When it comes to trying new activities, especially ones that involve a significant investment of time and money, it’s especially tough to take that leap.
I was lucky with my first taste of backpacking: it was a university class field trip. I had the benefit of a ride to the trailhead, friends, gear to borrow, and competent leaders.
It’s not that way for everyone though. Without someone to walk you through it, a first backpacking trip can be a daunting prospect.
From time to time, I lead a Beginners Women’s Backpacking trip for a local non-profit. For the most part, the group is made up of women who have wanted to try backpacking for a while, but, for a variety of reasons, haven’t gotten the chance.
I hear the same reasons echoed from all demographics.
There are many reasons and excuses that keep people from going backpacking. Some also have problems with the most essential how to start backpacking part. Still, there is an answer for each and every one of these questions, and I am here to offer it!
Hopefully, I’ll be able to convince you that you can overcome those challenges.
I DON’T KNOW HOW
I completely agree that walking into the wilderness without knowing how to keep yourself safe would be, in no uncertain terms, a bad decision.
Learning the ropes of backpacking will take some time, especially if you are doing it alone, but there are resources to help you along. There are a lot of people out there who are passionate about backpacking and are always keen to pass on their knowledge. You can try:
I am part of several backpacking groups on Facebook and Reddit. They are great, and the members are always happy to answer questions for newcomers, even the bizarre ones.
People love to share what they have learned through their time in the wilderness. My favorite one is All Women All Trails: Hiking and Backpacking. As the name suggests, it’s for women only. It’s definitely the least judgmental of the groups.
I also spend a lot of time scrolling through posts on Backpacking on Facebook.
YouTube and Blogs
When I Google “how to backpack,” I get no less than 391,000 results. That’s a lot to sift through, so you’ll have to get a bit more specific.
–> “How to choose a backpacking tent,” or “how to pack food for backpacking” might make things easier.
There are hundreds of “Beginners Guides to Backpacking” on blogs and YouTube channels. They, like all things on the internet, vary in quality and accuracy, so take them with a grain of salt and fact check when something seems off.
One thing to consider when browsing the website or blog is where the author lives. Don’t let an ultralight backpacker from Florida tell you that you don’t need a sleeping bag for your Rockies hike.
Local tips are going to be the most helpful.
For a starting point, you can take a look at our Ultimate Hiking Items Checklist. It’ll be a good jumping off point for generating questions you need answers for (questions like: “why do I need a trowel?”).
Good ol’ fashioned paperback books are still often my go to for information. I prefer them for a few reasons:
- I don’t have to be sitting in front of the computer to read it.
- The information is organized with a handy table of contents and comes in a logical order.
- Its Amazon rating will tell me if the book is worth it.
- It’s easy to go back and reread a section your read a month ago.
- I get to write notes in the margins.
You might find these books handy:
1. Leave No Trace in the Outdoors by Jeffrey Marion
The Leave-No-Trace principles are a key part of backpacking. As we put more pressure on our wild places, we NEED to take care of them and reduce our impact.
You can also head to the official Leave No Trace website for information. Don’t head into the backcountry (even if you’re just going for the day) without knowing this stuff.
2. Backpacking 101 by Heather Balogh Rochfort
This book is a great one for beginners and covers the basics from gear to hygiene, to packing tips, to dealing with emergencies.
3. A Fork in the Trail by Laurie Ann March
This is my favorite book of backpacking meals. The recipes are easy, practical, and tasty. For your first trip, though, you may just want to stick to prepackaged meals like the Backpacker’s Pantry Chilli Mac with Beef.
When book shopping, keep an eye on the publication date. Gear and best practices are forever changing. My own books from the start of my backpacking journey fifteen years ago have long since been packed up and sent off to the thrift store.
You might be able to find a course that helps out first-time backpackers. These are often hosted by non-profits, so they won’t break the bank.
Such courses will teach you the basics of packing, gear shopping, food preparation, navigation, backcountry ethics, and safety. They’ll also introduce you to other people who are keen to get into backpacking.
You can find such courses through local gear stores, stewardship organizations, outdoor education centers, and, of course, Google.
If you have a friend who’s already into backpacking, pick their brain. Better yet, invite them to join you for your first trip.
Most backpackers are happy to share their passion and help others get started.
