Plan your first backpacking trip | The complete guide to overnight hiking

Have you ever dreamt about hiking miles into the wilderness with everything you need for survival strapped to your back? Follow the simple steps in this guide and make your first overnight adventure a success!
Morning views from campsite after backpacking
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Have you ever dreamt about hiking miles into the wilderness with everything you need for survival strapped to your back? Maybe you’ve been drawn in by the idea of isolated mountain vistas, the thought of having your morning coffee by a glacier fed lake, or simply inspired by the desire to feel the sense of adventure and connection with nature that comes with a backpacking. Whatever your reason, a good backpacking trip can easily become the highlight of your summer, or year, assuming it’s planned correctly. 

Unfortunately, it’s the latter that can serve as a major obstacle for getting into backpacking hiking and overnight camping. I’ll be the first to admit that prior to taking my first backpacking trip I was gripped with anxiety. Did I forget something essential? Would our gear work as planned? Fortunately, everything went off without a hitch and I’m certain it will for you too if you follow the simple steps I’ve put forward in this guide to taking your first overnight hike.

Research, plan your route, and pick an easy hike!

Planning an overnight hike thoroughly before embarking is a critical step. The last thing you want is to set off down the trail and realize that the hike is more than you bargained for and that your packing/gear setup was completely wrong. Take some time to do your research, air on the easy side of the difficulty spectrum and familiarize yourself as much as possible with the route in advance.

Person looks at map for planning backpacking trip

Research your backcountry trip and plan your route

Maybe you heard about a hike or an area via Instagram, driving through a national park, or simply by old fashioned word of mouth. However your curiosity was piqued, take a look for blog posts or pick up a guide book written exclusively for the area you’re interested in from MEC or REI. National/state/provincial park websites are also great resources for learning more about a hike and frequently include pertinent information about closures, dangers, and trail conditions. By taking the time to do a bit of research you’ll be able to answer important questions before setting out like: Is the trail well marked? How difficult is it? Are there any nuances I need to be aware of? How long can I expect it to take? What are the unique transportation considerations (is it a loop hike or a through hike)? What are the water sources like?

Lean towards the easy side of the difficulty spectrum for your first overnight hiking trip

The Howe Sound Crest Trail, West Coast Trail, Rockwall Trail, and John Muir Trail are all fantastic, but not for your first backcountry adventure. When choosing a trail, pick one you think will be easy and save longer or more challenging hikes for future adventures. Even if you’re accustomed to crushing epic day hikes or monster trail runs, your first backpacking trip isn’t about pushing the envelope. 

Instead, your first trip is all about getting comfortable with the preparation and execution components, the addition of a 35lb backpack and making sure everything works the way you want it to. Start small and if possible, select a hike that offers designated backcountry camping areas with a few basics like tent pads, outhouses, or bear boxes. These small “amenities” can really help make things easier on your first adventure, saving you the trouble of campsite selection, cat-hole digging (more on this later), and hanging your food. Furthermore, it’s important to select a hike that follows a well-marked trail unless you have some experience wielding a compass alongside a topographic map.

Sunset hiking

How many nights for your first overnight hike?

For your first hike into the backcountry, make it short and sweet and go for 1 night. A short trip means far fewer meals to worry about, less planning, and a lighter pack. Plus, in the worst case scenario that the weather turns foul or something goes drastically wrong, you’re that much closer to your starting point. If you’re planning a more ambitious trip in the near future, use your first one-nighter as a test run and a great opportunity to try out your gear.

What gear should you pack for a backpacking trip?

Ok, so you’ve picked a fantastic trail for your first overnight backcountry camping trip, you’ve done your research, and you’re comfortable with the logistics. Now it’s time to pack!  What do you already have? What do you need to bring? Before you drop thousands of dollars on new equipment, let’s dive into the gear list.

Overnight Hiking Gear Packing List

Backpack

For your first overnight hike, you’re going to want a backpack in the range of 55L to 65L with a sturdy adjustable harness and hipbelt. Maybe you have a great pack with similar specs that you’ve used for travelling (we’ve seen many people repurpose our Khmer Explorer Travel Set for overnight hikes with great success) or perhaps you have a friend who can loan you their pack. If you’re out of luck on both fronts, check out rental options. Typically, MEC & REI offer rental packs at affordable rates which are a great option for your first trip, especially if you’re not ready to fully commit to backpacking as a full-time hobby! Whatever route you choose, make sure to try the pack out before setting out to ensure it’s properly adjusted with the hip belt doing the majority of the work!

