Backpacking Beginners Guide Intro.
Are you looking for a Backpacking guide for beginners? This guide will help you understand important things before you go on a backpacking trip. Backpacking is fun and challenging, but it is also potentially dangerous. Injuries are common on the trail, though luckily most of these are minor. You can minimize your risk by planning ahead. Having a backpacking guide or plan, a well-stocked first aid kit and knowledge of what to do in an emergency can potentially save your life.
Inform Relevant Authorities
I am not being facetious here; people have died out there in the backcountry. How many news reports have you heard of missing hikers who later turn out to be dead? Although some of these can be chalked to pure rotten luck, many of them could have been prevented with better preparation—or just plain not being stupid.
For instance, while climbing Horsetail Falls in Desolation Wilderness, we actually watched a person being airlifted off the trail. Coming across a ranger the next day, we found out that that person had died. Now the trail along the falls is steep and rocky; it is not quite rock-climbing, but it’s pretty close. Many people choose not to follow the trail and hike closer to the waterfall for the thrill of it. It was one of these people that was being taken out that day. Usually, Horsetail Falls claims one or two lives a year, and I would probably be correct in guessing it is people like these, who made the bad decision to act recklessly. Don’t be one of these people.
Before you leave, make sure you know where you are going and how long you will be gone. Provide this information to a friend or relative, along with the contact information of the closest ranger station. Bring a cell phone, and tell them you will contact them as soon as you get off the trail. If they do not hear from you within a couple of days of your expected exit date, have them contact the ranger station. If you are lost or stuck somewhere out there on the trail, the rangers will come looking for you.
It is essential to always bring a first aid kit. You can buy one at a camping store that is already stocked or make your own. Remember, though, that even the pre-stocked ones will eventually require restocking, or don’t always include everything you may need. Keep in mind that you are trying to go as lightweight as possible, so opt for travel sizes when available. Here are some ideas of what should be inside:
• Pain killer: Tylenol, Advil, or whatever works for you. Ibuprofen also reduces fever and inflammation, so if you choose to bring another painkiller, tote this along also. If you can, find the individual packets.
• Allergy medicine: If you have seasonal allergies, bring what works for you. Something that is non-drowsy is best. If not, still bring along some individually packed Benadryl. You never know when you are going to stumble across something that will give you an allergic reaction.
• Neosporin: A small tube. I am notoriously clumsy and have used this one a lot for the various scratches I have collected.
• Hydrocortisone cream: Mosquito bites can lose you a night of sleep without this.
• Tums or Pepto Bismol tablets
• Moleskin: This is something that a pre-bought kit may not already have. If so, get some and put it in there. We but a large roll and cut off a few small sections to put in the kit each time we hike.
• Bandages: Have a few various sizes.
• Alcohol prep pads: Have at least a few of these for cleaning wounds prior to putting on bandages.
• Gauze pads: A few of these as well.
• Roll of first aid tape
• ACE bandage: At least one.
• Small medical scissors
• Hand sanitizer: A small bottle.
• Snakebite kit: This is another thing that may not be included in a store-bought kit that would be a good idea to bring along, especially if you know the area where you will be hiking is inhabited by snakes.
• First aid guide: Many of the pre-made kits come with this. If you are making your own kit, try to find a small one to bring along. This gives general guidelines for how to treat many injuries. Really, how many off us know offhand how to treat scorpion bites or to splint a broken thumb?
• Any prescription medication that you need to take regularly
• Whistle: This can help people find you if you get lost.
Basic First Aid Training
Knowledge is just as important as a well-stocked kit. A basic first aid training course is never a bad idea. It is also wise to familiarize yourself with the dangerous plants and animals you may encounter while on the trail. Knowing how to identify poison oak from manzanita or a brown recluse spider from something more benign can help you avoid injury altogether. As they say, prevention is the best form of treatment. If you don’t know whether something is dangerous or not, stay away. This is especially true if you encounter things like spiders, snakes or scorpions. Actually, don’t approach any wild animals or attempt to feed them. Many of them are afraid of you, and even that squirrel might attack if it feels threatened. If you come across something cool like a family of deer wading across a stream, keep quiet and admire from a distance.
