Up until about 2010, I was constantly searching for my own backpacking tips for beginners…because I was one! Before that, I went camping occasionally, traveled and snowboarded here and there, but my passion for the outdoors and adventure hadn’t really quite sparked yet.
I’ve learned a ton over the last few years, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But I’ve learned some really great lessons, and I’ve met some really cool people along the way. Now, I’m passing my wisdom off to you! Here is backpacking tips for beginners, the 101 course.
I’m not going to share here things like what to pack for your first trip (you can read that here), but I will share my personal experience of what backpacking has taught me, and why I continue to do it!
Backpacking Tips for Beginners: The Things You’ll Learn From Backpacking
1. You get to know the people you’re with REALLY well
I’ve heard so many guys say that old “girls don’t poo” line, but anyone who camps and backpacks with women knows this is clearly a lie. When you spend time in the wilderness with people, you learn all of their hidden habits – pooping, farting, etc. – and eventually, nothing is off limits.
You’re already in the wild, separated from most luxuries and you get to a point where you stop caring and just don’t want to be more uncomfortable than you already are. For me…man, altitude gets me.
Backpacking tips for beginners #1: Just learn to laugh and don’t take things too seriously. You farted in front of your friends – whoops, oh well. You have to poop but you’re embarrassed for everyone to know? It’s really okay, I promise. Everyone is in the same position as you.
By the end of the trip, you and your backpacking buddies will all end up smelling equally as bad. Your hands and feet will be covered in filth, and nobody cares. Don’t get me wrong, that first shower after a long few days in the dirt is amazing, but while you’re out there it just doesn’t matter.
I do carry baby wipes with me to try to keep somewhat clean, but really that’ll only take you so far. Leave your makeup behind, stop caring about how your hair looks, and just enjoy your stinky company.
This also applies to travel! I’ve been on a trip in Costa Rica with 3 girlfriends of mine where 2 of us got the stomach flu at the same time. The night before our flight back we were playing tag team with the bathroom – there’s no time to be shy at a time like that.
2. You are capable of so much more than you realize
After my Everest Base Camp trek, I was talking with a friend who said something very important. Trekking is 90% mental, and then 10% mental – and it’s become a mantra for my friends and I. Of all the backpacking tips for beginners I’ve learned, this may be the most important.
Yes, physical ability matters, but most of what tends to hold us back is all in our head. On my trek, I found that my body didn’t really start hurting until day 10 of 11. It was as if my mind went into hiding and just accepted that we would be doing this for an extended period of time, so it had to suck it up and deal with it. My knee didn’t start hurting until we were getting close to being done.
I was beaten down and exhausted and would have given anything to be scooped up by a helicopter and carried the rest of the way. But, I kept moving. I told myself that the pain was not everything and that I could do this. I could make it to the end – I had made it through much worse in life, and I came out okay.
So I kept moving, putting one foot in front of the other. I stopped talking, there was no smiling, no laughing…but, I made it. I made it, I had a beer, and I felt so incredibly accomplished. Especially because of how much inner strength it took. When you do something that is easy, you don’t really get much out of that. But do something that pushes you to and beyond your limits…that’s when you’ll really see how much you’re capable of.
So, backpacking tips for beginners #2: don’t give up. You CAN do it. Whatever it is, you can do it.
3. Relativity is a thing
Back when I was in my beginner backpacking years, my friends and I backpacked to the top of San Jacinto in Southern California. We slept overnight at the top, and hiked back down the next day. It was a training hike for our later trek to the summit of Mt Whitney, and it did a number on me. My body wasn’t used to carrying 30-40lbs of gear uphill, and it certainly wasn’t used to 10k altitude.
By the time we got camp setup, it was getting dark, and we were starving. I had packed a simple meal of rice and lentils which really sounds quite boring, I know. But let me tell you…when you’ve been walking with weight on your back all day, a simple meal tastes just as good as the best meal you’ve ever had.