Of course, not everyone has friends that are into backpacking, which brings me to…
I DON’T HAVE ANY FRIENDS WHO WANT TO COME WITH ME
I think that this is the most common excuse that I hear.
On the women’s backpacking trips I mentioned, many women have researched the heck out of how to do it but simply needed someone to go with to make sure they had it right.
Even someone who is keen on solo backpacking will probably want someone along for their first try.
Luckily, you aren’t alone, and as soon as you can find those other backpackers, hopefully, you’ll be on your way.
As I mentioned above, taking a course can be a great way to introduce you to aspiring backpackers like yourself. But, for those who don’t see a backpacking course in their future, there are other options.
Most areas have Facebook Groups for local outdoor activities. Your area may even have a “looking for hiking partners” group.
I imagine these can get pretty big in larger centers. Still, even while in a small town, I have used a local Facebook group to find climbing partners.
Meetup.com is another great source for meeting hikers, but perhaps a better one for larger cities, since there’s more going on.
I’ve used Meetup.com to find climbing events and partners while visiting Vancouver, and always see tons of group hikes going out.
There are also a number of hiking and outdoors clubs that use the site to post their trips, so it can be a good place to get in touch with them.
Local Hiking Clubs
Even small towns often have an outdoors club. For a small annual membership fee, you can join their hikes, make friends, and gather tons of information on hiking in the area.
They also can go in as a club for lotteries to permit-only trails, so you may get yourself a spot on some amazing trails. My parents are in a club, and they’ve traveled all over the world with it.
Most clubs are happy to have you as a guest for a day hike so you can see if it’s your thing.
You might actually know a backpacker and be aware that you do! Talk to your colleagues, talk to your extended family, hit up old friends, anything you could think of.
You may not find an experienced veteran, but you may find someone in the same boat as you. Plus, it could be a great opportunity to reconnect with old friends or make new connections at work.
I’M NOT FIT ENOUGH
This is another fairly common excuse for not going backpacking.
The bad news is, that you might be right.
Hiking with all your gear puts a lot of strain on your body.
The good news is that now you have some motivation to get in better shape.
This is definitely a conversation to have with your doctor, especially if you have health problems or old injuries that might make backpacking extra strenuous. I’m not a professional, by any means, so take my following advice with a grain of skepticism.
It’s probably not a surprise that the best way to get in shape for hiking is, in fact, hiking.
Start with small hikes and work your way up to longer ones with more difficult terrain. Get used to hauling your pack around too.
You might feel silly doing a five-mile hike with a fully loaded pack, but you may very well thank yourself later.
This will also give you a realistic estimate of how much weight you can carry, and for how long.
Hit the Gym… or Your Living Room Floor
Backpacking is a full body workout. While your legs take the biggest beating, your core and upper body also have to work overtime to bear the burden of the pack.
You will also need a lot of stamina to get you and your stuff to the campsite. When the weather is bad, hiking isn’t always possible (or at least desirable), so you might have to head to the gym dust off the old workout mat.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) will help improve your cardiovascular fitness. Periods of intense exercise are broken by periods of active rest, much like hills on a hike.
Many HIIT workouts also incorporate strength training, too. Yay for efficiency! More traditional cardio such as walking, running, cycling, and swimming will also help improve your stamina.
The trick is to feel like you are pushing yourself. You need to get that heart rate up!
When it comes to exercise, try to find something that you actually like and works with your life.
If it’s great exercise, but you hate it, chances are you won’t stick with it. Explore what sort of classes and sports are available near you.
If getting out is hard, then peruse video workouts on YouTube or from a paid service. They can be great for keeping you motivated to work hard enough for a whole workout. Bonus: you can do this from the … comforts of your living room floor.
Just Start Small
While you need to be in fairly good shape to backpack, you don’t need to be a super athlete to backpack.
If you’ve tested your pack on a shorter day hike and felt fine, you can probably give a short backpacking trip a try.
Some trails have campsites every couple of miles, which will give you lots of flexibility.
Even hiking a mile down can make for a fun and challenging trip.
I’M SCARED OF WILD ANIMALS
This is a fairly reasonable excuse. It’s our instincts to fear things that might bite or sting us.
Fortunately for us, however, they probably won’t.
Let’s just look at it from a biological standpoint. Humans are an apex predator, meaning we are at the top of the food chain.
