Getting into Backpacking: 20 Common Questions
Backpacking is a deeply meaningful activity for us here at Wildland Trekking, which is why we do it for a living. Packing everything needed to survive in the wilderness for three, seven, 10, or more days at a time, backpacking involves striking out into the unknown to find peace, adventure, and beauty. Whether you’re interested in backpacking through deserts, canyons, mountains, forests, coastal areas, volcanoes, or arctic tundra, you’ll be outside relying on your wits to keep you safe and alive in a way that’s impossible to emulate in civilization.
In this article, we go over the basics of backpacking, answering 20 of the most commonly asked questions. We have a special article about getting into day hiking if that’s more what you’re looking for. As America’s top hiking and backpacking company, we have been leading guests on backpacking adventures since 2005. We have amassed a wealth of experience and knowledge in that time about what beginners need to know. While a blog post can’t begin to mimic a guided backpacking trip in terms of education or experience, it can be a great start to orient yourself to what you’ll need to start backpacking on your own.
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Backpacking Clothing and Footwear
What Clothing Should I Pack?
This is one of the most important questions to ask, which is why we’re starting with it. In general, you want to have non-cotton clothing (unless backpacking in the desert, which is described below), and a variety of layers with different levels of warmth. It’s important to have layers for hiking as well as layers for camp. Plus, you should always have a set of dry clothes stored safely in your backpack.
A recommended general packing list for backpacking is as follows (with mountain and desert specific amendments described below):
- 2 wool or polyester t-shirts
- 1 lightweight fleece or wool sweatshirt
- 1 midweight fleece or wool sweatshirt or jacket
- Down or synthetic insulated jacket
- Non-cotton long underwear tops and bottoms
- Warm hat
- Fleece gloves
- 1 pair of nylon hiking pants or convertibles (bottoms zip off to turn pants into shorts)
- 1 pair of nylon hiking shorts
- 2-3 pairs of wool hiking socks
- Waterproof/breathable rain jacket and pants
What Clothing Should I Pack When Backpacking in the Desert?
The above list is great for mountains, forests, coastal areas, volcanoes…etc. However, the desert is a very different environment. In cooler, wetter areas, the goal is to use fabrics that dry quickly and wick moisture away from your body. In the desert, you want the exact opposite – you want the moisture to stay next to your skin for as long as possible. For this reason, if you’re going on a backpacking trip in the desert it’s best to exchange the first item “2 wool or polyester t-shirts” with 2 cotton t-shirts. Also, in the desert, you probably will not need an insulated jacket unless you’re hiking in the late fall, winter, or early spring.
What Footwear Should I Wear when Backpacking?
Footwear is another major consideration. In general, it’s best to have shoes or boots that are designed specifically for hiking and trekking. Hiking footwear has a solid sole underfoot to protect your feet from the irregularities of the ground. When you have 25-45 pounds of supplies on your back, this protective sole is even more important. Anyone who has ever tried to go backpacking in normal tennis shoes knows how brutal it is on your feet to not have a firm footbed.
A common question is whether to buy low top hiking shoes or ankle-high shoes or boots. The short answer is: it’s totally up to you, as both are fine. Some people find the low top shoes to be much more comfortable, so that can be a benefit. However, if you have weak ankles that roll easily, then going with the higher boot option is probably better. Or if you’re going backpacking in very rugged terrain, off-trail, in snow, or in areas with poisonous snakes, you may want to opt for ankle-high boots.
Do I Need to Buy Special Hiking Socks?
Yes! Hiking socks are specially designed to wick the moisture away from your skin. Like the skin of a peach, the skin on your feet — when moist for long periods of time — becomes soft and weak and blisters easily. So padding your feet and keeping them as dry as possible is critical to be able to hike in comfort and not be discomforted by blisters.
The best hiking socks are a combination of wool and synthetic, with at least 50% wool. It’s best for the socks to not have any cotton, but definitely no more than 10%.
Should I Buy Gaiters (And If So Which Type)?
