An introduction to backpacking for the beginner. 

Throw a water bottle in a rucksack and head out of town.
Viola! You’re backpacking. It’s as easy as that.

Of course, you may want to consider a few more things if you would like to have a safe and enjoyable time out in the wilderness.

The term “backpacking” can be used to describe all kinds of activities carrying equipment as you travel. As I write this, my kid is backpacking thru Europe making his way on foot, by car and train and staying at camp sites, hostels and hotels. In this article we will focus on backpacking in the great outdoors, the wilderness, among the trees and cacti, streams and hills, canyons and mountains. Furthermore, we will focus on backpacking in the southwest deserts of the United States as that is where I have the most experience. My intention is to introduce you to the things you need to think about, research and practice so you can have a safe, enjoyable time and be a responsible camper.

  • Get ready. Be physically and mentally fit and research the information you need to know.
  • Put your gear together and practice using it.
  • Plan your hike and tell a friend.
  • Go play outside.

There are as many ways to start backpacking as there are people and you can research the web endlessly finding suggestions on how to start. The reason some people fail as a camper out in the woods is they have not prepared. Being prepared, mentally, physically and emotionally is the first step towards avoiding dangerous situations.

In this article we will cover:
  • The Mindset
  • Fitness
  • Safety
  • Skills
  • Gear

   Let's go. It'll be fun. 


1. THE MINDSET: How to think.
FIRST and foremost, you need to be mentally capable and in the right head-space. Your attitude and knowledge will get you through more than any physical abilities or equipment you carry. Get in the mindset of being a backpacker. In a word, you need to be self-reliant. (Ok, that's two words, but they're hyphenated.)

YOU WILL NEED TO BE SELF RELIANT AND SELF SUFFICIENT. It can not be stressed enough. You are going to a remote location and there will be far less, if any, people. You will be on your own. This is a concept that does not resonate with some people. A bit of careful consideration is needed. You will want to be safe and have a good time. To do that and not become a burden to others or the environment you must be able to take care of your own needs and follow some basic principles for everyone’s (and everything’s) well-being. Consider for a moment some of the small details of everyday life at home that require very little thought; going to the bathroom or throwing away a food wrapper. These, and a myriad of others, are the kinds of things you will need to think through and plan for. Where should you go to the bathroom (hint; it won’t be a room) and how do you take care of the waste? There is no one to pick up after you. As basic as this might sound it seems many people are under the false impression that this is what Rangers do. It is not. You need to plan and prepare for the things you will need, do and encounter. In addition, the ability to remain cool and collected in an emergency or high stress situation is needed.  Your preparation for the unlikely event of an emergency will help you keep your cool and allow you to stay focused on the task at hand. These things do not come easily but the rewards of thinking and acting in this way are immeasurable.
There is also a code of conduct that is expected in the wilderness. These are…

Backpacking Ethics

Leave No Trace is a set of values and recommended ethics for campers and wilderness travelers. Most backpackers agree that you should "leave no trace" and "pack out what you pack in." The Leave No Trace core principles include:
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors
  • Pack it in, pack it out
  • Help those in trouble
Also, make sure to check with the park or forest service ranger station for regulations specific to the area where you will be camping. Depending on the region and time of year, special regulations may not allow campfires, may require specific food storage containers, and sometimes specific areas are closed for restoration. It is generally recommended to camp at least 100-feet to 200-feet from water and relieve yourself at least 100-feet to 200-feet from camp and water in areas unlikely to be traveled.

Following regulations and core backpacking ethics helps to keep things safe and conserve the wilderness for generations to come.

Here is a website with some detail about backcountry ethics and notes:
These also cover Leave No Trace principles:

You need to honestly assess your own fitness. Hiking can be strenuous. Hiking with a load of weight on your back in the desert sun can be downright painful (and dangerous) if you are not well prepared. Situations and environments can become extreme quickly in the wilderness. Your physical preparedness should be assessed constantly allowing you to take on more involved hikes and adventures as you build your ability.
  • Exercise
  • Start with day hikes that are close to home and within cell phone service range. Consider working up to longer and longer hikes, gradually increase the distance of each hike.
  • Carry a pack on day hikes and gradually increase the weight. Adding a litter bottle of water is a safe way to go and adds 2 lbs. of weight.
  • Seek beginning hikes that have some relief from the harsh sun and heat. Shade is great.  Hike early or late in the day.

