With a little effort, backpacking trips can be serious fun. A well-planned trip will allow you to camp in beautiful places without having to deal with unnecessary crowds associated with campgrounds and RV sites. If you want to experience the thrill of hoofing into the wilderness and finding your way back out, you can learn to plan your trip safely and thoroughly. Learn what you’ll need to bring, how to plan a trip effectively, and keep your group as safe as possible.
Go on day hikes first, then overnight hikes.
Before you set out for a multi-day trip, try a couple of day hikes through various kinds of terrain and weather to find out how it suits you. It’s good idea to make sure you enjoy hoofing around out in the woods before you find yourself out in the middle of a 14 mile loop in the wilderness.
Try a few hikes without any gear, but plenty of water, light snacks, a map of the area, and the right boots. Go out for a mile or two with some friends and have fun.
If you like that, try going on a longer hike, for several miles of somewhat rougher terrain. If you like that, take your bag with you and see how you enjoy it. Gradually build up to a series trip.
Pick a general destination for your backpacking trip.
Are you interested in the mountains? The grasslands? The great lakes? Depending on where you live, the backcountry may be close by, or you may want to venture out farther for a serious hiking experience. In most areas, you shouldn’t need to travel more than a half a day by car to find a good National or State Park in which you can hike and camp.
Pick an appropriate time of year for that destination, as well. Some destinations are very crowded at certain times of year, or around holidays, while others are inappropriate for backpacking at certain times of the year. It’d be bad to head out to the desert in the middle of the summer if you’re a first-timer.
It’s also usually good to avoid areas with bears during bear-heavy seasons, which will vary from region to region.
Pick a specific park or wilderness area.
Want to hike the Cumberland Gap? Explore Yosemite? Pitch a tent in the Grand Tetons? Once you’ve settled on a particular region of the country you’d like to explore, pick an area that’s appropriate for backcountry camping. Within the US, here are some of the best destinations for serious camping:
Yosemite National Park, CA
Joshua Tree, CA
Denali National Park, AK
White Mountain National Forest, NH
Olympic National Park, WA
Zion National Park, UT
Glacier National Park, MT
Big Bend National Park, TX
Plan your route through the area.
Different wilderness areas and parks will have a variety of options available to backcountry hikers, so consult park maps of the area to find the specific trails, or find some online by checking out the National Parks website. Typically, long hikes come in three styles, which you can pick based on the difficulty, the type of terrain, and the sights that you may want to see at your destination. The three basic types of backcountry hikes include:
Loop hikes, which follow a long circle that will allow you to end up back where you started.
Out and back hikes, during which you’ll hike to a specific destination and then retrace your steps backward.
End to end hikes usually require leaving a car at both ends, or arranging pick-up at your eventual destination. This is only typically done for very long hikes that go through multiple areas.
Be fairly conservative with your routes and schedule on your first trips.
While you might want to jump right in and do something difficult, you’ll need to consider the terrain, weather, and the experience and conditioning of your group when planning how many miles you will travel each day. Most trails are rated for difficulty, so you’ll usually want to stick with anything at a level 1 or 2 for your first several hikes. They’ll be challenging enough.
Novices and weekend warriors should plan on hiking no more than 6–12 miles (9.7–19.3 km) per day of a given hike. In relatively tough terrain, that’ll be more than enough.
Experienced hikers in good shape can sometimes do 10–25 miles (16–40 km) per day, depending on terrain, but it’s usually best to not push it.
Check to see if your destination requires permits or other advance preparation.
If you’re camping on public land, there will typically be a small fee associated with coming into the park itself, and another fee associated with camping. They’re usually pretty small, and you can get away with no more than $15 dollars or so a night, depending on the season.
At most parks, you’ll have to display a permit on your car while you hike, and something on your tent, or bag, as well. The local regulations will be explained to you when you check in to the ranger’s office upon your arrival.
Most National Parks and other public lands will also have guidelines specific to their environments, at the time of year you’re camping. For example, Yosemite National Park requires the use of bear-proof canisters for food.
Find out local fire regulations.
