Disclosure: I am not an expert. This article provides advice and lessons I've gained from years of hiking and backpacking experience. When you travel into the backcountry, you assume the risk for any personal injury that might occur. The backcountry is a lovely place, but it can also be dangerous.Please use common sense. This article should be applicable to many places in the world, but my experience covers the contiguous United States. Please keep that in mind as you read.
I don't know what your particular situation happens to be. Maybe you're a big city cubicle dweller with little experience beyond the wilderness of the streets. Maybe you're the experienced outdoorsy type, but you've never done any camping away from the car. Maybe you've done a lot of backpacking, but you're reading this article just to see if I know what I'm talking about. There's no way for me to know, but what I'd like to do is provide enough information to get you started down your path as a backpacker (and maybe convince you that I know what I'm talking about). This is the first article in a series that will cover major aspects of backpacking.
Let's start by defining backpacking. Backpacking is a type of hiking and camping in which one carries the necessities of survival (shelter, food, clothing, etc.) in a pack on one's back. The typical backpacking trip begins with arriving at a trailhead. The backpacker straps on his/her well-stocked pack (like yours will be after reading this series) and walks into the backcountry for one or more nights away from the hustle and bustle of modern civilization. As I'm sure you can imagine, since one must carry all the necessary gear on one's own back, backpacking dictates a certain amount of efficiency and prioritization that is unnecessary for camping out of your car. Car camping allows a level of luxury utterly unattainable to the backpacker. So, you should know this going in: if you want to try backpacking, you're going to be willingly sacrificing many comforts that you might take for granted, even if you have a lot of experience camping in developed campgrounds. There are no luxurious pit toilets, no convenient vending machines, no pay-per-use warm showers, no firewood for sale, most likely no cell phone coverage, and you certainly don't want to carry in canned peaches or a case of beer.
Now that we've got a working definition of what backpacking is, and you're apparently still interested despite my attempts to dissuade you, the next step is deciding when and where you'll be going. This is important because it'll affect almost everything we talk about in my later articles. There's no way for me to know where you live and what opportunities you have in the immediate area. Still, I can give some general advice.
I suggest you make your first backpacking trip within a few hours of home. Trip duration should be between one and three nights. Unless you're an exceptionally strong hiker, I recommend keeping the trip mileage at five miles or less per day, maybe much less than that if you live a very sedentary life. As a beginner, you don't know how your body will respond to carrying a load over rough terrain. Don't spend a lot of time and money traveling to the other side of the country or world to make the ultimate two week backpacking journey of a lifetime for your first trip. I recommend simply hiking a few miles to a backcountry campsite near your home and spending a couple nights before hiking back out. For a first trip, there's no need to climb a peak or complete some sort of famous loop. That can come later. The purpose of a first trip is to work out the kinks, see how your body responds and learn a few lessons that can't be gleaned from an article.
I don't live in an exceptionally wild area. My home is in an area of the Southeastern US with a fairly average population density. There's relatively little land available to the public for backpacking compared to the great expanses of wilderness in the Western US; however, there are still a handful of options within four or five hours of my home. Most are heavily used, but that doesn't really matter for a first trip. In fact, having other people around can be nice until you become familiar with the whole thing, especially if hiking alone. If I were going on a first backpacking trip, I'd choose this one particular site. The trailhead is about one hour from my home. Distance to the campsite from the parking area is about 2.5 miles. I'd probably take off work one Friday and stay two nights. I'd get an early start since this is my first trip, and I wouldn't want to get caught hiking in to the campsite after dark. The site offers several diversions to help pass the time. There's a small creek which offers the opportunity for fishing. There is a picturesque canyon within day-hiking distance. I'd certainly spend time learning to set up camp, cook meals, etc. By the time I was ready to head out on Sunday, I'd know if this whole backpacking thing was something I wanted to explore further.
Surely you can locate a similar place near your home. Good places to look are state parks (just search online for state parks in your area), national forests, national park units (the NPS website has tons of excellent information and maps), and lands owned by conservation organizations like the Nature Conservancy. You can often find good local spots by poking around on internet forums devoted to hiking and backpacking for your region. Word of mouth is also a good strategy. Simply ask around to see if anyone else you work with or go to school with is a backpacker. See if they have destination suggestions. Try to pick a trail that's easy to follow and that doesn't have extremely steep and challenging sections. Eventually you'll be able to target a destination for your first trip. Make sure to purchase a good trail map for your destination and study it well before you head out. Leave your trip itinerary with a family member or friend in the case that you don't show up back at home.
Other things to consider are time of year and weather. My suggestion is to make your first trip during a time of year when it's pleasant to be outdoors. If, like me, you live in the Southeast, spring and fall make pleasant seasons for backpacking. If you live in the Rockies, the summer would be best. What you want to aim for is a time when you won't have to deal with extreme temperatures. If you follow the advice in my upcoming gear articles, you'll have a set of backpacking gear that will serve you well throughout most of the warmer months at most elevations in the contiguous United States. If you insist on backpacking during winter months, your gear list might need to be much different depending on where you're going. That type of expedition is not recommended for a first trip, and can become dangerous very quickly even for experienced backpackers. For your first trip, keep things as simple and as pleasant as possible. Try to choose a weekend or a few days when the weather will be nice. If you do a lot of backpacking, you'll undoubtedly see your fair share of challenging weather situations. As much as it's in your power, reserve that for later when you're more experienced. A nasty weather situation is rarely ever barrels of fun, and it can ruin your whole perception of backpacking. Try to ensure that all the variables external to yourself are relatively pleasant. That way you can concentrate on your backpacking technique and enjoy the outdoors at its best rather than sitting inside a waterlogged tent wishing you were instead sitting in front of a television watching football or your favorite reality show.
One more thing I'd suggest is to camp along a stream or water source for your first trip. Hiking in dry climates can be fun, but if you haven't spent much time outdoors, you can find yourself in trouble fairly quickly in dry climates. Having a stream or water source nearby just removes one more thing to worry about. Also, in dry climates, you'll likely be packing in most if not all your water. Until you know how your body will respond to backpacking, it might be best to avoid the need to carry 20 lbs of water. If you're a fisherman like me, a decent little trout stream near camp might be one of the big reasons you want to go backpacking in the first place. A stream also provides a relatively easy navigational aide. In my home area, if you ever find yourself lost or disoriented, one of the quickest ways to find your way back to civilization is to follow a stream in a downstream direction. You'll eventually cross a road or trail.
So by now hopefully you have an idea of how you'd like to go about planning your first backpacking trip. I've given you some ideas on where to look and how to go about planning a first trip as far as location and time of year. I'll continue this beginner backpacking series with an article on the major pieces of gear you'll need to get started.
Useful Books for Your Library to Help You Get Started Backpacking:
by ND Kennedy