The ultimate guide for beginning hikers and a review for the more experienced

by Kathryn Miles

Each year about 4,000 backpackers attempt thru-hikes on the nation’s big three footpaths: the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails. Each is a massive commitment, with gear bills in the thousands of dollars and up to six months away from work.

But backpacking doesn’t have to be a months-long, bank-account-draining undertaking. For many people, the real appeal of backpacking is the quiet remoteness it affords, a chance to step away from the rat race and experience some real solitude. With a little bit of planning and creative preparation, you can easily have the time of your life out there, even if this is your first overnight sojourn.

Safety First

As great as backpacking is, it also comes with certain risks. It’s your job to minimize them with some basic precautions:

  • Assume that you’re not going to have cell-phone reception for at least part of your hike. That means if you get lost (and even the best hikers do), it’s going to be up to you to get yourself found. Always make sure an emergency contact is aware of your intended itinerary, when you plan to return, what vehicle you’ll be driving, and who is going with you.
  • Invest in a decent compass and topo mapsof your hiking destination, and know how to use both. Many major gear outfitters and regional chapters of Orienteering USA offer map and compass courses for new users that usually cost less than $100. If you can’t get to one of these locations, check out the Appalachian Mountain Club’s introduction to navigation or this video from REI.

  • If you have the cash to spare, consider investing in a personal locator beacon (usually a few hundred dollars), which will allow you to send your exact location and/or an emergency distress call when there’s no cell reception.
  • And be sure to study this guide from the U.S. Forest Service on what to do if you do get lost or find yourself in distress: it’s chock-full of great tips on how to keep it together when all else fails.

Keep It Simple

On the Trail

State and national parks can be great places for beginners: their trails are usually well marked, and their websites offer user-friendly guidelines for new and experienced hikers alike. For first trips, Warren Doyle, director of the Appalachian Trail Institute, who has been educating hikers for over 45 years, recommends staying close to home and restricting initial outings to easily accessible and well-indicated trails. Look for routes with low mileage and little in the way of difficult terrain, like steep elevation gains and losses or tricky footing that you might find with boulders, loose rock, or even a rat’s nest of roots. “Be modest in your expectations,” Doyle advises. “This isn’t about completing mileage. It’s about simplicity and the willingness to step away from society’s cradle. You can do that as easily in five miles as you can 500.” Websites like AllTrails and Trail Finder offer databases that can be searched by zip code or geography, and regional trail conservancies are also great resources.

Searching for a Campsite

“Don’t be afraid to set up camp after just a few miles on your first day, especially if you’re already tired,” Doyle says. Also consider using this camp as the base for your weekend adventures. For weekend hikes, this might mean hiking in and establishing a base camp on Friday night, which then allows you to day-hike on Saturday with a much smaller pack and return to your tent and sleeping bag that evening. There’s also no harm in using the hostel-hut systems at places like High Sierra Camps in California or White Mountain Huts in New Hampshire. But if you want the full backpacking experience, look for loops with designated camping areas or even established shelters (which often also come with water sources nearby).

Before You Buy

Jennifer Pharr Davis, author of The Pursuit of Endurancehiking record holder, and owner of the Blue Ridge Hiking Company, in Ashville, North Carolina, recommends using loaner hiking gear before investing in your own goods. “It’s hard to know what you need without a frame of reference,” she says. “By borrowing or renting gear, you can decide what you love, like, dislike, or can’t stand about certain products.” REI rents out gear, including backpacks and camp stoves, but you should check with your local store for a complete list of available gear. Or, for $92 per day, startup CampCrate will mail you a complete setup, including a sleeping bag, tent, water filter, and headlamp. 

The Essentials

Once you’re ready to invest in your own gear, you need to determine where and how you’re going to regularly hike—different climates and trip lengths will call for different gear. Backpacks come in a variety of sizes, and most are measured in liters; you can probably get away with a backpack in the 50-to-60-liter range for a trip less than four days. Many sleeping bags are labeled by the minimum temperature an average sleeper will be comfortable; a compressible 20-degree bag will work for many people for three seasons. And while some prefer crawling into a tent at night, others prefer to sleep in a bivy sack or hammock.

Other essential items include a basic first-aid kit, activity-specific items like sunscreen, bug spray, moleskin or duct table for blisters, and a Mylar emergency heat blanket (which can also serve as a great signal for search and rescue planes in the event you get really lost). A reliable headlamp with fresh batteries is also a must, as is a whistle, a waterproof lighter or matches, and a collapsible knife or multitool.

For a comprehensive list of recommended equipment, check out the National Outdoor Leadership School’s basic gear list or Outside’s list of backpacking essentials.

Pack Right

When it comes to packing these essentials, play to the engineering of the pack itself. Modern-day backpacks are designed with waist belts that distribute the weight of a pack to your hips and lower body, where our real core strength lies. Keep heavy items, like reserve water, heating fuel, and food, low in the main pouch of the pack, and place light items, like a down coat or sleeping bag, higher in the back. The most essential items, like maps, snacks, a cell phone, and at least one water bottle, should be kept in an external pocket where they can easily be reached.

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