Campfires are great, so long as they’re legal. Many areas prohibit fires during dry periods. At other times, they may only be allowed in specific locations, typically fire rings located at campsites. In some places a separate campfire permit is required to use a backcountry cooking stove.
Never, ever, leave a fire unattended. Do not light a fire unless you have enough water available to extinguish it thoroughly. As a precaution, clear a 15-foot (~5m) circular area around your fire, to prevent the wind from igniting any materials outside of your fire pit.
Get a sturdy backpack that fits your frame.
Backpacking backpacks, or rucksacks, need to be sturdy enough to carry a significant amount of weight, but light enough so that you won’t be in serious pain at the end of a long hike. Look for a bag with an internal frame, chest straps, and a waist-band to help secure the bag on your body properly.
Backpacking bags are sold at most sporting goods stores, and are matched to your body size and height. It’s a good idea to go be fitted for one, to make sure it fits you properly.
Your backpack should have enough space for some food and water, a first aid kit, rain gear, sun gear, flashlight or headlamp and batteries, a tent and sleeping bag, even though you might not need all that for a group hike.
Wear sensible hiking boots.
Hiking isn’t hiking without the proper footwear. If you’re going to be walking many miles, you want to make sure you’re in shoes that will stand up to the stress. The best bet? Get a pair of waterproof boots with enough support and strength to get you through the trip.
Never go out for a multi-day trip with nothing but sandals, or a flimsy pair of sneakers. Sometimes, tennis shoes can be great, lightweight, and perfect for hiking in some environments, but you want to make sure you’ve got something sturdy enough for the terrain you’ll encounter.
Dressing in layers allows you to be comfortable in many different weather conditions. Even though it might be warm when you hit the trailhead doesn’t mean that the weather will remain the same throughout the day.
Mountains are notorious for volatile and quick-changing weather systems. Even if it is 90 degrees when you head out, pack a light bag with rain gear, or at least a coat. You also need a hat, gloves, sock liners and socks, underwear, lightweight pants and shorts and good sturdy hiking boots.
Try to bring synthetic, wool, or down fabrics, which will keep you warm and dry quickly, instead of cotton.
Bring plenty of socks. You’ll be walking a lot, and it’s important to keep your feet clean and dry on the trip.
Pack plenty of light-weight, high-calorie food for everyone.
Hiking in the backcountry usually isn’t the time for s’mores and bacon. If you’re traveling light, you want to choose food like reconstituted soups and stews that are made with water, or commercially packaged freeze-dried food. You can also learn to dehydrate your own. Pasta is also a commonly eaten hiking food.
It can be helpful for everyone to be responsible for their own snacks but to have a communal dinner. Bring high-calorie and high-protein snacks, like nuts and dried fruit, which can help to fuel you and get you moving. Good ol’ raisins and peanuts.
Pack as a group, not as individuals.
Everyone should bring their own sleeping bag, and there should be enough tent space for everyone present. That much is obvious. But you don’t want to end up in the backcountry with three people and four tents, or five camp stoves and only one canister of fuel between the three of you. Pack smart. Compare gear with your group and share the essential equipment that you’ll all be using, and space it out among your packs.
Bring at least one:
Cooking pot or pan
Consider duplicating essential items, like:
First aid kit
Copy of the map
Lighter or matches
Check your equipment inventory.
It’s important to make sure all gear is in working order. Give yourself time to test equipment and replace/repair anything that is not working properly. Remember, if an item breaks, you will still need to haul it back.
Clean out your tent, if you haven’t since the last time you used it. It’s important to get rid of any debris and especially food particles that might remain in the tent, if you’ve not used it in a while. Set it up and let it air out before you pack it again.
Always get new lighters, new camp fuel, and check the batteries of any flashlights or other items that can fail in the wilderness and leave you struggling.
Pack a whistle and a mirror.
Every backcountry camper needs to have in their bag a whistle and a mirror in the event of an emergency. If a hiker becomes separated from the group, the whistle can be used to help find the separated camper. If the event of a more serious emergency, mirrors can be used to signal rescue teams, by reflecting sunlight. Small stuff that can be a life-saver.
Bring maps of the area.
