Planning your First Backpacking Trip

In 2007 I prepared for one of my first overnight hikes: a 4-day backpacking trip in Olympic National Park. I was joining a group of climbers, most of whom had been there and done that but I decided to plan for this trip on my own. I heaved my backpack onto my body with pride. It was heavy, loaded with everything I’d possibly need and more. All the stuff I couldn’t cram into my pack I creatively attached to the outside. Bits and pieces of gear dangled from every hook, strap and carabiner on my pack. I was ready.


Or so I thought. I brought too much of some things and not enough of others. I failed to adjust my pack adequately to my body. I missed the mark on my footwear and as a result of all my blunders I hobbled around for a week after returning from my trip. Not to be deterred by one miserable experience, I strove to do better next time. Since that outing I’ve gone on many, more enjoyable overnight hikes and today I’ll share some strategies to help you plan a successful first backpacking trip.


Where and when to go

If you want to enjoy backpacking, it’s important to have a fun first trip. Choosing the right location at the right time is a great start. Do you have any friends who like to backpack? Ask them for suggested beginner itineraries. Choose a low-mileage option to begin. And remember that out-and-back hikes are easier to bail out on than loop hikes. Knowing your average daily mileage with a light pack will help you choose an appropriate distance for an overnight trip. For example, if your longest day hike tops out around ten miles, start with something shorter, like a 5-8 mile/day target for your first backpacking trip.


Consider the timing of your backpacking trip. What will the weather be like? How about bugs? Will there be running water? Will there be snow on the ground? An ideal first backpacking outing will have mild weather, plenty of fresh water sources and easy access. If you have to post-hole through knee-deep snow, wade creeks or deal with sub-freezing weather at night, you might not have a great time (unless you’re into that kind of thing, and in that case go for it).


What to bring (and what not to bring)

When packing for one or more nights on the trail, it’s important to think about a few things: what you need, what you might need and how heavy it is. For example, you know you need to bring food, but how much should you bring and what kind? For a multi-day trip you may opt for fruit leather (light, packable) versus a whole watermelon (heavy, cumbersome, produces lots of waste). As a beginner, you probably don’t have all the things you’ll need to have a successful first trip. And if you go into a gear shop to get outfitted for your trip, you might balk at the price tag. Start with your friends: see how much stuff you can borrow for your trip. This serves a few purposes. First, you can get a sense of what you like and don’t like about particular pieces of gear. Second, you save money by not buying stuff that doesn