Your body at that point is so happy to have fuel that it doesn’t even really matter what you’re eating – it’s going to be delicious. I’ve since started dehydrating food on my own which is great, but not for everyone. But, whatever it is, it’ll be delicious after you’ve put in a long, hard day of backpacking! You’ve earned those calories – enjoy them!
And coffee – man, those little insta-packs at home are pretty boring. But when you wake up in nature and have easy coffee…it’s amazing!
To go one step further with my backpacking tips for beginners food topic – pack something you want to indulge in. Again, you’ve earned it. Put the protein bars aside for a second, and carry in a few oreos. You’ll be thankful you did! Oh, and whiskey is always worthwhile the extra weight.
4. It’s important to go with the flow when backpacking or camping
Backpacking tips for beginners #4: go with it.
Sometimes, it’ll be weather – I’ve had to hike in rain and snow, and it can be absolutely miserable. You’re wet, you’re cold, you’re tired, and you’re over it.
Other times, it’ll be your body – I’ve sprained my ankle really bad 4 miles into a 23 mile/2 day hike, and had to suck it up and keep moving.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that everything will (most of the time) be okay. Now, I’m not talking about a situation where you’ve fallen and you’re hurt badly to the extent that you can’t walk and need serious medical attention, Hopefully in that scenario you have cell service or a satellite phone to call for help. I’m talking about things that are tolerable but just really, really uncomfortable.
For those who have read/seen Wild, (for those who haven’t – spoiler ahead!) the scene where she drops her boot over the side of the cliff seems like the end of the world. What the heck do you do when you’re miles from anything and now you have no boots to walk in?? But, it’s not the end of the world. Really, it just relates to #2.
You’re capable of so much, and just try to make the best of it. It’s not the best to walk on a sprained ankle, but for my situation, I was able to wrap it and keep moving, popping mountain skittles (ibuprofen) along the way.
Just be prepared going into it that shit might happen, and that’s okay. Go with the flow, and you’ll have amazing stories to tell later on.
5. People you meet in the wilderness are generally really awesome
Backpacking and hiking take you out of your element. It takes you away from the stress of work, traffic and road rage, and people angry about both. People out there are usually of the same mindset. They’re looking to get away, to get back to the simplicity of the world, to experience something special that not everyone gets to experience.
When backpacking and trekking, you meet people who know what it is to carry everything you need on your back. To find simple things to entertain yourself with, and know how to take in the beauty around them. It’s rare to pass someone who doesn’t take the time to say hello, and often ask where you’re heading/coming from, genuinely interested in sharing experiences and tips about the trail.
If you have people at the same backcountry camp spot area, they’ll usually keep to themselves but if you ever need something, I’ve rarely come across someone not willing to lend a hand. We all share a respect for the situation we’ve put ourselves in, and want to take care of the area we’re around, and the people who share it.
So, backpacking tips for beginners #5: Be cool. This is one place where you should, for the most part, follow the crowd and do as they do. Pick up after yourself, be friendly and courteous, respect nature.
6. Proper planning prevents piss poor performance
This relates a bit to backpacking tips for beginners #4. There’s no way to plan for everything that might come your way. But, you can try to be prepared (a girl scout is always prepared!). When we got stuck in 12 hours of pouring rain while camping in Mt. Laguna in California, we had been prepared ahead of time with tarps and cords. In Nepal when we got stuck in a gigantic rain/snow storm, we were prepared ahead of time with rainproof gear (although, after 3 hours in pouring rain, it wasn’t all that rainproof anymore!).
With the drought in California, a lot of streams were pretty dried up for a while which meant if you were looking to backpack somewhere overnight, it was important to call the Rangers to find out the water situation. The last thing you want is to be stuck somewhere with no water, especially if you have dogs with you! And always make sure to have water purification/filters on hand, with a backup (I usually carry Iodine Tablets as my backup).
