This Guide to Backpacking for Beginners is everything you need to know about backpacking and camping in the backcountry, from what to expect, how to plan a trip and the essential gear that will make your adventure a success!
In this beginner’s guide to backpacking, you will find all the information necessary to make a multi-day hiking trip possible. This guide on backpacking will cover the ABCs of hiking and camping in the backcountry. If you plan to enjoy day hikes and not spend overnights on the trail, you might want to read our Essential Hiking Gear article.
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What is backpacking?
Essentially, backpacking is a multi-day hiking trip where you carry all that you need in your pack on your back, hence backpacking. The trips can be as short as an overnight or as long as months spent thru-hiking a long trail. The campsites along the trails are the backcountry (in remote areas), and campers must be self-sufficient.
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To Keep in Mind When Planning a Trip
It is essential to research the trail route and terrain you will be hiking for a few days. Not all trails are made the same.
Keep in mind the surface of the trail, the elevation gain and the distance you will have to cover each day to get to your overnight spot. Some trails are easier; others are rated as difficult. Be realistic when planning the distance, and stay mindful of your hiking abilities.
Permits and access fees
You might have to purchase a hiking permit or an access pass if the trail is part of a national or provincial park. Inquire with the park beforehand. Most likely, you have to book campsites that can be done simultaneously.
Other trails and backcountry campsites are on crown land. Depending on the provinces, there might be a fee for an overnight stay. Some provinces offer camping for free. For example, if you are a Canadian resident camping on crown land in Ontario, you can do so for up to 21 days for free. Other provinces will require you to have a pass to spend the night on their land.
Backcountry campsites differ from front-country camping. Camping in the backcountry means that it is a walk-in campsite. Therefore, you will not find facilities like showers and running water (except for the water running down the creek).
Some backcountry campsites will have a firepit; some won’t. Make sure to inquire about the restrictions for campfires before leaving. I found this article helpful: The 5 Essential Rules of Backcountry Campfire Safety.
You might come across campsites with wooden tent platforms. Although you rarely find a picnic table on a backcountry site, some might have a makeshift bench and table with logs and stones.
There will likely be a privy, commonly known as a thunderbox, a wooden box without walls with a hole on top. Thunderbox comes from the sound made by the lid that we let fall back on the box once we are done with it.
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There are a ton of options and features when it comes to backpacks. It all comes down to your needs.
How big do you need your backpack to be? The capacity of the pack refers to how much you can put in it, the space inside the pack.
You will only be doing overnights and weekends? Then a 40-50 L backpack might be enough.
Will you be doing longer trails of up to a week or more? Then look more in the range of 50 to 65 L. This pack will come with an internal frame and most likely padded shoulder straps and a hip belt; most packs also have compression straps.
Different packs offer features such as side and back pockets and hip belt pockets, trekking pole attachment, hydration reservoir sleeve, a separate sleeping bag compartment, ice tool loops, sleeping pad straps, and more.
Some packs will come with an integrated rain cover. If yours does not, consider buying one.
Big packs are expensive, but some come with a lifetime warranty which I have used. You can inquire about the warranty when choosing your pack.
How to pack your bag
Packing all the gear in your bag may take some practice before you get efficient at it. The common advice on how to pack is to put the heaviest gear against your lower back and the lighter gear on top. Most backpacks have a sleeping bag compartment at the very bottom, those are handy for keeping the sleeping bag dry. If you carry a pillow, it will fit in there too.
Think about what you need handy throughout the day while hiking. Those articles should be easy to access in the top lid or front and side pockets.
Sleeping in the backcountry
Your shelter in the backcountry will be your tent.
I opted for a two-person tent for my solo hikes, although one-person tents can be lighter if you are conscious of the weight of your pack. I especially appreciate my tent’s two vestibules and the extra space of the 2-person tent.
Again, multiple options are available based mostly on preferences and needs. One or two doors and vestibules? Three-season or four-season tent? Some backpackers will make do with a tarp or a hammock.
Sleeping bags also come with options.
I prefer a mummy-shaped bag. They are more confining but warmer (less space for the body to heat up), but the regular rectangular-shaped bags are also a good choice.
You will have to select either a down or synthetic sleeping bag. Both have their advantages and downfalls.
Choose a down sleeping bag if your priority is weight and warmth and you are not concerned with the price. Down sleeping bags are pricier. Make sure never to get it wet, though, or it will be useless in keeping you warm.
