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20 Backpacking Tips for Beginners

Last updated by on January 27, 2016

Hopefully, the catchy title sucked you in. We previously covered what backpacking gear to purchase, what food and clothing to bring, and how to properly train for backpacking. All of that stuff is great and necessary, but it doesn’t exactly prepare you for some of the situations that you encounter while out on the trail. Here are 20 of the top backpacking tips and lessons that I’ve learned from personal experience and the experts.

Backpacking Food Tips

backpacking tips1. Do not leave any food behind. Animals will find it and you will create problems for future backpackers as they become more interested in human food and activity. Be conscious of how you are impacting others.

2. Store everything properly. Anything scented, including lip balm, toothpaste, deodorant, and your toothbrush needs special storage consideration. I’ve seen three different types of backcountry animal deterrent systems. Some parks have a large metal trunk that you can store these materials in. Others have a pulley system to pull your bag up. A third system consists of a pole that you raise and hang your backpack on. At night, this is where all scented products and food should go. These animal avoidance systems are also a strong incentive to stay at designated campsites.

3. Keep critters out of your food. Think your food is safe 20 feet in the air? I did too. That is, until I woke up, pulled my bag down for breakfast, and noticed a hole in it. A rodent had eaten a hole in my bag to get to food. I don’t know how the little critter ate everything that he did, but he really did cut into my food supplies for the trip. Lesson learned: store your food in a steel mesh bag or other animal proof container.

4. Keep your food waste under control. Pack all of your meals in ziplock bags. That way, when you’re done, you can put all waste in them. This keeps things clean and simple and cuts down on scents that can be picked up by animals.

5. Cook your food at least 100 feet downwind from your tent. Otherwise, you may be encouraging animals to sneak around your tent at night because your tent will smell like the food that you cooked.

Backpacking Water Tipsbackpack water

6. Have enough water, but not too much. Plan your routes so that you will cross water at least once per day. If you don’t have access to water re-fill spots, you’ll have to carry a lot of it in with you. Water weighs a ton and the less you need to carry, the better.

7. Collect water from flowing water sources. Get water from flowing sources – a stream, river, spring, or lake. This helps to prevent water from being gathered near a bacterial source like a dead animal.

8. Always sterilize your water. Filter your water, boil it, or both.

Backpacking with Bears

9. If you’re going through thick brush, make a lot of noise. This scares bears off. They don’t want to run into you, and you don’t want to startle them without warning.

10. If you do encounter a black bear, be calm and don’t threaten them. Back away slowly, while still facing the bear. Do not turn, and whatever you do, do not run. If you encounter a grizzly, slowly back away and don’t make eye contact.

backpacking bears11. Play dead (or fight)! If, in the vary rare circumstance that you do get attacked by a grizzly bear, cover your head, roll into a ball, and play dead. You won’t be able to fight a grizzly and win. Grizzlies get bored easily. If you get attacked by a black bear, fight back, drop some food, and get out of there. I believe you’re more likely to be hit by lightning, but still, it’s good to know what to do in the unlikely event.

12. Don’t fear the bears, but definitely be conscious if you’re in bear country. Depending on where you hike, you may run into bears. I’ve seen them, heard them at night, and have occasionally smelled them nearby. At first, it can psyche you out a bit. But remember, they are more scared of you than you are of them and want to avoid contact. Be aware of your surroundings, but don’t freak out.

Hiking Tips

13. Keep your feet dry. Wet feet leads to more friction and potential blisters. Always have an extra pair of dry socks with you.

14. Keep your weight on your hips. True backpacking packs have a weight belt for your hips. You want the majority of the weight you are carrying to settle there vs. on your shoulders.

15. Go easy on your knees. If you’re doing a lot of downhill hiking as a result of big altitude changes, your knees can really get abused. Consider using trekking poles or a walking stick to share the weight impact with your legs.

16. Be cautious of blisters. Address blisters as soon as they start to develop. A minor irritation can quickly get a lot worse and really ruin your whole trip. Always carry blister pads with you.

Navigation Tipsbackpacking navigation

17. Always be mappin’. Always have a map of where you are hiking. Other than obviously helping to keep you on track, maps can help you figure out where you are at certain times of the day and plan out where you need to get to.

18. Get an old school compass. Carry a traditional magnetic compass. A co-worker recently told me he ended up hiking 15 miles out of the way because his iPhone compass app was unusable when his phone battery died on him. Don’t trust technology when in the woods.

19. Stay put when lost. If you are significantly lost, get to a visible area where you can send smoke or other signals and don’t move. When you try to find your way out of trouble, you usually end up getting more lost.

And Finally…

20. Have fun! It may seem tough and like a lot of work the first time out, but once you get out there, enjoy the solitude, adventure, and challenge that nature provides!

Backpacking Discussion:

  • What backpacking tips do you have to share?
  • What’s your funniest or craziest backpacking story?

Related Posts:

About the Author
I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 10,000+ others by getting FREE email updates. You can also explore every post I have written, in order.

  • Whoopde says:

    These are fundamentally solid backpacking tips. Another tip is to keep your pack weight down as low as possible and when you’re done with a trip make note of everything that you did not use and don’t anticipate using again so that your pack is lighter the next time around.

  • Greg says:

    I think these are excellent tips. I have just one or two little things to add and one note on which to disagree.

