A Beginner’s Guide To Backpacking
More people than ever before are heading out into nature. There’s just something about packing all of your food and shelter on your back and heading out into the wilderness. Whether your motivation is to get away from the stresses of daily life, enjoy a much needed mental break in the solitude of nature, or you want to explore places unknown, backpacking can do all of this for you — and so much more.
If you’re somewhat new to becoming one with nature and sleeping under the stars, or if your experience with hiking and camping looks something like walking the 50 feet from the car to the campsite — or better yet, getting out of the car and plugging in your pop-up camper, backpacking can seem like a big, exciting adventure. However, the success of your trip and more importantly, your personal safety, depends on making sure that you’ve planned appropriately and are fully prepared for the unexpected.
Step #1: Decide on the Details
Unlike a casual day hike, a backpacking trip requires quite a bit of upfront planning. Backpacking usually entails spending the majority of your day hiking followed by time spent setting up camp, eating, relaxing, and sleeping — only to do it all over again the following day.
The first step in planning your trip will be to decide on the details such as date, location, and length of the trip. You’ll need to determine these things in order to plan and pack appropriately.
Pick a Date
First, you’ll want to have an idea of when you want to do your backpacking trip. For beginners as well as the majority of hikers, warm weather months are best. Of course, it’s important to consider the location when determining a date. Will you be trekking through the hot, dry desert? You might not want to pick a month when the daytime temperatures reach 100+ degrees. Will you be hiking through some higher elevations where it tends to stay cold and snowy well into May and even June? Unless you want to pack your snowshoes and winter coat and risk getting caught in an avalanche, you might want to wait until mid-summer to enjoy that hike.
Keep in mind that you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for your trip, so picking a date next week also probably isn’t the best option. Consider how much time you’ll need to purchase essential gear (if you don’t have it already), and the time you may need to get in shape — especially if you’re planning a more strenuous hike or one at higher elevations.
When it comes to choosing a date, you’ll also want to consider the location you’re going to and whether or not you’ll need hiking or camping permits. Some particularly popular areas only allow so many people per day to use the area. If you’re going to stay at a backcountry campsite that requires a permit, you may want to check on that well in advance because if you wait until the last minute, you may find that the campsite you were hoping to stay at has already been reserved.
Decide on a Location
As discussed previously, location is an important consideration when it comes to choosing a date, but it’s also important to know where you’re planning to go so that you can pack and plan appropriately. Backpacking newbies should consider making their first trip somewhere close to home. Although you don’t want to think about having to cut your trip short because of any number of reasons (you forgot your camping stove, the area you were planning to go to is closed for the season, you got sick, etc.) things do happen — and when it’s one of your first backpacking trips, it’s nice to know that you don’t have to drive three days or jump on a plane to get back home.
When choosing a location, you’ll want to do some research on the area. Is it mostly wide-open space or is it covered in a forest? Are there hills or mountains? How much elevation gain will you have to deal with? Is there plenty of water along the trail and in the areas where you’re planning to camp? These are all questions you’ll need answers to before you venture out into the wild.
Determine the Length
Although it may sound enticing to head out for a month into the wilderness leaving all of your cares behind, experienced backpackers know that even taking a two- or three-day trip is hard work. For beginner backpackers, a five or six-mile hike may be plenty — especially when you aren’t used to carrying a heavy pack. Even if you’re used to doing 15-mile day hikes, just try strapping on about 30 pounds and see how much slower you go!
One thing you'll want to consider when you’re trying to determine the length you’ll be hiking is whether or not to do a loop hike. Loop hikes are popular because they allow you to start and end at the same location (where your car is) without having to retrace your steps. If a loop hike isn’t an option, some backpackers choose to park one car at the start and another car at the end so you can go a long distance and not have to double back. Whatever you choose, just make sure that you’re taking into account the total length of your hike, not just the one-way trek to get to the mountaintop/lake/landmark you want to get to.
