Backpacking for Beginners: How to Live Your Own “Wild”
Hearing the call of the wild is one thing. Answering the call in a fun, knowledgeable, and thrifty way is another. Sure, you saw “Wild” and got all inspired to quit your job and backpack across the country… but if you live in the city, you might not exactly have a lot of experience in nature (and might also need to keep your day job). Where do you go? What do you need? Here’s a beginner’s guide to hiking your heart out.
HOW TO FIND A TRAIL
Yosemite or Yellowstone? Saguaro or Shenandoah? The pictures all look so beautiful, but your vacation days are finite.
For something closer to home, websites like can help you find a trail by using your location to serve up nearby options. Camping out? You might need permission to use a trail for overnights, so check out to find out what permits you need.
There is no better source of information than a face-to-face conversation with an actual human being. Your local backpacking outfitter is full of employees who work there for a reason. Start a conversation with the staff at the store while they fit you for gear and you could be surprised by how much you learn.
For the most accessible trails for beginners, search for National Scenic Trails in your area. These trails have more governmental oversight and will be some of the better marked and maintained footpaths out there. Hiking on them will help keep your eyes on the beauty around you and not stuck to your maps all day. These trails also tend to have abundant information available online.
WHAT TO BRING
For a multi-day hike, your core items are your tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and backpack. I know your closet is crammed as it is. Save money and space by looking to rent some of these bigger pieces of gear locally at an outdoor or hiking store. (Some universities also have outdoor clubs that will rent to students and non-students alike.)
Avoid the temptation for a tent as roomy as your feng-shui-optimized apartment and stick with one just big enough to hold your body and your gear. You do have to carry it, after all.
Your yoga mat might look like a sleeping pad, but they are not interchangeable. A cushioned mat is one item you would be wise to invest in. Good ones are harder to find for rent so you’ll want to spend your money on something soft and warm to keep up your energy throughout the trip.
Sleeping bags are pricey, but easily rented. Just make sure to grab one with a temperature rating lower than the temperatures you expect to be sleeping in. A bag rated to twenty degrees is not actually comfortable at twenty, but will keep you warm in thirty-five-degree weather. Pick up a dry sack to keep your sleeping bag from getting wet.
Backpacks and Clothing
Now, to find a suitable backpack. Go to a store in person and get fitted for a modern internal frame pack. There is a good chance they will rent you one. Don’t worry about the weight; get something comfortable.
What are you going to wear on your wilderness trek? Some items you already own. Light synthetic workout clothes made of polyesters and nylons do a great job of wicking sweat away from your body, keeping you dry and comfortable. Take the money you save on specialized shirts and pants and put it instead toward supportive shoes and a lightweight water filter. Be sure not to wear cotton. When it gets wet, it stays wet, putting you at risk for hypothermia, even in fair weather.
At night, wear a pair of ski socks to help recuperate after you turn in. That lightweight down jacket you have hanging on a coat hook most of the year makes a compact, yet warm backpacking layer for unexpected cold nights. Skip the heavy fleece jacket.
What are you going to eat? Tortillas are a versatile food and don’t spoil quickly. Fill them with peanut butter or tuna for a quick lunch. Pick up a small backpacking stove and pot and try a dehydrated backpacking meal, like , for dinner. Save the leftovers for breakfast. If it’s a cold morning, start moving early and eat a snack bar while on the go.
To prepare for worst case scenarios, check out these equipment lists (ahead of time!) from SoCal outfitter Adventure 16 to make sure you have your emergency items covered.
PREPAREDNESS AND SAFETY
You have your destination marked on the map and your new shoes are broken in. Now, get all the logistics sorted.
Safe Water Sources
What are you going to do when you get thirsty? Know where the water sources are on your trail and if they are seasonal or permanent. Springs, lakes, and slow, safe streams are your best choices. Treat your water through a filter or with a chemical solution even if it looks clear, or you could get sick from microorganisms.
If you selected a well-known route, look for apps like the series that provide trail data about water sources and more. Be careful not to step on slippery rocks when filling your bottle (and get your water from the bottom of waterfalls, not the top), as even shallow water can be unexpectedly fast and treacherous.
If you have lithium-powered electronics (like your cell phone, which you might need to call for help), keep them in your sleeping bag at night, or the cold may render them useless by the morning.
Learn the basics of compass use and save yourself the trouble of getting lost by actively staying found. Local outfitters or conservancy groups may offer classes on this. Have an idea of where you want to camp for each night and share an itinerary with a friend. This helps you to be located in an emergency and helps to make sure that there are flat spots for you to camp at along the trail. Nothing sours a trip like being unable to find a flat piece of ground when you are exhausted and are forced to continue on in the dark.
As for trash and garbage, if you brought it with you, bring it back out and responsibly dispose of it. A big Ziploc bag will do.
It is said on the trail that you "pack your fears." Backpacking is mostly walking and not mostly camping, so save the weight off your back and leave the luxury items at your apartment.
The most important tool you take backpacking is between your ears. (That’s your brain.) So remember not to sweat the small stuff, and don’t let a bump or bruise ruin your day. It’s all part of the adventure.
Zachary Markman is an avid hiker and long-distance backpacker who has a concerning obsession with the outdoors and works in the outdoor industry. His trail name acquired on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013 is Trivia.