Get Started with Backpacking


I've written before about car camping, and now that you're an expert car camper (or want to skip a step) you want to try backpacking.  I have to say, other than climbing, no outdoor activity seemed as daunting to me as backpacking.  But now that I have been once, which definitely qualifies me to write about it, it's clear that backpacking can be pretty easy and fun.  This post is to help get you over the initial hurdles that might keep you from trying; it's not to teach you how to backpack, but I will include some links at the end with helpful info. 


The biggest barriers to entry are probably knowledge and gear--but both of those issues can be helped or remedied by finding an experienced friend or group to go with.  My first trip was with a meetup group.  That meant all the planning was taken care of by someone else, there were people with stoves and water purifiers, and at least one person knew the things like "use a bear bag."  This made the experience much more relaxing for me and also meant there was someone to ask questions of before the trip.  Retailers like REI offer trips at a cost, and you can probably find local guides or retailers offer various excursions.  But start with Meetup--it's free and you'll become part of a group you can keep packing with. I joined a Phoenix-based group and live 2 hours away, so don't feel like you have to join a group in your own town.
My creative packing

Gear:  it can get expensive.  If you've car camped you probably have all the gear you need.  If you are starting from scratch, chances are you can find an outdoor supplier that rents gear.  REI definitely does.  Maybe you can borrow from a friend or scour Craigslist.You don't have to have an ultralight, super-expensive tent--I have a 2 person tent from Walmart that a "real" backpacker would look at with scorn after hearing its weight.  Same for sleeping bags and packs.  I used a down sleeping bag that I bought on sale at Sports Authority and a 30-liter Eureka pack I bought in Barbados in 2002 that's more of a big day pack. 

Similarly, you don't need to have a lot of expensive backpacking food, titanium plates, or any of that other fancy eating gear you see in magazines.  I ate a big breakfast and lunch, made steel-cut oats with protein powder, nuts, and dried fruit for my second-day meal, put that in double Ziploc bags, and took a handful of Cliff Bars for my trail food.  One of the other guys had a can of Spaghetti-o's.

What matters for gear and food is mainly that you can handle the weight of what you pack, and when you use the non-specific gear it's going to weigh more.  Pack your bag ahead of time, see if you can handle the weight (including the water you'll carry), and then walk or hike some to train for that weight. 

Also, be creative in what you bring and use.  I bought a packable pillow, but didn't have room to carry it.  So at bedtime I filled my sleeping-bag's stuff sack with everything I wasn't sleeping in and used that as a pillow.  To get some extra height off the ground I put it on my boots.  Turned out to be more comfortable than the actual pillow was.  Same goes for packing--can you put your water on top of the bag instead down the back like a Camelbak; is there anything you strap securely to the outside. 

Otherwise, a short backpacking trip isn't all that different from hiking, so don't talk yourself out of trying. 

Some other pointers:
  • Carry your ID and insurance info.  This goes with the "plan for the worst, hope for the best" mantra that outdoors activities all live by.
  • All phones, regardless of activation, should be able to call 911.  I have an old cell phone that's not activated.  I carry that on all outdoors activities in a dry bag. With the power off that thing will hold a charge for literally over a year.  Definitely good to have a backup to the smartphone that is lucky to hold a charge for the weekend and sucking more power from all the pictures you're taking with it since you left your camera at home to save weight.
  • Know how to use blister-prevention and don't be a tough-guy who doesn't think the little rub you feel will go away.  I still have a spot that hasn't fully disappeared from my trip 4 weeks ago.
  • Camp can get boring after dark if you're not prepared or aren't in bed at sunset.  Maybe bring a game like Catch Phrase for everyone to play after dark.
  • Bring some baby wipes.  My biggest fear was not being able to shower (I have this thing about having to shower in the morning), but I put a couple baby wipes in a Ziploc bag, then I wrapped that bag with duct-tape.  3 birds with one stone there - I could clean myself up a bit in the morning, the duct tape protected the bag, and then I also had my lengths of duct tape for emergencies (just realize you're not going to be able to pull off any of the tape that's touching the bag).
  • Look around the house for some kind of little bag or pouch to keep small items in.  I found a mesh drawstring bag that was just laying around.  The pencil pouch from your 3rd grade Trapper Keeper would do fine too.  This helps keep important things like car keys, drivers license, insurance info, chap stick, flashlight, from getting misplaced.
  • For the love of god, put anything liquid in a Ziploc bag, maybe double-bag them. 
  • Make sure your boots are broken in.  Even if they're old boots you've had for years, maybe they got stiff in the closet after a winter (or Arizona summer) of no use.  Find that out before you're on the trail.
  • Pooping outside sucks.  At least learn the "leave no trace" aspects of how to do it.  As for technique...I got nothing. Still not sure what's a good way as a guy to keep from doing #1 on your pants while you're going #2.
  • Check with the forest and/or park service if you need some help figuring out where you can camp, Google backpacking destinations, or go find an area guide at the library. 
  • Check and RESPECT fire restrictions before you go.  Respect the environment in general, don't leave trash or wreck the place.
  • Google Maps on smart phones can be downloaded for offline use, but don't rely on that exclusively... battery issues and all.  Also, the My Tracks app from Google can be handy if you need to retrace your steps and is nice for an overview (and Google Earth reenactment) of your trip.
  • There's nothing wrong with bringing a little booze.  Just sayin'.
That's what I have for your!  Hopefully I've convinced you that backpacking is accessible to everyone and given you the encouragement and some advice you need to get out there! 
Good resources (you'll notice that REI is a great educational source for the outdoors):

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