Few outdoor experiences compare to the thrill of planning a backpacking trip and leaving the campground far behind.
Enter the wilderness on an overnight backpacking trip to escape the crowds and nightly fees of organized camping. Backpacking gives you intimate access to miles upon miles of trails, views of the darkest skies imaginable, and an up close and personal relationship with mother nature.
Yet many first-time backpackers become overwhelmed during the planning process. They worry about selecting the right route, bringing the proper equipment, and deciding what to eat on an extended trip in the wilderness.
Don’t allow these fears to cause cold feet. Planning a backpacking trip really isn’t that difficult with a little know-how.
Our ultimate guide shows you how to plan a backpacking trip without breaking a sweat.
- Gear & Equipment
- Food & Water
- Packing Your Bag
- Before You Go
- On the Trail
- Wilderness Ethics
- Emergency Situations
- Children and Pets
- Backpacking Checklist
Select a Route/Destination
The first step to planning a backpacking trip is selecting your route/destination.
There are multiple factors to consider before making a decision. The most important things to think about include:
If you’re planning a backpacking trip for the first time, we strongly encourage you to enlist the help of an experienced friend.
Backpacking with an experienced partner is great for your peace of mind. You’ll rest easy knowing you’ll be able to handle emergency situations far better if one comes up.
Backpacking with a friend is also a lot more fun than a solo backpacking trip. You’ll build up an even stronger friendship and learn the ins and outs of backpacking much more quickly.
Teaming up with an experienced friend also helps you stay within your skill level. They’ll know what to expect when choosing a backpacking route so you can pick one that’s challenging but not overwhelming.
What if you don’t have any friends experienced with backpacking? Then consider joining a backpacking group. These are easy to find online or through your local outdoor recreation store.
We encourage beginners to go on a couple of day hikes before planning an overnight backpacking trip.
It’s important to feel at least somewhat comfortable alone in the wilderness. Day hikes also give you a chance to break in your hiking boots and learn about your other equipment.
This time on the trail is also perfect for figuring out pacing. Pay attention to how fast and how far you can hike without becoming uncomfortably tired. Use your findings to plan the length of your first overnight backpacking trip.
Even if you’re an experienced day hiker, we recommend starting small on your first overnight trip. A single night trip is the best way to learn the basics. Don’t attempt a multi-night trip until you’re comfortable with single overnights.
Backpacking can be expensive. Even after you buy all the necessary backpacking equipment, you still have to dish out for food, fees and permits, and gas to and from the trailhead.
To save money, most casual backpackers decide on a route/destination in their local area. Planning a local backpacking trip also shaves time off driving to the trailhead.
How much time do you have for the trip itself? Beginners shouldn’t rush. Make sure you have plenty of time to complete the route you choose. Pushing yourself too hard on your first outing can spoil backpacking in the future.
What kind of hiking do you like? Do you prefer to be under the canopy of trees or out in the open? Plan a backpacking route accordingly.
Of course, your local area plays into this. Here in Washington State, we’re blessed with a wide variety of hiking terrain ranging from old growth rainforests to alpine meadows to sandy beaches.
Another factor to consider is the trail terrain. Beginners should plan a backpacking trip with relatively few elevation changes.
Not sure what kind of hiking you prefer? Backpacking guidebooks are available for almost every region in North America.
Pick a guidebook up, check out an online backpacking forum (like Backpacker’s Basecamp), or stop by a local outdoor gear retailer to find the best backpacking trips for beginners in your local area.
For example, Washington Trails Association is an invaluable online resource for hikers in the Pacific Northwest.
The most common trail types include loop, out and back, and point to point. Though the names are pretty self-explanatory, here’s what to expect from each:
- Loop Trail – Start and end a “loop trail” at the same point without covering the same trail twice. Also known as a circuit trail.
- Out and Back – Start and end an “out and back trail” at the same point but retrace your steps. In other words, take the same trail out of the woods as you take in. Many out and back trails end at a scenic area of some sort.
- Point to Point – Start and end a “point to point trail” at different points. You usually need one car at each of the points. A common technique is to drive two cars to the end point, drop one car off, then drive to the start point in the other car.
Trail distance is a huge factor when it comes to planning a backpacking trip.
Like we mentioned above, we recommend that beginners start small. Most hikers should for between 3 and 10 miles of hiking per day depending on the terrain. More challenging terrain, such as numerous elevation changes, might require tackling fewer daily miles.
Consider your goals as well. Do you prefer a leisurely pace with plenty of time for stops and relaxation? Or do you want to cover as much ground as possible each day with little time for stops?
Time of Year
Is it the right time of year to tackle the trail you’re interested in?
While a low elevation trail might be perfect in early fall, a higher elevation trail might already be made impassable by snow.
Time of year also factors into the backpacking equipment you need to bring. Summer hikes require lighter clothing than fall or winter hikes.
(This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pack for quickly changing weather conditions in summer though!)
Be sure to check the weather conditions before heading out to stay up-to-date on any last minute changes.
Passes, Permits, and Regulations
Parking at certain trailheads requires a special pass or permit. Current guidebooks contain updated information on whether your route requires one. To be safe, we recommend calling the ranger station nearest the trail you’re using before heading out.
Be aware of other rules and regulations for the area where you’re planning a backpacking trip. Many areas require special overnight permits. These can be picked up at the nearest ranger station.
Other common regulations include campfire bans and using a bear-proof canister to store your food overnight.
Maps & Guidebooks
We already mentioned how effective hiking guidebooks are to planning a backpacking trip. But they’re also very useful to have on the trail.
A guidebook or a map is essential to have in an emergency situation. If you get lost, you’ll be thankful you brought yours along.
Topographical maps are your best bet. We encourage you to look for maps made for hikers and backpackers. Green Trails Maps is a good choice for those living in western states.
Though USGS are the most detailed, they aren’t updated very frequently.
You should also pack a compass (and know how to use it).
Create a Detailed Plan
Planning a backpacking trip is in the details. Knowing exactly where and when you’ll be hiking and camping is also essential if an emergency situation comes up.