Each one of us is responsible for judging our own fitness level and recognizing the fitness levels of those in our hiking party and not attempting hikes or activities that could put us in jeopardy.

Enough cannot be said about safety considerations while backpacking. There are basic concerns that should be taken into account even on short day hikes. You should thoroughly research trail safety on many levels. First aid and knowledge of wild animals comes to mind as well as weather conditions and personal protection.
Desert hiking requires specific concerns to be addressed such as: 
  • Heat exhaustion 
  • Heat stroke 
  • Dehydration
  • and Hypothermia
The symptoms and treatment of these should be familiar to anyone undertaking any serious hiking in the desert.

Notes about safety:
  • Carry Water. 2 – 3 Liters per person, per day at a minimum for drinking and cooking. (Keep extra in bucket or dry sack near any campfire along with shovel.)
  • Know the area you are hiking in. At a very minimum you will want to have a good knowledge of the map, landmarks, nearest facilities, services or people and the type of terrain and environment you will encounter. A map, compass, GPS, cell phone, paper and pen and knowing how to use them are highly recommended. Topo maps can be accessed on your phone with free apps. US Topo Maps Free is a good one.
  • Route planning - when to stop for a meal, when to stop for night, when to start, options for where to camp, find water, etc. Have goals and alternates for when you don’t make it to a goal or can go further than you anticipated.
  • Tell a friend where you are going and when you expect to be back. You should also leave this plan written under the driver’s seat of your car. It is also a good idea to check in with rangers when available and let them know your plan. This is also a good way to find out any specifics of the area that might help (water levels, fire dangers, wildlife considerations, etc.).
  • Wear shoes that are comfortable, can withstand the terrain and support you well.
  • Research and understand the Natural Dangers you can come across and how to respond to them. Weather, wildlife and accidents can become big problems very quickly when you are away from help and safety. A little understanding and planning for response to these goes a long way.
  • Carry a first aid kit and survival kit and know how to use the items in them. Learning basic first aid and survival skills will help you and those around you in the event of an emergency.
  • Know when to stop, continue or turn back during less than ideal situations. Drank half your water? Usually a good time to turn around. Do not attempt activity which your level of physical ability deems questionable. Anything that seems too hard for you to execute, probably is. Scrambling up or down a short rock formation or crossing a slippery stream can become a life or death situation if you snap an ankle doing it in the middle of nowhere. THERE IS NO AID. At least in the immediate term.
  • Have a backup plan. Ask yourself;  What will I do if…?

“You know, like nunchuk skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills… Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.” - Napoleon Dynamite

As true as that may be, basic backpacking skills are not difficult to find information about and practice. But they do take practice. The skills you can acquire to augment your backpacking experience are limitless. An internet search on any of the following items should bring lots of reading and keep you up all night with YouTube videos. 

How to Find True North Without a CompassThere are, of course, some basics that you should know and practice.

Camp Craft Basics- including: 
  • Water collection and purification
  • Basic first aid
  • Knot tying
  • Efficient tent and a backup tarp pitching
  • Gathering/cutting wood
  • How to safely and efficiently build, tend and completely put out a fire
  • Layering clothe to dress for the weather
  • Meal planning, food storing, preparation and cleanup
  • Bear bag hanging
  • Navigation with map and compass
  • Protecting and caring for your gear
  • Digging a “cat hole” when ya gotta go
  • Proper campsite selection
For example, if you search this last one, Proper Camp Selection, you will find things like this on the internet:

  • Choose even surfaces. It might surprise you to learn that the most comfortable sleeping spot isn't a soft meadow (which can be bumpy, wet, and mosquito-infested). Instead, look for forest duff or pine needles—or even mineral soil, sand, or gravel. On a mattress, you'll find that it's more comfortable to be camped on a hard, flat surface than a soft, bumpy one.
  • Spend a little time. Sometimes it's hard to find a flat spot. The ground might be too rocky or hummocky or densely vegetated. Once you've spotted a possible home for the night, lay out your ground cloth and lie down to check out the slope and whether there are big protruding rocks that will poke you all night long.
  • Look for overhead dangers. These include the possibility of rock-fall from a scree-slope and widow-makers (dead trees that have started to fall but are held in place by other trees).
  • Drainage. Choose sites that will drain well, even in a downpour. This means avoiding flat areas that lie in slight depressions—especially on non-porous, hard-packed soil. In dry country, avoid flash-flood zones, like the sandy creekbed of a canyon.
  • Bug-free sleep. Mosquitoes are worst on a warm, humid night, especially if there is no breeze. Heading for an exposed knoll or a wind tunnel (look for a saddle between two hills) might find you a breezy spot.
  • Windy nights. On very windy nights, you'll want the wind at the back of your tent. If possible, hide in a clump of bushes, behind a rock redoubt. When storms threaten, give up comfort for safety—choose a protected spot over a flat one. And batten down. A calm evening can become a windy night. Set up your tent right the first time, with firmly planted stakes and taut guylines. When the weather changes at 2 a.m., you can roll over and go back to sleep, rather than having to get up and fix things.

