How to Begin Backpacking by Preparing for Your Trip

This article is a supplement to our Backpacking for Beginners Live Virtual Workshop.

You can always spot the unprepared backpacking beginners: They’re either prancing down the trail in flip flops with some candy bars and not much else, or so loaded down with equipment they look like a peddler straight out of a fairytale circa 1673. Although a noob you yourself may be, if you’re reading this you’re one smart cookie. (We won’t share your secret.) Read on to learn more about how to begin backpacking by first preparing for your trip.

1. Leave your itinerary and emergency contacts in the car

First, it’s important to note: Mother Nature does not care about you. She will murder you. This isn’t a Disney movie and you aren’t Snow White. (But hey, if you’re shacking up with seven dudes, good on you.) There is no frolicking with the birds and the squirrels. There is no drinking out of pretty mountain streams. And there is definitely, definitely no handsome prince standing at the ready to rescue you. Nope. This is the backcountry, in all its glorifying and terrifying majesty. (Well, okay. Technically, there are people standing by to rescue you: park rangers and wilderness first responders. A lot of man/womanpower will go into finding you if you get lost. These people will put their own lives at risk to do so. Don’t make them do that unnecessarily).

One of the smartest, easiest first steps? Leave your itinerary and emergency contacts in your car at the trailhead. Notate the date and time you head out, how long you plan to be gone, the basic route you want to take, and your desired destination before returning. Also add a few friends and family members and their contact information.

2. Practice Leave No Trace Principles


Dig that cat hole and bury that poop! At Explorer Chick, we adhere to the Seven Principles for minimum impact outdoors, developed by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Study up and annoy your friends with your wilderness knowledge. Bonus: You earn the right to walk backward out of your campsite the following morning, waving your arms and chanting: “I was never here. I was never here.”

  • Principle 1: Plan Ahead and Prepare.
  • Principle 2: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces.
  • Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly.
  • Principle 4: Leave What You Find.
  • Principle 5: Minimize Campfire Impacts.
  • Principle 6: Respect Wildlife.
  • Principle 7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors.

3. Pack the 10 Essentials for Hiking

This list was originally developed in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, a nonprofit outdoor community founded in 1906. The 10 Essentials for hiking, backpacking and rock climbing are a list of supplies meant to answer two questions:

  • Can you respond positively to an accident or emergency?
  • Are you prepared to spend a night or more safely outdoors?

It has since developed into a systems approach outlined in the textbook Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. (The new approach added emergency shelter and hydration.) Your next adventure packing list should include items from each of these systems.

Of course, it’s not an all-inclusive approach. Depending on your trip, you’ll pack additional items. Overnight trips will require camping gear. Glacial traverses demand an ice axe and crampons. Ultralight travelers may chance risk and not carry some items to lessen their load and quicken their pace. However, this is a great basic list to refer to when you’re exploring how to start backpacking.

  1. Navigation
  2. Sun protection
  3. Insulation/extra clothing
  4. Illumination
  5. First aid supplies
  6. Fire
  7. Repair kit and tools
  8. Nutrition
  9. Hydration
  10. Emergency shelter

4. Layer your clothing and have properly fitting boots or shoes

“Layers” may make you think of snowy winter hikes (or cakes—cool with us either way), but this applies to rainy days as well. Rule number one for selecting your hiking wardrobe: no cotton! This means just because you see Columbia or North Face stamped on the sleeve, it doesn’t mean it’s hiking gear. Opt for synthetics, wool or down (depending on the article of clothing). In warmer months plan ahead for cloud bursts and soggy weather with a lightweight rain jacket and water-resistant hiking shoes. For winter hiking, the ultimate goal is not to sweat. This can be achieved by dressing in the following order: base layer, mid layer, outer layer, and accessories including socks and gloves. You may feel like Randy in A Christmas Story, but when it comes to that gorgeous bitch Mother Nature, it’s function over fashion.