Create a detailed plan that outlines the route you’re taking. Mark what section you plan to hike each day and where you plan to camp each night. List what date/time you expect to arrive at the trailhead and what time you expect to return home.
Make at least two copies of your backpacking trip plan. Stash one in your vehicle at the trailhead. Leave the other with a trusted friend or family member.
If a backcountry emergency happens or you don’t return on time, the trusted friend or family member will be able to notify the proper authorities. Stick to your plan and you’ll be much easier to find if help is needed.
For particularly challenging routes, we recommend leaving an extra copy of your plan at the nearest ranger station.
Suggested Backpacking Trips
Here are our 5 favorite backpacking trips in U.S. National Parks. The skill level required for these trips ranges from first-time beginner to full blown expert.
If you ever have the chance to go on one of these amazing National Park backpacking trips, we strongly encourage you to do so!
Planning a backpacking trip on the Wonderland Trail is a bucket-list must, in our opinion.
Located in Washington’s beautiful Mount Rainier National Park, the 93-mile loop trail actually encircles the mountain. Most people take between 8 and 15 days to hike the loop.
The Wonderland Trail is strenuous. In addition to plenty of elevation changes and rough terrain, the majority of the trail is at a high altitude. This can make it difficult for those that aren’t used to alpine hiking.
Is the Wonderland Trail the best backpacking trip for beginners? Not necessarily, but it can be done.
Beginners planning a backpacking trip for the Wonderland Trail should be in great hiking shape. We also recommend hiking with an experienced partner.
Our favorite part of this top backpacking route is the huge scenic payoff. The views of Mount Rainer are unbeatable.
Learn more about backpacking the Wonderland Trail.
High Sierra Camp Loop
The High Sierra Camp Loop is another pinnacle of planning a backpacking trip.
The 49-mile loop hike is located high in the Sierra Nevada within California’s stunning Yosemite National Park. Most people take around 6 days to complete the loop.
The High Sierra Camp Loop is unique among backpacking routes. It consists of 5 camps each a day’s hike away from each other. Most backpackers stay at one of these camps each night.
While the traditional overnight method of backpacking (staying in your own tent with your own sleeping bag) is possible on the High Sierra Camp Loop, many choose to utilize the tent-cabins available at each camp.
These minimalist tent-cabins contain bunk beds with wool blankets and sheets for passing hikers. Bring a sleeping bag liner since the blankets and sheets are only cleaned once a year.
The camps on the High Sierra Camp Loop also provide meals and bag lunches to interested hikers. Make sure to book these ahead of time.
This California backpacking trip is perfect for beginning backpackers. The tent-cabin setup makes it an easy and enjoyable first trip.
The High Sierra Camp Loop is also great for backpackers that are interested in planning a solo backpacking trip. During hiking season, you’re sure to find each campsite filled with other backpackers at night.
Learn more about backpacking the High Sierra Camp Loop.
North Coast Route
Few backpacking trips cover as diverse a trail as the North Coast Route.
Located in Washington’s Olympic National Park, the 7th most visited national park in the United States, the trail mostly follows the rugged Pacific Coastline.
Though trips of various distances are possible, most backpackers settle for the popular 20-mile roundtrip route.
The North Coast Route is notable for its seaside location. Almost the entire route follows sandy coastline. Short sections dip into the surrounding coastal forest.
Though this backpacking trail is well-maintained and mostly flat, it’s not exactly easy. River crossings must be navigated with care and at low tide only. A handful of rocky bluffs require you to use a makeshift series of ropes and ladders to scramble to the other side.
If you’re willing to put in the extra work, the North Coast Route is breathtaking in terms of scenic beauty.
Learn more about backpacking the North Coast Route.
Mount Sterling Loop
If you want to plan a backpacking trip that’s short and sweet, the Mount Sterling Loop is a good choice.
The trail is located in the northwest section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The closest town (and best jumping off point) to the trail is nearby Waynesville, North Carolina.
The Mount Sterling Loop is a 16.7-mile loop trail. Most backpackers take 2 nights to complete the trip as there are two campsites/shelters along the way.
Most of the trail follows a burbling creek that is cast in the soft glow of sunlight filtering through the deeply wooded forest. The first few miles of trail contain numerous swimming holes – so allow time for a relaxing dip.
An impressive waterfall just over 1.5 miles in is another highlight of the Mount Sterling Loop trail. Once a railroad grade to transport logs downhill during the 20th century timber boom, the observant hiker will be able to spot relics from this period of the trail’s history.
Learn more about backpacking the Mount Sterling Loop.
Gunsight Pass Trail
Hiking the Gunsight Pass Trail offers a backcountry mountain experience unlike any other.
The scenic trail covers a 39-mile stretch in Montana’s rugged and pristine Glacier National Park. Highlights of the trip are a smattering of glacial lakes, high snow-capped peaks, and two mountain passes.
Gunsight Pass Trail is one of the best backpacking destinations in Montana. Yet it’s not for the faint of heart. The rugged terrain coupled with frequent wildlife sightings (bears and mountain goats) and quickly changeable weather present numerous challenges for beginners.
Planning a backpacking trip here is best reserved for more experienced backpackers. A beginning backpacker should only tackle Gunsight Pass Trail if traveling with an experienced group.
Learn more about backpacking the Gunsight Pass Trail.
Backpacking Gear and Equipment
Backpacking requires a lot of equipment to stay safe, comfortable, and happy on the trail.
If you’re new to backpacking, we recommend borrowing or renting as much gear as possible. Buying all the gear yourself is an expensive investment – one you shouldn’t make until you’re sure backpacking is right for you.
With that said, certain gear is more difficult to rent/borrow. Hiking boots, for example, need to be the exact right size. Blisters from borrowed or rented hiking boots can quickly ruin your backpacking trip. Renting or borrowing a backpack is also hit or miss. Your backpack must fit your body well to ensure maximum comfort during your backpacking trip.
Below we break down each piece of backpacking gear and equipment you need to consider when planning a backpacking trip.
And be sure to consult our comprehensive backpacking checklist to ensure you have everything you need for a great trip!
Never forget the Ten Essentials when planning a backpacking trip. Experts even recommend getting into the habit of packing them anytime you step foot in the wilderness, even on short day hikes.
