Your Complete Guide To Backpacking

Man with Backpacking Gear Sitting on Rock

Backpacking is a term that many of us hear every now and then, but the actual definition can be a bit ambiguous at times.

While the term itself may seem pretty self-explanatory, there are in fact several forms of backpacking that one can participate in. For the sake of space and time, we’ll spend this time focusing on the most utilized and known form of backpacking, as well as some helpful tips to get you started if you’re a novice.

Backpacking Defined

So what exactly defines backpacking? If you visualize someone with rugged boots, a large backpack full of gear, and a compass or hiking stick in hand, you’re on the right track.

Couple Backpacking Next to Road

Technically, backpacking really just means going anywhere on foot with a backpack full of travel gear. This can be as simple as bringing a small pack with you for a day hike on a short, local trail, or traveling throughout Europe for several weeks while carrying all of your essential belongings in your specialized backpack.

The most traditional definition of backpacking is when you take part in an extended outdoor excursion for one or more days. The backpack you bring with you contains all of the things you need to survive in the wild, such as food, water, sleeping supplies, and tools. Tents are commonplace as well.

Depending on your outing, backpacking can be rather intense, especially if you are intent on venturing through remote areas for several days at a time, using only what you can carry. This is when proper planning and gear quality is of the essence, ensuring that you have a reliable inventory that can support you during the journey.

Man with Backpacking Gear And Dog Standing

The gear you bring with you is of the utmost importance when backpacking, as is proper planning. When done right, you have everything you need to have a successful and safe experience.

Why Go Backpacking

Backpacking is one of the most popular outdoor activities, and for good reason. It provides you with a true outdoor experience, as opposed to one that’s just in passing. With backpacking, you have the chance to fully immerse yourself in nature, and truly “get away” from the stresses and complications of everyday life.

Backpacking also gives you an opportunity to experience nature in a more intimate and undefiled setting. Longer backpacking trips can take you into remote areas where intrusions by humans haven’t affected vegetation and wildlife. Such experiences can be truly life-changing, especially in a society where technology continues to dominate every aspect.

Woman Preparing For Backpacking

Another advantage to backpacking is getting an up close and personal view of outdoor areas such as mountain peaks -- there are simply some places that a car can’t reach after all. The fulfillment of summiting a peak and taking in the view is second to none.

Types of Backpacking Trips

As we mentioned earlier, there are several different types of backpacking excursions you can experience. Let’s briefly touch on a few of the more common ones.

Day Hiking

Like the name says, the duration of this backpacking trip will only last for a day, meaning you don’t have to worry about camping out or setting up shelter. This provides a beginner or time-challenged backpacker with the opportunity to get out and backpack without a big commitment, gear or time-wise.

Woman Day Hiking

Day hiking can be done on designated trails, or in the backcountry if it’s more accessible, Whatever works best for you, just make sure you don’t get too far away from where you started.

Guided Backpacking

If you’re looking for a way to take a longer backpacking trip, but want to make sure that it’s safe, paced, and on the optimal route, guided backpacking is your best choice. An experienced expert will lead your party throughout the trip, ensuring that you don’t miss a thing, while also making sure you don’t get lost or into any trouble.

These trips can range anywhere from a day to several weeks in some locations.

Winter Backpacking

This type of backpacking almost always takes place in snowy conditions, and usually involves mountains as well. Winter backpacking is often fairly intense, and requires an extra amount of specialized gear specifically for handling snow and low temperatures, such as skis or snowshoes. An advanced knowledge of cold temperature survival is paramount as well.

Two Mens Hiking

Ultralight Backpacking

Ultralight backpacking is an increasingly popular backpacking type that places an emphasis on carrying extremely light loads. Backpackers meticulously weigh all of their items, aiming to remain under 20 lbs total.

The payoff from this is a reduced load on your body, allowing you to get maximum distance on your excursion while also saving energy. It also helps to fight against the urge to overload your pack by bringing way too much gear.

How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

Planning is essential if you want to have an ideal backpacking trip. With a little due diligence, and proper gear, you can ensure that your trip is both memorable and smooth.

Try a Few Day Hikes First

Before committing to a longer backpacking trip, it’s better to first make sure that you can handle a smaller hike first. Test out a few trails at some nearby outdoor areas to get a good feel for what your days will be like on your trip.

Man Hiking

This gives you a chance to test your endurance and stamina, which will have an effect on your trip plan as far as how much ground you plan to cover each day. Day hikes can help you get in better shape as well, which is always a good thing.

