A big agnes copper spur sits in front of a mountain in washington

How to Start Backpacking: Tips to get you outside

Curious about how to start backpacking? You’re not alone! There are new backpackers each year, and we all started in the same place wondering, ‘How the heck do I pack everything in a bag and then sleep outside?’

It seems daunting and maybe scary, but I promise you, backpacking is amazing and opens up so many possibilities that, eventually, you’ll come to love. And then, at some point, you’ll be an expert, maybe going alone and helping educate other people to find their place in nature.

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How to start backpacking? Find a friend who’s gone before

Like many things in life, doing something new and alone is challenging and scary. And that’s okay. Trying something new, like walking out into the forest and spending a night, is 100% something that can be unnerving.

Due to this, find a friend who has done some backpacking and ask to go with them! This will provide you with company AND someone who can help show you the ropes.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

If you’re wondering how to start backpacking, this is my best suggestion!

Pick an easy backpacking destination

Your first couple of backpacking trips should be somewhat easy, or at least straightforward enough, where your anxiety is never a factor.

This means keep it small, maybe no more than eight to ten miles round trip (so hike in 4 miles and then set up camp).

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Also, ensure you camp next to a stream, river, or lake. This will provide ample water filtration options so you are never worried about when or where you will drink next.

Remember, you’re not out there to torture yourself. Pick a destination that looks fun, allows you to connect with nature, and do something new!

Get Used/Discounted Gear to Keep Costs Down

We all know outdoor gear can be expensive. I mean, when I outfitted myself for my first backpacking trip to Havasupai, I think I spent around $1,200 in a matter of weeks. (Ooof!) Thankfully, I’m still using that gear six years later.

But the point stands: it can be expensive and, to some, a barrier to entry. Luckily, there are avenues to get top-notch gear at a discounted price!

By shopping the REI Outlet or REI Re/Supply, you can score fantastic gear at half the price (or more). If you buy via the REI Outlet, the only difference is it’s last year’s gear – but it’s still good stuff. Then, for the Used Gear, they only sell good quality things; sometimes, it has been worn once or twice and got returned.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

I highly recommend checking out these two spots to get great gear at a fraction of the cost! (Or, wait for major holidays when all retailers hold sales, and you can get things 25-40% off.)

Try not to overpack

I’ve been backpacking for six years and still struggle with this. So, don’t worry about it unless you have some health issues where you have to be extra careful of how much weight you have.

I say don’t really worry about it because it’s all trial and error. Over time, you’ll figure out how to decide what you need to bring versus what you want to bring. And sometimes, luxury items like a camping chair, camera, and lenses, or alcohol are worth it, and sometimes they aren’t.

The hiking difficulty is usually a deciding factor, but you are the only person who can decide if you want to pack extra weight. When it comes to how to start backpacking, you will make mistakes, but that’s okay.

More first-time backpacking tips

If you’re a little anxious, pick someplace that has cell service. You can look at your carrier’s service plan to see where they have cell service.

Check the weather. While rain isn’t a big deal, it can be annoying, and hopefully, you won’t have to do real with that on your first trip.

Tell people where you are going so they know when you are expected home.

Some places need permits that allow you to camp overnight. Other spots you do not. Make sure you know the difference. (All National Parks require permits.)

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

FAQ: How to start backpacking

Let’s go over a few more things about how to start backpacking!

What Gear Do I Need?

Take a look at these articles I’ve written about gear:

What Gear Do I NOT need?

Start with the basics: Tent, Sleeping pad, sleeping bag, a 55-65L pack, water filter, and then go from there. You don’t need a stove if you bring cold food and are okay not drinking coffee.

If you bring exactly what you need to have, you can leave luxury items like chairs, hammocks, and electronics at home. Again, it’s all up to you and how heavy you want your pack to be.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

How heavy should my backpacking pack be?

Depending on your size, I would aim for somewhere between 23-30 pounds. Some metrics say not to go over 25% of your body weight. For a 200-pound person, that would be 50-pound, which is a pretty heavy pack and usually only needed for trips going 4+ days.

I usually have heavier bags because of my photography gear.

How long should a beginner backpacking trip be?

A beginner backpacking trip should be anywhere from six to 12 miles, depending on difficulty, days out, and who you are going with. If it’s two inexperienced backpackers, I would suggest sticking with an overnighter and keeping it under 8-10 miles (depending on fitness levels).

What age to start backpacking?

I believe my parents took me on a backpacking trip when I was ten or so, but I also know parents who have brought their kids as young as five. The only difference between this and camping is you hike a few miles, so it’s not otherworldly different.

But for those looking to go without adult supervision, I would say don’t start until at least 18, maybe 20. The most important thing is to be mature enough to handle changing stations and to have the appropriate gear.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Final Thoughts on how to start backpacking

Hopefully, this gives you a good introduction to how to start backpacking and helps you get more comfortable getting outside and being among nature. Just make sure to prepare, think about what you need, and everything will be fine!

Until next time, thanks for reading, and stay safe!

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