The thing about the Ten Essentials is they don’t necessarily seem essential at first glance. And chances are you’ll never need all of them during a single trip.
But when you do find yourself in a sticky situation, you’ll really appreciate having them close at hand. Think of them as your backpacking emergency kit.
The Ten Essentials were created by The Mountaineers organization in 1930 for use by Seattle area climbers and hikers. The goal was to narrow down the essential items for emergency backcountry situations.
The list has been updated several times over the years. The last major update was in 2003, when individual items were replaced with “systems” (or categories). For instance, “navigation” is now used in place of a map and compass.
The current Ten Essentials include:
A map and compass are a must when you plan a backpacking trip of any length. The Mountaineers now encourage you to bring an altimeter as well. An altimeter is a device that estimates your current elevation. A GPS receiver is an additional option.
Never forget sunglasses and sunscreen when planning a backpacking trip.
Make sure to choose sunglasses that block 100% of ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB). Special dark glasses are necessary for those traveling over ice and snow.
Sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher is recommend by experts. Like sunglasses, find a brand that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. SPF lip balm is another smart item to pack.
If you’re hiking in extremely sunny weather, you might consider investing in sun-protection clothing. It’s specially designed to provide even more protection from harmful ultraviolet light.
Wet, wind, and cold are just as big of problems while backpacking as the sun and heat. So always carry an additional layer of clothing just in case.
A good rule of thumb is to select the proper clothing for the worst conditions realistically possible when planning a backpacking trip. Take location and time of year into consideration when making this judgement call.
Long underwear tops and bottoms, an insulated hat, and extra socks are the most commonly recommend extra items of clothing.
A light source and spare batteries are beyond essential in the backcountry.
Headlamps have become the light source of choice in recent years thanks to their small size, light weight, and long battery life. Hands-free operation is another benefit.
Flashlights and packable lanterns are other options.
A basic first-aid kit is a must when planning a backpacking trip. The most popular option is buying a pre-assembled kit and then personalizing it to your preferences.
The items your first-aid kit absolutely needs include:
- Adhesive bandages (various sizes)
- Adhesive tape
- Gauze pads
- Blister treatment
- Pain medication (over-the-counter)
- Nitrile gloves
A short guidebook to dealing with medical emergencies in the wilderness is also worthy of consideration.
Shop Amazon’s selection of pre-assembled first-aid kits.
Want to be even more prepared. Check out our article to learn how to build the ultimate camping survival bag.
Waterproof matches are another one of the Ten Essentials. Alternately, normal matches can be stored in a waterproof container.
A firestarter is another nice item to have. As their name implies, their purpose is to help you start a fire. Household items like candles, lint trappings, and dry tinder are all ideal choices. You can also buy special firestarters designed to start fires in the wilderness.
Basic tools are a must for repairing gear, preparing food, making kindling, and for first aid. A knife or multitool is your best bet.
We recommend a multitool with a blade, flathead screwdriver, can opener, and scissors. A more complex multitool is never a bad idea though.
Duct tape is another smart item to pack. It works as a sort of universal tool. You can fix mattress leaks, water bottle leaks, broken trekking poles, and much more with duct tape.
Always bring at least one day’s worth of extra food when backpacking. Simple, lightweight, non-perishable options include energy bars, trail mix, and jerky. Not only will extra food keep you full, it also helps keep you warm on a cold night.
Extra water is arguably the most important of the Ten Essentials. Each person should have at least one water bottle and collapsible water reservoir.
Be sure to pack a water treatment system as well. The most popular systems are a filter/purifier or chemical treatment.
Research potential emergency water sources while planning an overnight backpacking trip.
Last but not least is an emergency shelter. As you might imagine, this is geared more towards day hikers than backpackers. If you plan on spending the night in the wilderness, you probably already plan on carrying some type of shelter.
Options for hikers include ultralight tarps, bivy sacks, and space blankets. You’ll likely already have a tent with you since you’re backpacking.
Though the Ten Essentials should be more than enough for your backpacking emergency kit, there are several other items to consider. These include:
- Insect repellent
- Emergency whistle
- Ice axe (if traversing snow fields)
- Signaling mirror (built in on some compasses)
- Personal Locator Beacon
Our in-depth post on how to buy a backpack provides a detailed guide on buying the best backpack for backpacking. Read through this info then shop Amazon’s selection of backpacking backpacks.
Here’s a few of the most important things to consider:
How big does your backpack need to be and how much does it need to hold?
The answer to this question depends on the specifics of your trip. Longer trips require larger backpacks while shorter trips are possible with smaller ones.
You have three main backpack capacity options. These include:
- Weekend – These 30-50 liter backpacks are designed for 1-3 nights on the trail. Pack carefully as there’s not much extra room.
- Multiday – These 50-80 liter backpacks are designed for 3-5 nights on the trail. Though they’re big enough for longer trips, they’re also small enough to be convenient for weekend outings.
- Extended – These 70+ liter backpacks are designed for 5+ nights on the trail. They’re also the best choice for winter backpacking where bulky cold weather gear is essential.
Torso length and waist size are the most important factors when it comes to selecting the best-fitting backpacking backpack.
- Torso Length – Most models are available in multiple sizes (from extra-small to extra-large) to fit different torsos. Some have adjustable suspension to further help find the perfect fit.
- Waist Size – At least 80% of your backpack’s overall weight should rest on your hips. A hip belt helps better distribute this weight. Most are adjustable but it’s important to find a hip belt that fits comfortably.
Your best bet when buying a backpack for backpacking is to visit an outdoor gear retailer in person. Have a fit specialist help size you for backpacks so you know which models to look at. You can then head online to comparison shop for the best deals.
REI has a very helpful article on how to find your torso and hip size with the help of a friend.
Some of the most important features to think about when buying a backpacking backpack include:
There are three backpack frame types to choose from:
- Internal-Frame – Most popular frame type. Designed to keep backpacker steady on rough, uneven terrain. Helps transfer weight to the hips.
- External-Frame – Best if you’re carrying an irregular load. Lots of options for organization as well as good ventilation.
