Common Backpacking Questions Answered

backpacking questions
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If you’ve never been backpacking before and are planning your first trip, it’s normal to have many questions about this exciting outdoor activity. You may be wondering how to get in shape for a backpacking trip, what kinds of equipment you’ll need, or how much distance you can expect to cover in a day. Learning the answers to these common backpacking questions and more will help you prepare for the trip, keep you safe on the trail, and ensure your adventure is full of unforgettable memories. In this article, we’ll answer some of the most common backpacking questions that everyone should ask before heading out on their first backpacking trip.

Common Backpacking Questions Answered

What equipment is required for a backpacking trip?

At a bare minimum, you’ll need hiking boots or trail running shoes, shelter, a sleep system, a backpack, food, water, navigation equipment, a first aid kit, and an emergency kit for a backpacking trip.

Additional items you should bring include meal preparation equipment, a cookstove, personal toiletries, clothing appropriate for the weather conditions, high-quality hiking socks like Silverlight socks, and any special equipment required for the terrain, such as an ice axe.

Since you’ll be carrying everything on your back, you’ll want to make sure to pack light and bring lightweight equipment. For example, the heavy tent and bulky sleeping bag you bring on car camping trips probably won’t work for backpacking.

Read our post about what to pack on a multi-day hike or backpacking trip for more tips and advice, as well as a complete backpacking checklist.

What are the 10 Essentials for backpacking?

The 10 Essentials are a collection of items every backpacker should have with them to improve emergency preparedness. These items help prepare a backpacker for things like changes in the weather, minor injuries, getting lost, and unexpected delays.

The 10 Essentials for backpacking include:

  1. Navigation
  2. Sun protection
  3. Headlamp
  4. First aid kit
  5. Knife or multitool and gear repair kit
  6. Food (more than you expect to need)
  7. Water (more than you expect to need)
  8. Fire, including matches, a lighter, tinder, and/or a stove
  9. Shelter: this could be as light as an emergency bivvy on day hikes, but backpackers will typically have a tent and sleep system
  10. Extra clothing in case of extreme conditions

How much weight should you carry when backpacking?

When fully loaded, your backpack should weigh around 20 percent or less of your body weight.  If you weigh 130 pounds, your pack should weigh no more than about 26 pounds when going on a backpacking trip.

This percentage works well as a guide to help keep your pack a reasonable weight, but there are situations where it may be impossible to avoid carrying more than 20 percent of your body weight.

For example, If you’re going on an exceptionally long trip or backpacking in very cold weather, you may need to bring a large amount of food and water or extra layers, increasing the weight of your pack. Additionally, if you’re very small, it may be difficult to stick to the recommended weight since there is a limit on how much you can reasonably eliminate from your pack without compromising your safety and comfort.

Take a look at our article about ultralight backpacking for tips on cutting weight from your pack.

What size backpack do I need for backpacking?

Another common backpacking question is what size of backpack will be the best for your particular trip. Backpacking trips lasting 1-3 days usually require a 30-50L pack, trips lasting 3-5 days usually require a 50-80L pack, and trips lasting longer than 5 days typically require a 70L pack or larger. The season and climate also play a role, with winter backpacking trips often requiring 70L packs even if it’s only for one night.

backpacking questions

How do I fit everything in my backpack?

Packing your backpack strategically is crucial for fitting everything inside and keeping the weight balanced while you hike. You can divide the backpack into several key areas:

  • Bottom area: This space is best for any bulky items and gear that you won’t need until you set up camp for the night, like your sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Avoid putting anything heavy here since it can push on your lumbar spine.
  • Central area: This spot is optimal for heavier items, such as cooking utensils, a stove, a bear canister, food, and clothing.
  • Top area: This area is reserved for anything you may need easy access to, including your tent, rainfly, tent stakes, and similar items. These will be the first things you need when setting up camp, and you want to be able to reach them easily in case you need to set up camp suddenly due to bad weather.

