For those who have never been backpacking before, it can seem like a steep learning curve. When you start looking for a place to start researching, it can feel overwhelming to learn about backpacking for beginners: there is so much different advice, so what’s right for you?
Below I’ll share a little about my first backpacking experience, some lessons that I learned for backpacking for beginners, and some solid resources to get you started so you don’t have to get lost down the rabbit hole.
My First Backpacking Trip
Growing up, my family was on the road a minimum of seven weeks out of the year, and we slept in a tent for at least 3 of those weeks. But, it wasn’t until I was 18 years old that I set forth on my first backpacking trip.
Given my prior experience, I thought that backpacking wouldn’t be too much different from the car camping I was so familiar with. I knew the gear, I knew how to set up camp in my sleep—but I had never actually planned my own trip before or carried everything on my back into the backcountry. It started to feel overwhelming.
A few months before graduating from high school, I started researching and planning for my first trip where I would be leading three of my friends. It quickly became apparent that there was a LOT more that goes into planning a backpacking trip than a car camping adventure.
- Would distance should we plan to hike each day? What were the abilities of each party member?
- What permits would we need?
- How heavy of a pack could we each manage?
- What backpacking gear would we need?
- Would we have to do an-out-and-back, or somehow get a ride back to our car so we could go further along the trail?
- How should we plan our meals? How much would be enough to eat?
- How should we store our food?
- What time of year should we go?
- What should I do if I was backpacking on my period?
Despite feeling unprepared, I was too excited to let my lack of experience and knowledge deter me, and to this day, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. However inexperienced I was at the time, backpacking opened up a whole new world of outdoor adventure I didn’t know was possible.
I ended up planning a 30-mile, eight-night trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The recommendation had been to do a night or two on a familiar trail and stay close to home, but I we were strong hikers, so I felt like 4-7 miles a day with 2 built-in rest days would be doable for us. To this day I think you should do whatever you think is a good fit for yourself—you know your body and limitations best. So a few weeks after graduation, our group of four drove up north and began our backcountry adventure.
It was not what I expected—it was so much better. That’s not to say there weren’t challenges, which I’ll go into below, but living each day, all day outside was invigorating. I felt more connected to myself and to my friends. I felt a different kind of strength that I believe one can only feel when they’re immersed in nature so completely and fully. I felt more present, something which I seriously lacked at the time, and hadn’t even realized. I was at peace. It was very clear that I needed to get out into the backcountry more.
Since that first trip, I have been on dozens of backpacking trips, and have walked hundreds of miles through the wilderness. Along the way, I made countless mistakes, and think it’s so important to share those experiences for others to learn:
Backpacking for Beginners: Lessons Learned
- You are going to make mistakes and learn for future trips. I still remember we stored all of our food directly in our packs, so we ended up hoisting our entire packs up on the bear poles (not an easy feat!) We quickly learned in subsequent trips to bring a designated food bag that we could easily remove from our packs to store separately. We also brought some of our food in glass jars (that may seem like an obvious no-no to most of you, but I was 18 and clearly not thinking!) You will find what makes sense for you, and make adjustments as necessary. It’s all part of the learning process.
- Borrow as much quality equipment as possible. This isn’t just to save money (which, my goodness, backpacking can get expensive initially!), but also to test gear out and decide what’s a good fit for you. Ask friends, see if your local area has a Facebook Group and someone may be willing to lend you gear, see if there’s a local rental shop, etc.
- Pack more food than you think you’ll need. It’s not like walking around with a daypack—you burn a ton of calories! On top of that, everything you do (going to the bathroom, getting water to cook meals, etc.) requires more walking than you do at home which—you guessed it—burns calories. We were hungry most days that first trip, which was probably the most frustrating part of that first trip.
- Focus on backpacking nutrition when meal planning. Nutrition always matters, but you’ll feel the effects more acutely in the backcountry. Focus on foods that are high in healthy proteins and fats because they burn slower than food this is high in carbohydrates.
- For me, it is totally worth buying backcountry meals. I say this for a few reasons. First, it was significantly lighter to pack dried meals. The second reason is that those meals are jam packed with healthy proteins and fats, like I mentioned above, and that will help your body recover after a day of hiking and exploring.