Know Your Body –
You also need a good knowledge of your own body, and what it can handle. If you have medical conditions that may impede you on the trail, bring what you need to treat the condition, and make modifications to your trip when necessary. If, for instance, you have bad back or knees, you may need to slow things down and reduce the number of miles you put in each day.
I made one trip on the tail end of physical therapy treatment for a knee condition. One of the ways I was supposed to minimize the aggravation of my knee was to use a specialized tape to hold my kneecap in place while exercising. For whatever idiotic reason, I neglected to bring the tape on this particular trip, and of course, by the end of the trip, my knee was acting up. I ended up using medical tape from the first aid kit, but as it was not as sticky as my specialized tape, and so to keep the kneecap in place I had to wrap it so tightly around my legs that the backs of my knees were bruised by the end of the day. At one point, I also stripped down to my underwear and sat in a very cold stream to try to get the inflammation down. Better preparation could have saved me a lot of pain and hassle. We all try to pretend we are Superman, thinking we are invincible and can handle everything, but most of the time we fail miserably. So if you need to have your fellow hikers carry a larger share of the weight, don’t be ashamed. Everyone has different capabilities.
Know ahead of time that you are going to be sore most of your trip. You are making your muscles work a lot harder then they are used to, and they are going to complain about it. This is normal and can be minimized by frequent stretching. At the very least, try to stretch well in the morning before hitting the trail, and before retiring for the evening. Stopping to stretch throughout the day is not a bad idea either. If you get a major muscle strain, you may have to slow your pace or carry less weight. If it is bad enough, you may even have to consider heading back or shortening your trip.
Minor injuries are usually a part of every trip. Clean and cover any scratches with a bandage to prevent dirt from getting in the open wound. Cover blisters with moleskin to prevent rubbing. Bruises you pretty much just have to deal with. Apply plenty of sunblock and insect repellent throughout the day. Pay attention if you get a headache. This may be a symptom of dehydration or altitude sickness.
If I get a headache on the trail, the first thing I do is think back to when I last drank water. Most people are not used to drinking the amount of water that you need for such sustained activity and tend not to drink enough. If the headache is accompanied by dizziness, fatigue (other than just being tired because you are working hard), sudden visual snow, dark or decreased urine, and/or thirst, dehydration may be the culprit. Stop and immediately drink some water. If you have powdered Gatorade, add that to the water; the electrolytes will help hydrate your body faster. Usually, dehydration is a minor ailment but treat it immediately, as it can become a serious condition.
That headache could also be caused by altitude sickness. This is common if you are hiking 8,000 feet or more above sea level. If you get a sudden headache while in high elevations that is accompanied by dizziness, shortness of breath, weakness/fatigue, nausea, a feeling of “pins and needles,” and/or malaise (a general feeling of uneasiness or “out of sorts”), you may be experiencing altitude sickness. The best thing to do is to descend to a lower elevation as quickly as possible; usually, the symptoms will subside in a few hours after doing so. Altitude sickness can lead to serious complications if you stay too long at an elevation your body can’t handle. If your trail is in the high country, you can avoid making yourself ill by acclimating yourself to the change in air pressure. Whenever possible, hike the higher elevation portions of your trail during the day, and camp for the night in lower elevation areas. Or you can gradually increase the altitude where you camp by no more than 1,000 feet on successive nights. Don’t let altitude sickness scare you away from exploring the high mountains, though: it is from up there that you get the best panoramic views.
You also need to take temperature into consideration. If the nights are cold, if you are swimming in very cold water (or sitting in your underwear in snowmelt), or you are camping on snow, hypothermia may be a concern. This can be avoided with the proper clothing: make sure you have plenty of it, and wear wool or synthetic fabrics instead of cotton, as cotton retains moisture against the skin. Early symptoms include shivering, numbness in the hands, shallow breathing, and goosebumps.