Gaiters are leggings that fit over the tops of your boots and part of your lower leg. They function as a protective layer for your legs and keep debris out of your shoes. We do recommend having gaiters for exactly these reasons – to protect your lower legs and keep debris out of your boots. They aren’t necessary, but they can be very nice to have.
There are some types of terrain that almost require gaiters: snowfields, deep sand, marshy areas, and thick brush or spiny ground cover.
If you do decide to get gaiters, the next question is which length to go with. Short gaiters stop just above the ankle; long gaiters stop just below the knee. If you’re going to be doing a lot of off-trail hiking or hiking in thick foliage or on snowfields, then the longer gaiters will be more helpful. If you’re more interested in keeping rocks and vegetation out of your boots, but not necessarily wanting to do a lot of off-trail hiking, then the shorter gaiters will work better. One drawback with the higher gaiters is they can be hot. So, if you don’t need them, the shorter ones will likely be more comfortable for you.
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Backpacking Gear List
- Multi-day backpack
- Backpacking tent
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Trekking poles
- 3-5 stuff sacks
- Backpacking stove and fuel
- Repair kit
- First-aid kit
- Bear hang equipment or bear canister
- Map and compass or orienteering device
- Emergency communication device
What Size Backpack Should I Get?
You’ll want a backpack that is at least 3,500 cubic inches (57 liters), with a maximum size would be around 5,500 cubic inches (90 liters). For shorter trips (two to four days) or if you’re using ultralight gear, the smaller backpacks will work. If you’re taking longer trips (five to 12 days), then you’ll need to choose a larger park.
Make sure your backpack has a firm back and solid waist belt. Great backpack brands include:
- Hyperlight Mountain Gear (for lightweight options)
What Should I look for in a Tent?
There are a dizzying number of options for backpacking tents. In general, you want to look for small, lightweight, durable tents. While having plenty of space is a nice luxury, it comes with a serious price of a heavier backpack. Every pound counts, so going with a compact, lightweight tent is highly recommended.
Tents normally come in 1-person, 2-person, 3-person, and 4-person models. So, the first question to ask yourself is how many people you’re going to be hiking and camping with. Then, research your options and go to an outdoor retail store so you can see the tent in action. It’s important to actually set it up in the store and see exactly what you’re going to be working with.
Recommended tent companies include:
- Big Agnes
- Sierra Designs
- ZPacks (for lightweight options)
How do I Pick the Right Sleeping Bag?
You’ll have to choose between three main factors when it comes to sleeping bags: 1) down vs synthetic, 2) temperature rating, and 3) length. We are covering each of these questions below.
1. Down or Synthetic Sleeping Bag?
The bottom line is if there’s a chance your sleeping bag will get wet, go with synthetic because it will still insulate even when wet. If you’re confident that you can keep your sleeping bag dry, go with down because it’s lighter, packs smaller, and lasts longer.
2. What Temperature Should I Go With?
A 15-20 degree bag will work in many situations, so if you’d like to use one bag most of the time, this temperature rating is a great choice. If you’re going to be backpacking in the desert in the summer, a cooler bag – 40-50 degrees – will pay off. If you’re backpacking in the mountains in the late fall, winter, or early spring, you may want a bag closer to 0 degrees or even lower. Typically, these bags will be comfortable about ten degrees warmer than what they are rated for.
3. What Length of Sleeping Bag Should I Get?
Many bags come in men’s and women’s versions with regular and long options for both. Look closely at the specifications of the sleeping bag to make sure you get the correct length. Also, it’s good to have a couple of extra inches on your bag so you can easily get the hood completely over your head.
What About Sleeping Pads?
There are two types of sleeping pads: closed-cell foam and inflatable. To keep it simple, inflatable is the way to go. They are more expensive and weigh a bit more, but are dramatically more comfortable. The most well-known brand is Thermarest, and it’s hard to go wrong with one of their sleeping pads.
Should I Get Trekking Poles?
Trekking poles are a must when backpacking. They help immensely with balance and to take the pressure off of your back, knees, and ankles. They are also extremely helpful with river crossings.
Are Stuff Sacks Important?