Animals don’t want to be near us, let alone eat us. I’ve known many people, myself included, who have eaten a bear and cougar, but don’t know a single person who has been attacked by either.
That being said, animal attacks do happen, so be careful!
If bears live in the area (and sometimes even if they don’t), they are usually at the top of the list of scary animals.
They aren’t really that interested in eating you though. I’ve encountered over a hundred black bears and they have all simply run away.
It’s true. Bears do attack occasionally, but let’s look at a few numbers, shall we?
In the last 10 years, there have been 19 fatal bear attacks in the USA. Of those, 7 were in Alaska, and 8 were grizzly attacks in Wyoming or Montana.
That leaves us with seven deaths for all the remaining states. If that’s still too many for you to risk it, consider this: the USA averages 51 lightning strike fatalities per year.
Knowledge is Power, Safety is Important
Bears aren’t exactly snuggly teddies though, and the best way to defend yourself is to arm yourself with knowledge (and maybe some bear spray).
Bears usually attack because they are startled or because they are defending their young.
Defensive black bear attacks rarely result in serious injury. They are good climbers and would prefer to send their cubs up a tree than risk an attack.
On the rare occasion, some bears (usually a black bear) have been known to stalk and kill humans. Grizzlies are much more aggressive, but there are less than 1,500 of them in the lower 48. They are also isolated to northern Washington, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.
Bears are much more likely to try to steal your food.
They are smart creatures, and once they figure out that humans have packs full of tasty snacks, they’ll be hanging around for the next batch of hikers.
Habituated bears are bears that have gotten used to humans and are a serious problem in many parks. They also are much more likely to attack if they are surprised. Follow these tips to help keep you safe:
Safety Tips in Case of Bear Attacks
- Carry bear deterrent spray and know how to use it.
- Keep your dog on a leash.
- Make noise as you walk by shouting periodically, singing, or bringing a bell.
- Keep your campsite clean by cooking away from your tent and storing your food properly.
- NEVER run from a bear. Running might tell it that you are a prey animal and that it should chase after you.
- DON’T climb a tree. Black bears are excellent climbers, and Grizzlies will climb if motivated enough.
- If you see a bear from a distance, leave the area or detour around it, giving it a large berth.
- If the bear is getting closer, talk to it in a firm voice and back away without making eye contact.
- In case you have grizzlies living in the area, learn to tell the difference between a grizzly and a black bear.
- If a grizzly bear attacks, play dead.
- If a black bear attacks fight back.
Watch this video for more information on keeping your camp safe!
The other apex predators of North America, wolves and cougars, are much less likely to be seen while on a trip.
While bears get most of their food from plants or from scavenging, cougars and bears are skilled hunters.
Deadly attacks are few and far between though. The last recorded death from a wild wolf attack in the lower 48 was back in 1893. Meanwhile, there have only been four recorded fatal cougar attacks in the U.S. since 2000.
While it may seem scary that it’s even possible, remember that your chances of getting hit by lightning are far greater. You are more likely to get in a car accident on the way to the trailhead than you are to get attacked by an animal.
(Okay, I don’t have exact data to back that up, but I’m pretty sure I’m right).
Wolves and cougar attacks are usually predatory rather than defensive. That means you want to convince it that you are far too mean to be bothered with.
Yell, make eye contact, and try to get a rock or stick to use as a weapon (but avoid crouching down). If they do attack, fight back using whatever weapons you can conjure up.
Did I mention that attacks are rare? Seriously, they are. It’s important to be prepared for encounters, but not worth it to fret about too much.
In the U.S., an estimated 7,000 – 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes per year. That’s one person for every 37,500 people. Of those, only 5-6 of those people will die.
That means only 1 in 5 million people in the U.S. die from a snakebite each year (thank you University of Florida‘s Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation for the stats).
Despite the slim odds, it’s still important to further reduce your risks.
You can do so by following these simple pointers:
- Watch where you are stepping.
- Avoid places where you can’t see your feet (like tall grass or thick shrubs).
- Wear long pants with thick shoes or boots.
- Keep your tent door tightly closed to avoid any unwanted snakes (or other critters) snuggling into your sleeping bag.
- If you come across a venomous snake, don’t make any sudden movements. Just slowly get yourself out of the immediate area.
Also, learn to ID both the venomous and non-venomous snakes in your area, as well as their preferred habitats, and typical behaviors. This will be useful if you get bitten, but will also help you know when to be extra careful.
