51 Great Tips For People Who Want To Start Backpacking

So you want to start hiking and backpacking! That’s a great choice, and I promise that it will be one of the rewarding parts of your life. Getting into the back country, working hard, and experiencing all the beauty that the world has to offer is a great addition to your life.

But perhaps you don’t really know the first thing about hiking and backpacking – what are some things you should know before you start? I’ve put together a list of 51 great tips for hiking and backpacking that I’ve learned and that other hikers have shared.

There are so many different things you can learn as you start hiking and backpacking, but the biggest thing is to just enjoy the adventure. Enjoy the planning, enjoy the struggles, enjoy the companionship with others – enjoy it all!

Let’s get started!

Start slow 

You may be very interested in the idea of hiking and backpacking, but until you hit the trail you won’t know exactly what it is like. So don’t start with a 50-mile trail and go out and purchase the most important gear you can find. Start slow, with a good day hike or an weekend trip – with the appropriate gear – and consider what you liked.  

Take Inventory of Yourself 

The very first thing you should do when preparing for a hiking trip is to evaluate where your state of being as a hiker – physically and mentally. You will need to take an honest look at what kind of hike you can handle. Hiking is wonderful and rewarding, but it can also be very difficult and discouraging if you are not properly prepared and honest about your goals.

Once you have decided what kind of trail you are willing and able to take on, you can decide on what kind of hike to take. This will inform your decisions about the gear you take and the clothing you will wear.

Take Inventory of Your Gear 

What do you have that will serve you well on a hike? What do you need to purchase or borrow a warmer or lighter sleeping bag? Shelter? Shoes? If you are starting from scratch, you might have to just do day hikes for a while, or borrow some things from friends. Don’t go on a trip without the appropriate gear.

Do Your Research  

If you are convinced that you want to start hiking more, start looking for hikes near you that you can use to gauge your capabilities and test your gear.  Tools like AllTrails.com are great resources to learn about different trails and what to expect.

Rely On Your Fellow Hikers

If you have decided to start hiking, you’ve become the member of an awesome community! There are many, many resources online to help you find out about different trails, to learn important tips, and to get great gear recommendations. You will also find forums to ask and answer questions.

Learn What The Essentials Are For Any Trip 

Regardless of what you choose to bring on your multi-day hike, there are some things that you should bring no matter what. Sometimes you will hear these items referred to as “The Ten Essentials of Hiking.”

  1. Shelter: For a multi-day hike, you’ll want a tent that can protect you from bad weather or a reliable hammock system.
  2. Food: You will want to bring about 2 pounds of food per day.
  3. Water: You will not be able to pack enough water for 3 to 5 days; a water storage and filter system will be needed.
  4. Clothing: Even in the summer, you will want to bring clothing to protect against the cold or unexpected weather.
  5. Fire: Even if you do not choose to have a fire, bringing a fire-starting kit is a good idea.
  6. First Aid: The longer the hike, the more beat up your body will be – bring blister treatment.
  7. Knife: Your Swiss Army knife will be a great tool on a multi-day hike
  8. Sun Protection: Sunscreen, sunglasses, and clothing
  9. Navigation: Map (including paper) compass, GPS
  10. Headlamp: Don’t forget extra batteries

Familiarize Yourself With Your Gear At Home

If you have a tent – set it up in your yard. If you have a hammock – know exactly how to string it up. Learn some knots – you will want to avoid any equipment issues out on the trail because you don’t know how to use it. If you know exactly how to use your gear, you’ll greatly diminish your anxiety on the trail.

Learn What Food Is Best For Backpacking

For the most part, you will want calorie-dense food that weighs little and takes up little space but has a lot of calories. Think nuts, energy bars, beef jerky, olive oil, etc. You can even prepare your own calorie-dense meals – it’s actually a lot of fun!

