Backpacking 101 - How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

Backpacking has an exciting, adventurous and sometimes overwhelming connotation for outdoors enthusiasts. Spending a few nights in the outdoors with just the bare essentials creates a sense of vulnerability that allows us to be resourceful, focus on our surroundings and enjoy nature in a truly unique and “off the grid” way. For people who are used to car camping, it can be overwhelming to think of packing everything you need for an overnight journey into one pack. Regardless of whether you are camping, hunting or fishing, backpacking is an amazing way to experience the great outdoors. Whether or not you actually enjoy your backpacking will depend greatly on how much you prepare for your journey. We’ve put together some general tips for beginners who are looking to backpack but need some guidance on where to begin the planning process. 

1. Decide on where you want to go. This is a pretty obvious first step, but it’s important to map out your route in order to know what to pack. All Trails is a great resource for hikers that compiles trail information from around the world into one single app. You can easily set filters, such as difficulty level, access to water, campground access and average review score for the type of experience you want. If you are a beginner, we highly suggest taking it easy, perhaps just a few mile hike to get to your destination. If you are used to hiking, you probably know your limits pretty well, but remember that you will be carrying a pretty heavy pack so you will move a bit slower and may tire faster. Remember to keep the following in mind when you pick a route:

    • Is there a natural water source along the trail? Plan on bringing a water filter and using streams and other water sources to hydrate so you don’t have to carry heavy water. 
    • What’s the elevation gain? The trail may look short, but is it uphill the entire way there?  
    • Is the weather going to be nice? Higher elevations are more susceptible to freak weather patterns.
    • Is this a well traveled trail? For beginners, we suggest picking a route that’s well trafficked by people as it gives you a sense of safety in numbers just in case anything were to go wrong. 
2. Get your gear together. Remember, less is more! Thankfully, Big Sky has all the backpacking essentials you need for your trip. 
  • A lightweight tent. We recommend the Big Agnes Tigerwall 2 Person - 3 Season tent. Big Agnes has a reputation for outstanding quality, and this tent is extremely lightweight and compact! It's super easy to strap on the outside of your pack. 

  • Backpack. Having a good sized and comfortable pack to carry everything is essential. We recommend the Deuter Aircontact 60 + 10 SL pack. It’s lightweight, comfortable and has room for everything you need. It also has separate compartments for easy access to whatever you need. Make sure your pack is at least 60 liters or larger.

  • Sleeping bag and pad. Depending on where you are going and what the weather is like, you could choose from a wide variety of bags and pads. Personally, I prefer to get a bag rated between 0-20 F regardless of when I am camping - I would much rather be a bit toasty instead of cold in the middle of the night. Please bring a sleeping pad. I know it may make sense to leave this off the list in order to save room in your pack, but it makes a huge difference in the quality of your sleep! Check out all the bags and pads we have to offer - you can’t go wrong with any of these options.

  • Stove and cooking gear. You need to eat while you are on your trip (more on food later in this article), and you’ll need to bring a stove. JetBoil makes great backpacking stoves which are small, portable and powerful. Make sure you bring enough gas for your adventure! The GSI Hallute cook set is also great for cookware, it comes with a pot, cup, bowl and silverware. Everything you need to eat and cook in a super compact design. 

  • Clothing. Based on where and when you go, this could vary greatly, but here are some important tips to keep in mind when packing clothes. 
    • Quick dry is always a good idea, especially in warm climates.
    • Keep rain/snow in mind - you don’t want to be caught wet and cold on your trip.
    • Layers. This is a great way to keep warm without bringing a huge puffy coat. Also keep in mind that some clothes can serve multiple purposes (a rain coat can protect you from water AND keep you warm).
    • Extra pair of socks and underwear. You never know! 
    • Excellent pair of hiking boots/shoes. Make sure to break in those boots before your trip to avoid blisters.
    • Toiletries.
  • Things that don’t fit nicely into a category.
    • First aid kit - please bring one!
    • Toilet paper, trowel and some baby wipes. You’ll need to bury your waste at least six inches below ground when nature calls, and nobody likes wiping with leaves. Baby wipes are great for freshening up at the end of the day.
    • Map and compass. Alternatively, you can download offline maps on your cell phone, which allows you to use the map even when you don’t have cell service. If you take this route, bring an external battery! Put your phone on airplane mode to save battery and use it sparingly to ensure you don’t drain your battery. Don’t forget a charger cable.
    • Headlamp and a solar powered lantern. You gotta see when it’s dark! Don’t forget extra batteries. 
    • Pocket knife or multi-tool. 
    • 9 Easily Overlooked Items You Shouldn’t Forget to Pack
3. Food and Water. Remember, all of your food and water will need to fit in your pack so think light! There are a lot of really delicious pre-made, freeze dried meals out there that are designed specifically for backpacking… and most of them are pretty delicious! These are great because in most cases, you just add hot water. You probably won’t be in the mood to cook an elaborate meal after a long day of hiking, so keep that in mind. We recommend bringing a few extra meals just in case you get the munchies or want to extend your trip. Make sure to bring some of your favorite snacks also, always taking into account space. Not a great idea to bring a bag of potato chips, but trail mix is a great choice! 

As far as water goes, make sure to pack a hydration bladder (which you can slide in your backpack) and a water filter. We recommend a bladder that’s at least 1 liter or larger. Bringing along a portable water filter will allow you to filter water from any source along your hike directly into your bladder. They are great, super lightweight and make all the difference. They also filter out all the bad stuff, making the water safe to drink. You also won’t have to worry about running out of water as long as you make sure to plan your hike around water sources. 

4. Check, double check and triple check before you go. By planning ahead, making lists and getting your gear together in the week prior to your departure, you will be less likely to forget something important and be more mentally prepared for your trip. Procrastinating is not a good idea before a backpacking trip. Make sure a family member or close friend knows where you are going and when you expect to be back. You’ll also need to plan out logistics for how to get to your hike such as driving, park permits, parking, etc. The more prepared you are, the better time you are going to have, guaranteed! 

Remember, less is more! Part of the joy of backpacking is leaving behind those "things" and getting into nature. If you feel like you are packing too much, you probably are. We suggest laying everything out on the floor and asking yourself "am I really going to use this" for every single item. If the answer is no, then don't pack it. 

We hope this helps and gives you some basic knowledge to prepare yourself for your upcoming backpack trip. If you ever have any questions, you are always welcome to reach out to the Big Sky team on social media - we love giving advice and sharing our knowledge of the great outdoors! 


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