- Frameless – Used by ultralight backpackers. Not a good choice for beginners.
How well you can access the inside of your backpack. A few things to consider include:
- Top-Loading – Opening at top. Most common design. Pack less frequently used items on the bottom, more frequently used items at the top.
- Panel Access – Some backpacks have an additional front access panel. Makes it easier to reach items at bottom of the bag.
Hiking backpack pockets come with all types of pocket layouts. Consider the following:
- Side Pockets – Usually made of elastic. Located on outside sides of backpack. Made to hold water bottles, tent poles, etc.
- Hip Belt Pockets – Located on hip belt. Made to hold small items like smartphone, snacks, etc.
- Shovel Pockets – Flaps on front of backpack. Originally designed to hold a snow shovel though they can hold any loose object such as a rain jacket.
- Sleeping Bag Compartment – Space on bottom of backpack to store sleeping bag. Can also be used for other loose items.
- Hydration Reservoir – Sleeve inside bag that fits a hydration reservoir to hold extra water.
- Removable Daypack – Some models feature a removable daypack or hip belt pack to take on day hikes during your backpacking trip.
Backpack attachment points are anywhere on the outside of the bag that extra gear can be attached. Almost all packs feature at least a handful of tool loops. These are best used for gear that can get wet.
Buy a hiking backpack with adequate padding. It’s especially important for the hip belt to fit comfortably.
Lightweight backpacking backpacks feature minimal padding. Expect sore hips and lower back if you select one of these packs.
A mesh back is a nice feature since it allows your back to breathe to prevent sweaty-back syndrome.
A special cover designed to keep your backpack dry in wet conditions. Bring one along if you expect rain on your trip.
An alternate option is to pack each item separately inside a waterproof stuff sack and place these inside your backpack.
Our in-depth guide on how to buy a tent for camping provides a detailed review on finding the best tent for backpacking. Read through this information then shop Amazon’s selection of backpacking tents.
The 3 main factors to consider when buying a tent for backpacking are seasonality, capacity, and features. Let’s take a closer look:
Seasonality relates to the type of weather your backpacking tent is designed to withstand. Don’t select a tent with less than a 3-season rating if you plan to use it for backpacking.
- 3 Season – Use in spring, summer, and fall. Holds up to moderate rain and wind.
- 3-4 Season – Use in spring, summer, fall, and in mild winter. Holds up to mild snow but still works well in summer.
- 4 Season – Use in fall, winter, and spring. Holds up to harsh winter conditions including heavy snow. Too well-insulated for use in warm summer conditions. Top choice for mountaineers.
Tent capacity mainly relates to how many people the tent fits. But it also has to do with the livability of the tent as well as its weight.
- Capacity – Most backpacking tents fit 1 or 2 people. More spacious tents are generally too heavy.
- Livability – How comfortable is sleeping in the tent? Features that improve livability include volume, floor dimensions, peak height, wall shape, and layout.
- Weight – The lighter the backpacking tent, the better. If you’re backpacking alone, look at ultralight options. When planning a backpacking trip with a partner, one person can carry the tent body and other can carry the tent poles to better disperse the weight.
Some of the most important features to think about when buying a backpacking tent include:
- Wall Type – Single wall equals rainfly and tent body in one. Double wall has a separate rainfly from tent body. Most backpackers prefer single wall for its lightweight and ease of setup.
- Materials – Choose a tent with high-denier fabrics (nylon or polyester) for better weatherproofing and durability.
- Poles – High-strength aluminum poles are very lightweight.
- Vestibules – An overhang outside the door of tent. Perfect place to stash dirty boots and other gear.
- Inner Loops/Pockets – Loops and pockets located on the inside of the tent for easy access to important items.
Our in-depth post on how to buy a sleeping bag provides a detailed guide on buying the best sleeping bag for backpacking. Read through this information then shop Amazon’s selection of backpacking sleeping bags.
The main factors to consider are temperature rating, shape/construction, and features. Let’s take a closer look:
Sleeping Bag Temperature Rating
Temperature rating relates to the type of weather your backpacking sleeping bag is designed to withstand.
- Summer – Rated for 35°F and higher.
- 3 Season – Rated for 10°F to 35°
- Winter – Rated for 10°F and lower.
Most backpackers select a 3-season sleeping bag as it can be used in spring, summer, fall, and mild winter conditions.
Sleeping Bag Shape/Construction
Shape and construction relate to, well, the shape of your sleeping bag and the materials it’s made from. It also relates to weight.
- Shape – Mummy-shaped sleeping bags save weight and space. They’re also the warmest option. Semi-rectangular bags are available from some manufacturer’s.
- Construction – A DWR (durable water repellent) shell is a must. Options for insulation include synthetic, goose/duck down, water-resistant down, and down/synthetic combo.
- Weight – The shape and construction of your sleeping bag contribute directly to its weight. Most backpackers prefer the lightest sleeping bag possible that doesn’t sacrifice warmth.
Sleeping Bag Features
Some of the most important features to think about when buying a sleeping bag for backpacking include:
- Hood – A hooded sleeping bag helps keep your head warm at night
- Pillow Pocket – A pillow pocket is a small pocket at the top of the sleeping bag to stash some clothes. Eliminates the need to bring a pillow on trip.
- Draft Tube/Collar – An insulated tube along the zipper and at the collar to keep warm air in.
Sleeping Bag Accessories
Most backpackers invest in a few sleeping bag accessories.
Chief among these is a camping sleeping pad. Self-inflating air pads are the number one choice among backpackers for their light weight and comfort. Other common sleeping bag accessories include stuff sacks and sleeping liners.
Shop Amazon’s selection of sleeping pads.
Clothing and Footwear
We recommend packing long underwear, a t-shirt, mid-layer fleece, synthetic hiking pants/shorts, waterproof jacket, lightweight puffy jacket, beanie, and light fleece gloves depending on the weather conditions you expect when planning a backpacking trip.
Pack one pair of socks for every two days on the trail. Some backpackers also like to pack a pair of sandals to use after camp is set up.