Morning views from campsite after backpacking

Tent

A great tent is an investment that can last you for years. That said, it is definitely an investment in the sense that it can easily run in excess of $400. If you own a tent already and it’s reasonably compact/lightweight, it should serve you fine for your first backcountry camping adventure. Don’t own a tent? Once again, try to borrow one from a friend or look to rent one from your local outdoor gear shop and add in this vital piece of equipment once you get a better feel for how you like to backpack (ultralight, comfort, etc.).

Sleeping Pad

From foam mats to full inflatables there’s lots of variety on this front too (including price variety). For your first time out, opt for value (i.e. rent or borrow) once again and upgrade later. I used a basic foam mat for years, before recently upgrading to a Thermarest NeoAir which I can’t say enough good things about! 

Sleeping Bag

Depending on where you’re hiking this can be something to give a bit more consideration to. If you’re heading into the mountains, weather can be inclement so you’ll want to ensure you have a bag with a decent temperature rating (or plenty of layers to compensate for a chilly night). Sleeping bags generally offer a choice between down and synthetic. Down tends to be more expensive, but more durable, lighter, and compressible with the only downfall (aside from the ethics question) being its extremely poor performance when wet. Synthetic performs better when wet and tends to be more affordable. If you’re getting serious about purchasing a new bag check out this article by Gear Junkie for a complete pros/cons list.  

Sunset on Vancouver Island's West Coast Trail

Backpacking Pillow

For many hardcore backpackers a pillow consists of a dry bag stuffed with unworn clothing.  Personally, I won’t leave home without a backpacking pillow no matter how light I’m travelling.  My backpacking pillow journey started out with the thermarest compressible pillow, but I recently decided to upgrade to the Nemo Fillo for compactness and comfort.

First Aid Kit

An essential item for treating everything from bug bites to blisters. You can build your own or purchase a comprehensive prebuilt kit (just remember to refill any items you use).

Swiss Army Knife

From cutting bandages to serving as the star of your backcountry kitchen, this is a must-have item for any trip into the backcountry.  

A good camp stove. Always a key item in any backpacking packing list

Stove and Canister

A single burner canister stove like MSR’s pocket rocket is perfectly suited for all your cooking needs. Don’t forget to buy a canister too! 

Cookware / Utensils

A pot (which also doubles as a bowl), a cup for coffee/tea and a spork are all you need. If you’re looking for a value option, remove the handle from an old kitchen pot and bring along a pair of pliers.

Water Filtration System

I’m a huge fan of the Steripen. It’s a small, lightweight and efficient way to ensure water is safe for consumption using UV light to purify a litre in about a minute. It’s also a fantastic item to bring along travelling, so even if you decide backpacking isn’t for you, you’ll still be over the moon about your SteriPen. Other options include gravity filters and purification tablets. For the first time out, purification tablets are the least expensive option, assuming you can get past the somewhat chemical taste of your water. 

A dry bag is an essential item to pack on a backpacking trip

Dry Bag

Dry bags like our No Sugar | Dry Bag Kit are great for stuffing and compressing clothes or your sleeping bag to ensure they don’t get wet even if you get stuck in torrential rain. A dry bag is also a great option for storing your food, any scented items, and garbage in bear country or to keep your gear away from rodents.

Bear Canister & Bear Spray (Region Dependent)

If you’re hiking in bear country, you’ll want to add bear spray to your packing list and make sure that you know how to use it. Additionally, certain national parks like Yoesmite and Grand Teton may require that you’re equipped with an approved bear canister as well.

Additional items to pack for backpacking:

    • Waterproof Matches
    • Firestarters – For emergency situations
    • Whistle (blast 3 times for emergencies)
    • CampSuds / Biodegradable Soap – For dishes etc. 
    • Water Bottle – Nalgene 1-2L
    • Additional Water Bottle or Water Storage (depending on what your research has told you about water availability)
    • Headlamp
    • Tent Lamp – takes up hardly any space and well worth bringing along. Personally I love the Black Diamond Moji 
    • Book (on your phone if you have great battery life)
    • Small USB Phone Charger (and cable)
    • Bug Spray
    • Sunscreen
    • Sunglasses
    • Toothpaste
    • Toothbrush
    • Toiletries
    • Lip Balm 
    • Small Quick Dry Towel (for drying dishes)
    • Trowel
    • Toilet Paper
    • Compass
    • Topographic Map

What clothes should you pack for a backpacking trip?