Hiking backpacks also have outer pockets and attachments for things like trekking poles, a water bottle, bear spray, a headlamp, a first aid kit, an extra layer, keys, a wallet, and other items that you want to be accessible. If you’re using a hydration bladder, make sure to fill and pack it before adding the rest of your items. Otherwise, it will be challenging to fit it in at the end.

What kind of clothing should you wear backpacking?

To minimize the amount of clothing you bring on a backpacking trip, it helps to pack items that you can wear in layers. Choose articles of clothing that are comfortable, breathable, lightweight, quick-drying, moisture-wicking, antimicrobial, and durable.

The exact items of clothing you pack will depend on the climate and weather forecast at your hiking destination. Generally, backpackers require hiking socks, hiking boots or trail running shoes, hiking pants, shirts, undergarments, base layers, a breathable rain jacket, a synthetic or down jacket, a hat, a buff or bandana, a fleece top, sleepwear, gloves, and other accessories. You should plan to reuse the items as much as possible by washing and drying them along the way when needed.

Materials

Certain materials make much better choices for backpacking apparel than others. Below you can find a summary of common materials and what makes them better or worse for backpacking.

Merino wool: Thanks to its excellent temperature-regulating, moisture-wicking, and antimicrobial properties, merino wool clothing is a great choice for backpacking. Some clothing is 100% merino wool, while other garments feature a blend of wool with synthetic fibers like nylon and spandex for added comfort and durability.

Cotton: Cotton may be comfortable for hanging out at home, but it’s best to avoid bringing cotton clothing on backpacking trips. Cotton fabrics are poor insulators and take a long time to dry, leading many outdoor enthusiasts to warn, “cotton kills.” Because cotton has a low warmth-to-weight ratio, it’s a poor choice for backpacking and is best left at home.

Synthetic: Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon dry quickly, are cheaper than merino wool, and are quite durable. However, they are less resistant to odors than wool and will get stinky quickly on a backpacking trip.

backpacker standing on cliff

How do you prepare for a backpacking trip?

This is a good questions to ask for someone starting out with backpacking. Getting ready for a backpacking trip involves extensive physical training and logistical planning. Below are some of the key ways you can prepare.

  1. Choose your destination. An accessible, easy destination with warm, mild weather is best for your first backpacking trip. To start, try a short, weekend outing close to home during the summer. The destination impacts many other aspects of planning, so try to decide early on.
  2. Go on longer day hikes and do some hiking-specific exercises in the 2-3 months leading up to your trip. Wear your backpack while training – you can start with low weight and increase it little by little until you’ve reached the weight you’ll carry backpacking.
  3. Plan your meals. Careful meal planning will ensure you don’t go hungry or carry excessive weight. See below for more information about what kind of food to pack and how much to bring.
  4. Budget your trip. Plan out the cost of all the gear and supplies you’ll need to purchase, travel to and from your destination, an emergency fund, and other expenses ahead of time to make sure you have enough cash for everything you’ll need. A weekend backpacking trip may not require too much advance financial planning, but longer treks and thru-hikes demand careful budgeting since costs can quickly add up.
  5. Purchase any gear and supplies you need. Buy gear second hand or rent it to cut down on expenses.
  6. Get any permits required for your destination. Certain areas require backpackers to have permits and limit the number of hikers allowed at any given time. You’ll want to secure any necessary permits well in advance to ensure you can complete your trip.
  7. Familiarize yourself with the Leave No Trace principles, wilderness first aid and wilderness survival techniques, and other skills to improve your safety and minimize your environmental impact.
  8. Find a friend or group to join you. If you’re new to backpacking, it’s crucial to bring a friend or two to help ensure your safety. Keep groups to 6 people maximum to limit environmental impacts.
  9. Once you’ve planned your route, tell someone where you are going. Give them the exact details of where you’ll be, what trail you’ll follow, what kind of vehicle you’re driving and where you plan to park it, who you’re traveling with, and when you will return.

How much water should you carry on a backpacking trip?

