So. You tried your hand at car camping, and you feel like it went pretty well. Tent set-up? Only two pieces left over! Day hikes? Just three blisters in a six-person crew! Meal planning? Beer is food, right? But now you’re kind of wondering: what would it be like to ACTUALLY commune with Mother Nature, with only the stars to guide us—and only our wits to keep us alive in the backcountry? The answer: it’s every bit as awesome as you imagine…as long as you’re prepared. Here at Kelty, it’s basically our job to ensure *everyone* has a great experience in the great outdoors. So we’ve put together nine essential tips for first-time backpackers—virtually guaranteed to get you out and back, this time and EVERY time!
1. START SMALL.
Our first and most important tip for first-time backpackers: even if you feel like the Choinard of the KOA, there’s no reason to shoot for the stratosphere on your first real attempt at backcountry camping. It’s best to scale everything WAY down, from the size of your group (four people, max) to the length of your hike (six miles RT, tops) to the length of your trip (two nights at the most). Extra points for keeping things relatively close to home, and for the luvva Dick—that’s Dick Kelty, our fearless founder—watch the weather!
2. CHOOSE WELL.
First-time backpackers should also put some basic research into the area. Water is the heaviest thing you’ll ever carry. If you can, pick a location with a natural water source that doesn’t dry up in the summer. Speaking of summer, unless your nearby wilderness frequently catches fire during high season (California, we’re looking at you), that’s exactly the time to go.
You’ll also want to give yourself plenty of daylight to slay that hike and make your first backcountry camp. We also recommend keeping the elevation gains relatively low (no more than 500 feet total) and whenever possible, taking well-traveled, well-marked trails.
3. PACK LIGHT.
There are zillions of beginner backpacking tips about packing light, and we suggest you read LOTS of them. Most experts agree that a fully-loaded backpack should not weigh more than 20% of your total body weight. For those of you who don’t want to do the math, that’s 30 pounds for a 150-pound person. You’d be surprised how quickly those pounds add up, too! In order to (a) bring the right stuff and (b) be able to comfortably carry it, we recommend using both a packing checklist and a SCALE.
4. LAYER UP.
This should go without saying, but first-time backpackers (backpackers of all skill levels, really) will want to dress/pack for layered warmth. If you’ve taken our advice and planned a 2–3 day summer trip, you won’t need to “spend” a ton of your pack weight on clothing. We heartily recommend investing in a pair of convertible quick-dry hiking pants, so you can zip down to shorts if things get really steamy.
And don’t forget the most important clothing rule for first-time backpackers: COTTON IS ROTTEN. Unlike technical wicking fabrics, cotton holds moisture—with clothing, this will mess with your body’s natural temperature control; with socks, cotton is basically blister city.
5. FEET FIRST.
No, really. When you’re carrying heavy cargo over uncertain terrain, you need to take extra-special care of those precious lil’ piggies. If you buy only one thing as a first-time backpacker and borrow everything else, invest in some good hiking boots—some folks prefer sturdy trail-running shoes, and these are also fine for a summer trip. And, while you may not even need a full change of clothing, it’s smart to bring a few pairs of socks in the event of an unexpected water crossing or just really, really sweaty feet. We promise you’ll thank us later.
6. FOOD RULES.
Food is a VERY personal thing, so you should do your research. But in general, you should plan to bring along about two pounds of food per person, per day. Choose a balanced blend of foods that are relatively nutrient dense. This could include vacuum-sealed tuna fish, jerky snacks, peanut butter packets, meal replacement bars and such. Also, high-carb, high sodium foods (pre-packaged mac + cheese is the Kelty staff go-to fave) are great for quick energy and fluid management on the trail.
First-time backpackers should also choose non-perishable foods and shoot for a good balance of flavors (sweet, savory, salty, spicy) as well as textures (crispy, crunchy, crumbly, soft, chewy) to keep things interesting. Don’t be afraid to rely on dehydrated backpacking meals your first trip out—just make sure you give everything a test-drive before your trip!
7. WATER DOWN.
If you’re among the 1% that have weight to spare in your pack, by all means use a hydration bladder! But if you’re among the 99% of first-time backpackers who mayyyy have slightly overpacked to begin with, you’re gonna have to have some kind of purification system to transform your natural water source into sweet, sweet hydration.
You need about a half-liter PER HOUR for healthy hydration on the trail; that number goes up if it’s very hot, or your hike is very strenuous. Our friends at Backcountry put together a great article on the various ways to ensure nobody in your group is pooping their guts out do to water-borne microbes—read it, and maybe you won’t have to weep. Finally…know what doesn’t have to be purified? Alcohol. So, while we don’t recommend heavy drinking in the backcountry, we’re not against bringing a few nips along.
8. GEAR UP.
We’ve been in this business since the 50s, so we’ve got some expertise, along with lots of opinions. If you’re truly a first-time backpacker, you can absolutely rent nearly everything you need for your first foray. We actually recommend this if you have zero outdoor experience and are not 100% you’ll love it. Investing in a full set of gear isn’t exactly free.
But if you’re already an experienced car-camper looking to up-level your backcountry game, we’ve certainly got amazing recommendations for the ultimate first-time backpacker gear! Our best-selling Coyote 65 pack is the ultimate backcountry companion, with loads of cargo space and tons of smart organization. Our Grand Mesa tent strikes just the right balance between compact carry and on-ground luxury. Our Cosmic 20 sleeping bag is a lightweight three-season superstar—pair it with our Cosmic Mummy sleeping pad for your first foray.
9. PEACE OUT.
If you’re a first-time backpacker accustomed to the [ahem] relative luxury of dumpsters and chemical toilets, you’ll need to brush up on basic Leave No Trace principles. Our ability to continue enjoying the great outdoors relies on our collective ability to protect it. So get out there, be prepared, be safe—and by all means, have fun! And most of all, remember: we’re ALL Built for Play.