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This Backpacking Guide is Intended to Make those First Trips a Whole Lot of Fun!

You're reading this backpacking guide looking for adventure, am I right? What could be more adventurous than heading off into the woods with all the gear you'll need on your back? Just you and nature, no video games, no phones!

High Adventure
High Adventure, backpacking guide

You learn all sorts of new skills, and high adventure trips are fun. This will help you your entire life, the confidence you gain in the outdoors. Without some preparation, it's not smart to just head off into the woods! A well equipped and well trained backpacker, makes for a smart outdoorsman or woman. This guide is intended to give a new hiker and backpacker, and her/his gang as much information as possible to make those first few trips a whole lot of fun! You won't enjoy the fun activities of the trip and the beauty of nature, if you're not comfortable. We will try to pick up a few nifty tricks along the way, and so let's get started with the basics.

Getting out into the great outdoors, planning is the most important element. It's very important that the hiker plan ahead, however, so don't wait until the last minute to pull together the right gear and pack.

The Great Outdoors!
The Great Outdoors, backpacking guide

The idea of gearing up is an adventure all its own, for some people! It can be an expensive, and intimidating experience, for others. We will talk about some smart first purchases once a hiker has decided that they're going to stick with backpacking for some time, then we're going to talk about the gear that is necessary for a backpacker to have a good first experience, and ways to do it inexpensively.

backpacking guide

A backpack is the most obvious need for a hiker. External and internal frames, are the two main categories of backpacks. We will give you a recommendation that will help you decide what is best for you, and discuss both.

A backpack
A backpack, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, Internal Frame Backpacks

Internal packs offer a narrow, long profile. Internals have become extremely popular, with a snug fit. Offering stays that are often adjustable, they have an internal support mechanism. They have many advantages, including:

  • Balance - Your center of gravity stays centered, since they are designed to hug your body. Those who go off trail and climbers enjoy internals.
  • Stability - Avoiding shifting loads that can throw you off balance, your load is cinched down tight, with plenty of compression straps.
  • Fit - Allowing for a highly customizable fit, internals have lots of straps.
  • Maneuverability - The pack stays put during tricky moves and jumps and there is plenty of room to move your arms, with its narrow profile and tight fit.

Internal Pack
Internal Pack, backpacking guide

Internal disadvantages include:

  • Heat - they make for a sweaty back and don't allow for much ventilation, because they are snug to your back.
  • Organization - Internals make it difficult for a backpacker to stay organized with just one large pocket. Each time you need something, everything ends up coming out of the bag.
  • Cost - Internals of the same size tend to cost more than an external frame backpack.

They Make For A Sweaty Back!
They Make For A Sweaty Back, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, External Frame Backpacks

With a pack bag attached to it, external frame backpacks offer a ladder type frame. Although internals have become extremely popular, external frame backpacks have been the standard for years. Keeping the weight off of a person's shoulders, externals put the bulk of the load directly on the hips. The hip belt must be correctly fitted for the person. Many times, the belt won't pull tight enough for young boys because they have very narrow hips. Make sure the belt fits correctly! To a hiker on a long hike, it can make all the difference. External frame advantages include:

  • Cool - Because the load is not directly on a person's back, an external is cooler to carry. There is a lot of airflow between the backpack and the back.
  • Weight distribution - An internal backpack might sag, the external won't. Allowing them to walk in a more upright position, the person's center of gravity is higher.
  • Organization - An external frame backpack is easy to organize, with five or more compartments and pockets. Clothes in one, water in another. Also, it is much easier to strap on a tent, sleeping bag and pad.
  • Cost - External frame packs, of the same carrying capacity, are almost always less expensive than an internal frame.

External Frame Backpack
External Frame Backpack, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, Top loading External Backpacks

Consider first the top loading packs from REI or Kelty, if you are considering the purchase of external frame backpacks for kids. You may want to try this frameless backpack from Kelty. They make military backpacks for grownups. They require less maintenance, and are often less expensive. For backpackers, I always recommend a top loader.

Backpacking Guide, Rentals

Don't just run right out and buy a Kelty, just because I said that top loaders are best for new backpackers! Renting is a wonderful way for a hiker to find out if backpacking is something you'll want to pursue, and get acquainted with the equipment. It could save you big money in the long run, if you rent a backpack for the first couple of weekend trips.

