Backpacking: an Easy Guide for First Timers




This guide will go over the basics in hiking and camping overnight. It will tell you what you should bring, how to pack lightly, and provide some other really good ideas.

Before you begin reading you should know that part of the charm of camping is figuring out how to do most of these things on your own and finding which methods work best for you. But since you’re new at this, this guide will go over the basics.

Step 1: Planning Your Hike

There are a couple of things you will need to do in preparation for your hike:

Plan where you will be hiking on a map

Choose camping spots where there is water nearby. This will be shown on your map as either a river or a spring, or some other source of running water.

Decide on tent partners

Decide in advance who will be sleeping in which tent. This is important so as no one is forced to sleep outside at night.

Plan out meals

Make a list of what your group will be eating for every meal.


Also, in preparation for your hike, check the weather forecast. Use the weather forecast to plan what sort of clothing to pack.

Step 2: Packing

Pack all of the following individual equipment into your backpack, and divide up the group equipment between group members. A general rule of thumb for backpacking is if you’re not sure you need it, you probably don’t. Pack larger items in the large main pocket, and smaller items in the smaller side pockets.  Doing this will make these items easier to access.  To create extra space in your pack, strap either a sleeping mat, a tent, or a sleeping bag, or a combination of these things to the area underneath your pack as shown to the right:

Equipment: What to Pack (Individual Items): Make sure to pack all of the following items.


A school backpack won’t do. You will need a hiking backpack. Hiking backpacks come in two forms, internal framed and external framed. They both have their benefits. External frames have a lot more space to them and have more pockets making them easier to pack and unpack. Internal frames however are more comfortable and have a snugger fit. However, they come with one big pocket, so unloading can be difficult. Hiking backpacks come in a lot of sizes so if you don’t have one, go by a trail store and get fitted.

             -Sleeping bag

In figuring out what sleeping bag to bring you’ll have to decide on a balance between warmth and weight. Pack the lightest sleeping bag that will keep you warm enough for the weather.

            -Sleeping mat

Sleeping mats are crucial to a good night’s rest on the trail. They help cushion the ground and keep you warm.

            -Personal First Aid Kit

This is absolutely necessary for a safe hiking trip. It’s more convenient to buy these pre-packaged. However, if you want to assemble one yourself make sure to include band-aids, moleskin, aspirin, after bite wipes, antibiotic ointment, alcohol swabs, and tape.    

           -Water + Purification

Make sure to pack at least two liters of water. Nalgene bottles are great for this because they are both durable and easy to pack in your bag. Along with 2 Nalgene bottles, be sure to pack a filtration pump.


Any light flashlight will do. Before you pack it, test it to make sure it has batteries. A flashlight will do you no good if it won’t turn on.

          -Hiking Boots

Hiking boots will provide more stability than regular tennis shoes. They will also decrease your chances of getting blisters.

          -Mess Kit

Your mess kit should include a bowl or plate and a utensil

-Pack Cover

If you don’t have one, an oversized trash bag will work. Just cut out a large hole in the center for where your straps come out.

          -Bug Spray + Lighter

These two things go together: not only is bug spray helpful in repelling bugs, it is also helpful in starting a fire.


There’s no dress code on the trail. Pack clothes that you will be comfortable in and do not mind messing up.

Also, pack clothes relevant to the kind of weather forecasted for the trip. For hot weather, a cotton t-shirt and athletic shorts work just fine. For colder weather bring layers. As you hike you’ll want to take off your outer layers.  Depending on how cold it is you may need to pack multiple jackets along with a windbreaker. If rain is forecasted pack a rain jacket. Always check the weather forecast for where you’re hiking.

Equipment: What to Pack (Group Items): These items will not need to be brought by every group member but they will need to be brought by somebody. And for many of these items they will need to be split up among multiple people.

          -A lightweight tent

Before you leave on your trip, make sure everyone has a tent to sleep in. Decide who is sleeping in what tent BEFORE you leave. You don’t want to bring extra tents, as that is extra weight. Traditional tents can be very heavy, especially those made for 4 or more people. Ideally you should have a 2 man tent made specifically for backpacking, as they are significantly more lightweight.

          -A Hiking Stove w/ Fuel

A good hiking stove is a small cartridge stove that uses compressed gas. They are lightweight but you will need to bring fuel to go along with it. For cartridge stoves you should use either butane, isobutene, or propane.

