• Marina Neal

6 Steps to Prepare for Backpacking Season

The air is warming up, the birds are starting to fly back, the snow has begun to melt, and the wildflowers are a-bloomin’. The time has come to prep for your first (or 100th!) backpacking trip.


Backpacking in Yosemite, El Capitan
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

Through backpacking, I’m able to carry everything I need on my back, push my body, and soak in the most unbelievable isolated places. It’s empowering, and absolutely worth every challenging part. Backpacking can be one of the most rewarding ways of interacting with nature, but it is super important to be prepared.


But how do you get started?


1. Go on day hikes with a backpack on.


Backpacking and hiking with a daypack on.
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

Moving through the wilderness with a heavy pack on your back is both emotionally and physically demanding. A great way to start training for the physical part of it is doing more day hikes with a heavy pack on. When I train for backpacking season, I like to hike my local small peak regularly with a backpack filled with books and winter jackets. This helped me get used to the weight and the size. The pack doesn’t need to be huge––even adding an extra bottle of water into your daypack, or stuffing an ankle weight in there, can help you be prepared.


2. Decide where to go.


So you’ve decided to go backpacking. The next step is to figure out where. For first-time backpacking trips, it’s best to go somewhere semi-familiar and a shorter distance. I’d recommend just for 1 or 2 nights at first.


Lots of trails, especially popular ones, will require a permit to backpack. These are easy to apply for, simply head to the government website of the area you plan on visiting and check out their permit regulations. This is also a good time to check out things specific to the area, such as fire regulations, or waste disposal rules. Sites like Alltrails or GAIA GPS, are great spots to plan a route and figure out daily mileage. Alltrails also has reviews and tips from people who have hiked the trail before so it’s a great way to get beta for the trip.


If possible, bring a more experienced friend along. You’ll be surprised how much there is to learn once you are in the backcountry!


Backpackers on a long trip.
Photo courtesy of Alexa Romano

3. Make sure you have the necessary supplies.


A good starter list for what to bring backpacking is the 10 essentials.

  • A good pair of footwear. No broken ankles or blisters here.

  • Topographical map and compass/GPS.

  • Water and a way to purify it. A water pump is my favorite way, but something like a Sawyer purifier is cheap and lightweight.

  • Food. Dehydrated food is great, as well as calorie-dense snacks and maybe snickers or two.

  • Rain gear and quick-drying layers. Rain gear is important to bring even if there is nothing but clear skies the whole trip. You never know when you’ll need it, and it can be dangerous to get stuck without. In terms of quick-drying layers, this means no cotton. Merino wool is my personal favorite.

  • Safety items. Such as light and fire. You should have multiple lighters, so that fire can always be an option. A headlamp is also one of the most essential items.

  • First aid kit. The basics are great! Bandaids, benadryl, burn cream, neosporin, etc. You can find a great first aid kit here.

  • Knife or multi-tool.

  • Sun protection. No one likes sunburn! Hat, sunscreen, sun shirt. All great additions to a backpacking kit.

  • Shelter. Whatever you want it to be! A tent is great to start with, but there are many ways to make a shelter. No matter what you choose, just make sure you have something you can fashion into a roof if it rains.

The ten essentials are by no means a complete list. However, it’s a great guide for beginners, and remember that whatever you bring- you have to carry! So maybe leave the deodorant and hardcover books at home.


4. Be mindful of your impact on the environment.


Backpacking in the Trinity Alps
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

Although Leave No Trace is not perfect, the basic tenets of minimizing your environmental footprint are important.


You are a visitor here. Your trash or orange peels won’t disappear overnight. Treat the backcountry like you would treat your own home, and pay it respect. Whatever you pack in, pack out. Properly bury your waste, which you can learn more about here. Stay on the main trails. It’s important to know them and practice respect in these wild areas. Read about all the principles of LNT here!




5. Buy or borrow gear.


It can be daunting and expensive to purchase a whole bunch of new gear at once. A great way to get into the sport without breaking the bank is to borrow the gear your friends have. We have a great article all about how to backpack on a budget, which you can check out here. Used gear is a great resource for what you can’t borrow. Make sure to order from a reliable seller to ensure the quality of what you are getting.


6. Relax into the mental and physical challenge.


It’s going to be hard. And beautiful. And stinky. And painful. And full of joy. And satisfying. It will be a whirlwind of emotions, and it won’t always be fun. But it will be worth it. Relax into the mental and physical challenge of it all, and trust that this experience will only make you appreciate the outdoors and your own body more.


All in all, whether you are a beginner, a budget backpacker, or an experienced ultralight gearhead, there is something waiting for you in the backcountry.