Speaking of snakebites, be wary of the information you read on treating them. Most experts now agree that those snake bite kits don’t work.
The classic treatment of cutting the wound and sucking out the venom doesn’t work. Nor does a tourniquet or ice.
The only cure is the antivenom, so try to ID the snake or take note of its color. If you are in cell range, call 911.
Bandage the bite tightly (you should still be able to fit a finger between you and the bandage, to prevent other problems).
Don’t move and lower the bite below the heart. Try to stay calm and keep your heart rate low.
If there is any possible way to get help without moving, do it. If not, walk very slowly to help.
Spiders, Scorpions, and Other Little Buggers
Spiders & Scorpions
Surprisingly perhaps, there are marginally more spider deaths than snakebite deaths in the U.S.
Most spiders don’t bite human, and of the few that do, only the brown recluse, brown widow, and black widows would really prefer not to bite you.
The bark scorpion is the only dangerous scorpion in the U.S., and deaths from it are very rare.
Avoid spider and scorpion bites and stings by shaking out clothes and boots before putting them on, and zipping up your tent good and tight. Also, keep your boots in your tent to prevent anyone from crawling inside them.
If you are bitten or stung, apply ice, if you have it, and treat the bite as you would a wound. Try to kill the spider for ID at the hospital in case you need treatment.
Black widow bites are often “dry,” meaning the spider didn’t inject venom. Brown recluse bite often goes unnoticed until it starts growing, but the wound will get larger, darker, and more painful over a period of a few days.
If in doubt after a bite or sting, call Poison Control (1-800-222-1222 in the U.S.).
If you experience more serious symptoms such as dizziness, blurred vision, muscle cramps, nausea, overwhelming pain, or dizziness, call 911 or head to the ER. It is also a good idea to carry allergy medication in case of an allergic reaction.
Ticks & Mosquitos
Ticks and mosquitos, both of which can carry potentially deadly pathogens, are a little more malicious.
They actually WANT to bite you. DEET and Permethrin are effective against both critters, but permethrin should only be used on your clothes.
Check yourself for ticks regularly. Do not try to burn them, poison them, or suffocate them with fat.
This can force them to regurgitate their pathogens into your bloodstream. Instead, grab them as close to the head as possible and pull straight out.
They don’t usually spread their diseases until the end of their meal, which can last for a couple of days. Wear long pants and tuck them into your socks.
If you’ve been bitten, watch for a bullseye rash around the wound or flu symptoms. If you experience them, head to the doctor.
I DON’T HAVE THE GEAR
Backpacking gear is lightweight, durable, and designed to be as useful and functional as possible. It’s also expensive, and to get outfitted with all of it at once will put a serious dent in your wallet.
You might not have to buy it all right now though. There are options.
The cheapest option is always to borrow. Ask around. Even if folks aren’t backpackers, they might have been at one time or at least bought the gear hoping they might start.
Avid backpackers will often have spare items that they’ve held onto after upgrading.
Be careful when you borrow gear though.
Older gear is going to be heavier and possibly less waterproof. Also, watch out for cheaper gear for the same reasons.
Don’t be afraid to say No! to gear. You don’t want the memories of your first backpacking trip to be marred by a night in a leaky tent after hauling around 20 pounds of extra gear.
Renting can be a great option. Many outdoor gear stores offer rentals, so you’ll get the advantage of an expert to discuss options with.
Shops often use it as an opportunity to showcase their gear, so they’ll make sure you are set up with decent stuff. Renting will also give you a great chance to preview and decide if certain gear works, or doesn’t work, for you.
While buying cheap gear isn’t always the best answer, there are some places where you can cut corners and go budget.
You can get cheap camp-stoves, like this one from Etek City, that will do the job unless you are headed to high altitudes. You can find cheap, light mess kits, and pots can be found at garage sales or at stores like WalMart.
Get an idea if what you want or need, and keep your eye out online for second-hand gear. It’s not uncommon for people to only use gear a couple of times before selling, so you might get something like-new for cheap.
Just do your homework first and check the technical specs and reviews online, then make sure you know exactly why the seller is selling.
REI will sometimes host garage sales, which can be a great place to pick up used gear. Keep your eyes peeled for store sales. End of season clearance sales can be a great time to pick up cheap gear.
