The question I get asked most often isn’t, “How many bears have you tackled from behind?” or “What do you do if you get your period on the trail?” No, dear readers, the thing I get asked the most frequently is simple: “What do I need to do to start backpacking?” Getting newbies’ butts into the great outdoors is my favorite thing in the world, so, in the interest of full transparency, I thought I’d create a four part series on how to get started, based on my own experiences and pitfalls.
There are three pieces of gear you’ll want to get first, or it’ll be nearly impossible to begin or join your friends on trail at all. To set out on your magical new life as a backpacker, you’ll need to get a good pair of hiking boots, a solid pack, and a warm sleeping bag (and pad!). A lot of people who are just starting out stress to me that they really want to try to save money where they can, since they’re new and don’t know how often they’ll actually use the gear, so I’m including a ton of my dirtbaggiest money-saving tricks in this piece as well.
Before we even get started, I should just mention that, hands down, my favorite site for discounted new gear is steepandcheap.com. They have everything from trekking pants to climbing bags to 4-season tents, and it’s all severely discounted. You do have to pay for shipping (and return shipping, if applicable), but it’s worth it to save on your big-ticket items. Honorable mention goes to Backpacking Gear Flea Market and similar groups on Facebook. You can usually find great tents and lightly used gear at half price if you do a little digging.
First things first: a sturdy pair of boots. The hiking boots you select will likely be pricey (easily over $150), but it’s well worth it, since literally everything you do on the trail depends on them. Your feet are your foundation. You’ll want to actually go into your nearest outdoor store and try on several pairs, if you can. Pay attention to their bottom grip, ankle support, and waterproofing. If you don’t live near a good shop, take advantage of REI’s amazing return policy and order 3 different pairs of boots, try them all on around the house, and keep the pair you like best. Pro tip: you can always return the ones you keep, even after using them on the trail, since REI accepts returns on anything purchased within the last year. Your boots should not leave you with hot spots or weird blister zones. If they do, they don’t fit correctly, and you deserve better.
Once you’ve sorted out your boots and can begin going on short, training hikes, it’s time to graduate to actual-real-life-backpacker status by grabbing a nice, roomy pack. REI used to have the deal of the century when they offered their Flash 65 pack for only $100, but with a little careful planning, you should be able to get something just as good for under $150. In fact, Steep and Cheap has several great options up right now for under $100. You’ll want to aim for a bag that’s under 4 lbs. and in the 60L-70L size range, to be sure it will fit all your gear. If you’ve never run around with a weighted pack before, it’s a great idea to get properly fitted at your local outdoor retailer. They can check the length of your torso, stuff a pack full with about 20-30 lbs. of assorted gear, and send you waltzing around the store to figure out what feels best.
If you’re going to start camping in the woods on the regular, it’s probably a good idea to have your own setup, rather than smashing your sweaty bod into a sleeping bag already occupied by a friend in your tent. It is imperative that you settle on a good water-resistant down sleeping bag if you are going to be backpacking and not car camping. They are much lighter and warmer, plus they pack down smaller than synthetic bags in the same temperature class. I’d recommend starting out with a bag in the 20-degree (F) comfort range. It’ll be a great, 3-season bag that will keep you warm on chilly shoulder-season nights, without taking up too much pack space or weight. If you look hard enough on discount sites or take advantage of the seasonal 20% off coupons at REI, you may be able to find something around $200, but aiming for under $300 to get a comfortable, lightweight bag stuffed with hydrophobic down is worth it.
A good sleeping pad completes your snooze setup and should be easy to find. When I started out, I had a $65 inflatable pad from Big Agnes that looked like a pool floaty but kept me warm and relatively comfortable on cold nights. Then, I learned about R-values and how spending a little more on a pad can extend the temperature rating of your sleeping bag. An R-value is the measure of how warm a sleeping pad is, based on its insulation. If you know you’re going to be spending a lot of evenings winter camping or at high elevations, it’s a good idea to invest in a pad with an R-value of 3.5 – 4. I love my REI Flash, which sits firmly at 3.7.
So, now that you’ve nailed down the absolute basics, you can hopefully start backpacking with friends or meet-up groups in your area. By now, you at least have shoes on your feet, a place to sleep, and a bag to carry your assorted sundries in. What to prioritize next isn’t as black and white as the first few bits of gear.
For example, if you know you’ll want to be solo-trekking a lot, you’ll want to invest in a tent pretty quickly. If not, you can likely tag along with friends or borrow a tent. It only took me one crammed night in my boyfriend’s tiny, 1-person tent to ask my mom for a good 2-person tent that year for Xmas. When I met a Yellowstone park ranger in the middle of India, he gave me the single best piece of advice I have ever received about tents: never go over 4 lbs. for a 2-person tent. So, I made a point to only look at ultralight tents with a good amount of square footage, and I ended up with one that’s just over 3 lbs. I saved money by purchasing a small tarp to go underneath instead of the tent’s official footprint. The tent is so light that I take it with me when I solo backpack and luxuriate in the extra space!
From here, there are loads of little kitchen things you’ll need to round out a full kit. Grabbing a petite, lightweight backpacking stove is important, and MSR’s PocketRocket 2 is the most affordable and reliable solution I’ve found so far. It’s compatible with most standard fuel canisters that you’d find at any outdoor store. You’ll want to pair it with a small pot, a plastic bowl, and a professional-grade spork. I never thought I would get so excited about spork quality until I started backpacking on the regular! For morning coffee, I’m absolutely obsessed with my carabiner mug, though some might consider it an extravagance.
I’ve been refining my pack for years now, and a lot of the things I’ve tried out have proven extraneous and not made the final cut. Here’s what else I always take with me on every single backpacking trip: a lightweight spade or trowel, extra Ziploc bag for TP, first aid kit, CamelBak or water bottle, mini-multitool (like the Leatherman Squirt), clothing/layers (more on this later), sunscreen, bug spray, hand wipes, toothbrush + toothpaste, a garbage bag (in case it rains), headlamp, lighter, lip balm, food, trekking poles (take care of your knees!), and my Kindle.
I have a giant bin taking up too much floor space in my room that, of course, has a zillion pieces of gear in it that I’ll sometimes use if I’m hiking fewer miles or going on a more romantic trip with my boyfriend. Depending on what you want to get out of your wilderness adventure, here are a few additional things that might be helpful: a hammock, a solar charging station, microfiber towel, a solar puff or extra tent light, microspikes (if there’s ice/snow), binoculars, a musical instrument, bear canister (if necessary), and, my latest splurge, an ultralight backpacking pillow.
One of the best parts about the outdoors is that no one is going to tell you what to do or how to enjoy yourself out there – it’s up to you to bring whatever makes you happy. This article is the distillation of my years spent as a professional gear tester and countless uncomfortable (and magical) nights in the wild. Next week in this series, I’ll give you the CliffsNotes for choosing the right outdoor clothing, how to layer properly, how to not freeze on a summit in the winter, and what pieces I’m obsessed with!
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