I led an all-female sunrise hike this morning in my city of San Diego. Prior to starting our hike up, I asked the group of girls if any of them had ever been backcountry camping and guess what…only one girl said she had been.
I didn’t realize how uncommon backcountry camping is. I think there are a lot of stereotypes around backpacking, especially as a female. So, I wanted to write a guide for those of you who have been hiking for a while now but want to take it to the next level.
Below is a complete beginners guide to backpacking.
If you are very new to being in the outdoors then I recommend you read my Beginner’s guide to hiking.
WHAT IS BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING?
Backcountry camping is basically combining hiking and camping all into one. Backpacking allows you to venture deep into the mountains and explore places that you cannot usually see within a one day’s hike.
The biggest differences between hiking, camping, and backpacking involve the gear that is used. For hiking you usually only need a day sized backpack and for camping, you can pack as much as you want and weight doesn’t matter.
Want to read about my first backpacking trip? Check it out!
For backpacking, you need a larger backpack and your camping gear needs to be extremely light. Why? Because you will be carrying it all on your back while you hike to reach your campsite destination.
Backcountry camping means that you are fairly far away from civilization and people. Usually, there are no extra facilities that are at a normal campground. Occasionally you may find an “outhouse” that someone has built, but for the most part, you are on your own.
Speaking of being on your own, you may want to know the proper way to poop and pee in the wild when out hiking.
WHY BACKCOUNTRY CAMP VS. JUST HIKE?
This is a common question I get asked a lot of the time. Why would I go backcountry camping vs. just going for a hike or setting up camp at a campground?
There are a few reasons.
Backcountry camping offers for fewer people and less crowds. The further into the mountains/trail you go the slimmer the crowds get. If you want to be in nature with very few other people around then this is a great option for you!
Seeing the stars is another wonderful benefit of going backcountry camping. Camping also offers this opportunity, but being out in the pitch black on a backpacking trip with no light sources from a campground can make for some great stargazing.
I personally like that you get to find new places that the average Joe would not take the time or effort to go see. Going somewhere where most other people don’t go makes me feel alive inside. Plus you can get some pretty epic photos usually in the backcountry.
HOW TO PREPARE
I am going to get you all prepared in the beginner’s guide to backpacking article.
There is a lot to do in order to go on a backcountry camping trip. It requires a lot of preparation. I have laid out how I prepare for a backpacking trip in the five steps below.
STEP 1: PHYSICAL SHAPE
Let’s begin with the basics. For your first backpacking trip, you should choose an easier route. Don’t attempt to go “all-out” on your first go around. I recommend starting with a short weekend overnight route close to home.
You should plan to only be out backpacking for one or two nights on the first go around.
As far as exact exercises go there are a lot of different methods or exercises you can do to get into proper shape, but I recommend that you start training at least six weeks beforehand. You can even begin with simple exercises in your home like the following:
Start by doing wall sits dumbbell step-ups, squats, and planks at home. After this then start practicing running to get your heart rate up, move to long day hikes, and then eventually walk uphill with a weighted backpack.
The most important parts of your body to train are your legs and your heart/lung capacity.
I highly recommend training at least 3x a week if not more in order to prepare. Here is a great resource for how to train for a backpacking trip.
STEP 2: RESEARCH
Wow, there is a lot that goes into the word “research” when it comes to planning a backpacking trip.
If this is truly your first backpacking trip and you don’t want to do it without an experienced person, REI offers backpacking classes and REI adventure lead backpacking trips for beginners.
WHERE ARE YOU GOING?
The first step is to figure out where you want to go. Research what kind of scenery you want to see. Pick something that inspires you and makes you excited to visit.
Next, you need to make sure you choose a place that fits your fitness levels as discussed previously.
Other things to think about. Do you need a permit for the location you chose? What will the weather be like (more discussed on this below). How much shade/sun is there on the trail?
If you are choosing to hike in a National Park then make sure to check out the National Park Service website to find more detailed information.
Outdoor magazines, hiking blogs, and backpacking guidebooks are great resources on helping decide where to go.
WHERE IS IT LEGAL TO CAMP
When I first started learning about camping and backpacking I thought you could just pitch a tent anywhere. Well, unfortunately, you can’t. There are definitely illegal spots to place your tent.
Great resources for finding backpacking routes would be All Trails, The Outbound, and even Facebook groups.
MAP IT OUT
After you make a decision on where you want to visit the next step would be to map it out exactly.
You can map it out with a topographic map, download something offline or bring the Garmin Inreach GPS unit with you.
Do you plan to do and out and back trail or a loop trail?
The out and back mean you go hike out on the same trail that you hike in on. A loop would be a circle. My personal favorite is a loop trail because then you get to see more scenery.
How will you get to the trailhead? Is there a parking lot at the trailhead or do you need to park further away? Do you need a permit for your car for leaving it overnight?
