8 Practical Backpacking Tips for Beginners

If you’ve seen the incredible backcountry photos, watched the backpacking videos on YouTube, and decided that you must try it out for yourself, then this post is for you! This post is packed with tips that beginner backpackers need to know.

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backpacking through Paria Canyon

It’s by no means everything that a backpacker needs to know, but this list is intended to be a solid starting point. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes, and wish I had had this info when I started backpacking.

Disclaimer: This post cannot alert you to every single hazard. It is intended to provide general information. When you follow any of the procedures described here, you assume responsibility for your own safety.

Backpacking Tips for Beginners: (Video)


Tips for Beginner Backpackers

1. Start small

An easy short trip doesn’t mean a boring trip.

Your first backpacking trip doesn’t need to be some long multi-day trip with huge elevation gains and distances.

Start off with a one-night trip, and choose a route that’s an easy to moderate distance for you and your abilities while carrying a heavier backpack than normal.

Knowing your ability and what your deficiencies are is important when planning a trip.

For example, if you’re really uncomfortable with heights, don’t go on a hike that requires you to scramble up a steep slope over boulders with drop-offs.

Use common sense and assess the risk along with your abilities so you don’t get yourself into situations where you’re uncomfortable.

In addition, consider choosing a more popular hiking route that will likely have other hikers coming in and out in case you need some support.

It’s so important to thoroughly think through a hiking plan and know what resources are available on the hike and where they are located.

For example, I always like to make sure my route has a water source so I can use my filter or purifier to get more water on the trip as I need it.

Start small and make a good plan prior to leaving.

utah backpacking in the mountains

2. Be prepared to navigate

Research your trip beforehand and have a route planned before you leave.

Know where you’re going, how long you’re hiking for each day, where you’re planning to camp, the elevation gain, and all those other details.

Then, when you’re out on the trail, make sure you know how to navigate.

At the very least you should have a map and a compass that you know how to use.

Here are some resources for learning how to use a map and compass:

I highly recommend that you take a land navigation course or read a book and get lots of practice before you leave. The ability to navigate is a skill every hiker should have before they hit the trail.

If you’re using a GPS, again make sure you’re familiar with how to use it, and have a backup plan in case the GPS fails, breaks, or you accidentally drop it in a river. This is where the map and compass come in handy!

Pack extra batteries for your GPS and your phone if you’re using apps like All Trails, Gaia GPS, or OnX.

If you’re going backpacking with some friends who have backpacking experience, make sure you don’t depend on them for directions and navigation.

Be an active participant in the planning of the trip and make sure that you know where you are and where you’re trying to go at all times.

winter backpacking with a group

3. Go with someone who has backpacking experience

It can be very helpful to go with someone who has some backpacking experience. In general, I think backpacking with a group is safer than going on your own.

However, as I mentioned above, you still need to help plan, pack, and navigate.

All too often, beginner backpackers go with other people and they rely on them completely to plan and navigate.

As I said in the previous tip, you must know how to navigate and be an active participant in the planning of the trip so you know where you’re going!

You are responsible for your safety, packing the right gear, and knowing how to use it.

backpacking halls creek narrows in utah

 4. Know how to use your gear

Don’t buy a bunch of new gear, pack it, and then try to figure out how to use it when you actually need it in the backcountry!

For example, don’t buy a water filter and try to figure out how to use it for the first time in the backcountry when you’re out of water and need to filter more.

If you’re using new gear, take the time to read the instructions, set it up in your house or yard, and learn how it works and how to take care of it before your trip. 

Paying attention to having the proper equipment and knowing how to use it will always facilitate a much safer experience outdoors.

Related >> How to Repair a Sleeping Pad in the Backcountry (3 Easy Steps)

backpacking tent in the backcountry

5. Check the weather and pack for unexpected conditions

Check the weather before your trip, but know that the weather is often unpredictable in the mountains and can change very quickly!

Make sure you bring extra clothing and rain gear to protect yourself.

The sun is powerful, especially in the desert, so make sure you have ways to protect yourself from the sun too.

What clothing and how much of it you pack depends on things like the time of year, weather, trip duration, and location.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to change your plans if the weather is going to be really bad or dangerous. For example, you should not be hiking in a slot canyon in the desert if there’s a flash flood warning.

backpacking through Paria canyon

6. Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back

As I mentioned above, you need to set up a good plan prior to leaving.

That information should be sent off to three or four responsible friends or family members before your trip.

Make sure you let them know when you have returned. This is a simple but important habit to get into.

Your plan should consist of the four w’s: the who, what, when, and where.

  • Who – Who is going? Is it just me or am I going with friends?
  • What – What activity am I taking off to do? For example, a trailhead might have access to a river for fishing, hiking trails, and/or ATV trails. If someone came to the area you said you would be in, they need to know exactly what activity you’re actually doing for each day of the trip.
  • When – When do you plan on leaving? When do you plan to be back?
  • Where – Where are you going? Be very specific. Give trail names and information of planned camping spots. You can even leave coordinates. A trailhead parking lot might have access to multiple trails. You need to leave information about which trail or road you will be on for each day of the trip.
backpacking in Great Basin national park

7. Pack when you’re relaxed

Take your time, lay out all your gear, and pack slowly. Don’t leave the packing to the last minute when you’re scrambling to get to the trailhead.

Take your time so you can feel confident and organized when you begin hiking. Make sure all of your gear is fully charged (if applicable) and working properly before you leave.

Alice lake in the sawtooth mountains

8. Be careful when cooking

This is another simple thing to be aware of, but it’s often overlooked.

Boiling water is obviously hot and can burn if you spill it on yourself.

When you’re boiling water for your meals, make sure you’re sitting off to the side of the pot, or cooking in a way that you can easily jump out of the way if something spills.

I like to squat down instead of sitting cross-legged, or better yet, sit on a rock with the pot on the ground.

More Resources for Beginner Backpackers

There’s a lot to learn when it comes to backpacking.

While this list isn’t every single thing you need to know, I hope it’s a good starting point as you’re preparing for your first trip.

There are a lot of skills that every backpacker needs. Outdoor safety is important, and taking the time to properly train, plan, and pack for every trip will set you up for success.

Other related blog posts:

If you have any questions, ask me in the comments below!

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