Want to strap on a pair of boots and head for the mountains? Here's what to take with you, what to leave at home and how to find your way there.
Why Go Backpacking? Leaving your vehicle behind will give you access to parts of the world you simply can't see otherwise. Moving at a walking pace through the wilderness also gives you the time to appreciate its beauty and maximizes your chances to encounter more wildlife and less people. You can take your dogs, your kids, your friends and even your fishing pole.
It might seem like hard work walking through mountains with a bunch of weight and, I won't lie, it can be. The trick to making it not suck is to pare what you take with you to a minimum, without sacrificing comfort. Because everyone's needs and abilities are different, we suggest you start with a simple one-night, two-day trip, figure out what works for you and what doesn't and scale from there.
The general rule of thumb with backpack weights is that you shouldn't exceed 30 percent of your bodyweight. For me, that's 55.5lbs, which is an awfully heavy pack. I try to stick to 35 or 40lbs max, which is way easier to carry. You'll be surprised how fast the weight adds up when you start packing. Because you're new to this, we're not going to recommend that you spend a ton of cash to get that weight down. Instead, simplifying your load out is the best way to maximize your comfort and speed on the trail.
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For your first trip, 10 miles or so one-way is a good distance for the day. That'll get you far enough from the car that you'll really be somewhere wild, but accounts for difficult terrain and, well, carrying weight on your back for the first time. It's also short enough that, should you find your boots don't work or your pack weighs too much or something else goes wrong, it won't kill you. As you gain experience and grow comfortable, you can extend that daily mileage to 15, 20 or even as far as 30 miles in a day.
What You'll Need: If backpacking is new to you, you'll want to keep costs down. There's a chance you won't like it, won't do it again soon and it just sucks dropping dime on a bunch of stuff you're only going to use across a weekend or two, here and there.
Did you read my guide on going camping for the first time? If you've already got basic camping gear, you can adapt most of that to backpacking simply by adding a backpack and paring your food needs down to a minimum. But, let's take a look at building up a basic backpacking kit, cheaply and easily. And talk about what you don't need, which is the easiest way to save weight.
Backpack: There's internal and external frame designs out there. Because they're lighter and smaller, internal frame designs are going to work best for most people. You want a frame because it helps move the load off your shoulders and onto your hips, where its more easily carried. Proper backpacking backpacks will also incorporate comfortable, padded hip straps, will keep your back ventilated and will make room for all your stuff. The Kelty Redwing 50 is a universally liked pack that you can get for under $100. Whatever you buy or borrow, make sure it's sized and adjusted properly for your torso.
Sleeping Bag: Go for a down one to save weight. Over manmade fillers, down bags are lighter and pack smaller, but won't insulate if you get them wet, so take efforts to avoid doing so. Add 10 degrees to the temperature rating to get an idea of what the bag will handle comfortable and try to avoid packing a warmer bag than you need — the warmer a bag is, the bigger and heavier it gets. The Kelty Cosmic Down 20 is affordable at $80, packs small and will keep you toasty down to freezing or so. Whatever you have or buy, an aftermarket compression sack can help it pack smaller.
Sleeping Pad: No, you can't take your yoga mat. You want a proper air mattress; good sleep is incredibly important. The Therm-A-Rest Trail Light is an affordable, effective solution, but the more expensive Neo-Air is vastly more comfortable while packing appreciably smaller and lighter.
Tent: Don't take one if you don't need it. And, unlike general camping, you're going to want to get its size down to a minimum. Where we recommended sizing up a person in the tent's capacity for general camping comfort, your backpacking tent should be no larger than absolutely necessary. I carry a Sierra Designs Lightyear, which has stood up to five years of abuse, bad weather and high winds and kept me dry and warm all the while.
Backpacking Stove: There's no more cost effective solution than a cat food can alcohol stove . Sure, all it's good for is quickly boiling water, but on the trail, you're not carrying eggs or other foods that need variable temperatures and frying pans.
Aluminum Mug w/Lid: For boiling water in and eating out of. I bought mine at the 99 Cent store and it's lasted five years and many, many trips. Make sure you get a lid, it'll massively speed cooking times. And make sure the mug has a handle so you can hold it even with boiling water inside.
Spork: A simple, light, unbreakable eating tool. I have this one.
Water: You'll want to be able to carry three-liters or so of water. Whether you do that in bottles or a hydration pack is up to you, but make sure you're carrying it. You'll need to drink at least a gallon a day while outdoors, more in the summer heat.
Fire: Regardless of whether or not its permitted where you're going, you should have some basic ability to process firewood and start a fire with you, if only as a backup if things don't go as planned. Carrying a fixed blade survival knife, ferro rod and a few Vaseline-soaked cotton balls is the easiest way to do this. Whatever method you take, make sure you have the ability to use it.
Multitool: To effect small repairs to your tent, pack and other gear along the way. A tiny one works just fine, but you're definitely going to want one with pliers. I carry a Leatherman Style PS.
Flashlight: A quality LED flashlight can likely last the duration of your trip on a single battery load, packing that ability into a small size and light weight. A headlamp or a headlamp band that allows you to mount your regular light in it will give you the ability to work on food or whatever at night hands free.
Water Purification: You can't carry enough water with you, so you'll need to find and purify it along the way.
Paper Map And Compass: If you want to go all GPS navigator, great. But, you'll still need a paper trail map and compass as a backup, so why not just take only that? Learn how to use it before you go.