Although it’s not ice climbing or cliff diving, backpacking still comes with its fair share of risks. Adverse weather conditions, dehydration, wildlife — these are all potential risks that you have to be prepared for. The following is a list of just some of the ways you can reduce your risk of getting hurt while on your adventure.
Don’t Go Alone
Some people plan a backpacking trip as a way to enjoy quiet and solitude, and therefore they want to get out and do it alone. Although some avid backpackers do hike alone, it’s not recommended — especially those just starting out. There are too many things that could go wrong. You could get lost, get sick, get hurt, or encounter an aggressive wild animal. All of these scenarios can be much less dangerous if you have someone with you that can go for help if needed. Even twisting an ankle can become a life-threatening ordeal if you’re miles away from the nearest town or trailhead. Don’t take unnecessary risk — find a hiking buddy you can trust and plan your backpacking trip together.
Tell Someone Where You’re Going
Even if you’re venturing out with a friend or two, it’s always important to let others who aren’t going with you know where you’re going and when you expect to be home. That way, if for some reason something goes wrong and you don’t return when you say you’re going to, help can be dispatched and it’s much more likely that you’ll be found quickly.
Take Someone Who Is More Experienced Than You
It’s important to not hike alone, but if this is your first backpacking trip, it would be wise to consider going with someone that is considerably more experienced with you, if possible. Someone who knows the ropes can not only help you avoid potential dangers, they can make your trip much more enjoyable. Experienced backpackers will know what to pack so there’s a good chance they’ll remember to pack something you may have forgotten. They also may have skills that you haven’t quite mastered yet — such as knowing how to hang their backpacking hammock with rainfly in five minutes flat, with only one tree.
Hiking with someone who is more experienced can be really helpful, just make sure that they understand your limitations and that you’re likely not going to be ready for a 20-mile hike on the first day.
Prepare for Bad Weather
The weather forecast and the conditions when you leave your home may be perfect, but when it comes to planning a trip where you’re spending all of your time outside, it’s necessary to plan for the unexpected. Weather forecasts change, storms roll in, and when you’re at higher altitude or in an area where flooding could be an issue, a change in weather could be life-threatening — especially if you’re not prepared for it.
Does the weather forecast show five days of sun and no rain in sight? Make sure to pack your rain gear. Is it only supposed to get down to 60 degrees at night? Bring some extra layers anyway — depending on where you’re going, it may get colder, and if it happens to rain or be windy it will feel much colder.
Although most people choose to backpack in the summer and early fall, if you’re going to an area where there’s high elevation, you could still get caught in an unseasonal snowstorm. In North America, when you’re at 10,000+ feet, it's not uncommon to experience random snow, even in August. So, if there’s a chance it could happen to you, pack accordingly. A lightweight pair of detachable snow cleats and a trekking pole can also save you from having a slow and miserable hike.
Take a Map and Compass
Knowing how to use a map and compass is a key skill to have if you’re going to be doing any hiking in the great outdoors. Although using GPS may seem like an easier way to navigate, they aren’t fail-proof. You could run out of batteries — this often happens when you’re in cold weather because batteries will run out quickly when the temperature drops. GPS devices can also be damaged or lost, and if that happens, you’ll be stuck with no way to know which way to go.
What To Pack
Packing for a backpacking trip is much different than packing for a camping trip where you can just put everything in your car. Because you’ll be carrying all of your gear on your back, it has to be lightweight and fit into your pack. Taking too much gear or the wrong kind of gear is one of the biggest reasons why people don’t have a successful trip. Just a few extra grams here and there can make all the difference between having an enjoyable hike to your destination and having a miserable trip that ends in injury because you tried to go too far with too much.
The following are some considerations for what to pack for a basic backpacking trip. Keep in mind that if you’re hiking with a buddy (which you should) then you’ll be able to split up some of these items. You don’t want to double up on things like a stove or kitchen supplies if you don’t have to.
One of the most important pieces of gear you’ll bring is shelter. It’s what you’ll use to get a good night’s sleep after an exhausting day of hiking and it will keep you protected from the wind, rain, and cold. When it comes to shelter that can be realistically carried on your back, there are many options to choose from including a simple tarp and sleeping bag, a tent, or the best option — a backpacking hammock with rainfly.
