I originally started this post as a response to “Is backpacking right for me?” but then I realized… backpacking is right for everyone. Anyone can do it. Everyone can benefit from it. It’s just the matter of whether you enjoy it enough to do it of your own free will, because as Ben & Jerry say: if it’s not fun, why do it?
So I guess the real question is, how do you determine whether you enjoy backpacking or not?
Since backpacking can get expensive quick, it’s not a hobby you want to just dive into. Like any major life decision, it’s best to do your research and take baby steps.
Here are my suggestions for wading into backpacking, if you’re starting with a blank slate (aka no hiking or camping experience, because hiking + camping = backpacking):
1. Go on small day hikes.
Find some popular 3-4 mile hikes around your town and check them out. Bring a day pack with a full water bottle, a snack (e.g. Clif Bar), and it’s always smart to carry along a mini first aid kit– because you never know what will happen, especially when you’re a novice. Had a good time? Proceed to step numero dos.
2. Then work your way up to longer day hikes.
Plan a longer hike, like 5-8 miles. This distance, depending on terrain, could be considered an easy day for a backpacker. Make sure you are familiar with your route (tip: bring a map or screenshot one on your phone) and again, pack water, snacks, and a first aid kit. Still enjoying it? Then let’s add camping to the mix!
3. Go on several car camping trips.
Car camping seems luxurious compared to backpacking, but it’s a good introduction to camping. With every trip, try to pack less and less. Car camping often gives us the excuse to bring EVERYTHING and the kitchen sink. Keep to necessities. If you can handle it, you’re ready for step 4.
4. Camp primitively.
If you can, ditch the car (even parking it in a lot, away from the actual tent site) and try for a site that is isolated (think no cell service) and fairly deserted (think no people). Primitive campsites lack treated water and toilets, and often trash cans, fire grates, and other campsite amenities. If you can keep a smile on your face while peeing on a bush, in the middle of the night, with God-knows-what watching you, then you are probably good to go strap on that pack.
5. Borrow or rent gear to try out one backpacking trip.
Like I said, backpacking gets pricy. Before you drop 300 bones on a nice Osprey pack, ask your hiker friend if you can borrow their gear for the night. There are also many outdoor shops that rent the essentials. In Portland, Mountain Shop and REI rent items like backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, trekking poles, and bear cannisters (which are easier to deal with than hanging a bear bag). Pick a backpackable hike within your skill level – try something like a 4-5 mile hike out on day one, camp, and hike back on day two – and go for it! Use a backpacking check list like this awesome one from REI to ensure you are bringing everything you need (BTW, the list is sort of excessive, so use your best judgement, i.e., you probably don’t need the ice axe on a low-elevation hike in mid-August).
Obviously, you can work your way up to backpacking any way you please; go on a day hike, then car camp the following weekend, then do a long hike, etc. These are just my recommendations to dip your toes into the pool of backpacking. Whatever you choose to do, make sure to do your research on routes before hand (Oregon Hikers is a great source for my fellow Oregonians), bring a buddy, and tell your friends and family where you’re going and when you plan to be back.
Woo hoo! Now you’re ready to find that inner backpacker. Go get ’em tiger!
As for you seasoned pros out there… How did you figure out that backpacking was the hobby for you? And what are your tips for first-timers?