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Tips for Backpacking – 7 That Will Make a Difference

Every summer I plan at least a few backpacking trips in the wilderness. But I take the preparation for granted as I’ve done it so many times. It’s not until I get queries on my blog from readers that I remember how hard the first few trips are.

Then it all comes back – all the questions that go through your mind, all the self-doubts and second guessing so I came up with these seven helpful tips for backpacking based on my experience. I hope you find the tips for backpacking very useful, especially if you’re new to it.

Three clean, organized backpacks at the start of the trip
Three clean, organized backpacks at the start of the trip – which one is right for you

Tips for backpacking – finding the right backpack

Let’s start with your backpack. The trick is to buy (or rent) one that matches your size. It should be fit by someone who knows what they’re doing. Hip straps should stay on the hips. Shoulder straps should be adjustable. The length should be comfortable and you should be able to pick it up when it’s full.

The size of the backpack should match your needs. You don’t need an expedition pack on a two night trip. As a general rule of thumb choose a 35 – 50 L pack for a weekend trip (if you can pack lightly), a 50 – 80 L pack for a 3-5 night trip and a 70+ L pack for a longer trip.

The pack here is undersized for what the fellow is trying to carry
The pack here is undersized for what the fellow is trying to carry

Tips for backpacking 

The weight of your backpack will have a direct influence on how you enjoy the backpacking experience. If the pack is too heavy every step will be miserable.

About 80% of the weight of the pack should be supported on your hips. And the total weigh of the pack should be no more than a third of your body weight – and that might even be on the high side. Every pound you can lose on your back will make the hiking easier.

What features in a backpack are important?

Look for tough material. A friend took a new pack on the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park and after five days it was falling apart from dragging it over the rocks. My five year old pack was completely unaffected.

I love a built-in rain cover (Deuter packs usually have this feature) though it’s not a deal breaker. Do look for small pockets to stash away the stuff you’re going to use throughout the day – sunscreen, snacks, bug dope…

It’s also helpful if there is an elasticized pocket for two water bottles – one on either side. Check this feature out with a full size Nalgene bottle as sometimes the pocket isn’t deep enough.

The rest will come down to what your preferences are. I like to be able to tie things on the outside of my pack. I also like the fact that inside my pack are two main compartments – and the lower one is accessible with a different zipper.

Watch out for too many pockets unless you have a mind like a steel trap. You’ll be opening every one of them to find something. Colour will probably factor into a purchase decision. I like a pack that blends in with the environment and doesn’t show the dirt.

Contouring around Tekarra Mountain
Contouring around Tekarra Mountain

What you wear on your feet makes a difference

Proper footwear is essential. With a heavy pack you want the support of a leather hiking boot or something equally durable.

And anything you wear should be broken in before you begin your backpacking trip. Otherwise you’re asking for trouble. I like leather because the boots can handle some water. But I also like lightweight so if it’s a short trip and I know the terrain isn’t too demanding I will consider hiking in a good quality, lightweight shoe.

I always bring sandals for around camp. Featherweight crocs are good and can be used for fording streams should the occasion arise as well.

Read: Tips on How to Break in Hiking Boots 

My husband is better at rock-hopping; I would have put on my water shoes
My husband is better at rock-hopping; I would have put on my water shoes

Always carry the 10 hiking essentials

There are certain items you must carry called the 10 essentials. Even if you’re trying to travel lightly you need shelter, a first aid kit and bug protection, a repair kit and tools (the right Swiss Army knife can cover most of the bases here) and a flashlight with extra batteries (unless you’re in the far north in the summer).

Don’t forget sun protection including sunglasses, sunscreen and lip balm, extra clothes, extra food, water and a means of purifying it, fire starting materials and a map and compass or GPS device that you know how to use.

Make sure you know how everything works before you start out. That means you should try putting up a tent beforehand if it’s new.

Read: The 10 Hiking Essentials Everyone Should Carry

Backpacking gets you into some really pretty areas
Backpacking gets you into some really pretty areas

Food and water are heavy

Food and water will add about half the weight of what you’re carrying. If I know there is going to be lots of water on my route I only fill one water bottle at a time. Otherwise I’ll carry two bottles.

Don’t forget that water is one of the heaviest items you’ll carry. One litre weighs about a kilogram or 2.2 pounds. Drink a lot before you leave so you start hydrated.

I like to eat well and am not a fan of pre-packaged dehydrated food though I think I’m in the minority. Try some food out at home beforehand and see if you like it.

If you really get into backpacking a dehydrator will be invaluable as you’ll be able to add variety to your meals at a low cost. Bring calorie dense foods like Gorp and chocolate.

A 160 pound person burns about 511 calories per hour – though much will depend on your load and the terrain. In a day it’s easy to burn between 3,000 and 5,000 calories. Pack as lightly as you can but ensure you have enough food.

Get in shape before the backpacking trip

If you haven’t been getting a lot of physical exercise, try to change that well before your trip. Join a club, walk wherever you can, do stairs when they present themselves.

You could even practice carrying your filled backpack around the neighbourhood. On you first outing, make it a positive experience and keep the distances reasonable. Shoot for the moon after you’ve been backpacking for a while.

You'll be smiling instead of crying if you get in shape before your backpacking trip
You’ll be smiling instead of crying if you get in shape before your backpacking trip

Further reading on stellar backpacking trips 

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

7 tips for multi-day backpacking adventures that will make a difference

 

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Great article, Leigh! I agree that broken-in shoes are a must and the 10 essentials are.. essential. However, I’d add to your list – Check the weather and current trail and area conditions beforehand.

    1. @WildBackpacker There are times I agree that you should check the weather but sometimes you’re already out there and you just need to be fully prepared. I think having the 10 essentials which includes extra clothes and food can make a very big difference.

  2. These are great. I love to hike, but have gotten lazy with backpacking over the years. With some new gear and a new exercise routine, I think I’ll be able to get back into it. That photo of you among the wildflowers is incredibly beautiful!

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a list of the 10 essentials which didn’t include something I never bring or leave out something I would never hike without. For instance, I never bring sunglasses (unless you count goggles, but I only bring them when hiking in winter above the treeline). On the other hand, I would never hike without rain gear, even if the forecast is for 0% chance of precipitation.

    1. @Cumulus Sunglasses are essential in the mountains and on beaches. I think eye protection is very important – and so do most books on the 10 essentials. Rain gear is part of extra clothing in my mind. I also never leave home without it.

    1. Hi – you mention crocs as the camp shoes. I have often carried Dawgs, as they are light and dry quickly. But they are also slick when wet and I have fallen a few times on wet rocks. Any thought to a safer alternative?

  4. Hi Leigh,
    Lots of useful information here. 🙂
    I think we need to learn survival skills in the wildernes as well. It’s hard for first time backpackers when countering a snake or a bear. Do you agree with this?

    1. @Luna I think heavy duty survival skills overwhelm but everyone should be bear aware. Snakes aren’t much of a problem in Canada – a few hot spots but if you’re in snake territory you should definitely know what to do.

  5. I just wanted to thank you for going over some good hiking tips with a backpack. I’m really glad that you mentioned to make sure that you have footwear that is durable. Sounds like it could be worthwhile to do some research on this, or maybe at least practice with it to make sure that it will work well for the trip.

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