Having a detailed map of the area you’ll be hiking is critical to a good and safe hike. Park maps are typically available at trail heads, as well as at the Visitor’s Center of most areas, or you can find your own topographical maps at sporting goods stores.
National and State Park maps are typically low resolution, which can be fine for day hikes, but British Ordnance Survey or USGS (US Geologic Survey) have elevation contours and are more accurate and reliable in an emergency, provided you know how to read them. These maps are available at most sporting good stores in the area that you’ll hike.
Carry a compass and know how to read it and use it with your map.
You can use some software programs to print your copy on waterproof paper if you cannot access any of the ready printed ones. A GPS device can pinpoint your location, but you should still carry a map and compass.
Balance your pack properly.
Your backpack might feel ok now, but you’ll start to notice that it’s unbalanced after a few miles and get a serious strain on one shoulder. It’s important to try to space out the heavy items in your bag and keep things relatively balanced from side-to-side, and from top-to-bottom.
Put the heaviest things toward your back, and low in the bag to help keep you on balance. In general, you want to start packing with the bulkiest and the heaviest items, then stuff extra space with things like clothes and other gear.
Read this article for more information about packing your backpack properly.
Familiarize yourself with local hazards.
Before you set out, you need to be aware of the unique dangers that the area poses to hikers. Is there poison oak to watch out for? Rattlesnakes? Bears? Is it wasp season? What do you do if you’re stung?
Lightning preparedness is a critical part of hiker safety. Learn to identify and find the appropriate shelter in the event of a lightning storm.
If you are going about 6,000 feet know how to recognize acute mountain sickness and how to manage it.
Make sure you know basic first aid for things like cuts, scraps, and broken bones.
Always go with a group.
Backcountry hiking needs to happen in a group, unless you’re a very experienced hiker. Aim for a small group of like-minded friends, between 2-5 people for a safe hiking trip your first time out. Ideally, you’ll want to have an experienced hiker who is familiar with the area you’re hiking.
If you are experienced, you have the opportunity to introduce a newcomer to the wonders of backpacking. If you have never been backpacking, you might want to consider going on your first trip with an experienced hiker.
It’s best if your camping partners are somewhat compatible in terms of hiking speed, distance they are willing to hike, and camping style. Some people like to travel lightly and hike long distances. Others prefer just getting out of sight of the car.
If you travel solo make sure someone knows your plans and that you have the equipment and skills to be self-sufficient.
Carry more than enough water to get you from one source to the next.
Water is heavy, but critical on a hiking trip. You need to bring enough water so that everyone has at least 2 liters of clean water to drink each day, especially if you’re working hard and sweating on your hike.
If you are using a water filter, bring replacement parts, including replacement filters. They often clog with sediment, or just plain break.
Boiling water for at least one minute is an effective backup method, in an emergency.
Check in with someone before you leave.
Leave a detailed itinerary with someone who is not going on the trip, including your route, inventory, areas you plan to stay. It’s important that someone knows when you expect to return, so they can check in if you’re late. Be sure to contact them after you have safely returned.
Leave a note on your car, at least. This can be very helpful in the event that you don’t show back up to the car on time.
Check in at the ranger station or the Visitor’s Center before you go camping. This is an easy way to let people know how long you’re going to be in the area.
An average hiking pace is 2-3 miles per hour. Don’t get overambitious. Shoot for less, rather than more, so you can take time to enjoy the sights. Determine the approximate area where you will camp each night ahead of time. Try to plan your trip so that you camp close to a reliable water source each night.
Don’t keep food in your tent.
All of your food needs to be secured from bears, and kept separate from your tent, if you’re going to be hiking in the backcountry. Even if bears aren’t regularly found in the area you’re hiking, it’s important to protect yourself from all sorts of curious animals, who might want to sneak a bite.
If you will be visiting an area with bears, bring a bag and rope to hang your food from a tree, or use an Ursack or bear canister, depending on local regulations.
Follow the same precautions with anything scented, including hair products, shampoo, lotions, toothpaste, and gum.
Always use the same bag for storing and hanging food and scented items, from campout to campout.