How to Pack For a Backpacking Trip: Best Tips for First-Time Backpackers
June 22, 2021
My mom was a 5th-grade teacher and at the end of every school year, she’d bring her students on a weekend-long backpacking trip along the shores of Lake Michigan. Every year I begged to join and when I was 8, I finally convinced my parents I was ready to tag along.
They pulled out their vintage metal-framed backpacks and gave me a small backpack to carry on my own. It was the size of a simple daypack, but I felt strong and excited for the trail. It’s humorous to relive the moment it all turned – the campsite was a mile down the beach, but the humid May weather made me sweat so much I thought I would never make it. I swore my backpack somehow filled with rocks and I regretted sneaking in extra fruit roll-ups for camp snacks. I think I promised myself twice on that trip that I would never backpack again.
Yet, every year I went. And we went on many other camping trips as I got older. However, by the time I was grown I was still completely unaware of what backpacking truly entailed. Hiking a mile down trails and beaches in Michigan was one thing, heading out into the backcountry was another.
Flash forward to age 23 when I truly learned what ‘backpacking’ meant by diving headfirst into a backpacking trip to Europe. And this wasn’t your typical hop from one hostel to another ‘backpacking’ trip. This was a ‘we camped 50 nights in a random assortment of places over the course of 90 days in 25 countries’ type of backpacking.
We bought $40 backpacks on eBay. We had no lightweight or practical backpacking gear. I went three months sleeping without a pillow. At the time it was a grand adventure, today I’m not sure I would survive.
Nowadays backpacking is somewhat of a necessity. We reside in Wyoming where, unlike other Rocky Mountains states such as Colorado, getting into some of the biggest mountains requires 20-50 miles hikes. I like to say if you don’t own a backpack in Wyoming, you’re missing half the state.
Basically, what all of this wraps up to say is: My pain will be your gain. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the world of backpacking so hopefully, you don’t have to.
When it comes to packing for your first backpacking trip, here’s everything you need to know:
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1. Leave most of the clothing behind
I’m here to tell you that no matter how many pairs of pants and shirts you pack, you will emerge from the backcountry smelly & gross. There’s no cute way to say that. So when you’re deciding what weight is worth adding to your bag, clothing is not it. I typically wear a pair of lightweight breathable hiking pants and a tank top. Besides that, all I pack in my backpack is
- Lightweight synthetic down jacket
- Long sleeve shirt
That’s it! Really, I’m not joking when I say you can stay in the same disgusting sports bra and tank top for three days and you will smell the exact same if you changed your outfit three times.
2. However, don’t slack on the socks.
Under pack all the rest of your clothing, but overpack socks. I’ve made this mistake more times than I would like to admit. Not packing enough extra socks is miserable, especially when your feet get wet and spend your night desperately trying to dry out your two pairs of socks before a 10-mile day in the morning. 0/10 do not recommend. I typically pack one extra pair of socks for every day we are going to be in the backcountry.
3. Bring a variety of snacks
Everyone thinks if you’re a backpacker you should have every flavor of protein bar in your backpack. Lies. I will tell you on your second day in the backcountry every single protein/granola bar will look completely unappetizing. I’m not really sure where the trend started that you need to bring healthy snacks on the trail, so I am going to debunk this myth for you:
You will be burning so many calories in the backcountry that snacks do not matter. Pack the damn Snickers bar. Bring Oreos for all I care. I don’t climb a mountain or head into the backcountry without chocolate somewhere in my bag.
With that being said, bringing energy gummies or gel is never a bad idea. Hiking miles upon miles with 40 pounds on your back is tiring, and these give you good boosts of energy on long trekking days. Also, eating all junk food can mess with your digestive system, especially if you have a sensitive stomach. The best way to pack snacks is to include a healthy mix of calories and healthy proteins. Here are some of my go-to's:
- Mini chip bags (lightweight)
- PB sandwiches
- Fruit snacks
- Granola bars
- Protein bars
- Mini M&M’s
- String cheese
- Dried fruit
- Chickpea chips
I don't enjoy carrying protein shakes into the backcountry for the weight, but I almost always try to drink on at the trailhead before we head out.