How to Begin Backpacking by Breaking in New Hiking Boots or Shoes

As far as shoes: Remember that scene in Wild when Cheryl took off her shoes because her feet were covered in blisters? (Remember gasping out loud when one slid over the edge?) Be ye not so stupid. Get your new kicks trek-ready ahead of time by following these three steps:

  1. Get properly fitted for boots or shoes: Everyone’s feet are different, as are the demands of various treks. Take some time to go and physically try on lots of different brands. Don’t be shy about walking around the store and asking lots of questions. A good outfitter will expect and encourage it!
  2. Spend hours in your boots to break them in: Better to suffer blisters at home than to miss out on a hike due to painful hotspots on your feet.
  3. Walk on different terrain, in different weather: Train on rough and rugged terrain, not perfectly-paved sidewalks. Find steps, a hill, or the StairMaster and get climbing. (Bonus: Your quads, booty, and calves will thank you.) Train in all types of weather—this means rain!

5. Pack your backpack correctly

This step can mean the difference between a backpacking trip of agony, or one of ecstasy. It’s a combination of being savvy about how you arrange your gear, and distributing the weight of that gear throughout the pack. You should also be thinking ahead of time and place items you may need at a moment’s notice (a rain jacket) in a more accessible spot rather than something you may need to access once a day (a sleeping bag).

Think of your pack as having five different zones, with certain items going into each. Gear at the bottom will be accessed the least, and will move up from there:

  • Zone 1: Bottom – Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, camp shoes
  • Zone 2: Core – Food, stove, cook kit
  • Zone 3: Top/”The Brain” – jacket, first aid kit, toilet supplies
  • Zone 4: Outside pockets – map, lip balm, headlamp
  • Zone 5: Tool loops – trekking poles, ice axe, climbing rope

Use soft items (tent, extra clothing) to wrap and cushion bulkier items (stove, cook kit).

6. Hoist and adjust your backpack

You’ve studied how to begin backpacking, studied your route, got the gear, and managed to cram it all in. Hoist and go, right? Wrong. Without taking the time to properly adjust your pack, your back will be killing you and it won’t be long before you’re regretting this whole crazy scheme. Your pack is going to be heavy, there’s no getting around it. But knowing how to properly adjust and utilizing all the different straps will distribute the weight safely and correctly.

Backpacking Straps

First, begin by loosening all the straps. This will make it easier to adjust once the pack is on your body. Next, lift your backpack off the ground (duh) by using the loop at the top (not by the shoulder straps). Ideally, set it on a higher surface such as a log or picnic table. If there’s nothing convenient around, balance it on your thigh. Next, thread one arm through one of the arm straps, then the other while leaning forward. Ta da! Your backpack is now in its proper place. Then, begin by buckling and adjusting the straps in the following order:

  1. Waist/hip belt: Clip the waist belt so you feel the bulk of the weight of the pack resting on the top of your hips. (This is the secret to a less-tired back—making sure it’s not doing all the carrying work!) Now adjust the straps until the belt feels snug, but not super-tight.
  2. Shoulder straps: Lean forward and adjust your shoulder straps. This brings the pack close to your body for a snug fit against your back.
  3. Stabilizer straps/Load-lifters: These straps are located at the top of your pack, on either side of your neck. Pulling these lifts the pack up and even closer to your back so you aren’t straining your neck and upper back by carrying weight too low.
  4. Chest strap: Finally, buckle your chest strap so it fits snuggly across your sternum. (Not too tight! You should still be able to breathe all that fresh air you’re about to encounter!) These straps don’t help much with weight load, but they do prevent your shoulder straps from slipping off.

Whew! You did it! Give yourself a pat on the back (pack) and get ready to hit the trail!

Related Reads

Backpacking Food and Backcountry Cooking Safety

How to Layer for Your Winter Hike

The 10 Essential Items to Pack for Every Hike

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