Backpacking for Beginners
Are you sitting around dreaming of nature and wondering what it would take to go backpacking? Well, you're probably more prepared than you think! We just pulled together some of the basics and included a handy checklist at the end to help you get started.
The Essential Gear
This category includes the most important components for building a backpacking kit. Together, these pieces are usually the heaviest items on your back and may dictate the rest of the gear you carry, so you'll want to get these in order before jumping into the rest of your backpacking setup.
Backpack: They don't call it backpacking for nothing. When choosing a pack, the key things are capacity, fit, features and weight. You need the capacity (measured in liters) to carry all of your stuff which typically is based on the duration of your trip. A 35-50L pack is usually good for a 2-3 day weekend trip but 50-80L is needed for longer trips. Fit is critical for a comfortable trip so choose a pack sized to your torso and follow the adjustment instructions closely. Better yet, visit your local Moosejaw store for a custom fitting. Key features include the number of pockets, hydration compatibility, and a dedicated sleeping bag compartment. You want to minimize the weight of the pack while still having the capacity, fit and features you need.
Shelter: Carrying a reliable shelter that will protect you from the elements is crucial to survival in the backcountry. For a shelter, you can choose to go with a tent or a tarp. In short, tents offer more protection, while tarps are more versatile. Size is the main feature you'll want to look for in a tent/tarp, not too big and not too small. Alone or sharing a shelter, make sure the floor(or coverage) area will fit everyone and their sleeping pads. Weight is also a consideration, tents are heavier, and get heavier as you go up in size. Tarps are typically lighter. If you're headed in the hammock direction, you'll still need a tarp.
Set up camp in your backyard for a weekend and try to avoid going indoors. Except maybe to use the bathroom, unless you have a VERY private yard.
Sleeping Bag: Consider the environment you’ll be backpacking through and take time to research weather conditions. Temperature rating is the biggest consideration for staying comfortable, not to mention safe, when temperatures plunge at night. Generally, 40 degree or warmer are for summer, 20-35 degree bags are for 3-season and anything below 20 degree is for winter. Insulation type comes next and unless you find a yak to snuggle with, you'll be choosing between a down or synthetic bag. Down insulated bags will be the lightest and most compressible, while synthetics will generally perform better in wet or humid environments Most bags will include a stuff sack or compression sack to prevent it from taking up too much space in your pack.
Temperature ratings are an estimate of the lowest nighttime temperature that the average sleeper will stay comfortable at. It's best to check the product info to see whether the rating provided is a comfort rating, lower limit rating, or a range. Every brand is different and every person is different, but these ratings will give you a good guideline to choose the best bag for your needs. As always, hit us up if you need any help.
Sleeping Pad: If you don't have a sleeping pad, your bag just won't perform up to its potential. View your pad as part of a whole sleep system. This is because when lying down, your bag compresses and doesn't give enough insulation from the cold ground. The construction is the first choice you'll need to make in a pad and there are three options: closed cell foam (CCF), self-inflating and inflatable air mattresses. Closed cell foam pads are the ones you'll see strapped to the outside of packs, whereas inflatable and self-inflating pads are designed to fit nicely inside your pack. Once you've chosen your pad type, look into warmth. R-value is a number given by the manufacturer, which is the ability of the pad to resist the flow of heat. Higher the R-value, the warmer you'll be.
Camping pillows are optional, but you can always make one when you're out there. Stuff your fleece, puffy jacket, or any extra clothing you have inside of your sleeping bag storage sack and voila!
Camping in your yard is the easiest way to get experience with the process. After your weekend trial run take some time and note the stuff you wish you had packed but didn't, and also the stuff you didn't end up using or really need. This is a great way to ensure you are only bringing essential gear, which can help keep your pack weight down. It's much easier to learn these lessons a couple dozen feet from home instead of miles into the backcountry.
Clothing and Footwear
Many factors can go into deciding what clothing you pack and what to wear on your feet. It can depend on season, climate, altitude changes, weather forecast, and personal comfort levels. A common mistake is to bring too much clothing, so try to focus on layers. Outlined below is a basic layering system that should have you covered for most 3-season backpacking trips.
Socks & Underwear: I haven't figured out how to put my socks and underwear on at the same time yet, but I lumped these together because I usually store them together. Probably a smart idea to bring an extra pair of each. Or don't, I'm not your mom.
Footwear: When you break trail on your backpacking trip, make sure it isn't the first time wearing your hiking footwear. Wear something that you know you're comfortable in, and if you pick up a new pair of shoes or boots, be sure to test them out around the neighborhood or on a trial hike to break 'em in. Don't gloss over this section, comfortable footwear makes a huge difference. PRO TIP: For added comfort, bring a second pair of lightweight shoes or slippers to slip into when hanging out around camp.
Break in new hiking footwear by walking around your neighborhood or hiking on trails near your home. A backpacking trip should NOT be the first time hiking in your new kicks. If you paid attention above, you're getting this advice for a second time.
