How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

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How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

Exactly how to plan a backpacking trip. Backpacking is one of my single favorite ways to enjoy the great outdoors – but it can be overwhelming, especially for beginners. Not only do you need a lot of specialized gear, but you must also feel confident cooking your meals, navigating your chosen route, staying safe in the back country, and so much more.  Luckily, backpacking really isn’t too difficult with just a little know-how. Whether you’re a full-blown beginner or an experienced backpacker looking for new tips, this guide will help answer all your backpacking questions.  Don’t plan a backpacking trip before you round up the proper gear. Although buying new is perhaps the best option, it’s never a bad idea for first-timers to borrow or even rent gear for their first trip.

The Ten Essentials

Created by the Mountaineers in 1974, the Ten Essentials is a short gear list to help you be prepared for emergency situations in the backcountry. The basic updated list includes navigation (map and compass or GPS unit), headlamp (with spare batteries), sun protection, first aid kit, knife, fire (water proof matches are a must), shelter (a tent is the best, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes.


Backpacking Tent

Your backpacking tent gives you shelter at night. Look for a model that’s lightweight, compact, and reliable. Durability and quality waterproofing are also a must. The best tent for you depends on the logistics of your trip (including distance), the size of your party, and the expected weather.

Backpacking Sleeping Bag

Your sleeping bag keeps you warm at night while backpacking. Look for a model that’s lightweight and compressible to easily fit in your pack. Match your sleeping bag’s temperature rating with the expected weather conditions (go about 10°F than the coldest expected temperature). Mummy bags filled with down insulation are most popular for backpacking. Special features like a drawstring hood are essential for cold weather use.

Sleeping Pad

A sleeping pad provides extra comfort and extra insulation. Your two main options are a closed-cell foam pad or an inflatable air pad. Both have their pros and cons for backpacking. Personally, I take a foam pad and an air pad when the weather is cold, or just my air pad on short summer camping trips. For week-long trips, I’ll sometimes sub out for my foam pad thanks to greater reliability (foam can’t leak like an inflatable pad!).

Backpacking Stove

A stove isn’t strictly necessary for backpacking – but a hot meal at the end of a long day is sure appreciated. Your two main options are a small canister stove or an integrated canister stove. Both types have their pros and cons, but I personally find that a small canister is more versatile, although an integrated canister is arguably easier to use, especially if you prefer quick cooking and simple meals.

Cookware & Utensils

Look for lightweight, compact cookware and utensils. Backpacking kitchen kits are available that come with everything you need. Try to combine uses if possible. For example, use a fork and eat out of the pot you cooked your food in. Also note that integrated canister stoves come with a built-in pot so you don’t need to bring an actual cook pot along.

Backpacking Backpack

Your backpack is how you carry all of your gear with you. Select a model that’s lightweight, comfortable, and waterproof. Of course, it must also be big enough for all your gear. Tons of different models are available, broken down by intended use, such as lightweight backpacking or long expeditions. You can confidently buy a lot of backpacking gear online, but, like hiking boots, a backpack is something you probably want to try on in person.

Hiking Boots & Clothing

A great pair of hiking boots is hands down the most important piece of backpacking gear of all. You can’t go hiking without them! Most important is a pair of boots that fit well. Never hit the trail without first breaking them in. There are a lot of different options, from lightweight to extremely rugged, but most important for backpacking is a relatively lightweight pair that provides good traction, waterproofing, and insulation. Try hiking boots on in person for proper sizing before buying!

Cold Weather Gear

Backpacking in winter is a truly special experience. But don’t head out into the cold without the proper gear. From winter tents to winter sleeping bags to winter hiking boots, there’s a host of specialized winter back packing gear that will make it more comfortable. Most important is staying as warm and dry as possible during the entirety of your trip. If you have a dedicated base camp, a winter tent heater is also a smart addition to your list.

Aside from bringing the right gear and equipment, meal planning is perhaps the most important aspect of planning a back packing trip. You can’t go backpacking without fuel and nutrition! Here’s the low-down on food and water for back packing:

Back packing Meals

High-calorie, lightweight foods (look for a good weight-to-calorie ratio) is rule number one for backpacking meal planning.

Base your backpacking meals not only on your personal eating preferences, but also on the length of your trip and type of backpacking stove. In general, easy- to-prepare camping meals with minimal cleanup required are ideal.

Freeze-dried backpacking meals are a popular go-to backpacking meal. Just drop the meal into boiling water and you’re good to go. Other ready-to-eat foods like gorp, jerky, hard cheese, fresh fruit, and energy bars are also popular.

Water for Back packing

Water is just as, if not more important, than food for backpacking. Each person should carry at least 2 liters of water per day on the trail, more if hot weather is expected.

Carry water in water bottles or a hydration reservoir. A water purification system (filter or tablets) allows you to pack in less water and still drink enough, as long as there are adequate water sources along your route.

Check for potential water sources before your trip. Mark these on a map. Then call the local ranger station to confirm the status of these water sources. Always remember that otherwise plentiful back country water sources can easily dry up, especially in the summer.

Back country Food Storage

As a backpacker, it’s your responsibility to prevent wild animals from getting into your food in the wilderness.

First and foremost, never leave your food in your tent and never leave your food unattended. Check local regulations for additional food storage rules. When hiking in bear country, you typically must use a bear proof canister and/or hang your food bags from a tree.

Although keeping your food away from bears (and following all other bear safety best practices) is vital, proper backcountry food storage also benefits all other wild animals, including small ones like mice and other rodents.