Kelty Backpack
Kelty Backpack, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, Backpack Fitting

Get a backpack that fits right! If it's too short it can be very uncomfortable, and if it's too long, the hip belt won't hold the load correctly. Backpacks are measured by length of the torso. Use a flexible tape measure and measure from the lump at the base of your neck down your spine, with a friends help. So that you can feel the two bumps on the front of your hips, you should put your hands on your hips. With your thumbs behind you, hold your hands there. That's where you stop measuring, drawing an imaginary line from your thumbs. The measurement will fall into one of 3 categories:

  • Small - Less than 17.5 inches
  • Med - From 17.5 to 19.5 inches
  • Large - More than 20 inches

Before buying, it is always best to try on a backpack. So that it fits you ideally, don't be afraid to ask the store personnel to help you adjust the backpack. Make sure to put some weight in the backpack if you can. One that's loaded down with twenty five or thirty pounds of gear will feel and fit very different than a completely empty backpack! Several stores have sandbags that you can put into the backpacks. You should bring 2 one gallon milk jugs filled with water, and put them into the backpack, if they don't. To make sure it fits you right, walk around for a little while in the store.

In your backpack, how much weight should you expect to carry? You should not be carrying any more than 25% of your body weight, is a good rule of thumb for hikers. Those who only weigh 75 or 80 pounds, this may be difficult for small children! Never should a boy carry more than 33% of their weight.

That doesn't mean he should be carrying forty pounds or more, however, just because a backpacker may weigh 180 pounds. New hikers should pack light. Instead of carrying an extra 5 pounds on your first trip, it is always easier to add a few things the next time.

Pack Light
Pack Light, backpacking guide

Onto an external frame backpack, it is much easier to strap sleeping bags, pads, and tents. But there are some tricks.

Sleeping Pads
Sleeping Pads, backpacking guide

To tie pads and sleeping bags onto a pack, never use rope! With their gear tied onto their backpack with cord or rope, I have never seen a hiker be successful. With the gear either just falling right off onto the ground or swinging back and forth, it always is too loose.

Never Use Rope!
Never Use Rope, backpacking guide

There is always a risk of getting hurt when a cord isn't attached correctly and comes flying at you, but bungee cords can work, although they tend to be a little heavy! I prefer always to use nylon straps with clips. The trick is to never let them lie in the dirt, and always snap them back together when the gear is taken off the backpack. It can really make it hard to open later if small pieces of sand get in the snaps.

One of the simplest ways to cover a backpack, is a large garbage bag. This can be helpful when there is a lot of moisture. A real Outdoor Backpack may be a wise investment, because garbage bags don't work terribly well when you're hiking. They have a habit of becoming lost on the trail and slipping off.

Backpacking Guide, Sleeping Bags and Pads

Between a miserable outing and an enjoyable outing, the proper sleeping bag can make all the difference. Under the most extreme conditions you might face, you should make sure you get a sleeping bag that will keep you warm.

Sleeping Bag
Sleeping Bag, backpacking guide

By trapping and holding air next to your body, is how a sleeping bag works. And, keeps you warm by your own body heat warming up this air. Coupled with its weight, the bag's ability to maintain this heat will determine how much it costs. The more expensive, the warmer and lighter the bag.

Consider these points, when you are looking for a bag:

  • Square or mummy bag? For camping with the gang, you should always be considering a mummy bag shape. They stuff much better than rectangular bags, are lighter and warmer. Why? They stuff better with less material, and there is less open air space in a mummy bag for you to warm up.
  • The manufacturer thinks the bag will operate effectively, above a certain lowest temperature. Many things will influence how a bag performs, remember, this is not a fast and hard number. You should check with other sources to determine how accurate a bag's rating is, but use these numbers as a guide. Rated to at least twenty degrees, is the bag hikers should have. It's not a bad idea, buying a bag that is slightly warmer than you think you'll need. You can always unzip it a bit, in warmer weather. But you will appreciate the warmth, on those really cold winter nights.
  • Is it synthetic or a down bag? Next to the body of certain types of birds, down is the very small feathers. The most desirable is Goose down. It keeps you very warm and compresses well, down is very light. Also, it is very expensive. And, if it gets wet, down will not keep you warm. It will make for a very cold night, if you fall in the creek with a down bag on your back! Even if it gets wet synthetic fills can keep you warm, and are usually less expensive. For hikers, I usually recommend synthetic fill sleeping bags.

Mummy Bag
Mummy Bag, backpacking guide

From the inexpensive and simple to those with price tags as thick as the pad, there are several types of thermal pads around. Insulating the body from the cold ground is the most important part of a pad's function. Giving almost no insulation against losing body heat to the ground below, a sleeping bag will compress against the ground.

A closed cell foam pad is the simplest type. Providing fine protection against the hard, cold ground, these pads are very light, and often less than ten dollars. Including the Therm-a-Rest brand pads, more expensive types of pads exist. These can be very comfortable, and are usually self inflating pads. They are heavier, but they provide fine insulation too. A closed cell foam pad is best, for backpackers. So wasting valuable weight here is not a good idea, there are too many other things that need to be carried.

Backpacking Guide, The Ten Essentials

You can read about the Ten Essentials here.

Backpacking Guide, Stoves

Propane just doesn't cut it, for hiking. Propane bottles will reduce their heat output to a bare trickle and freeze, in extreme cold or at high elevations. We use butane backpack stoves for many situations. These maintain their usefulness under most conditions, easy to light and are simple to use.

There's nothing like white gas stoves, especially in severe conditions, and for long term backpacking. They will get water boiling quickly, are economical and put out a tremendous amount of heat. Because of it's ability to simmer and adjust the flame, I like the MSR Dragonfly. If you're looking for a lightweight stove, check out these backpacking stove reviews. Adults should fuel these stoves, and children should always be taught how to safely use the equipment.

Also, I like the Primus Himalaya. It can use either white gas or butane canisters. They might use this stove with either of the two types of fuel, depending on their level of training and the hiker.

Backpacking Guide, Cooking and Eating Gear

Each party will bring its own cooking gear. I have discovered that good old aluminum works great for hikers, even though there are many different types of backpacking cook sets made out of exotic metals with space age finishes. The heat distributes throughout very evenly and there's no finish to get scratched. A frying pan is a must, if pancakes are planned, but a pot or two usually suffices.

A large spoon is the basic cooking utensil for hiking. One pot beans, rices, or pastas are many of my meals. A spatula is needed once in a while. A knife is the other utensil that is necessary. One or two Lexan personal knives and pocketknives are great for a party. Either from their own or the group supply, each group should be sure they have the proper gear.

A Large Spoon
A Large Spoon, backpacking guide

Less is better, as far as personal eating utensils go. All that is really necessary is a spoon and a sierra cup. Some people like to bring a cup and a plate, a complete set of Lexan eating utensils. You can play with Frisbees after dinner, and they make good plates too! Remember to bring your own, because very few people carry extra eating utensils! At every meal, it gets very tiring trying to borrow something to eat with.

A Sierra Cup
A Sierra Cup, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, What to Eat

We have got to make some decisions about what we're going to eat, now that we know what to cook with! Here are some backpacking food ideas. If there are only two of you, you may want to look at this backpacking menu.

Backpacking Guide, Dishwashing

The preparation is the most difficult thing about backcountry dishwashing for hikers. It is critical that no food be left in the pot, or on the cups or plates. The more food there is, the more our limited supply of water is polluted. Before being washed and sanitized, cups and plates should be licked clean. Also, it gets a little more water into us for hydration, by putting a little hot water into the cup and swishing it around before drinking it and helps clean the utensils. Strained for food debris, any leftover water should be emptied into a six inch deep hole. All leftover garbage and food must be packed out.

To rinse the dishes, one trick is to use a water bottle (platypus). You can use very little water, and you can rinse them thoroughly and quickly, by squirting a little water onto the dishes.

