Many of us are curious about backpacking. Perhaps after going on a few day hikes the fresh air and solitude sounds like the perfect remedy to a bustling, technology filled life. A short trip would be easy enough to schedule, no need to quit a job or drive 18 hours to get to your destination.
However, a quick internet search later and backpacking starts to sound intimidating. Looking at a gear checklist, it all becomes really expensive. And what happens if it rains? What if I see a bear? What if... this isn’t doable after all.
No! Don’t be discouraged, you can start backpacking! The entire internet is trying to convince you that nothing but the best gear will do, and you need to be a rugged survivalist to start, which simply isn’t true. It may sound cliche, but a positive attitude is the most vital piece of making “roughing it” fun.
You may ask “If a positive attitude is needed, why even bother?” I guarantee, just one successful overnight backpacking trip will make you feel like you have accomplished something incredible. You will feel twice as tough and powerful! Not only that, you will get in touch with a simpler style of life and give yourself a chance to forget the rest of the word. Conquering the wilderness with nothing but the gear on your back is an easy way to challenge yourself and go on a memorable adventure. So what do you need to get started?
ESSENTIAL BACKPACKING GEAR CHECKLIST / CHEAPEST PRICE I RECOMMEND
Tent* / $150
Sleeping bag / $80 (See “Buying Guide: Backpacking Sleeping Bags”)
Optional: Sleeping pad / $35
Backpack / $150 (if you don’t have a day pack big enough to hold a tent and sleeping bag)
Water purification (if you will be in undeveloped wilderness trails) / $10 or less for tablets
Pretty short list right**? Remember, this is just a list of special camping gear to buy, not everything we need to pack. A lot of the stuff that is needed for backpacking many of us already own, even with no prior camping experience. Old clothes and sturdy running shoes get the job done for short trips. It may sound surprising, but many long distance backpackers don’t carry camp stoves or cook over a fire at all, there are plenty of food options that require no cooking and little utensils (no $30 titanium spork is needed). See “Food Ideas for Backpacking” for more information.
To make your first trip even more affordable you could forgo a sleeping pad, but even I can’t endorse that level of penny pinching! A great foam sleeping pad costs $35, and a subpar foam sleeping pad can be as low as $10.
The list gets even shorter when going with someone who has gone backpacking before! There is a 99% chance they will be incredibly excited to introduce someone new to backpacking, and will try their best to make the experience spectacular. This means they will likely gladly carry a little extra weight and share their tent. Now you don’t even need a hiking backpack or a tent, two less things to buy!
This may seem like a ridiculously low amount of things to buy, and I’ll admit, buying dedicated hiking gear can make your trip more pleasant. But if you go for a 1-2 day trip with warm, dry weather and keep your hiking mileage reasonable, there’s no reason you’d need anything more!
Going out into the wilderness might appear to be an activity reserved for groups of boy scouts, but anyone can do it! Here is a list of useful tips and information to give you all the basics you need:
Limit your first trip to one or two nights. This eliminates the need for most things beyond the bare essentials. Doing a shorter route will also keep you closer to civilization in case of any unforeseen issues.
Know your route well. Many trails are easy to navigate, but it is wise to bring some form of map. Print out one, download one to your phone, or buy one.
Go when the weather is dry. It eliminates the need for rain gear, and frankly it is easier to enjoy your first trip when its not raining. If you do happen to get stuck in the rain, being on a short trip will make sure it isn’t dangerous.
Learn how to layer. We’ve all heard this, but you need to know how to apply it. Just because the weather is warm doesn’t mean you should just bring shorts and a t-shirt. Always bring a mid-weight layer (fleece jacket or hoodie) as a minimum, even in summer.
Know how much clothing to pack. You first instinct will probably be to bring much more than you need. For a short trip in warm dry conditions, the only clothes in your pack should be clean sleeping clothes, an extra pair of socks, and a mid-weight layer.
Wear long pants while hiking, and possibly long sleeves. They give you a lot more protection from bugs and foliage. Shorts can be fine, just know the trade off for wearing them. One of the benefits of dedicated hiking pants is that they will breathe well and not be too hot.
Bring bug protection. Along with rain, bugs can really hurt your morale. Get good bug lotion and wear more clothing if you expect many bugs. It doesn’t hurt to search the web to see how buggy it may in the area before your trip.
Practice things in a low pressure situation before leaving. This may seem obvious, but it can be easy to forget. Set up your tent, use your water filter, pack your bag, etc. You’ll be more comfortable in the back country if it isn’t your first time using them, and it is good to ensure they are functional.
Embrace squatting. Some wilderness campsites have pit toilets, but others have nothing. You will need to bring your own toilet paper, and many places require that you pack it out. Otherwise, you will need to bury it along with any solid waste.
Don’t count on a campfire. On a recent backpacking trip I had planned on starting a campfire to cook food, as I didn’t want to buy a backpacker’s stove. At the last minute, I found a friend who let me borrow a stove. The ground ended up being so wet that a fire would have been extremely difficult to build. If you don’t want to buy a stove, bring extra food that doesn’t need to be cooked just in case.
Be aware of bears. If you are going to an area with bears, don’t fret! Bears rarely bother people, but you will need a bear bag or canister to protect your food from them.
In the end, the easiest way to start wilderness backpacking is to just do it! Go for just a day or two and most of your fears will melt away. You’ll come out of the experience feeling as though you have gone on a grand adventure!