First Time Backpacking: 8 Tips to Know Beforehand

Backpacking takes adventuring to a whole new level. It’s just you and nature out there as you hike, one step at a time, to some unknown destination (and what a victory that is once you reach it). It feels downright poetic at the best of times, beyond difficult and exhausting at the worst of times, and, somehow, magically isolating through all those peaks and valleys.

Backpacking is for sure transformational, but with that comes some responsibility. You should definitely know what you’re doing when you venture out into nature. Luckily for you, I’m going to share my top 8 tips on how to best prepare for your first backpacking trip.

1.Get Your Wilderness Permit in Advance

You can typically reserve wilderness permits online at, and I highly suggest doing so. The last thing you want to have to worry about is needing to re-plan and/or re-map out your backpacking trip because you couldn’t get a permit.

According to the National Park Service, wilderness permit reservations are available up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance. You can still get permits in person of course too at the Visitor Center in the park you’re visiting. Aim to get there early in the morning if you’re planning on doing this approach.

Elevation gains along the switchbacks hiking through Duck Pass in Mammoth.

2. Research Altitude and Elevation Gain

My backpacking trip to Duck Lake brought us from sea level (we’re all from Southern California) up to 10,000 feet. Needless to say we weren’t prepared for this. You will naturally hike slower with a pack on (this baby is usually around 25 pounds) and a change in altitude and elevation will slow your pace down significantly unless you’ve been training for this. Keep in mind you will hike slower and may get to your destination later than expected.

Make sure you understand the trail you will be hiking as well. I suggest mapping out its inclines so you can give yourself a sense of where you should be right before night fall when you set up camp for the night. Aim to get to your camping spot a couple hours before sunset so you can watch the sun go down, eat, and set up camp before it gets too dark.

3. Know How to Pack Your Backpack

You heard me, know how to pack that thing properly – trust me on this. It’s a huge time saver and stress reducer for everyone involved if you know how to pack your backpack. Nothing spoils a backpacking trip more than constantly having to unload and then reload the thing when you can’t find something.

REI actually hosts classes on this unique skill. You can read more and actually sign up for them here. You can also ask a well-seasoned friend too! Take it from someone who was stubborn and thought she knew how to pack a backpack: it’s so much better to ask for help. You’re going to be hiking with that pack on your back for a long time, so make sure you get fitted for the right backpack and understand what you’re doing.

4. Pack More Food and Water Than You Think You Need

I burned through almost 2,000 calories a day hiking in Mammoth! You will burn thousands of calories and get really hungry while backpacking. I highly recommend taking dehydrated meals, snacks like Cliff bars, nuts, and trail mix, and plenty of water.

Don’t know which dehydrated meals to try? Here are my favorites:

  • Mountain House mac n’ cheese
  • Good to Go mushroom risotto
  • Backpacker’s pantry pad thai (note: be careful with the peanut butter application with this one)

Ditch the heavy water bottles (byeeee Hydroflask) and look for water bottles you can attach to your pack. You can read more about how to attach your water bottle to your backpack here. You might also want to add electrolytes to you water as well, which you can do with Nuun.

I’d also recommend bringing extra water and leaving it in the car for when you get back.

5. Research the Weather and Dress Appropriately

Know what the weather is like during the day and in the evening in the area you will be in. You will need base layers if it cools off in the evenings and may even need to bring a warmer sleeping bag.

I recommend the following clothing for a mid-summer, two-day backpacking trip in Inyo National Forest:

  • sunglasses + hat
  • two t-shirts
  • two pairs hiking pants
  • bathing suit
  • long sleeve shirt
  • sweatpants or base layer pants
  • two comfortable, breathable sports bras (women)
  • three pairs breathable underwear
  • two pairs wool socks
  • light down jacket
  • hiking boots

6. Learn About the Wildlife in the Area

Black bear that tore through our packs when we sat down for a snack.

Research what kind of wildlife you might come into contact with on your trip. If bears are prevalent in the area you will need to buy or rent a bear box and carry bear spray with you.

You can read more information about how to deal with a bear here, but I can break it down for you pretty simply.

  • Avoid bears if you can.
  • Try to keep your distance.
  • Never put yourself between a cub and a mother bear.
  • Try to give the bear a path to escape if it’s nearby so it doesn’t feel threatened.
  • Don’t run from the bear, walk away slowly keeping an eye on it so you can determine how to react next.
  • If the bear comes towards you and you feel threatened use your bear spray – spray above it’s head so the spray gets in its eyes.
  • Try to read the situation as best as you can. In this instance above, the bear just wanted some food from our packs and wasn’t threatening, so we let him take what he wanted and then he left.

7. Keep Important Items Close to You

In case you have to avoid a bear, get away from bad weather, or help someone who fell and injured themselves, you’re going to want to have your keys and wallet close to you or on you.

We, unfortunately, had one of our packs taken by a bear which happened to be the pack with the car keys in it!

8. Enjoy Yourself

There are so many beautiful backpacking trips to be had – and plenty of them are right here in California. Make sure you’re prepared, but also know that you sometimes aren’t going to be fully prepped for everything that might come your way. As is with life, things happen – you might get lost, you will most definitely tire out at times, but you will also witness so much beauty with every single step you take. It’s worth it!

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Poet and writer with a penchant for travel.

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