I was not sure what to expect the first time I went backpacking. I’ve been imagining it for years, but always been just a day-hiker. It’s not a good thing to admit, but without Angel, I am not entirely sure when I would have finally strapped my backpack on for a multi-day excursion. Of course, he planned something pretty intense for my first trip. I realized a lot that weekend, and have helpfully compiled my experiences into a list of 8 things you should be prepared for on your first backpacking trip. That being said, there’s a lot more to backpacking than just these eight points. But you gotta start somewhere.
Keep it Easy
Wild may be inspirational, but that doesn’t mean you need to pull a Cheryl Strayed and hop onto the trail for a multi-month long journey. Instead, keep your first trip to one or two nights. Vastly underestimate the number of miles you will travel in a day.
On my first backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness, Angel had planned about 7 miles of hiking for the first day. We only made it about 4 miles before the sun was starting to set. Be flexible. Many wilderness destinations will advise that you need to get a certain number of miles away from the trailhead, keep that in mind when planning your mileage, and keep your miles low. For an out and back hike, you can hike in as far as you are able, and turn around when it’s time to hike out.
You Don’t Need to Clean Out REI
For your first trip, purchasing gear can be overwhelming. And besides, you don’t want to spend a ton of money just to try out an activity you don’t even know you will like. If you have a friend who loves the outdoors, see if you can borrow some items to get you started. This will cut your costs drastically.
Your other option is to rent your gear. Renting gives you a chance to try before you buy. Many REI locations offer gear rentals. Online rental sites like Outdoors Geek and Lower Gear will ship you items to get you on the trail.
Renting can get pricey, so after one or two backpacking trips, it may be time to start figuring out your own system. REI is, without a doubt, the best place to start. Try anything in the store, but if you realize it’s not right for you on the trail, REI offers the best return policy (one year, no questions asked).
If you are in the Bay Area, check out Last Minute Gear. We’ve rented gear (a tent and sleeping pads) from this startup and were thrilled with the donation payment system and the flexibility that it offered us.
When it comes time to start buying, you don’t need to splurge on everything. We absolutely adore our 10 dollar camping stove. If you are backpacking in moderate temperatures, you are able to get by with a far lighter weight sleeping bag (just add more clothing if you get cold in the night). Walmart occasionally sells lightweight synthetic mummy bags that pack up surprisingly small. We also bring backup emergency blankets in case we start shivering.
For any gear you borrow, rent, or buy, you need to test it before you head out. You don’t want to get to your campsite and discover you don’t have stakes in the tent you borrowed from your friend. You don’t want to realize that your camp stove uses a different fuel than the one you purchased and go hungry. And unless you really like feeling every rock in your back, you don’t want to find a hole in your sleeping pad (did you include a patch in your repair kit?).
Your Pack Will Be Too Heavy
Between all the rented/borrowed gear, you are definitely going to fail at ultra light backpacking. You will probably even overpack. That’s ok. you need at least a handful of trips to realize your own system. For now, stay safe and prepared with some extra food and more clothing.
Just accept it. Nothing weighs much until you stuff in all on your pack and strap it on your back. Then it weighs a hundred pounds. You can feel it in your hips, shoulders, and knees, and as the day goes on your pack will feel heavier and heavier. That’s why you are taking it easy on the miles. Trekking poles may help.
Don’t worry about what your clothes look like, worry about the fabric content. Wool will make you extremely happy, cotton will make you extremely sad. Layers matter. Pack a lightweight rain shell if there is even the slightest chance of rain (or a poncho if you are on a budget). An insulating layer in down, synthetic, or fleece will keep you warm when you aren’t moving.
If you don’t already have them, invest in a pair of wool socks (mens, womens). Your feet will thank you at the end of the day. A good pair of underwear made of high-performance polyester or wool will wick away moisture and keep you dry, comfortable, and a little less smelly.
You Will Smell
Your deodorant is not going to do much after a couple hours of sweating. One time I packed cornstarch to use as dry shampoo (with a drop of tea tree oil to smell a bit cleaner). I didn’t use it. I kept my hair in a braid under my hat the entire weekend.
You will get dirty and sweaty, and so will everyone else. Wool clothing will help with the smell. Sleep in something clean to protect your sleeping bag from your sweat and oils. Other than that? For a short trip, don’t worry about it and enjoy a hot shower when you get home.
You Will Learn How to Poop
Maybe you already know how to poop in the woods. Maybe you are terrified of how that’s going to work out, and imagine you will just be holding it in. Well, you will probably have to poop at some point. All that exertion really gets everything working internally. Don’t forget to pack a shovel, dig a 6-8” deep hole, and squat your already exhausted leg muscles. Replace the dirt without touching your own waste. Be prepared to pack out your toilet paper.
Backpacking Will Bring You to Your Knees
Only two miles into our Desolation Wilderness hike, I started bawling (did you watch that video?). I made it a couple more miles that day, and fell asleep with a view of Lake Tahoe. The next day, as we slid further down in the snow with every step we took trying to reach Dick’s Peak, I called it. I was done for the day. We slept on a rocky peak overlooking a section of the PCT, and saw only one person, far in the distance, as we set up camp.
Never forget nature, it will test you. The weight of your pack, the slowly beginning-to-ache muscles, and the realization that you are far from the civilized world can all affect your emotions. That’s why you are finally trying backpacking, and that’s part of why it’s completely worth it.
You Might Fall in Love
Even if you only hike a handful of miles that first day, you will feel like you accomplished something. For every tearful breakdown I’ve had on the trail (and I’m emotional, I’ve already had a few) making it a couple miles further, or to a campsite where I can curl up in my sleeping bag, or back to the car on the last day leaves me feeling completely exhausted. And powerful.
If you are meant to be a backpacker, you will know. Of all these points above, the most important thing you will realize is that your own two feet got you to that grand, real, natural world. Civilization will fade away, and you will finish your trip already looking forward to the next one.