         -A Cooking Pot

This should be lightweight but also big enough to contain enough water to cook with.


Bring all of the food that was planned earlier for your meals.

Step 3: Hiking

Set a pace that everyone in your group will be able to keep. The general rule of thumb is to only go as fast as your slowest member. Make sure to take water breaks often as it is very easy to get dehydrated while hiking.

Step 4: Preparing Meals

There are many different options when it comes to eating on the trail. All of it depends on how much preparation you want to put into cooking.


For breakfast prepare a breakfast item such as pop tarts or energy bars. However, by simply boiling water, oatmeal or grits are good options also.

Tip: A good way to minimize cleanup is to just pour hot water into the oatmeal/grits package itself. You won’t have to worry about washing pots or bowls.


For lunch you can also boil a prepackaged meal such as ramen noodles, but you’ll probably not want to bring out your stove at this time. Boiling water often takes up to thirty minutes using a hiking stove. The ideal lunch should take less than five minutes to prepare. Two good examples of this are cheese, crackers, and summer sausage or peanut and butter and jelly. Both are very convenient in terms of packing and preparation.


Depending on how ambitious you are you can bring ingredients for a full meal, or just go with ramen noodles. Another option is to buy prepackaged trail meals such as linguini alfredo and add chicken or clams, or other canned meat.  Keep in mind the only thing you’ll have to cook with is a small stove so you should plan for meals you can easily boil in water. Do not bring food that will spoil overnight.

Step 5: Setting Up Camp

There are three main things you need to do in order to set up camp: build a campfire, set up your tent, and cook dinner. The order of doing these things depends on how close to dark it is getting. If there is only one hour left of daylight by the time you reach camp, cook dinner first. Cooking is the most difficult thing to do after dark. If you have a few hours, it really doesn’t matter what order you do these things.

Building a Fire

Most campsites will already have a fire pit. If not, make your own by clearing out a circle about four feet in diameter. The first step to starting a fire is gathering firewood. With a lighter, set the “kindling” (twigs and leaves) on fire. Progressively add larger and larger pieces of wood to the fire, making sure that the fire is not put out in the process. Don’t put wood on a fire that is larger than the fire can handle.

Step 6: Breaking Camp

There are a couple of things you will need to do before leaving camp in the morning:

Pack up everything you took out the night before and clean the campsite. Do this by picking up any trash you see. The goal is to leave the site cleaner than you found it.

Also, before leaving camp you will need to fill up your water bottles. Find the nearest source of water and use your water filter to pump water into your bottles.



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    38 Discussions


    5 years ago

    Saw the pics from Mt Baldy just scrolling through and instantly recognized the field and reservoir. Great article

    2 replies

    Reply 4 years ago

    Does everybody know a Mt. Baldy? There is one one the southern shores of Lake Michigan in Indiana.


    Reply 3 years ago

    first of all, that's a 126 ft sand dune vs a 12,441 ft true mountain. Second of all, I've never heard of another one. Also, if you're going to Philmont, don't bring anything that smells.


    3 years ago on Introduction

    I saw that little flag and knew exactly where you were and what you were doing. Gotta love good ol' Philmont.


    4 years ago

    Great advice about the bug spray and lighter! I wouldn't have thought of that, I probably would have had to eat the Ramen straight out of the package. Yuck! I agree with Kenneth. Don't expect to be able to just get out there and go all day without some conditioning.


    5 years ago on Step 6

    Good 'ible. You might want to add to make sure that the fire is really done for when breaking camp.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Love the pictures from Mount Baldy, Philmont Scout Reservation.


    5 years ago

    Purification tabs or droplets, duct tape and a good solid multitool. Otherwise all very good advice.

    "If you aren't sure you probably don't need it."

    That's excellent advice there.


    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Yea I had a double take because I thought that was a picture of me. I have one that looks absolutely identical, but then again I guess that's a common picture.


    6 years ago on Step 2

    Sleeping mat: unless the temperature is above 20°C do not use an cushion air bed, the air inside will circulate and cool you down really fast, even with a good sleeping, between you and the mat the sleeping bag is compressed: gone insulation. Much better are the self inflatable mats, these are filled with foam, no circulating air. An additional insulation mat if ground is below 0°C is also advised, also nice to cover your back while sitting at a campfire as heat-reflection and windscreen, your front is hot, your back cools down...


