A Guide to Backpacking

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I spent a whole summer doing long day hikes that were each 16 to 20 miles. The following summer I decided to transition into backpacking because I wanted to be able to explore a certain area more and to be able to go further into the wilderness than a day hike would allow.

The transition can be scary and intimidating, especially when you meet backpackers who have been doing it for 30 years. But remember, we all start somewhere.

My first backpacking trip was when I was 19 to Mt. Whitney, but after that, I didn’t backpack for another 4 years. I spent 2 years car camping and doing small day hikes and then another year doing those long day hikes I mentioned earlier, and then the 4th year I finally got myself backpacking gear, booked permits and started to backpack. It’s a huge learning curve, so here are 11 things I learned my first summer of backpacking.

1. Decide where to go

The first step to going backpacking is to decide where you are going to go.

Be practical. Going on a 4 day backpacking trip for your first one ever might not be a good idea. You can try the 4 day trip later in the summer after you’ve done a few other backpacking trips first. Instead pick something like on the way to Half Dome in Yosemite, Havasupai Falls, Hamilton Lake in Sequoia National Park. Something where there are other people around, and not too far in. The reasoning behind this is, you’re going to learn so much about yourself, how practical your gear is, and about your food choices. Take it easy. Learn from it so you can adapt for future ones. And it’s usually good to have others around especially on your first trip or two just to have someone there for help if you need it.

Also, be practical on the date. Are you trying to backpack in a mountain area that gets a lot of snow? If you’re going somewhere like this, is going November through May practical? I live in California and in most places, winter is far over by April. But in the mountain regions of California like the Sierra Nevada and the Mt. Shasta/Trinity Alps areas, the snow they get in the winter months often lingers into the summer months. Some times during drought years there’s no snow come May. But make sure you know what conditions to expect then. Local ranger stations will be able to help you with that.

2. Get permits

Check permit requirements and get one if you need it. Depending on where you’re going, that location will have its own permit process.

Popular destinations like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Rockies, etc. book permits about 6 months in advance. Some have lotteries, some have systems where you submit it at 7am the first day they open. Call the local wilderness office or ranger station to figure out how to get one. You can also search online for the trail you’re interested in and permit information will come up.

Please don’t go without a permit to an area where one is required. The reason you need a permit is there is usually a daily quota of people who can enter the wilderness on a given day. This helps preserve the wilderness areas and keeps it from turning into a Disneyland.

3. Gear

When it comes to gear, weight does matter. When you’re first starting out, you will end up with a 45-50 pound pack. This is too heavy, but we all start there. My first summer backpacking, my pack was regularly 45 pounds. You’ll learn quickly what you actually need to bring with you, where to cut the weight.

If you need help with what gear to get, I’ve created guides:

Choosing a Backpack

Choosing a Sleeping Bag

Choosing a Sleeping Pad

Choosing a Tent

Hiking gear can be pricey, especially when you’re first starting out and getting everything. Here are the ways I save money on hiking gear. Also down the road, you can upgrade everything one piece at a time.

Here’s my pack list of what I bring backpacking.

4. Food

Food is one of the easiest ways to add on weight, but you also don’t want to skimp on food because food equals energy which you need.

I typically burn anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 calories on these trips and believe it or not, it’s actually hard to come close to eating this much. At home, even with my workout regime, I burn 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day. To give you an idea.

For food, you want to maximize calories per ounce carried. The most important aspects being carbs, fats, and protein.

Carbs are quick release energy. They help give your body fuel especially when you need it heading up those hard passes or the last few miles to camp for the night.

Fats are a sustained energy release. Every mainstream diet will tell you to cut fat and eat low fat. That’s the last thing you want to do on the trail. True there are bad fats and good fats, coconut oil vs vegetable oil, but having fat in your backcountry diet is essential to keep you going. Fats are going to keep releasing energy throughout the entire day and allow you to go for longer.

Protein is essential to help your muscles rebuild themselves.

Oatmeal, tortilla, tuna, hard cheese or ones that don’t need to be refrigerated (WorldMarket has a few), freeze dried meals, ramen packets, nut butter packets, jam packets, and jerky are great food options for the trail.

I usually end up carrying 1 to 1.5 pounds of food per day.

For more ideas of what to bring with you for meals and a further break down of food and nutrients in the backcountry, check out my blog posts on it.

5. Get a map

ALWAYS bring a map. Even if you’re in a group, you should have a map on you. Do your research, know the trail. What if you get separated? What if you get lost? Even if the trail is well marked, you never know what could happen so always be prepared.

Also, a map will tell you where the nearest water source is. You can buy them online or at your nearest REI, or at the ranger station on the way up.

6. Leave No Trace

Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos.

Follow leave no trace principles by packing out all trash including TP, camping on solid ground, not having a fire where and when they’re prohibited, etc.

7. Don’t forget to check the weather

It’s sunny one day and rain and thunderstorms the next. If you get caught in a rainstorm, not much you can do but ride it out. I’ve been in rain and hail storms on backpacking trips before. You don’t want to be on the top of summits or passes during a storm though. But before you go, check the weather to make sure there are clear skies ahead.

I use mountainweather.com and mountain-forecast.com which will tell you what weather to expect at certain altitudes.

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