Plan Out And Prepare Your meals

Once you have any ideas about the food you want to take with you, plan out what you will eat, prepare it, and get it ready for your pack. You can make your own

Get Inspired 

Go to YouTube to find some amazing channels of hikers and backpackers and the trips they take, the gear they use, and the advice they offer. You might even have a specific trail in mind – look for it on YouTube – you might find that someone filmed their trip to that trail and it might just get you inspired and excited to go.

Make Sure Your First Trips Are With Friends 

You may be the adventurous type who wants to go solo on their first hiking trip, but it probably makes sense to go with others until you become a bit more experienced. If you can go with an experienced hiker, all the better! The best way to learn hiking skills is first hand from someone who can teach you what you need to know.

Learn How To Pack Your Back The Right Way

Put items that you will not need to access often, such as your shelter and sleep system, at the bottom of the pack. Put your heavier items, such as food, in the middle and closer to your back. Place items you need throughout the day, such as snacks, a map, lipbalm, etc, on top or in pockets for easy access.

Learn How To Read A Map And Compass 

While you can rely on a handy GPS device or even your phone for many hikes, you will want to know how to read a trail map, how to find out where you are, and how to use a compass in case you go off the trail. GPS devices and your phone can run out of batteries, so they shouldn’t be your only navigational tool.

Bring Along Some Vitamin I

Vitamin I – Ibuprofen or another pain reliever to hikers – is a good way of dealing with aches and pains on the trail. Whether you have a headache or sore feet, sometimes you need a little bit of relief.

​Always Let Loved Ones Know What Your Plans Are

You should always let loved ones know where you will be hiking, how far you will be hiking, where you plan to camp at night, and when you expect to be done with your hike. 

Make Water A Top Priority 

Never underestimate your need for water out on the trail. Make sure you have a system to carry water and to filter/clean your water.  I take a Sawyer Squeeze water filter and two or three 1L water bottles on every hike, and it is all that I need.

Learn Basic First Aid 

You will likely need to learn how to treat minor to moderate injuries, such as cuts, sprained ankles, allergic reactions, and other possible ailments. And make sure that you bring a first aid kit with you.

Protect Yourself From The Sun 

Sunburns on the trail are no fun, and exposure to the sun can cause even greater problems, such as heat exhaustion and issues with your eyesight.  Bring sunscreen, protective clothing, and sunglasses.

Don’t Underestimate Bugs

There are times when you will be inundated with mosquitoes, flies, or other little bugs on the trail. These little critters can make your life miserable if you do not take reasonable precautions. Bring your bug repellant, bring a mosquito net (they take up virtually zero space), and cover up the best you can.

Make Your Feet A Priority 

You will want a comfortable pair of shoes to hike in. You will want the right pair of socks on your feet as well. And you will want your feet to stay dry. Very few things can ruin a hike like injured, blistered feet.

Take Care Of Blisters Quickly

You also will want to know how to treat blisters. If you feel a hot spot on your feet as you hike, stop immediately and apply some moleskin, duct tape, or Leukotape. And if you do have a blister, pop it (it’s better than having it burst in your dirty, grimy sock), clean it, and put on clean bandages or tape.

Stretch At The Start And End Of Your Hike

You will want to prepare your body for any hike, regardless of length and terrain. And if especially if you are on a multi-day hike, you will want to give your muscles and joints some much-needed therapy to recover from a day of hiking and to prepare for the day ahead.

Don’t Wear Cotton 

Cotton on the trail sucks. It really does. Cotton gets heavy when it gets wet. It does not dry quickly. It does not keep you warm when wet, like wool does. All these issues can cause more than discomfort – they can be harmful and dangerous. If you got wet on a cold-weather hike, you could experience hypothermia if you did not get out of your wet clothes quickly.

Remember – Cotton is ROTTEN!

Wool And Synthetic Clothing Are The Way To Go

Instead of cotton, you should wear synthetic or wool materials. You will want clothing that wicks away moisture or dries quickly – because you will be wet on any hike – even in the summer (sweat much?).