Having three to five high quality, waterproof stuff sacks of varying sizes is an important component for a safe, fun backpacking trip. Put your extra clothes in one of the sacks to keep them dry. It’s also wise to put your sleeping bag in a waterproof stuff sack. Stuff sacks are also great for improving your backpacking organization! You can use the others for food, toiletries, and valuables like your wallet and cell phone.
What Should I Get for a Backpacking Stove and Fuel?
You have two main options for backpacking stoves: ones that run on refillable white gas and ones that run on pre-packaged, non-refillable fuel canisters. Environmentally, the white gas stoves are far better because you aren’t wasting metal canisters every time you use up the gas. And they are better for longer trips where you have to carry fuel for 10-12 days at a time. However, in terms of ease of use and weight, the canister stoves are easier to use and lighter. MSR is the best company to go with for backpacking stoves and fuel.
Which Headlamp to Go With?
A headlamp is a critical piece of equipment. You can light your way in the dark while having your hands free for everything from camp chores, to night hiking, to book reading. You may have to set up camp at night or get out of your tent to use the bathroom. In all of these situations, a good headlamp makes all the difference.
There are many great headlamps on the market. Make sure yours is LED, which helps the batteries last longer. And always, always, always bring extra batteries!
Having a good, comprehensive first-aid kit is imperative. Here is a list of what should be in your first-aid kit:
- Antiseptic wipes
- Antibacterial ointment
- Compound tincture of benzoin (a useful bandage adhesive)
- Variety of adhesive bandages (best if fabric)
- Butterfly bandages
- Assorted gauze pads
- Nonstick sterile pads
- Medical tape
- Blister treatment supplies
- Ibuprofen / anti-inflammatory, pain-relief medication
- Insect sting ointment
- Antihistamine to treat allergic reactions (e.g. Benadryl)
- Safety pins
Bear Hang or Bear Canister
Bear hang equipment includes a 50 ft length of thin cordage (appx 7 mm), a pulley, and a carabiner. But hanging a bear hang can get tricky! To complete the bear hang:
- Tie something heavy onto one end of the rope
- Throw the object over a sturdy branch at least 15 feet off the ground
- Remove the object from the rope. You should now have both ends of the rope, and the rope should be strung over the branch.
- Tie a loop in one end of the rope and connect the pulley.
- Loop the other end through the pulley and begin pulling the rope so the pulley moves up toward the branch (the end being fed through the pulley should still be coming down to you)
- When the pulley is just below the branch, tie off the loop of rope you’ve created to a different tree so the pulley is held in place.
- Tie a loop at the end of the rope that is still extending to the ground and connect it to the carabiner.
- Connect your food bags to the carabiner and pull the food up to the pulley.
- Tie off the rope so your food remains up at the pulley.
If you decide to hang your food, practice at home so you know you can hang your food well in the backcountry. You can do this without a pulley, but it is much more difficult.
Bear Canisters are much, much easier to use, in that you simply put your food in them at night and move them several hundred feet away from camp.
How do I Plan My Backpacking Menu?
Planning your menu is a big deal, especially if you’re putting together a longer trip. A menu for a two to four-day trip can be very easy to organize. In that amount of time, most perishable foods will still be okay to eat, and bulk and weight aren’t significant issues. Great meals for a shorter trip include:
- Pasta with summer sausage, cheese and vegetables
- Tuna wraps with fruit
- Oatmeal or granola with dried fruit and nuts
- Chicken quesadillas with canned chicken, cheese and vegetables on flour tortillas
- Cheese, sausage, and crackers
- Pancakes with fruit, butter, and syrup
- Fried rice with vegetables, eggs, chicken and spices
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on multi-grain bagels
- Fried bagels with cream cheese and fruit
If you’re planning a longer trip (five to 12 days), you may want to start with some of the above-listed meals and then, as the trip progresses, focus on more dehydrated items and things with less bulk. Great options for later in the trip include:
- Scrambled eggs, dried vegetables, hash browns and cheese (using freeze dried eggs and dried hash browns)
- Hummus pita wraps with peppers and onions (using reconstituted fried hummus powder); dried fruit
- Spicy pasta with bagged chicken, dried vegetables and cheese
- Granola with dried milk, dried fruit and a nut butter of your choice
- Beef jerky, dried fruit, cheese and nuts
- Spaghetti with spicy peanut sauce (peanut butter, soy sauce, brown sugar, sunflower seeds, vinegar)
Learn More About Foods to Use on Your Backpacking Trip
We have a blog post dedicated entirely to hiking foods where you can learn a lot more about menu planning.