- While you can overpack for car camping, it’s not advisable when you’re backpacking. Yes, there are certain things you will decide are worth it for you (I always bring a pillow because I value sleep over almost anything while outdoors), but you don’t need different clothes for each day of the trip, you don’t need big bulky gear that you might use once, etc.
- You’re not weak if you don’t carry the most weight. This is one I could share with my 18-year-old self. At the time I was still living in a world where I thought I had to prove my strength physically to be considered outdoorsy, especially when recreating with men. The general guideline is to carry about 20% of your weight, give or take. I was 120lbs and carrying 40 lbs that first trip when I should have been carrying closer to 24 lbs. But I wanted to “pull my weight.” The other hikers I was with were closer to 200lbs, and carrying the same amount of weight. “Pulling my weight” would have been recognizing that I needed to share the load with them. We could have walked with fewer stops and faster, and it would have been kinder on my body.
- Along those lines, It’s helpful to intentionally distribute weight amongst your party. There are a lot of communal items (i.e. a backpacking stove, bear canister, tent, etc.), make sure you plan ahead and only bring one item for your entire group when possible so you can all share the load.
- Be patient when communicating with your companions. As noted previously, backpacking burns a ton of calories, so some party members may be hangry or feel out of their comfort zone. Be mindful of your tone and how you are communicating, so as not to create conflict. Be compassionate to your companions when they aren’t able to always be on their “A” game.
- Backpacking is hard. Physically, emotionally, backpacking can get tough. Some days it rains. Some days you hike more than your body wants to. Some days you don’t get enough sleep. Remind yourself that those days of discomfort are temporary, and that in just a few days you’ll be able to return to creature comforts. This may sound obvious, but sometimes you can get into an internal loop and begin to feel like you can’t do xyz. Focus on reframing those thoughts and putting one step in front of the other.
- Understand medical conditions of your group members. One of my companions that came with me that first trip had diabetes. While he normally manages his insulin without much thought, backpacking really affected his blood sugar levels. There were times where I had to get his pack down from the bear pole in the dead of night to pull out sugar for him. I myself have tons of food allergies and always had my epipen available in case something unexpected happened. So whoever you are traveling with, talk to them about their medical conditions and how to help if needed.
- Stop before you feel too tried. There were times where I felt like I could hike more, but the next day I was glad I hadn't. Like every workout, you don't necessarily feel the affects until later. So anticipate how you're going to feel the next day, not necessarily how you feel right then. If you feel good the next day, you now know you could push yourself a little more the next time.
- Not every backpacking trip will be fun. Unexpected events happen. If you haven’t been backpacking before, and your first trip sucks, I urge you to keep an open mind and try again. It’s possible that backpacking may not be for you, and that’s totally fine, but keep in mind that your first experience may not be indicative of future experiences.
- Just show up. You don’t have to backpack every weekend to be a backpacker. You don’t have to be the most knowledgeable, or the fastest, or the strongest. Just show up and enjoy the time in nature while challenging yourself and be open to learning from your mistakes.
There are so many resources out there, but it can become overwhelming to sift through it all. Instead of reading dozens of different articles, there’s a new membership-based community called Send Femme that was designed “to educate and empower women and gender minorities to confidently pursue and send male dominated sports.”
Aside from connecting with incredible women who are all excited about the outdoors, the three co-founders wrote an incredible manual, called The Send Guide. It’s a beginners guide to get you started on backpacking, trail running, climbing, mountaineering, snow sports, nutrition, and even next steps to get you out there.
I wish something like this had existed when I first started backpacking, it’s seriously a treasure trove of information and guidance! It’s by far the most comprehensive resource I’ve seen out there, and I’ve been doing this for a long time now.
Women Who Explore
If you’re ready to rock-and-roll, but aren’t into the trial-and-error method like I was and would prefer a guided experience, check out Women Who Explore. They have created “a safe space for all voices, all bodies, all skill levels, all journeys,” and lead some seriously cool trips. They have a huge community on Instagram where you can get inspired and pumped for your next adventure.
Backpacking is such a growing experience, whether you’re having a blast or it’s a really challenging day. If you’re physically healthy enough to backpack, I highly recommend giving it a try at least twice 😁
Good luck friends, I hope to see you out there on the trails!
♥ Shannon, Founder and Owner of Alpine Sisters