Research Your Destination

Are you staying close, or are you wanting to visit a national park several hours away? Researching the destination area can help you plan for weather, crowds, and and other factors that will affect your trip. You can also pinpoint any natural features or points that you’d like to encounter on your journey.

Plan Route And Check Permits

Properly planning the route of your trip is of the utmost importance. Different areas have different trails, as well as a mixture of backcountry and trails. Some hiking areas may require permits purchased beforehand for access.

Compass And GPS on Map

Usually, there are three main options for a route.

  • Loop Route - These hikes follow a looping path that takes you in a full circle and ends where you started, without any backtracking along the way. Loops are ideal for getting to experience a wide range within your area, without wasting steps and time by having to repeat any sections. The loop can be planned to hit any number of points of interest.
  • Out and Back Route - With this route, you make your way to a specified point, and then retrace your steps back to where you started. An out and back route is common when summiting mountains and the like, or when the purpose of your hike is to visit a certain part of the terrain, such as a certain waterfall, spring, or valley.
  • End to End Route - Like the name says, you begin at one end and finish at another. This route usually requires a certain amount of planning, such as transportation on both ends. These hikes tend to be long, and go through a variety of terrains and areas.

What to Bring Backpacking

Now for the other important part of planning your trip -- the gear itself. The items you bring on your trip will play a large role in how the trip turns out, so it’s crucial to bring the things you need, and only what you need.

Backpacks in The Leaves
  • Backpack - This is pretty obvious. You will need a backpacking backpack, one that is both comfortable and spacious, as well as sturdy. Pack all of your items a few different ways before your trip to find the most efficient way to pack that gives you both easy access and optimal weight distribution.
  • Clothing - The climate and time of year play a big role here, but you want to make sure you have the right clothing for different scenarios. Layers are your friend, as you can shed or add to your outfit according to the conditions and temperature. Hats, sunglasses, raincoats, and extra socks are all encouraged.
  • Boots - Not just any boots -- hiking boots. The boots need to fit perfectly to ensure that you don’t get blisters. Comfort, stability, and grip are all paramount when choosing a pair.
  • Food - Unless you plan on catching your food every day, you’ll need to bring plenty of food. Light, high-calorie foods are the best choice, and energy bars are perfect for snacks to keep you going. There are plenty of backpacking recipes easily available as well.
Woman Drinking Water
  • Water - 2 Liters per person, per day -- no exceptions. The last thing you want is to be out of water. Yes, it’s heavy, but you need lots of it. Bringing a few water filters along can be a big help if you are near water sources on your trip.
  • Shelter - While some backpacking areas present opportunities to pitch a camping hammock, a small tent is still a good idea. Backpacking tarps are versatile enough to be used as shelter when used correctly.

Beginner Backpacking Tips

Are you just starting off? Here’s a few crucial tips that can make your first few backpacking trips go without a hitch.

Know Local Hazards

You are in the wild after all, so know what you might encounter. Bears, snakes, or whatever else lives in the area could pose a threat, so be prepared for what you are getting into. Research areas to avoid, what to look out for, and how to react just in case. For instance, if you are in an area with bear activity, be sure to keep your food outside and away from your tent.

Brown Bear Exploring Tent

Go as a Group

The most successful backpacking trips take place as a group. This increases the safety factor significantly, while also giving you multiple hands and resources when needed. Plus, it’s just good to have some company to share your experience with.

Pack as a Group

This is strategic. Don’t feel like everyone has to carry all their own gear. Disperse the gear amongst your group, allowing you to balance out your packs and pool your resources.

Test Gear Beforehand

The last thing you want is to find yourself several days in to your trip, only to discover that some of the gear you haven’t needed up until now is dysfunctional. Go through all of your items beforehand and make sure that everything is good to go, especially any electronic items.

Pace Yourself

Pacing is crucial to making sure your trip goes as planned in every facet. Look at your route, measure out the distance, and calculate to make sure that the anticipated length of time is correct, and most importantly, realistic.

Hiker with Backpack Checks Map

Don’t set yourself up for a blistering pace that has everyone worn out every single day -- your trip will suffer because of it, and you risk your safety as well. Keep an enjoyable pace that doesn’t feel forced, but isn't lackadaisical as well. Allot yourself some extra time in case you encounter any areas you’d like to spend some more time at.

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