Platypus, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, Personal Gear

Hikers should be comfortable while backpacking. Cotton can be dangerous, but also is a very comfortable fabric. Robbing it of any thermal value, cotton absorbs quite a lot of water. It smells pretty bad after a day or two on the trail, it also is a good breeding ground for bacteria. Blue jeans take forever to dry, so denim is not a useful fabric on the trail, and once wet it is very heavy! Long pants will help a hiker avoid scrapes and cuts, and various types of synthetic fabrics work great on the trail.

Working much better than bringing a bulky, single coat, layers are important. A windbreaker or shell and a synthetic fleece or sweat shirt, a long sleeved shirt, and thermal underwear will cover almost every situation.

A Windbreaker
A Windbreaker, backpacking guide

Go for it then if you just feel cooler hiking in shorts or are in a warm climate. If the weather changes, just make sure you have warmer clothes. This is especially true for higher elevations.

Hiking In Shorts
Hiking In Shorts, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, Footwear

Regarding good footwear for hiking, there are several schools of thought. Sneakers vs. Boots. While sneakers are lighter, boots provide protection and support. One pound on your feet is the equivalent of six pounds on your back. The protection and ankle support from rocks are very important, however, for everyone.

Hiking Boots
Hiking Boots, backpacking guide

For backpackers on a weekend outing it's not imperative to spend hundreds of dollars, and there are many types of boots. Usually under $25.00, Target, WalMart and KMart all stock inexpensive hiking boots. They will do fine for weekend outings, but they don't last forever. In order to take the pounding a fifty miler might entail, for longer trips a slightly more expensive boot might be needed. Although most of the inexpensive boots don't need too much to soften them up, be sure that the boots are broken in. For me, in my experience, I would rather buy more expensive, better quality hiking shoes or boots, than risk having sore feet on a hike. I've been there and it isn't fun!

Buy More Expensive, Better Quality Hiking Shoes Or Boots!
Buy More Expensive, Better Quality Hiking Shoes Or Boots, backpacking guide

Not acceptable is other casual wear that is not properly tied. Blisters can ruin an otherwise great trip on the trail. Your shoes must provide adequate support. It's critical that hikers wear appropriate socks, and keep their feet dry and clean. With a lighter, polypro liner underneath a pair of synthetic, or wool socks, wearing 2 pair of socks is the best system.

Backpacking Guide, Toiletries

Toothpaste isn't essential, but a hiking toothbrush is good. Ninety percent of the value of brushing is completed by the brush itself. Toothpaste needs to be put away in the bear bag at night, because it is a smellable! When the backpacker spits it out, it also leaves a mess. Mostly for washing dishes, soap is useful. Campsuds needs to be used far away from water sources like a lake or stream, but a small bottle of it is useful. Never foul the water, even if it says it's biodegradable. Small is the operative word, but a small towel can be useful. A regular bath towel is too big. A hand towel is OK. Much of what can be accomplished with Deodorant is better suited to baby powder; it isn't needed. Ridding themselves of foot problems, or chafing, baby powder helps backpackers.

A hand Towel
A hand Towel, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, No Bathroom (Bathroom Etiquette)

What do you do, when nature calls while you're in nature? We won't go into intimate detail here, because there have been books written on the subject. But you should always take care of business at least 200 feet away from any campsite, trail or water source are the important things to remember. Never urinate directly on a plant or a tree, the salts will often cause wild animals to claw or chew at the plant. A hole six to eight inches deep should be dug, for solid waste, and then hidden and covered after use. As trash, all toilet paper should be carried out. You might want to make sure you have a trowel, if you're not sure that your group has one.

A Trowel
A Trowel, backpacking guide

Bringing some Ziploc bags and brown lunch sacks, is the best way to handle soiled toilet paper. Put the toilet paper inside a Ziploc bag, and then inside the brown paper bag. The paper is kept separate and clean by the Ziploc bag and this keeps it from being highly visible. We may have the ability to burn the lunch sacks along the trail, if open fires are permitted. But be prepared to carry it out.

Keep your hands clean! Getting sick in the backcountry, is the worse thing! Away from any water source, use Campsuds. Your hands will be clean, if you get in the habit of using a hand sanitizer!

A Hand Sanitizer
A Hand Sanitizer, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, Safety

Never get separated. Keep within yelling distance, groups should stay together. Stop and wait for the whole group to come together, whenever you come to a fork in the trail. Everyone stays on the same trail, we do this to make sure.

