A Beginner's Guide To Backpacking

Several years ago, my wife and I made the decision to start backpacking.  We were thinking of starting with trips 2 or 3 days in length.  With years of canoeing experience behind us, we were a little surprised at the stark differences between backpacking and canoeing.  As we prepared for our first backpacking trip, it became very clear to us that our skills as canoeist would be beneficial, but we still had a lot to learn. 

In an attempt to help others get a foothold (pun intended) on the world of backpacking, I have laid out some tricks and tips that we learned along the way.  Please note that this article is not intended for people looking for an ultralight experience.  The below advise is aimed to help introduce beginners to backpacking and overnight tripping.

Invest In A Good Pair Of Hiking Boots: There is nothing more important on a hiking trip than your feet.  If you take care of your feet you will have an enjoyable experience.  Abuse your feet and you will be miserable.  There are hundreds of different hiking boots on the market.  For a beginner/casual hiker I would suggest a quality day hiking boot.  You should be able to find something in the $150 to $225 range.  Ensure that the fit is comfortable and that you break them in before setting out on your trip.  I would also avoid purchasing boots online, even though the savings may be greater.  Regardless of the specific brand and size it is always wise to try the boots on.    

Invest In A Good Backpack:  As with hiking boots, backpacks come in all different shapes and sizes and have all sorts of bells and whistles.  The 2 more important factors when looking for a backpack is the fit and the capacity.  I was shocked to learn that a backpack should be fit to your frame and that an ill-fitting pack will cause you problems.  Capacity is also an important feature that should be considered.  For overnight trips I would recommend anywhere from 60L to 75L.  Just remember that the bigger the pack you have, the more likely you are to stuff it full.  Having a smaller pack can help you be more meticulous when packing.      

Take Care Of Your Feet:  I mentioned it above and I will mention it again, take care of your feet.  For some great tips and tricks, check out an earlier Quick Escapes article: 10 Tips For Blister Free Hiking

Get Yourself Into Shape: Backpacking is a physically demanding activity and requires a high level of total body fitness.  Just because you can walk around the neighbourhood after dinner, does not mean you will excel at hiking.    

Proper Clothing: I am notorious for packing too much clothing for trips.  I often come home with more clean clothes than dirty clothes.  When it is all said and done, you can get away with 2 sets of clothes (pants, shirt, boxers and socks); clothes to hike in and clothes while at camp.  Along with these 2 sets of clothing I have my full raingear that will keep me warm and dry.  You won’t need anything else if you are only out for a couple of days. 

Make certain that your hiking clothes are quick dry and performance wear that will wick sweat away from your body (please…no jeans).

Pack Only What You Need:  There is little room for luxury items on a backpacking trip.  There is no place for the “what if” game on a backpacking trip (“what if I need this at some point”).  If you aren’t going to use it on a regular basis, you likely don’t need it.  You will only be frustrated when you finish your trip and look at all the things that you didn’t use.  Try to find multiple uses for items to help increase their overall value.  

I recommend laying everything out on a table (or bed) before packing it.  Challenge yourself with every item and ask “Do I need this?  Can I get away without bringing this?” You will be surprised if you really challenge yourself how many items you can leave at home. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed with packing, try making a list of all the items you may need and who is responsible for bring them.  The following link is a typical list that we use on our trips: Gear List

To go one step further if you really want to establish value of your items, weigh them.  Purchase a small kitchen scale and weigh your items.  Compare the weight of the item with its importance.  If the weight is high and the importance low, I would reconsider bring that item.    

Invest In Smaller and Lighter Gear:  This may not be the best option for someone just looking to try out backpacking, but if you are committed, you will want to invest in smaller and lighter gear.  I basically have 2 kits now; one for canoeing and one for backpacking.  Some items you may consider upgrading are:

  • Cooking Stove

  • Pots, Pans, Dishes and Cutlery

  • Sleeping Bag and Mattress

  • Tent

Any items that can you invest in that reduce your weight and volume are worth the price.  I should mention that it isn’t necessary to go to the top of the line titanium items unless you really want to make that level of investment. 

Start Out Easy:  As someone with lots of canoeing experience it can be difficult to gauge a reasonable distance to hike in a single day.  Hiking is far more strenuous and exhausting than paddling.  Start with shorter hiking days, especially at the beginning of the trip when your packs are the heaviest.  Depending on the terrain of the trail I would recommend 8 to 10km per day for a first time hiker.  I would also recommend leaving plenty of time to get from point A to point B so that you will not be rushing or stressed.     

Have Fun: If you plan and prepare properly you will have fun.  Failure to do so could make for a very miserable trip.  The most important thing is to remember why you’re out there, take your time and enjoy every minute of the experience.