A warm sensation following these can be a sign of the body’s temperature decreasing, and if treatment has not already begun, it needs to be started right away. Keep the person dry and warm, and give them warm liquids until their body temperature returns to normal. On the other end of the spectrum, when hiking in warm areas, you need to be careful of heat exhaustion, which can lead to full-blown heat stroke (hyperthermia). Prevent your body from overheating by keeping well-hydrated and wearing loose-fitting clothing. Along with signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion causes heavy sweating, tiredness/weakness, nausea, paleness, and muscle cramps.
Treat this by resting in the shade for a while, and drinking plenty of water or Gatorade if it is available. If either of these conditions is severe or are not subsiding, you may need to cut your trip short and bring the person to the hospital.
Such emergencies are rare, but they do happen. If you are hiking in a group, and one person has a serious injury, somebody else may need to hike in for help. Do not try to force the injured person to hike, or try to transport them if it is avoidable. If you have more than two people, split up so that at least one person can remain with the injured person. Leave as much gear as possible with those who are staying put; speed is of the essence for whoever is hiking out for help, so they should bring only what they need. They should hike out until they can get a cell signal and dial 911, or can reach the closet ranger station. If you are alone and incapable of hiking, you will have no choice but to stay where you are. Activate your PLB if you have one, or shoot off flares if you have those. If you have neither, use your whistle. Three sound or flashes is the distress signal. Often there are other hikers in the area if they hear or see you signaling, usually, they will come to help. Otherwise, you will have to wait to be found. You did remember to give your friend your itinerary and call the ranger station if you didn’t return, didn’t you?
The same is true if you become utterly, hopelessly lost. It is not uncommon to lose your trail and have to backtrack, but if you get yourself in a situation where you cannot find your trail at all, it is usually best to stay put. Use your PLB or try signaling other hikers as above; they may be able to help get you back on track. If no one comes right away, stay where you are and do not spill up the party. If one person is scouting around, they should not get outside earshot, or you may just end up with a group that is lost in two different places. In general, it is easier for you to be found if you stay in one place and wait.
Hopefully, this backpacking beginners guide will help make your first backpacking experiences as fun and hassle-free as possible. Always expect the unexpected, but careful and thorough planning will minimize your risks so you can relax and enjoy yourself. Start off easy: even a short trip can be quite challenging! Later on, you can try more difficult excursions, and this is a hobby that will always give you more opportunities to push yourself to the limit. You can try longer trips, a more difficult trail, or hiking in extreme areas such as in a desert or on snow. You can pick the prettiest trail you can find and lug along a ton of camera gear and try to be the next Ansel Adams. Or you can just take it easy, sitting back at your base camp, relaxing and enjoying the peace and solitude of the wilderness. You can re-visit your favorite trails again and again, or explore something totally new each time. Remember, each and every trip is your trip, and only you can decide what would make it the perfect trip for you. Happy hiking!
Now comes the fun part – exploring the backpacking trails. By now you should know where your trailhead is, and be all packed and ready. If you are hiking in an area with bears, before saying goodbye to your car for a few days, do one last look-through to make sure there is nothing in there that has a smell. Anything that does should be removed from it. If there are bear lockers, you can put stuff in there, if not, throw it away. I am not kidding here. Bears will break into your car if they think there is something edible inside. And explaining to your insurance carrier how the windows got broken and the upholstery mauled may prove to be a bit difficult.
In most national parks, the trailhead will be marked with a marker, with the number of miles to a particular destination. In some cases, the parking area may serve multiple trailheads, so be sure you know where you are going. You may want to take a few minutes to stretch a bit before putting your pack on. Your legs and back will thank you later if you do. If you are traveling with others, you can check each other’s packs to make sure everything is closed and all the straps are pulled tight. And as you’re getting out on the trail, don’t forget to bring your car key, otherwise, you may be the one breaking into your car when you get back.
