Backpacking Tips for Beginners

First off, kudos for doing a little research on backpacking tips before venturing out on the trail for the first time.  The better prepared you are, if even with knowledge alone, the better each experience will be.

Sometimes we learn the best through our failures like I did the first night out in my Hennessey Hammock in March.  It was a tough night with temps dropping into the 30s and I didn't get much sleep, but that experience taught me some great lessons that I won't soon forget.

No matter your reason for wanting to unplug a little, backpacking is a completely fantastic way to unwind.  For me, escaping if even for a few hours recharges my batteries like nothing else.  A warm campfire, a hot meal and a quiet evening is the perfect getaway.

One of my all time favorite views!
There's a lot to be said for being spontaneous.  Making last minute plans to backpack is certainly exciting, but having a little know how first before heading out on the trail will go a long way in making sure you're safe, you're comfortable and that you will want to repeat that adventure.  Having at least some of the proper knowledge and equipment will make for a safe and fun time out away from it all.

Trail Selection - Scouting out your destination on-line and via a trail map is just plain smart.  Checking out the trail beforehand will guide you in equipment selection and can give you some much needed confidence before you step one foot out your door.  "Never go where you haven't gone before" were some great words of wisdom I learned from an old Army instructor I had years ago.  The point of those wise words has stuck with me all these years and they've certainly benefitted me.  So, scout out the area you're interested in before jumping full steam ahead.

Things to Look For in Trail Selection:
  • Contour - Most maps not only give you a two dimensional look at the trail, ie how far you will be traveling, but the good ones also show contours or elevation changes.  It's a good idea to make sure the map you are referring to shows the contour of the area so that you can see how much up and down there will be on your journey.  Even a short hike that has major elevation changes can be taxing on the first time trekker.  Your best bet is to start out with a trail that is relatively flat unless you're no stranger to the gym then by all means go for it a little.
  • Water - I've found that about 3 Liters a day keeps me hydrated well enough.  You can opt to carry it all with you right from the start or when scouting out your trail, look for signs of water. If there are streams or other water sources on the trail, bring along a water purification system if you would rather keep your pack a little lighter.  Water weighs just over 8 pounds a gallon and 3 Liters equates to around 6 pounds.  That can add up quick once you've got all your other gear on your back.  In any event, don't leave for the trail with zero water.  Always bring some along.  The water signs on the trail map might be wrong or harder to find than you thought and you don't want to dehydrate.
  • Shelter - New York State has over 300 Lean To Shelters on the various trail systems.  That's an amazing benefit I'm happy to be able to take part in.  A well built Lean To is an excellent source of protection from the weather that still gives me a feeling of sleeping outside.  And one of the best parts is that I can opt to leave my tent at home if I know there's a Lean To on the trail.  Note: There are times when Lean To's can be occupied by one or more backpackers when you arrive.  If you're uncomfortable sleeping next to a stranger then be sure to pack your tent.
  • Campgrounds - Some trails require that you camp only at designated campgrounds.  So, be sure to scout those out when choosing your trail.  Most often they are very well marked on the trail so finding them shouldn't be too much trouble.
  • Distance - Here's the biggie.  Use a little restraint when it comes to planning the distance you want to cover.  It's better to arrive at your campsite an hour early and feeling great than one to two hours late and completely bushed.  Most adults can cover about a mile in 20 minutes on flat terrain.  Lots of up/down shown on that contour map can double that time.  I like to arrive at camp about two to three hours before dusk/dark.  That give me plenty of time to unpack, set up camp, get a fire going and eat.  Then I can enjoy the evening in front of the fire relaxing.
  • Parking - Most trail heads have designated parking areas that are well off the main road.  When I park, I do my best to get my car out of sight and especially off the main drag.  The last thing anyone wants is to walk back to a vandalized or missing car the next morning.
What to Bring on Your Backpacking Trip:
  • How Long - Your first few outings should be one nighters that are relatively short distance.  I've got a family at home so I don't like being gone for long.  One night is perfect.  And the less time you are out on the trail, the less you'll need to bring.
  • Change of Clothes - The only change of clothes I bring with me is a change of socks and maybe a t-shirt.  I'm not overly creeped out by sleeping in my street clothes nor wearing them the next day.   And clothes take up room in your pack and weigh a ton.  Leave the extra clothes at home and save your back.
  • Equipment - Generally speaking, the more you bring, the more comfortable you'll be and the heavier your pack will be too.  There are a few conveniences I like to bring along on my trips out but I keep in mind that 1) I won't be gone long and 2) I'm backpacking so that I can unplug a bit and I don't need all the modern conveniences.  There's no need to take everything I 'want'.  In fact, it can be fun for me to leave some of that stuff behind to see how I'll deal being without it.
Never Use Any Piece of Equipment For the First Time on the Trail:

If you read through my list of essential backpacking equipment, you might notice a few pieces you are lacking to make the most out of your next backpacking experience.  Buying equipment and experimenting is fun so indulge a bit.  I like to.  But, it's always been a good practice of mine to break all that stuff out before I hit the trail just to make sure it's all in working order, especially when it's brand new or if it's super 'mission critical' gear like a camping stove.

A Camp Stove is a seriously mission critical piece of gear and you don't need to spend a ton of money to have a great stove.  If a stove is on your list of equipment to buy, have a look at my quick words of wisdom on backpacking stoves.

Lay Out All Your Equipment and Have a List:

Before I pack for the trail I lay everything out on the floor or up on a table.  That way I can keep visual inventory of everything before I start packing it away in my backpack.  If I start packing and get distracted by a phone call or one of my kiddos, then I end up pulling everything out again and starting all over.  I hate leaving stuff at home, especially when it's something I had on my list but somehow didn't make it to my pack.

And having a list is a good thing.  A list helps me stay organized and it's easy to cross stuff out or add based on what I need.  After a few trips you'll modify what you see as your essentials and add stuff that you might not have thought of initially.  Once you land at your campsite, great ideas will pop into your head like "Wow, what if I had that here right now?"  I had a novel idea to buy a string of LED lights to hang up in one of my favorite Lean To spots.  The extra lighting is super lightweight, rand me under $20 and really brightens up the inside of the Lean To.  Campfire light is great when you're close, but take a few steps away and you're in the dark.

Lists = good.  And keeping a notepad with you to jot down ideas for your next trip out on the trail is smart.

Learn From Your Mistakes:

That's what life's about, right?  Not every time out on the trail is going to be a complete success.  Some stuff goes great and other parts not so much.  I took a one-night solo trip back in March that was only marginally successful, but I survived through it and learned some great lessons.

I resolved not to give in but to make the most of my trip.  Lots of parts went great like my campfire and the dinner and breakfast I had made.  The campfire, in fact, kept me warm when I couldn't sleep due to the cold.  Instead of shivering in my sleeping bag, I got out, stoked the fire to a warm blaze and  warmed up.  And after was all said and done, I wrote down every part of my trip and the experiences so that I remembered the good and learned from the bad.

The hammock is one of the most comfortable 'rides' you'll ever experience out on the trail and Hennessey makes one of the best.  I was under trained and unskilled on how to stay warm in a hammock in near 30F weather.  It can be done with the proper equipment [underquilts, reflectix pads] but I was simply unprepared.  I expected my equipment to outperform it's limits.  All good...I'm in the know now.

Here's more about my first night out in the Hennessey Hammock.

The point is that not all trips will go as planned.  You'll have to prepare as best you can for some contingencies but you won't always have the perfect answer to whatever comes up.  Instead, venture out knowing that not everything will go as planned and have fun through all of it!

Write, Read and Share:

Have some experiences out on the trail like me?  Follow my blog and I'll follow yours.  One of my favorite pastimes when I can't be on the trail is reading about other trail hiker's experiences.  I'm all about learning and making the most of every chance I get to ramble out on the trail.  So, give me a thumbs up, like my Facebook page, Youtube account and point me to yours if you have one.  Let's have fun and get out there!

Until next time....the Instant Backpacker.


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