Synthetic materials, and especially wool, do a great job of drying more quickly. Wool keeps you warm even when it is wet, and does not get heavy when it does get wet.

I love to wear synthetic tops and bottoms and wool socks and layers to stay warm and dry. For example, I highly recommend Darn Tough hiking socks.

Pace Yourself 

As you start out hiking, you may not be prepared for the amount of energy you will expend on a hike. Besides starting with simpler hikes with less gear, be sure to go at a pace you are comfortable with. 

Know Your Trail Before You Start

Do your very best to know as much about your trail as possible before you go. Know where water is, where the best places to camp are, where there might be dangerous river crossings or fallen trees, and prepare yourself. 

Take Extra Food With You

In case you need to stay on the trail for longer than you expected, you will want extra food to sustain you. It is always a good rule of thumb to take about an extra day’s worth of food.

Protect Your Food

When you settle in for the night, you will want to protect your food from animals. And this doesn’t just mean bears – even mice and squirrels can wreak havoc if your food isn’t protected. You can either get a bear canister or hang your food in a tree at least 100 feet from where you sleep.

Make Sure Your Pack Fits You Correctly And Is Adjusted

In order to get your pack to fit correctly, you should first loosen all of your straps – start from scratch, so to speak. Then put on the pack and tighten the hip belt so it fits snugly on your hips. You should feel it on your hip bones. Then, tighten the shoulder straps near your armpits. This should pull the pack closer to your body.

Then, if your pack has load lifters (at the top of your shoulder), pull those out. This should pull the pack even closer to your back. You ultimately want the pack as close to your back as possible – this keeps the weight from pulling back, away from your shoulders, and instead down, toward your hips. Your sternum strap can then be tightened in order to hold your shoulder straps in position.

Use A Pack Liner Or Waterproof Your Pack

You will want to keep your gear dry, no matter the weather or if you accidentally drop your pack in a stream. One way to do this is get a pack liner, which may just be a large kitchen garbage bag. You can also spend a bit more money and time to waterproof your bag yourself.

Pay Attention To Clothing Layers, Even In Warm Weather

You may not bring too much warm clothing for a summer hiking trip, but you should still try to layer. Temperatures can get pretty cold at night and early in the morning, so I still like to bring a light baselayer top and tights that keep me warm overnight. I will sometimes wear them to start the day until my body warms up.

Use Dry Bags To Store Your Food, Clothing, and Sleeping System

Dry bags provide extra protection inside your pack from rain and moisture. They also help you separate your food from your clothing and sleep system, making packing and unpacking easy.

Use Trekking Poles

If you have bad knees or feet, or have a heavier pack, you may want to try trekking poles. They will help you keep your balance, lighten the impact on your joints, and help you with river crossings and even snow.

Always Bring A Rain Coat

Regardless of what the weather forecast might say, you should always carry a rain coat with you. This is an important piece of equipment that is usually very lightweight and very small, so there really is no excuse not bring one. If you have a breathable, waterproof rain coat, you will have protection against rain, wind, and cold. You can wear it early in the morning, or at the end of day in camp, even with no rain.

Take Your Time With River Crossings

Some trails include river crossings that are not easy to navigate, especially if there is no bridge or trees to keep you out of the water. Always take your time and scout out the best path across the river or stream. Use your trekking poles and the help of others to stay dry and safe.

Be Very Careful Drying Your Clothes By A Fire

Most trails don’t actually allow campfires, and you really don’t need to make a fire in most cases. If you have wet clothes, socks, or shoes, and you are allowed to do so, may want to get a fire started. If you do, however, be very careful not to burn your stuff. You don’t want to destroy your clothing and really be miserable.

Remove Excess Packaging From Your Food

In order to save space, you should remove as much of your food from its packaging as possible. This also makes your cleanup easier. If you put your food in ziploc bags, for example, you don’t have to worry about packing out empty food boxes.

