Backpacking – A Beginner’s Guide

Immerse yourself in a pristine landscape. Miles from roads, sirens and street lights, a natural world prospers without a corner coffee shop or an evening news broadcast. You start to notice subtleties: A gentle breeze that switches direction. Juniper shadows that migrate along a canyon wall in the moonlight. You have everything you need right in your pack and abundant time in a place few will ever access.

Backpacking offers a chance to feel self-sufficient, embrace wilderness, build confidence and rediscover passion. It’s as elementary as walking, but can also feel daunting at first. How does one break into this exhilarating sport?

First trip? Go with friends or a guide

The best way to learn about backpacking is to spend time with backpackers. Most people love sharing their hobbies, so ask your backpacking friends for an invite. If your friends don’t backpack, get some new friends. (You can still hang on to the old ones.)  Spend time at your local gear shop or join backpacking groups on Facebook. Just make sure you find people you can trust. Or call us, we’d love to take you backpacking and we have an epic lineup of trips planned.

Don’t feel shy about borrowing or renting gear

Backpacking is most fun when you have quality, light-weight gear that fits you – but good gear costs good money. Until you know you love backpacking and you know exactly what gear you want, consider borrowing or renting. Just try not to borrow really outdated, heavy equipment, or items that are incorrectly sized. If you borrow a pack that’s too big, you’ll be uncomfortable. If you borrow a six-pound tent, your pack will be too heavy. We don’t want you to hate backpacking. 

Some gear on group trips is shared anyway, so most friends will be willing to let you use stoves, cookware, first aid kits and water filters. Tents are also great for sharing. Items that are more personal, like shoes, clothes and sleeping bags will probably be your first items to purchase.

Pro tip: hold off on buying expensive gear

Borrowing or renting gear for your first trip isn’t just a money-saver; it’s also the smart thing to do.  You won’t REALLY know what you really need and really want until after you’ve done a backpacking trip or two. Rentals help you get a handle on what works well for specific environments and what you like and don’t like!

If you are doing a backpack tour through Dreamland Safari Tours, we will supply a specific gear list so you know what team gear will be provided, and which personal gear – like backpacks, sleeping bags and sleeping pads – we have available for rent. You’re off to a great start. You can also look into renting great gear, which can be shipped to you. One such service is Kit Lender. 

Backpacking gear list

Here is a rough gear list we would recommend for the type of backpacking trips we offer:

  • Backpack (55 – 65 liters)
  • Tent (cowboy camping, i.e. sleeping on the ground without a tent, is also an option)
  • Sleeping bag, rated to 30 degrees or warmer
  • Sleeping pad
  • 3 liters of water capacity
  • Personal bowl, cup and spoon
  • Hiking boots or trail shoes (we recommend synthetic, non-GoreTex for Buckskin and Paria River hikes)
  • Down jacket
  • Rain jacket
  • Hiking attire
  • Personal snacks

Online Resources

If you use Facebook, there are several backpacking themed groups you can learn from. Find interesting trails, read which tents work best, research training regimens, or ask members specific questions. People are anxious to share about their sport. This beginning backpack article is quite useful and it will answer a lot of gear questions. 

Before you go

Do your homework. Buy maps. Get necessary permits. Know the rules. Learn about reliable water sources and plan accordingly. Test your gear. Do your shoes jam your toes on long downhills or give you blisters after five miles? Is your pack adjusted correctly? (Here is a video that shows you how to adjust it.) Load it up and walk a few miles to make sure everything feels good. Did you forget something essential? Consider doing a one-night shake down run. You can walk a mile into the woods, or simply camp by your car using only your backpacking equipment. Practice setting up your tent on different surfaces. What if the ground is rocky and you can’t pound in stakes? Learn techniques for setup in sandy and rocky terrain. Drink from your hydration bladder and make sure it doesn’t leak. Cook a meal on your stove. 

Get fit

Backpacking is physical. Get used to hiking longer distances before your trip and practice in similar terrain as your destination. If there are no hills in your town, walk the bleachers at the local high school or the stairwell in your office building. Get used to exercising in hot weather if your trip is planned for the warm season. Check out this blogpost about training for backpacking. 

Backpacking mistakes to avoid

  1. Packing too much is the biggest mistake new backpackers make. The more you hike, the more you realize how much more enjoyable it is when your pack isn’t so heavy. Aim to keep your pack under 30 pounds (under 25 is even better) including food and water, for one of our trips. If you don’t need it, leave it behind. We regularly see folks shoulder 60 pound packs for a 4-5 day backpack.  For most conditions that is fully double the weight of what your pack should weigh if you just pack what you actually need!
  2. Choosing an itinerary that’s too hard.  Don’t over challenge yourself on your first trip. Hiking is harder when you’re carrying overnight gear. We think an average of 7-9 miles per day is a good place to start. 
  3. Not protecting food from rodents. Folks worry about mountain lions and rattlesnakes, but the most common nuisance animal in the desert is the rodent who prowls your camp with a hankering for snack bars and beef jerky. Commonly camped spots are the most problematic because the mice have learned bad habits. Don’t leave food or food wrappers in your backpack or tent or a critter might chew its way in and wreck your gear. Store food in critter proof boxes at camp when they’re provided, and hang packs if there is a place to do so. Food can be hung using a shoe lace but you’d be surprised how well a mouse can climb. Storage sacks made from light and durable Dyneema may be enough to keep mice out, but they’re expensive.  Ratsacks deter rodent teeth but they are heavy. 
  4. Bringing the wrong amount of food. Plan out each meal, count oatmeal packets, portion out peanut butter, don’t just bring the whole jar, remove heavy packaging. Consider how many snacks you will eat each day. You might be surprised by how many snacks you’ll eat on a backpacking trip. You don’t want to overpack, but don’t skimp. Backpacking makes you hungry, most folks burn 3,000 to 6,000 calories each day. Think about packing 2-3 snacks to eat between each meal, plus a treat, such as chocolate covered peanuts, for after dinner. Look for high calorie snacks and a mix of sweet and salty foods, such as nuts, GU Chews, meat sticks, energy bars, etc.

Get out there, you’re going to love it.

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