First Time Backpackers Guide
Guide To Beginners Backpacking
by Kiel Bowman
So, you’ve made the decision to delve a bit deeper than a day hike, and make a trip that has at least one overnight stay in the wilderness. That’s great! This is one of the best ways to experience the greater wonder and beauty of the outdoors, and one that is increasingly being appreciated by a large number of people in America.
However, before you run out to buy the slickest equipment and delve into a go at the Appalachian Trail, it’s important to have a sense of perspective. Backpacking is wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which is that it strips you of your daily comforts and puts you into a situation where you have to rely on yourself and not much else. This isn’t for everyone, but for those who do take up the hobby, it can generally be said that the risks are a part of what makes it all worthwhile. Therein lies the crux: there are risks. If you attempt this pastime without mindful consideration of the risks, it is only a matter of time until it catches up with you.
So, to try and smooth the way towards adopting a pastime that can be appreciated for the rest of your life, we are presenting a guide for those just starting out. This encompasses some basic do’s and don’ts, and a further article on backcountry safety will be forthcoming shortly. While we may repeat information that you can find in other backpacker’s guides, the fact is, some of this information can be found in many places for one reason: not enough people are listening and internalizing this time-tested advice. Don’t let yourself become a statistic!
Clothing is arguably the most important element to a successful backpacking trip. It’s also probably the easiest lesson to follow, as all it requires is for you to buy the proper kinds of clothing, and wear them. We all know how to wear clothes, right? Given that, there’s no excuse for wearing unsuitable clothing on the trail.
The keywords here are wool and synthetics. Period. Do not, in any circumstances, wear cotton-based clothing on a backcountry trip. This especially includes denim. To be quite honest, I myself wore jeans on my first major hike, detailed in the article on this website about a trip to Mt. Whitney. I was woefully unprepared in so many ways, and the denim was one of the things that I could have most easily avoided, if only I had done some research.
Granted, this was back in the old days of 2006, when hiking advice was somewhat less readily available online, but it still wasn’t so hard to find, and I should’ve taken the steps necessary to know what I was getting myself into.
Cotton will ruin your trip if you give it the chance. The main reason for this is its moisture-retention properties. Essentially, it traps moisture, and doesn’t give it up easily. That’s why cotton clothes hung out to dry can take many hours, or even over a day in areas with higher humidity, while woolen clothes will dry in the same conditions much more quickly.
The worst aspect of this entrapped moisture is how it makes your body more susceptible to the cold. Through the properties of convection, body heat is drained away slowly. In the best of cases, this will cause major discomfort, and in the worst of cases, it can cause hypothermia and lead to death. Given that this website is primarily dedicated to backpacking in high elevation terrain, it is worthwhile to consider the extremely low temperatures reached even during the daytime, let alone the night, and the effect this will have on a cotton shell soaked in sweat and other moisture.
In addition, cotton socks are a way to beg for blisters. The same properties that chill your body create unsuitable conditions for your feet working long hours in cramped quarters on tough terrain, and will lead to blisters sooner rather than later.
So how to avoid all this? Simple: don’t wear cotton in the backcountry. There are tons of other suitable options available, but they all boil down to being wool, or synthetic material. Since this article is for first timers in particular, I would urge you to not worry about getting the highest tech clothing for your first trips. Just get some basic wool or synthetic clothing that you feel is comfortable. There will be time enough to buy more advanced gear as you find more and more that you do truly love this hobby.
In addition to the advice on cotton, the other primary piece of advice about clothing is this: don’t wear brand new hiking footwear. This article is written with the assumption that you’ve done some day hikes at least, and that you’re making a rational transition into longer backpacking trips, but that may not be the case for all people. If you’ve just bought new footwear, break it in before it breaks your will to go on while out in the middle of the backcountry.
Unless you want to be the star of the next 127 Hours or Into the Wild cinematic feature, communication is critical, and simple. Before you set out, make sure at least one other person (and preferably a few) know your plans and the area you’ll be in, with a time limit set for returning. The vast majority of backpackers will never have to resort to this information to save their hides, but the fact that it’s so easy to do and the mere possibility that it might make the difference between life and death suggests that you’d have to be willfully ignorant to not follow it. Even on a short backpacking trip of just a couple of days, someone should always know where you are. An eight mile in-hike might seem like a pittance, but with a broken leg, it would be a Herculean task to return on your own strength.
Since cell phones are rarely a viable option in the backcountry, it’s possible to buy devices that will provide you stable communication with the outside world, but these are quite often very expensive, and not highly recommended for a responsible beginner. If you merely limit the goals and aspirations of your first trips and have someone at home waiting for your return, that’s a good base to start from.
