Planning your first (or tenth) backpacking trip? We designed this free guide for you to make the planning and prep a little easier.
Considering or planning a backpacking trip? Whether you’re a first timer going with friends or an experienced backcountry navigator, our free guide below lays out step-by-step plan that helps you prepare for your trip. This guide includes a pre-trip checklist, a carefully curated gear list and day-of reminders. Our goal is to make this guide a living document, so if you have feedback or suggestions, let us know!
OK but first...what is backpacking?
The meaning of "backpacking" varies by culture but usually backpacking refers to traveling with your gear and belongings on your back for more than one day. In some countries, you'll see backpackers stay at hostels and travel with their belongings from one country to another.
In the US, backpacking usually refers to hiking and camping with your gear on your back. This is NOT the only definition of backpacking, but it is the one we have created this guide for.
Most backpacking trips don’t start at trailhead. They start on a computer, guide book or notebook with a good plan. Boring as that sounds, it’s for a good reason: exploring the backcountry without a plan can create unnecessary dangers for you and the environment, so spending some time planning what your trip will look like is well worth it.
This checklist is for you to use a few weeks before your trip to make sure you have the essential items you need. To read what to do the night before or morning of your trip, click here.
1. Choose a route.
If you’re a beginner, pick an established, well-known trail, which will (hopefully) be clearly marked. A few good resources for this search are the AllTrails, guide books or local backpacking groups on Facebook. When selecting a route, consider:
Availability of Permits. Depending on the area, you may need a permit to backpack. In California, permits for popular parks like Yosemite or Tahoe can book out months in advance, so plan ahead or search for routes in a few different areas.
Your fitness level and hiking experience. Most backpacking routes will involve elevation gain and long distances over multiple days (e.g. 5+ miles per day). Your hiking pace will be slower with a pack (I usually assume my backpacking pace is at least 2x slower than my day hiking pace, especially on elevation). So choose a route where the per-day mileage feels within your physical limits and calculate how much time it will take you to get to your campsite (with breaks included). Ideally, you should target getting from the trailhead to your campsite before the sun goes down.
Access to water. It is crucial that you know when and how you’ll be able to access drinking water while backpacking. Ideally, your campsite will be close to a creek, river, lake or another body of water, which you can filter/purify once you reach the campsite. In some areas, you may need to replenish water on your way to a campsite. If you are backpacking in a water-scarce region (like the desert), you may need to store water caches on the trail in advance of your trip. ***Many regions in the US are experiencing drought and water scarcity, so make sure you double-check the availability of your water options before your trip. It is common for creeks or small rivers to dry up in hot seasons. We recommend checking with your local parks or forest department and/or trail reviews online (e.g., AllTrails or Facebook) to find this information.
What navigation guide you will use. Whether it’s an app, compass or map, figure out your offline navigation plan and make sure you feel comfortable using it on your route! I use AllTrails because it’s easy for me to access my phone and it has good coverage in California, but if you’re comfortable with a map or a guidebook, those can work just as well.
What you want to do (other than hike). Backpacking can be a lot more than a long hike! Some non-hiking activities that I like to do on a backpacking trip are scrambling and swimming so I tend to choose routes with boulders and lakes.
If you are going on a guided backpacking trip or with experienced friends, you may not need to dive into the above, but we still recommend getting familiar with the route! This will help you feel more secure and could be a huge benefit for your group.
2. Check your Gear
Once you’re in the back-country, it’s just you and your crew, so make sure you have everything you need well before your trip. Check our gear list to see what you should pack.
3. Come up with a Safety Plan
Backpacking can sound scary but there are many steps you can take to be safe on a trip. As a born-and-bred city girl, I was terrified by the idea of backpacking but over the years, I’ve come up with the steps below that make me feel safe in the wilderness:
Backpack with Others. If you’re new to backpacking, go with at least one other person you are comfortable with. As you develop more experience, you may feel ready to explore on your own, but we still recommend traveling with others for safety reasons.
Bring a first aid kit. First-aid kits are an essential piece of gear for any backcountry adventure. You can build your own or buy one. I’ve used mine to treat minor injuries for almost every backpacking trip I’ve gone on!
Wildlife Protection. Wildlife is part of the backcountry! If you’re nervous, remember it is far more likely that you’ll have a safe experience when you see an animal than an unsafe one so long as you take proper precautions. Before you leave on your trip, research the wildlife you may encounter and what steps you should take in case of an encounter. This info can usually be found on the local park or forest department’s website. In Northern California, bears are common in the backcountry, so we backpack with a bear canister and try to speak loudly on the trail to make the wildlife aware of our presence. Some folks bring bear spray or horns. Come up with a plan to store your food and toiletries safely away from your tent (either in a bear-proof canister/sack or ratsack). While hiking, please do not pet or feed or throw anything at wildlife. Treating animals with respect is critical for your and their safety, as well as the safety of other folks on other trail.
Tell someone about your plan. It is unlikely you will have cell phone service for most of your trip, so make sure you let a friend or family member know about your itinerary before you leave (and remember to update them once you regain cell phone service)!
Radios. Depending on the conditions of your trail, you may want to invest in a two-way radio. These tend to be expensive so consider choosing a more heavily trafficked or less risky trail if you think there’s a good chance you may need to call in for outside help on your trip. Some situations where you may want to bring a radio are:
You are backpacking alone or anticipate splitting up with your group (e.g. if your water source is far away from your campsite).
You are planning to go on a long, multi-day trip where you may not encounter anyone else for a few days.
You are concerned about an injury.
You may encounter dangerous trail conditions (extreme temperatures, snow or rock fall, etc.)