Today, I’m going to show you exactly how to plan a backpacking trip.
Backpacking is one of my single favorite ways to enjoy the great outdoors – but it can be overwhelming, especially for beginners. Not only do you need a lot of specialized gear, but you must also feel confident cooking your meals, navigating your chosen route, staying safe in the backcountry, and so much more.
Luckily, backpacking really isn’t too difficult with just a little know-how. Whether you’re a full-blown beginner or an experienced backpacker looking for new tips, this guide will help answer all your backpacking questions.
Table of Contents
- Backpacking Gear List
- Backpacking Food & Meals
- How to Pack Your Backpack
- Plan Your Route
- Additional Backpacking Tips
Backpacking Gear List
Don’t plan a backpacking trip before you round up the proper gear. Although buying new is perhaps the best option, it’s never a bad idea for first-timers to borrow or even rent gear for their first trip.
Here is a quick backpacking checklist for the most important backpacking gear:
The Ten Essentials
Created by the Mountaineers in 1974, the Ten Essentials is a short gear list to help you be prepared for emergency situations in the backcountry. The basic updated list includes navigation (map and compass or GPS unit), headlamp (with spare batteries), sun protection, first aid kit, knife, fire (waterproof matches are a must), shelter (a tent is the best, but a bivy sack also works well), extra food, extra water, and extra clothes.
Your backpacking tent gives you shelter at night. Look for a model that’s lightweight, compact, and reliable. Durability and quality waterproofing are also a must. The best tent for you depends on the logistics of your trip (including distance), the size of your party, and the expected weather.
Backpacking Sleeping Bag
Your sleeping bag keeps you warm at night while backpacking. Look for a model that’s lightweight and compressible to easily fit in your pack. Match your sleeping bag’s temperature rating with the expected weather conditions (go about 10°F than the coldest expected temperature). Mummy bags filled with down insulation are most popular for backpacking. Special features like a drawstring hood are essential for cold weather use.
A sleeping pad provides extra comfort and extra insulation. Your two main options are a closed-cell foam pad or an inflatable air pad. Both have their pros and cons for backpacking. Personally, I take a foam pad and an air pad when the weather is cold, or just my air pad on short summer camping trips. For week-long trips, I’ll sometimes sub out for my foam pad thanks to greater reliability (foam can’t leak like an inflatable pad!).
A stove isn’t strictly necessary for backpacking – but a hot meal at the end of a long day is sure appreciated. Your two main options are a small canister stove or an integrated canister stove. Both types have their pros and cons, but I personally find that a small canister is more versatile, although an integrated canister is arguably easier to use, especially if you prefer quick cooking and simple meals.
Cookware & Utensils
Look for lightweight, compact cookware and utensils. Backpacking kitchen kits are available that come with everything you need. Try to combine uses if possible. For example, use a spork and eat out of the pot you cooked your food in. Also note that integrated canister stoves come with a built-in pot so you don’t need to bring an actual cook pot along.
Your backpack is how you carry all of your gear with you. Select a model that’s lightweight, comfortable, and waterproof. Of course, it must also be big enough for all your gear. Tons of different models are available, broken down by intended use, such as lightweight backpacking or long expeditions. You can confidently buy a lot of backpacking gear online, but, like hiking boots, a backpack is something you probably want to try on in person.
Hiking Boots & Clothing
A great pair of hiking boots is hands down the most important piece of backpacking gear of all. You can’t go hiking without them! Most important is a pair of boots that fits well. Never hit the trail without first breaking them in. There are a lot of different options, from lightweight to extremely rugged, but most important for backpacking is a relatively lightweight pair that provides good traction, waterproofing, and insulation. Try hiking boots on in person for proper sizing before buying!
Cold Weather Gear
Backpacking in winter is a truly special experience. But don’t head out into the cold without the proper gear. From winter tents to winter sleeping bags to winter hiking boots, there’s a host of specialized winter backpacking gear that will make it more comfortable. Most important is staying as warm and dry as possible during the entirety of your trip. If you have a dedicated basecamp, a winter tent heater is also a smart addition to your list.
