Whether it’s a whisper in the wind or a mellow dance of the stars, mother nature is calling. What better way to answer the call then to load up a backpack and spend a couple nights with her? After all, she’s family. The good kind. The kind that will teach you incredible things about yourself and fill your soul with an appreciation for this rapidly fleeting life of ours.
Preparing for a backpacking trip can be daunting, but in this guide I will provide you with everything you need to bring, everything you need to know and a couple hard earned tips.
LETS TALK GEAR
Before we start, please keep in mind, the quality your the trip largely depends on the quality of your gear. I am not bringing materialism to the world of backpacking (we have enough of that in everyday life), but the last thing you need is to catch hypothermia because you wanted to save a couple bucks on your sleeping bag. Failure of your equipment will quickly lead you to danger. This is not the time to skimp.
There are three things you need in a backpack.
Durability – When on the trail your pack will be constantly swiped by branches, scratched by boulders and pricked by thorns. This is why a bag made from proper materials with quality stitching is important.
Support – The weight of your backpack will add up quickly and when paired with a challenging hike this weight will take a toll on your back and shoulders. Trust me, my lower back isn’t too happy with me right now. The right support will give you the ability to go more miles without the added stress to your body.
Efficiency – Something you will learn in the first ten minutes of your trip is that taking your backpack off is a process and the last thing you want is to take it off more than you have to. This is where efficiency comes into play. You want your backpack to have well designed pockets for quick access to things like snacks, your phone and even a map. Also, look for backpacks with easy access zippers to the main compartment so that you don’t have to empty the entire contents of your backpack out in order to grab the one thing you need.
Volume – Backpack sizes are measured by the amount of liters they can hold within them. The size of your backpack depends on how long you plan to be out and what you plan on bringing. Most backpackers recommend that a day pack should range from 20-35 liters, weekend packs 45-55 liters and multi-day hikes 55-75 liters. Personally, I carry a 70 liter backpack for most of my trips. I find that real estate in my pack fills up quickly and even if I don’t fill the bag there are straps I can tighten to condense the bag if need be.
In my opinion, there is no better way to go than an Osprey backpack. Their quality is unmatched and their packs are designed with every feature you could possibly want on the trail. More importantly, Osprey packs come with the Osprey lifetime warranty. If anything fails on your pack for any reason, they will fix it for you or send you a new pack if it is beyond repair.
Choosing the right sleeping bag is crucial. Your sleeping bag is your lifeline. No one wants to be too cold to sleep after an exhausting day out on the trail. There are two things you need to consider when choosing the right sleeping bag.
Choose a temperature rating for the climate you expect to be sleeping in. Be sure that you are considering the temperature at night. One thing to watch out for is that cheaper sleeping bags rate their temperature based off of survival not comfort. So, if a sleeping bag is rated for 0 degrees survival, this means that you will survive at that temperature, but you will be uncomfortably cold. Pay attention to comfort ratings only.
Sleeping bags come in two different materials, synthetic and down. The key differences between the two are that synthetic bags perform better in wet conditions. Synthetics will still keep you warm when the bag is wet and will dry much faster, but in general, they are less warm than down bags. Down bags last longer than synthetic and are lighter weight and pack down to a smaller size. For this reason, down bags are more expensive than synthetic.
Personally, I use a synthetic sleeping bag because it is budget friendly and the sleeping bag is bound to get wet. Morning dew and condensation from your body heat will dampen your bag. Though, there are ways to prevent this, like proper tent ventilation and a sleeping bag liner.
Your sleeping pad is the only thing separating you from the cold hard ground. There are two types of sleeping pads, foam and inflatable.
Foam pads – durable, provide better insulation, reliable, simple to use, easy on your wallet and easy to pack. The downsides are that they are less comfortable (especially for side sleepers), larger in volume and weigh more.
Inflatable pads – are more comfortable, lighter, better for warm weather use and take up less volume. The downsides are that they are bound to get punctured, less reliable, expensive, complicated and not suited for cold weather use.
I prefer a foam pad because of its simplicity, durability and insulation. Comfort is not a main concern of mine even though I have found my foam sleeping pad to be very comfortable. I like that I can wake up in the morning and break down camp in a matter of minutes. Also, the size of the pad is not an issue because I strap it to the outside of my backpack.
If you are going to go the route of foam, check out the Therm-A-Rest’s Z-Lite Sol sleeping pad. This is the pad I use and from what I’ve seen on the trail, it is extremely popular among backpackers.
