Per my experience, you can never be 100% prepared for your first trip. There’s always going to be that one thing you forgot, that one thing you didn’t prepare for, or the one thing you didn’t even know that you would need.
I remember my very first backpacking trip to the Chattooga River Trail. It was a bit of a crazy trip, to say the least. It was three of my close friends and me, all at the age of sixteen. I wasn’t sure what I needed to pack, or how to pack light.
I hiked the 6-mile trail with an overly heavy sleeping bag (for “car camping”) that my parent’s handed down to me from years before, I wore a pair of heavy work boots, a 60L pack that was so full I had to start hanging things off of the back of it, and way more food (and not substantial food), all for a two-day summer trip. I swear for a week my entire body ached in ways that I never knew it could.
This all being said, don’t misunderstand me and think that you have to go out and spend a fortune on gear, especially on your first trip. The best way to get started is to do several day hikes to make sure that you like hiking, get a good feel for how many miles you can do in a day, and most important make sure your footwear performs the way that you need it to. I’ve included several links in the article to give you a good idea of what I use, and what prices are going to be!
After you’ve decided that you’re ready for your first overnight (or multi-night) backpacking trip, that’s when you start deciding what gear you want to invest in.
I hope that this post will help you out in planning trips, being prepared for the unexpected, and not break your back with unneeded weight.
At the end of this post, I’ll also have a link to the basic list of gear I usually take, even if not covered in this post.
Usually, when I’m planning a trip I plan it per meal, that tends to help me out a whole lot when it comes to deciding how much I’m going to need to take.
For instance, If I’m going on a simple weekend trip, I’ll plan breakfast on the drive up and dinner on the drive back, so that’s two meals that I don’t have to pack. That leaves me with two lunches (Sat & Sun), one dinner (Sat), and one breakfast (Sun).
• Nutrients – I know, I know, we all love our candy bars, and that’s fine in moderation on hiking trips, but the big picture is that you need carbs and proteins. Quick snacks such as granola bars with nuts, dried fruits, crackers and tuna, and even jerky provide more nutrients that you’ll need to keep you from being worn out too quickly on the trail.
• Water – ALWAYS, I mean ALWAYS bring more water than you need. If you think you have enough, pack one more bottle. If you’re old enough to be backpacking, you know that you’re not going to make it back out of the woods without water. Make sure to pack some type of filtration system too, just in case you run out. Don’t drink straight out of rivers or streams, no matter how clean the water seems.
• Calories – Don’t try cutting back on your diet during a multi-day hike. Your body will need lots of calories (and water) to avoid fatigue and headaches.
• Taste – Pack what you’re used to eating. If you pack new things and don’t like them, or they don’t agree with your stomach, you’re not going to have a good trip, and hiking out could be miserable if it’s the latter.
• Weight – As you read my story about my first backpacking trip, I didn’t know how important it is to pack light. Make sure you pack food that is as lightweight as possible. Canned food is a no-go unless it’s only a one night trip and you’re prepared to carry the weight of it. Repackaging food also helps with bulk. Use small baggies for things like granola, nuts, and beef jerky. If you pack something in a baggie that you have to prepare, make sure to write the directions on the bag!
• Ease of Preparation –Through my experience, I’ve learned that even if you have the best camp stove on the market, use it as little as possible. If you use cooking dishes, remember you have to wash them, or you risk getting sick. Also make sure that you have food that doesn’t have to be cooked, just in case your camp stove fails.
Stove – I use a Jetboil Cooking System for both cooking and boiling water. It’s very packable, lightweight, and the price is reasonable. It’s self-contained, it includes the pot to cook in, and the stove, lid, and base fit in the pot when you pack it. It can also be used as a bowl or cup to eat out of as it comes with an insulated cover to prevent you from burning your hand.