Depending on the conditions, some avid outdoorsmen may choose the minimalist option — just a sleeping bag and maybe a tarp for protection from the rain. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for most people and it can be downright dangerous. Creepy crawly snakes and bugs, mosquitos, and just the wind and rain can turn a fun trip into an uncomfortable and dangerous one.
For many people, a small tent has been the shelter of choice, as it offers protection from critters and the elements. However, many tents — even so-called lightweight tents — are quite heavy when you’re carrying everything on your back. And speaking of your back, laying on the cold, hard ground all night can be miserable. What you need after a long day of hiking is a good, restful night's sleep and chances are, you won’t get it if you’re sleeping in a tent.
Fortunately, there are innovators like Tom Hennessy who saw an opportunity to improve one of the most essential pieces of gear. If you’re looking for a more comfortable, easier to assemble, lighter option for your shelter, the Hennessy backpacking hammock with rainfly is the solution. Each hammock is designed for ease of use, ultimate comfort, and protection from insects and the elements. The Ultralite Backpacker model is perfect for adventurers who need lightweight gear that stows easily in their pack. In fact, this model weighs in at under one kilogram! Learn more about our backpacking hammock with rainfly by visiting our site. There, you can get all of the details and even compare all of our hammocks side-by-side with this handy chart.
When it comes to packing food, you want to aim for calorie-dense, lightweight options that require minimal cooking or preparation. For instance, breakfast can consist of oatmeal with some peanut butter or nuts. Bring plenty of snacks to munch on throughout the day because you’ll need them to sustain your energy. Some good options are high-protein energy bars, trail mix, and beef jerky. Just be careful about eating too much salt. You’ll need some to replace the electrolytes you’re losing through sweat, but like all things, moderation is key.
For dinner, all-in-one meals are usually the best choice. You’ll want something that’s quick and easy that at most requires you to boil water as part of the preparation. You can find just about anything you have a taste for in dehydrated form at your nearest camping supply store. You can also save a few bucks and bring things like simple flavored rice or noodle packets and just add some protein. Tuna and chicken packets make for easy protein additions.
Water is one of the most important things to consider when you’re planning a backpacking trip. To maintain proper hydration, it’s estimated that you should aim for approximately a half-liter of water for every hour of moderate activity. Add in hot temperatures, higher altitude, or a heavy pack, and you’ll probably need to consume closer to a full liter of water every hour to avoid dehydration. Unfortunately, it’s not realistic to carry all of the water you’ll need on your back.
Let’s say that you plan to hike for eight hours before setting up camp. That means that you should be consuming 8 liters or approximately 17 pounds of water over the course of the day. To make this possible while limiting weight in your pack, it’s necessary to invest in a good quality water filtration system. As part of your pre-trip planning, you’ll also want to make sure that you’ll have access to water via lakes or streams along your designated route. If something happens and you don’t pack enough food, you can probably still make it to a place of safety. However, the body cannot go without water for very long so you’ll want to make sure that you have access to plenty of water and that you’re drinking it often throughout your trip.
Most of the clothing you’ll be taking with you will be worn while you’re hiking. You don’t have a lot of extra space to be able to take a new outfit for each day of your hike. Invest in good quality hiking clothes that are lightweight, breathable, and can quickly dry after being washed in a lake or stream. You’ll want to bring layers that can be added or removed depending on the temperature. Mornings and nights often tend to be chilly, but mid-day hikes, depending on where you’re doing them and the time of year, can be very hot.
It’s always a good idea to bring along an extra pair of socks in case yours get wet or get a hole in them. You can also double up your socks if you’re prone to blisters. There’s nothing like having to cut a backpacking trip short because you got a nasty blister that prevented you from hiking.
