A Beginner's Guide To Wilderness and Backcountry Hiking Prep

Two women sitting on a rock overlooking where the forest and blue water of Isle Royale National Park meet.
– Marilyn Cook, Share the Experience

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.

Going out for a hike can mean just a few hours outside or a multi-day adventure. If you’re ready to graduate from day-hikes to overnight backpacking trips, make sure to prepare before leaving the crowds behind and heading deep into the wilderness and backcountry.

Planning ahead

When you head off into the wilderness or backcountry 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 websites for trails and hiking, and wilderness and backcountry camping. 
  • Request the proper permit. Check the park’s page on nps.gov to see if the park requires one. 
  • Obtain detailed maps of 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 apps to your phone. Don't forget to pack a battery-operated phone charger.  
  • Before you leave the trailhead, make sure somebody back at home knows where you're headed and how long you'll be gone. 

Packing your pack

Man lying on his back against his backpack while looking up at the snow-covered mountain at Denali National Park
Mike Quine, Share the Experience

Bring everything you need and nothing you don't. With a lightweight pack,  you can usually squeeze all essential backpacking 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 water, food, 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
  • At least one pair of socks for each day
  • Cold weather hat/beanie and light gloves
  • Light-weight sandals to wear around campsite
  • 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
  • Headlamp
  • Matches or lighter
  • Duct tape and/or repair kit
  • Pocket knife
  • Environmentally-friendly toiletries
  • Trowel

Eating right

How much food you bring depends on the length of your trip and how many people are going. One hiker on an overnight excursion can probably get by on prepared food alone, provided it's calorie-dense and high in protein. Granola bars, trail mix, beef jerky, nuts, fruit, and a chocolate bar or two are good things to bring for a short trip. A large group on a weeklong trek is probably going to need to do some cooking, preparing a menu in advance. Dehydrated food will save a lot of space and weight. In addition to the food itself, you should bring:
  • 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

A person standing next to a tent watching Grand Canyon National Park light up during sunrise
Patrick Cooley, Share the Experience
Get ready for your adventure by doing the following:
  • Condition your body and hike on local trails to get ready
  • Set up your tent in the backyard
  • Practice lighting your stove
  • Practice using the water pump
  • Break in those new hiking shoes by going on preparatory hikes
  • Brush up on wilderness and backcountry etiquette - Learn and practice Leave No Trace principles 
  • Learn how to dig a cathole – you'll be glad you did!

Choosing your destination

A backpacking hiking trail might be right in your backyard. National parks offer access to thousands of great trails, and any of these would make a great backcountry trip for a beginner:

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 bustling 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.


one of the musts in az to do is Kaibab forest and the grand canyon. super stunning, and super challenging, the grand canyon, if you do the harder trails.
I am looking to do a 1-2 night beginner backpacking trip in Illinois. I am having trouble finding places that allow overnight backpacking. I am hoping someone here can help me out!
If you are in Southern Illinois, Land between the Lakes is not too far and it is good beginning backpacking.
Thanks for this article! My daughter hikes with her two-year-old daughter and so do other people I know locally. I shared it on my facebook so others can read your great tips. I especially liked the ones about playing games on the trails and letting kids help with the preperation. Technology is a great thing but it’s good for everyone to get away from it on occcasion!
You can also rent gear if you don't want to own all the stuff year round! I've rented everything for a backpacking trip from a company called Coozie Outdoors, they shipped everything to my door!
Does anyone want to do a easy back country hike and camp? I want to do this with my 9 year old daughter but feel I would be more safe with at least another adult. My husband, other children and friends do not think this is fun stuff. I want to do this in nShenandoah national park.
I totally understand as a Mom why it can be intimidating or it may seem unsafe to camp alone. On the other hand I have never felt more accomplished in my life doing so. Crating a shelter, teaching my son about the land dos and don’ts, what animals are friendly which critters are venomous. He sees me as a wild momma now oafyer out many trips alone. Some of us camp because it helps with grief, other because no one else is interested. Never let your circumstance or those around you limit you from your potential. If you want to call with your child or children do it make a plan do your research and do it! They will become stronger and so will you! Be the wild mama your instincts tell you to be!
Hello - Did you ever make this trip? How did it go? Was it just the two of you?
Thanks! Comprehensive list for beginners, from my first backpacking trip, I overpacked with foods and all the training I did with backpack weeks before helped, I wish I had practiced cooking more with minimal stuff, anything tastes great in Wilderness , can't wait for my next backpacking trip.
Please thank the people who work so hard to keep the parks clean and inviting.

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