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12 things you should know when you go backpacking for the first time

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This post is also available in: Nederlands

Preparing for a first-time-backpacking trip can be a bit overwhelming. Packing a backpack is very different than a suitcase and there are many more things you should think about. But don’t worry, with these 12 backpacking tips for beginners you will get prepared with a smile on your face!

When I went backpacking for the first time I made so many mistakes! Packing too much in a too cheap backpack, wearing the wrong shoes and no clue about backpacking ethics. But now, 10 years and countless trips later, I know all about it!

Practice and preparation are the keys! And in this blog post, I will tell you how to prepare and what you need to practice. So, let’s get started!

12 things you should know when you go backpacking for the first time

  1. Tips to save money on gear for your first backpacking trip
  2. Start with packing the essentials
  3. Lightweight backpacking tips for beginners
  4. Backpack packing tips for beginners
  5. Your expectation matters
  6. The kind of shoes you should (not) wear
  7. Food backpacking tips for beginners
  8. How to prepare yourself for your first backpacking trip
  9. Take it easy on yourself!
  10. Dare to ask for help
  11. Safety backpacking tips for beginners
  12. Backpacking ethics

1. Tips to save money on proper gear for your first backpacking trip

When you go backpacking for the first time it is smart to not spend all your money on new gear. Backpacking gear isn’t cheap and as you never did it before you are not even sure if you really like it!

Saving on gear doesn’t mean that you should just buy ‘cheap-ass-shit’. At least, that is certainly not what I would recommend. A backpack can make or break your experience. A good backpack, that fits well on you, will not cause scratches on your hips or irritation on your shoulders or a sore back or neck.

Save money on backpacking gear

So, how should you save money on proper gear? There are a couple of different options:

Repurposing

You might already have a lot of things at home you can use for backpacking. A lightweight spork sounds cool, but believe me, a normal cutlery set will work just as good. It might weigh a little more, but for such small things this is acceptable. Especially when you go backpacking for the first time!

Borrowing

Do you have friends, neighbors or family members that have been backpacking? Ask if you can borrow their stuff. You can try it out and if you like it you can buy your own gear. Don’t forget to bring an awesome souvenir as a thank you!

Reuse

Check local second-hand shops or online market places to see if people sell their used backpacking gear. Not everybody is as smart as you and a lot of people buy expensive gear to figure out backpacking is just not for them. Take advantage of that and only pay a small amount for proper gear!

Renting

Some outdoor shops provide options to hire gear. Especially when you go for a short trip this might be something for you. You can save a lot of money and figure out if you really like backpacking. If you do, buy your own gear for your next trip.

TIP: REI offers the possibility to rent gear like backpacks, tents, sleeping pads and bags, etc.

2. Start with packing the essentials

So many questions when it comes to packing your backpack for the first time. What should you bring and what not? If you start with packing the 11 essentials for every backpacking trip, you just know you are already pretty well prepared!

These essentials are once (a long time ago) established by ‘The Mountaineers’, which is an organization for outdoor adventurers of all kinds. The list was made up of 10 things that should be brought on every adventure to make sure people were able to survive in the outdoors. In the meanwhile, the list evolved into a system, so it can be adjusted to any backpacking trip.

backpacking tips for beginners lightweight packing

backpacking tips for beginners

3. Lightweight backpacking tips for beginners

Packing your bag as light as possible is a sport. Save a few grams here and a couple of grams there. It is not something you should worry too much about on your first backpacking trip and definitely don’t focus on the smaller things. Like mentioned before, a lightweight spork or a normal set of cutlery isn’t going to make a huge difference.

Instead, focus on the big things. The weight of your backpack, tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag can make a huge difference. The only drawback with these items is, that the more lightweight you want them, the more expensive they become. Have a look at 1. Tips to save money on proper gear for your first backpacking trip to see how you can save money on lightweight items.


Make a plan for your big trip


4. Backpack packing tips for beginners

Packing a backpack is a different kind of game than packing a suitcase. A suitcase opens all the way up and you can easily access everything in there and even keep things neat.

When you go backpacking, the first thing you should do is not caring about wrinkles in your clothes or dirt in your bag. It’s all gonna be dirty anyway and who cares about wrinkles in the outdoors?

Once you have the right mindset, start packing your bag with the following tips:

Don’t overpack!

Use the 11 essentials to figure out how many clothes you need. Don’t bring things if you doubt you are going to need them. And don’t bring too many toiletries! No one else besides you cares if your hair’s done, your make-up is perfect or if you smell. So, get over it and create your wilderness look!