Backpacking Meals and Food
Aside from bringing the right gear and equipment, meal planning is perhaps the most important aspect of planning a backpacking trip. You can’t go backpacking without fuel and nutrition!
Here’s the low-down on food and water for backpacking:
High-calorie, lightweight foods (look for a good weight-to-calorie ratio) is rule number one for backpacking meal planning.
Base your backpacking meals not only on your personal eating preferences, but also on the length of your trip and type of backpacking stove. In general, easy-to-prepare camping meals with minimal cleanup required are ideal.
Freeze-dried backpacking meals are a popular go-to backpacking meal. Just drop the meal into boiling water and you’re good to go. Other ready-to-eat foods like gorp, jerky, hard cheese, fresh fruit, and energy bars are also popular.
Water for Backpacking
Water is just as, if not more important, than food for backpacking. Each person should carry at least 2 liters of water per day on the trail, more if hot weather is expected.
Carry water in water bottles or a hydration reservoir. A water purification system (filter or tablets) allows you to pack in less water and still drink enough, as long as there are adequate water sources along your route.
Check for potential water sources before your trip. Mark these on a map. Then call the local ranger station to confirm the status of these water sources. Always remember that otherwise plentiful backcountry water sources can easily dry up, especially in the summer.
Backcountry Food Storage
As a backpacker, it’s your responsibility to prevent wild animals from getting into your food in the wilderness.
First and foremost, never leave your food in your tent and never leave your food unattended. Check local regulations for additional food storage rules. When hiking in bear country, you typically must use a bear proof canister and/or hang your food bag from a tree.
Although keeping your food away from bears (and following all other bear safety best practices) is vital, proper backcountry food storage also benefits all other wild animals, including small ones like mice and other rodents.
How to Pack Your Bag for Backpacking
Learn how to properly pack your backpack to fit the most gear, make important items easily accessible, and create good balance when hoisted on your back.
Here are the basics on how to pack a backpack for backpacking:
- Bottom – Pack items needed only at night (sleeping bags) at the bottom of your bag.
- Middle – Heavy items, like your stove and cookware, should be packed near the middle of your backpack. If you have a bearproof canister, fill it as full of other items as possible and pack here as well.
- Top – Pack frequently used and lightweight items at the top of your bag. Think rain jackets, snacks, and maps.
- Exterior – Sleeping pads, trekking poles, and tent poles can all be attached to the exterior of your backpack to free up additional interior space.
- Split Items Up – Split tent components up when backpacking with a partner. For example, one of you carries the tent body while the other carries the poles and rainfly.
Plan Your Route
You can’t go on a backpacking trip without first planning a route. Here are the most important factors to consider to pick the best route for your next trip:
- Skill Level – Select a route that matches your skill level. Beginners should go on a short overnight trip first before embarking on a long multi-night expedition.
- Trail Type – Your choices include a loop trail, out-and-back trail, or point-to-point trail. I personally prefer a loop trail when possible as you see the largest variety of scenery.
- Trail Distance – As mentioned above, beginners should start small. 3 to 10 miles per day is a good average for most in-shape hikers. Depending on the terrain, fewer miles is often wise, especially when encountering serious elevation gain.
- Weather Conditions – Check the current weather conditions the day you leave. Make sure to pack appropriate gear for winter camping or camping in the rain if needed. And, if snow or other weather makes your planned route at all unsafe, pick an alternate route or reschedule your trip.
- Expected Terrain – The type of terrain you expect to encounter dictates what gear you need and how much water to pack. Dry, hot, open terrain requires more water while a wet, soggy, rainy environment requires wet weather camping gear.
- Personal Preferences – Do you like hiking on flat ground or a lot of hills? Do you prefer hiking in the mountains, along a river, or through the desert? Let your personal preferences dictate the location for your first backpacking trip.
- Permits & Regulations – Always plan ahead by getting the proper permits/passes and checking local backpacking regulations. Backcountry permits for overnight stays are common as are trailhead parking fees. Check with a local ranger station for the latest info.
