Have you ever noticed that the last half mile of any trail up to the peak is the steepest? It feels like 90% of the elevation gain is right there. I remember being so tired and needing to stop what felt like every 10 steps. I kept looking up and trying to see my friend Tracy, who had been in front of me.
And then it happened … I finally took my last triumphant step to the top!
Tracy was nowhere to be seen, so I decided I’d use the bathroom and wait for her and my boyfriend, who was likely 30 minutes or more behind us. He’s not nearly as obsessed with hiking as I am.
Later that evening, when we were all sitting at the picnic table eating our dinners, we realized something sort of unique about the three of us; this was our very first backpacking trip. All of ours. Not one of us had carried gear into the backcountry with the intent of staying overnight before.
I had been researching and gathering backpacking gear for months before setting out on my trip. Sure, I’d camped with my family as a kid, but that was luxury compared to backpacking. You drive your car to your campsite and can bring anything you want, as long as it fits in your car. Backpacking requires a more essentials-only kind of approach.
I had fallen in love with the idea of thru-hiking the PCT but knew I needed to get out into the wild to see if I wasn’t just romanticizing the reality of the situation. I started reading thru-hiking memoirs and watching vlogs on YouTube.
I gleaned two key pieces of information in my research. One, most experienced backpackers recommend planning your first trip with an avid backpacker; and two, many thru-hikers say their first backpacking experience was their very first night on trail.
It's totally possible to have a successful backpacking trip if all of you are new to the experience. These are the things we nailed that I believe led to our triumph.
Pick Your Trail
I’m lucky enough to live close to a 100-mile section of the PCT, so I figured, why not choose one of those trails? The PCT crosses Angeles Crest Highway several times here, and I had previously done some trail magic in one of the parking lots.
There was an 18-mile out and back that snaked up to Pacifico Mountain and there was no campsite fee. (We’d later discover it was actually a 22-mile out and back.) The bonus was that we were hiking during peak thru-hiking season for that section of the trail.
If everyone in your group is new to backpacking, I’d highly suggest picking a trail that is well-traveled, close to home, and sees backpackers as well as day hikers. It’s important to be able to bail in a worst-case scenario and that’s easier when it’s not a six-hour drive home.
Water sources were a bit scarce — hello California drought — and there was no water source at the campsite, but we bumped into enough PCTers to know there was one source that was still flowing a few miles from camp. Not having enough water on a trip can be really scary, so do your research and plan accordingly. The Far Out app if you’re on an established long trail can be helpful, or alternatively you’ll need to download a water report.
Gather Your Crew
I think one of the most important aspects of backpacking, which is often overlooked, is having a good group dynamic. The more people you add, the more complicated it can get due to the sheer fact of personality differences.
Making sure you’re all on the same page about expectations is key. What time do you plan to hit the trail? What is your ideal time to get to camp? Do you want to hike together the whole time? Or is everyone okay if you get ahead or behind each other?
Our group had a very relaxed approach to our trip. (This proved important when we realized the hike was two miles longer in each direction.) My boyfriend and I had been running late that morning and I felt terrible, but Tracy wasn’t upset.
We ended up getting to camp hours before sunset and were able to enjoy it. We helped each other set up our tents and chatted about the plan for the hike down the next morning. There were several points during the day when we were all hiking hundreds of feet ahead of or behind each other, but no one minded. If everyone has a map, knows how to read it, and knows where the final destination is, being slightly ahead or behind one another shouldn’t prove too detrimental.
Key Pieces of Backpacking Gear
The obvious ones you’ll need are the Big Three: shelter, backpack and sleep system (sleeping bag/ quilt and camp pad). If you don’t have this gear, you can purchase, borrow, or even rent.
Knowing what temperature you’ll be hiking and sleeping in will be helpful when making your decisions. You also want to make sure to get the right size gear, especially a pack that fits well and is comfortable. If you’ve never purchased a pack before, getting fit is key. Ordering online can be risky if you aren’t well-versed in pack types as well as your size.
I ended up having to go to a sporting goods store the night before we left for our backpacking trip to get a pack, because the one I ordered online was not big enough — turns out, 36L packs are definitely for the more seasoned backpackers that have ultralight gear, which is not yet me.
My boyfriend and I rented our tent — I was still tirelessly researching shelters and wasn’t ready to pull the trigger on a purchase. I’m really glad we did, because we learned that a 2-person tent was too small for us. We rented a Kelty 2P tent and, in the end, I purchased the Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL 3P, and we love it!
My friend Tracy borrowed most of her gear from her boyfriend and there was a definite learning curve to her tent, but between the three of us, we were able to pitch it.
I personally carry a Garmin inReach Mini 2 when I solo hike and backpack to give myself and my family peace of mind. A lot of people will recommend you camp somewhere you know there will be cell service, but that can be tricky and even if there is some service, it’s not always reliable. A GPS satellite communicator can be a bit of an investment, but for me, my safety is worth the money.
Gear is such a personal preference and what works for you may not work for someone else. A piece of gear you deem essential someone else might call a luxury, and vice versa.
For an easy reference to ensure you're bringing everything you'll need for safe, fun and comfortable first backpacking trip, check out GGG's Backpacking Gear Checklist.
Get Out There and Do It!
The best advice I received before embarking on my first trip was from my brother. He told me not to let my lack of gear keep me from getting out there. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know, and you won’t know until you get out there and experience it for yourself.