Oh, and please, don’t just pack things because you have some space left in your backpack… I know it is very tempting to bring that extra pair of shoes, but you’ll regret it as soon as you are walking around with that pack on your back! And believe me, I know…

Pack strategically

  • Access: Pack items you use a lot where you can easily access them. For example a snack in the little pocket on your waistband and toilet paper in an easy to access front pocket.
  • Balance: Pack your back from bottom to top and not from the left to the right. Make levels where the left and the right are in balance, so your bag won’t hang over to either side. This will cause a lot of irritation during your trip!
  • Organization: Use packing cubes and compression bags to organize your bag. I like to use different colors, so I know which packing cube I need when I’m looking for my underwear. Compression bags are ideal to minimalize the packing volume of your sleeping bag or down jacket. But you can also use it for your clothes.

TIP: The packing cubes from Eagle Creek are ideal. They organize and compress your stuff at the same time!

Prepare for rain and keep your clothes dry during your backpacking trip

packing your backpack

Keep your stuff dry

Feeling cold? Did a rain shower surprise you? Then you just want to have something dry to put on. Most backpacks aren’t (fully) waterproof, so make sure that the stuff in your bag stays dry.

You can simply do this by first adding a big plastic bag in your backpack before packing it. But, if you have a front-loading backpack, this might not be ideal, as this option isn’t worth anything anymore when you block it with a plastic bag.

The other thing you could consider is using waterproof packing cubes or compression bags. Or wrap your stuff in plastic bags. This can be as simple as a grocery bag or a garbage bag.

Also, take a small plastic bag with you where you can store your wet clothes. It doesn’t make sense to pack wet clothes in your backpack and expect that the other stuff in there will stay dry. Right?

Put everything inside your bag

If you hang all kinds of stuff on the outside of your bag, you will get easily out of balance. The only things you can put on the outside of your backpack are a tent or a sleeping pad. Make sure they are tightened to your bag with straps, so they don’t swing around when you move around.

5. Your expectation matters

Just give yourself a minute to imagine how your first backpacking trip is going to look like. Will you be walking a lot with a backpack on your back? Are you planning on walking a bit and relax more in camp? Is it possible to leave your backpack in camp and go on a day trip?

Accordingly, decide on what is important to have with you on your trip. If you are mainly walking, try to pack as light as possible and don’t bring any entertainment. But if you will be relaxing quite a lot, it might be worth it to carry a bit of extra weight and brings something to do, like a game of cards or a pocket-edition book.

Make sure you know what kind of trip you want to make and that you know what to expect. Search if you can find personal stories from other backpackers that have done the same things as you are planning to do.

TIP: If you plan on hitting a trail, see if there is a trail book available. This guide will give you information about the trail, the environment, the weather you can expect during certain periods of the year, how many kilometers you have to walk per day, etc. This will help you to create expectations.

backpacking tips for beginners pack what you need but not more

6. The kind of shoes you should (not) wear

Shoes are something you should pay extra attention to. Don’t forget that you are walking around carrying some extra kilos on your back! A basic pair of Vans is probably not going to make you happy, no matter how comfortable they feel during a day of shopping in the city center. The right shoes will give your feet extra support and have good cushioning.

Check what kind of ground you will pass on your trip. Do you need extra grip for going down on gravel tracks? Or do you need ankle support for walking on very uneven tracks?

Make sure your shoes are breathable, as wet feet will easily get blisters. Also, make sure your shoes are comfortable and worn-in very well!

Don’t forget to bring good socks as well. There is a huge difference between socks and socks. Make sure they are breathable, not too warm and comfortable (padded). Always bring an extra pair of socks, so that if you have sweaty feet during the day, you can change to a pair of dry socks and avoid blisters.

Wear proper hiking boots

backpacking tips for beginners for bringing food

7. Food backpacking tips for beginners

Are there wild animals around? Store your food properly, so there won’t be any animals attracted to get into your tent. Going on a longer trip? You should try to keep your food as fresh as possible.

Below are some tips for bringing food in your backpack.

  • Use food containers. These are smell-proof containers, which will keep animals away. They also keep your food warm, ideal if you eat the same dish for lunch and dinner.
  • Buy single-use packages. Don’t bring big cans or glass jars. They weigh a lot and it is hard to keep things fresh once the package is open.
  • Repack your food. Boxes are often way too big for the contents. So, ditch the boxes and repack yourself to save space and a little bit of weight.
  • Dispose of. Once on your way, don’t leave anything behind. Open packages carefully so you don’s spill anything on the ground. Take empty packages etc. with you. Something left on your plate? Pack it in a food container or bring it along in a garbage back, but don’t ditch it in nature! This is a very bad habit among backpackers, because they think nature is able to digest it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t belong there and it can be very bad for the environment.