4. Backpacking meals can be overrated
I will tell you right now that I have been backpacking for quite some time and the only backpacking meals I have in our camping closet are ones that were on discount. Backpacking meals are a great way to eat in the backcountry and are extremely lightweight, but I usually have a hard time justifying the cost when they are $12 for a single dinner packet. Ramen noodles are under $1.00. Maybe it’s just me, but there are a lot of other options you can pack for a lesser price. Sometimes I think they’re worth it and sometimes I don’t, but know that just because you are backpacking doesn’t mean that you need to purchase fancy backpacking meals every time.
5. Gear saves weight
I’m still a budget traveler, which has come back to bite me in the ass a lot in the backcountry. The highest quality sleeping bags sell for over $500 online. Do you think I will ever buy that? Probably not. But I DO know being a cheapskate can make life a lot harder in the backcountry. If you’re wondering whether it’s worth it to purchase that $150 sleeping bag that cuts two pounds from your pack, it probably is. Just like I always recommend investing in a good, synthetic down jacket that weighs virtually nothing and compacts easily into your bag. It might cost an easy $100, but the saving of space and weight is very much worth it.
One of the biggest mistakes new backpackers make is bringing too much gear or gear that is too heavy. A fifty-pound backpack is not an ideal backpack. Every pound matters and that includes how much your gear weighs. A sleeping bag can weigh five pounds or two pounds. Do you know how much your current one weighs?
6. Leave jewelry behind
I leave all my jewelry behind, including my wedding ring. The way I see it is
- There is no use for jewelry in the backcountry.
- It keeps it safe.
- Especially if you are gaining elevation, your fingers will swell and rings will become uncomfortably stuck on your fingers.
There’s a lot of things that can happen in the wilderness that breaks or harms jewelry, and I’ve found it best to simply leave it at home.
7. Hand/feet warmers can be a lifesaver
If you are camping primarily in the summer and in warmer climates, this one might not pertain to you. However, if the nightly temperatures are ever a question on your trip, throw in a few hand and feet warmers into your packs. I learned this secret about a year ago and it is a game-changer.
On nights where the low is likely to dip near or below freezing, take out feet warmers and stick them to your neck/chest. Also, place hand warmers in your pants or sports bra. It will keep you warm in toasty throughout most of the night! It has saved me in the backcountry numerous times this past season, even on nights that dipped into the low 20s.
If you are unsure what the nightly temperature will be, throw some in just in case. They are lightweight and don’t take up much room in your pack. If you don’t need them don’t use them, but if you do it will save you from a miserable night's sleep.
8. Also…hiking sandals
Bringing one pair of shoes on a backcountry trip is also a common mistake I made in the beginning. You'll want a good sturdy pair of hiking sandals to wear around camp. Trust me when I saw taking off your hiking boots and trading them for sandals is one of the best feelings in the world. Clip them to the outside of your pack to save space.
Hiking sandals are also are great for river obstacles. Backpacking trips in the spring and early summer often come with heavy stream crossings, especially in the Rocky Mountains. Many times, the easiest option is to wade directly through the river (as long as it’s not flowing too fast). Swap out your hiking boots and cross in your sandals if you’d like to save your feet and sockas from getting wet inside your hiking boots.
9. Less is really more
People think because I am very active in the outdoor community that I’m not lazy. Guys, I am lazy. If I don’t have to add the extra weight to my backpack, I won’t. I’m a minimalist traveler through and through, whether jetting across the world or heading into the mountains near our home. Here is my full list of what to pack for a standard backpacking trip
- Clothing (listed above)
- Folded toilet paper (not a whole roll)
- Hiking sandals
- SOCKS SOCKS SOCKS
- Toothpaste & mouthwash from By Humankind
- Camp stove + gas
- Lighter (x2)
- Camp knife
- Bear spray (if in grizzly country)
- Sunscreen (minimum SPF 50…you will get burnt)
- Contact Solution
- Hair ties
- Bluetooth speaker
- Portable charger
- Sleeping bag
- Inflatable pillow
- Solar lantern
- Sleeping pad
- Hand/feet warmers
At any given moment, Shalee is either lost, hunting for ice cream, or obsessively planning her next adventure.
Born and raised in rural Michigan, she began exploring the shores of Great Lakes as a teen, often sleeping in her car to save money. Eventually, her urge to explore pushed beyond her Midwest borders. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure and outdoor tourism. Her pack now includes two spunky hiking cats and her partner, Josh. Learn more about her here.