This is, in my opinion, the most exciting part of the trip. Stepping out onto the backpacking trails, especially if it is one you have never been on it before, brings a sense of excitement with the anticipation of seeing new things. But try not to push yourself too hard at first. I know you will probably be anxious to get out there, but try to set a pace that is sustainable. In fact, it is a good idea to take it to slow the first mile or so to let your muscles get warmed up. You may be doing some adjustments of pack and clothing during that time to get everything situated comfortably anyway. The scenery is not going anywhere, so there is no rush, really. And backpacking, despite its difficulty, should actually be relaxing. So enjoy where you are, wherever you are.
Most backpacking trails, especially those well-maintained in national parks, should be pretty easy to follow. They are usually pretty visible through the underbrush. In rocky areas, it may be a little more tricky, there may or may not be a visible trail. Trail markers can help guide your way. In these rockier areas, watch for cairns: a pile of three or four stones stacked on top of each other. These often mark the way. I’ve even been on a trip in Desolation Wilderness where the rocks were spray-painted with arrows to show you where to go. There are also often trail markers on trees; these are marker plates nailed to the tree or diamond-shaped carvings in the bark. Usually, they are just above head level, but in areas of heavy snow, they can be as high as eight or ten feet above the ground. If you are hiking in the winter on top of that snow in snowshoes, look low as they may be just above the snowline. Often there are small side trails that branch off from the main trail, which may or may not be marked with a sign. If they do not go to your destination, stay on your main trail—unless you have the time for a little exploring. This is why it is a good idea to have the map of your route, so you know which direction to go if you come across a fork in the road. Sometimes a tree branch, landslide, or other obstruction will block part of the trail. Though the backpacking trails are usually well-maintained, the rangers can’t always get to every roadblock in a timely manner, especially if it is several miles into the heart of the backcountry. You may be able to step over or scoot under a large branch, but in some cases, you will just have to go around.
Occasionally, despite our best efforts, we all get just plain lost. We miss our offshoot, take one we shouldn’t have, or just cannot figure out where the trail is. If this happens, backtrack. Go back to the last place you where you know you where you were. Check your map and compass, and look again for trail markers or offshoots you may have missed. If you are going to a popular site (such as a lake or waterfall), follow the most well-defined trail. Don’t panic, we’ve taken as long as a couple of hours to get back on track; eventually, you will figure it out. Or if you don’t—check out the safety section for what to do in emergencies. Most trails are marked well enough that this usually doesn’t happen, though.
Often, it’s a good idea to have a general plan of how many miles you will put in per day. Some trails have mile markers, so you will know about how far you have gone, but not all do. Or you may be planning to camp by a lake or river that says, six miles in or so. If you are doing this, try not to pack in more miles you can handle, especially if it is rough terrain. You should have enough excess time to get to your campsite at least two hours before dusk without having to rush. Give yourself time to get plenty of breaks. Plan on stopping often to snack, have a drink of water, enjoy the view, or just to take a breather when you need one. This is especially true when you are hiking uphill. If you are tiring too quickly, slow down. If you are hiking in a group, different people will be comfortable with different paces. It’s ok to split up a bit, but make sure nobody gets left behind. At the very least, everyone should maintain shouting distance from each other, in case somebody lagging behind has a fall or twists their ankle.
Always keep an eye and ear out for water while on the trail. When possible, plan on camping for the night by a lake, river, or stream. If you are not, you may need to fill up your water while on the trail. Depending on where you are hiking, water may be plentiful or scarce. The time of year makes a difference, too, one on a summer trip that was in the middle of the dry season, rivers that were on our map turned out to be only dry riverbeds. If water seems to be scarce, fill up whenever you come across it. Only drink water that is from a moving source and looks fairly clear. Do not drink any standing water, and always filter or treat your water before you drink it. You may not be able to taste those microorganisms, but they can make you very, very sick. Even if you still have a full water bottle from your last fill, take a moment to enjoy the cold, freshly filtered water. I don’t think there is anything quite so refreshing as drinking ice-cold mountain water straight from the filter. Keep in mind that you not only need drinking water but water for cooking and cleaning once you set up camp.
