Lying in my warm-weather sleeping bag, I watched frost slowly build on the outside of my tent for hours before realizing I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night. I tried to control my chattering teeth, and thought back to just hours earlier when sunshine and 70-degree temperatures welcomed me and my brother to the summit of Algonquin Peak, just outside of Lake Placid, New York. It was our first time backpacking—carrying our gear to camp over a multi-day hiking trip—and it was obvious we had a lot to learn.
And learn I would: In the following years I came to love backpacking, while working as an occasional weekend guide for New York City-based Destination Backcountry Adventures. I backpacked in national parks across the U.S., became a wilderness-therapy guide in Maine, and eventually relocated to a small town in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Over the years, I collected knowledge I was missing on that first night at the base of Algonquin Peak—the importance of using a sleeping pad (not just that sleeping bag) for insulation, how to dress properly, and what to bring and leave behind. With a little more research ahead of time, though, I could have avoided learning the hard way.
From a novice-turned-pro, here are a few things to consider before spending your first night in the backcountry—for a much better first try than mine.
All products featured in this story are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Bring the appropriate gear
These days, there’s no shortage of gadgets designed to make your time outdoors as comfortable as possible. But when you’re halfway up the side of a mountain with a 65-liter backpack full of stuff, you’ll likely realize you would’ve been more comfortable if you had left some at home.
There are a number of companies, such as Outdoor Research, MSR, and Big Agnes, to name a few, that make lightweight, backpacking-specific gear. While you might shell out a little more for it, you’ll be much happier than if you choose to haul around that heavy Coleman tent and sleeping bag you've had in the attic for years.
Basic things you’ll need are a lightweight backpacking tent and sleeping bag, which come rated for specific temperatures—pick one that’s designed for 15 to 20 degrees lower than the weather you expect to encounter—a camp stove with fuel and something to cook in. You’ll also need a sleeping pad to provide insulation from the ground, a headlamp with extra batteries, storm-proof matches, water treatment filter, iodine tablets or a small dropper of bleach, and a backpack to carry it all in.
Showing up to the trail in jeans and a cotton T-shirt might not be huge a problem on a three-mile day hike, but it can quickly become dangerous for overnight backpacking when you spend the day sweating and evening temperatures drop significantly. Cotton is heavy, absorbs water, and doesn’t dry easily, which can lead to hypothermia in extreme cases. In general, avoid cotton for backpacking: Companies like Arc’teryx and Patagonia make synthetic, lightweight, and packable clothing better designed for the task at hand.
It’s also a good idea to bring even more layers than you think you’ll need, especially to mountainous regions. Nights tend to get significantly colder than days—and a fleece or puffy jacket with a rain shell goes a long way during cool nights on windy summits. You’ll also never regret having an extra pair of socks to change into at camp.
Footwear is a matter of preference. Some prefer the support and durability of full-grain leather hiking boots when carrying a heavy pack, while others prefer lightweight synthetic boots or even trail-running shoes. Regardless of what you prefer for hikes, also bring a pair of lightweight camp shoes to change into at the end of a long day—your feet will thank you.
Plan ahead for every step
“Plan ahead and prepare” is the first of the seven Leave No Trace principles, which every backpacker should follow. These principles are designed to keep users of natural spaces safe, while also minimizing human impact in the outdoors, with guidelines on respecting wildlife, traveling and camping on durable surfaces, and disposing of waste properly, to list a few. In addition to learning the “LNT’s,” familiarize yourself with reading a topographic map to determine your mileage, spot water sources, decide where to set up camp, and map your overall route and evacuation routes for each day on paper. Gaia GPS is a helpful interactive map tool for plotting out your course, and can offers insights about elevation, water sources, and the length of a route so you can plan rest stops. The app also has the ability to download maps for offline use, if your phone GPS will work during the journey—but it's crucial to plot out the route on a paper topographic map in case you lose service.
It’s also helpful to make a meal plan so you don’t over- or underpack. The simplest way to go is to bring dehydrated meals, like the ones by Good To-Go, which are lightweight and require nothing more than hot water. Eventually, as your comfortability with backpacking increases, you can start getting creative with different campsite recipes you can make yourself.
Ensure you have emergency essentials, as well. The quickest and easiest option is to purchase a prepared first-aid kit designed for backpacking, although you can put one together yourself. In addition to the map you used to plan the trip, bring a compass (and know how to use it), whistle, an emergency bivy or mylar thermal blanket, a knife, gear-repair kit or simple duct tape, and extra clothes and food. A satellite phone or personal locator beacon (PLB) can also be useful in remote areas where cell reception is hard to find.
Hire a guide
While research is helpful, no amount of preparation can equate to actual experience. Backpacking with a guide isn’t a necessity, but it can help you avoid some of the discomfort that is inevitably going to occur during your first few trips. An experienced backpacker knows how to properly dispose of waste, where (and where not) to set up camp, how to choose a backpacking route based on available water sources and fitness level, and other skills that can only be sharpened by spending time in the field.
Transform your car into the ultimate off-grid camping companion.
REI Adventures offers a number of group and private backpacking trips in the U.S. and beyond perfect for learning the ropes. In fact, they’ve recently added 17 new domestic itineraries, including a five-day backpacking trip in Yosemite that incorporates an ascent of the famous Half Dome. And 57 Hours, an online platform that connects outdoor enthusiasts with certified guides, also offers a number of backpacking itineraries.
No matter when you start backpacking, know that the learning continues, and that's part of the adventure. Every time I venture into the backcountry, I find a new skill or trick to make the experience more fun and comfortable. For example, in recent years, I replaced my water filtration pump and iodine tablets with a bleach dropper—an easier method than pumping that provides better tasting results than iodine tablets. Those lessons come with experience. But you don’t need to be a pro with perfected methods and systems to hit the trail; you just need to be prepared, so you can safely get that crucial firsthand experience of your own.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler