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3 Essential Tips for Beginner Backpacking

Backpacking through a field

If you’re considering backpacking for the first time, the most important decision is to go do it! It’s easy to be overwhelmed by gear choices or think that you can’t afford it. Here is some information that we found helpful early on.

Don’t Overthink the Gear Decision

When prepping for your first trip, it’s helpful to have a list of the necessities and know a few important factors to consider. One of the most important factors is weight. Since you’ll be carrying the pack on your back throughout the trip, you want to make sure it’s not too heavy. To determine the weight of your pack, you’ll start with the base weight. The base weight of your backpack is the weight of everything in your pack except for consumables, like food, water, and fuel.

  • Lightweight (LW) means you have a base weight under 20 pounds.
  • Ultralight (UL) means you have a base weight under 10 pounds.
  • Super-ultralight (SUL) means you have a base weight under 5 pounds. (really hardcore…)

Getting your base weight between 10 and 15 pounds is completely doable and a great target! Here is our suggested packing list. You can see how the weight changes for different options in the total weight calculation at the bottom of the page.

The big 4 – backpack, tent / hammock, sleeping bag, sleeping pad. These four items can make or break your backpacking trip. Focus your efforts on choosing these items carefully.

  • Smaller packs (50-60 liters) are lighter, cheaper, and force you to pack less. For long trips you might need more space for extra consumables.
  • Either a tent or a hammock works for your sleeping area. If you’ve never considered a hammock, it’s worth adding to your list. Hammocks are lighter than tents, most folks find them super comfortable, and they don’t require level ground. Hammocks can be used with your standard sleeping pad and sleeping bag. 
  • Take the sleeping bag ratings with a grain of salt… If you get a 30 degree sleeping bag, expect to be comfortable down to 40 degrees with layers and a sleeping pad. Down bags are lighter and pack smaller. It’s worth spending more here if you’re worried about being cold.
  • Sleeping pads are rated with an R value from 1 to 10, 10 being the warmest. The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite is a great 3 season option that is light and affordable. Everything else will cost you more, but might be worth the extra warmth for cooler conditions.

Other Considerations

  • Water filtration – We like the Platypus brand because their products don’t make your water taste funky.
  • Water reservoir – Having the option to carry 2 liters is great for times when you aren’t sure where you’ll find water. You could make that last all day if you had to.
  • Alcohol stoves are small and light and allow you to pack the exact amount of fuel you need for the trip. Alcohol is cheap, burns clean, and won’t leave a residue. (You can even burn moonshine ; ) )

Backpacking Doesn’t Need to Be Expensive

If you’ve looked at REI’s website, it’s hard to not be scared away by the prices. To help with the  cost, here are a few ways to save some money:

  • There are some solid lightweight tents and hammocks for under $175, but you can get by with an A-frame shelter using a couple tarps and guylines for under $20.
  • Store-bought plastic water bottles are cheap and light. Katadyn sells water filters for under $50.
  • There are TONS of how-to videos for DIY alcohol stoves and windscreens. Do it!
  • Do you really need a Garmin? Go old-school with a compass.

    If you want to try out some of the gear before buying, customize your own backpacking kit here. We offer the option to rent gear on multi-day trips.

    Less is More – Do a Pack Shakedown

    A pack shakedown is a rite of passage for beginners. For everything you pack, think to yourself, “Would I survive without this?” If the answer is yes, strongly consider not taking it. Minimalism is key. Backpacking can give you a real sense of freedom in nature, and light packs won’t weigh you down. Smaller backpacks (50-60 liter capacity for 1-4 night trips) are a great starting point because you are forced to take less.

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