The first time we went up to the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park, we saw cars wrapped in tarps – turns out, Marmots love to get under cars and chew on the wires. We didn’t have a tarp. We were unprepared, and got lucky that they stayed away from my car. But the next time I was sure to bring a tarp!
Bring extra shoelaces for your boots. Extra batteries for your headlamp. Matches AND a lighter, because you never know when one will fail. Do some research to know the area, and have a map on hand.
Some people like to be spontaneous, and that’s totally okay. But even spontaneous folks in the backcountry should be somewhat prepared with the basics. You don’t need to plan exactly where you’ll camp, but understand where the campsites are along the way. And always tell someone where you’re going, even if it’s a general idea. Shit happens, and you don’t want to be stranded with no cell service, no satellite phone, and a bad injury with no help.
7. Getting up early isn’t all that bad
My first alarm for work is set for 6am. I have another that goes off at 6:30, and another for 6:40. I can’t have only one because I’ll sometimes shut it off in my sleep and then oversleep. It’s a struggle still to get my eyes fully open before 7am.
On the other hand, I have no problem getting up at 4am to be on the road by 4:30am for a great day of snowboarding. And I have no problem getting up at 7 on a backpacking trip, just to sit around and enjoy some coffee with friends. I think it’s the difference between getting up to do something you have to – work – vs. doing something you enjoy – snowboarding/camping/adventure. And you get some pretty awesome views when you do!
So backpacking tips for beginners #7: if you’re having trouble with sleep in your every day life, you should get out into the wilderness to reset your circadian rhythm. Ever since good old Tom figured out that whole electricity thing, we’ve stopped following our natural cycles and started doing what we want, instead of what our bodies want.
Our bodies want to wake up with the sun and go to sleep when the sun does, but with electricity, we stay up until all hours of the night and get up hours after the sun has. So if you’re looking for a recharge, leave the electricity at home and go appreciate some beautiful starry skies in the middle of nowhere!
8. You really don’t need to bring everything for that backpacking trip…
In terms of backpacking tips for beginners, this is one that most everyone makes in the beginning. Don’t overpack!
My first REAL backpacking trip was July 2011. Before I even knew if I would like backpacking, I had decided to hike up to the summit of Mount Whitney on a 4 day, ~50 mile trek with 4 friends. We hiked a back route from Horseshoe Meadows campground, over New Army Pass, up to Guitar Lake, reached the summit, and then came down the portal.
We had done the trip to Mt. San Jacinto (above) as an overnight training hike, but that was just one night. For four nights, you have to be VERY selective with what you’re bringing. The funny part is, for an overnight trek you bring just about as much as a 2-3 day trek. The only difference is the food.
I did the Mount Whitney trek with my friend Andrew, a very skilled guide, and a few others with varied experience. The morning of our trek, Andrew had us take out all our gear to go through what we would bring with us. In the process, each of us ended up leaving behind a lot of weight that we were convinced we would need. I thought Andrew was crazy, but I trusted him, so I followed his recommendations. I’m happy I did.
Weight adds up quickly when you’re carrying it all on your back. That 2oz item that doesn’t seem like a big deal becomes a big deal when coupled with 10 other 2oz items.
The main thing to focus on is that you don’t need everything, but do bring the important things. For instance, my friends and I did a trek up to the Sequoias for July 4th weekend where we spent 3 days/2 nights. We felt it was important that we trek up a 24 case of beers (cans) and we felt every ounce on the way up, but man…sitting around the lake with a nice cold beer was well worth it.
You’ll have your necessities, and then you’ll have to make a decision on the frivolities. But be picky. And distance and elevation matter. If you’re only going 6 miles roundtrip, you can probably bring a few “luxuries”, but if you’re going 6 miles roundtrip from 10,000 feet to 11,000 feet, those luxuries may not be worth it because altitude is a bitch. So, just consider distance, altitude, and how important that item is.
9. Keep moving
Now this is completely a personal consideration as far as backpacking tips for beginners go. I’ve hiked with people before who hate stopping at all – they say it makes them more tired to stop. And then there are those who like to stop often, take their packs off, and sit and rest. That makes me more tired.