Choose a synthetic sleeping bag if you are on a budget or expect to hike in humid and wet conditions. Synthetic bags take up a lot more space in your backpack.
You will also appreciate a sleeping pad or mattress for more comfortable nights.
Sleeping pads come in different sizes (width, length and thickness) and shapes (regular or mummy).
Self-inflating sleeping pads are light and don’t take up much space. In addition, they have insulation ratings for protection against cold ground. If you plan on sleeping outside during winter, we suggest a value of R4 and up.
Some backpackers prefer mattresses that fold up; others choose ones that roll up. You can attach the pad to your backpack with the straps, especially for this purpose.
I also chose to carry a compressible pillow. This is a preference. Inflating pillows are also an option. Minimalist backpackers will use their clothes or a jacket as a pillow.
Eating in the backcountry
camping stove, fuel and cookware
You cannot rely on making a campfire to cook your meals. Some parks forbid campfires in the backcountry. Other times, there will be restrictions on campfires when it is too dry and hot, and the risks of forest fires are too high.
I especially like my MSR WindBurner stove system. It comes with everything I need to eat, and it is very compact. The case itself contains the burner, the fuel canister (the 110 g canister), a 1 L pot, a bowl that doubles as a cup and a lid. It boils water within a minute.
This WindBurner has fed me through some awesome backpacking for a few years and is still working like new.
What to eat when backpacking?
Planning and packing the food you eat is a big part of your trip. You must rely on food that will not go bad for longer trips. Most backpackers use dehydrated or freeze-dried food. There are options for ready-made packages. It is also possible to dehydrate and pack your own.
Food like beef jerky and pepperettes are always a hiker’s go-to. Good protein bars will also keep for a few days. Nuts and cheese packets are also good snacks on the trail.
Storing your food overnight in the backcountry
Your food must be stored overnight when in the backcountry to keep it from attracting unwanted attention, especially in bear country. The standard way to do this is to hang it up along with everything else that might draw an animal: toothpaste, cream, and all garbage. You want to avoid having your food with you in your tent if a bear decides to make a go for it!
Some parks will provide a food box or bear hang poles. Those are very practical.
However, when they are not available, choose a tree far enough from where you set up your tent, with a big and high enough branch so that you will be able to hang your food bag at least 4 meters (12 feet) high and 2 meters (6 feet) from the tree trunk. I use a paracord, a carabiner and a dry bag.
Aim and throw the end of the paracord with the carabiner attached to it (some will tie a rock to make it heavier and easier to throw) over the selected branch. You then attach your bag to the carabiner and pull it up high by pulling on the other end of the paracord hanging up and over the branch.
Hydrating in the backcountry
Hydration is, of course, a priority, especially during a hot day on a challenging trail.
Water should be available every day to replenish your supply. For that reason, most backcountry campsites are by a lake or along streams and rivers. Ensure you know the bodies of water available before you leave for your trek.
Hydration reservoirs or bottles
Different options are available to backpackers to carry water. Some prefer a hydration reservoir. This is my option as I find it easier to drink on the go—no need to stop and take out a bottle to drink. I chose the 3 L reservoir, which fits perfectly in my 65 L backpack.
Take this into account when buying a pack and a reservoir. Does the bag have a sleeve for the reservoir? What’s the reservoir’s maximum capacity that will fit in the sleeve? Remember that water is heavy, and you will want to have enough to hydrate properly but not too much to make your pack heavier than it needs to be.
Others will prefer having bottles handy while walking instead of the hydration reservoir. The Nalgene bottles are especially popular. I have two that I carry and use to purify my water (we will get to that in a minute). Some bottles are soft and collapsible. They are much lighter than their hard-sided counterparts.
Water purifier system
Purifying the water you drink from the lakes and rivers is crucial. You can boil the water. However, this is time-consuming and takes much of the fuel from your stove. There are different options for water purifiers available.
Water purifying tablets are easy to use. However, you do have to wait for them to take effect. Some are iodine-free and leave no chemical taste in the water.
Water filters are a popular choice.
Some choose the straw which fits a bottle. It filters the water as you suck on the straw.
Another option is the reservoir and filter that works with gravity. You hang the reservoir once you have filled it with water. Then, the water is filtered through gravity, passing through the filter and into a bottle or another reservoir.
Pumps are a third option for filtering water. You drop one end in the body of water and pump the water to your bottle or reservoir. The water passes through a filter as you pump. This takes little time and leaves no taste in the water.