Here is a standard list of items for your overnight hike. Adapt, add, or remove accordingly depending on the weather/climate of your destination and the number of days you plan to go for. 

Hiking Boots/Hiking Shoes/Trail Runners

Whether you choose to hike with a boot, hiking shoe or lighter trail runner is largely personal preference. Trail runners provide the agility and weight advantage, but boots often get the edge for support/sturdiness, especially if your pack is on the heavy side.

Camp Shoes/Sandals

Nothing beats the feeling of getting out of the shoes you’ve spent a long day hiking in. Whether it’s a pair of sandals like Chacos or an ultra compact/lightweight shoe like Toms, pack a pair of camp shoes – they’re well worth the space! 

A Couple of Shirts

Avoid cotton shirts unless it’s a super leisurely hike. Merino wool is great as it stays warm when wet and won’t stink.

2 Pairs of Merino Wool Socks

Socks are a critical part of your backpacking wardrobe. A great pair of merino wool socks are an essential investment. They stay warm when wet, don’t stink, and will last for years. If you need a pair check out Darn Tough Vermont – they’re guaranteed to last for life.

Additional Essential Clothing Items

    • 1 pair of hiking pants
    • 1 pair of shorts
    • 2 pairs of underwear
    • Long underwear
    • Hat
    • Gloves
    • Sunglasses
    • Compact down/puff jacket
    • Rainproof/windproof jacket
    • Rain pants

Meal Planning for Backcountry Camping

Meal planning is one of the most critical steps of any backcountry adventure. Do it right and you’ll be eating like a king without the burden of carrying excess weight. Do it poorly, and you’ll either be hungry or severely overbunded by the weight of excess food. This is where the critical step of meal planning comes into play.

Start by counting out the number of meals and snacks you’ll be hiking or in the backcountry for and then allocate food to each. For simplicity, freeze dried meals (just add boiling water) like Backpackers Pantry are always an option, but at $10+ a meal, they’re definitely not for the price conscious. Alternatively, look for “just add water” items at your grocery store like ramen, instant soups, rices, etc. Additionally, numerous incredible recipes can be found for amazing DIY backpacking meals. Check out this list from Fresh Off the Grid for some inspiration! 

No matter what you’re cooking, try to minimize the packaging you bring along. Don’t bring items in cans or glass jars and consolidate larger boxed items into more packable ziplock bags. Small steps like these save large amounts of weight and volume in your pack. It’s never a bad idea to pack more food than you think you need especially on your first couple of trips. I’d happily add an extra pound to my pack for the extra peace of mind to know that should the trip take longer or if I’m hungrier than anticipated, I came prepared. 

To help you get started, here’s a summary of the meal prep I might use for a 3 night backpacking trip. I know, I recommended only heading out for 1 night for your first trip, but I figured I’d show a plan for an extra day to give you a few more menu options! Note this a plant-based meal prep, but much can be played with to accommodate different dietary preferences.

Cooking a great dinner after a long day of backpacking.

Sample 2 Night Backpacking Trip Meal Plan

Backpacking Breakfast (Day 1)

Take the time to eat at home, on the road, or at the trailhead prior to staring. Make it a big one. It will be your last home cooked meal for a few days!

Backpacking Snacks (Day 1)

Inevitably, you’ll break up a big day on the trail with a couple short stops to take in your surroundings or an incredible viewpoint. This is also a great opportunity to graze by grabbing for your favourite bar (Cliff, Lara, Kind, etc.), fruit leather, nuts, or trail mix. Typically, I’ll go for 1 bar in the mid morning and 1 bar and an apple in the afternoon to help keep the energy up!  

Backpacking Lunch (Day 1)

Sandwich or wrap made prior to departure. 

Backpacking Dinner (Day 1)

Chickpea Plant Based Mac and Cheese.

Up the protein game with chickpea pasta like this mac and cheese from Banza. Use powdered coconut or cashew milk to avoid carrying liquids on the trail. Add plant based bacon bits or real bacon bits depending on your dietary preference. Finish up with your favourite chocolate bar or candy.