You should plan to figure out the mileage you plan to do per day. Things that need to be taken into account would be elevation gain, the terrain you are hiking on, and how fast or leisurely you like to hike.
Lastly, make sure to do your research prior as to whether or not campfires are allowed where you are if there is a water source nearby, and if bear canisters are needed.
FIND A FRIEND
I recommend that for your first time backpacking you go with a friend or even a small group and preferably with someone who has some experience.
You should also always make sure to tell someone you trust back at home what your exact plans are. Give them your route details and your departure/return date and time. And stick to your plan.
CHECK THE WEATHER
When planning your backcountry camping trip make sure to choose a season that you think is appropriate for you. For example, I don’t do much winter backpacking because I get cold in anything below 60F. I know I am a whimp.
Each season has different requirements for gear. I will not be discussing winter backpacking gear in this article; however, you can refer to Jess Wanderings Ultimate guide to Winter weather camping.
LEARN FIRST AID SKILLS
Believe it or not, this has helped me while out hiking. I was in Patagonia hiking when things took a turn for the worst and thankfully those around me had some first aid skills and were able to help out with the situation.
Wilderness First Aid classes are a great place to start and learn. These courses are offered around the world and will teach you the basics of how to keep yourself and others safe. It will also teach you how to avoid and prevent unsafe situations prior to them occurring.
STEP 3: TIME TO PACK
There is a lot that goes into the packing portion of backpacking. You need to think about every detail, but thankfully I created a full backpacking checklist below that you can easily download!
I have also listed out the items below and some of my favorite products!
If you don’t have a backpacking bag of your own you can borrow one or rent one from REI. However, if you do this you should make sure to try it on first and fill it up with about 30lbs and take it for a day hike.
REI has specialists that will size you for just the right pack.
I personally like my bag to have padded shoulders and hips. It helps with the comfort level. A good backpack for 2-3 nights would be the Osprey Kyte 46L bag.
Another bag that is more lightweight is the Osprey EJA women backpack.
When choosing a sleeping bag you should get one that at least goes down to 10 degrees colder than what you expect the weather to be. It usually can get pretty cold when out in the backcountry.
Other things to take into consideration would be the weight of the bag. Synthetic bags are a good first choice for your first trip.
Nothing beats a great nights sleep. Another key thing here is insulation. The most common pad people choose for backpacking is a self inflating pad or one that can be inflated by mouth.
A good option is the NEMO verata sleeping pad. When choosing a sleeping pad make sure to choose one that is lightweight.
Another option for sleeping is choosing to sleep in a hammock. Personally, I like the privacy and warmth a tent provides though.
When backpacking, most people tend to split up the items being carried and end up sharing a tent to sleep in.
My husband and I personally have used the REI Half Dome 2 tent, but other great recommendations are the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 person tent. This one is lightweight and roomy and is great for backpacking.
**Tip! Always remember to pack a ground fly to help prevent water or moisture from coming up through the bottom of tent. Most tents come with these when purchased.
Here is a great article on how to choose a backpacking tent.
I personally just use my jacket all folded up or I bring a pillowcase and stuff my clothes in it and use it for a pillow. However, my husband uses a inflatable pillow. Here are some recommended ones below.
STOVE & KITCHEN
You are going to want to make sure you have a good stove for cooking with. I personally have used the jetboil and also the pocketrocket. The jetboil is greater for making boiling water in less than 2 minutes.
The pocketrocket requires you to bring propane and your own cookware set. Honestly, both are great options.
Don’t forget to pack utensils as well! I love my long handle spoon or spork because you can dig right into your freeze dried meal bags without getting your knuckles all dirty.
Also, I bring a sponge and some eco-friendly soap to clean my supplies with when I am done.
Planning out your meals is essential to backpacking. Long days of hiking require you to re-fuel. I personally love packing dehydrated food because it is lightweight, they are so easy to use and they are delicious.
Snacks are also key to bring!
Here are a few of my favorite meals I have personally tried and love.
If you are in bear country then you are required to bring a bear canister. I personally have this one. It also makes for a great little seat.
I usually bring a water bottle and my camelback filled with water along with a water purification filter system. Two options are iodine tablets and then an actual filtration system like this one. I use the filtration system because it seems to make the water taste better, but it is heavier than just tablets.
Again, the weight of things begin to add up, so the more clothes you bring the more your bag will weigh. Only bring the necessities.
Your clothing wear will vary slightly based on the season. I have not done much winter backpacking, so for the purposes of this article I will discuss “non-snow” weather articles of clothing.
This is how you would properly layer for warmth.
Heavy down layer
Let’s start with a base layer. A good base layer top is the Patagonia Capilene Aire crew top and a good base layer bottom is the Icebreaker Body Fit 175 Everyday legging.
