What to Expect When You’re Backpacking

So you’ve decided to step into nature with nothing except what you’re capable of carrying. Good for you! There is something beautiful and empowering about being alone in the wild with just your pack. If this is your first time you might be asking yourself, “Where do I begin?”…well, I’m going to share with you some tips on how to start your backpacking journey.

First, invest in some quality equipment. My husband’s saying for buying gear is “buy once, cry once”. When shopping for hiking or backpacking gear, you want to take a few things into consideration:

  1. Is it reliable? Research, research, research, and read reviews. You will want to know if the gear fell apart on someone’s first outing, or if it did not meet their expectations.
  2. Is it comfortable? Whether you’re planning an overnight trip or multiple nights, you NEED to be comfortable. A sore back or blisters will make your trip very unenjoyable.
  3. How heavy is it? In the backpacking world, ounces = pounds. The goal is to pack as much as you need with the minimum amount of weight. Where you’re willing to add weight depends on your personal preferences and needs.

Second, plan and prepare for your trip. Now that you have some gear, it is important to know your limitations as a new backpacker. If the longest hike you’ve ever completed is only a few miles, do not expect to go out for 4 nights and hike 15+ miles per day. You can prepare for your trip by practicing and going on day-long hikes while carrying your gear, this will get you accustomed to carrying weight for long distances. Also, remember that increases in elevation make breathing more difficult, even if you’re in shape, so don’t overestimate your endurance! Once you’ve chosen your destination, you can pick and choose what gear you do and do not need. The app AllTrails can be very useful in selecting a route, but be sure to also obtain a paper map in the event you do not have internet access or cell service.

Lastly, know your destination. Plan for the weather, be aware that even in the desert, night time temperatures can dip to near-freezing. Considering the Pacific Northwest? Expect humidity and rain. Also, be cognizant of hazards such as wildfires, avalanches, floods, and mud slides.  Be sure to look into what sort of wildlife inhabits the area too. The USA is home to different species of bear, mountain lions, poisonous snakes, wolves, and other dangerous animals. Bear spray is always a smart investment and will run you about $40 per can. If you plan on wielding a firearm or knife, make sure you know the laws for the state you’re in regarding transport, and open or concealed carrying. And it is never a bad idea to know where the nearest medical facility is either in the event of an emergency.

Remnants of an avalanche along the Bowman Lake Trail in Glacier National Park

Now that I’ve touched on the basics…I’d like to come back to the gear aspect of backpacking and share with you the equipment my husband and I use:

Packs We spent a few weeks looking up different pack brands, comparing features and pricing, and going to different outfitters to try packs on. Find an REI and get yourself sized. Packs are sized based on torso length and it is SO important to get a pack that distributes weight comfortably on your body. We decided to both splurge on Osprey Atmos/Aura AG 65 models, which were $270 each. These packs are meant for 3-5 day trips, so they’re pretty big. The AG in the name stands for anti-gravity which is a brilliant feature meant to put all the weight directly onto your hips, instead of your back and shoulders. Additionally, the pack rests a couple inches off your back allowing for airflow and eliminating the sweaty-back problem. Some other features that won us over were the built-in 2.5L water bladder with magnetic mouth piece securement, easily accessible waist pockets, and a designated sleeping bag pocket. This bag fits everything you could need, and is incredibly versatile – I loved it so much that I also bought the smaller Mira AG 34 (which is no longer available). I actually took the Mira pack to Italy for 8 days as my only luggage – which I will talk about in a future post. Osprey makes quality items and if you don’t know what you need, they have a pack-finder feature to help narrow down your search.

Ben with his Atmos AG 65 and Z Lite Sol sleeping pad.

Tents REI has a pretty good selection of different brands online…and I would suggest checking out their Used Gear section to get cheaper gear as a beginner (some tents push $1000). The items here have been gently used by customers and/or product testers, and returned for a discounted price – they vary all the time so check back frequently for what you’re in need of! We settled on a 3 person 3-season tent from The North Face and also bought the additional footprint to help ensure we stayed dry. For the used tent and the footprint, we spent $207. The two together weigh about 10lbs so they’re light but not ultra-light. The tent has kept us warm at night in the deserts of Colorado, and dry in the northwest of Montana during rain and snow – we love it! It has enough room for us (I am 5’8” and my husband is 5’11”) and our two dogs who are 70lbs and 30lbs.

