Pick an Experienced Backpacking Partner
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).
Pick an Appropriate Backpacking Destination
You’ll want to consider such factors as your trip’s length and difficulty, as well as any special considerations (hiking with dogs or kids) or interests (wildflowers, waterfalls, history, etc.).
A one-night trip makes sense for beginners. Keep the round-trip distance to 10 miles or less. It is reassuring to know that civilization is not too far out of reach.
Got two nights? Consider this: Set up camp on the first night, use the next day 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 two days.
There are several good sources of trip information.
Guidebooks: 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 reliability can vary. Magazines are solid sources, and some national parks and forests maintain online trail-condition reports, too.
Well-traveled friends. They can point you to destinations that match your tastes and abilities. REI sales specialists are also a good resource to tap.
Park services: You may be able to find information from park rangers or park websites in the area you’re interested in exploring.
Choose Your Backpacking Gear
The 10 Essentials: It’s a time-tested assortment of wilderness travel gear that ensures you have the basics for safety and comfort and equips you to handle emergencies. You may never refer to your compass or use firestarter—two 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.
How to Choose and Pack a Backpack
Capacity. The number in pack names refers to the pack’s volume in liters. A common size for weekend trips (1–3 nights) is 35–50 liters. Multiday trips (3–5 nights) require packs of 50–80 liters. For longer trips, or if you’re toting a lot of winter or kids’ gear, choose 70 and higher.
Size: Backpacks are sized according to torso length, not a person’s height. The best way to get the right-sized pack is to visit an REI store and get expert help. If that’s not practical, you can get a friend to measure your torso length, determined by measuring the distance between the top of your hips to your C7 vertebrae—that bony protrusion near the base of your neck.
Loading and adjusting a pack. A backpack is designed to carry most of the load on your hips while your shoulders carry less. Keep heavy gear close to your back and near your shoulders. See our articles about how to pack a backpack and pack-adjusting tips for details.
Base layer. Sweaty cotton takes forever to dry, so choose a “technical” fabric, such as moisture-wicking polyester or wool, for your underwear and long underwear.
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 hiking shoes 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. For more information, see our article on how to choose hiking boots.
Socks. Avoid cotton. Wearing cotton on the trail is asking for blisters. Choose wool or synthetic hiking 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.