How to Take a First-Timer Backpacking

How to Take a First-Timer Backpacking

Pay forward your wilderness knowledge by taking out a newb. You'll not only create lasting memories with your newly-initiated wilderness pal, but you'll enjoy re-discovering backpacking through a newbie's eyes. These tips for taking out a first-timer backpacker are designed to give you the tools for success.

Set Expectations from the Get-Go

Swiping through gorgeous, Insta-worthy shots on the internet can make backpacking look more like a walk in the park. But you're a seasoned vet, and you know that the sport of backpacking inevitably involves a certain amount of suck.

Be upfront about the realities of backpacking before you take out a beginner. Go over basics like the bathroom, pack weight, and difficulty of what you're about to do. Don't scare them away, be honest and realistic about some of the more uncomfortable moments in backpacking so your newly-initiated friend isn't blindsided by having to poop in a bag or deal with pesky water crossings.

Make it About Them

After you've talked about the realities of backpacking, ask one simple question: "What would you like to do?" Maybe your friend has a trail or destination in mind. Or perhaps certain things (like bag pooping) are off-limits to them. If there are no particular objectives in mind ask questions such as:

  • How many miles do you like to hike?
  • Is there any particular area you'd like to explore?
  • Do you want to camp near a landmark of some sort (think lake, viewpoint, or river).
  • Are there any activities you'd like to do (such as night photography, swimming, or simply relaxing).

Tone Down the Intensity

I took a friend of mine out backpacking on the rim of the Grand Canyon. It was his third night sleeping in the outdoors, so hoofing our stuff anywhere below the rim was simply out of the question. We chose a simple, two-mile trail with big views. It was simply heaven.

When it comes to taking a first-timer backpacking, less is more. Don't try to pack in big miles or big gains, instead go for something that's relatively easy. Remember, now isn't the time to go for the FKT (fastest known time) either. Keep your Strava App off and instead focus on the fun.

A good rule of thumb for first-timers is to keep the milage super low (think six miles or less). Consider an easy to moderate trail, depending on both of your level of fitness. Plan for lots of breaks and make it more about the journey, not the destination.

Pack Up Together

Do you remember your first backpacking trip? I sure do! I was 15 years old and I carried anything and everything that would fit in my pack. I remember grunting it out along the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire, cursing myself for carrying over 50 pounds.

Don't set your backpacking newb up for failure. You want them to like the sport after all. Pack together and explain how to properly pack and fit your bag. Check through the items they are bringing and make sure they aren't going over (or under) board. Chances are, you'll be using a lot of your gear for group gear, so make sure to divvy up items like the tent, stove, and water filter between the two of you.

Point Out the Obvious

There are a few things we take granted while we backpack. Even simple tasks, such as filtering water, can seem like voodoo to a new backpacker. Be an educator without being arrogant. Ask your protege if they would like to learn the finer points of backpacking. If they say yes, explain what and why you are doing things. Don't be shy about educating your friend about Leave No Trace. As the experienced backpacker, you're in a unique position to mentor someone on the finer points of keeping the wilderness clean.

Then let them try. Resist the urge to micro-manage and let the beginner backpacker figure out their own way to take care of camp chores or navigation. Don't let yourselves get caught in an unsafe situation, but allowing a new backpacker to locate themselves on a map, filter their own water or cook up a tasty dinner is a powerful experience.

Pack a "Present"

So you've been suffering with heavy packs all day and maybe things didn't go to plan. Perhaps you had to bushwhack only to find your favorite camp spot was taken. Did pika eat a hole in your food bag? Some of the best outdoor outings happen when things go wrong or take an unexpected twist.

I like to pack a little luxury along whenever I backpack, but I try to keep that "present" extra special if I'm taking a newbie out. It doesn't have to be something fancy or even tangible. Here are a few ideas:

  • Pick a spot that's well-known for sunsets. Nothing spells "reward" quite like a beautiful sunset.
  • Bring along a tasty treat such as a coveted piece of candy or even ice cream (simply pack the ice cream in a Hydroflask or equivalent and devour on night one)
  • Plan a route with a swimming spot
  • Pack a flask with a sip of an adult beverage your friend loves
  • Choose a trail with a killer view at the end.

Keep it Fun Above All Else

So part of the point of taking someone new backpacking is that you actually want them to like the sport. Remember to keep the outing. Make light of the hiccups you encounter or joke about the suffering you endure. If the weather isn't cooperating, try to keep spirits high by bringing a card game.

If you're willing to be patient and flexible, it's an absolute blast to take someone backpacking for the first time. Just remember to make it about the fun and not some epic achievement.