Base Layers: This is your first layer that you will probably spend most of your time hiking in. T-shirt or long-sleeved hiking shirt, just make sure it's comfortable. PRO TIP: Bring an extra shirt and a pair of long johns reserved for sleepwear.
Mid Layers: You can think of this as the insulation layer(s) that will keep you warm on the trail and at camp. Your options here are wool, fleece, or jackets filled with down or synthetic insulation. Bring a lightweight fleece for warm weather or a compressible puffy jacket for the cold.
Outer Layer: Bring a rain jacket or poncho. Just do it. For your bottom half, you can also bring a pair of rain pants if you think you'll be hiking through some nasty weather.
Hats & Gloves: It's almost always a good idea to have a brimmed hat for sun protection, but if you can expect cool or cold temperatures, you might want to bring a beanie as well. When temperatures drop, a pair of wool or fleece gloves can really make your day. If you don't have gloves, you can use an extra pair of socks as mittens.
Even if the forecast is clear, it's always best to pack an emergency rain jacket or poncho. Bring a big trash bag just in case. Cut out some holes for your head and arms, you’ll figure it out.
Food and Water
A successful, enjoyable backpacking trip depends on proper nutrition and hydration. This section is 100% essential unless you plan on fasting. In which case, you probably won't make it very far and you’ll still need to make sure you have clean water to drink.
Bottles & Bladders: Don't you dare head out there without a way to carry water. As a general rule, you should drink about a 1/2 liter of water for every 1 hour of hiking. Choose between a water bottle or hydration reservoir. A 32 ounce Nalgene bottle is a hiker tried and true classic, as it's practically indestructible. A hydration reservoir or bladder hangs inside your pack and you drink from it out of a tube that hangs over your shoulder/front of chest. Consider climate and exertion level. If you're traversing strenuous terrain, hiking in the heat of summer or have long stretches between water sources, you may want to bring an extra bottle.
You know those plastic milk jugs or empty soda bottles you haven't recycled yet? Wash ‘em out and use those to haul water!
Water Filtration & Treatment: If you don't filter or treat your water, you're going to have a bad time. Drinking straight from the water source can lead to all sorts of sickness. Bring along a mechanical water filter or chemical treatment solution. A mechanical water filter is a fairly common choice, be it a hand pump, gravity or squeeze style. If you’re hiking in a large group, a fast, high volume mechanical water filter is your best bet. Chemical drops or tablets will have a bit of a wait time, but they’re lightweight, reliable, and inexpensive. If either of those methods fail, you can always boil water, but it's best to avoid it to save on time and fuel for cooking.
Trail Snacks: Pack some num nums that are easy to grab and munch on throughout the day. Trail mix, jerky, granola, fruit snacks and energy bars are some mainstays here. PRO TIP: When balancing calories and packed weight, you can't beat peanut butter. I'm also a fiend for that stuff, so I can hardly trust myself on this subject.
Planned Meals: Plan out your meals and keep your portions organized. Err on the side of bringing extra food. Yeah uh, it really dampens the mood when you’re hangry on the last day. Anyway, follow the lead of our good pal Samwise and pack enough food for the journey home. PRO TIP: Write a list! Plan breakfast, lunch and dinner for each day on the trail. While you don't have to adhere to spaghetti on Monday and tacos on Tuesday, it will help with making sure you pack enough before you leave.
For the minimalist backpackers out there that would hike the Appalachian Trail barefoot, a warm meal is probably considered a luxury. That’s all well and good, but I think it’s much more fun and enjoyable to create a real deal meal rather than relying on drink mixes and protein bars for nutrition. Now, I’m not saying you need to go all out and spring for a first-class ticket to Flavortown, but at a minimum, you should be able to muster up some hot water.
Stove & Fuel: For most backpacking trips, a canister stove is just the ticket. They're lightweight, easy to use, and you can find the gas canisters at outfitters and most grocery stores. Just screw the stove onto the fuel canister and you’re ready to rock. Make sure you test your stove before you go.
Lighter: You'll need a spark to get your stove going. Pack a lighter, some waterproof matches, or both. A fire steel (also known as a ferrocerium or magnesium rod) is another reliable option, but they can take some practice to get used to. PRO TIP: It's always good to have a backup. Pack an extra lighter or mix it up with a couple different spark options, even if your stove has an igniter button.
Cookware: You can approach your meals a few different ways. A minimalist setup would include a single cookpot made of titanium, hard anodized aluminum or stainless steel. You use this for boiling water and/or preparing simple dishes. If you're in a large group, you can either bring along one big pot or everyone can split the carry weight and bring several pots of different sizes. If you want to go full gourmet, bring a lightweight backpacking frying pan. Don’t bring your cast-iron skillet on a backpacking trip. If you do, send pics or it didn't happen.