If you are in a group on the trail, communication is important in a different way. Everyone needs to communicate clearly about their condition. If anyone is tired, everyone should know and respectfully allow for breaks, even if others are still in tip-top shape. If anyone needs to go off trail for any reason, such as a bathroom break, they should still remain within range of easy communication. Out in the country, all you have is your wits and each other, and this bond should never be broken. Even if there are major personality clashes, safety must always be held tantamount.
3. Don’t Go Overboard
This bit of advice goes in two directions. There is a major tendency in modern Western society to go full throttle, whether it’s a burgeoning guitarist deciding he needs to have the best guitar on the market despite having only played for two months, or a person who has decided to try out bicycling purchasing a touring bike as their first vehicle. This is an extension of our childhood mentalities, and any parent or person who’s been around enough children would recognize their tendency to want the latest and greatest, then quickly lose interest. Usually, this doesn’t hurt anything other than a pocketbook.
On the trail, however, there are many possibly consequences, and there are two different schools of going overboard. The first, most frequently pointed out, is the pack rat. The pack rat thinks that if any piece of equipment might somehow be useful in their trip, it must be included in their gear. If you’re going on a two day trip and you’re carrying 60 lbs. of equipment, you’re probably doing it wrong. Simplicity is the key to a well-appreciated trip, and will save you from increased back strains, and, when properly internalized, will keep your mind clutter free as you have less things to keep track of. It also confers the benefit of making it easier to find the gear that you actually will use. Consider: one backpack has 12 items in it, another has 25. In which backpack will it be easier to find the exact item you need? The answer is clear.
However, simplicity should be well understood. Over the past few years, the trend towards ultralight backpacking has exploded. While ultralight hiking can be a great strategy for experienced backpackers, the truth is that beginners are inadequately trained and prepared for such an attempt. Ultralight backpacking strips one down to the bare necessities and leaves no room for error on the trail. Experienced backpackers can augment this with skills they’ve picked up from their years of trailing, but a beginner will absolutely require room for error, as they haven’t yet learned enough about the necessities of outdoor experiences.
There are a lot of checklists available online for what a beginner should have with them. We even have one called camping and hiking checklist. It should be understood that these are all guidelines, and cannot be perfectly crafted for every individual’s trip. A person backpacking in the Grand Canyon probably doesn’t need shelter from the rain, for instance (at most times of the year). However, they’re a good place to start. Go to your local outdoor activity retailer and actually talk to the staff. Believe it or not, they often have a good idea of what they’re talking about. However, don’t feel pressured to buy the top-end items. Buy a nice starter’s range, and go out and use it.
4. Be Reasonable with Regards to Yourself
Similar to the advice above, it’s important not to go full throttle with your planned adventure. If you’ve only ever hiked five mile trails before, now is not the time to take a shot at the Pacific Crest Trail. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to push the envelope, but when the stakes are as high as they are in an activity like backcountry hiking, you must be responsible. No man is an island, after all, and even if you’re comfortable with taking unreasonable risks for yourself, remember the impact this will have on your friends and family if things go south.
If it’s the Pacific Crest Trail you’re dreaming of tackling, that’s wonderful, but you need to work up to it. Start off with well worn trails during peak times of the year. There is a growing concern about crowding on American trails, but, trust me, it’s not as bad as they make it out to be. If you want to see true crowding, check out recent stories on Mt. Everest’s summit crowding, or for another look at massive overcrowding, check out my article on hiking in Korea. Having others on a trail when you’re a beginner is a boon, not a detriment. It’s one more additional safety net if something goes wrong. Should something bad happen, hikers that you don’t know might be irked to see you having done something irresponsible, but will still almost always abide by the unwritten rules of conduct that require all people to help those in need when possible on the trail.
5. Be Responsible with Regards to Nature
This is another well-worn topic. For decades, nature enthusiasts have been promoting the ethics of Leave No Trace, the philosophical details of which can be found at www.lnt.org. The basic precepts are simple. There is no magical mother sweeping up after you in the backcountry. You want to go there because of its pristine beauty, so you had better try to maintain that selfsame beauty for future generations of outdoors enthusiasts. Sadly, for a concept that’s so easy to understand, there are still a huge number of people who do not abide by these tenets. Don’t be a part of the problem.
Finally, have fun and bring with you a sense of awe. The forces that have shaped this world are an honor to behold, and to not truly appreciate this defeats the purpose of venturing out into it in the first place. Go forth, and have a good time. Then come back and tell us all about it!