Backpacking for Beginners

Time to plan that first backpacking trip! Everyone has a first backpacking trip and although it can be intimidating, not going is a bigger mistake. Planning a backpacking trip takes time and with practice it can be a fun year round endeavor that keeps the possibility of adventure over every horizon. This backpacking for beginners guide will dive into the nitty gritty details to get you on the trail with confidence.

Whether you are going solo, solo with kids or backpacking as a family, our team has put together multiple posts to help you get out the door and into the backcountry. This post will feature some of our favorite backpacking tips for beginners!

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Backpacking Trips for Beginners

The first steps of any trip are the where and when. There are many variables to check before deciding on when to actually get in to the wilderness. Weather, bugs and smoke being just a few of the things to check.

Family dinner while backpacking

What Time of Year Can You Backpack?

Backpacking can be a year round adventure. Such as: it is far too cold in March to backpack in many places but heading south could open up many possibilities. Time of year can mean drastic changes in climate, bugs and even when trails are open to the public. Pick the location and plan around that specific area’s weather and regulations.

Planning for Variables In the Weather

Backpacking can be fun in any weather but it is good to be prepared. Thoroughly check the forecast before the trip. Not only looking for temperatures and precipitation but also wind and smoke. Over time you come know your mountains or favorite spot. Such as full cloud coverage in our home range usually means light rain even if the forecast doesn’t show rain.

Rain Gear being used on a backpacking trip

Smoke

Smoke isn’t only visually displeasing but can also be a health risk. From disappointing views to illness, smoky conditions are not a great time to be in the outdoors. Check the AQI of the zone you are headed to and see if it is in the green zone. Changing destinations is certainly worth the hassle to avoid all the side effects from smoke.

Snow Pack

Each year the snow levels vary, when venturing into regions with melting snow, check the snow pack before you go. Even if the trail had been snow free at the same time in previous years, every year is a bit different. With today’s online resources you can check the current snow pack and even snow depth of most areas.

Distance to the Trailhead

How long it takes to arrive at the trailhead can be a difference of 30 minutes to plane rides. It is important to take that into account when planning. Check to see if camping at the trailhead is an option for those hikes with long drives. If the backpacking trip is kicked off with long travel a rest day at the beginning is as important as at the end.

Learn how TMM Team Member Kristen travelled to Maui to backpack and camp with her kids!

Local Wildlife

It is important to be aware of the wildlife the you could encounter. National forest or park websites will provide that information and more. Gather information on what lives there and how to safely backpack while respecting the wildlife.

Bears are of special concern, make sure you know how to safely store your food. If a family pet is on the trip make sure the rules and regulations in the area are being followed.

A brown sign with different points and campsites shows the mileage and direction.
Starting small is a great way to get started! TMM Team Member Jami did a 1.2 mile hike in and spent one night for her kids first trip.

Beginner Backpacking Trip Length and Type

Now that the location has been decided it is time to take a look at how long the trip should be. This is decided by how much weight the group needs to carry and how you plan on spending your days in the wilderness.

How Much Weight Can the Group Carry

Find out how much your gear weighs, this is the base weight, everything but food, and doesn’t change regardless of the length of the trip. Food is usually the heaviest. Put together a days worth of food, multiply it by the number of days and add the base weight. Now you know how much weight you need to distribute and how many days to go.

Check out our favorite Freeze Dried Backpacking Meals and Backpacking Food Ideas.

Base Camp and Day Hike

When planning a trip with younger children backpacking to a base camp and day hiking out from there can be a more doable option. Not moving camp and spending less time hiking with a heavy pack are the main pros of this type of backpacking.

Move Camp Every Night

In the summer sun, moving camp daily can be a way to go further into the backcountry. Setting up camp in and of itself can be a highlight of the trip. Kids can be motivated to backpack when they are able to take part in finding the next campsite. It can seem like unnecessary work but taking down and setting up camp can be worth it.

Choosing a Trail for Backpacking with Kids

Backpacking can be many things, easy being one of them. These tips to picking the right trail can allow everyone to enjoy the trip.

Daily Mileage

Mileage with toddlers or even kids is different. Keep in mind the goals of the trip, one can be a destination while the other, just as important, may be to have the kids enjoy backpacking. That can take a lot facilitating and finding balance between work and play.

Elevation Gain and Loss

Backpacking to a destination with 2,000 ft. elevation gain and take hours longer hiking in than hiking out. When choosing a trail don’t miss this detail. It make make a significant difference, to know hiking uphill 5 miles in a day is plenty but to have an 8 mile hike out downhill could take the same amount of time. The magic of elevation loss.