This one is pretty obvious, you will need clean water to survive. There are three ways of treating your water in order to stay healthy and hydrated.
Chemical treatment in the form of Iodine tabs, crystals or liquid kills many, but not all of the most common pathogens present in natural freshwater sources. These tablets are lightweight, cheap and simple to use. Downsides are that they leave your water with a bad taste and take about 30 minutes to purify your water.
Water filters come in many different forms. In their simplest form you have a LifeStraw that you can dip into any water source and get a drink. I would not recommend this option because it is inconvenient and takes a lot of effort for a little water. Then, you have filters that you can attach to any water bottle and squeeze through the water that you need. Next, you have my favorite, the gravity bag filter system. Simply, fill the bag with water and let gravity do the heavy lifting of passing your water through the filter. Last, you have water bottles with a built in filter mechanism, much like a French press, that will clean your water.
My vote lies with the gravity bag filtration system for its convenience and ability to filter large amounts of water with little effort.
If this option sounds right for you, check out the Katadyn Gravity BeFree Water Filtration System.
The right footwear on the trail is huge. It will protect you from breaking an ankle, slipping, falling and aches and pains. Though footwear comes in many shapes and sizes, it is important to get the right shoe or boot for your hiking needs. The main considerations to take into account are stability, comfort, grip and weight.
Hiking sneakers – A great option if you want to move fast, but offer less in the realm of support and stability.
High-top boots – Provide you with great support and stability, but will impair your range of motion and speed.
Mid-top boots – Provide the lightweight of sneakers with the added ankle support of a high-top boot.
I prefer the mid-top boot because it offers the best of both worlds. I can move fast with ankle support. I find the thickness and rigidity of a boot to be very helpful when it comes to tackling obstacles where a solid footing is not available.
No matter which option you go for, a tried and tested trail destroyer is the Saloman brand. With their build quality you get what you pay for.
Poles are the most underrated piece of gear you can have in your lineup. I cannot stress enough how beneficial poles are for your backpacking trips. They take weight off of your knees and back, provide you with added support and balance on descents and encourage you to pump your arms and find rhythm and speed on your hike. Find poles that are lightweight and collapse down to a small size.
I currently use a pair of Trail Buddy poles that I purchased on amazon for $35. I tested them out on the Pemi Loop (30 mile hike through the White Mountains, NH) and had no issues.
FIRST AID KIT
Cuts and scrapes are a given. Don’t let them become more serious than they are. Always keep a first aid kit handy. Sanitize and protect. In most cases, help will not be an option, preparation is key.
A basic first aid kit will run you about $10.
Ahh your home away from home. Much like buying a house, there are many options when considering a backpacking tent. There are 3 season, extended season (3-4 season), all season and minimalist shelters. The key factors for consideration are:
Capacity – Likely number of sleepers
Seasonality – What season / climate will you most often use the tent
Weight – The lighter the tent, the more expensive. Find the right weight for your budget
Livability – Well designed interior space, ease of access and ease of set up
3 season tents – Perform best in spring, summer and fall. These tents keep the weight low along with the ability to withstand a wide range of weather conditions. Will not perform well in severe weather conditions such as, high winds and heavy rain.
Extended season tents – Much like a 3 season tent, extended season tents will perform well in a wide range of weather conditions, but with an added ability to tackle early spring and late fall trips. These tents will protect against surprise snow that may be encountered during these in-between seasons sessions.
4 season mountaineering tents – Made for extreme weather conditions like severe winds and heavy snowfall, these tents are built to withstand whatever mother nature can throw at them. With that being said, they offer less in the realm of ventilation, so it can get a bit stuffy in the summer months.
Minimalist Shelters – Made for hikers who want to shave off every ounce possible, these shelters come exactly as advertised, minimal.
- Fly + Footprint – Provides cover from rain with a footprint to lay your sleeping bag on.
- Tarp Shelter – A tarp that protects you from rain.
- Hammock Tent – A very interesting option to say the least, hammock tents, at a minimum, will provide you with a rain fly and bug netting.
- Bivy Sack – A waterproof, breathable sleeping bag cover that will protect you from the elements.
- Bug Shelter – A bug netting made for your sleeping bag.
