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Doing an overnight can give you more time to just soak up the views. Photo by Janine Grigg from an overnight on Winchester Mountains

Step It Up: Go Backpacking

The height of the summer is the perfect time to try your first overnight trip | by Lindsay Leffelman

The height of summer is finally upon us. With long days, warm temperatures, sunny skies and a myriad of hiking opportunities, the desire to spend as much time as possible outdoors is strong. For some, this means extending the length of day hikes or creatively rearranging schedules to allow for even more days on the trail. For others, this means it’s time to take the leap and go backpacking.

Spending a night or two under the stars and escaping the hustle and bustle of modern life is an alluring idea to many. Backpacking offers the chance to refresh, recharge, disconnect and decompress. Subsisting with just the gear you’re carrying on your back can leave you feeling strong and empowered. Though backpacking requires more planning than day hiking and is more physically demanding, the benefits are worth the extra effort.

Breaking up a trip into multiple days will make your hike options seem endless. Photo by Lindsay Lewin.

What to expect

Trekking into the wilderness for an overnight excursion can be simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. At the same time that you’re looking forward to the fun of a new experience, you’re also nervous that something will go horribly wrong. When embarking on your first backpacking trip, it is helpful to prepare yourself mentally for the unique challenges that differentiate backpacking from day hiking.

Obviously, the weight of your pack will increase when you’re toting around a tent, sleeping bag and cooking equipment in addition to your usual day hiking gear and Ten Essentials. That extra weight translates to a slower hiking pace and the need for more frequent breaks. At first this can be discouraging, especially when you’ve worked so hard to get yourself in peak hiking shape, yet it is perfectly normal. Just remember that when you’re backpacking, there is no rush to get back to the car at the end of the day. It can help to think of the extended breaks as an added chance to soak in the views or take some photographs.

When embarking on your first backpacking trip, it is helpful to prepare yourself mentally for the unique challenges that differentiate backpacking from day hiking.

While it is highly recommended that you practice using your gear at home before your trip, you should still expect to fumble a bit setting up camp and cooking your first meal in the wild. Putting up your tent on the level grass in your backyard, cooking a freeze-dried meal on your patio table and filtering water in your sink will certainly help you understand the basics of using your gear. However, pitching that same tent on slightly uneven soil peppered with rocks, cooking on a camp stove that is perched on a stump and filtering water from a rushing creek while maintaining your balance on a boulder is a whole different ballgame. With that said, trust in your abilities. You may make some mistakes, but you will ultimately succeed.

Backpacking trips can lead you to locations not easily accessible by day hiking alone. While trips require some backcountry or wilderness permit, some special or popular places, like the Enchantments, require a special permit to limit impact and protect the experience. Photo by Paul Weeks.

Anticipating and accepting these challenges as part of the learning process will ensure that your first backpacking trip won’t be your last. Every time you venture into the outdoors for a campout, you will undoubtedly discover ways to improve your next backpacking adventure.

How to plan

Once you’ve made the decision to hit the trail overnight, the planning begins. Rather than jumping in with both feet, you may want to consider easing yourself into backcountry explorations. If possible, plan a trip with others who have backpacked before. They will be an invaluable resource when it comes to planning and can help with setting up and using your gear. Heading out with more experienced backpackers can also reduce some of your anxiety. Another option is taking a group excursion with organizations such as The Mountaineers or REI Adventures.

Choosing the right trail for your first backpacking trip can make a huge difference with regard to how much you enjoy the experience. Many trails that are typically considered day hikes are great options for first-time backpackers as well. In fact, you’ve probably even noticed campsites along some of your favorite hiking trails. Staying overnight on a trail that you are already familiar with can help you test out your backpacking skills in a more comfortable environment. It can also be reassuring to know that the car is just a few miles away.

A critical part of the planning process is ensuring you have the correct permits. While some public lands offer unrestricted no permits-required camping, others require permits and advance reservations. Additionally, different areas have different land-use regulations. In some areas, campfires are allowed, and in other areas, fires are restricted. Some locations authorize camping only in designated sites, while others permit camping in any suitable space. Before venturing out, consult WTA’s online hiking guide, guidebooks or ranger stations to gather this type of information.

Peaceful mornings in the backcountry are one of the many highlights of backpacking. Photo by Suzi Pratt.

Gearing up

One of the biggest challenges facing first-time backpackers is acquiring the specialized gear that is needed. Even if you already have tents, sleeping bags and cooking gear for car camping, that same gear may not work for backpacking due to its weight and size. While the necessary gear is easily found at a variety of retailers, purchasing everything you will need is a big upfront investment, and many aspiring backpackers are reluctant to make such a big purchase since they don’t yet know if they’ll enjoy the backpacking experience.  

After you take the plunge and go on that first overnight in the backcountry, you will very likely become a lifelong backpacker.

One way to dip your toe into the world of backpacking without investing in a complete set of gear is to borrow from a friend or rent what you need.

This allows you to try out backpacking to see if you like it before committing to the purchase of gear. It also allows you to experiment with different models, styles and types of gear to determine what you would like to buy when the time comes.

After you take the plunge and go on that first overnight in the backcountry, you will very likely become a lifelong backpacker. Few who have experienced sleeping under the most brilliant of stars, waking to the warm glow of a mountain sunrise and relaxing in the most breathtaking wilderness areas are able to resist the lure of backpacking.

Sunrise at Lookout Mountain Lookout by Gabby Kapa
Catching sunrise is one of the joys of staying overnight. Waking up at Lookout Mountain Lookout by Gabby Kapa.
This article originally appeared in the July+Aug 2017 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.