A Destination

Backpacking with kids can mean that the highlight of the trip is a creek. When looking at trails or where to go, remember how rocks, sticks and dirt can create hours of play. Big destinations are fantastic in so many ways but in the beginning do not shy away from a beginner backpacking trails. Kids will remember the play much more than the view.

Having a good time setting up the tent

Finding a Campsite

Depending on where you go finding a tent site can look different. In many areas it is up to the backpackers to follow Leave No Trace principles when finding the perfect spot for the tent.

Rules and Regulations

Know before before you go. There are rules about camping too close to lakes, streams, trails and being aware of those regulations will allow for a smoother backpacking trip. Fire bans, food storage, permits, established or non established campsites are all things to be aware of when heading out. National Forest, BLM land, National Park websites and ranger stations are packed with this information.

Permits

When a backpacking trip requires permits more planning it needed. Many National Parks have permitted backcountry campsites that open up six or more months in advance. The end of the year is a great time to think about big plans for the next year. By doing this that dream backpacking trip is less likely to be booked up. Plan ahead and get your permits.

Mileage to the Campsite

When planning a backpacking trip with little hiker legs it might be better to camp near a creek before making it to the goal destination. Look carefully at mileage between those key destinations and break it up as needed. The lake will be just as amazing if it takes two days of hiking to get there.

The Perfect Camp

Water is a important factor in finding a campsite, note how close or far the water source is and find that sweet spot. Shelter from the sun, wind or rain can be great to have in a campsite. Do not underestimate finding flat ground, sloped sleeping is more challenging than you might think.

Mother packing her daughter on a backpacking trip

Hiking to the Campsite

From car to camp can take a while, patience is key. A good story, snack and pace will get you there.

Trail Chats and Snacks

Dial in snacks, protein powders, meat sticks and crackers of all shapes. The right songs or stories can last for miles. Learning naturally occurs in nature, stop and enjoy those moments. If space and weight allow, a toy car or stuffed animal can also help on the trail.

Know Your Plant Life

A pocket guide for the area’s wild flowers, mushrooms or edible berries can level up backpacking with kids. Engaging their sharp eyes as they hike along the trail. Learning a new species or two every trip will quickly add up.

One Mile an Hour

Not that it is a magic pace, but for backpacking with kids it is realistic. Ideally kids who have a good time hiking along the trail will learn to love it and will then be planning trips of their own. Stop and eat the berries, watch the fish and smell the wild flowers.

Campsite Living

With kids, hanging out at camp is where the settling in and living outside happens. Your home away from home.

Water Play

Camping near water may have you wishing for a book to read, water can occupy kids for hours. If fishing is a hobby, check the area’s fishing regulations and catch your own dinner. There is nothing like finding the perfect wild swimming hole.

The Tent

Teaching kids how to set up a tent can take time but is a worthwhile endeavor. Not only for sleeping but it can be a great midday play area to find relief from wind and bugs. The tent should be set up away from the cooking area, naturally creating two places for close exploring and play.

Little Backpacking Helpers

Giving children tasks around camp can be helpful to you and rewarding for the child. Filling water bottles from the filter, food prep, looking for trash and taking down camp are all ways to include the family in the experience and take a load off of your plate.

Berry picking on a backpacking trip

Being Safe Equals Less Stress

Take away added worry by being prepared for the unexpected. Planning and education make for a good nights sleep.

5 Point Contingency Plan

This plan should be left with someone who will be able to take action if the return time isn’t met. In a time of an emergency it can be reassuring to know this plan is already in place. Make a GOTWA plan! GOTWA stands for

  • G – where I’m going
  • O – others I’m taking
  • T – time of my return
  • W – what to do if I don’t return
  • A – actions to take

Bear Spray

Knowing how to use bear spray is as important as carrying it. Make sure it makes into your tent at night and all members of the backpacking party know what to do when it is sprayed, on the trail or in the tent. Bear Spray can be used on a number of threats, not only bears. Don’t forget to check the expiration date.

First Aid Kit

There are many types of first aid kits or the DIY method. Be through and thoughtful in what is in your kit and bring it. Basic medications, blister kits and tweezers are all items that quickly become priceless when backpacking.

Family Backpacking Must Haves

This is the gear we have grown to deeply love. The little items that make all the difference. For some of our teams favorite backpacking gear, make sure to read Family Backpacking: The Gear You Need, Solo Backpacking with Kids, and Backpacking With A Baby for some awesome gear lists.