Being outdoors means planning for unexpected changes in weather which is why, even though you are limited on space, you’ll want to always bring rain gear, a hat, gloves, and possibly a heavier jacket if there’s even a remote chance you could encounter cold weather. Items like hats and sunglasses are also necessary to protect yourself from the sun’s harsh UV rays. While you’re at it, be sure to pack some sunscreen. This is especially important if you’re going to be hiking at a higher altitude because you'll be closer to the sun and there’s a greater risk of getting burned.
Most hikers have a preference for either high top boots or trail shoes, but no matter which ones you pick, make sure that yours are broken in and they are comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. If you’re going to be climbing in some steep areas or places with large rocks and boulders, it might be helpful to have high-top boots for more ankle support. If you’re going a long distance that is mostly dirt and flat, trail shoes will be more comfortable and are usually lighter.
You’ll want to also throw in a pair of sandals of some kind — or attach them to the outside of your pack with a carabiner. They come in handy if you need to trek through the water since you won’t want to wear wet hiking boots for very long. Sandals are also handy for when you get to camp and want to air out your feet or need to let your feet dry after an unexpected downpour.
Although you may be consumed with the details of what kind of food to pack or which jacket to bring, one of the most important things you can do is to put together a checklist to ensure that you have all of the safety essentials you’ll need. They won’t take up a lot of room and they don’t weigh much, but things like matches, a lighter, knife, a small first aid kit, and a flashlight or headlamp can be a real lifesaver when you’re out in the wild.
Final Words of Wisdom For Backpacking Beginners
Most backpackers will tell you that no trip is perfect — there’s always something you’ll forget or sometimes the weather won’t cooperate. Even if your trip isn’t ideal, oftentimes it’s the little adversities that make for the most memories. As you plan and prepare for your upcoming adventure, here are just a few more tips for planning the ultimate beginner’s backpacking trip.
Invest in Quality Gear
Quality gear is made to hold up to the wear and tear of extreme use and conditions. Before you spend an entire month’s paycheck on new gear, it’s important to know that quality doesn’t necessarily mean a high price. For instance, you can spend hundreds, and in some cases even thousands of dollars on a tent. Paying more doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re getting more for your money. The Hennessy backpacking hammock with rainfly, for example, offers the best in comfort and convenience and is made with the most durable materials to last you for many years worth of trips. Even better is the price tag — Hennessy Hammocks are known for being a great value as they often cost much less than what you would expect to pay for a tent with fewer features.
Pack Your Bag and Take a Test Hike
Inexperienced backpackers are often surprised at how much more challenging it can be to hike with a full pack. That’s why it’s a good idea to pack your backpack with all of the food and gear you’ll be taking and take it for a test hike. You may find it difficult or awkward to hike with 25 or 35 pounds on your back. If you only make it a quarter mile on your test hike before wanting to turn around, you might want to consider either eliminating some weight (if possible) or taking your pack out on a couple week’s worth of shorter hikes to build up your stamina and get ready for your backpacking trip.
Reduce Your Pack Weight
Pack weight is one of the biggest factors that will influence the enjoyment and safety of your trip. Therefore, it’s wise to take extra time planning what you will take with you and make every effort to reduce weight wherever necessary. That means finding lightweight versions of your car camping gear.
Replacing all of your gear can be very costly, so that’s why you should pick a few key items that make the most sense to invest in. The item that usually makes up the most weight in your pack is often your shelter. In the past, there were limited options, but now you can get a backpacking hammock with rainfly for under two pounds and for less cost than most lightweight tents. Not only that, but you’ll find sleeping in a Hennessy hammock much more comfortable than sleeping on the ground in a tent. It’s an investment that just makes sense.
Make a Checklist and Start Planning!
Planning a backpacking trip can be both exciting and somewhat stressful. The best thing you can do is to make a checklist and give yourself plenty of time to accomplish everything you need to do and that includes shopping for a backpacking hammock with rainfly from Hennessy. After a few trips, you might find yourself looking forward to bigger and bolder adventures. Who knows where you’ll go? With your Hennessy hammock in tow, the possibilities are endless!
Visit our website to learn more about our hammocks or to order yours today.