Backpacking Breakfast (Day 2)

Quick Oats with Dried Fruit

Stoked Oats are my personal favorite. Don’t forget the coffee! Starbucks Via instant takes up no space and doesn’t taste like instant coffee. For coffee snobs who don’t mind carrying a bit of extra weight, consider purchasing an Aeropress for gourmet coffee in the backcountry.

Backpacking Snacks (Day 2)

We had a good thing going on Day 1. So, let’s stick with it! Pack a couple servings of bars, nuts, trail mix or fruit leather.

Backpacking Lunch (Day 2)

Tortillas with Refried Beans. 

Backpacking Dinner (Day 2)

Plant based “Tuna” & Cashew Fried Rice. – adapted from Good Catch recipe

For Day 2 dinner we’re going gourmet! Or backpacking gourmet at least with this Plant based “Tuna” & Cashew Fried Rice. This is not a food blog, but here’s the recipe with the cooking instructions. Sorry, no step-by-step video as of yet! 

Backpacking Dinner Ingredients

Directions

    1. Chop the onions, garlic, pepper and carrots (use the lid of your backpacking pot).
    2. Heat the coconut oil and add the veggies and cashews. Saute until the onions are slightly translucent. 
    3. Add the pre-cooked rice, “tuna”, and sauces. Stir and allow to warm.
    4. Eat and enjoy!

Finish off your feast with your favourite chocolate bar or candy. 

Backpacking Breakfast (Day 3)

Repeat breakfast with Day 2’s breakfast! Embrace the oats! 

Backpacking Snacks (Day 3)

Final set of snacks from Day 1. For a third time a couple servings of bars, nuts, trail mix, or fruit leather.

Backpacking Lunch (Day 3)

We’re keeping it simple once again. Either do tortillas again with refried beans, or a bagel with some form of nut butter. 

Backpacking Dinner (Day 3)

Hopefully you’re off the trail by this point. Treat yourself to a hard earned beer and dinner out! 

How much should your backpack weigh for a backpacking trip?

As a baseline, your pack should not exceed 20% of your body weight. Following this rule will ensure you remain nimble enough on the trail and avoid overburdening yourself. Unfortunately, for any petite readers, this rule becomes much more challenging, requiring you to choose between going ultra lightweight or breaking this rule. 

Leave on footprints

Taking Care of Business 💩, Waste, & Leaving No Trace

Leave only footprints, take only memories. We’ve all heard the expression before, but this applies even more intensely to your journey into the delicate backcountry environment. It is absolutely essential to carry everything you brought in out, properly dispose of waste, and follow leave no trace guidelines. 

Everything you pack in must come out with you. That means everything. Be careful when opening bars/packaging that you do not leave wrappers or small pieces behind. If you see other people’s garbage on the trail, be a hero, and throw it in your garbage bag.  

Human waste is a major source of pathogens (disease causing agents), so it’s absolutely essential to take the proper steps to maximize decomposition and environmental harm. If you’re new to pooping in the woods, here are the steps to follow: 

    1. Find a spot with dark, rich soil at least 100 meters from any water sources or potential water sources.
    2. Use the trowel (from the packing list) to dig a cathole at least 6 inches deep. If possible, try to unearth the soil like a plug which allows for easy replacement when you’re done.
    3. Do the deed. 
    4. If using toilet paper, you have to bag this out. Do not put it in the cathole as it takes substantially longer to decompose and break down. If you’ve ever wandered across some used TP on the trail you know how disgusting this is. So don’t do it to someone else! Use a plastic bag or ziplock. You can even wrap the outside in duct tape so you don’t have to see it. Alternatively, you can also try natural wipes. Smooth stones, sticks, snow, or moss (where it’s abundant) all work great. Avoid plant leaves (think poison ivy…).   
    5. Once you’ve finished, put in a bit of fresh soil and replace the plug. 
    6. Give your hands a good wash or hand sanitization away from a water source once again. 

The Leave No Trace 7 Principles

From day hikes to backpacking trips everytime you set out, ensure you’re following and familiar with the Leave No Trace 7 Principles:

    1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
    2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
    3. Dispose of Waste Properly
    4. Leave What You Find
    5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
    6. Respect Wildlife
    7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Leave No Trace Seven Principles © 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.

Brown Bear walks out of the forest.

