Beginners Guide to Backpacking

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If you love camping and hiking you probably want to learn how to go backpacking, but the great outdoors can be overwhelming for first-time backpackers. You are camping in the wilderness -- miles from roads, facilities, and other people but, the solitude is one of the best reasons to get on the trail and go backpacking.

Don't let the unfamiliar landscape or worries of being in the wild keep you from going backpacking. Here are some tips and advice to help beginner backpackers get started.

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What Is Backpacking? 

Backpacking -- tramping, trekking or backcountry camping -- is essentially the combination of hiking and camping in the backcountry. A backpacker carries camping gear: a tent, sleeping bag, cookware, food, and clothing, in a backpack and hikes to a backcountry camping destination.

Backpacking trips range from short one-night trips to multi-day trips. Some trips start at one trailhead and end at another. And some backpackers even set out on months-long distance end-to-end treks called thru-hikes. Popular thru-hikes include the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Appalachian Trail (AT).

But to get started backpacking you don't have to walk thousands of miles. There are many short and moderate destinations that are scenic and beautiful.

Now that you are interested in going backpacking let's get prepared for your adventure.

Lost Creek Wilderness
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What Is Wilderness? 

The Wilderness Act of 1964 is a federal designation of protected land. According to the Wilderness Act, lands that are designated wilderness must be under federal ownership and management, the land must consist of at least five thousand acres, human influence must be “substantially unnoticeable,” there must be opportunities for solitude and recreation, and the area must possess “ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

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Getting in Shape for Backpacking

If you are a first time backpacker or heading out for the first time in the season, make sure to get in shape before you hit the trail. Backpacking is more difficult than hiking because you are carrying the added weight of your camping gear.

To get in shape for backpacking, start hiking with low mileage and carry a lightweight pack. Build up your mileage and add weight to your backpack as your trip gets closer. The more fit you are for your backpacking trip, the better you will feel when you are on the trail.

No time to train? It is understandable if your backpacking trip is just around the corner and you haven't done much training, but make sure to lighten your load. Take only essential and lightweight gear, and consider choosing a destination that is only a few miles from the trailhead.

So you are in shape for your trip, but what should you pack in your backpack?

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Backpacking Gear

The goal of most backpackers is to keep their pack light, but still carry all the camping gear they need to make their trip comfortable.

Ultimately, you only need food and shelter for a successful backpacking trip. There are a few essential backpacking items that each backpacker will want to carry and a few items that a group of backpackers can split up to share the weight.

Before you get packed to go, use a backpacking checklist to make sure you haven't forgotten anything and try to leave non-essentials at home. Each pound you shed from your pack will make your hike easier and more comfortable.

You are packed and ready, now where should you go?

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Where to Go Backpacking

National and state parks, wilderness, and forest areas are popular backpacking destinations. Check with the ranger station in your region for popular routes. And your local camping and outdoor retailer should be a good resource for books and maps.

Look for a destination near a creek, river, or lake so that you have a source of water. Once you have selected a destination, make sure you obtain the appropriate permits and check the regulations for food storage, camping, and fires.

Now that you selected a destination, what precautions can you take to stay safe in the wilderness?

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Backpacking Safety

Do you have a map and compass or a GPS device? And do you know how to use them?

Always let someone know when you'll be gone, your destination and route. And make sure to call them when you return.

A small first-aid kit is an essential item to bring along on any backpacking trip. Also, know what your emergency resources are in the region you'll be backpacking. In a wilderness emergency, remain calm, determine an action plan and seek help.

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Backpacking Ethics

The Leave No Trace Foundation is a non-profit organization that has a set of values and recommended ethics for campers and wilderness travelers. Most backpackers agree that you should "leave no trace" and "pack out what you pack in." The Leave No Trace core principles include:

  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Be considerate of other visitors

Also, make sure to check with the park or forest service ranger station for regulations specific to the area where you will be camping. Depending on the region and time of year, special regulations may not allow campfires, may require specific food storage containers, and sometimes specific areas are closed for restoration. It is generally recommended to camp at least 100-feet from the water. Following regulations, and core backpacking ethics helps to conserve the wilderness for generations to come.