As a general rule, backpackers should carry 1 liter of water for every 2 hours of backpacking until the next water source. Variables including weather, terrain, body type, and pace can affect this figure. For example, you may need to carry more water if hiking in hot weather or on a difficult trail or if you sweat a lot.

Here are some additional tips for staying hydrated:

  • Always know where the next water source is and plan exactly where you’ll fill up before starting your trip.
  • Slip slowly instead of chugging the water to help slow the speed with which it passes through your system.
  • Make sure you are adequately protected from the sun since sunburn can accelerate dehydration.
  • Pre-hydrating, or drinking water before you start hiking, is essential to staying hydrated and allows you to carry less water with you. Drink around 1 liter of water with breakfast before you hit the trail or before leaving a water source you encounter during the day.
  • Bring a water filtration system so you can drink from any water source and save water weight in your pack.

What kind of food should I pack on a backpacking trip?

Trail food should be lightweight, nutrient-rich, calorie-dense, easy to prepare, non-perishable, and delicious. As a general guideline, you should plan on packing 1.5-2.5 lbs (0.7-1.1 kg) of food per day, per person. However, this figure will change depending on factors like your height and weight, the distance you’re hiking in a day, and the intensity of your hike.

Check out our article with 25 Delicious Backpacking Food Ideas for some meal planning inspiration and additional advice.

How far should I plan to hike?

Most people plan to hike between 3 and 10 miles per day on a backpacking trip. If you’re a beginner, stick to shorter hikes with less elevation gain – anywhere from around 3-5 miles a day is a good place to start. More experienced backpackers and hikers may prefer longer days of 8-10 miles, with some covering up to 20 miles a day. Always be mindful of how many hours of daylight you have and leave plenty of time to set up camp before the sun goes down.

How far can a beginner hike in a day?

A typical backpacker in good shape can hike around 2-3 miles per hour when hiking at a moderate speed. Beginners are likely to move at a slower pace of around 1 to 1.5 miles per hour and should start with a hike of 7 miles or less each day with minimal elevation gain. Over time, beginners can work their way up to longer, more challenging hikes.

The distance a hiker is able to cover in a day will ultimately depend on many factors, including their physical condition, hiking experience, weight, and overall health, as well as the terrain, altitude, and weather conditions.

backpackers on mountain peak

What does it mean to Leave No Trace?

Leave No Trace is all about minimizing our impacts on the environment when we spend time outdoors. From picking up any trash you find on the trail to keeping a safe distance from wildlife, the seven Leave No Trace principles provide a guide to help you recreate responsibly.

While the principles trace their roots to the backcountry, they can be applied on all outdoor adventures to protect the environment and limit human impacts. Since backpacking often involves traveling through wilderness areas, it’s especially important to familiarize yourself with what it means to Leave No Trace before a backpacking trip.

The seven Leave No Trace principles are as follows:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare: Research ahead and plan your trip carefully to help ensure the safety of you and your group and reduce your potential of damaging natural resources. This includes checking the weather conditions, packing appropriately, ensuring everyone in the group has the skills and abilities to safely complete the trip, and being aware of any regulations, restrictions, or private land boundaries in the areas you’ll visit.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Stick to designated trails and campsites or durable surfaces including rock, sand, gravel, ice, snow, or dry grasses. Other vegetation and fragile desert soils are vulnerable to damage when anyone walks or camps on them and should be avoided.
  3. Dispose of waste properly: As the saying goes, pack it in, pack it out. Clean up after you leave, take all trash with you, and use only biodegradable soaps. You should also learn how to properly dispose of human waste to avoid polluting water sources and always follow the recommendations for the areas you’re visiting.
  4. Leave what you find: Avoid picking wildflowers, damaging trees, removing any natural objects or cultural artifacts from their place, or altering the trail or campsite in any way. By leaving it as you found it, you’re allowing others to discover the wilderness the way it should be.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts: Never build a fire in areas where it’s prohibited, such as deserts or high elevation environments. If you’re not using an existing campfire ring, you should avoid building a fire unless you can ensure it’s in a safe place and will show no evidence of ever having been constructed. Properly extinguish any fires you do build and cook using a camp stove to limit impacts.
  6. Respect wildlife: Do not get close to, feed, or touch wild animals. Doing so could endanger you and the wildlife by scaring them or altering their natural behavior.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors: Familiarize yourself with trail etiquette, keep noise to a minimum, and control your pets if you have them with you.