One more option, and my choice, is the Steripen. The pen uses ultraviolet light to kill most viruses and bacteria when you immerse it in water. It takes about 90 seconds to purify 1 L of water, which is tasteless. The downfall is that it will not filter the debris in the water, whereas the filter of the straw, the gravity bag or the pump will get rid of the debris.
All options are good ones to make the water you will drink safe. However, your choice will mostly depend on your budget and whether time, weight, or space is a priority.
Practical gear you don’t want to forgo
I always have this gear with me when I backpack:
- compression bags (for clothes and sleeping bag)
- dry bags (for food)
- cellular phone (GPS, camera, apps for ebooks and audiobooks)
- paracord (2x – one for bear hang and one for clothesline)
- a couple of carabiners
- repair kit (for tent and pad) and, of course, ducktape
- extra plastic bags (and ziplock bags)
- extra batteries and battery pack (if using the phone as GPS)
- pocket knife
- lighter and matches in a waterproof container
There is also some gear that is totally for my comfort in the backcountry:
- trekker camp chair
- reading and writing material
- hiking poles (see this post for complete details on hiking poles)
This list may vary from person to person, depending on the season and the length of the trek.
- toothpaste, toothbrush
- hairbrush (elastics if needed)
- feminine products (again if needed)
- biodegradable soap
- hand sanitizer or wet wipes
- toilet paper and trowel (yep… if you don’t have access to a privy, you do have to bury it)
- GoGirl urinating aid (completely nonessential but very useful to women)
- sunscreen and insect repellant (depending on the season)
What to wear when backpacking?
The obvious answer here is always layers. Dress in layers. Wool is also a favourite among hikers and backpackers, especially merino wool.
Here is a list of clothes I usually have with me for week-long trips:
- 1 pair of hiking pants
- 1 pair of shorts
- 2 t-shirts
- 1 long-sleeve hiking shirt
- 2 pairs of underwear and bras
- Merino wool base layer
- 3 pairs of Merino wool socks
- rain jacket
- down jacket (toque and gloves are sometimes handy to have)
- 1 hat
- camp shoes (crocs)
Your feet are what keep you moving on the trails. Therefore, treat them well. I chose hiking boots. Some hikers prefer hiking shoes. My boots offer me more ankle support. The soles are also very rigid, which is convenient when the trail is rugged. On the other hand, they are much warmer than shoes, especially on a hot summer day.
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Staying Safe on the Trail
Some hiking and backpacking gear is essential for your safety. Never leave home without it!
- satellite GPS (useful in remote countries)
- first-aid kit
- bear spray or horn (especially in grizzly territory)
Make a plan of your trip, the trail, the route, the distance, where you plan to camp each night and the start and end date of your hike. Then, leave that plan with a friend or a family member. Always tell someone where you are going, which trail you are hiking, and when they should expect you back!
Also, have emergency contact names and numbers on you and in your vehicle at the trailhead.
If you remember just one thing from this Guide on backpacking, let it be this. This step could save your life.
As a general rule, stay away from wildlife. Give the animal as much space as you can. This is usually enough to stay safe.
Always be mindful of your surroundings to avoid surprise encounters. Be aware of the area’s present wildlife, and plan accordingly. Are rattlesnakes a possibility? What about caribous or elk? Is it bear country? Mountain lions? Lynx or bobcats? What about wolverines? Bison?
If you encounter a black bear, make a lot of noise and back away without turning your back to it. DON’T RUN! Bears are usually easily scared and discouraged from approaching humans. In addition, if you have a whistle or a horn, use it. Use your arms or hiking poles to appear bigger. If in a group, keep together. Bear spray should be your last option but have it ready just in case. The same goes with mountain lions though encounters in the wild are exceptional.
Of course, this all depends on the region where you are hiking or backpacking. I always carry bear spray when I hike in the Canadian Rockies, as it is grizzly and mountain lion territory. However, around northern Ontario, I don’t feel I need to have bear spray with me even though the population of black bears is considerate.
Each territory is part of an ecosystem and is home to its own wildlife. We are the visitors here, the backcountry is their domain!
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Leave no trace
Nothing complicated here. Pack it in, pack it out! No exceptions!
“Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.”
Hoping this guide to backpacking has been useful!
The only advice left for me to give you is to HAVE FUN! Enjoy every minute of it!
Do you want more on backpacking? These 13 backpacking tips added to this guide on backpacking for beginners might satisfy your thirst for information.
Also, if you have any questions, please drop me a line in the comments or a message on my contact page! I would love to hear from you!