Going Backpacking for the First Time

Going Backpacking for the First Time

BY: Mecca R. Dennehy

As an avid camper, I used to think car camping was the way to go: I didn’t have to worry about finding a spot to camp because I reserved one online, I got to sleep on an air mattress and had a cooler full of food, and I could purchase a bundle of firewood from the camp host. But, as the years went on, the crowds just became overwhelming. Weekends that were supposed to be spent in nature felt more like a weekend at an RV park, and your campfire stories were interrupted with people and loose dogs walking to and from the bathroom. And then I discovered backpacking. Being able to hit the trail with everything you need stuffed into a backpack is one of the most freeing feelings ever. Heading deep into the forest, your dog’s paws kicking up dust in front of you, and seeing only a fellow adventurer or two, made me realize what I had been missing out on all those years. If you love the idea of getting out into nature but haven’t tried your hand at backpacking yet, here are some great tips for first-time backpackers.

Gather Your Gear

Start by making a list of what essentials you’ll need for your first backpacking trip. Don’t know where to start? No worries, here’s my essentials list that I always pack for every trip:

  • Water purification tablets
  • Reusable water bottle
  • Lighter AND waterproof matches
  • Firestarters or cotton balls dipped in vaseline
  • Map printout of your expedition
  • Compass
  • Camp stove and extra fuel
  • Camp towel
  • Dehydrated meals
  • Protein bars and fruit
  • Paracord
  • Dry bags
  • First-Aid kit
  • Knife
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Tent
  • Headlamp
  • Essential toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, biodegradable toilet paper
  • Whatever clothes you need and can fit into your pack
If you’re hesitant about buying all the backpacking gear upfront before you even know if you like it (but trust us, you will!), reach out to your hiking buddies and see if they will lend you some gear for the weekend! Striking the balance of having a light enough pack while still having everything you need can be challenging, so I always suggest gathering all your essentials ahead of time and practicing packing your backpack! Some simple tricks I have learned while packing a backpack are these:
  1. Put what you’ll need first/what is most important at the top of your pack so it’s easy to access
  2. Use your dry bags to divide your items so you can easily pull out what bag you need (one for clothing and toiletries, one for food, one for first-aid and gear, etc etc) and make sure to label them!
  3. Use every pocket on your backpack and take advantage of external straps; I like to put my knife and Chapstick in my waist pocket so they’re easy to access, and I strap my sleeping pad and my sleeping bag onto the top and bottom of my pack!

Start With An Easy Adventure

Another tip for first-time backpackers is to start out with a short hike that you could do in a day. Why? For a few reasons: hiking with a backpack gets tiring fast, so making sure not to push yourself too hard is key to a successful trip in the backcountry. Also, if anything should go wrong (you get hurt or forget a key item on your list), you can make it back to your car. Plus, having a shorter hike means more time hanging out at a gorgeous lake, or up on the mountain, instead of pushing yourself to exhaustion on the trail and not enjoying the scenery! My favorite way to find great backpacking spots is by using the AllTrails app and filtering the hikes that are backpacker-friendly. This way, you can view how long the hike is, the checkpoints, and download the maps for your adventure. Plus, reading the reviews always gives great insight into trail conditions, potential crowds, and access to the trailhead.

Remember, You’re In The Wild

Hiking deep into the backcountry is just what it sounds like: you’re in the wild. Remember to be aware of the wildlife in your area and know how to properly protect yourself and fellow hikers. Keep your doggos on leash (even if they have great recall because you never know what you’ll find around the corner!), hang your food from a tree with your paracord, and be aware of any fire restrictions during the summer months. Also, always practice Leave No Trace protocols! Trust us, backpacking is ten times cooler than car camping. Being able to escape the crowds, be immersed in nature, and pack everything you need into a backpack is such a rejuvenating experience. We hope these tips for first-time backpackers help you easily explore the backcountry!

About the Author: Mecca R. Dennehy

Mecca is an adventure writer and photographer based in Oregon and loves everything the rainy PNW has to offer. You can find her hiking to alpine lakes or camping with her husband and her two rescue pups, Finn and Ruby. She is also an adventure wedding and elopement photographer and loves to capture couples as they start the most epic adventure of all together.