What should you do if you get lost while hiking or backpacking?

Advance planning and preventative measures go a long way in helping you avoid getting lost, but the unexpected can always occur no matter how prepared you are. If you do find yourself lost, follow the US Forest Service’s STOP recommendation:

  1. Stop. When you realize you are lost, stop moving immediately, and stay calm.
  2. Think. Try to retrace your tracks in your mind. Think about whether you may have seen any landmarks or if you have any photos that could indicate which way you went. Don’t move around at all until you’ve clearly thought through everything and have a very strong reason to take a step.
  3. Observe. Stay on the trail if you are on one. All trails have some kind of signs or trail markers, making it easier to determine your location. Get out your map and compass or navigation system to try to figure out where you are and how to get to your destination.
  4. Plan. Come up with a plan or two based on your thoughts and observations. If you’re confident in your plan, proceed with it. If you’re not confident, stay where you are and set up a shelter if needed. You may be able to see things differently or more clearly once you’ve rested and thought everything through.

black and gray compass with map

How do you use the bathroom while backpacking?

This is a common concern among first-time backpackers and one of the most common backpacking questions. Learning the correct way to do your business outdoors is an essential skill backpackers must learn to leave no trace and avoid polluting water sources.

How to pee in the backcountry:

  1. Avoid urinating in a water source such as a small pond, lake, or stream. You can pee directly into the water if you’re near a large body of water such as a large river since the volume will dilute the urine.
  2. If you’re in an alpine area, it’s recommended to urinate on a rock surface.
  3. When possible, find a soft, absorbent spot such as an area covered with pine needles to avoid getting splashed.
  4. Pack out any toilet paper that you use in a plastic bag. To cut down on waste, some people prefer to use a pee rag or bandana that can be washed and reused. You can tie it to the outside of your pack to allow it to dry and keep it separate from the rest of your clothing and gear.

How to poop in the backcountry:

  1. Check the area you’re visiting to see if there are any restrictions or regulations about human waste. It may be necessary to pack out solid human waste, in which case you’ll need a human waste disposal system such as a blue bag.
  2. If there are no regulations in the area you’re visiting, you can dig a cathole. Find a suitable spot at least 200 feet away from any water sources, trails, and campsites. If possible, choose a sunny place with loose, rich soil, as these conditions can help waste decompose faster.
  3. Dig a hole around 4 inches wide and 6 to 8 inches deep using a trowel, stick, or rock and cover it up when you’re done.
  4. If you’re using toilet paper or wet wipes, try to minimize the amount used and always pack them out in a sealable plastic bag. You can disguise the contents of the bag using aluminum foil or duct tape.

How do you prevent blisters while backpacking?

The best defense against blisters while backpacking is wearing quality footwear that fits you well. Make sure to properly break in your hiking boots or trail running shoes and invest in high-quality hiking socks. Avoid cotton hiking socks and choose a pair like Silverlight socks that dries quickly, wicks moisture, fights bacteria, provides adequate padding and support, and doesn’t slip or bunch. This will help minimize the friction, moisture, and bacteria that cause blisters and hot spots to form.

Choosing the right size and length of socks is also essential. The sock height should be taller than the shoes to prevent them from rubbing directly against the skin.

As an added preventative measure, you can use an anti-blister balm like Foot Glide or Bodyglide on high-friction areas including the toes and heels. For more tips and advice, read our dedicated post on blister treatment and prevention while hiking.

Conclusion

Finding solutions to common backpacking questions and concerns is a crucial step toward making your backpacking experience safe, enjoyable, and memorable. Now that you know the answers to some of the most common backpacking questions, you should be well on your way to planning a successful outdoor adventure.


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