Water Purification – I use an MSR MiniWorks Filter for purifying water on the trail. Although I highly recommend packing all the water you need, sometimes that’s not an option on trips that last more than a couple of days, especially in the summer when you sweat more. The MSR filter is an excellent choice as it filters 99.9% of bacteria and 99.9% of protozoa in even very contaminated water. You can also clean the filter on the trail.
Utensils – Make sure to pack light when choosing eating utensils, and make sure to pack out any trash that you may produce. Many outdoor brands offer lightweight titanium eating utensils (I use these), but you can take just a standard fork and spoon with no issues if you’re not ready to invest in these things.
As I was saying in the list, sometimes it’s a bit of a pain using a camp stove on the trail, and it should be a last resort, but if you prefer to use one, just remember it’s much easier to use for dinners. If you have to cook your lunch, you’re going to have a lot more downtime off the trail trying to unpack your cooking gear, preparing the food, cleaning dishes, and then repacking. In other words, it’s much easier to pull out a pouch of tuna, crackers, and a granola bar, than to go through the headache of cooking for lunch.
Shelter is a bit of an easy category to figure out, as there aren’t that many options (of shelter, not products). I use two different setups on my trips, almost always depending on the season and what the weather is forecasted to be.
Tent – The best all-around option is (in my opinion) going to be a tent, but the tricky part is finding one that doesn’t weigh too much, as well as the tent not being too large to pack. I know we all like our space, but when you have a long hike ahead of you, remember how much heavier and bigger the four-person tent is than the one-person tent. Weight really matters with this.
Make sure your tent has a good rain fly, especially during rain, or wintertime. In the wintertime, the rain fly not only helps keep you dry but also helps the temperature inside the tent stay a little warmer, as it blocks the wind. I use the REI Quarterdome 3 tent. I wouldn’t recommend it for a single person though, as it’s a bit heavy and large for one person (I typically only take it when I plan to share a tent and split the weight between different people)
Hammock – My personal favorite (at least in the summertime) is a hammock & rainfly setup. This is usually a relatively light set up, and it’s super comfortable. Always make sure that if you decide to go with the hammock option that you have a rainfly and a bug net. Although it may not rain, you’ll still wake up wet from the morning dew. A bug net is definitely important as well, in the summertime in Georgia the gnats and mosquitos are terrible. Although it’s a little bit pricey by the time you get all of the components, I use the ENO Hammock setup, which includes an ENO Hammock, ENO ProFly, ENO Bug Net, and Atlas Straps.
When it comes to sleeping while on a backpacking trip, many, if not all of the luxuries of sleeping at home will be left behind. This doesn’t mean at all that you won’t sleep nice and soundly.
- Sleeping Bag – Be sure to plan accordingly to the weather you plan to camp in. Sleeping bags come with a temperature rating. Be sure to choose a sleeping bag with a temperature rating that you plan to sleep in. If you get one that’s not quite as warm as you need it to be, sleeping bag liners are offered that help lower what the sleeping bag is rated. Another consideration is weight, which we’ve already explained is very important. Many sleeping bags are designed for “car camping.” These bags will be heavier and take up much more space. Make sure when choosing a sleeping bag for backpacking to stick to small and lightweight, all while staying within your temperature rating. Sleeping bags can get quite expensive when you look into lightweight bags, but still at the temperature rating that you need. Check out this Marmot 15-Degree Mummy Bag, it’s not too hard on the wallet, and it’ll definitely keep you warm. It’s a little heavy, but any lighter will go up in price rapidly.
- Liners – Sea To Summit offers a wide variety of sleeping bag liners that can add up to 25 degrees of warmth to a sleeping bag. Another great thing about liners is that they can be used in place of a sleeping bag in the summer when you don’t need as much warmth. Sea-To-Summit Extreme Reactor is an excellent choice if you’re planning a trip in very cold weather, or if you want to use a liner as a sleeping bag in the summer!
