Backpacking is a chance to get farther into the wilderness, solitude, and yourself more than any other activity I can think of. There are some things that only your feet can bring you to, and one of those is an amazing sense of accomplishment. If you’re wondering how to backpack for the first time, you’re in the right place.
Since starting 5 years ago, I’ve backpacked more than 1,000 miles and guided over 50 women on their first backpacking trips. It’s addictive to me now.
That said, backpacking is different from day hiking in more ways than I had initially imagined – ways that are worth knowing prior to taking it on. Don’t worry, this post won’t scare you out of backpacking. I’m just here to share 9 things I wish I knew before I started backpacking so that you don’t have to learn the hard way:
1. It’s More Mental than Physical
It came as a big surprise to me that backpacking is all about mental endurance. Sure, you need to be physically able to climb mountains with a heavy pack on, but the bigger thing is staying positive to yourself. As soon as you start believing that you can’t do it, it’ll be true.
Thankfully, if you stay positive and maintain a belief that you can do it, even if it’s slow and challenging, this will also be true. Nothing has tested my physical and mental endurance in the way that backpacking does, and the benefit is the views you get as your reward.
2. It’s not a Competitive Sport
Even though I objectively knew that hiking is not competitive in the way that basketball is, I would still find myself wanting to be at camp first, or at least not be the slowest one. Then I realized, the only person who cared about where I was in the group was me. It’s not meant to be about powering through. You miss so much beauty if you’re only fixated on getting to a finish line. Backpacking is about the journey.
3. Every Gram of Weight Matters
The first time I backpacked, I admit I was being a little naive (and maybe even a bit of a diva) about the things I wanted to bring with me. My friend insisted that I shave off every possible gram, and he was so right. You really have to think about every little thing you bring. If it’s not totally essential, leave it out of your pack. You’ll thank yourself on your 15-mile day over a pass later.
For guidance on what you pack, check out my backpacking checklist.
I talk about this and more in my video about 8 mistakes beginner backpackers tend to make:
4. Leaving No Trace is Much More Than I Thought
It was through backpacking that I learned what Leave No Trace actually means. I never realized my impact when walking through a forest or desert. I figured animals did it, so I could too, right? Then I learned that a single footprint can last for hundreds of years in a desert, and that our impact is greater than we realize.
The main things I see other people forgetting about are:
- Not always packing out toilet paper: Need to do this every time. Additionally, if there are bathrooms on the trail, use them. That means there are enough people to warrant a bathroom and sanitation could become a problem otherwise.
- Social trails: If a trail is muddy or wet, deal with it by having waterproof boots rather than trying to avoid it by creating a new trail. Erosion can take hundreds of years to fix and can sometimes result in trails getting closed entirely, and that’s no fun for anyone.
- Washing in streams: I see lots of people washing in streams or rivers. I know it seems like it floats away and it’s no problem, but food, dirty clothing, and even dirty people flows to the next campsite, which you might even be staying in. Yuck.
Nothing seems like a big impact when it’s done by one or two people, but as more people travel and visit natural places, these principles become more and more important.
5. Not all Just-Add-Water Camp Food is Created Equal
Sometimes, arriving in camp and cooking can be fun, but honestly most of the time I just want to make it quick and climb into my tent. Since the food I bring is so lightweight, it’s usually something that you just need to add water to, like pasta or mashed potatoes.
This is usually bland and unexciting. Over my past few trips I started experimenting with camp food that you just add water to. It’s nice because it already has seasonings, is about as light as it gets, and it’s super easy with no cleanup. That said, not all of them taste good. Not to worry, I’ve done the human guinea pigging for you – you can read the best to the worst, ranked, here.
6. Warmth is Worth its Weight in Gold
If you take one thing away from this list, let it be that you will be very sad if you’re not warm enough. Even if you’re backpacking somewhere warm, think about how temperatures plunge at night. If you’re out in the middle of the mountains, which are normally pretty cold, you won’t have a way to get warm unless you bring it with you. I remember how grateful I was to have brought a heavy duty sleeping bag and sleeping mat when I was in Alaska, as temperatures plunged below freezing and it started to snow, in August.
Invest in a good sleeping mat and sleeping bag. I know they’re expensive, but lightweight gear that keeps you warm is worth its weight in gold. You can get my full Alaska packing list here (which is great for any hiking with glaciers and cold weather).
7. So are Camp Shoes
Bring along shoes for camp. If you think you’ll be happy to keep your boots on all the way until bedtime (and have to put them on if you have to pee in the middle of the night!), I think you’ll end up being a sad bunny.
My feet want to breathe, especially if my feet get wet from a river crossing or rain, which happens all the time. This gives me a chance to try to dry out my shoes as well as be out of them for a while. I’ve found that lightweight shoes that still protect my feet are a must. Even though they look nerdy, I love this pair since they have tread and are very lightweight.
8. You Wear the Same Outfit Every Day
Surprise! There’s no point in changing anything other than undies and, periodically, socks out in the wilderness. Whenever I take groups backpacking for the first time, people look at me like I’m insane when I propose this, then almost always thank me later.
What’s the point of bringing more than one pair of clothes to hike in and one to sleep in? If you bring multiple hiking clothes, your body will still be dirty and you’ll make them sweaty within 5 minutes anyways. Save the weight in your pack for something more essential. Here are my favorite hiking clothes for women.
9. Being Dirty Will Matter a Lot at First then Not at All
Part of getting used to backpacking is making peace with being dirty for as long as your trip lasts. If you’re truly out in the wilderness, there won’t be showers, or even bathrooms. My longest backcountry trip was 9 days, which meant no shower for that whole time.
And you know what? I loved it.
I used to hate being dirty, but usually around day 3 I just accept it, by day 5 I’m laying in the dirt not caring, and by day 8 I’m not even that concerned about showering anymore.
Some people ask, why not just rinse off in a stream? But I’d like to see anyone jump in a glacial or snowmelt stream, which is likely what it would be in the mountains, knowing that you can’t possibly warm up after. Essential Wipes are where it’s at.
I hope if you’re backpacking for the first time that this post helped you to better understand what to expect while you’re out enjoying the wilderness. Backpacking isn’t super easy, it’s a challenge and that’s why I love it. It challenges most of the things I thought I knew about shelter, what it takes to be happy, and what is really needed for survival. Plus, you wake up to epic views most of the time. Who doesn’t love that?