Access to water is the most important factor to consider when choosing a camping site. Even a small stream, if it is moving briskly, will do fine. Although hopefully, you will have a general idea ahead of time of where you will be camping, things don’t always work out the way you planned. If possible, camp in designated campsites: these are recognizable because they are very flat and look like they have been camped in before. Some may even have fire rings. In some popular destinations, you may need a reservation to camp in a specific area. Try to find out beforehand, and get your reservation as early as possible, as there is a limit to how many are issued per night. If this is not the case, and you have free reign to camp wherever, avoid camping in spots that look pristine, because you will trample all over the scenery. Likewise, if an area is closed to camping (this is done periodically if an area has been heavily used), respect the rules. Always camp at least 200 feet away from the trail and any water sources. Try to find something that is sheltered by trees, as these can help block wind, and provide shade during the day, which is important if this is going to be your base camp. If there are other hikers camping in the area, try not to camp too close. Often there are several sites in more popular areas, and it is at least polite to try to find one that is a little further away. One thing all backpackers have in common is a liking for quiet and privacy, so try not to camp in close enough proximity where you will see and hear each other.
Perhaps this is a good time to go into some backcountry etiquette. The goal when backpacking is to leave the wilderness as untouched as possible, to “leave nothing but footprints.” The point here is to enjoy a setting that is wild and beautiful, so you need to help keep it that way for others. When possible, choose a campsite that will minimize your environmental impact as much as possible. Do not leave any trash behind anywhere—pack out what you pack in. This includes food scraps. If you have a fire, you can burn leftover food; otherwise, you will have to pack it out with you. Do not feed or leave food out for wildlife. This is not only dangerous to yourself, but it also domesticates wild animals that should remain wild. Only make a fire if there is already a fire ring in your site, and when gathering wood, pick up what is on the ground rather than cutting branches off trees. Stay on established trails as much as possible, trying not to trample any flowers or startle the wild creatures. When washing, your clothing and dishes use only biodegradable camp soap, but even biodegradable soap should not be used directly in the water source. Collect and filter your water, and do your washing at least 200 feet away to avoid contamination. You will not be able to bathe in the lakes or streams, and some may not even allow swimming. Likewise, only fish where it is permitted. Finally, there is the rather uncomfortable subject of human waste. Always do your dirty business away from the trail, water sources, and your campsite. In most areas, you are required to bury any waste and toilet paper at least six inches deep. (You did remember to bring a shovel, right?) However, some places require you to pack all that out. Find out the rules ahead of time.
The first thing you need to do once you find your site is set up your tent. If you are not sure how to find a most suitable tent you may read this – camping tent buying guide. Try to find a fairly level spot to set up your tent, if the best you can find is a little slanted, set up the tent so your head with being at the higher spot. This should be firm dirt or rock; avoid camping on soft mud or grass.
Clear away any debris that will poke you in the back while you sleep, like large sticks or rocks. If the spot requires a significant amount of clearing to be able to set up your tent, to the extent that you will be altering the appearance of the landscape, choose another site. Spread your tent footprint or tarp on the ground, then your tent on top of it. If you are not using something that is shaped to your tent, make sure no edges protrude out from underneath your tent. If it rains in the night, the water will collect on it, creating a nice puddle between it and your tent. I will not attempt to explain how to set up your tent here, as there is considerable variation in how to set them up. Follow the directions that came with the tent. If it is a new tent, hopefully, you will have practiced putting it up and tearing it down at home a few times rather than attempting to figure it out while on the trail. If you want to be sure to wake up early in the morning, face your tent so that the flap is towards the east. The morning sun beating on your face as it rises can rouse even the deepest sleeper. Once it is all nice and set up, and firmly staked into the ground, you can set up your sleeping pad and bag inside (read our buying guide on Sleeping bags and sleeping mats). It is best to let your sleeping bag sit for a while before sleeping in it, as they tend to get compressed while being packed tight and will need a while to fluff back up. Anything else you will be keeping in your tent overnight, such as your clothing, can be put inside now, too. Keep your tent zipped closed when not using it to help keep bugs out.