- Ground Pad – If you’ve ever been camping or any sort, you’ll understand the importance of a ground pad. Ground pads not only provide comfort from the hard ground, but they also provide extra warmth from the cold ground. I personally prefer a self-inflating ground pad, but they come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. Therm-A-Rest makes an excellent ground pad, and they aren’t too hard on the wallet. Ground pads are also a great option in the bottom of a hammock if you don’t have an underquilt. It will provide a little bit of extra stability and comfort in the hammock, as well as provide extra insulation on cooler nights.
- Pillow – Although I wouldn’t recommend packing a pillow from home due to the weight and size, you can purchase inflatable pillows that are lightweight, packable, and designed for backpacking. If you don’t want to bother with purchasing one, take a lightweight fleece pull-over jacket and fold it up to use as a pillow.
One thing that I’ve noticed in first-time backpackers (including myself) is that they always pack too much, too little, or too heavy of clothing.
Picking clothing for backpacking has a lot of factors that are very obvious but are very important to consider.
What the weather going to be like is the most prominent consideration – How high or low will the temperatures be? Is there a chance of rain on the forecast? Is there snow or other inclement weather on the forecast? Will you have to cross any water at all?
The second consideration is what material the clothes are made of – Are the clothes you’ve chosen going to get wet? What material are the clothes made of that you’ve chosen to hike in?
Last but not least, how heavy are the clothes are that you’ve chosen, and do you have too much or too little?
- Synthetic nylon/polyester or merino wool fabric is your best option. These are very durable, quick drying, and moisture wicking. Try to stay away from cotton unless it’s just for lounging around the campsite.
- Consider how many days your trip is. If it’s a simple weekend trip, take one pair of pants/shorts to hike in and out in. Take another pair for lounging around the campsite in and sleeping in. Sleeping in dirty clothes is never pleasant. Zip-off pants are also a good option for more versatility.
- Underwear is a personal preference. In the summer months I usually only pack shorts that have a built-in brief. This gives you the option of packing less weight, makes the shorts work as a swimsuit, and it keeps you cool in hot weather. If you do choose to bring underwear, make sure that it is made of a breathable material, and are not made of cotton.
- Layers are very important when it comes to staying warm in the winter months. This allows you to shed layers as you get heated while hiking and also to stay warm while around the campsite. Bring “next-to-skin” synthetics or merino wool for a base layer to wear under your main clothing.
- When choosing a jacket (or jackets), make sure that its a lightweight material what still provides insulation. On colder days a fleece pullover is excellent for hiking in, and on warmer nights you can fold it up and use it as a pillow. If the weather is going to be very cold or snowy consider a substantial puffy down jacket.
- If the weather is going to be very windy or wet, make sure you have a soft-shell jacket. These are typically water resistant (not waterproof), block some wind, and usually have a fleece type lining for added warmth. Be sure to still pack a solid rain jacket to keep dry in heavy rain.
- Be sure to bring two hats, one for warmth, and one for UV protection.
- Be sure to bring warm gloves, and a gaiter as well if the temperature is going to be cold.
Footwear can be the making or breaking point of a backpacking trip. Don’t cut corners with expense on hiking boots. When you decide to get your first pair of boots, I highly recommend trying them on in store, don’t order them.
- Be sure hiking boots are lightweight and don’t break them in on the trail. If you haven’t hiked before and you’re planning a trip, make sure to wear your hiking boots for about a week before the trip to ensure they don’t hurt or blister your feet.
- Wear socks that are a wool/synthetic blend material, again this will help wick moisture and it’s quick drying. Take one pair for hiking and one pair for campsite lounging. Once your done hiking for the day, make sure to lay your socks and boots out to dry. Check out Smartwool Socks or Darn Tough Socks. I use both of these on the trail and off, they are very durable and comfortable.
I hope this post has helped in planning your first trip! Sign up for our newsletter at the top of this page to stay updated with the latest gear, news, and tips to get the most out of your backpacking trips!
Check out our backpacking gear checklist for a printable list that you can use to help make sure you have everything you need before you hit the trail! Happy Trails!
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