Recommendation – If you’re like me, you want one tent that can do it all. This is why I went with the Black Diamond First Light Mountaineering Tent. This tent will protect me on mid-winter alpine hikes and provide me with shelter in the summer. With that being said, if you never plan on doing a mid-winter trip I would go with an extended season tent.
Food is probably the most complicated part of backpacking, but it doesn’t have to be. Calories, calories and more calories. You need fuel to continue dominating the trail. Without proper nutrition you will tire fast and recover slow. Preparing food for your trip is not as difficult as it seems. The options are endless. Look for foods that are lightweight, easy to prepare and high in fat and calories.
Make a rough meal plan for your trip. Around 2 lbs of food per day is a good place to start (for a strenuous hike).
Couscous – Lightweight, easy to prepare, can be cold soaked or boiled, high in calories (Pro Tip: add a ramen noodle flavor packet for flavor)
Tuna Packets – Lightweight, flavorful, eat right out the bag/can, add to couscous or anything else
Trail Mix – High in fats and proteins
Peanut butter – High in fats and proteins, great to spread on anything your eating like a granola bar or crackers for added energy
Dried Meat – A delicacy on the trail, high in protein, raises spirits
Coffee or tea – No better way start off you day than with something warm for the stomach
Instant Mashed potatoes – A favorite of mine, flavorful, lightweight, easy to prepare
Your favorite snacks – If there is ever a time to binge on some of your favorite snacks, hiking is the time to do it. I cannot stress enough to you what some cold and hard gummy worms did for me 15 hours into a grueling hike. They gave me life. Whether you enjoy a Snickers bar or some Twix, bring it along and enjoy. Remember, on the trail, calories are good.
Heading down the wrong trail is bound to happen, but you can minimize the amount of times it happens. To do this, study the trail before heading out. Memorize the lay of the land and key landmarks such as, peaks, rivers and streams. Get a compass and a paper map. I understand your phone has these capabilities, but your phone will lose battery, there will be no service or it will shut off from being cold. Don’t get caught with your pants around your ankles. Getting lost can be dangerous. Check to make sure you are on the right track, often. There is nothing worse than being exhausted and realizing you just hiked 5 miles in the wrong direction.
If you are not comfortable with a paper map and compass and want peace of mind, there are many GPS trackers on the market that will tell you exactly where you are on the map. Keep in mind, a GPS tracker will never replace a paper map and compass. Always, keep those two things handy in case technology fails.
TIPS, TRICKS, AND THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
Be real with yourself – Do not overestimate your ability to hike. Pushing past your capabilities is dangerous and you don’t want to be the one holding the group back. There is no shame in stopping short of the finish line if you have to. Swallow your pride, train hard and you’ll get it next time.
Make a plan – Have a general understanding of how long you plan to be out, how far you will go per day and where you plan on setting up camp for the night. Of course, things will change, but having a solid plan will make figuring out logistics much easier.
Tell a friend – Be sure to familiarize a friend or family member with your plan. This works as added insurance for your well being. If you are not back in time, someone will know to look for you.
Set goals – Having goals to accomplish will make your hike more interesting and fun. With a mission in mind, you will have added strength and endurance to endure.
Catch Sunrise and Sunset – Plan your route to start your day watching the sunrise from a peak and finish your day watching it set from a peak. A great feeling of awe and amazement will fill your body watching the sun light up the sky from a mountain top. Besides, when in a tent, you wake with the sun regardless and you go to bed early. You might as well wake up an hour or two early and catch the sunrise. Also, most backpackers set up camp before sunset, so chances are it will be just you and the sun gazing at each other.
Watch your step – This is not a stroll through the park. Losing your footing can result in much worse than a rolled ankle. Always be hypersensitive to where you place your next step. The added weight from the pack takes getting used to. You will not have the same balance you usually do. Don’t over stretch your stride or step somewhere you are unsure of. This is where having a pole to test footing before your step also comes in handy.
Drink your heart out – When water is available, drink until you can’t anymore. Things change, streams dry up. Don’t rely on water always being available. You’ll thank me later.
Research – State and national parks will often have rules and regulations that must be abided by when on the trail. Know them well. They exist for good reason. To keep you and the park safe. It is our responsibility to preserve these parks for generations to come.
With this gear and knowledge you should be ready to take on your first hiking trip! Be prepared to learn things about yourself you never knew, gain some perspective and enjoy the beauty of Mother Nature. It will not be easy, but nothing good comes easy.
Until next time,