Backpacking for Beginners: How to Get Started, Tips & Gear

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Disclaimer: This is a beginner’s backpacking guide based off my 9 years of experience. I learned backpacking (backcountry/ wilderness camping in 2015) and have been on countless trips across, and I’m here to share everything you need to know to get started including mistakes I made.

If you are looking to transition from day hiking to overnight camping in the mountains, this guide is to help you get started with planning and a gear list, but if you want to see what I personally pack, jump over to my other guides here:

Make sure you plan for the right weather when planning your first backpacking trip. Look up what elevation your campsite is at (do not simply google the city you will be in), because it’s always colder at high altitude. Click here for my hiking resources guide including my favorite weather websites.

Tips for Your First Backpacking Trip

  • For starters, I’d recommend going with someone who has been before if it’s your first time.  It helps to have a veteran around to help guide you with the best possible experience. If you don’t enjoy your first trip and you don’t know what you are doing, you likely won’t want to try again.
  • Pick an area you are familiar with. Make sure you check if there is a permit system for your intended trail.  
  • Many people have asked me how I trained to backpack; hiking trails with elevation gain and walking on an inclined treadmill both help.  
  • Remember that when you actually get out there, it’s just you and other fellow backpackers out there… so know your limits and know it’s ok to turn around if you’re not comfortable.
  • Once you get to a good camp spot, I always like to pitch my tent, blow up my inflatable sleeping pad, and lay out my sleeping bag right away so I won’t be too tired when I’m relaxed after dinner.
  • According to experts at REI, your overall backpack weight should not be more than 20% of your body weight, others say it should not be more than 25%. As a relatively smaller hiker, I will say that’s a very low weight limit which I can hit easily, but I’d recommend aiming to be under 30% for general 3-season backpacking (winter camping/ mountaineering will be heavier).
  • Remember, the lighter your gear, the more expensive it is. I’d estimate about 1 lb of weight savings is roughly $100.
  • Share gear with your partner when you can. This includes a tent, cook system, water filter, and maybe even your food storage bag if only going for one night.

Learn from my mistakes

  • Wear pants/ leggings: this is something you may not realize, but your legs will get really dirty if you wear shorts which will make you the camp experience less pleasant. You can always bring wipes but this saves you a lot of cleaning work.
  • Do not bring a change of clothes to hike out in – it’s extra space and weight.
  • Don’t overpack on food — it gets heavy. Carry only what you need and make sure your foods are all dense with high calories.
  • Don’t overpack on water if you know where your water sources are. 1 liter of water weights about 2 lbs which adds up

Below I’ve listed the gear you will need to acquire as a beginner backpacker, my personal gear list, and food recommendations.

♥ If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments below.
If you just want to know my recommendations/ what I like to use, scroll to the bottom or click here.

Backpacking Gear List

New to backpacking? Here’s the rule of thumb I have noticed – the lighter the gear, the more expensive it is… and remember, you are carrying everything on your back!  Ultralight backpacking is always a good option for backpacking but it comes at a price.  Everything is a live-and-learn process.  

If you are new to the wonderful world of backpacking, you probably don’t want to drop too much money at first which is understandable, just get a decent starting set of gear and upgrade along the way once you’ve figured out how much you want to invest into this new hobby.  You also have the option to rent your backpacking gear: REI offers great gear rentals!  This is a good option to test out items if you are unsure if you want to spend a lot of money on something you may not want to keep up with.

Now here’s what you’ll need:

  • Tent – lightweight, backpacking purpose.
    • 3 season: built for spring, summer, fall
  • Sleeping bag – ladies, get a women-specific bag if you can.  You’re probably looking at a 3-season sleeping bag until you get more comfortable to go in the winter, which you would then invest in that ridiculously expensive (but totally worth it) winter bag.
    • Down vs synthetic: main difference – down material is warmer but synthetic isn’t totally useless when it’s wet (unlike down feathers, synthetic dries faster) and synthetic tends to be cheaper.  If you are going to be in damp/wet conditions, go with the synthetic.  Otherwise, down feels better if you run cold as I do.
    • Storage at home: do not keep it compressed in the little compression bag you hit the trails with!  Keep it inside the bigger stuck sack it comes in, this way it helps keep your bag fluffy.
  • Sleeping pad – get an insulated one, it makes a huge difference!  Each pad has an R-value which measures the thermal resistance of the pad; the higher the number, the warmer you’ll be.  A rating of 5/10 means you can sleep on snow and not feel the cold.  Personally, I don’t like the mummy-size pads even though this will save some weight and breath for you.  Also for winter, I hear you should get a foam pad to go under your air pad.
  • Overnight backpack – 50 liters is good for 1-3 nights.  There are sizes and proper ways to adjust your pack to your body so stop by REI (or your nearest backpacking equipment store) and have them size it for you.  There’s also a proper way to pack your bags and strap it on.  Many modern, lightweight backpacking packs have a sleeping bag compartment on the bottom of the backpack, and everything else on the inside big pouch should be packed with the lightest items on the bottom and heavier on top-middle up against your back so the weight doesn’t hurt your lower back.
  • Hiking shoes & socks – hiking socks make a big difference as opposed to wearing normal workout socks and you can’t go wrong with merino wool. 
  • Headlamp (& extra batteries if you don’t have a rechargeable one)
  • Portable Stove & propane – you cannot buy propane online; go to a gear shop or walmart
  • Layers – This really depends on where you’re going, but these are the essentials I always like to have with me
    • Baselayer
    • Down jacket (or another softshell insulating jacket)
    • Rain jacket
    • Gloves
    • Hat/beanie
    • Neck warmer/ buff/ scarf/ bandana
    • Pants – as a girl, I know we struggle to look cute while hiking, and let’s be honest… hiking pants aren’t really cute.  I always wear leggings.

Optional (but recommended):

  • Hydration pack – sometimes this is more convenient than reusable water bottles. I like the Osprey ones better than Camelbak due to ease of closure.
  • Battery pack – if you rely on your phone for pics
  • Bear canister – find out ahead of time if it’s required or not
  • Hygienic necessities: toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, trash bag to pack it out, sunblock, etc
  • Quick-dry towel
  • First aid kit – I took a Wilderness First Aid Certification course and the two main pieces I learned to have if you are building your own kit was gauze and tape, but of course, you will want more than just that so do your own research to build out your kit. Highly recommend Moleskin, too!
  • Pocket knife (personal preference)
  • Hiking poles
  • Water filter
  • Fork / spork/ eating utensil
  • Sunglasses
  • Bug Spray


This will vary depending on how many nights you are backpacking and your taste, but basically, anything lightweight and high in calories will do the trick.  Freeze-dried meals are good options because it’s super light and you can cook them right in the bags for convenience by just adding hot water. Remember that you are carrying the fuel so make sure you check how long it will take to cook up your meals (like rice may take a while).  

For lunch, you probably want to keep it quick and light, so you can get back on the trail soon without any food coma but again, you know your body best.  Reward yourself with a yummier full-size meal for dinner!  I find it helpful to pack up your snacks and meals in separate ziplock bags, for easy access and to save space (especially spices). & Don’t forget snacks!!

Here are some meal ideas:

Breakfast:  banana, oatmeal, granola, cereal with powdered milk, bread/ pastries

Lunch:  sandwiches (salami & bread work well because salami is the only deli meat that does not need to be refrigerated and provides a lot of fat and protein), tuna packets, pre-cooked bacon, jerky, granola bars

Dinner:  Freeze-dried meals, dehydrated meals, ramen, tuna packets, spam, summer sausage, couscous, quinoa, instant rice, freeze-dried vegetables, curry, soup

Snacks:  granola bars, protein bars, rice cakes with almond butter or peanut butter, nuts, dried fruits, granola, fruits (even though they weigh more), jerky

*Random food tip:  if you are only going for one or two nights, you can freeze half of your water bladder and slip any deli meats against the inside so it creates a temporary cooler.


Backpacking for Beginners FAQ

How long should a beginner backpacking trip be?

