Tips for Beginners on Packing for a Backpacking Trip

The first backpacking trip I ever took was short. Which is a good thing. For 3 nights and 4 days of front-country hiking, I stuffed my pack until it was bursting at the seams and strapped it to myself. As you can probably guess, that wasn’t the wisest idea. Here are a few mistakes I made:

  • Packing cotton: It was a sweltering late-July trip in Michigan, so I figured cotton was a good idea because it would get wet and cool me down. Right?
  • The “What If” mentality: I packed enough clothes to survive a sudden Ice Age. It’s that damn “What If” packing process: a somewhat valid question, like “What if it drops below freezing at night?” somehow digresses rapidly into “What if there’s a flash flood and we have to fight our way onto an ark and survive for a year with wild animals?”
  • Disregarding the weight of my pack: This common mistake can destroy your trip. On my first trip, my pack was so heavy I couldn’t carry it through some of the difficult sections and had to rely on my hiking companion for help.
  • Bringing a car-camping tent instead of a backpacking tent: Two-person tents that weigh 7-10lbs and take up a quarter of your pack are not ideal for backpacking (surprise!).
  • Knowing nothing about water sources: We packed in 15 miles, reached our campsite, set up for the night… and realized we had no idea where to go for water. And no map. By a stroke of luck, we ran into a park ranger who helped us.
At a campsite in Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina
At a campsite in Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

There’s way too much to learn about packing successfully than to try to address it all in a single post, so I’ll just address the mistakes I mentioned above:

  • Fabric selection:
    • Cotton is a no-no. Its cooling properties when wet are deceptive: once the fabric is wet it can lead to chaffing and can be downright dangerous if the temperature drops.
    • Quick-drying synthetics or wool are a much better choice. Personal preference and budget come into play here. I prefer wool for serious, long trips because it is odor-resistant and durable. I find its longevity justifies the price. For shorter or more casual trips, less expensive quick-drying items, like Target’s Champion brand, can do the trick just fine… however synthetic fabrics tend to get pretty stinky.
  • Know before you go Eliminate the “what-ifs.”
    • Study up on major factors like climate conditions, weather patterns, pests, and dangerous plants and animals before leaving so you know what you may encounter.
    • Know where/what help is available in the case of an emergency.
    • Know where to find water and if there are any risks associated with drinking it.
    • Prepare for reality so that you are not overburdened by a  behemoth bag full of things you will never use.
  • Backpacking vs. camping gear: Again, budget can be a real restraint here. Ultralight backpacking gear is considerably more expensive. But since it’s not worthwhile to carry the unnecessary weight of camping gear, which is often designed with car-campers in mind, there are a few solutions to this.
    • Learn how to DIY items like your own camp stove or shelter.
    • Know your bargain sites: Backcountry.comthe Clymb, and REI Outlet offer discounts all the time, but REI and Amazon can both have serious deals. I bought my ultralight tent (2P weighing less than 3lbs) during Amazon’s Black Friday sale and saved more than $200.
  • Set a maximum weight goal: If you’re a beginning backpacker and are not taking a trip that requires you to carry heavy items (like all your own water or ice climbing equipment), then don’t allow yourself to bring more than 30lbs of gear. Just don’t do it. Trust me. And if you want to be ambitious, then let me tell you, backpacking with 20lbs or less is a joyous experience.
Hiking on Isla Navarino, Chile
Hiking during a 5-day backcountry trek on Isla Navarino, Chile

If you’re planning a trip and feel overwhelmed by the task of packing, just take a step back and think about the basics. If you’ll be taking a trip in hot weather, research how to recognize and prevent heat exhaustion, from what clothing you should wear to how much water you should drink every hour. If you’ll be taking a trip in cold conditions, research how to recognize and prevent hypothermia and frost bite. Think about how often and why you’ll need to change your clothes: it doesn’t matter if you don’t have un-smelly clothes to change into, but if you’re hiking in a rainy, cold climate, it does matter that you have spare warm, dry clothing in case you get wet.

If you want more information I recommend Andrew Skurka’s book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, which provides excellent in-depth information.

Hiking in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand
Hiking in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

Good luck & happy trails!

Sarah

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5 thoughts on “Tips for Beginners on Packing for a Backpacking Trip

  1. Great post !! This is very useful for the beginners out there. I still haven’t been on a hiking adventure yet but I’m inspired by your pictures. It looks like I might plan it into my next trip. Cheers!

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