    Bears: I’ll start with the bears since everyone seems to be most interested in them. Your advice about what to do in the event that you come face to face with a bear runs counter to what they tell you to do in the parks; Yellowstone even makes you watch a safety video before issuing you a backcountry permit. Yes, it’s good to make noise to keep bears away and we ran a black bear out of our campsite in Yosemite by yelling and clapping from in our tent. We also banged pots when we had a black bear across a stream after we’d backed way away from it. But when you’re up to face a bear (particularly a grizzly), you don’t want to make yourself seem big and intimidating. With mountain lions, you should make yourself look as big as possible with your arms up high to appear intimidating, but with bears you should not try to intimidate. You should back away slowly, looking at the bear, but not staring at its eyes. Also, you are specifically advised not to remove your pack (and don’t raise it above your head). Your pack is your best protection should you get attacked. You roll face down with your pack still on your back and use your hands to cover your head and neck. Your advice about acting intimidating might work with black bears, but definitely runs counter to NPS advice on what to do with Grizzlies.

    Plan: Know how far you plan to hike each day and have a route planned out. Park rangers are an awesome help with this and it’s often required in national parks if you’re going to get a permit. Also, let somebody who’s not on the trip know how long you’re going to be out and what route you plan to take.

    Food: Many places don’t have bear boxes, polls, or pulley systems. Make sure you’ve got a good long rope to use to hang your food and know the local requirements. Some places insist you have a bear canister (eg Big Bend NP), some places require you hang using the counter-balance method (eg Rocky Mountain NP), and other places insist you hang it over a branch and tie to the tree (eg Yellowstone NP).

    Potty: You addressed packing everything in and out, but sometimes beginners don’t realize this means you also pack out your TP, so I thought I’d mention it specifically. Do your business far from water and bury your goods 6″ underground. Have a ziplock to put your TP in that you can just toss out.

  • Ryan says:

    Good tips, and Greg, good additions-

    Would also add, re: bears, to be knowledgable about the type of bears you may encounter, and what their body language may indicate. Playing dead is not universally a good idea if a bear attacks. Black bears are not likely to attack you, and if one is, it’s possible that it views you as tasty. Playing dead will just make you an easier snack. Make like Davy Crockett and fight that bear.

  • jrr says:

    I think the proper bear strategy differs between bear species. Since many are scavengers, playing dead seems unwise. Also, I think black bears climb trees =]

  • y_p_w says:

    Dealing with bears requires a lot of research beforehand.

    I wouldn’t play dead with a black bear. In general they hate confrontation and someone fighting back can often get them to stop the rare predatory attack. Black bears have been known to lash out and then run away when they felt they had not other way out. If it’s got room to escape, it usually will take that route.

    Grizzly/brown bears don’t back off from anything. For the most part they aren’t going to be aggressive, but don’t mess with them if you can help it. I’ve heard in northern regions they typically won’t back off from polar bears, which are considerably larger and stronger. Playing dead is the right strategy for a grizzly attack. They have been known to stop when they don’t sense a threat.

    I also can’t figure why the use of bear-resistant containers wasn’t mentioned. The photo is of Half Dome, and all backcountry campers in Yosemite are required to use bear canisters.

  • G.E. Miller says:

    Let me clarify on the bear tips. Playing dead is for grizzlies (because if you get attacked, you’re probably as good as dead if you can’t outrun them). With black bears, you should fight back and get out of there. Post is updated, thanks for pointing out the differences.

  • Justin says:

    There are some great tips here. When backpacking you always want to make sure that those behind you get to enjoy eveything you did so emphasizing the cleanliness is important. Also, love the bear tips. Thanks for sharing.

  • Terry P says:

    Next time, try using a outsak rodent proof bag to keep out the camp theives. (google it)

  • bob says:

    why don’t you gather all the mice in the area and stuff them in to the outsak. better yet, lets arm the world of hikers with Outsak bags, ask them to gather mice and release them in urban areas…essentially clearing the backcountry of rodents. Outsak will save the world.

  • Gus says:

    Not sure if steel mesh bags will save the world, but they do indeed work against the rodents. I’ve found various vendors making them under different names, but they all seem to be essentially the same… stainless steel mesh with velcro across the top. There is quite a difference in prices from what I’ve seen. There are Outsaks, Grubpacks, Ratsacks and Foodsacks. All have websites where you can compare sizes, weights, prices, etc.

  • Sandy Jo says:

    FYI: Taking the advice of tip #3 and some of the comments before mine, I looked into the steel mesh bags for my food. The different brands do look similar. I bought a Grubpack. It is not only lower cost but ships free. I saved over $10. Have used mine for only 3 nights, but so far NO MICE in my food!

  • J Tork says:

    I’ve found the mesh animal proof bags do work for rodents and animals up to the size of raccoons. They are NOT bear bags. But they are light weight and reliable for keeping mice, squirrels and chipmunks out. I had an old Ratsack but lost it on a river mishap. I’ve used a Grubpack for better than a year now. As others have mentioned here, I bought my Grubpack online because it cost quite a bit less than the others.

  • JustinHB says:

    Awesome write up. Just like to add on a bit on the going easy in the knees. Less is More when it comes to backpacking. I’ve seen guys pack a 2lb poncho and a backup poncho total of 4lbs just in case. It didn’t rain, and he struggled to carry all that extra weight for 50 miles. I’ve come a long way from my first 60lb pack weight trip. I’m now around 24lb. weight with 5 days food. The strenuous 5 mile hikes blow by now and the energy saved plus less knee strain allows me to enjoy my trip that much more. You only need one flashlight, I prefer a headlamp considering they weigh around 4oz/quarter pound, and allow you to cook or set up camp in the dark hands free. Seen a few flashlights drop in pots while cooking. Lol. I see people with headlamp,handheld, and tent light taking that 1/4lb up to a pound. Big Rambo knives weigh a pound, while a small 1oz folder would be fine to cut the blisters open on your feet. Buy a postal scale, weigh everything and make notes of it. Now pack accordingly. Your body will thank you for it. And sell that 6lb pack. ULA circuit is my go-to


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