Bowls & Utensils: Most freeze-dried backpacking meals can be eaten right out of the bag, but you'll still want a good spoon or spork to dig out the goods. It's usually worth it to have a separate bowl, cup or plate to eat from rather than waiting for your cooking pot to cool. In any case, you'll want a utensil to eat with and something to eat it from.
Other Important Gear
Here are some more things you won't want to leave home without, along with some luxury items that you can pack for added safety, comfort, convenience or entertainment.
Permits & Itinerary: Make sure you have all of the necessary permits required for entry and/or backcountry camping. An itinerary can help you figure out which permits are needed and for how long, and will make it much easier to plan out your meals. Leave a copy of your itinerary with someone. Either a friend, family member or park ranger, just in case of emergency.
Map(s): Yeah, I get it. You know where you're going and you can use the stars to navigate. But seriously, just bring a stinkin' map! Make sure it includes trail mileage, and whether you need to reserve sites or not, make note of some established campsites if that knowledge is available.
Compass: Getting lost is part of the fun, but a compass will keep you oriented on the trail and can really help you get out of a pickle.
GPS: You probably don't need one in most places, but a good handheld GPS, smartphone, or smartwatch can be super helpful.
First-Aid Kit: This varies from person to person. I usually have a couple band-aids of different sizes and a few ibuprofen. Other ideas include antibiotic cream, talcum powder, cold meds or other personal medications.
Repair Kit: Bring a few repair items in case your gear fails in the field. Some gear tape to repair clothing and tents, and some extra paracord can come in handy. If you have an inflatable sleeping pad, bring some repair patches just in case a poorly placed pine needle decides to ruin your night.
Let's pause and take a moment to recognize duct tape. The uses are almost endless. Wrap some duct tape around your water bottle, trekking pole, a lighter or a pen, and you'll have repair patches for your gear and bandages for your boo boo's.
Headlamp: These are great. Seriously, bring one. Maybe a flashlight too, but definitely a headlamp. I meant it, just do it.
Batteries: Bring a few extra batteries for electronics and if you're using your phone for maps or photography, consider a rechargeable battery pack.
Sun Protection: I'm a big fan of sunglasses. Never leave home without 'em. Also bring a hat with a brim to shade your face, along with some sunscreen and lip balm.
Bug Protection: I'm a big fan of head nets when the trail gets buggy. They're dorky, but effective. You can also bring a small spray bottle of your favorite insect repellent (DEET, permethrin, picaridin, or plant oils).
Hygiene Products: Hmm, can't say I usually bring body soap or shampoo into the backcountry, but some people bathe more often than I do. Whatever. What I do bring is my toothbrush and toothpaste, along with some biodegradable soap for keeping my dishes clean. Hand sanitizer is a good thing to bring as well. PRO TIP: hand sanitizer can help start a fire in survival situations.
Toilet Paper & Trowel: You should probably bring a little TP or some wet wipes with you. The reason for this is because humans have a tendency to poop. It's just a fact of life that we haven't found a way around yet. You can also bring a trowel for digging cat holes, but you can always try digging with a stick.
Resealable plastic bags of all sizes are super handy while backpacking, and you probably already have some. Use a gallon size as a dry storage bag for your clothes, and keep important stuff like your phone and toilet paper in a smaller baggie.
Pack Cover or Liner: Solid planning is your best asset, but sometimes you get caught in an unexpected downpour. Have a pack cover ready for deployment or a pack liner on the inside to keep your gear protected. In addition to water-resistance, a pack liner can help protect your pack from the dirt and grime that can make it deteriorate faster. PRO TIP: trash compactor bags make great bag liners.
Camp Chair: Imagine kicking back in a sturdy chair after hiking a dozen or so miles. So nice.
Hammock: and if you're really dedicated, you can turn your hammock into your sleep system.
Knife or Multi-tool: Carry a blade for cuttin’ stuff up. A sharp edge isn't required, but highly recommended. A multi-tool with pliers is next level.
Trekking Poles: Trekking Poles are optional, but they can improve speed and stability out on the trail, and really ease the impact on your joints.
Bear Canister: Depending on where you go, a bear canister may be required. If it's not, and you're still in bear territory, it might still be a good idea. Otherwise, you can hang your food.
Book or Journal: I'll be the first to admit that moments of boredom can arise in the backcountry. Bring yourself a good read or a notebook for jotting down some ideas.
Watch a badass documentary or adventure movie, like Lord of the Rings, to get you pumped up. Also, prepare some good songs you can sing or hum when you need a morale boost on the trail.
Alternative Beverages: Sometimes you crave something else besides water. As far as I'm concerned, my body requires coffee. I've seen almost every kind of beverage imaginable out on the trail, including Gatorade, loose leaf tea, whiskey, vodka and beer. If you do partake, enjoy responsibly you guys. PRO TIP: Bring a few of those powdered lemon packets and craft yourself some lemonade or *cough* whiskey sours at camp.