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first-time backpacker looking for recommendations

I’ve never gone backpacking and want to do the Trans-Catalina trail as a first trip (solo). I want the proper gear to be able to continue and hope to eventually do the John Muir Trail, but the problem is … what if I hate backpacking? I actually hate camping but the appeal for me is being in unspoiled wilderness, testing my endurance (I used to run marathons), and the idea of being resourceful in the wild. It is such a large expense for all the gear, only some of which is good to have for other situations, so sometimes I’m unsure about making this leap. Any recommendations on how to navigate this? 


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16 Replies

You can rent backpacks, tents, sleeping pads and possibly sleeping bags (not sure with covid)  from REI and similar outfitters so if you are unsure that is a way to limit your financial and storage costs.

Beyond that if you used to run marathons and still have that bug there is something called fastpacking ...essentially traveling very light and running trails.  Probably good to find others that do this around...other people = redundancy...even if you essentially hike "solo".   For this activity "camping" is just sleeping outside, doing what you have to do.  Generally for shorter trails over much less time.  This necessarily uses minimal and very light weight gear so while there is some crossover,  you would not want to invest in a lot of heavier traditional backpacking gear if this was what you wanted to pursue.

I don't do this personally so just pointing it out in case it is of interest.

Here is an example of someone who fastpacked the Tahoe Rim Trail.   He has a posted gear list although it is Canadian so your choices might be different

The Tahoe Rim Trail forms a complete loop 165 miles around the Lake Tahoe Basin on the border of California and Nevada. A thru-hike of the trail typically ta...

Thanks, I wasn’t familiar with this and will check it out!


I just wanted to add a little bit to this conversation in regards to your question, 'what if I hate backpacking?' The odds are that, because you've been doing research and thinking about this enough to join our community and ask for advice, that you are likely drawn to the challenges of backpacking and will find it tremendously rewarding. As such, the real question is not whether you will 'hate' it, but what are the parts of the experience you are concerned you will not enjoy? For some it is bugs, sleeping on the ground, eating different food, having to go to the bathroom in the woods, being scared of the dark (or being alone), bears, etc. Once you have identified the things you think will most impact your experience, I recommend making sure you invest a good amount of time and effort into making sure those parts of backpacking are as enjoyable as you can make them.

As a personal example, I can pretty much endure anything (being wet, cold, sore, tired, dirty, etc) if I sleep and eat well. When I was putting my backpacking kit together, my priorities were sleeping comfortably and finding food I can pretty much eat at any time and under any conditions. As such, I invested in a good sleeping pad/sleeping bag system and I also carry the extra weight of a comfortable pillow. You'll also never find me on the trail without a bag of homemade chocolate ship cookies because well...cookies. 

The advice you have gotten here about not really knowing until you go is sound, however, you can apply some forethought to the things that you think will be important and make some plans accordingly.

Hopefully this helps and please keep us posted on your journey!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

@REI-JohnJ  Thanks so much for your encouraging and delightful post. You found just the right things to say that make me feel like it’s very possible I can make it all work, which I’ll *have* to do, since my mind won’t let this all go! Happy to have found a wonderfully supportive community on here and will provide updates 🙂

Probably the best advice I can think of is to find an experienced person to go with on a short trip (don't start solo); there are so many little pieces of advice you will want that are well beyond the space here. (I had a couple trips that were really a good fit for novices I might take out). Where and how to defecate, what to do about water, where to camp--and where not to camp! Yes, just rent gear for starters and make do with some simple sacrifices (e.g., figure out cold meals so you don't have to mess with a stove, maybe borrow some kitchen utensils rather than springing for fancy lightweight stuff, live with sneakers if you don't have boots).  Army surplus stores used to be a great place for getting some basic gear cheap. 

Backpacking camping is *way* different than most car camping; depending on the trail you might be able to pick your spot and watch sunset or sunrise. It is quieter and more private (usually).

Be sure to know what the 10 essentials are, be sure to have a map and know how to read it (a real map, not some park pamphlet map). You can get in a lot more trouble backpacking than dayhiking...

Good luck

Thanks @cjones_cu I like your idea of avoiding hot meals, if possible, and those are good suggestions on avoiding what could very well be unnecessary expenses on this trip.. but come what may, I’ll be doing this first backpacking trip on my own. I do think the Trans-Catalina Trail sounds kind of perfect for novices and has camping sites you reserve in advance that include water stations, PLUS there are even bathrooms along the way and at the camp sites. So this should be a comparatively easy one that’ll be good for practice.


Let us know how it goes. Happy trails...