Most people have one of two responses to the idea of a backpacking trip. Some feel intrigued, a yearning that comes from either sensing or knowing the serenity that comes of moving under your own power, marveling at nature’s beauty, and sleeping under the stars. Others react more viscerally, citing concerns about bad weather, where to sleep, and animals of both the four- and two-legged varieties. Those who have walked trails for days, weeks, or months at a time know that these extremes are both essential parts of any backpacking trip, and both hold within them necessary considerations when deciding whether to go backpacking and where. Any multi-day outing you undertake in the backcountry will have its highs and lows; taking adequate time to prepare for your on-foot rollercoaster ride will ensure that your backpacking experience is one you’d like to repeat.
Deciding where to go backpacking is often a matter of skill. Do you want to walk a trail with hundreds of footprints to guide your way, or are you looking to scramble up some scree-lined slopes? What weather – cold, heat, rain, snow – are you comfortable with coping with? How many miles can you comfortably walk, carrying up to 30 pounds of weight on your back and hips? Consider starting with shorter, overnight backpacking trips on well-marked trails to get more comfortable with the experience. Trail repositories like AllTrails and Backpacker will help you find a trail that’s perfect for your needs and skill level, whether you’re learning the basics of navigation on a well-marked path, or navigating to make it to a campsite across an open plain.
Once you’ve decided on a trail or a location, knowing how to navigate once you arrive is vital to having a positive experience. Apps like Gaia GPS and standalone GPS systems like the Garmin In-Reach make navigation easier, but carrying a paper map of the area – whether self-printed through CalTopo or bought from National Geographic – along with a compass will ensure that a dead battery never leaves you wondering where you are or where to go from here. Equipment is useless without knowledge to back it up, so read your maps before you get to the trail to make sure you’re not in for anything unexpected – and familiarize yourself with your compass and basic skills like triangulation and taking a bearing before you’re backpacking with no cell service and no idea what to do. If you’re worried you might find yourself in such a situation while backpacking, consider carrying a simple rescue beacon that can alert authorities to your position in an emergency.
Food and water worries are among the most common when thinking about a backpacking trip. On shorter trips, nutrition and hydration can be less of an issue – say, if you’re backpacking out for a night at a site with flowing water – but on longer trips, it can be impossible to carry all the food and water you need for hundreds of miles. When it comes to food, a short backpacking trip can warrant 2000-3000 calories per day – but the longer you’re on the trail, the more those needs increase, up to 5000-6000 calories per day if you’ve been on the trail for months and thousands of miles. A trip longer than seven days warrants a town stop, where you can either pick up a package of food you’ve mailed to yourself or go shopping for everything you’ll need for the next leg. “For water, you’ll need about a liter every five miles you hike – but for 20 miles, that’s 8.8 pounds that you don’t want to carry if you don’t have to.” Start with a liter or so, and then treat or filter water at the creeks, springs, or seeps listed on your map to minimize the weight you’re carrying all at once.
Given that what you choose to carry is all you have with you when backpacking, you want to make sure you’re outfitted right. Build your backpacking kit using the Ten Essentials as a guideline, with an eye to both your skill level and the weight of each piece of equipment. While many backpackers seem to compete with one another for the lowest base weight – the weight of all your equipment, without food, water, or fuel – and a tarp might be the lightest shelter you can get, losing sleep under the open shelter for fear of things that go bump in the night might not be worth the weight. If you’re reusing gear from trips long ago, make sure it’s still in good working order before you leave to avoid unfortunate surprises on the trail.
When you finally get on the trail, reliant solely on the items in your pack – and the knowledge in your head – you’ll notice things are different. You’ll start to experience the world around you with a deeper intensity than you do in a day-to-day, front country life. Your interactions, both with the land and with other people, will become much more intentional. You’ll learn to take more time for yourself, to pay attention to what you and your body need, whether that’s a nap, more time at a ridgeline viewpoint, or, depending on your nutritional needs, up to 5,000 calories per day. And when your trip is finished, whether you’ve been backpacking for one night or a hundred nights, you might even return with the will to see how much farther your feet can take you.