If You Can’t Hike And Speak At The Same Time – Take A Break

If you can’t talk while you are hiking, you are probably not getting enough oxygen to your body and you need to either slow down or take a break. As your stamina and strength improve, you’ll be able to hike faster and farther, but if you are starting out, don’t push it too far.

Consider Wearing A Hat

You may not be a hat person. I have been on many hikes where I chose not to wear a hat. But a hat is a good piece of protection against the sun and a way to keep sweat out of your face. Give it a try and see what you think.

Bring Along A Neck Gaiter

One piece of gear that I never leave home without when I go on a hike is my merino wool Buff Neck Gaiter. I wear it around my neck all the time – even during the summer heat. It does a great job of protecting me from the sun and if I want to douse it with water, it will provide some much-needed relief from the heat.

But during the evenings or in colder temperatures, it provides good warmth and protection against wind and rain. You can even use it as a towel! I love my Buff, and highly recommend getting one.

Don’t Forget Your Gloves

Gloves are a great piece of gear to bring on any hike. They keep your hands warm, can protect your hands from mosquitoes, and provide sun protection as well. Plus, a simple pair of gloves will weigh next to nothing and fit easily in your pack.

Bring Some Duct Tape

Whether it is to repair a tear in your bag or to prevent a blister from forming, duct tape is a great piece of gear to have handy on a hiking trip. But don’t bring the entire roll – a good trick that I’ve seen is to wrap some duct tape around your hiking pole right below the handles – that way you don’t even need to find a place for it in your pack!

Document Your Trip

A camera is a totally acceptable accessory for any hiker. A small video camera like a GoPro is also a great idea. You will want to document your trip to remember the memories – good and bad from your hiking trips.

When Hiking On The Trail – Give Way To Hikers Coming Uphill

This is a general rule of courtesy on the trail. Let those hikers who are huffing and puffing up the trail keep going instead of having to stop and wait for you to go past.

Leave No Trace

Please do not leave a single item on the trail that you brought with you. Not a single food wrapper, not a piece of rope or parachord, or even a few scraps of food. Please respect the beauty and fragility of the natural environment and LEAVE NO TRACE!

Don’t Feed The Animals

As cute as that little deer in your camp might be, please don’t feed her! Feeding wildlife human food can cause them to change their dieting habits. Also, if animals see humans as a source of food, they will become more aggressive and more likely to engage with humans. This could be harmful to a hiker, but also could be harmful to the animal as well.

Keep It Quiet

Please do not play music on the trail or yell or scream. Your fellow hikers comes out to the trail to escape the loud of daily life – please respect that and refrain from being too loud.

Make Some Noise On The Trail

With that being said, you do want to make some noise on the trail. Speaking with your partners is fine, or yelling “Hey Bear” every few minutes isn’t a bad idea. This will alert animals to your presence. You will want a bear or moose to hear your from a ways away so it can (as it almost always does) move away from you and avoid any dangerous surprise meeting.

Poop Properly

You will need to learn how to poop in the back country. Some rules of thumb:

  • Find a place at least 200 feet from the trail or a campground
  • Dig a cat hole to poop in – and then bury it
  • Pack out your dirty toilet paper if you use it – I use a ziploc bag for my used toilet paper
  • Bring hand sanitizer to clean your hands

Stay On The Trail

Some trails are groomed and can be quite narrow. Especially in wet conditions, you will be tempted to leave the trail to avoid mud and puddles on the established trail. Please don’t – it will damage the plant life along the trail.

Reward Yourself

Hiking is wonderful – but difficult! So make sure you give yourself some sort of reward. For example, I don’t like to eat much sugar, but I love to treat myself to Pop Tarts at the end of the day. And at the end of a tough hike, I like to have a cold root beer waiting for me in the car. Be creative and reward yourself for a great hike!

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