A Beginner's Guide To Backcountry Hiking Prep
From the Appalachian Trail in the East, to the Pacific Crest Trail in the West, and countless miles in-between, some of the best backcountry hiking destinations in North America are accessible in our national parks.
Backcountry hiking means spending at least one night in the wilderness, usually at a designated backcountry campsite or trail shelter far from the nearest road. If you're ready to graduate from day-hikes to overnight backpacking trips, do the necessary preparation before leaving the crowds behind and heading deep into the backcountry.
When you head off into the wilderness without a plan, anything can happen, and not all of it good. Doing your homework can save you from life-threatening situations, especially for novices.
- Visit the National Park Service website for detailed information on any backcountry hiking trail in a national park.
- Request a permit (check the park’s page on nps.gov to see if the park you’ll be visiting requires one).
- Obtain a detailed map of any trails you plan to hike. Locate campsites and water sources on the map and plan accordingly. Expect to cover 5 to 10 miles a day, depending on the terrain.
- Download GPS and compass to your phone. Don't forget to pack a battery-operated phone charger.
- Before you leave the trailhead, make sure somebody back in civilization knows where you're headed and how long you'll be gone.
Packing your pack
Bring everything you need and nothing you don't. With the lightweight packs available nowadays, you can usually squeeze all essential backcountry camping gear into a pack weighing 40 pounds or less. Put the heaviest items in the center for balance, and add lightweight items around them. Place items you need to access frequently (like food, water, and maps) where you can get at them easily.
Layering is key as weather can change quickly and dramatically depending on your location and the time of year. Consider packing the following:
- Good hiking boots
- Synthetic hiking pants or shorts
- Long underwear
- Synthetic shirt
- Fleece or hoodie
- Light jacket
- Waterproof jacket and pants
- 1 pair of socks/2 days
- Beanie and light gloves
- Sandals that strap to your feet
- Sleeping bag (down or synthetic)
- Inflatable or closed-cell foam pad
- 3-season tent
- First aid kit (Read up on how you pack a good first aid kit)
- Matches or lighter
- Duct tape and/or repair kit
- Pocket knife
- Environmentally-friendly toiletries
- Lightweight backpacking stove and fuel
- Compact pot set and utensils
- One cup, bowl, and spork for each person
- Sponge and soap
- Don't forget water! Carry a minimum of 32 ounces of water with you at all times, and keep a filter or other system handy so that you can purify water from springs and streams.
Testing your skills
- Condition your body and take a few hikes on local trails
- Set up your tent in the backyard
- Light your stove
- Practice using the water pump
- Break in those new hiking shoes by going on preparatory hikes
- Brush up on backcountry etiquette
- Learn how to dig a cathole. You'll be glad you did later on.
Choosing your destination
- Hoh River Trail - Olympic National Park, Washington (17.5 miles)
- Elam Loop - Redwood National Park, California (20 miles)
- Big Meadows & Rose River Loop - Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (14 miles)
- North Country Trail - Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan (42 miles)
Making the leap from hiker to backpacker is no small feat, but it brings a peace of mind and a sense of accomplishment that can only be found away from crowds, cars, and organized campgrounds. Looking for more adventure? Learn more about how to start backpacking these trails like a pro.
For additional inspiration, be sure to check out the backcountry camping section of our FREE “Gimme Shelter” Owner’s Guide.