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The Basics of Backpacking 101


Photo: Backcountry camping the Indian Head Wilderness of the Catskills, NY

So you’ve decided to get into backpacking, ay? That’s awesome! Sure, you’ve day hiked about a million times and car-camped just as often, but this is backpacking i.e. sleeping overnight in the BACKCOUNTRY i.e. away from civilization i.e. in the wilderness i.e. I don’t think I’m using “i.e.” properly! That means solitude and a whooole bunch of nature all to yourself…ahhh…


Pictured: "Wilderbliss"

Before setting out on the trail to wilderBLISS, you’ll need to learn a few basics. Below you’ll find steps to basic backpacking. Keep in mind this is not an extensive list, but a fundamental guide to get you started and well on your way into the great outdoors. That being said…let’s begin!

Please note: Make sure you are in adequate hiking shape and are familiar with being in the woods before setting out on an overnight. There is little cell service in the backcountry, and generally very few people. Be aware of yourself and know your limits!

Step 1 - Choose your destination:

  • First time? Choose a park or area you’re familiar with

  • Know the back country camping and leave no trace regulations for your destination! Do you need a permit? Overnight parking? Fires permitted?

  • Know your limits – Don’t get too ambitious with mileage, expect to move more slowly with a weighty pack

  • Lakes and streams make wonderful destinations, just be sure to camp 150 away from water sources or in a designated campsite

  • Be sure to locate water sources on your map prior to setting out to ensure you’ll have water available to filter (a blue "W" on NYNJTC maps)

  • The little tent with a “P” on your NYNJTC maps signifies primitive campsites i.e. flat ground + fire pits. These are perfect for first-timers (or seasoned veterans!)

  • Lean-to’s are also an option for backpacking (the encircled “S” on your map, for shelter)…though I find tent camping more pleasant ;)

  • Check the weather and pack accordingly – Shoot for a non-rainy day if it’s your first time (unless you’re a glutton for punishment ;P


Step 2 – Gear up:

Be sure to bring the following items…

  • Backpack

  • Hiking boots

  • Stove

  • Fuel

  • Ignition method i.e. matches or lighter

  • Cutlery (sporks)

  • Sleeping bags

  • Sleeping pads

  • Trekking poles

  • Water filter

  • Water bladder

  • Tent

  • Bear canister

  • Note: We prefer bear cans since many places we go require them (ADK High Peaks, many National Parks & wilderness areas, etc.). Also, they are an easy way to keep food safe from bears and other critters who have learned how to take down bear bags.​​

  • Bear Spray

  • Camp sponge + Camp soap (Recommended: Camp Suds)

  • Headlamp

  • Maps

  • Compass

  • Knife/multitool

  • First Aid Kit

  • Pack towel or bandana

  • Layered clothing (it’s generally much cooler in the woods than at home)

  • Camp shoes aka light sandals/flip-flops

  • Sunglasses

  • Toiletries (toothbrush, small toothpaste)

  • Toilet paper + trowel ;)

  • Hand sanitizer (or just use camp soap)

  • WATER (Carry at least two liters per person per day)

  • FOOD!*

*Food recommendations:

Mix and match -

  • Oatmeal + nuts + dried fruit (breakfast)

  • Dehydrated mashed potatoes

  • Dehydrated vegetables (kale, broccoli, peppers, etc.)

  • Instant rice

  • Soba noodles

  • Tuna packets

  • Salmon packets

  • Chicken packets

  • Condiments! (a must in my book)

  • Seasoning

Snacks/quick bites –

  • Clif bars

  • Lara Bars

  • GUs

  • Nuts

  • Dried Fruit

  • Popcorn! It’s light to carry, super fun(!), and all you need is a little oil to heat it up over a fire/stove + salt for seasoning

Prepackaged meals –

  • Mountain House Meals

  • Backpacker’s Pantry

  • etc.

Step 3 – Pack your Gear:

  • It’s generally recommended, especially if you’re a beginner, to head out with a buddy (#buddysystem). This will allow you to split your gear load between the both of you!

  • The general idea is to pack your sleeping bag at the bottom of your bag, followed by heavier items in the middle, and light items on top. The trick is to evenly pack everything so you’re not lopsided. Pack so the weight doesn't throw off your center of balance. It's important to note that different types of frame packs should be loaded differently. For some more info, check out Osprey’s site.

  • Place snacks and other essentials in easily accessible spots. Many packs offer pouches on the waste band and sides that are perfect for just this!

  • Be sure the weight of your pack (when worn) lies on your hips, not your shoulders. Adjust the pack accordingly to allow for proper distribution.


Photo: Registering at the trail head before setting out - always a good idea!

Step 4 – Head out on the trail!

All right! Once you’ve gotten all of that taken care of, you're ready to escape civilization and enter the wonders of the wilderness. Just be sure to tell someone outside of your hiking party where you’re headed, just in case ;) Otherwise, you should be prepared to enjoy a marvelous excursion overnight in nature. Oh and don’t forget to LEAVE NO TRACE! PACK OUT WHAT YOU PACK IN! Etc. etc. etc…


Photo: Backcpacking the Indian Head Wilderness of the Catskills, NY

Pro tips + Creature comforts:

  • Cook your food away from you camp to deter critters

  • Don’t forget to put all toiletries and food waste/wrappers (enclosed in a plastic bag) in your bear canister – this includes toothpaste, chapstick, sunscreen, deodorant, wipes…anything with an odor that critters can mistake for food

  • Before bed, make sure to place your bear can at least 100 feet away from camp (For more on bear cans, visit REI’s website)

  • Skiddish of bears? Learn about them via the NYNJTC website so you know what to expect and what to do if you see one (then you can shout out like Kevin McCallister that you’re not afraid anymore!)

  • Hang your backpack on a tree away from the ground. This will prevent critters from rifling through/nibbling on your pack

  • Craving a brewski? No problem! Sure, they’re heavy, but you know it’s worth it :D Be sure to pack cans, not glass. You can chill ‘em in a nearby stream or lake – just make sure they’re secure! (And don't forget to crush them & carry them out ;) )

  • Bring a hammock (DUH)!

  • "When nature calls", go approximately 200 feet from camp/water sources, dig a 4 inch wide, 6 inch deep cat hole with a trowel, and do your duty! ;P Bury your business once complete. Read more on this subject with REI's Backcountry Bathroom Basics.

SO there you have it, an essential guide to backpacking. Have a question or know a basic tip I missed? Let me know! The more comprehensive the better, I always say :D

Until next time, happy trails!

Other helpful sites + guides

Special thanks to Marek Dobrygowski who helped put this together ;)

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