I had about as much fun preparing for my first backpacking adventure as I did actually going on the trip! There was a lot of research, packing, and planning that had to happen before I actually set out, though. Learn from my trials and tribulations by reading up on the tips below so that YOUR first backpacking adventure is smooth and full of fun. Have other tips to share? Leave me a comment at the end of the post! I'd love to hear how your adventure turned out.
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1. Get Fitted
Go to an actual outdoor gear store, spend an hour, and get a proper fitting for a backpack. Make sure whoever is helping you is actually an expert. Try on as many different brands as you need to find the perfect fit; it’s important! Learn from the expert on different sizes, brands, and styles and pick what’s right for you. Try backpacks on with weight inside of them; it is critical that you simulate an actual loaded pack when attempting to find proper fit. Walk around, adjust them fully (yes, all the straps) as if you were going to hit the trail right then and there. Make sure it feels comfortable; you’ll know it when you’ve found the right one. If you are not sure, come back another day and try on your top 3 again. Wear clothes you plan on hiking in when going to try on packs. It makes all the difference! Here's the awesome backpack that I chose in the oh so stylish colors of Arctic & Denim, shown in the picture.
2. Plan Your Site
Plan your first campground or campsite thoroughly. Do not bite off more than you can chew. Start small, go with a friend if you can, and make sure you have backdoors available if things don’t go the way you planned. Know how far you are going to hike to get to camp, what time you are arriving, how much daylight will be available, what your actual campsite is like, and what resources will be available at the campsite. The more you plan, the less chance something unexpected will derail your trip, and the safer you will be as well!
3. Have Good Boots
Even if you’re only going a short ways before camping, you are going to need to place more emphasis on proper footwear since you will be going over varied terrain carrying weight. Stability is key, and having the right pair of boots can make or break your trip. Good boots will provide support for your feet and ankles and protect you from the unevenness of the trail surface. I went to two different stores and tried on about 100 pairs of hiking boots before finding just the right fit. It is absolutely worth it to try on many pairs of boots, even if you annoy the salespeople. Buying the wrong ones means sore feet, blisters, or even worse problems if you go on a long trip. I recommend trying on boots in a store rather than buying online unless you have a brand you know for sure works for you. These are my tried and true hiking boots, and I absolutely love them. The good news is that when you find a great pair of hiking boots, it is a quality investment that you can trust will bring you years of happy trails! Yes, that is my boot below. Those who love their gear share it on Instagram. This was taken at the Maah Daah Hey Trail in Medora, ND during my Road Trip to Montana.
4. Figure out Food
Are you going to cook over a campfire or a burner? What will you need for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks? How much is all of that going to weigh and how much space will it take up in your pack? These are very important questions to answer before leaving on your trip. I quite enjoyed the freeze dried backpacking meals we took on my first trip. Just add hot water and eat right out of the package. Granola bars, nuts, and dried fruit make good snacks. Make sure to pack enough calories for all the hiking you will be doing!
5. Pack Out
How are you going to pack out waste? It's easy to plan what you are bringing with you, but many people forget that you will have to bring all the waste back with you at the end of your trip. Depending on the type of campsite you are traveling to, you may have to pack out everything from granola bar wrappers to pet waste. Bring some plastic shopping bags at the minimum to keep all of your garbage in one place. You can go the extra mile and try to bring food that doesn't come in a wrapper to reduce your waste.
What kinds of critters might you encounter at your campground? Check in advance! Thankfully, the only animal that might have bothered us at Afton State Park was raccoons. The park rangers advised us to keep our packs in the tent with us at night and not to leave anything left out that could attract animals. If you’re going into bear country, READ READ READ all the rules about food storage! Doing what we can to minimize temptation for woodland creatures will keep both you and them safe during your trip.
7. Go With a Friend
Not only will you have to carry about half of the stuff, but the company is wonderful too. On your first trip, you’ll want to pack light just to stay on the safe and comfortable side. Having a travel companion makes getting everything packed so much easier when you can split the items between you. Plus, if something goes wrong, you have someone by your side to help you work through it. And it's just plain more fun to share the adventure and the great outdoors with a friend!
8. Check the Weather
This seems obvious because it is. The number of layers you bring dramatically affects the weight of your pack. Will you need your tent’s rain fly? Will you need a waterproof cover for your pack? What if everything gets soaked on your hike in to camp? Will it be cold or hot? DO NOT forget about nighttime temperatures! I had some very chilly nights camping that I didn't prepare for, and it was a good thing my dog was with me to snuggle up and conserve body heat! Also keep an eye out for storms. Backpacking tents are typically very light, which means if you're camping in high winds you may be in for an exciting night. Stay safe and know what to expect during your trip.
9. Have a Backup Plan
If this is your first time, make a Plan B or even a Plan C in case things don’t go your way. It doesn’t have to be super time-consuming, but have a plan in your mind for contingencies. If you forget something, how will it affect you? If there is an issue at the campsite, how far to the next one? When will the sun set and how much buffer time did you give yourself to set up camp upon arrival? What if you get delayed on the trail? All of these things could happen, and they could result in negligible effects or they could derail your entire experience. Have a plan in place so that you know what to do in these situations. You’ll feel more prepared which will set your mind at ease.
10. Check In
Check in with the park staff or visitor center upon your arrival. Not only is this usually the protocol to reserve your site, but you can learn a lot from the staff. Ask about current conditions, things you need to know, and any tips or advice they have for first-timers. It is OK that this is your first time! Most park rangers are more than happy to provide advice and great tips about the area and about backpacking in general. It’s worth your time to check in, and you’ll probably meet some cool new people, too!
11. Don’t forget Fido!
Your dog, if properly conditioned and fit, can carry his own food on your trip in a well-fitted backpack. My favorite is the Ruffwear Approach Pack. This can create valuable space in your own pack. Make sure to account for his food, water, bowls, sleeping bag, and gear when packing. Who will carry what? Check with your veterinarian to ensure your dog is physically capable of carrying weight and to find out how much weight is appropriate for the duration of your hike. If you’re going solo, having your dog come along is a wonderful experience. You can have company and a handy alert system should any critters decide to visit your campsite. Plus, dogs make excellent cuddle buddies on cold nights!
12. BRING the First Aid Kit
You can get small, right-sized first aid kits from REI that are suited to your trip’s duration. It may be one of those things you are considering leaving behind to make more room for food or clothes, but don’t. Always be prepared for the worst when backpacking because if it does happen, you are likely going to be very far from any resources that can help you. Not to get too dramatic here, but it matters. Bring the first aid kit, and make sure there are items for your dog inside, too.