Here’s a few tips on selecting the best backpacking clothing and footwear:
Base Layer – Invest in special moisture-wicking fabric. You don’t want long underwear that takes forever to dry when sweaty.
Pants/Shorts – We recommend investing in pants or shorts designed specifically for hiking. They’re more breathable and dry faster than normal pants/shorts. Many backpackers prefer convertible pants with zip-off lower legs to quickly transform them into shorts.
Outerwear – A quality rain jacket is a must. Pair it with an insulation layer (we like a fleece) to keep out the cold and rain. Bring these two layers and you usually don’t have to worry about bringing anything heavier.
Headwear – Shield your head from the sun with a hat. Beanies are a popular choice for cold weather backpacking and sleeping at night.
Socks – Stay away from cotton. Choose wool or synthetic socks to fend off blisters.
Footwear – Hiking boots or shoes are your most important piece of hiking clothing. A poor quality pair will lead to blisters and an unenjoyable backpacking experience. Full-cut and mid-cut boots are the traditional options but hiking shoes (and even trail runners) are increasingly popular.
You’ll need to refuel on your overnight backpacking trip, so make sure to pack the right backpacking equipment for cooking and eating.
We recommend keeping your backcountry kitchen as simple and lightweight as possible. Bring:
Stove (& Fuel) – Pack a lightweight backcountry stove and enough fuel for the length of your trip. You have two options: a white gas stove or a butane/propane canister stove. Canister stoves are my favorite because they’re easy to light and are lightweight.
Pot Set – A single pot is usually more than enough for most backcountry meals. Nesting backpacking sets are also available for those that prefer more than one pot.
Bowl, Cup, Spork – One bowl, cup, and spork per person usually gets the job done. Use the spork as a cooking utensil if possible.
Sponge & Soap – We recommend bringing Dr. Bronner’s All-in-One soap and a sponge to wash your dishes. The soap is biodegradable and even doubles as toothpaste.
Even though cell phone reception is better than ever before, don’t expect to get any in the backcountry.
Satellite phones, 2-way radios, and personal locator beacons are better options for communication. You might also want to bring a solar charger to recharge electronic devices.
While communication tools can be handy when planning a backpacking trip, they’re not strictly necessary.
We always recommend packing as little extra, unnecessary gear as possible when planning a backpacking trip. Pare your supplies down to the bare minimum before taking off.
With that said, other backpacking gear to consider bringing includes:
- Extra clothes
- Insect Repellant
- Bear Spray
- Quick-dry towel
- Trekking Poles
- Ice Axe
- Bear Canister
Food and Water
A key part of planning a backpacking trip is packing the right food and water. Here are some ideas on what to bring.
The goal is to pack high-calorie food that doesn’t weigh very much.
We strongly recommend creating a meal plan before starting your trip. A meal plan makes packing food easier and ensures you bring enough to keep your stomach full.
Our top choice for backpacking food is freeze-dried meals. These can be bought pre-packaged and are very easy to cook. Drop the meal into a few cups of boiling water and you’re good to go. Dehydrated foods also weigh far less than normal food.
Many experienced backpackers eat one freeze-dried meal for dinner and just eat snacks for breakfast and lunch. Good backpacking snacks include ready-to-eat items like dried fruit, jerky, trail mix, and energy bars. Other popular meal ideas include pasta, noodles, rice, soup mixes, and oatmeal.
Just because you’re trying to save weight by packing light, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pack foods you actually like. A bit of cheese, a piece of fresh fruit, or a bottle of hot sauce doesn’t add much weight and is a huge morale booster after a hard day of hiking.
Another thing to remember is that you won’t have a cooler with you. This makes packing refrigerated foods nearly impossible.
Check out this article from Greenbelly on 31 backpacking meal ideas.
Always make sure to pack plenty of water when planning a backpacking trip.
Each person needs at least 2 liters of water per day. Pack more if hot weather is expected.
Water bottles or a hydration reservoir are the best ways how to carry water while backpacking. Pack a water purification system (water filter or water tablets) as well.
Do your research before you plan a backpacking trip to find potential water sources on your route. Mark these on your map.
Call your local ranger station before leaving to check the status of these water sources. During summer months, otherwise plentiful water sources can easily dry up.
Understanding proper food storage practices is of utmost importance when planning a backpacking trip.
Creatures, from chipmunks to grizzly bears, will be drawn to you because of the food you’re carrying. Store it out of reach of these animals to keep the food and yourself safe.
A durable, secure stuff sack is the minimum needed for food storage. In bear country, however, a bearproof canister is a must. In fact, most backcountry areas located in bear country require bearproof canisters. Check with your local ranger station on their food storage regulations.
Shop Amazon’s selection of bearproof canisters.
Packing Your Bag
Planning a backpacking trip is about more than bringing the right backpacking equipment, food, and water. It’s also about packing these items correctly.
An unorganized backpack presents a lot of problems. For one, you’ll likely be able to fit less in it. And what you can fit in it will be more difficult to access. An unorganized backpack can also negatively affect your comfort while hiking.
Our basic backpack organization method is to pack heavy items towards the bottom and center of the pack. Pack lighter items around these heavy items to better distribute weight so you can maintain your center of gravity. Items needed throughout the day (like snacks and maps) should be packed in your bag’s side pockets.
We also recommend thinking about your bag as three sections. There’s the bottom, core, and top of the pack. Let’s look at these sections in more detail:
- Bottom – Items needed only at night should be packed in the bottom section of your bag. Sleeping bags and sleepwear are examples.
- Core – Pack heavy items at the bottom core (middle) of your back. Place these on top of your sleeping bag. Food, water, cooking items, and your backcountry stove should be packed here. If you have a bearproof canister, fill it with as many items as possible and pack it in the core as well.
- Top – Keep frequently used items in side pockets and the top pocket. Pack the lightest weight material at the top of your bag’s main compartment. Items like sleeping pads, trekking poles, and tent poles can usually be attached to lash points on the outside of your bag.
Another key to effectively packing your backpacking backpack is divvying items up. If you’re backpacking with a partner, one of you can carry the tent body while the other carries the tent poles to better distribute their weight.