When I hike, I usually just wear my lululemons to be honest, but in the past I have worn convertible pants similar to the Halle convertible pant. I have heard the Beyond Yoga Spacedye high waist capris are comfortable too as well as the Arc’teryx Gamma LT softshell pant.
You can either hike in a tank top, short sleeve or long sleeve. I usually never wear a tank top when backpacking due to the straps of the bag rubbing.
My favorite hiking shirt is the Patagonia Capilene cool lightweight short sleeve shirt, but I have heard the Icebreaker tech lite SS low crew shirt is comfortable too.
I usually bring two pairs of shoes: my hiking boots and sandals/camp shoes.
For hiking boots, I personally like to wear something with some ankle support. I recommend either the Keen Terradora boots because they are very lightweight and supportive or the Salmon X Ultra Mid 3 Gtx Hiking boot. This one is also waterproof and is not heavy.
For my camp shoe, I bring something that can be used in the water as well. For this reason, my campsite shoe has straps over the top of my feet and on the back of my heel. I personally just own a cheap pair from Kohls currently, but I have owned KEEN ones before as well as Choco’s.
Here is a breakdown of extra things I recommend you bring on your backpacking trip:
Headlamp: Great for at night and finding things in the tent
Bug repellant or a mosquito hat: Bugs are addicted to me so I always bring this
Eco-Friendly sunscreen: I have a whole guide on Eco-friendly outdoor items.
Toiletry kit: Whatever you need for toiletries, just keep it light. You really don’t use that much when out camping.
Navigation system: Whether that be a map or compass if you can read one ore the Gaia app
Emergency device: The Garmin Inreach is the most popular
Accessories: Hat, sunglasses, and chapstick
Safety Items: a pocket knife, whistle, First Aid kit
STEP 3: HOW TO PACK YOUR BAG
You may be asking why I added this section into the article? I know I had no idea there was a specific way to pack my bag when I first started backpacking, but there is!
Packing your bag the correct way WILL make a huge difference.
Where you place certain items will affect how comfortable your hike is.
So, let’s talk about the proper way to pack a bag.
If you don’t remember the details of packing then just remember this: it is best to have the heaviest items closest to the center of your back and then pack the lighter things around them.
Another key thing to note is to make sure you leave a few items easily accessible while hiking like: snacks, sunscreen, and chapstick.
REI has a great article and video on how to properly pack.
Snacks, map, maybe a light rain jacket and lightweight items
SIDES AND TOP OF INSIDE
Clothing and compressible items like your tent
CENTER OF BAG
Heavyweight items, water, cookware
BOTTOM OF BAG
Sandals, sleeping pad, carabineers, Koola cloth, GPS device
Chapstick, sunscreen, phone, bug repellant, sunglasses
STEP 4: COMMON QUESTIONS?
-How much water will I need? This depends on if there are water sources along the way. If so, then I recommend you bring a water filtration system. To be honest I don’t really recommend going somewhere without water resources.
Water is heavy to carry and you don’t want to risk running out.
-How do I stay safe from bears? Always carry bear spray in Grizzly country. Know how to spot the difference between a grizzly bear and a black bear. Store your food in a bear canister and leave it away from your tent.
Here is a complete bear safety guide.
-Can I cook in my tent? No definitely do not cook in your tent. Don’t do this for multiple reasons. It is unsafe to be in an enclosed area with the possibility of something catching on fire.
If you are in bear country you should be cooking your food at least 100 yards from your tent.
STEP 5: COMMON MISTAKES TO AVOID
There are a few things that I have learned over the course of my backpacking trips that I should avoid. I want to share that knowledge with you!
-The first few times you go backpacking you will probably either overpack or under pack. Hopefully, this guide can help avoid that and it may take a few tries to get it right for yourself, but I want you to be aware that these are a common mistake with backpacking.
-Never ignore the weather. I have done this before and it has turned into a really sketchy and unsafe situation. No matter how bad you may want to go on your trip, if the weather is taking a turn for the worst then DO NOT GO.
-As a beginner, you may overestimate how many miles you can do per day. I know I did this. I figured it would take the same amount of time walking up a hill as it did to backpack it and I was very wrong. Don’t forget you have a lot of weight on your back and hiking takes more time.
-Another common mistake is forgetting to break your hiking boots in. Never wear a brand new pair of boots for the first time on your backpacking trip. Begin by wearing them around the house and then take them on some short day trip hikes to break them in. Trust me- your feet will thank you.
FINAL THOUGHTS FROM YOUR OUTDOOR LOVING SAN DIEGO GIRL
Remember that is always important to Leave No Trace when you are out backpacking. Let’s preserve this earth and protect it for as long as possible by not harming it. I hope this guide has helped you and inspired you to take your first backpacking trip.
Don’t let this guide overwhelm you let it encourage you and guide you! As always, feel free to comment below with your questions or send me a DM on Instagram!
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