Walkie Talkies

Backpacking with multiple people means difference paces. Unless there is a complete agreement to stick together, walkie talkies are a great idea. They can smooth over any trail junctions and worries by being able to stay in touch. Extra exploring around camp is also easier when you can keep tabs on each other.

Check out our team favorite Rocky Talkie!

Rain Gear

Being caught in a rain storm with no rain gear can be devastating to a trip. Depending on where you are backpacking weather can move in fast and be more severe than the forecast showed. Rain gear is a lightweight, easy way to keep yourself covered.

Trowel, Backcountry Business

That little orange trowel is a valuable tool. When the campsite is set, sending the kids off to dig their cat holes can ease the stress of eliminating while backpacking. Remember to know the rules and regulations, in highly populated areas it may be asked to pack out more than just the toilet paper.

Need some tips? Check out How To Help Your Kid Poop Outside.

Educate Before You Go

You don’t need to learn everything all at once. These are three key areas the are a jump start on backpacking knowledge.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace is an organization that focuses on protecting the outdoors. The 7 points of Leave No Trace are: Plan ahead and prepare, camp and travel on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife and be considerate of others. Following these principles whenever outside is always a good idea.

All the Rules

The rules are in place to protect and help all enjoy the outdoors. It is worth noting again to be aware and take time to call or research the regulations in the area. Current trail conditions, permits, fires, where you can and cannot camp are all details that cannot be over looked.

Also take the time to go over your own family rules, like no one wanders off alone.

Equipment Checks

Knowing how your equipment works is something to sort out at home. A new tent, stove or even loading straps on your backpack aren’t something to figure out while on the trip. This even goes for the first aid kit, look it over and ensure that you know how to administer or use all the items.

Practice with your gear on a day hike, down your street, and in your own backyard.

A green tent sits on a grassy green lawn with dew and sunshine shining through the trees.
TMM Team Member Jami did a backpacking practice in their backyard before their first trip.

A Day on a Backpacking Trip

Here is a peek into a day on the trail with us. Keep in mind every backpacking group is going to find their own groove.

Heading Out From Camp

We are rarely on the trail before 10 AM. There is an effort to embrace living in the wilderness, slow mornings, nothing to take us away from the present moment. It took a shocking number of years for our family to settle into the beauty of backpacking life, to fully enjoy the disconnect that is so unique to days and days in the mountains.

All Day on the Trail

When on the trail all day long break big and small are important. High calorie lunches are as important as play and fun. It cannot be stressed enough that remembering enjoying the trip is why the backpacking trip was even planned. Kids qualifications for enjoying the trip can be very different than yours.

Sweet Dreams

Sleeping arrangements are going to be unique to your family or group. For us, I sleep in a double wide sleep system bag with our two kids and our family of four still fits well in a three person tent. There is no one sleep solution when it comes to backpacking with kids. Once again, testing out before you go may help!

Worth the Effort

Even the perfectly planned trip will have challenges, those become easier with experience.

Challenges

A beginners backpacking trip can have just as many challenges as the seasoned backpacker. Not every complication can be anticipated. Add backpacking with kids and the challenges can become more unpredictable. The most well planned trip will still have hiccups and that is okay.

Learning Along the Trail

From learning what snacks to bring to how far your five year old can backpack, those are all things that beginning to backpack will teach you. Keep an open mind and take the mistakes and lessons learned with you on the next trip. Take every backpacking trip as an opportunity to grow.

See The World

The ability to backpack opens up opportunities to go and see all kinds of places. In the beginning even packing for a backpacking trip can seem like a lot. The line, the more you go the more you know, couldn’t be more true with backpacking. Go and go again and be pleasantly surprised at your next destination.

A mom with her daughter and two granddaughters pose for a photos before heading out on a beginner backpacking trip.
You are never to old or young for your first backpacking trip! TMM Jami’s mom and daughters took their very first backpacking trip last September.

Planning a Backpacking Trip

Plan the backpacking trip, plan a bigger one and soon where there is a trail, there is possibility. Backpack and learn. Not every trip will be perfect but all the moments during the trial and error equal perfection. The unknown will become less mysterious and instead an exciting adventure. Try it out and do the thing.

Backpacking for Beginners

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  • Shayna Barnhill from Sugar City, ID. My two kids are home grown adventure buddies. I grew up in the same area we currently live and have found it is our paradise, we plan on being here forever. Our herd of pack goats hit the trails with us in summer and we love a winter spent on skis.

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