8. How to prepare yourself for your first backpacking trip

Besides getting all your gear together for your first backpacking trip and packing your backpack, you should also prepare yourself. As well as physically as mentally.

Physically

Getting your body in shape will make it easier to carry your backpack around. Even if you are only planning to carry your backpack from the train station to the hostel, don’t underestimate it! You can get your body in shape by:

  • Making short hikes with a fully packed backpack.
  • Working on your endurance
  • Training your legs and core

Mentally

Mental preparation is important as well, especially when you go backpacking for the first time. When was the last time you practiced to bandage a wrist or taping an ankle? Maybe never? Get yourself mentally prepared with the following preparations:

  • Refresh your memory on survival skills. Learn one or two multiple-purpose knots, check if you know how to use your fire-stick and test if your knife is still sharp.
  • Refresh your memory on first aid skills. Try to tape your own or someone else’s ankle and check if your first aid kit is complete.
  • Practice! This might be the most important one for first-time backpackers. Practice with all the gear you have. Pitch your tent, inflate your sleeping pad and know how to store it away again, use your stove and water filter and pack and unpack your backpack several times before you actually go. This is going to make such a big difference!

First aid during a backpacking trip

9. Take it easy on yourself!

A good tip for your first backpacking trip is to take it easy. Don’t go too far, too long or too remote. Just figure out first if you like backpacking.

Plan on doing a hike? Start small with a one or two-day hike. Bring all your stuff and see if you can carry all you’ve packed. If so, well done! If not, your first-time experience will help you to decide on what not to bring next time.

When it comes to camping, see if you can go to a campsite that at least has a water source. Then you know for sure you have enough water to cook your meals without having to worry if you have enough water left to survive the next day.


Cold weather camping


10. Dare to ask

In addition to my previous point, don’t be afraid to ask. We all started as beginners and we all made our mistakes and blunders. Some of us are just not willing to admit it, but I am!

So, if you need help with anything, no matter how silly it seems, just ask! Can’t get your stove started? Just ask! Or there doesn’t come any water out of your water filter? Just ask! Can’t remember which tent pole should go where? Just ask! Don’t understand which way you need to go when you look at the map? Just ask!

Asking is the only way to learn. And once out there, people are willing to help you out. Really, I’ve helped people without them asking me. I just can’t stand it when I see people monkey about things. And if people laugh at you because you ask something? Laugh back hard and tell them that they knew less when they started than you do now! End of story!

11. Safety backpacking tips for beginners

Nothing more important than safety. No matter what you do or where you go. Always follow up with the following tips:

  • Inform someone about where you going and how long you plan on staying away. Give them instructions to warn the alarm services when you don’t check-in on time. Just don’t forget to tell them if you are back!
  • Always do a weather check before you go. Heavy winds, lots of snow or continuous rain can cause serious trouble. You better delay your trip until the circumstances are better.
  • Bring a personal locator beacon. This is a small GPS device that tracks where you are via satellite or GLONASS. It also has a little emergency button, which sends a signal to emergency services when you press it. With the satellite, they can track your position to come and get you.

TIP: If you are interested in a personal locator beacon, I can highly recommend the SPOT. This device has a long battery life, is robust, waterproof and very easy to use. We always carry it with us, as well as on short trips as during multiple day hikes.

Backpacking ethics: Leave nothing but footprints

backpacking tips for beginners backpacking ethics

12. The backpacking ethics for beginners

Backpacking ethics are as simple as ‘leave no trace’ and ‘pack in what you pack out’. With these simple rules, which are set by the non-profit organization leave no trace, we can enjoy nature as much as we want with as little as possible impact.

So, when you go backpacking for the first time, keep the following principles in mind:

  • Leave what you find
  • Respect wildlife
  • Make sure to properly dispose of your waste
  • Travel and camp only on durable surfaces
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Take other visitors into account

Check specific park regulations as well. During certain times of the year, you might not be allowed to make a campfire or you need to take extra precaution on food storage. And maybe you are only allowed to set up your tent in designated areas or not allowed to walk off-trail.

Make sure you stick to these rules so that everyone who visits the place after you can enjoy nature to the fullest as well.

We love to hear from you

It is so exciting to try something new, but it can be overwhelming as well. Hopefully, these 12 backpacking tips for beginners should help you out to prepare your first backpacking trip and to get rid of that overwhelmed feeling. Have you been backpacking or do you have a question? Please leave a comment below!

Also, don’t forget to check out our other travel tips!

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Kelly Kap
Living the dream is my motto! I like outdoor adventure, volunteering, nature, exploring new cultures! I'm always seeking new challenges and new places to discover. Travelling was always my biggest passion since I was a kid! I like to inspire people to stop dreaming and start living their dreams!

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