Pick a number of miles you are comfortable with, but not anything too long, maybe 5 miles per day, with just one night of camping. Since this is your first time, it will be good to pick a short hiking trip so you can test out all of your gear and focus on building the skill set and camp experience. If you are not used to carrying a heavy load, it is also recommended to start with short miles and train for it.

How do you get started backpacking? What is the first step?

Research a local place to camp, obtain your gear and proper permits, practice pitching your tent and get familiar with your gear at home before heading outdoors, and go.

How much money do you need to be a backpacker?

This depends on how comfortable or rugged you want the experience to be. You can get a lot of budget-friendly backpacking gear from outlet shops, gear rentals, or smaller brands offline and I bet you could do it all in under $200. My first set of gear is all lightweight gear I invested in that cost roughly $1,000.

Am I too old to start backpacking?

You are never too old to start!!

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    22 thoughts on “Backpacking for Beginners: How to Get Started, Tips & Gear”

    1. Great write up with a ton of helpful tips! I can totally relate to you on trying to look cute while hiking so i’m glad i’m not the only girl concerned about this haha.

      1. lolol I know it comes off a little… superficial.. but I’m probably just speaking what half the girls are thinking. 😛

        feel free to reach out if you have any questions!

    2. Keep up the good work. Great 101 tips I could have used on my first backpacking trip. Great idea about icing the water bladder to keep the food cold!
      Mash potato powder pouch is also great to take cause you can just add hot water to make it. It’s great along the lasagna MRE!

    3. Are leggings warm enough in winter? My fiance does not like to hike in winter because her legs get too cold, but I love winter hiking (I run hot, she runs cold). I’d like to get her something so she’d be more inclined to join me when there’s snow on the trail.

      Thank you for the tips!

      1. Hi there! Superrrrr sorry I am somehow just now seeing your comment!! I hope you were able to figure out a warm solution for her but some leggings are warm enough for me when I hike since I am constantly moving. Fleece-lined leggings are perfect because they’re a little thicker but I have found that hiking in the snow with a lot of incline def warmed me up a bit. Adidas Terrex also offers a thicker pair of leggings which I posted about in my personal backpacking list at the bottom of this post, and Glyder has a pair of sculpt leggings from their Fall 2018 collection that was thicker and warmer with pockets 🙂 Hope this still helps!

    4. Love these tips! I’m starting to build out my pack (using an Osprey Kyte 46) and it’s definitely been a challenge balancing weight vs $$$. I totally know what you mean about pants – I still mainly wear Lululemon WUs or Athleta tights ?

      1. Thanks, Kristy! It’s a constant battle of buying, trying, and returning or keeping haha. I guess I’ll have to look into Athleta tights as well! 😀

    5. Hi,

      Thank you for sharing your journeys!

      Regarding packing your packs: the heaviest items should be either closer to your body, or at the bottom of the pack, not at the top. And lighter items (and more frequently accessed) – at the top. As this way it would be easier to keep balance.

      Actually, REI website has a pretty detailed guide on how to pack your packs.

      1. Hi Aleksey,

        Thank you for your message. I understand and agree with you – that’s actually how I learned it too. I guess I should rephrase my wording to mean the sleeping bag goes on the bottom since it’s super light, the quick easy gadgets on the top pockets, easy-to-access outerwear on the outside pocket, and the heavier stuff is closer to the middle-top back. But everyone learns their own ways to pack however they are comfortable with. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    6. Love your blog! Good tips. Didn’t know about salami.

      For TP, for the beginners, tell them to wrap it in a plastic bag. That was a tip given to me my first trip. Don’t want to have wet toilet paper!

      And non-plastic utensil. I’ve seen people break their fork on their first meal.

      1. Thanks for the tip Scott! I naturally assumed everyone used non-plastic utensils in the backcountry when you’re accumulating your gear set but it’s a nice reminder not to assume. Also, I like to pack my TP (& all other trash) in a small ziplock bag, another great reminder I didn’t even think of 🙂

      1. Thanks! If you have any questions, let me know! I’m also in Colorado a lot (based here for another month or two) if you’re looking for adventure partners or want to connect on the blogging world 🙂

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