First-time backpacker? REI’s 12 basic tips can go a long way to ensuring you and your group have a great time.

1. Pick a Partner

Backpacking friends

Team up with an experienced friend. Knowledgeable company is good for peace of mind, and a shared backpacking experience is usually more fun than going solo. A been-there/done-that companion(s) can accelerate your learning curve by sharing wisdom gained in the field.

Join a group. Group trips (4-6 people, typically) are memory-makers. Most backcountry areas limit groups to 12 (to minimize impact to the land).

2. Pick a Destination

Get a guidebook. Some authors rate trips for scenic quality—very helpful for picking a prime trail. Their 5-star locales usually attract crowds, so don’t expect solitude unless you visit midweek.

Websites, magazines. Hiking websites abound and can be good resources, though info reliability can vary. Books and magazines are solid sources, and some national parks and forests maintain online trail-condition reports, too.

Ask well-traveled friends. They can point you to destinations that match your tastes and abilities. REI staffers are also a good resource to tap.

3. How Long? How Far?

Alpine backpackers

Time and distance. A 1-night trip makes sense for beginners. Keep the roundtrip distance to 10 miles or less. It is reassuring to know that civilization is not too far out of reach.

Base camp trips. Got 2 nights? Consider this: Set up camp on Night 1, use Day 2 to relax or take a day hike to somewhere nice, then return to your base camp that night. This way you’ll tote a full backpack on just 2 days.

4. Be Ready Physically

Prep hikes. Prior to your trip, take some training hikes. You need to be in reasonably good condition to attempt a backpacking trip. (Confer with a doc if you have doubts.) Choose hikes with elevation changes that challenge you.

Test-carry a full backpack. For training, load up a multinight backpack with a tent, sleeping bag and pad plus your 10 Essentials (see below) and tote it on a day hike. It’s a good reality check before your first overnighter.

5. Choose Your Gear

The 10 Essentials: It’s a time-tested assortment of wilderness travel gear that a) ensures you have the basics for safety and comfort and b) equips you to handle emergencies. You may never refer to your compass or use firestarter—2 of the Essentials—but it’s good to carry them, just in case.

Consult a checklist. REI’s Backpacking Checklist includes more items than you’ll ever carry on a single trip, but we made it that way so you don't forget anything important.

Not really roughing it. Many comforts of home also come in impressively lightweight backpacking forms: stoves, cushy sleeping pads, camp pillows.

Think light. It's easy to over-pack. Yes, bring a camera, toilet paper, headlamp and sunscreen. But maybe skip the lantern, the paperback and that third water bottle (bring a water filter instead and resupply as you go.) Aim for a pack weight that’s manageable. Say, around 30 pounds.

Borrow or rent. Try out big-ticket items (bags, tents) before making a purchase so you better understand your preferences. REI stores rent selected camping gear; check your local store for availability.

6. How to Carry It

REI backpack

A backpack is designed to carry most of the load on your hips while your shoulders carry less. Get more details on how to choose a backpack.

  • Capacity. The number in pack names = the pack’s volume in liters. A common size for multinight trips (2-4 nights) is 60-70+ liters. For longer trips, choose 75 and higher.
  • Size: Backpacks are sized according to torso length, not a person’s height. Torso length is determined by measuring the distance between the top of your hips to your C7 vertebrae—that bony protrusion near the top of your neck. 
  • Loading and adjusting a pack. Keep heavy gear close to your back and near your shoulders. See our pack-loading and pack-adjusting tips for details.

7. What to Wear

Base layer. Sweaty cotton takes forever to dry, so choose a “technical” fabric: moisture-wicking polyester or wool. Wool? Yep, lightweight wool wears comfortably in warm weather on the trail, and it retains few odors. Underwear, men’s or women’s, made of tech fabrics is also a smart choice.

Pants or shorts. “Convertible” pants are popular. Their lower-leg portions can zip off if you want more air and sun.