But what I’ve found works for me is to take very short breaks when you feel you need it. If that’s every 500 feet or every 100 feet, that’s fine, but I suggest most of the breaks need to be 30 seconds or shorter. Just enough to let you catch your breath. Stopping longer than that makes you not want to move on, and oh gosh…removing your pack…bad idea. It just makes it feel that much heavier every time you have to put it back on.
I like to rest on my hiking poles with them taking some of the weight momentarily off my back from my pack, but I rarely remove it unless we’re sitting down for lunch.
10. Rules are there for a reason!
I’m a rule follower, in general. I don’t like doing things that are against the rules, I don’t like questioning authority too often, but I will if I disagree with something. I’m a pretty rational person and I consider myself intelligent enough to make up my mind about whether rules are reasonable or not.
That being said, generally speaking, in the outdoors the rules are there for a reason. There are requirements about how to store your food and they should be followed. You are not in your territory – you are in the bears’ territory and if they want, they will win.
And with bears, keep your distance and make yourself known. I know it’s very exciting to see a bear, but if the bear sees you and feels threatened, it can run faster than you, and it’s stronger than you. Don’t be like those schmucks in Yellowstone surrounding the mama bear and her cubs – they were lucky that she didn’t attack. If I was her, I would have.
Also, if a bear does come towards you, do not immediately run from it. If it isn’t charging, it likely wants your food. When we teach the bears that they can scare us for our food, that’s when they become dangerous. I once spoke to a Ranger in the Mineral King Park who said it’s very sad when a bear learns from bad campers that they can scare people away because when the bears become hostile, they have to be put down. They have even tried relocating bears hundreds of miles away and they still found their way back.
As for fires in the backcountry – there’s a reason they’re illegal in some areas. Dry brush can cause large fires, and above the tree line we don’t want to use the few trees that are there and destroy the area. And please listen when the Rangers tell you not to camp within 100-200 feet of a lake or water source. It helps prevent contamination, and allows animals easy access to their own water source.
Backpacking tips for beginners #10: Rules can be annoying because you want to do what you want to do, but they are generally in place for the better of everyone. Don’t be that ahole that ruins it for everyone else.
This video makes me so mad, and very sad. How terrified that mama must have been…
11. Disconnect…it’s awesome
We’re all addicted – email, facebook, texting. Anywhere you go, just look around and you’ll see everyone on their phones and computers. And unless our battery dies and we don’t have a charger on hand, we have no reason or motivation to disconnect.
But in the backcountry, much of the time there is no service. There is no wi-fi. So we are forced to disconnect with technology and reconnect to the little things. Sitting by the lake, thinking, talking to one another. Yes, sometimes we’ll bring a solar charger so we can watch a movie in our tent, but it’s not the entire trip. We did a trip out to Inyo National Park where we spent some of our time watching Star Wars in our tent. However, we also spent time sitting on a rock by the lake connecting, and it was so nice.
Backpacking tips for beginners #11: bring cards to interact, bring a book to relax. Put your phone on airplane mode and I promise, facebook will still be there when you get back to civilization!
12. We’re really quite insignificant, and significant, at the same time
My absolute favorite part of camping and backpacking is nighttime when there is no moon and just a sky filled with incredible stars. Looking up, watching satellites, and realizing that we are just one blip in an incredibly large universe that we know almost nothing about. We know a lot, don’t get me wrong, but compared to what we don’t know, what we know is next to nothing.
We are insignificant to the universe, but to our planet we are incredibly significant.
Backpacking tips for beginners #12: Clean up after yourselves. Be responsible. Take care of Mother Nature. It makes me so sad sometimes to see the things people leave behind in nature. Let’s take good care of our planet, because (at least for the time being) it’s the only one we’ve got.
“Trekking is 90% mental, and 10% mental” – Calina Ferraro