When I first started backpacking, Andrew was already comfortable with camping and hiking. He was an Eagle Scout and had planned (or helped plan) everything from overnight excursion to multi-day wilderness experiences. I had been camping a few times as a child, but only in established modern campgrounds. I have some tips on how to plan your first backpacking trip if you’ve never been before.
Go Car Camping First
Car camping is absolutely essential to do before backpacking for the first time. It’s much lower stress, you can bring what you want, and you can bail if needed. You can also more easily repurpose things you already have so you don’t have to purchase much before going out for the first time. I would recommend going out at least two car camping trips before heading into the backcountry for the first time.
Across the country, there are different meanings for the word “campground.” Generally, a “modernized” campground will have some spaces with electrical hookup for RVs, potable water, and full bathrooms. These sites may be very tightly packed together or may be relatively quiet. A “primitive” campground generally has no running water and definitely no electrical hookup. These campsites tend to be more secluded and quiet and have less of a party atmosphere on busy summer weekends.
I like finding campsites for car camping that are shaded so my tent doesn’t overheat during the day. I also like staying at tent only sites. Your state’s state parks are a great place to start if you want to find interesting places to camp with a variety of types of sites.
Find a Place to Go
After you’ve gone car camping a few times, you’ll need to find a place to go backpacking! For your first trip, I highly recommend keeping the mileage low (less than 5 miles a day) and doing either an out and back or a loop for an overnight. It can be difficult, depending upon where you live, to figure out where to go on your first trip. Here’s some places to start:
- Meetup.com has backpacking groups around the country. Even if you don’t want to go with others, I still find that these groups have a wealth of information on past trips that are usually just a few hours drive away. For example, in Wisconsin, the Fox Cities Backpacking group has years of past trips laid out, organized by difficulty.
- State parks and forests, depending upon the state, may offer some short or long backpacking trails. In Wisconsin, these sites are fairly limited, but there are few places to hike 2-3 miles in to a site, great for a first trip.
- National forests offer dispersed (camp where you want) camping within some guidelines, such as being 200 feet off trail and away from water. National forest land is available in many states, but tends to be more difficult to plan, and trails may double as logging roads or ATV trails.
- National Parks are amazing, but may be significantly more difficult to plan. Most parks with extensive backcountry trails expect that you’ve done some sort of backpacking before, so it may be easier to start elsewhere.
Once you’ve found where you want to go, ensure that you’re prepared to get any permits that you need for trip. You will likely need to check in at some sort of a ranger station, who may have maps available. Know if they do before you go!
Pack Your Pack
The most difficult part of my first trip was deciding what I needed, and I had someone guiding me through the whole way. I would suggest having an experienced friend look over your pack if possible before heading out. I’ll not rehash the excellent lists of things to bring that places like REI have listed out, but I’ll add a few points here. All that you really need for backpacking that you don’t for car camping is a pack, but you may want to consider your other gear before buying an expensive backpack. Some places you can rent backpacks, which is a great option for your first trip.
In addition to your pack, the next big consideration should be water. Dehydration is nothing to trifle with, and untreated water is not safe to drink. There are a huge variety of water treatment options out there, and I’ve tried several. If you want to start off cheap and easy, you can get purification tablets or AquaMira for about $10. You can also purchase water filters or UV filters. Just be sure you know how to use it before you go! The other option is to carry all the water you’d need on your first overnight. Be sure to bring at least a liter more than you think you’ll need if you’re planning to carry all your water, and watch out – that can be very heavy.
Be sure to pack you pack correctly too! You want to ensure that your heaviest stuff is the closest to the center of your back. That means you want something light and fluffy on the bottom, like your sleeping bag. Then heavy stuff, like food, will go right up against your back. Usually I put my cooking stuff around that area. Finally, moderate weight stuff or things you need easily accessible go on top.
Let Someone Know
Something I feel is overlooked, especially by first time backpackers, is how important it is to let someone know where you are going to be. This is more than just “I’m going backpacking at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore this weekend.” There’s dozens of places to park and camp at Pictured Rocks – this is not specific enough to help in case of an emergency. My plan left with people usually consists of the following:
- A map of the area I’ll be in with the starting and ending trailheads highlighted along with our route and planned campsites.
- Days that we’ll be out and when we expect to be home.
- Phone numbers for the rangers for the place that we are.
- If I think we could be late and if we are not to worry, I let my person know that too.
It’s also a good idea to leave this information on the front seat of your car and with more than one person. I usually let my parents and a coworker know and leave them my information a few days before we leave and text them when we get home.
I suggest regularly checking the weather for several days before you go so that you’ll know what you’re in for. Enjoy yourself and take it easy – you can always put in more miles on your second trip. Nobody likes pushing themselves too far on day 1 to have a miserable day 2.