Before You Go
Whether you’re planning your first backpacking trip or you’re a seasoned pro with years of experience under your belt, it’s always smart to hit the trail prepared.
Here’s a few of the most important things you can do to prepare for a backpacking trip:
Practice at Home
Make sure you know how to set up all your backpacking gear before you leave on your trip. Pitch your tent at home, inflate your sleeping pad, unroll your sleeping bag, light your stove, and turn on your headlamp. Practice ensures you’ll be comfortable and confident setting up camp in the backcountry.
Break in Gear
If you bought new gear for your backpacking trip, break it in before heading out on the trail. Hiking boots/shoes, in particular, must be broken in. Walk in them for short periods, say while running errands or on short day hikes. Taking a fresh pair of boots on a backpacking trip will result in blisters otherwise.
Get in Shape
Never go on a backpacking trip if you’re not in adequate shape. We recommend starting a basic hiking exercise routine at least a month before your trip. Make regular daily walking a key part of your routine. Long weekend day hikes will also help you build up your trail legs.
Contact a Ranger
As we’ve said time after time again, contacting a local ranger is an integral part of planning a backpacking trip. Ask for current information about the route/destination you plan on taking. They’ll be able to tell you about wildlife sightings, road closures, trail conditions, weather conditions, campfire restrictions, and more.
Share Your Plan
Always share your plans with a friend or family member before starting your trip. Let them know where you’ll be going and how long you’ll be gone. If an emergency comes up, this information can be the difference between life and death.
On the Trail
You’ve taken our other tips about planning a backpacking trip to heart and have safely arrived at your destination. Now what do you do? Here’s a few of the most important things to keep in mind once you’re at your campsite.
Setting Up Camp
I always like to set up camp for the night right when I arrive. Pitch your tent, inflate your sleeping pad, and unroll your sleeping bag. Get those chores out of the way before relaxing.
Always select an existing campsite if possible. Camping in the same place as others minimizes environmental wear and tear. If there are no preexisting sites available, set up camp on a flat, sturdy surface.
Don’t set up camp within 200 feet of lakes, streams, or other animal watering holes. Don’t set up camp on fragile wildflower meadows.
Remember to adhere to the “Leave No Trace” wilderness ethics (discussed in greater detail below). Basically, this means to leave your campsite how it was when you arrived. Pack out all your waste when you leave.
Knowing how to use your water filter is essential when planning a backpacking trip. You don’t want to try to learn how to use it when your water bottle is empty and you’re thirsty after a long day of hiking.
Never drink directly from a lake or stream. Infections like giardia are all too common, even in clear mountain streams. Skip the danger and only drink filtered water.
I always prefer to take a water purification system with me. A water filter works best though chemical treatment with iodine tablets is also effective. Another option is to boil your water before you drink it. Boil it for at least 5 minutes to ensure all the harmful microorganisms are killed.
Cooking meals with your backcountry kitchen is far different than cooking meals in a campsite. You have far fewer resources and you need to be far more attentive about attracting wildlife.
At the very least, wash any dishware at least 200 feet from where you’re sleeping. Personally, I like to cook and eat this distance from my tent as well. It offers me more peace of mind that wildlife like bears won’t have any reason to bug me during the night.
After cooking, I clean my dishes with bio-degradable soap. Dr. Bronner’s All-in-One is my top choice. I put my clean dishware and cookware away then store my food supply in a bear-proof canister. I also store the clothing I used cooking in a plastic bag with my food.
It’s better safe than sorry when you’re camping in bear country. Because bears can’t differentiate between food and similar scents, I keep any scented items, including toothpaste and chapstick, in my bearproof canister at night.
Proper food storage while backpacking is a must. Critters of all shapes and sizes, including dangerous ones like bears, are attracted to the smell of human food.
Your best options for backpacking food storage are the traditional bear bag method or the newer bear canister method. Though both are designed to prevent unwanted human-bear interactions, they also thwart the efforts of other animals like mice and raccoons.
Hanging a bear bag is the simplest method. Select a tree at least 200 feet away from your tent with a branch at least 15 feet above the ground. Use nylon rope and a stuff sack to suspend all your food (and other scented items) from the branch.
I’ve found the easiest way to do this is to drape the rope over the branch. One end holds the stuff sack of food while the other is tied off to another object or held down with rocks.
However, my preferred method of food storage while backpacking is with a bear-proof canister. Though these are heavy and bulky, they’re far more effective at warding off bears and other wildlife.
A bear-proof canister is simply a hard-sided portable bear locker. Your food and scented items go inside at night. The canisters are airtight and keep food scents from wafting. They’re also very difficult, if not impossible, for animals to open if located.
Certain areas require the use of bear-proof canisters in the backcountry. Check with your local ranger station for regulations in your local area.
Building a Campfire
Campfires are a classic part of the camping experience. Yet they’re usually better left to those car camping in campgrounds rather than during a backpacking trip.
Many backcountry areas don’t allow fires in the first place. Check to see if they’re allowed where you’re traveling. Even if they’re allowed, it’s often difficult to bring or find enough wood to keep them burning.
If you do need to use a campfire, follow campfire safety best practices. Keep your fire as small as possible. Never leave it unattended. Only use wood collected from the ground. Never cut down your own.
Make sure your campfire is completely out before going to sleep or leaving the camping area. It must be cool to the touch. Spread out the cool ashes and coal.
Going to Bathroom
How to go to the bathroom in the woods is one of those things that many people forget to consider when they plan a backpacking trip.
Going pee is easy. Just remember to go at least 200 feet away from your campsite and water sources. Peeing near your campsite is likely to draw animals the same way food does.
Going “number two” is more difficult. Many backcountry areas have their own regulations regarding human waste. Research these and follow them to a T.
The most common method of taking care of human waste is digging a small hole at least 200 feet away from your campsite and water sources. Judge the width and depth of your hole so that it’s easy to cover up when you’re finished with your business.
Cover the hole with dirt when you’re done. We recommend placing a pile of rocks over the hole to ensure other backpackers avoid stepping on it.
Never bury toilet paper in the hole. You should always pack out toilet paper with Ziploc bags (try double-bagging them). If packing out TP isn’t appealing, do what I do and use natural toilet paper like leaves and smooth stones.
