Planning your first Backpacking Trip

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:

  • 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!

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Elizabeth Bennett on Travelling

What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers, shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation.

Jane Austin

Stuck in DTW

There’s nothing like being stuck in an airport to remind you how much fun it is to be backpacking.  I’ll be I’ve seen more people in the last 6 hours than we’ll see the entire time we’re on the JMT.  Not to say that air travel isn’t amazing! (I am an aerospace engineer after all!)

We are a Part of the Wilderness

The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.

John Muir

Woods are Different

“Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views & leave you muddled & without bearings. They make you feel small & confused & vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie & you know you are in a big space. Stand in the woods and you only sense it. They are vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive.”

Bill Bryson

Mile… Mile and a Half

Last week, I watched Mile… Mile and a Half on Netflix.  It’s a documentary about a group of artists who thru hiked the JMT in 2011.  If you’re wondering what we’re going to see on the JMT, this is a great film to watch for ninety minutes.

MILE… MILE & A HALF (trailer 1) from The Muir Project on Vimeo.


Overall, I thought Mile… Mile & a Half was an okay representation of what life is like on a trail.  As someone who backpacks, I noticed what I thought of as “backpacking” in the periphery of shots – water filtering, tent setup, dinner.  But I also saw a lot of things that I know I absolutely wouldn’t do on the trail – like have a 70 (!!!!) pound pack after a resupply, or pay for a mule to bring a resupply over a mountain pass.  The Mile… Mile and a Half crew did the trail over 25 days, so we’ll shave about 5 days off of their time.  They also regularly stopped to take photos, video, or record sound, which involves a lot of professional equipment.  They also did the trail in July after a year of 200% snowfall, so I assume we’ll see a lot less snow.  Overall though, I think this is a great way to get inspired!  It just goes to show you – 220 miles is really just a lot of putting one foot in front of the other.