The Basics: Backpacking 101

Backpacking is a lot fun if you know what you’re doing. You’ll gain advanced skills and know-how over time, but it’s best to have a basic understanding of what you’re getting into beforehand.

With that said, let’s go over a few pieces of backpacking gear and the skills you’ll need to stay safe.

Good Boots

It all starts with good boots. Go to your local outdoor store and have them fit you for the right boot. Boots come in a variety of price ranges, from the inexpensive to the tricked out high tops only the richest hiker could afford.

There are plenty of quality mid-range boots, though. I’ve easily put hundreds of miles on my $85 Hi-Tec boots. They’re broken in to the max, and I have no intention of buying new boots any time soon.

A lot of long distance hikers prefer lightweight shoes in place of bulky boots. Your call, really.

Tip: If you experience any sort of regular foot pain on the trail, I recommend trying a pair of Dr. Scholl’s inserts. I did just that, and it made a huge difference.

A Good Backpack

The second most important backpacking item after boots is a quality backpack. Don’t skimp here. You can spend a lot of money on packs, but like boots, a mid-range pack is perfectly acceptable.

It seems like there’s a million packs to choose from these days, and it can be a frustrating experience finding the right one for you. Size should probably be your biggest consideration. What kind of backpacker are you? A lightweight minimalist able to do more with less, or a “bring it all” type? (Hint: If possible, aim to be a minimalist.)

When it’s time to purchase your pack, don’t risk the online buy unless you’ve been to the store, know your measurements (very important!), and have tried on packs. Only then would it be OK to buy a pack online, especially if you found a killer deal.

I have an Osprey Aether 60, and I’m pretty stoked with it so far. I used to have a Gregory Z65, but over time, I started finding things about it I didn’t like. Choosing a pack is ultimately about personal preference.

Tip: Learn how to property pack your pack. It makes a huge difference.

Maps & Compass

Having a map is one thing. Having a map and knowing how to read it is another. Your map is worthless if you can’t identify symbols, contours, and features.

I can’t stress this enough: know how to use your compass! It takes practice, but once you get the hang of it, a compass is an extremely valuable tool.

GPS units are a good investment, as well. The thing is, a compass and a map do not run out of batteries.

Tip: Many outdoor stores offer map and compass lessons. It’s worth your time and money as a backpacker to sign up.

I check my map often. Especially when I can't see 5 feet in front of me. Fogged in, Sequoia National Park.

I don’t want to bombard you with too much information right away. So next time we’ll talk about tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, food, route planning, and anything else you can think of.

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24 comments

  1. My first backpack (which I still use occasionally) was a Gregory Shasta – a HUGE pack. I needed it for the work I was doing at the time but I recognized that on shorter trips, I tended to utilize the extra space a little too leniently. I later invested in a lighter weight day & a half pack, also by Gregory. While it doesn’t offer the support of the Shasta, it doesn’t allow me to over pack, and my hips, feet and knees thank me for that! I think you should also talk about HOW to pack the pack.. that’s something that is not common sense to most people, and extremely important.. keep it so you want to come back for more! 🙂 Great post as usual!

    1. I like smaller packs for that very reason. You simply cannot pack everything you want to pack! My gear selection is becoming more and more refined because of it.

  2. Great info Eric!
    My boots are Hi Tec as well….and I can honestly recommend them. I’ve no problem admitting they were crazy expensive…I went all out. I justified the cost by the fact that I don’t own a car…my boots are my means of transportation.

    A couple of tips concerning hiking boots…..
    1 – Go to someone who KNOWS what he’s selling. Hiking boots must be properly fitted. Mine were bought at an outback outfitters shop, and the owner spent about an hour with me explaining everything from size, to lacing, to how to care for them.
    2 – Socks, socks, socks! Having the best boots on the planet will do you no good if you’re wearing crappy socks. The sock should adsorb the sweat and hold the foot snugly inside the boot. It’s the friction caused by your foot siding inside the boot which causes blisters. Good socks can be the difference between having an awesome hike…or a regrettable one.

    1. A knowledgeable boot salesman makes a huge difference! The guy I bought my boots off of did the same thing. And socks! Oh yeah, a pair of bad socks can definitely ruin your day. I actually just wore my favorite pair out. Bummer!

      1. I never thought much about socks, except the color and if it has any polar bears on it. Good tip.
        Nice color contrast in the photo of you at Sequoia, but did someone else take it or you took put it on timer and rushed back to make a quick pretend-study face 😀 ?

  3. Your timing is perfect! My family and I are wanting to learn backpacking and have been a little overwhelmed by all of the information. Thank you for sharing, I’m looking forward to your next post!

    1. Great to hear you guys are planning on getting out there! I agree, backpacking can be so overwhelming at first. There are just so many products to choose from. Let me know if you need help with anything.

      Have any trips planned? Or are you just getting started?

      1. We are just getting started. We took a backpacking class for beginners at REI, it was just an introductory course on gear and things to think about. I was thinking we might start with someplace close by, not too far out, just to get a feel for it, but we are looking into backpacking tents and I have no idea what to look for besides lightweight. Any suggestions?

      2. Sounds like you guys are off to a great start!

        You’re right, a lightweight backpacking tent is the way to go. The problem some families might run into, though, is that there isn’t a lot of wiggle room inside some of those lightweight tents. Most backpacking tents max out at 4-person.

        So the question would be, how many people are we talking about fitting in this backpacking tent of yours?

    1. Rope is good to have! I actually don’t carry it very often, but it’s useful in a lot of situations. Did you change your Gravatar picture? Looks cool! Where’d you take the photo?

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