Very few camping areas require you to pack out the actual human waste. If you find yourself in this situation, here are some good tips on human waste disposal in the backcountry.
Treat the wilderness like the absolutely incredible place that it is. When planning a backpacking trip, be sure you have a solid understanding of wilderness ethics.
Simply put, the survival of the wilderness depends on our respect for it. Cherish the outdoors and use it courteously so your enjoyment can be passed on from generation to generation long into the future.
A few of the most important things you can do include:
Leave No Trace
Pack out what you pack in. No one’s going to clean up after you in the wilderness, so it’s up to you to ensure it stays clean.
Pick up everything: wrappers, toilet paper, etc. Even innocuous items like an apple core or orange peel should be packed out. Remember that you’re a guest in the wilderness so treat it as such.
Learn more about Leave No Trace principles.
Respect the Wilderness
The wilderness is wild, unpredictable, and unforgiving. Proper respect for it is essential to remain safe.
Once you’re in the backcountry, there’s no easy way to get out. There are no phones, attendants, or roads. Even emergency evacuations are incredibly difficult (not to mention expensive).
The backcountry doesn’t have water fountains, grocery stores, or flush toilets either. There are no amenities at all.
Along these same lines, respect the plants and animals you come into contact with. Respect the land. Respect fellow hikers and backpackers that are up there to enjoy the same beauty and solitude as you.
Like we just mentioned, the wilderness is wild, unpredictable, and unforgiving. It’s often a dangerous place. If you get lost or another emergency situation arises, here’s what you can do to get home safely.
Stick to a Plan
Remember that trip itinerary you were supposed to give a close friend or family member? An emergency situation is where that comes in handy.
Stick as close to the detailed plan as possible. If you don’t get home on time, you can expect a search party in short order.
Proper Skills and Gear
Let’s reiterate here: never plan a backpacking trip without the proper skills and gear.
If you’re a beginner, join a backpacking group or take along a more experienced friend. Learn the basics of wilderness first-aid, how to start a fire, where to collect water, and how to build a shelter.
Ensure you have the proper backpacking equipment for the worst weather that’s liable to occur during your backpacking trip.
Personal Locator Beacon
Those traveling deep into remote backcountry areas would do well to invest in a personal locator beacon (PLB).
Not only does the unit track your backpacking progress, it also alerts nearby authorities when you need help. A PLB will help them find you faster.
S-T-O-P is an acronym created by the Emergency Response Institute of Olympia, Washington to help when you’re lost in the wilderness. It stands for Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan.
Stop hiking as soon as you feel uncomfortable about a situation. Remain calm, sit down for a few minutes if possible, and eat some food. A fresh perspective will help you see your situation in a new light.
Of course, you shouldn’t stop if the area you’re in is unsafe or if someone in your group is hurt.
Think back to the last location where you 100% knew where you were located.
Is it possible to get back to this location? Is there a nearby trail you can follow back to this point? Are there any landmarks that will help you navigate to here?
Return to this location before reevaluating your options.
Try to remember the trail you’ve already covered. Picture any distinctive features or landmarks you’ve recently passed. If possible, use these to help navigate back to the last location where you weren’t lost.
If you’re not confident you can do this, remain where you are. Search and rescue workers will have a much better chance of finding you the closer you are to the last trail you were supposed to be hiking on. Wandering around aimlessly won’t help anyone.
Come up with a plan. If you’re alone, it’s very helpful to describe the plan out loud to yourself. Hearing the plan out loud will help you decide whether or not it makes sense.
Stick to your pre-trip plan as closely as possible. If you gave an itinerary to a friend, rescue workers will start looking for you along that route. It’s often better to stay put rather than trying to find your way back to a trail.
Backpacking with Children and Dogs
Planning a backpacking trip with children and dogs takes a little extra work. Yet it’s well worth the effort once you hit the trail.
Backpacking With Children
Taking your children backpacking is a great way to introduce them to the great outdoors. It helps them build a closer relationship with nature and get some outdoor exercise.
Introducing your kids to the wilderness early on helps them become more well-rounded individuals. Backpacking encourages children to become self-sufficient, independent, and confident. These traits translate over to their regular life, at home and at school.
Backpacking is also a great way to spend time together as a family. My first backpacking trip with my mom is still one of my fondest childhood memories.
Before You Go
Planning a backpacking trip with children is much the same as planning for one without them.
You still need to pack the same gear, equipment, and food. You still need to find the best route and take the proper safety measures.
Yet there are a few additional things you should keep in mind.
- It’s a Hike – Very young children should be reminded that you’re going on a hike. Though they can rest whenever they want, they should be expected to walk the entire time. You’re not going to carry them.
- Go Hiking – Take a few short day hikes to introduce your kids to this new form of exercise before you leave on your backpacking trip. Let them carry their own backpack for the first time (make sure to keep it light!) so they can get used to it.
- Rehearse – Practice all the camping basics in your backyard or inside your home. Pitch your tent and sleep in it overnight. Ensure your kids feel comfortable in this new sleeping environment before leaving.
- Involve – Make sure your kids feel involved when planning a backpacking trip. Ask them for their opinions and take their answers seriously. Most importantly, find out where they want to hike and what they want to see along the way.
- Invite Friends – Kids like backpacking a lot more when their friends get to join them. Invite another family to backpack with you.
- Observe – Keep a close eye on your kids throughout the duration of your trip. Not only will this keep them safe, you can also check to make sure they’re enjoying themselves. Make sure the trip remains fun and isn’t too challenging.
On the Trail
Keep the following tips in mind when you’re on the trail with children.
- Adjust Expectations – Don’t push it on your first backpacking trip with your kids. Lower your expectations, especially on distance covered and difficulty of terrain. Once again, keep the trip fun.
- Kid’s Perspective – Try to look at the trip from your kid’s perspective. If your kid wants to stop and look at plants, stop and look at plants. Don’t make the trip about covering the trail as fast as possible.
- Keep Safe – Hike with an adult in front of the kids and an adult in back of the kids if you’re backpacking with at least two adults. The kids should stay in between the two adults.