Backpacking Tips and Tricks
Staying Warm in the Mountains
There are several important steps you can take to stay warm in the mountains:
- Always have a set of dry clothes protected in your backpack.
- Pack an insulated jacket (down or synthetic) that you can put on in camp.
- Plan on hot dinners and breakfasts to warm your body.
- Heat up coffee or tea in the mornings and/or evenings.
- If hiking in the winter, put butter in everything to keep your calorie intake high.
- At night, heat up water, put it in water bottles, and place in your sleeping bag to help keep you warm.
- Start small campfires that you can sit close to at night.
Staying Cool in the Desert
Staying cool in the desert can be a challenge, but these steps will help immensely:
- Bring plenty of water (for example, in the Grand Canyon in the summer, plan on two gallons of water per person per day.)
- Eat twice as many calories as you normally would (it takes a lot of energy for your body to cool off.)
- Bring a spray bottle and a white cloth to cover your head – spray the cloth and your upper body down occasionally.
- Don’t use your rain fly, and spray your tent at night so that it’s dripping wet – the evaporative cooling effect will help cool off your tent, especially if there’s a light breeze.
- Never pass up a chance to get wet – i.e. in streams, rivers, or lakes.
- When you stop for a break, always stop in the shade.
Lightweight backpacking is a fast-growing activity that allows people to hike with less weight on their back but at the sacrifice of comfort. To start venturing into this version of the sport, all you really need to do is invest in the gear — which is a lot more expensive than conventional backpacking gear. Some recommended brands are Hyperlite Mountain Gear and ZPacks.
When planning your trip, keep in mind that thunderstorms are often one of the biggest natural factors to consider. In the mountains, a serious thunderstorm can catch you above treeline, resulting in a possible lightning strike. Thunderstorms can also raise water levels and make river crossings (and even stream crossings) difficult or impossible.
In the desert, thunderstorms can bring dangerous lightning strikes as well as create devastating flash floods.
To avoid these scenarios, know the weather forecast before you leave and if there’s a chance of thunderstorms, plan your trip accordingly. Often the best solution is to begin your hiking much earlier in the day so you’re back to camp or at your next camp by the time the storms roll in.
Do the Right Thing: Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is an organization dedicated to preserving wild places through education. Their focus is helping backcountry travelers (backpackers, hikers, skiers, snowshoers, climbers, mountain bikers, etc.) to use the backcountry while having as little impact as possible. To “leave no trace” means that once you leave, no one can tell you were there. Someone could hike where you hiked and camp where you camped and have no idea that you had been there. When you’re backpacking, you should be meticulous to not leaving any type of waste – litter, food waste, or visible human waste. You also shouldn’t trample down vegetation (so stay on the trail!) If you have off-trail hiking in your itinerary, you should spread your group out to avoid creating a social trail. When you have campfires, you should ensure that they can be easily scattered and avoid leaving permanent fire rings, unless they were already established at your campsite. Last, you’ll want to make safe decisions so that an evacuation is hopefully never necessary (evacs are not low impact undertakings).
To learn more about Leave No Trace ethics and practices, you can visit their website.
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As the world’s premier hiking and trekking company, Wildland believes in connecting people to fantastic environments in amazing ways. Wildland Trekking Company offers an array of incredible hiking and trekking experiences in nine states and 11 countries. Read more about our world-class destinations.
To learn more about our guided backpacking trips and all of our award-winning hiking vacations, please visit our website or connect with one of our Adventure Consultants: 800-715-HIKE.