You’ve built confidence on day hikes. You were inspired by a trip to an AMC Lodge to spend more time outdoors. Maybe you just looked at a map, pointed to place deep in the backcountry and said, “I want to go there.”
It could be time for your first backpacking trip.
A backpacking trip is a multi-day hike where a person carries everything needed to stay fed, sheltered, and safe. It’s a great way to test your self-sufficiency, explore further, and fully immerse yourself in the outdoors.
Think you’re ready for a night or two on the trail, but not sure where to get started? You’re not alone. Making the leap from day hikes to overnights can be intimidating. Unlike car camping or staying in a backcountry hut or cabin, you’ll need to come prepared with everything for your trip.
Having a plan is essential. Know where you’re going, how long you’ll be out there, and where you’ll be sleeping each night. Make a list of the gear you’ll need to handle any conditions or common obstacles. Check it twice! Bring more food and water than you think you’ll need.
Here are our handy tips to help you take on this exciting new challenge. While not a fully comprehensive guide, we hope this helps take the guesswork out of preparation, so you can stress less and focus on enjoying the adventure ahead. Happy trails!
Am I Ready?
Backpacking is for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Carrying extra weight, sometimes as much as thirty to forty pounds depending on the length of the trip, will slow you down and add a new challenge on technical terrain. Make sure you can comfortably carry the load and account for it when planning how far you’ll hike each day. A good way to get in shape for an overnight trip and test your readiness is to go on day hikes and gradually increase the weight you carry.
In addition to physical preparation, practice the outdoor skills required for a night in the backcountry. Take time to make sure you’re comfortable with all your gear in advance. You don’t want to struggle to pitch a new tent or find out your backpacking stove doesn’t work once you’re already on the trail.
Want to learn from an expert? AMC’s professional guides teach courses on backcountry skills.
Find the Right Gear
One of the largest barriers for many potential backpackers is the gear. There’s no doubt that you need a lot of it, and the price can add up. Luckily, you don’t need the most expensive setup to go backpacking! New equipment may be lighter or have extra features but isn’t necessarily worth the investment for a beginner. Instead, look at what you already have, and what you could potentially borrow.
With so many options out there, separating the essential from the frivolous can be challenging. Here’s what we’re packing for a successful outing, based on our Three Season Hiking and Backpacking Gear List.
The Ten Essentials
The Ten Essentials are the safety must-haves you need any time you enter the backcountry. While you hopefully won’t need them each time out, these are the tools you can rely on in a tough situation, such as inclement weather or an unplanned extra night on the trail.
- Warm clothing
- Warm hat
- Extra food and water
- Flashlight or headlamp
- First aid kit
- Waterproof and windproof layers
- Pocket knife
It’s the end of day one, and you’ve reached your campsite for the evening! Here’s what you’ll need to get set for the night.
- Shelter (tent, tarp, or hammock system)
- Camping stove
- Fuel bottle/cannister
- Cooking kit, including pot, pan, pot holder, etc.
- Gray water strainer
- Food containers and bags
- Kitchen hand soap (biodegradable)
- Bear cannister/bear proof rope system (more information below)
- Camping trowel
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping bag stuff sack
- Sleeping pad
- Small stuff sacks as needed
- Trash Compactor Bags (these can help waterproof the inside of your pack!)
- Water bottles
- Water treatment methods (we advise carrying a filter and iodine tablets as a backup)
- Hiking boots
- Camp shoes (comfortable shoes for when the hike is over)
- Clothes for a variety of weather conditions
Efficiently packing your backpack takes practice. A good rule of thumb is to put the items you need to reach quickly or often (like a rain jacket or snack) at the top of the pack or in an outer pocket. Try to keep the heaviest items closest to the pack’s harness. The goal is to balance the pack so that weight is distributed to the hips, which are stronger than your back and shoulders.
How much food will you need? Probably more than you think. Spending the day hiking means you’ll burn significantly more calories than on an average day. Bring food that’s compact and keeps well but still contains the nutrients you need, especially carbohydrates and protein. Some examples include granola bars, dehydrated fruit, and tortillas.
A common backpacking accessory is a small, gas-powered stove. Campers use these to boil water for hot meals, whether it’s cowboy coffee and oatmeal in the morning or a freeze-dried dinner.
Practice Outdoor Skills
As important as having the right gear is knowing how to use it. Some additional concepts to get familiar with include:
- Map and compass: You can’t depend on your phone for navigation in the backcountry. Phones can lose GPS signal and will lose battery life. A paper map and compass can keep you oriented and on the right path
- First aid: A first aid kit is only useful if you know how to use it! Get familiar with your kit and how to treat common backpacking ailments like blisters and cuts.
- Leave No Trace: It should be your priority to leave the outdoors as you find it. Leave No Trace is a set of seven principles for how to minimize your impact.
- Setting up camp: Practice pitching your tent long before you head into the woods. During your research identify the closest water source to your tentsite.
Be Bear-y Prepared
No article about backpacking in the Northeast is complete without at least a mention of bears. Black bears in the backcountry are a fact of life in the AMC region. While they aren’t typically aggressive unless provoked, black bears are powerful animals that can be dangerous. And when it comes to your food, they aren’t shy.
The best way to prevent a run-in with a bear is to keep your food FAR away from the campsite, ideally at least 200 feet away. There are few ways to do this:
- Bear bag: These specialty bags are either made from claw-resistant materials, like Kevlar, or hung from a tree with a rope. Bags should be hung at least 12 feet off the ground and on a branch at least 6 feet from the tree’s trunk. This prevents bears from climbing the tree
- Bear canister: Canisters are made from a hard material and have a lid that bears cannot open. They can be stored on the ground, making them a more convenient option than bear bags. Some backcountry areas, like the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness in the Adirondacks, require overnight campers to bring bear canisters.
Before the Trailhead
The key to a successful backpacking outing is the same whether you’re a first-timer or an experienced thru-hiker: Preparation. Have a plan for where you’ll be sleeping each night and make sure someone knows it. Do your research and know what conditions you could be facing each day and where the trail should take you. If there’s inclement weather in the forecast, it’s ok to reschedule, cancel, or reroute a trip. With an achievable itinerary, the right gear, and a little bit of practice, you’ll be all set to take on a backpacking trip and experience the outdoors in a new way.