The first step: How to start backpacking

For people of a certain temperament, just diving head first into a new activity is not something that comes naturally.

Taking off into the wilds on a first backpacking trip may seem intimidating.

The planning, going off into the unknown, the possible things that can go wrong, all the gear needed…

But it is not really that hard overall. It is the first step that is difficult.


From GIS

So here’s to get out on your first backpacking trip, and some answers to common concerns or misconceptions…

  • I need a lot of expensive and specialized gear to go backpacking 



Despite what gear stores and internet resources will tell you, you do not need a lot of gear to go backpacking. In fact, the best way to go light is not the gear you is the gear you don’t take that lets you go light.  If you regularly day hike or car camp, you may already have some of the basics such as clothing, a cook kit, shoes, poles, a headlamp, etc.

I wrote a document for beginner backpackers.  If you take the type of gear that is on the list, you’ll probably do OK gear wise.  Need specific gear ideas?  Mix-and-match as appropriate from the Frugal, Budget or Jack-of-all-trades lists.   A good, solid, and functional three-season backpacking kit can be bought for $500-$1000 and will weigh 8-17 lbs.  Considering the price of many electronics, a ski pass or even a golfing weekend, a few hundred dollars for some gear that will last many years and many outings seems a wise investment.

But don’t get too hung up on gear. It is the least important part of backpacking. Any basic kit with good (no need to be perfect) gear will do.   Just get out there.

  • OK. I have my gear. But isn’t backpacking dangerous? Or at least hard?

These EPIC backpackers know nothing, Jon Snow.

Backpacking in the wild,  and spending time outdoors in general, is perceived as a dangerous place. Wild creatures seem to abound. Lightning can strike out of nowhere. And we are, gasp!, often away from communication with others.

Yet every day, many of us drive a vehicle that often weighs over a ton and will go sixty-miles an hour or more down a highway full of other people doing the same thing. These other people are often talking on their phones, yelling at their children in the back seat, merging without looking (or caring), and are otherwise distracted.

I feel much safer in the woods than during my daily commute.

And I blame popular media for this perception of the outdoors as being scary, too. Popular authors use hyperbole to make the simple act of walking, an enjoyable and wonderful activity, into something that is this VERY. BIG. EPIC. An epic full of blood, sweat, tears, and plagues of locusts apparently.

Any new activity takes some planning, common sense, and a degree of discomfort while learning something new.

Taking a walk on the peaceful trails is much better, and safer, than driving to work every day.  One is a known set of challenges that is common. The other is something odd for many people, unknown and it, therefore, perceived as dangerous.

It ain’t.

  • Fine Mr. Smarty Pants.  How do I get these skills? 

Go out and backpack, of course. 😉

Once the gear is assembled. Plan out a route. Do something short.  Perhaps of no more than 5-10 miles one-way.  In Colorado, ORIC online lists many wonderful shorter backpacking trips with resources for maps, trail info, etc.  Other states may have outing clubs, outdoor stores, or even guidebooks available with similar route ideas.  Google is always your friend as well. When I started backpacking, I’d look at the AMC White Mountain Guidebook and maps and plan out routes.  My route planning was not always optimal, but I always had a good time and learned a lot.

Near Mt. Liberty on one of my first backpacking trips. I use this photo a lot because even on my first mistake-prone trips there was always something to see, learn from and enjoy.

Not comfortable going solo? Find a friend to join you.

Not one for route planning and/or prefer groups?  Many local outdoor groups have trips where much of the logistics are taken care of beforehand. Show up, ask questions of the trip organizers, and get involved a bit in trip planning with a more experienced group member.

Want to jump-start your learning curve? Though not for everyone, guided trips with a learning focus are beneficial to some and are a great way to learn.  NOLS and Outward Bound now offer trips aimed more for adults than teens, too.  And, again, many local outdoor groups will offer low-cost or even free instruction classes for outdoor basics.

Point is, get out there somehow to get the skills. And once you have the basic skills, it really isn’t that hard to plan your own trips. 

  • You will make mistakes. And fumble. And things will not go as planned.

That’s OK. I made mistakes, fumbled, and had things not go as planned.

And still do.

It is all part of the learning process.

But if you worry about the right gear, the perfect trip and making sure everything goes OK, you’ll never get out. You’ll never learn. And you’ll miss out on a lot fun.

Don’t let “experts” or more colorful writers on the Internet or other media scare you.

Walking has been done by many for years.

We are born to walk, explore and seek out new experiences.

Human migration. From Wikipedia.

The first step is the hardest one. But with a little planning and being open to new experiences (and learning from them), the outdoors won’t be intimidating. It will instead be a second home. A home you are happy to return to at every opportunity.

At least, that was how it was for me after my first mistake-prone trip.

And I’ve been trying to get back as much as possible ever since.

Happy Trails…

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8 years ago

I live in the flatlands and walk around here with no real problems. I have noticed, that when I get into hilly country, I start having trouble with my feet. The first time I had this problem was in the Smokies when I walked to Low Gap and back, only about 5 miles. By the time I got back, I could hardly walk because of pain above my heels. It took three days for the pain to stop. At the time, I thought that my new shoes were the problem, so I switched to different ones and didn’t notice any… Read more »