Here is an article on-line that covers a ton of information about How To Backpack.

Backpacker Magazine has a ton of information on their website. They keep it simple and generally have good information. Here’s a link to a section. Search around on their site.

5. GEAR  
You need know how to use each piece of gear you have. How to fit, pack and carry your backpack. How to set up, tear down and adjust your shelter in varying conditions.  How to use your sleep system and know its limitations. How to use and troubleshoot your cooking system, water treatment and collecting system. What to do with your waste, etc. etc. etc. Practicing even the simplest things at home in the back yard, like boiling water with a new stove or pitching your tent in the backyard and spraying it with a hose will help you work out possible “bugs’ in the system and make it easier if you encounter hazardous conditions. You may also find adjustments and modifications you will want to make to systems to make them better.

You will find an endless supply of suppliers, gear lists and reviews on line. It is always a good idea to head to your local supplier and get information from their helpful staff. Reviews on line are helpful to pick up tips on pieces of gear you are considering or have acquired.

Consider the weight of every item you carry. It adds up VERY fast. It is not uncommon to have 50 pounds of gear in a pack and carrying this weight over long distances is extremely strenuous.  For this reason you will want to be selective about the items you carry. Saving a few bucks on a heavier piece of gear can make you rue the day later. 

You can find lots of information on the internet about "Ultralight" Backpacking. This information can help you reduce the weight of your pack but BE ADVISED > ULTRALIGHT BACKPACKING TAKES EXPERIENCE < Generally, more care and experience is needed to safely use ultralight gear. Make sure you have the experience and ease into it. Read my Article - Introduction to Luxury Ultralight.
You will also change what you carry for different situations, terrain and conditions. It is common to change what clothes, shelter,  water containers, etc.  as the circumstances dictate. You will also find things you never use or can do without as you constantly assess your gear during and after trips. The ideal situation is to reach a happy balance of weight in your pack and equipment you are comfortable with without sacrificing safety. This will take practice and experience to achieve.


There are 10 essential systems that should be carried at ALL times when out in the wilderness. These are commonly refered to as the "10 Essentails".


  1. Navigation (map and compass, GPS)
  2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen, hat)
  3. Insulation (extra clothing, rain/cold protection)
  4. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight, solar lamp)
  5. First-aid supplies with signaling (kit plus mirror, whistle)
  6. Fire (2 forms, i.e.waterproof matches/lighter/candles, fire rod)
  7. Repair kit and tools (knife, multitool)
  8. Nutrition (extra food, vitamins, addatives)
  9. Hydration (extra water, water purification/filtering)
  10. Emergency shelter (tarp, poncho, emergency blanket, large garbage bag)

These should be with you at all times, even on short hikes. 

The following list is a fairly complete list of backpacking gear. You will NOT need or want to carry every item on the list for any given trip. For example; an ice axe is not something that would normally be carried on a desert backpacking trip. Use common sense. This list is just an example of the amount of choices you have. 
An * denotes an item which is highly recommended for most extended trips.

Backpacking Essentials
  • Backpack*
  • Water bottles and water purification or filter system*
  • First Aid Kit*
  • Tent or tarp with poles,s takes and guy lines*
  • Sleeping bag*
  • Sleeping pad
  • 2 or more ways to start fire (lighter and magnesium/flint rod, etc.)*
  • Camp Stove
  • Food*
  • Headlamp and/or other light*
  • Sun protection (sunblock lotion and hat)*
  • Extra layers of clothing*
  • Multi-tool/knife*
Camping Shelter
  • Tent or Tarp*
  • Tent poles, stakes, and/or guy lines*
  • Ground cloth or tarp
  • Sleeping bag*
  • Waterproof stuff sack for sleeping bag*
  • Sleeping pad
  • Camp pillow
  • Mosquito netting or gear bug spray
Clothing for Backpacking
  • Hiking shoes or boots*
  • Sandals or water shoes (select a pair that will work for wading streams and around camp)
  •  Lightweight breathable pants/shortsZip-off convertible
  • lightweight synthetic wicking long sleeve shirt
  • Thermal underwear top and bottom
  • Lightweight down or synthetic jacket*
  • Fleece jacket or vest and pants
  • Raincoat and/or poncho*
  • Beanie
  • Gloves warm and working
Backcountry Kitchen
  • Food (dehydrated or quick cook food items are recommended)*
  • Stove
  • Fuel
  • Grill
  • Pot*
  • Pot grabber
  • Utensils*
  • Utility knife
  • Lighter and /or matches*
  • Water bottles (an extra water bottle is recommended)*
  • Water filter or other purification system*
  • Biodegradable soap*
  • French Press or drip maker.
  • Coffee Cup*
  • Dishes or bowls
  • Bear canister or hang bags and ropes for food storage*
First-aid and Safety
  • Wilderness First Aid Kit*
  • Tweezers*
  • Hand sanitizer*
  • Cell-phone, two-way radio or satellite phone*
  • Emergency tarp, bivvy or reflective blanket*
  • Whistle*
  • Watch (with altimeter and barometer)
  • Duct tape*
  • Extra rope or cord*
  • Map*
  • Compass*
  • GPS (optional)
  • Wilderness Permits*
  • Field Guide
  • Guidebook or pages
  • Notebook/paper and pen*
Sun and Weather Protection
·         Moisture-wicking t-shirt*
·         Hiking socks (an extra pair is recommended)*
·         Sunglasses
·         Lip balm
  • Hat*
  • Mosquito head net
  • Insect Repellant
  • Bandana or neck gaiter*
Personal Items
  • Camp towel
  • Toilet paper*
  • Small shovel
  • Toothbrush and paste
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Headlamp*
  • Vitamins
  • Prescription medicines*
  • Prescription glasses*
  • Wide brim hat*
Other Optional Backpacking Gear
  • Trekking Poles
  • Axe, machete or saw
  • Stool or chair
  • Fishing gear & tackle
  • Energy Food (bars and drink mixes)*
  • Battery charger (preferably solar powered)
  • Camp light (solar powered?)
  • Gaiters
  • Binoculars/monocular
  • Digital Camera
  • Waterproof pack cover
  • Journal
  • Book
  • Fun item, kite, Frisbee, etc.
  • Backpacker guitar or other instrument
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
  • Rope

There are many different schools of thought on how to pack a backpack. A little research online will have your head spinning. Heavy gear on top? On bottom? Middle? Tent on outside? Inside? Where do I keep my sunscreen?
Don't worry. My general approach is keep it simple and intuitive.
You'll need to choose a backpack that is the right size for what you intend to do and the gear you intend to take. Don't get something too big, you'll be inclined to fill it.Take your gear, or at last the big stuff to a backpacking store and see if it fits. I know, that sounds weird but I work at a backpacking store and I wish the people who come in to buy a pack would bring their gear so I knew more exactly what they need.
Don't get nervous about how to pack it.
Here's a one-sheet on the basics:

I know I know. Not exactly basic but with a little attention and re-stuffing your pack 2 or 3 times, it'll be second nature. And believe me, just thinking about what you might need and finding the right place for it is part of the fun. You'll pack your pack many times before you set off and by the time you get out there, you'll know exactly where that little thingamajig is.

Here's a rule of thumb on packing.


Think about the first things you might need on the trail. These things should be accessible.
Balance the weight. Heavy things counterbalanced by other heavy things and close to your body.
Make things as small and compact as possible. Nesting items that go together. Filling container-like items.

I need to thank “Erik The Black” Asorson at www.blackwoodspress.com/blog/ for the original image of the backpack and notes. His blog is very helpful, I highly recommend spending some time on it. His matter-of-fact insights and replies to comments are priceless knowledge.  I simply tweaked it with more detail for you. 

Have fun.

UPDATE: See the ADDENDUM TO THE INTRODUCTION blog if you liked this reading.

I hope this helps those starting out on their own adventures in the wild.

If you have helpful additions to this article, please add them below in the comment section.

Go play outside.
Have fun!

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