- Create a Detailed Plan – Never go backpacking without a plan. Know where you want to go and bring a map. I always bring a paper map as a backup, even if bring a GPS device, like my Suunto Traverse Alpha Watch. Better yet, make a written plan with details of your route, including each spot you intend to camp. Leave a copy with a friend and another in your vehicle at the trailhead in case of an emergency.
- Go With a Friend – Solo backpacking is an amazing experience, but new backpackers should always go with a friend. Better yet, join along with a more experienced friend to learn the ropes with someone that knows their way around the backcountry.
Additional Backpacking Tips
There’s a ton of info to consider when you plan a backpacking trip. To make it easier to digest, we’ve broken the most important details down into several sections.
Before you leave for your backpacking trip, consider the following:
- Practice – Set up all new gear at least once at home. Become familiar with your tent, camp stove, and other equipment so you don’t encounter any problems in the field.
- Break In Boots – Take time to break in new hiking boots before your trip. Wear them around town and on short day hikes before you go backpacking.
- Get in Shape – Don’t go backpacking until you’re in decent shape. Make walking a regular part of your routine, go on a few day hikes, or hit the gym.
- Talk to a Ranger – Contact your local ranger station before you leave for current information on your planned backpacking route. They’ll tell you about wildlife sightings, road closures, trail conditions, campfire restrictions, and more.
- Share Your Plan – Never plan a backpacking trip without telling someone else where you’re going. Leave a detailed plan with a friend so rescue workers know where to look if you don’t come home on time.
On the Trail
Keep the following top backpacking tips in mind while on the trail and at your campsite:
- Set Up Camp – Always select an existing campsite if possible. Otherwise, select a flat, sturdy area. Set up camp as soon as you arrive. Make sure not to set up camp within 200 feet of lakes or streams and never camp on fragile wildflower meadows.
- Filter Water – Never drink directly from a lake or stream. Infections like giardia is common, no matter how clear the water. Pack your own water or being along a water purification system.
- Cook Safely – Cook backpacking meals at least 200 feet from your campsite. Wash all dishes this distance as well. This reduces the chance of spilling food that will attract wildlife to your tent. In grizzly bear country, wearing a different outfit to cook in versus the one you sleep in is also important.
- Properly Store Food – Minimize wildlife encounters, including those with dangerous animals like bears, by properly storing all food at night in a bearproof canister or hanging from a tree.
- Build a Campfire – Check if backcountry campfires are allowed in the first place. If they are allowed, follow all campfire safety best practices, including keeping the fire as small as possible, using only wood collected from the ground, and never leaving the fire unattended.
- Use the Bathroom – Pee at least 200 feet away from your campsite and any water sources. For “number two,” either bury in a small hole or pack it out. Many backcountry areas now require you to pack out all human waste. Bring toilet paper and check out our tips for going poop in the woods for more info.
- Leave No Trace – Respect the wilderness by always following the 7 leave no trace principles while backpacking.
In an Emergency
If you find yourself in an emergency while backpacking, follow these tips to stay safe:
- Stick to the Plan – Remember that detailed plan of your route you gave to a friend before your trip? If injured or lost, it’s best to stick to that plan. Rescue workers will start searching in the areas you were supposed to be when you don’t come home on time.
- STOP – STOP is an acronym that stands for stop, think, observe, and plan. As soon as you feel lost, stop and relax, think if you can navigate back to your last known location, observe the surrounding area for recognizable landmarks, and come up with a plan. It’s almost always best to remain in one place when seriously lost rather than try to find your way back to the trail.
- Personal Locator Beacon – PLBs are becoming increasingly common for backpacking in remote areas. They alert local authorities to your exact coordinates if you’re lost or injured.
Hit The Trail!
Properly planning a backpacking trip is beyond important but eventually you just have to hit the road and go!
No matter how well you plan your trip, chances are you’ll encounter a few bumps along the way. But, guess what? That’s all part of the learning experience and it will make your next backpacking trip even better.
Now, I’m curious to hear from you. How was your first backpacking trip? Do you have any additional tips for backpacking beginners? And, like always, don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions!