use. Both options are very lightweight and work quite well for most backpacking trips.
To clean cooking equipment, most backpackers just use water. If you're a germ-a-phobe, though, you can pack in a small bottle of bio-degradable soap. Some of these (like Dr. Bronner's All-in-One) can even double as toothpaste.