- Time at Campsite – You might relish backpacking for the hiking and distance. Kids, on the other hand, need a lot of downtime to relax and play. Make sure the distance you travel is short (2-5 miles each day) so you have plenty of time for “camping activities” at your destination.
- Share Chores/Gear – Involve your kids in the trip. Share campsite chores such as setting up the tent, cooking food, and cleaning up after meals. Invest in a kid-size backpack so your child can help carry gear, equipment, and supplies. Keep their load light with lightweight items like a sleeping bag, rain gear, and a few snacks.
Backpacking with children is the perfect way to teach the more about the outdoors. Here’s a few tips:
- Field Guides – Bring along a field guide (or download a related mobile app). Use it to identity plants and animals along the trail. Guides are also available for geography, rocks, clouds, constellations and more.
- Wildlife – Call your local ranger station and ask about wildlife sightings in the area. Not only are sightings very exciting for children, hiking in an area with wildlife activity is also the perfect opportunity to teach them about wildlife safety (including proper food storage).
- History – Children will find the history of the trail you’re hiking on and the land around you interesting. Research this information before your trip so you can teach them about it.
- Navigation – Let your child help with trail navigation. Teach them to use a map and a compass as well as a GPS. Ensure they understand the importance of having basic navigational skills while backpacking.
- Wilderness Ethics – There’s no matter time to teach your kids about wilderness ethics and the Leave No Trace principles than on a backpacking trip. Instill the same respect and responsibility for the wilderness in them that you have.
Backpacking With Dogs
There’s not much I like more than backpacking with my dog. She gets excited as soon as I take my backpack out of the closet.
But like backpacking with kids, a lot of extra work goes into planning a backpacking trip with your dog.
Before You Go
Preparation is critical to planning a backpacking trip with your four-legged friend. Here’s what you need to know:
- Regulations – Make sure dogs are actually allowed on the trail where you’ll be backpacking. A lot of areas are off-limits for pets, including most National Park trails.
- Leash – Most trails require your dog to be on a 6-foot or shorter leash at all times. A leash is smart even on trails that don’t require one so your dog doesn’t chase wildlife or get in the way of other hikers or bikers.
- Etiquette – Trail manners are critical. Teach your dog not to run up to other hikers, especially children. It’s polite to move to the side of the trail to let others pass when hiking with a dog.
- Fitness Level – Don’t take your dog backpacking unless they’re in good shape. Get ready for your trip by making hiking a regular part of their exercise routine.
- First-Aid – Never head into the wilderness without a basic understanding of dog first-aid. The Red Cross offers classes in pet first-aid and CPR. Informative online resources include the American Veterinary Medical Foundation and PetEducation.com.
Gear and Equipment
Your dog needs special gear and equipment to head out into the backcountry. The top pieces of dog backpacking equipment to consider include:
- Dog Pack – Young and healthy dogs tend to enjoy carrying their own dog pack on the trail. The general rule is that dogs can carry around 25% of their body weight. Pack their bag with some of their food and water. Be sure to take the dog pack on a few test hikes so they get used to carrying it before your overnight trip.
- Sleeping Gear – Chilly nights require extra sleeping gear for dogs, especially small and short-haired breeds. Though you can share your own sleeping bag (or buy a two-person bag), special dog sleeping bags are also available.
- Dog Boots – Many breeds need dog boots when hiking in the snow or over extra rough terrain. I always pack my dog’s just in case she gets a cut on a paw. The extra protection is greatly appreciate in these scenarios.
- Dog Vest/Jacket – Invest in a dog vest or jacket if you’re backpacking in cold weather. Special cooling vests that are soaked in water are designed to keep dogs cool on especially warm days.
- Water – Ensuring your dog has enough water on your backpacking trip is critical. I always choose trails with reliable water supplies so we don’t have to carry as much.
- Food – Food is just as important. Be sure to bring enough to match your dog’s activity level. I usually feed my dog twice as much as normal plus extra treats throughout the day. I like bringing collapsible dog dishes to make it easy for her to eat and drink at meal times.
- GPS Beacon – I can’t stand the thought of losing my dog in the wilderness. So I invested in a special GPS-beacon dog collar that will help me track her down if she gets loose.
A few other things to keep in mind when planning a backpacking trip with your dog include:
- Waste Disposal – It’s generally fine to bury dog waste just like you would your own. Certain trails require you to pack out pet waste so keep that in mind.
- Post-Trip Pat Down – Give your dog a post-trip pat down to check for ticks and burrs. I always give my dog a quick bath and brush out her hair. Call your vet about what you should do if you do find a tick on your dog.
Planning a Backpacking Trip Checklist
Going through all the information related to planning a backpacking trip can be daunting. So we created this backpacking checklist to make sure you don’t forget anything at home!
- 10 Essentials – Topographic map & compass, sunglasses & sunscreen, headlamps & flashlight, first-aid kit, waterproof matches, multitool & repair kit
- Backpack – Backpack, stuff sacks, rain cover
- Shelter/Sleeping – Tent (+ poles, stakes), sleeping bag, sleeping pad
- Clothing/Footwear – Hiking boots/shoes, sandals for camp, underwear, t-shirt, mid-layer fleece, synthetic hiking pants/shorts, waterproof jacket, lightweight puffy jacket, beanie, light fleece gloves
- Cooking/Food – Backpacking stove, fuel for stove, cup, plate, spork, cooking supplies (pot/pan), water bottle, water reservoir, water filtration system, enough food for trip (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks)
- Other – GPS, personal locator beacon, altimeter, bug protection, camera, garbage bags, toilet paper, toiletries, hiking poles, playing cards
We’ve compiled dozens of helpful resources you can use to make planning your backpacking trip even easier.
Our Complete Guide to Olympic National Park and our Complete Guide to Yellowstone National Park are also well worth a look. They are the first in an ongoing series of National Park guides we’re in the process of creating.
Other helpful posts on how to plan a backpacking trip include 15 Delicious & Easy Camping Breakfast Ideas and 20 Easy Camping Recipes Anyone Can Make for Their Next Camping Trip.