A Fork In The Trail
A Fork In The Trail, backpacking guide

Always listen to the rider of the horse, when you come across one on the trail. Then move to the uphill side, facing the trail, if they don't have any specific instructions. You want to be facing the animal, because your backpack can look scary and odd to a horse. Speaking softly to the horse, often reassures it that you are in fact, a person.

The Rider Of The Horse
The Rider Of The Horse, backpacking guide

Bicyclists are supposed to yield the right of way to backpackers, officially. They really can't yield much when they are flying down a trail! Move off the trail and alert those around you, when you see a bicyclist.

Bicyclists, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, Bears

The thought of encountering a bear is one of the things that worry people the most. It is something that we must always be cautious about, but this rarely happens. In their backpack, each hiker should have a smellable bag. Everything that might attract animals, should be contained in this bag. This includes any container that might still have food odor and any sugared drinks, snacks, and all food. Also, it should contain all lotions, sanitizers, toothpaste and soaps. There should be nothing left in a backpack overnight.

Bears, backpacking guide

We will hang all smellable bags in the trees. Whether you find a strong branch to hang the bag or hang the smellable bags between two trees, do it. A bear container that doesn't allow odors to escape, is what some people use. Just keep it away from people at night, if you use one.

A Bear Container
A Bear Container, backpacking guide

Called the Bearmuda Triangle, when we arrive in camp, we will set up a triangle. Our bear bags, our sump, and our cooking area are the 3 points of the triangle. Outside the Bearmuda Triangle is where we will then set up our tents.

Tents, backpacking guide

Also, each hiker should have a set of clean clothes to sleep in. These clothes are for sleeping only. There are no left over smells from spilling in the tent or cooking, this way. No backpacker should ever bring food into their tent. Not ever!

Backpacking Guide, Lightning

With little warning lightning can strike. Be ready to move if it looks like rain and to keep an eye on the weather is the safest way to avoid lightning. Don't be caught as the highest object in a meadow, and stay off saddles and peaks. If you are near a bunch of trees of similar height or in a forest it should be OK to be under a tree, but it's not usually a good idea.

Lightning, backpacking guide

Wait out the storm and stay clear of areas that might have falling debris. Just get over the next ridge, can be a bad strategy!

Backpacking Guide, Being Lost

Out in the open a little, try to stay in the same place. Rescuers need a chance to see you. Stay warm! With exposure, backpackers have the most trouble. You might not last long in severe cold, but you can stay well for several days without water. Staying in one place will help the most, but signaling devices, like whistles or mirrors are good. An old CD even has a hole in it to help your sighting, you can pack it in your backpack as a mirror.

Rescuers, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, Backpacking Check List

Here is a camping back packing checklist that may help you get all that you need for your trip.

Backpacking Guide, The Outdoor Code

I will do my best to, as an American:

  • My outdoor manners will be clean. I will treat the outdoors as a heritage. For others and myself, I will take care of it. I will keep my garbage and trash out of roadways, woods, fields, streams, and lakes.
  • I will prevent wildfire by being careful with fire. Only where they are appropriate, I will build my fires. I will make sure it is cold and out, when I have finished using a fire. I will remove all evidence of my fire, or leave a clean fire ring.
  • In the outdoors, be considerate. I will treat with respect, private and public property. I will use low impact methods of camping and hiking.
  • Be conservation minded. I will learn how to practice good conservation of energy, wildlife, grasslands, minerals, forests, waters, and soil. I will tell others to do the same.

Wildfire, backpacking guide

Backpacking Guide, Principles of Leave No Trace

Leave What You Find

Do not touch, but examine, artifacts and cultural or historic structures, and preserve the past. Leave natural objects, plants and rocks as you find them. Avoid transporting or introducing non-native species. Do not dig trenches, build furniture, or structures.

Historic Structures - Fort Baker
Historic Structures - Fort Baker, backpacking guide

To enjoy their trip more and to keep them safe, this is a pretty long backpacking guide but it is thorough enough so that someone new to backpacking can begin to learn some new habits. All you have to do now is get out there and do it! Have fun!

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