    6 years ago on Step 6

    just in personel preference, for a mess kit i only bring a Mug and a spoon. there are very few foods that you can't eat in it and it's lighter and smaller. also i prefer coffee in the morning


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Oh and there should be one more step. If you go camping/backpacking once you'll probably do it again. So when you get home take time to clean inspect and pack away you're gear in such a way as the next years you won't have to fight with it or replace the lot.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    On the note of flashlights, Squeeze or crank models are a god sent in the middle of nowhere. I've had my batteries not last the entire trip but I've never run out of juice myself. Along that line a good one will cost you about the same as a pack of C batteries, And really too fancy models (radio and cellphone charger) will only be like $20-25.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Never forget the 10 Essentials-
    And NO COTTON!


    6 years ago on Step 5

    There many more than three things to do when building a campsite. Before you even leave for your trip, find out if there's a burn ban for where you're going. If they're allowed, the first thing you do is gather firewood. Lots of it. Much more than you think you'll need, then double it. Once it gets dark, wandering the bush can be dangerous. And cooking is no problem if you have a headlamp. I almost never eat dinner until just before bed. It raises your body temperature, and you won't be nearly as hungry in the morning. I'll have to disagree with starting a fire first, though. Set up your tent. It's your house. You don't want to be stuck setting it up if it suddenly starts to rain, and it's more difficult to find a suitable space, free of rocks and roots, in the dark. Not unless you're willing to get down on your hands and knees to find out.

    Please don't use bug spray to start a fire. Please. It's nasty. Instead, bring firestarters (available everywhere and online) or make them. I use petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls. Make them my adding a teaspoon of it to a warm pot, and then dunking the cotton balls in it with a pair of tongs. Place them on a paper towel to cool, then add them to a pill bottle. You'll have at least five minutes of flame to get a fire going.

    As for clearing an area, 10 feet around the pit (20 ft diameter) is what the BSA says. I agree with them.


    6 years ago on Step 4

    Tortillas are a good idea, as are pitas. Pretty much everything else should be either freeze-dried or dehydrated. There are plenty of options at decent outfitters like REI, Campmor and EMS. Also, health food stores often have dehydrated bulk items like refried beans and TVP chili. Excellent way to shave pounds off a several day trip. There are some great cookbooks for cooking on the trail.


    6 years ago on Step 3

    If I'm leading a group, I set up a buddy system. Every once in a while, I'll yell out, "Buddy check!" and the pairs will find one another and confirm everyone is still with the group. That goes for relieving one's self, so when you pair buddies, try and keep it the same gender.


    6 years ago on Step 2

    Sleeping bags come with ratings, different fill types, and different shapes. IMPORTANT! If a bag is rated at, say, 15°, that doesn't AT ALL mean that it will keep you warm at 15°. It means it may keep you alive, with a pad and in a tent with clothes on for several hours. When choosing a bag for your trip, find out what the coldest temperature is going to be, subtract 10-15° from that number, and you have what rating your bag should have. So, if it's going to be 35°, have a bag rated at 20°. Synthetic bags are heavy. Go with down when you can. It's much more expensive, but it's MUCH lighter, and a down bag will last, with proper care, twenty or more years. A synthetic bag may last five. The most common shapes of sleeping bags are mummy and rectangular, with variations in between. Mummy bags offer better heat retention, rectangular bags offer more space. Sleeping pads (not mats) are crucial. If it's going to be cold, have a full-length, insulated pad. They come self-inflating, or manually inflating.

    NEVER WEAR NEW HIKING BOOTS ON A HIKE! Always break in boots by wearing them regularly for a month or so. Take them out on day hikes, carrying a comfortable pair of shoes with you in case the boots become uncomfortable. Walking the sidewalks of your neighborhood doesn't count as a day hike. Take them into terrain that approximates where you will be going, if possible.

    As for canister stoves, figure three to four hours of burn time per four ounces of fuel. YMMV when it comes to temperature and altitude. Most decent stoves, with a windscreen, will boil a liter of water in 10 to 15 minutes. Have a cover for your pot, or use a lightweight tea kettle to boil water - it conserves energy.

    Many backpackers prepare food using the freezer bag method. Basically adding boiling water to dehydrated or freeze-dried foods in a freezer bag. Have some kind of 'koozie' for it, like a camp towel, a knit hat, or a couple of potholders sewn on three sides.