If you’ve missed the tent sales, our list of backpacking tents has some great affordable options too.
When NOT to Go Cheap
One item that you should not go budget on is your shoes or boots. Find footwear that fits your feet and your needs.
If you can get them on sale, great! But if not, consider it an investment in your health. If you order them online, make sure the return policy allows you to send them back if they don’t feel right.
Even if you don’t continue backpacking, you’ll have a good pair of hiking shoes or boots to use on your day trips.
MY FAMILY ISN’T INTO IT
This can mean a few things. Perhaps it means, “my family doesn’t want to come with me,” or it can mean, “my family thinks I’m nuts and that I’m going to get eaten by a bear.”
Either way, the solutions are similar – encourage them to be outside more and convince them you’ll be safe. If your family isn’t outdoorsy, this might take some serious convincing.
Spend Time Outside Together
Start small with short day hikes and work up from there.
If you tire them out on a huge day hike or force them to spend all day in the rain, then you are never going to convince them to take another trip. The chances of them enjoying themselves will also considerably diminish.
Kids are the easiest converts. Make things fun by playing games or going on a nature scavenger hunt.
Let them play around, get muddy, and stop to look at fungus that’s growing in a funny pattern.
Just don’t plan to make it too far down the trail, especially with the younger ones.
Teenagers are trickier, but after leading hundreds of teen into the wilderness, I’ve realized that the wilderness is quick to bring out their best qualities.
They tend to thrive off being given a physical and mental challenge. If you can’t convince them to go hiking with you, try sending them on a wilderness course or a camp with a challenging out-trip program.
They’ll get a chance to shake off whatever appearance they are trying to maintain for their parents and friends’ sake, and instead make new friends, and get hooked on nature.
It’s not 100% guaranteed, but chances are pretty good.
Your partner might be the trickiest convert as adults are set in their ways. You might not be able to convince your partner to backpack with you, but by convincing them to spend some time outside on short hikes, you may help them be more comfortable with you doing it.
Try combining it with an interest of theirs that you ordinarily wouldn’t be interested in. A morning hike followed by an afternoon of watching football or learning how to crochet. Sounds like a fun date, right?
Convince Them You Will Be Okay
This is a worry that’s common among partners or parents. By convincing them to spend some time in the wilderness, you may not convince them to join you, but you may give them some inclining of why you want to to do it.
It could also help convince them that the wilderness isn’t a death trap with your name on it.
Aside from spending time with them outside, put their minds at ease by making sure that you really are taking all the precautions.
Make sure they know your entire itinerary, take a wilderness first aid course, and educate yourself about backcountry navigation.
Another thing you can do is involve your family in the planning.
Some people love planning and may not want to be left out of the fun. Bring them gear shopping, get them to help with food prep, or convince your tech-savvy teenagers to figure out how to use your new mapping app.
You can also introduce them to the folks you are going with (it’s probably a good idea anyway if you don’t know these people well).
Of course, they may not want to be involved at all, but it may just be what they need to be convinced that you are going to be okay.
It might also pique their interest and help you convince them to come next time.
I DON’T HAVE THE TIME
Many of us truly don’t have a minute to spare in the week, let alone a few extra days. Not to mention the time needed to research and buy gear, prepare food, route plan, and coordinate.
The best advice I can give here is that if backpacking is really something you want to try, you’ll make time for it.
Something will have to be bumped down the priority list. You may have to sacrifice something, but it will be worth it!
Try setting a date for a trip and stick to it, even if you have to do it months in advance, and book your other engagements around it.
Having something definitively planned is a great motivation to actually make it happen.
… Before We Head Off
After my first backpacking trip, it took me a while to get the nerve to head out on my own. Now I seriously can’t imagine my life without backpacking.
Without it, I wouldn’t have had a career as a park ranger. I wouldn’t be in very good shape. I probably wouldn’t have gone back to university for my teaching degree. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have met my husband either.
I have explored many remote corners of the world that I could have once never dreamed of visiting. So many great things have come from backpacking!
Whatever your reason for not backpacking may be, my best advice is to start small but to actually start!.
Start planning today, in fact. Get a calendar and choose a weekend. Then start tracking down gear and friends. Get yourself out on some challenging hiking trails. In no time, you’ll wonder why you were ever hesitating to begin with.