A Guide to Backpacking for Beginners

Editor’s Note: We encourage you to practice good physical distancing. Be sure to wear a mask and be patient when visiting local businesses.

With countless trails awaiting you in the Pacific Northwest, sometimes day hiking isn’t enough. Whether you’ve been eye-balling a long-distance loop, you’re aiming to escape the crowds of popular campsites, or you’re simply wanting more time outside, backpacking is your answer.

Yet that can be an intimidating leap! Going from spending a few hours on the trail to suddenly staying overnight in the backcountry. Which is why we’ve crafted a beginner’s guide to backpacking.

First, let’s talk safety when it comes to both you and the environment you’re visiting.

Due to the high volume of recreationalists who want to experience the natural wonders of our beautiful region, many backcountry and wilderness areas in the Pacific Northwest operate on permit systems for overnight visits. By doing so, the land management organizations are hoping to mitigate negative impacts to the natural environment.

What this means for you as a backpacker is:

  1. Be sure to check what permits are needed for the area you’re visiting
  2. Recognize that just like with day hiking, you are a guest in the environment and need to follow all Leave No Trace principles.

Another note about safety with overnight trips: Let at least one friend or family member who is staying behind know what your plan is. Provide them an itinerary of where you’re starting, where you’re planning on camping overnight, and when you should be back.

Once you’ve got your permit secure and are clear for take-off, it’s time to start packing!

10 Essentials for Every Backpacker


Double-check you’ve packed your poles, footprint, and rain cover.

Sleeping Bag and Pad

Sleeping bags and pads have different temperature ratings so it’s important to make sure you’re bringing the appropriately rated gear to keep you warm at night.

Fully Stocked First Aid Kit

That’s right, fully stocked! Double, if not triple, check your first aid kit before heading into the backcountry.


Yes, digital devices like a cellphone technically provide navigation. However, we strongly encourage you to have both a map of the area you’re hiking in, as well as a compass (and to know how to use them!)


Think of how many days you’re going to be out for, plus take into consideration your activity level. For example, if you’re only hiking a couple casual miles to get to camp, you probably don’t need tons of calories. But if you’re hiking a long distance, or covering some serious elevation gain, you’re probably going to want to load-up on some extra food and snacks!

Stove Set-Up

I use a Jetboil, but there are many backpacking stove options available. Don’t forget your lighter or matches!


This is a huge consideration when planning a backpacking trip. First, what are your available water resources in the backcountry? Are you camping near a lake or river? Will you need to carry enough water for the night? If you’re sourcing water from a natural source (like a river or lake), you’ll also need to determine your purification method. There are lots of options out there, from dissolvable tablets to pump systems. Take some time to research and find which option best suits your needs.

Toilet Paper

Because even in the backcountry … nature calls.

Garbage Bag

After nature calls, clean it up! Toilet paper, along with a lot of other items you’re bringing into the backcountry like food wrappers and such, are NOT biodegradable. You need to be prepared to pack out 110% of your trash (the 10% being extra litter you pick up off the trail as a responsible steward to the land.)

Hand Sanitizer

After picking up all that garbage, you’re going to want to sanitize.

Headlamp and Extra Batteries

If you don’t have a battery powered headlamp, make sure it is charged before heading out.

Layers and Extra Clothes

Just as layering and appropriate clothing is important for day hiking, it’s equally crucial for overnight trips. Make sure you bring items for the forecast. Things to consider: Is there a chance of rain? How cold does it get at night? Is it going to be super sunny so I need a sun hat and sunscreen?

Now this is only the basics of what is needed for backpacking. As you start talking with other backpackers, and experience a few trips of your own, your list is very likely going to change.

However, with these 10 items, you should be prepared for a night in the backcountry.

Image by davelogan

Brooke Jackson

Brooke Jackson is an internationally featured writer and photographer based in Seattle. As the founder of Wandering Trails Media, she specializes in travel, outdoor adventure sports, and environmental studies. Brooke also instructs for REI Outdoor School, where she finds joy in educating others on how best to get outside in a responsible and sustainable way. See more of Brooke's work at www.WanderingTrailsMedia.com

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