Once the tent is in order, it’s a good idea to replenish your water supply. Hopefully you will have a source nearby; otherwise, you may need to scout around for a little bit. You will not only need water to drink, but water to cook and clean for the evening.
Then you can start pulling out all your other gear. Find a place to set up your stove, the best is somewhere stable, flat, and sheltered from the wind. A large flat rock often serves nicely. Put all your cooking accessories and food near your stove for ease of access. As the light starts to fade, make sure to put your flashlight somewhere where it will be easy to find. Since we use the clip-on keychain LED lights, we clip ours to the zipper of our jackets. If you are starving, go ahead and get the food started as you unload and sort out the rest of the gear. Pull everything out of your pack, and leave it somewhere nearby with all the zippers open. Critters in the night may come to sniff around in it, and they appreciate it if they don’t have to rip through the fabric to check out the inside. Unless it rains, it is safe to leave the majority of your gear outside. Backpacking tents tend to be pretty cramped as it is, and there is no need to make it worse by cramming more junk in it. Since there are very few other people around, and everybody has to carry everything they have with them, it is highly unlikely that anyone is going to come to steal your stuff.
After dinner, it is important to clean everything well. Wash your pots and dishes a few hundred feet away from your tent: the leftover food residue in the pan may attract wild animals. Critters are also why you need to not put off your cleaning. That, and nobody wants to have to clean crusty pans in the morning before breakfast. Move a distance away from your tent when brushing your teeth as well; to those wild animals, toothpaste smells like food. I guess technically it is edible. Any food you did not each should be burned if you have a fire, or put in a trash bag to pack out. Again, do not just dump it somewhere! After dinner and cleanup, gather together all your food, smelly toiletries (such as toothpaste, lotions, and deodorant) and trash, and put it all into a bear canister or large stuff sack. If you are using a bear canister, set it in a place several hundred feet from your tent that will be easy to find in the morning. A bear will be able to smell the food in the canister, but will not be able to get it out of the canister. However, it may knock the canister around for a while before it figures this out, and that is not something you want happening right next to your tent while sleeping. If you are not in an area that requires a bear canister, the next best thing to do to protect your food is to hang it. The most common method of hanging your food is to tie your food bag to the end of a length of rope. The other end is tied around a rock and thrown over a high, sturdy tree branch. That end is then pulled to lift the food sack; you need it a minimum of ten feet in the air. When it’s at the right height, the rock end is tied off
somewhere to hold it in place, usually a lower hanging branch. Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s a notorious pain in the butt, as many backpacking sites will attest. But it does work, though if you are doing this, give yourself ample time at least the first time you try it. Even if you are lucky enough to find a perfectly sized and shaped rock for throwing, it will probably take several attempts to get it over the branch.
And that’s it; you’ve survived your first day of backpacking! At this point, you are probably dirty, sore, and tired, so it’s time to hit the sleeping bags. Before you retire, though, take a minute to look up at the stars. If the night is clear, you will be amazed at how many of them you can see up there. In our day-to-day lives, many of them are not visible because of our constant proximity to artificial lights, so take a moment to appreciate the clear night sky. As you climb in, leave your shoes right outside the door of your tent. You don’t want to track dirt inside, but you need to have them accessible. If you are not accustomed to sleeping in the wilderness, be warned, it is noisy at night. Not only will you be able to hear any running water you may be camped near, but there is also the popping of breaking tree branches, the hooting of owls, and the calls and scuffling of the nocturnal critters. While some find this relaxing, others may be too startled to sleep at first or may be bothered by all the noise. If you tend to be a light sleeper, you may want to consider bringing along some ear plugs. On the other hand, you may be so exhausted that you fall right into a heavy sleep and miss all the noise. Don’t bother trying to stay up late, you need as much sleep as you can get when backpacking, and most likely you will not be able to sleep in. And remember that after that night’s sleep, you have to get up, stretch out those sore muscles, pack it all up, and get back on the trail if you are heading to another site. And again and again, for the duration of the trip. But this is fun, remember?