Footwear. Full- or mid-cut boots are traditional backpacking choices, though some folks prefer light hikers or even trail runners. Tennis shoes and urban/athletic footwear are too flexible for roots and rocks on trails. Sandals for lounging in camp are a nice luxury if you don’t mind toting the weight.

Socks. Avoid cotton. Wearing it on the trail is asking for trouble (as in blisters). Choose wool or synthetic socks in a weight or thickness compatible with your footwear.

Head cover. Brimmed hats, caps, Buffs, bandanas—it’s smart to shield your scalp from all-day sun exposure. Bring ample sunscreen for exposed skin.

Outerwear. Even if dry weather is forecast, a rain jacket keeps bugs off your arms and torso while in camp. An insulation layer (jacket or vest) wards off chills early or late in the day.

8. What to Eat

Freeze-dried meal

Dinner. For simplicity, choose dehydrated meals that require just a few cups of boiling water and 10 minutes of wait time. Gourmands or those with access to a food dehydrator can make more creative trail meals.

Rest of the day. Some backpackers take time to cook breakfast; others save time with ready-to-eat items. Lunch can be a meal or several snack breaks of trail mix, jerky, dried fruit, chunks of cheese and energy foods (bars, chews and gels).

Coffee. Lightweight coffee press and French press units do, in fact, exist.

Food storage. Never leave food lying around unattended. Carry a food canister or learn how to hang food to protect your edibles (and any aromatic items) from critters. You’ll likely lose it, and the animal may become less inclined to forage in a natural manner again.

9. Backpacking with Kids

Adjust your expectations. You’ll travel slower and over shorter distances, but done right (with compassion and patience) you can cultivate a love for outdoors adventure in your little ones.

Teach respect for the land. Encourage kids to stay on trails and not cut switchbacks. Ask them not to pick flowers, tag rocks or carve their names into tree trunks.

Tips to help you. Read the REI Expert Advice article, Backpacking with Kids.

10. Communication

Spot satellite messenger

Mobile phones. Do not count on getting cell phone reception in wilderness areas. Cell towers can be found near visitor centers at a handful of national parks, but in the backcountry, cell reception is rare.

Other options. These include satellite phones (pricey, but your best bet if on-demand access to civilization is a must), satellite messengers (capable of transmitting 1-way or even 2-way text messages), 2-way radios (best for groups spread out over a large area; average range is 2 miles) and personal locator beacons (for sending a distress signal). Portable power sources (such as solar chargers) can generate enough energy to fully charge a smartphone.

11. Before You Go

Practice at home or a campground. Pitch your tent in your backyard. Inflate your sleeping pad. Light your stove. Check out your headlamp. Know how things work in a comfortable place before you’re under pressure in an unfamiliar setting.

Call ahead. Avoid surprises. Contact a ranger office at or near your destination. Ask about road closures, trail conditions, permit requirements, animal activity or any temporary restrictions.

Share your plans with a friend. Leave an itinerary with a friend who will remain in town. If you don’t return by the appointed time, your friend can notify rangers that you may need help.

12. Wilderness Ethics

"Pack out what you pack in." It’s an old phrase but still valid, along with “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” In the wilderness, no one cleans up after you. So be relentlessly tidy. Pick up every wrapper, tote out every orange peel. Any item that does not originate in the wilderness, even an apple core, should not be left there. In some backcountry areas, that includes toilet paper. Learn about Leave No Trace principles so wilderness scenery perpetually looks untouched and inviting, just the way you want to see it. 

Understand the backcountry is wild and unpredictable, not a theme park. In the wilderness, you’ll find no handrails, no courtesy phones, no attendants, no flush toilets, no water fountains, no snack bars. It’s a potentially dangerous place. That’s part of its appeal—wild lands are a different world. Self-reliance is a vital skill for appreciating them. Be confident that you can adapt to the unexpected.

This ain’t no disco. Realize most people head to the wilderness for peace and serenity—an escape from the noisy urban norm. Have fun; just please self-regulate your noise level.

Ultimately, relax and enjoy. Stay committed to being nice to fellow backpackers, the animals and the land. Breathe deeply, soak in the views and immerse yourself in a whole new world.

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