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Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking

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Beginners Guide to Backpacking

We’ve compiled a list of everything you need to consider when planning out your backpacking trips as a beginner. Once you plan and execute a few trips, the goal is that researching these areas will become second nature to you and make it easier on choosing your next destination. Our beginner’s guide to backpacking should help you narrow down routes to match it to your desired schedule and qualities!

Length of Trip 

First up in our beginner’s guide to backpacking is deciding on the length of your trip! Backpacking trips can range from days to months depending on a person’s desired trip! Especially if you have full-time jobs, your time may be limited so definitely consider some shorter, 3-5 day backpacking trails if this applies to you! There are plenty of trails that you can squeeze in on a weekend if you’re prepared and don’t want to use your time off. For beginners, we definitely recommend starting off with an easier 1-3 day backpacking route that is closer to home so you can get acclimated to carrying the pack when it’s at its peak weight. 

If you are limited on time, we also recommend planning out how many miles you want to achieve each day to double-check that your backpacking route is going to fall within your physical limits. On average we do between 5-10 miles per day depending on elevation gain. If you’re planning on doing a trip based on milage, you’d still want to estimate how long you’re going to be backpacking each day. 

Timing of Trip

Something that we learned through our travels is definitely to attempt more popular locations during a location’s offseason. Offseason is less busy, and you have better opportunities at scoring permits if they are needed. Something else we’ve learned and wanted to mention in this beginner’s guide to backpacking is that it can really be at the mercy of permits and you sometimes just have to go with the flow. Havasupai, AZ permits, for example, went so fast we basically just took the times available to us even though they weren’t super ideal. You also want to take the weather into consideration. Make sure you have the right gear for trips with a higher likelihood of rain or snow!

Type of Trail & Aesthetics

You have several options when it comes to the routes you can choose: all on the trail, all in the backcountry, or a mix of both! There are definitely pros and cons to each. We really like backcountry backpacking because it’s a lot more secluded, route finding is really fun, and you get to experience natural wonders that most people never see! For the backcountry, you would want to make sure you have thorough gear. This includes route descriptions, guidebooks, topography maps, a GPS receiver, and some research done on the area so you can navigate your way around.

However, our beginner’s guide to backpacking would recommend if you have never done backcountry hiking before, it may be less stressful to start out backpacking on a trail! Trails tend to be a little more packed, but have a great sense of community. You can meet a lot of really cool people from all over the world along your adventure. This is what we did as a couple on our first backpacking trip. Having a trail made it easy to see how we both were in the outdoors so we could get used to each other on these kinds of trips without just jumping in.

Other things to consider are the type of scenery you want to see. Don’t limit yourself! There’s everything from desert, to lush forests, to mountain peaks and glacial lakes and waterfalls! 

Cars & Shuttles

Unless you are keen on hitchhiking, you need to plan out transport ahead of time! If you can take away anything from this beginner’s guide to backpacking, make sure you remember this! If you’re hiking a point-A to point-B trail (for example The Sierra High Route), you’ll have to make some transportation arrangements whether its via shuttles, a bike, or a car. Nothing is worse than finishing a trip and realizing that you have no way back to your car. 

Beginners Guide to Backpacking Accommodations: 

Water, Shelter, & Terrain

Water: Does the area you’re thinking of backpacking have reliable water sources? Perhaps you need to invest in some sort of water purification. We recommend always having someone with some sort of water filtration. Usually, we go to locations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that have perfect snowmelt and glacial lakes to refresh our water bottles. Some locations, such as Havasupai, have convenient watering areas or campgrounds with water. Areas that don’t have an extensive water supply would mean packing in a LOT of water. 

Shelter: Are you backcountry camping or do you require a campground or lodge reservation along your route? Make sure to book these reservations concurrently with getting permits (if applicable).

Terrain: Look at the elevation gain before you go and assess if you really can attempt it. If you are going in a group, make sure everyone in the group can handle it. Also, look into potential “threats” along the way such as animals (bears) and plants (poison oak/ivy/etc.) Thus, make sure you are prepared with proper bug repellant, bear canisters/food storage, and a first aid kit. 

Familiarize yourself with Leave No Trace

Educate yourself on what it means to pack in what you pack out. It wouldn’t hurt to get comfortable with the fact that you’re going to have to go to the bathroom in nature. We want to leave the great outdoors even better than we found it so everyone can continue to enjoy it! For more information on this, check out the National Park Service’s guide

Once you consider all of these factors, you will have successfully narrowed down some locations for backpacking! Planning out these key details will make it much easier to start planning your trip! Always make sure to share your itinerary once you finalize it. Include your contact information & route description for safety before you go!

We hope you enjoyed our beginner’s guide to backpacking! For more on what to specifically pack on your trip, check out our Ultimate Gear Guide. Happy backpacking!

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Stephen & Giselle backpacking the Sierra High Route