Sleeping Bags/Mats When choosing a sleeping bag, think about the weather where you will be taking the bulk of your trips. If it is hot, you won’t need a bag rated for negative temperatures. If it is cold, make sure you get a bag that will keep you warm! I chose a used NEMO Celesta 25, a bag rated for 25 degrees Fahrenheit and weighing in at almost 4lbs, for about $170 (Originally $300). This bag stuffs very nicely into that sleeping bag pocket I mentioned previously. Additionally, I use a Z Lite Sol sleeping pad to add a few extra degrees of warmth and cushion. This pad is super comfortable for me, but has left hickey-like bruises on my husband who is very lean. It is also a little bulky, but the Osprey pack has securement straps which work wonderfully for carrying it.

Food and Cooking We sampled several different companies that produce freeze-dried food options. Our method for this was selecting the same meal (macaroni and cheese, for example) from each company, and taste-testing while comparing nutritional value. Our favorite is Wise Company foods. They offer lots of different options for buckets of entrees, breakfasts, snacks, and drinks. The only options we did not like were the Teriyaki and Rice entrée, and the powdered eggs…everything else was pretty tasty! Be aware that this food is very high in sodium, which is important for hydration. For a cooking apparatus we went light and opted for a Pocket Rocket 2 stove ($45 + gas canisters), and found close-out Stanley products to cook in. Each of us got a metal cook cup with plastic drink cup, spork, and a single cook pot for about $30. Remember, you want to cook your meals away from where you are sleeping so as not to attract wildlife. Also, the higher your elevation – the longer it will take to boil water!

A very sad breakfast of powdered eggs made in our Stanley cook cups.

Clothing Whether your destination is going to be hot, cold, or mild – it is always a good idea to layer, and have at least a waterproof jacket if there is even a slight chance of rain. I really like all of the Columbia items I’ve purchased, they have sales fairly regularly and I found their sizing charts reliable when ordering online. I would recommend looking for clothes that are mainly cotton or cotton blends – as they will breathe better than synthetic fabrics. Also, look for clothing that has UV protection built in! Ladies, boob sweat is real and you’re going to want a comfortable bra. I found that I prefer less support when hiking as the bras are not as restrictive and cause less sweating. I like to wear a t-shirt or tank with a loose-fitting button-up long sleeve shirt which I can remove if need be. I also prefer hiking in pants to avoid scratches, bugs, and sunburn – but that is all personal preference. Definitely buy high socks, not low cut – and you can even get silver/copper infused socks to cut down on odor. We typically cook dinner in the clothes that we hiked in that day, then change into our clothes for the next day and sleep in those – back to my point on not attracting wildlife to where you sleep.

We woke to find the footprints of a large mule deer and small mountain lion 4 feet behind our tent…yikes!

Everything Else I’ve touched on the main items you will need. Obviously, there are a lot of little things that you may or may not want to also take. You should consider a headlamp/flashlight, a Lifestraw, pack cover, GPS and/or compass, a compact reliable knife or multi-tool, and a couple ways to make fire (i.e. lighters, waterproof matches, fire striker kit).

All of the aforementioned gear/supplies cost us about $1500 total (for two people), and with the exception of the food, can be used until failure. Again, what is important to me might not matter as much to you, and I am by no means a professional backpacker. But I hope I was able to give you some valuable beginner information. Here are a few closing tips and thoughts:

  1. Don’t buy items like inflatable pillows, use your pack as a pillow – you’re roughing it!
  2. Make sure you buy comfortable shoes and BREAK THEM IN before you head off into the wilderness for a few days, your feet will thank you.
  3. Water is heavy – do your research and buy a reliable filter so that you don’t have to carry water. If you are going to a dry place, know your limitations and make sure you pack enough water to get you through.
  4. Live by the Leave No Trace principles.
  5. As always, have fun and be safe!

Questions, comments, or concerns? Share below!

  • Melanie

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