So you're thinking about testing yourself by trying out backpacking? Awesome! We're happy to say we've been in the same situation as you have. The good news is, ff you've gone camping before and you've ever enjoyed a nice hike, backpacking is both of those awesome activities rolled into one. Just because you've tried the components, doesn't mean you're totally ready to tear off on your first foot trek into the woods to camp. There are some important rules you should be aware of.
Eight things to consider before your first trip
- Check the weather and fire conditions. Your best available resource is to check in with the local forest ranger. For that, head over to National Forest Service to find the ranger station and phone number for the region you’ll be visiting. Two major benefits of talking with the ranger are that you can ask them directly whether or not you can have a ringed fire at that time of year and also if there are any nearby forest fires you should be aware of. These folks have more intimate knowledge than the rest of the internet and nothing ruins a trip like starting a fire then finding out by getting a ticket that a fire is not permitted. Tim speaks from experience on that one.
- Always consider the elevation. In Idaho for example, a good rule of thumb is that for every 1000’ of elevation the temperature drops about 5-7 degrees and that gets amplified at nighttime.
- Go somewhere you’re familiar with, or if you're new to the area ask around. Find a trusted local source and seek their guidance for a good first-time backpacking area. That way if you do make a mistake or if someone becomes injured, you’ll have a better chance of knowing where you are and how to get out.
- Go with someone else. Never go alone on your first time. Preferably, choose someone with camping experience although this isn’t a requirement. There are a myriad of reasons for going in pairs (or more), but the best reason is that if something goes wrong and someone gets hurt, you have a healthy body who can go for help. And this brings us to the first Big Backpacking Rule of Thumb: always build in redundancy.
- Plan your first trip for a single night. Go in, stay the night, and get back out. This gives you the opportunity to reflect on the trip, what went well, what didn’t go so well. Get a quick win and perform a lessons learned exercise afterwards. Maybe you find out you don’t even like your backpacking partner all that much. This can and does happen believe it or not! What could be worse than being stuck out in the wilderness with somebody you don’t like for longer than necessary? On an overnighter you won’t have the pressure of conserving food/water either. Having to think about making things work for longer than one night. Set the bar low to help ensure your first trip is successful.
- Decide where you want to camp. If you’re in the national forest and you’re not in a campground it is legal to camp anywhere you want to. So long as it’s not an active logging site. For obvious reasons, but if you need a couple of tangible ones so you can explain to somebody else: it is dangerous and the loggers will chase you off!
- Always tell someone who isn’t going when you’re leaving, where you’re going, and when you’ll be back. Don’t forget to give them the contact information for that closest ranger station. If you go missing, the latter can mean the difference between life and death. If you don’t come back when you’re supposed to, your friends/family can check in with the ranger station and get the word out. At that point, hours save lives.
- Last, but certainly not least: make sure you’re in good enough physical condition for this type of journey. If you’re new to hiking, consider taking in a few 1-2 hour day hikes prior to leveling up to backpacking. We could spend a lot of time on this particular subject, but frankly, we aren’t certified fitness professionals and you know your body better than we do. Use your best judgement in determining your fitness level compared to the trip you’ve decided to take.
Ready for your next blast of outdoor knowhow?
Check out our guide to choosing the right backcountry backpack. We'll see you over there!