Backpacking for Beginners: 6 Steps to Getting Started

Backpacking for Beginners: 6 Steps to Getting Started

I was a day hiker and car camper for a long time before I became a backpacker.  This might sound crazy, but I had actually only backpacked 1 night in my life before I started my 6 month, 2,000 mile trek on the Appalachian Trail!  Well it sounds crazy because it is!  Now, after having backpacked all the way from Georgia to Maine on the A.T., I wish I would have started backpacking sooner.  I've learned a lot from researching, reading blogs, and watching videos on YouTube, but most of what I've learned is from experience.  If you're new to the hiking or backpacking community, I've got some tips to help you get started with your first backpacking trip.

Plan Your Hike

As a beginner backpacker, it’s a good idea to stay local and start small- a one or two night trip is ideal.  You can look online for local hiking trails or use an app like AllTrails.  I like AllTrails because each trail includes a map that you can follow with your phone GPS along with a description, elevation profile, difficulty level, reviews and photos of the trail.  I always check the most recent reviews of a trail to look for tips about downed trees, overgrown trails, or high water.  You’ll want to choose a trail that’s short in mileage and allows overnight backpacking.  On my very first backpacking trip, I chose a loop route and hiked 7 miles the first day, camped, and then hiked 5 miles the second day.  I also recommend that you choose good weather conditions for your first outing- don’t try to go camping in the winter if you’ve never done it before.  If you’re nervous about going backpacking solo, you can recruit a friend or hire a guide to show you the ropes.

AllTrails hiking app screenshot for beginner backpacking
A screenshot from the AllTrails hiking app

Choose Your Backpacking Gear

When you’re just starting out, getting backpacking gear can be pricey!  High quality gear is lighter in weight, which can make backpacking easier and more enjoyable, but it’s also expensive.  I recommend either borrowing gear from a friend or renting gear.  All of the Beginner Backpacking Trips with Wildwood Hiking Co. include a gear rental package to help get you started on the right foot.  Here are some of the basic items you’ll need for your first backpacking trip:

  • Backpack
  • Tent, rainfly, and tent stakes
  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping bag
  • Water filtration system
  • Backpacking stove and fuel
  • Lighter
  • Cook pot and spoon/spork
  • Several water bottles
  • Map (paper or GPS)
  • Headlamp
  • First aid kit
Backpacking gear for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail
My backpacking gear for my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2022

Practice Using Your Gear

You should always test out new backpacking gear at home before you take it out into the wilderness.  Set up your tent in the backyard and try camping for a night.  I’ve even seen people set up and camp in their living room!  Practice using your water filter and backpacking stove.  Make sure you know how to use the map or GPS you plan on using.  If you’re using AllTrails or another hiking app, go on a few day hikes with the app and test the GPS tracking function on your phone.  And make sure your backpack fits and feels comfortable.  You can load it up and walk around your neighborhood a few times with it on and make adjustments to the straps to make it comfortable.  There are tons of videos on YouTube for how to set up and use different pieces of backpacking gear, so if you’re not sure how to use something- check online.  Before I set off to hike the Appalachian Trail, I read reviews on my hammock set-up and tested it the backyard and on a few car camping trips before I took it backpacking.

Beginner backpacking gear set up with hammock
Testing my hammock and rainfly set up before taking it backpacking.

Choose Your Hiking Clothes

What you wear while backpacking will depend on the weather and what makes you feel most comfortable.  As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to have several layers of clothing to wear while hiking, rain gear, and a warm, dry set of clothes for sleeping in.  Clothes are heavy, though, so don’t over do it!  You only need 1 hiking outfit and 1 sleeping outfit.  You’ll get sweaty and dirty, but that’s all part of the fun!  Speaking of sweat- whatever you do, don’t wear cotton!  We have a saying in backpacking that “cotton kills.”  Cotton clothing tends to hold water from sweat or rain and it takes forever to dry out.  That means no jeans, cotton underwear, or cotton sweatshirts!  Choose moisture wicking materials like polyester or nylon that are typically found in athletic clothing.  Wool is also a great choice as it wicks moisture and keeps you warm while you’re wet.  One of my favorite pieces of hiking clothing are my Darn Tough wool socks.  They kept my feet warm and blister free all the way from Georgia to Maine on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike.  My backpacking layering system generally looks like this:

  • Comfortable athletic shoes
  • Synthetic underwear and sports bra
  • Athletic shorts
  • Athletic tank top
  • Fleece zip up jacket
  • Warm puffy jacket
  • Leggings
  • Base layer pants and shirt for sleeping
  • Wool socks
  • Rain jacket
  • Buff to keep my ears warm
  • Hat and gloves if it’s cold
Backpacking clothing layers for cold weather
I was happy to wear ALL my layers when it started snowing in the Smokies!

Make Your Backpacking Meal Plan

I really enjoy meal planning in my off-trail life, so I think making meal plans for backpacking is a lot of fun.  When I first started backpacking, I had difficulty gauging how much food I would eat while hiking.  You burn a lot of calories while backpacking, especially if you’re climbing in elevation.  I recommend packing 2500-3500 calories for each day that you are hiking, but you may need more or less.  You’ll want to choose foods that are lightweight and high in calories.  There are a ton of resources online to help you choose foods for backpacking, but remember to pick things that you already know you enjoy eating.  If you hate oatmeal, then don’t pack it on the trail!  I really dislike tuna, so while a lot of other backpackers recommend tuna packets for on-trail protein, I stay away from them.  I also make some DIY dehydrated meals for my backpacking trips using recipes from Backcountry Foodie, but I’ll save that for another post!

Here’s a sample of a meal plan I might choose for a day of backpacking:

  • Breakfast: 2 instant oatmeal packets, a honeybun, and hot tea
  • Morning snacks: a Luna bar, a Honey Stinger waffle and some dried fruit
  • Lunch: Sharp cheddar cheese, hard salami, and crackers, some fruit leather, some chips, and an electrolyte drink
  • Afternoon snacks: a Clif Bar and some Peanut M&Ms
  • Dinner:  Instant mashed potatoes with bacon bits and sharp cheddar cheese, a candy bar for dessert, and hot chocolate before bed
Backpacking meal plan for 5 days on the Appalachian Trail
Here is a spread of my meal supply for 5 days on the Appalachian Trail during my thru-hike.  At this point, I was consuming around 4,000 calories per day!  Hiker hunger is real!

Go Hiking!

Before you head out, make sure you tell a trusted friend or family member where you’re going, what route you plan to take, and when you expect to finish.  Check in with them before you start your hike and again when you're done.  It’s also smart to leave a note with your trip itinerary in your car wherever you park it during your trip in case an emergency responder needs to locate you.  Then get out there and have fun! Take note of what worked for you and what didn’t.  With more experience, you’ll be able to customize your gear set up, clothing choices, and meal plans to best fit your needs.

Beginner backpacking on the Appalachian Trail
I started my Appalachian Trail thru-hike as a beginner!  This was my first day on the trail at Springer Mountain in Georgia.

Going backpacking for the first time can be intimidating!  Check out our 2023 Beginner Backpacking Trips on the Appalachian Trail where you can learn all about backpacking from an experienced guide (that's me!).

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