Safety in Bear Country

Bear attacks are extremely rare and the vast majority of aggressive bear action is driven by protection of food, space or territory. For your own safety and the safety of the bears it is important to take precautions when hiking in bear country. Here’s a few steps to take to ensure your safety:

Travel in a group

By travelling in a group you’ll make more noise and emit more human smells. Bears, which are generally human averse, are thus more likely to remove themselves from your presence long before you have any idea they were there.

Make noise

Clapping, loud talking, your worst singing, and shouting will encourage a bear to vacate the area before you and your group arrive. Make additional noise when a fellow hiker, ranger, or advisory has made you aware of a bear in the area to ensure you give it ample notice of your presence. 

Mind your surroundings and the time of day and look for the signs

Walking near a river? It may be more challenging for bears to hear you, so make extra noise to alert them of your presence in advance. 

Travelling upwind/against the wind? Bears have a highly acute sense of smell, but against the wind you may reach them before the smell of you does, so be extra loud. It’s also important to make extra noise when travelling through berry patches or undulating terrain where you might sneak up on a bear buffet. Lastly, be extra aware during the early morning and evening as these are times that bears tend to be the most active.  

Look for the signs

Keep your eyes open for tracks and fresh scat (poop). If you notice these signs, make lots of noise. Additionally, if you happen to come across any decomposing carcasses, make lots of noise and vacate the area as bears are often drawn to a free and easy meal. 

Bring bear spray and know how to use it

Bear spray has been proven to be an effective deterrent against aggressive bears so it’s a great item to bring along. Learn how to use it before you head out, pop the safety off and give it a test just make sure to be aware of the wind direction in advance. Remember to keep it handy in a holster (don’t put it inside your pack). Unfortunately, it only works in close contact with bears and not as repellent. So do not go rubbing it on yourself. If you’re flying to your adventure, you’ll have to buy bear spray when you arrive at your destination, as it’s a prohibited item on most airlines (checked luggage and carry-on). 

Cook away from your camp and properly store your food

As mentioned earlier, bears have an extremely acute sense of smell. For this reason it’s absolutely essential to remove any items that smell from your camp area. Fragrant items like toothpaste, sunscreen, and soap should all be placed in your food storage bag and hung or placed in a bear canister. Set up a triangle. Your campsite/tent should be 100 meters away from the area you cook in and the spot you hang your food should be 100 meters away from the cooking area and the storage area. Preferably both food spots (kitchen & storage) will be upwind from your campsite as well. 

When it comes to storing your food, you can hang your food, use a designated campsite bear locker (if available) or use a bear canister/Ursack. Making your own bear hang is quite an art that even many experienced backpackers fail to master. Unless you’re ready and able to commit to mastering it by following this comprehensive bear hanging tutorial, a canister is your best and safest bet when hard infrastructure bear lockers or pulley systems are not available.  

If travelling outside of bear country, a basic bear hang (a couple feet off the ground) will work as ample protection from rodents or small animals.

Know what to do if you encounter a bear on the trail

If you see a bear from a distance, respect its space and consider going back the way that you came. If you must get around the bear, take a very wide girth around. If you happen to encounter a bear in close proximity on the trail, remain calm, unholster your bear spray, remove the safety and stick with your group. Back away slowly in the direction that you came and talk calmly to the bear to help it identify you. DO NOT RUN! Running can trigger the bear’s prey instinct. 

In the unlikely event that the bear decides to charg, this is the time to use your bear spray. The vast majority of charges are bluff charges. In the worst case scenario where a bear actually attacks, do the following:

Grizzly Bear – Lay on the ground on your stomach as the bear makes contact (not sooner as this could trigger a mauling), playing dead and covering your neck and head for protection. In most attacks Grizzlies will bite or swipe a couple times before moving on. If the attack persists, fight back. 

Black Bear – Fight back. Attack the muzzle concentrating on the nose and eyes.

Final Thoughts

By taking the proper steps to research, plan, and prepare, your first backcountry hiking trip is sure to be one of the best adventures of your year. After cutting your teeth on the experience, I’m sure that you’ll likely find yourself hooked. You’ll become more efficient at planning, you’ll dial into your gear setup, and constantly be on the hunt for your next backpacking adventure. The hardest part is taking the first trip, which hopefully you’re now just a little bit closer to doing! 

Happy adventuring! 

Did I miss any advice that would have been helpful? How did your first backpacking trip turn out? Let me know in the comments below!

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