So, you’ve chosen to go beyond “car camping,” or essentially setting up your 12-man nylon shelter next to your truck or SUV and eating out of a massive red-and-white plastic cooler. Congratulations! It is indeed more fun in the great beyond, but you do need some good information before you go. Many backpacking errors are committed before ever leaving home, during the course of packing.
Here’s what you need to get started for a few nights in the woods:
1.) Backpack – Too big is better than too small. An oversized pack can often be cinched down to hold your gear without too much shifting, and you will want a bigger pack if you evolve into preferring longer backpacking trips. Nothing more expensive than buying a smaller pack that works well for 2-3 nights but cannot stow enough supplies for a fourth. Then you have to buy a second pack. And backpacks usually aren’t cheap, so go big the first time to make it a one-time purchase!
Also: Try it on and have them help you adjust it to your frame at the store. You want to make sure the hip belt fits snuggly around the top of your hips and that the shoulder strips fit comfortable at the shoulder – not tight and rubbing against your clavicle. If you have the option, try to have them put some weight into it at the store so you can get a better idea of how it will feel on the trail. They should happily oblige, especially since a backpack is a hefty purchase!
2.) Footwear – Break it in before hitting the trail. Too many good hikes have been ruined for people because their feet hurt or blisters made their skin raw. I suggest some heavy-duty trail runners for your first backpacking outings. Heavier-duty than running shoes but not as heavy as boots, durable trail runners have, for me, been a good mix of support, protection, and comfort for the feet. Others may suggest going with boots for additional ankle protection, which is sound advice if you have weak ankles that are prone to rolling. For a trail newbie, though, I’d advise going lighter on footwear (trail runners instead of boots) for the first few outings, then upgrade for longer and rougher hikes.
Also: Make sure you know if the footwear is waterproof or not if that’s what you expect. Many times people have purchased trail runners and assumed they were waterproof…only to be sadly disappointed at that first cold stream crossing.
3.) Tent – Go with a small two-man backpacking tent instead of a one-man if you’re a new solo backpacker. True, the two-man will be heavier and bulkier…but you will appreciate the extra space. Also, I’ve found two-man tents to be more advantageous in bad weather – a one-man can be swamped more easily in a heavy downpour. If you’re hiking with a friend, think about a three-man instead of a two-man. Your evenings in the tent will be more relaxed, spacious, and lead to a better trip overall. Few thing cramp the style of a backpacking trip than being too cramped in one’s tent.
Also: Make sure you practice setting it up a few times at home. Many people who bring a brand-new tent on the trail without knowing how to set it up will end up having a rough first afternoon wrestling with complex poles, hooks, grommets, etc.
Also Also: Tent stakes! Make sure your tent comes with them, and bring them all.
4.) Sleeping bagand sleeping pad – You will need both. Many people think they don’t need a pad and wake up miserable that first morning on the trail. Get a pad. I prefer foam pads instead of inflatable for the obvious reason of durability – sharp rocks and sticks can poke through a tent floor and puncture your pad when your full weight flops onto it that first time. As for the sleeping bag, make sure you get a high-quality bag the goes into a stuff sack – not the roll-up kind that kids bring to sleepovers or you see in Western movies. Make sure the sleeping bag is rated to at least 20 degrees F because nights can get unexpectedly cold.
Also: A 20-degree bag seems to be the most versatile (good warmth but not too bulky), but if you live further north than New Mexico you may want to invest in a sleeping bag liner, which goes inside the bag and provides extra insulation.
5.) Rain gear – Get the good stuff. A rain suit, with both jacket and pants. Go full-price and splurge on the best stuff. Do not get a poncho or a rain slicker or anything that looks either cheap or like it should be worn by a child in elementary school. Take it from all my negative experiences in the wilds: Get good rain gear and make sure it is always easily accessible in your backpack.
6 – 10) Will do next time and cover cooking gear, food, and water purification…coming next week!
Take care, and make sure to always research a location and route for a hike or short backpacking excursion before taking off! Even veteran backpackers like myself have gone off with friends assuming we would hit the trailhead easily, only to find that we had no idea where it actually was. Lots of time and gasoline wasted!
Also: Maps, maps, maps. Buy maps and never rely solely on your GPS or the advice of others. Get a high-quality topographic map and have it with you for ANY hiking trip.