Backpacking for beginners

Backpacking for Beginners

Before I met Mike, I was just a mere day hiker.  I started hiking late in life, I suppose, though much of my childhood was spent playing in the woods and exploring. As I became a bigger fan of hiking, I started striking out and doing longer and more challenging day hikes in new areas.

My first “big” day hike was at the Grand Canyon. I hiked the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and then hiked back up the the rim via the Bright Angel Trail. 17 miles and roughly 9,000ft of elevation change in a day. Originally, I had thought it wise to spend the night at the bottom and make it a 2 day hike. But the thought of carrying all that gear over the same distance and elevation led me to believe that it would be much easier to just travel light and do it in a day. I was successful, starting at 7:15am and finishing around 5pm, tired, but no worse for the wear.

After that, I day hiked the iconic Zion Narrows from the top down in a day. I dragged my dad along with me to hike the West Rim Trail from Lava Point in a day. All were amazing experiences and made possible by traveling light and fast.  But I was also intrigued by the people I saw with their big giant packs and sleeping rolls and knew that I wanted to experience that as well. I just didn’t know where to start. Enter Mike.

Mike worked as a Wilderness Counselor after he got out of the Marines. He did his fair share of camping (and then some) and he never lost his love of hiking and backpacking. He had the knowledge that I lacked and much of the gear too. We quickly decided that if we wanted to go backpacking, we wanted to go somewhere epic, so we began preparations to do a trip to Yosemite. As we looked at our gear, we realized much of it needed some updating, and I was lacking pretty much everything needed for a back country trip. I really had no idea where to even start, there was so much information out there and SO much variety to choose from. I read blogs, I read magazines, I spent hours and hours and hours at REI. Through this process, we started to figure out our priorities and narrow down gear choices based on what we had learned.

Our priorities

  • Comfort- we are not spring chickens and we knew we still wanted to have some sort of civilized camping experience
  • Budget- neither of us wanted to spend an arm and a leg on gear, but we still wanted the most bang for our buck
  • Practicality- there are a lot of really cool things out there, but we needed to narrow it down to what was most useful

You can see our Yosemite packing list for our list of items we took for a 4 day trip and our opinions on those items. Based on our priorities, here are the items we needed to graduate from day hiking to backpacking:

  • Packs
  • Sleeping bags
  • Sleeping pads
  • Stove
  • Water filtration
  • Tent

Most of the other items you need for backpacking, you should already have if you are a day hiker.  Things like a first aid kit, shoes and other clothing, a utility tool or knife, etc.

There are certain skills you may need to acquire if you don’t already have them. Things like map reading and navigation skills, learning how to set up your new tent, and how to load your pack efficiently. We will get into some of those things in future blogs, but many skills are also taught at places like REI for free or low cost.

One of the most challenging things for me in making the leap was finding/creating routes and loops and finding information on the places we wanted to go. Many resources seem to be geared toward thru-hikers and specific routes. You will find that much of your planning consists of patching together bits of information about multiple hikes or routes into something cohesive that meets your goal. For those in the Mid Atlantic area, is an excellent resource.  Much of it is geared toward day hikes, but you can easily find  places that have what you are looking for. They list distances, difficulty ratings, photos, and reviews, and it has been a go-to site for me to use for planning.

There are other considerations that I hadn’t had to think about as a day hiker. Things like campfires, permits, and water sources.

Most hiking sites will let you know if fires are permitted. Sometimes it’s hard to find. Sometimes they are only permitted in certain areas.  More importantly, you should know that while a fire is awesome and nice, it serves little purpose other than to provide a morale boost. If you have a camp stove, you won’t need a fire for cooking, and if it’s damp outside, a fire may be more frustration than it’s worth. It’s always great to be able to sit around a fire and relax, but between gathering wood (truly difficult in many places), setting up camp, eating, etc., you might just decide to opt out. If you do have a fire, keep it safe, and make sure it’s totally out before you depart the in the morning.

Permits are a source of frustration for us, mainly because getting them for Yosemite was a special kind of hell. But here in the East, if you need one, they are usually readily available. Many times you can just walk up and get one, other times you will need to reserve in advance, so make sure if you are planning a trip to check on that FIRST before you do all your other planning and realize you can’t get a permit. Many places in the East do not require a permit, so that makes it super easy. Just do your homework!

Water sources are usually listed on a map, but not always, and even more fun is when one is listed but is dried up or no longer usable. Our philosophy is to bring as much as we can carry and fill up when we have an opportunity. On our most recent trip, there were probably 20 sources on the first day and not a single one on the second day. We were both close to the bottom of the barrel by the end of the trip, but because we started with more than enough, we didn’t have to freak out.

One of the biggest challenges for me to overcome was the difference in the weight of my pack. With my day pack, I could cover lots of miles relatively quickly over tough terrain. With a loaded backpack, I feel downright slow. So know that you will not cover the same distances you might be used to and you will use muscles you didn’t know that you didn’t have. On your first couple of outings, keep it simple, use well marked trails with moderate terrain, and just get used to the flow of backpacking. It is slower, takes more planning, and gives you an entirely new appreciation and love for the outdoors. It’s totally worth the extra preparation and a few new aches and pains as you adjust.

Finally, we encourage everyone to practice Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, so this will mean that you need to pack out everything you pack in. Bring a bag to use for your trash, make sure to follow appropriate “disposal” practices with your poo (many places you can just bury it, but in Zion for example, you had to pack it out), and always try to use established campsites to avoid damaging nature.  Leave it like you found it so that we can all continue to enjoy it for years to come.

Do you have questions about getting into backpacking? Leave us a comment and we will help!





2 thoughts on “Backpacking for Beginners

    1. Awesome! It definitely helps to be able to buy things a bit at a time. If you are an REI member, keep an eye out for their “garage sales”. I know we have one coming up in our area Oct 3. It’s a great way to get gear super cheap!

      Liked by 1 person

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