Preparing for Your First Backpacking Trip

Dec 2013

The Southwest provides some of the best hiking in the country. If you’re a novice, ready to set out on foot for your first backpacking trip, whether you’re planning on camping in Havasupai and swimming in the turquoise waters of Havasu Creek, journeying through geologic time with a Grand Canyon rim to rim hike, or venturing out along Colorado’s continental divide, this guide will give you some important pointers on how to prepare. Backpacking in Arizona and the desert Southwest can be particularly dangerous due to a few unique factors including extreme heat, heavy seasonal rains and flooding, and potentially dangerous animals such as rattlesnakes.

Five backpackers hiking.

Backpacking 101

1. Don’t go it alone

You should never go backpacking alone if you’re new to the backpacking game. Team up with an experienced friend, meetup group, or guided tour. Knowledgeable company is good for peace of mind and for added fun! Helpful hint—most backcountry areas limit groups to 12 (to reduce impact on the land). Always share your itinerary with a someone at home. That way, if you don’t return by a confirmed time, they can notify rangers and other emergency personnel.

2. Read up on the location

Even if you’re headed out with a “been there, done that” gang, being well read and informed on the destination of your choice is an important step in preparing. Travel guides will give you detailed accounts of the terrain you face, average seasonal temperatures and any other specifics to the area. It’s also a good idea to research some trip reports and trail reviews to get an idea what other hikers have encountered along the trail. Call ahead to the ranger station to ensure the trail is open and/or check online for trail updates regarding downed trees, flood wash-outs, river crossings, or trail maintenance before you head out.

3. Know your body and the trail system

The amount of conditioning you’ll need for a backpacking trip depends on your current fitness level as well as your planned trail route. The best way to train for backpacking is by hiking significant distances while carrying your pack. Build up to the approximate amount of weight you expect to carry in the backcountry. If you’re an avid gym goer, take advantage of the stair-steppers or walk the treadmill at an incline setting. These machines help isolate the muscle groups of the lower body and build their endurance. These will prep you for the conditions you’re likely to face hiking in the great outdoors. If you are training to conquer a serious challenge such as backpacking in the Grand Canyon, hiking Half Dome in Yosemite, or climbing Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park you should have a set training plan and give yourself enough time to begin preparing some months in advance. A one to two night trip is ideal for beginners. Keep the mileage low, around 10-15 miles, and rest assured knowing civilization is not that far out of reach.


Essentials Checklist

This basic packing list contains the essentials for safety and comfort and basic emergency supplies:

  1. Navigation (map and compass) – GPS is great but not always 100% reliable, best to have an old-school backup.
  2. Sun protection – sunglasses, sunscreen, hat.
  3. Insulation – this can be extra lightweight clothing (synthetic, wool, down), or as simple as garbage bags, great for keeping rain off and body heat in.
  4. Illumination – headlamp/flashlight
  5. First-aid supplies
  6. Fire – waterproof matches/lighter/candles
  7. Repair kit and tools – for your bike, tent, stove, etc.
  8. Extra food, electrolyte replacement – a very important part of hydration when out on the trail.
  9. Water purifying tablets/Extra waer

REI has developed a great backpacking packing list that’s applicable to various backpacking trips. When it comes to choosing your gear, be careful of overpacking to keep your pack manageable. The essentials listed above should never be left out.

Your first backpacking trip can be the adventure of a lifetime, but remember what to expect. In the wilderness you’re cut off from phones, internet, tv, running water, even your microwave, but that’s part of the appeal, as long as you’re properly prepared.