We get it. You read an inspiring book on backpacking, or you’re a day hiker and there are backpackers in the group who intrigue you with their stories of drudging through the rain to an incredible sight. Maybe you’ve seen that screen saver with the tent on a moonlit night and you want to be there. No matter how it happened, you want in to this secret club. You want to be a backpacker.
Inspired with visions of mountains and the pride of carrying everything you need on your back, you enter the outdoor store. Immediately you’re hit with an avalanche of overwhelming choices and options. Then someone asks the question, “Where are you going?” Ummmm…… maybe a plan of some sort is needed?
How do you get started?
There are a lot of different ways to venture out and it’s really about you. What type of structure will help you become confident and wanting to continue? You can see if there is an introduction course near you, head out on your own, or find a group open to helping beginners.
Going through an Intro to backpacking course: A course can help narrow choices, provide you with insights and tips, and help you feel more confident. There are likely upfront costs for the training, as well as an investment of time. Often loaner equipment is available which can help reduce entry level costs.
Full disclaimer: I took an Intro to backpacking class that included an evening at an outdoor store going through gear options, a training day with info on how to pack, select a campsite and pitch a tent, and exploring food options while cooking a meal. It culminated in a weekend trip with the instructor and fellow trainees. I now teach this class.
On your own: It’s definitely possible to learn to backpack on your own and be successful. A lot of people hit the Appalachian Trail without ever having spent a night in a tent. There is a learning curve and it can be expensive since you’ll be buying gear with limited experience. Beyond the gear, you’ll also need to learn how to plan a trip.
Finding a local group open to helping beginners: If going it alone isn’t quite your thing, but you’re also not really a “course” person, another option is to find a local group open to beginners. There is often a minimal or no fee to go out on a beginner trip; however, you usually need to purchase your own equipment. This is still a good option as you’ll be with experienced backpackers who know the terrain and can show you local areas. As you grow more familiar, you can venture out on your own.
Things to consider:
Planning a trip is more than just knowing about gear. Most beginners struggle with trip planning. You’ll need to determine your location, note your water resources throughout the trip, determine if reservations or permits are needed, be aware of any time restrictions, know the local hunting seasons and rules and know the route you’re taking (are the trails blazed?).
If you’re going to give it a whirl on your own, then pick a location first. I would recommend a local State Park for your first adventure. They usually have reservable campsites, ready access to water, bear lockers, and blazed trails. Keep in mind, these are all things you will need to verify which is often easily located on the park’s website. Once you have the location, pick the time of year, then plan your gear around the anticipated weather. While you will eventually add on to your gear, you’ll get the most usage out of items made for temperate weather (spring/summer).
Also be sure to learn basic Leave No Trace principles. Just like you want to experience an untouched world, so does the next person following you. Like Mom always said, “leave things better than you found them.”
This seems complicated:
So now that you’re overwhelmed and thinking “I can’t do this”, let me reassure you that it’s all very doable, it just takes time and experience. Backpackers love to talk gear and help new folks be successful so just ask if you have a question. We’ve all been there. Don’t be surprised if on your first trip, your pack is a bit heavier than everyone else. That’s completely normal. Pretty soon, you’ll be talking about lightweight items, minimizing weight, and yet still likely retain a few creature comforts like your coffee mug. You’ll be hoarding pictures of beautiful sunsets, the Blue Ridge mountains with a hint of purple thrown in, and mountain flora. Friends will ask, “do you really sleep in a tent”, and you’ll proudly answer, “yes and I can’t wait to get out there again.”