What To Wear: Check the weather in the area ahead of time, then account for altitude — you lose 3.3 degrees for every 1,000 feet you gain — and the general unpredictability of weather in the mountains or whatever region you'll be traveling through. And remember that spending all day and night outdoors is very different from just taking the dog around the block. If it's cold, you'll need to be able to stay warm in it. If it's hot, you'll need to be able to stay cool. Pack multiple layers that allow you to deal with changing conditions.
Boots: You need 'em. This is one area where you should go ahead and drop some cash. Fit is the absolute most important factor, so go find the nearest REI or similar outfitter and try on a bunch of boots, then buy whatever's most comfortable. A quality pair of boots can last you a decade, so don't feel to bad about spending a couple hundred bucks. You want ones that go above your ankle and provide it with support; that's crucial while carrying weight. A waterproof membrane is a good idea too, even in dry summer conditions that'll just make stream crossings way easier.
If you buy a new pair of boots, make sure to wear them in before you go to prevent blisters. Allot a solid week to do this, then try to put a few miles on them every single day. That may mean wearing them to the office, it may mean wearing them to walk the dog. Whatever way you do it, make sure you do it.
Socks: You want wool hiking socks. Pick an appropriate weight for the conditions you'll encounter, then pack one pair to wear and one pair to change into should they get wet. A pair of silk sock liners is a great way to protect against blisters.
Pants: Despite what conventional wisdom says, jeans work just fine, particularly in mild weather. You can go all fancy if you decide to become a serious backpacker, but there's no need to buy a pair of dorky zip-off hiking pants for your first trip out. Only take the pair you wear. Shorts are generally a bad idea unless you're hiking somewhere without underbrush; that'll slice up your exposed legs in no time flat and you'll be exposed to bugs and poison ivy.
Shirt: A t-shirt will get the job done, but a long-sleeve button-up will do a better job of keeping bugs and sun off your arms and neck. You want something light that breathes well. Only take the one you wear.
Hat and Sunglasses: You'll be outside all day in the sun…
Me, dressed for the mountains.
Rain Jacket: Pack a lightweight, hardshell, un-insulated rain jacket. That'll keep you dry even if it rains all day long and will provide an effective wind-barrier to nighttime cold to which you can add layers underneath up to your needed level of insulation. Hardshells (the kind that crinkle when you move) pack down very small. No need to go fancy, just get one that's waterproof (not resistant), includes a hood and opt for pit zips if you may encounter rain and heat combined. I've worn a Marmot Precip for years and years.
Base Layers: If it's going to be cold or just get cold at night, then long undies are the best way to tackle that. Patagonia's Capilene 3 base layers are the absolute best, mine have kept me warm at -20 degrees Fahrenheit during the Siberian winter and still been comfortable to wear in 72 degree buildings.
Sweater: An old sweater, fleece jacket or similar mid-layer top will help keep you warm at night. Just take something that can get dirty and come home smelling like smoke.
Underwear: Pick a good, comfortable, supportive pair and pack an extra should the ones you're wearing get wet. No, wearing the same pair for a few days without changing them won't kill you, but you may want to invest in a more durable pair from UnderArmor or similar.
How To Find Backpacking Trails: Everytrail.com is a good resource, as are the websites of your local state and national parks. But, nothing beats buying a paper map of your chosen area and sitting down to study it. Just double check any listed mileage you find on the Internet against a real map (or Google Pedometer) before going. I've found trails listed by parks services as 5.75 miles in length to actually measure 12 miles or more. I'll say it again: paper maps.
Anyone else have good online resources for finding destinations and trails? Drop them in comments please.
Food: Your calorie requirements will be higher than normal due both to being outside and working hard. So, plan three square meals a day, plus snacks.
Breakfast: Instant oatmeal works best. Boil water in your mug and pour it into the outmeal packet to make cleanup easy and get you on the trail soonest. Starbucks Via is the best instant coffee option going. Drink it black like a real man.
Lunch: I carry sardines and saltine crackers or apples and peanut butter. That's just what I've done since I was a little kid and it feels right. Whatever you choose, make it small, light, full of protein and fats and make sure you can eat it cold and easily during a short break and that it doesn't require refrigeration.
Dinner: You'll want freeze-dried backpacking meals because they're light and easy to cook. Just boil water using that catfood can and aluminum mug and dump the water in the packet. Mountain House ProPaks are a good tradeoff between taste and cost; they really are pretty good and do fill you up.
Snacks: Pare these to a minimum to save weight. I take one protein bar per day on the trail and one bag of Trader Joe's trailmix per trip. Again, protein and fat = good for backpacking.
Backpacking Etiquette: You won't typically find organized campsites out in the sticks, so instead it's "wilderness camping" which just comes with a few rules — sleep somewhere more than 100 yards from the trail and not immediately adjacent to a water source. Bury your poop (you brought baby wipes and a plastic spade, right?) and only abide by local fire regulations.
Backpackers headed uphill have the right of way. If you're headed downhill and encounter a group headed up, step off the trail and let them pass. Do the same if a faster group comes up behind you.
Pack out everything you pack in and pick up any trash you encounter while out there too.
I think that's about it. If you have any questions though, I'm happy to answer them in comments. Nothing's too basic or stupid.
Photos: Chris Brinlee Jr.
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