Choose a Beginner-Friendly Destination
The easiest way to choose a destination you know is right for your abilities is to contact the local ranger’s office near where you’d like to backpack and ask them for trail recommendations. They can also give you the inside scoop on trail conditions, wildlife sightings, and safety rules and regulations. You can also speak with friends or colleagues you know who are more experienced backpackers for trail recommendations—who knows, they could even offer to take you along for your first trip!
Other things to keep in mind when choosing a destination:
- Choose a short enough distance that you can reach camp before nightfall
- Check the weather radar of the area you’re considering (use a better app than the standard iPhone one, preferable one with radar – I like the paid National Weather Service Now app)
- Pick a place with water available, whether it’s a stream or a lake, otherwise you’re hauling in a lot of water
- Aim for minimal elevation gain—probably no more than a couple hundred feet, unless you’re a seasoned hiker and know you can do more
- Don’t go too remote; it’s good to have fellow backpackers around if you run into an issue on your first trip
- Consider leaving the pooch behind for your first endeavor
Know the Regulations
Many backcountry areas require permits for overnight camping. Some do not permit open fires and require you to bring a camp stove instead. I tend to prefer spots that allow me to have a fire for warmth and go without a permit, but it’s important you know the regulations at the spot you’re heading to.
No need to clean out the shelves of REI before your first trip. Try renting gear from your local shop, or borrowing gear from a friend. Feral, an outdoor shop in the Berkeley neighborhood of Denver, offers gear rentals.
While I’m a big proponent of the idea that you don’t need top-of-the-line gear to get into hiking, camping, or backpacking, I will say there are a few key items I would have invested in before my first trip if I could do it all over again, like comfortable hiking shoes and a down sleeping bag rated 20 degrees F or below (warmth in the high country is essential at night).
Other gear you’ll need:
- Light two-person tent: We have the MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2; and a cheaper 3-person tent from Alps Mountaineering
- Backpack: you can get fitted at REI or your local gear shop; a good fit is essential to preventing chafing or bruising
- Sleeping bag: down is best and will be lighter in your pack
- Sleeping pad: I love the Big Agnes Air Core line; you have to blow them up, but they keep you elevated from the ground and warm!
- Small camping stove: we love our JetBoil Flash
- Camp Meals: I actually love a lot of the dehydrated camping meals out there. My favorites brands are Backpackers Pantry, Mountain House, and Good To-Go—all of which you pour boiling water in and just let them cook in the bag!
- Water treatment supplies: we always bring our Steripen, Sawyer Mini Filtration System, and iodine for a failsafe treatment option if something stops working.
- Headlamp: be sure to bring extra batteries!
- Portable charger for electronics: we have a solar-powered lantern that can also charge our electronics!
*Keep in mind this is your first trip and your pack will likely be heavier—it’s o.k.
Pick the Right Clothing
Layers are everything when backpacking—it can be 85 degrees and sunny one moment and snowing the next. I usually hike in during the heat of the day wearing shorts, then around dusk change into a wool base layer or leggings, depending on the weather. I always have a rain jacket, puffy coat, extra socks, and top and bottom wool base layers. You may also want to bring a pair of sandals, like Tevas or Chacos, for stream crossings or for optimal comfort at camp.
Prepare for Variables
Once you’ve chosen a route, it’s time to plan the logistics for your hike. Be sure to bring a map, a compass, and let a family member or friend know your plan in case something goes awry. I know plenty of backcountry aficionados who always carry a GPS or satellite phone because you never know what could happen out there. I love the AllTrails Pro app, which lets you download trail maps onto your cell phone and works even if you’re out of cell range. Now, this doesn’t substitute for a tangible map and compass in case your phone dies, but it’s a great app!
Whatever you do, be safe and cautious. Brush up on Leave No Trace principles to keep yourself and others around you safe and comfortable. Avoid going off trail, getting too close to wildlife, leaving food outside your tent or not appropriately stored. Make good decisions and be sure safety is always at the forefront of your mind when in the backcountry. And, of course, have fun! Enjoy the type of solitude that only a long walk into the woods can provide.