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5 Things to Help You Prepare for a Backpacking Trip

A group of backpackers hiking down a mountain.
soft_light/Shutterstock

A long, multiday hike or backpacking trip is very different from a one-day hike. Here are some of the most important things you need to know.

I recently walked 250 miles in Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrim routes to Santiago, Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo. My next plan is a four-day backpacking trip to bag the seven most northerly Munros in Scotland. All this stuff is on my mind, so I thought I’d share with the class.

You’ll Probably Get Blisters (and Other Foot Pains)

Walking long distances is hard on your feet—especially if they aren’t used to it. The first issue you’ll probably encounter is blisters. Unless you wear exactly the right boots and socks, your feet will rub against your shoes. On a one-day hike, this isn’t too much of a problem. Sure, your feet will be a bit sore afterward, but they’ll recover in a few days. On a multiday hike, though, you have to walk again no matter how sore your feet are.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and all that. If you can, find a boot and sock combo that works for you, and stick to it. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you and vice versa, so take the time to test out different socks on one-day hikes to see what feels best. Some people like to use a liner sock and an outer sock, while others prefer a good merino wool sock.

The bottom of a man's foot with several blisters around the big toe.
Don’t I have lovely feet? Harry Guinness

While you can do as much prevention as you like, there’s still a chance you’ll get blisters. This is where proactive treatment comes in. As soon as you feel a hot spot start to form, stop, and put something like a 2nd Skin square on it to prevent more rubbing. If you stop blisters from forming, you can make sure they don’t spread.

If you do get a blister, you can either cover it and leave it alone, or drain it with a sterile needle, and then cover it and leave it alone. Most doctors recommend you leave it be, but most hikers recommend you drain it, so walking is less painful. Whichever option you choose, if there’s any swelling, redness, or pus, seek medical attention—an infected blister is no joke.

And blisters are just one of the many foot aches you might encounter. There’s a reason footsore is a word, and “handsore” isn’t. Pay attention if things start to hurt and stop to address why. You might have the wrong insole, bruises from walking on a hard surface, or your boots might be too tight.

Don’t Pack Too Much

A woman wearing a large backpack, hiking uphill on a road in the fog.
Carrying a big backpack uphill is hard work. Harry Guinness

Unless you’re an experienced hiker, your packing list is probably too long and your backpack is probably too heavy. Every extra item you bring adds weight you have to lug for miles. You want to pack the least amount of gear possible.

It’s true—you’re packing for longer than just a few hours. So, you need clothes, food, and (possibly) shelter. You don’t want to get caught in a storm without a rain jacket. When it comes to packing, the key is to find the right balance.

Generally, you want to keep the weight of your base pack (everything except food and water) to less than 10 percent of your body weight. So, if you weigh 180 pounds, your pack should weigh less than 18; if you weigh 120 pounds, you want a 12-pound pack. Obviously, you also have to factor in your strength. If you’re a muscly 160 pounds, you can carry more than someone of the same weight who isn’t.

How you fill your weight limit depends on where you’re going, who you’re going with, how long you’re going for, what the weather will be like, and how much of a safety margin you want. Just remember, the lighter your pack is, the easier your hike will be. You’ll move faster and, probably, have more fun.

Preparing a complete packing list for every situation is impossible—there are too many variables. However, here’s rough “basics and essentials” list you can refer to:

  • Backpack and rain cover
  • Tent (if you might need one)
  • Sleeping bag or liner and sleeping pad
  • Water bottle and treatment method
  • Hiking boots
  • Two pairs of hiking socks
  • Sandals or flip flops for the evening
  • Two pairs of underwear
  • One pair of zip-off hiking pants
  • Two base layers
  • Two warm mid-layers
  • One weather-resistant outer layer
  • A hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Toilet paper
  • A trowel
  • A toothbrush and toothpaste
  • A topographic map and compass
  • A cell phone
  • A headlamp
  • Blister plasters and a sterile needle
  • Painkillers and anti-inflammatories
  • A small stove and fuel bottle
  • A cooking pot and eating utensils

You can tweak this list as necessary. Obviously, if you’re going somewhere warm and dry, you would pack different stuff than you would if you’re going somewhere wet and cold. Also, don’t forget food!

Purchase High-Quality Equipment

The author standing on a cliff in the mountains.
I’m happy because I’ve got good gear! Hannah Callaghan

When you’re backpacking, high-quality gear and equipment go a long way. Most people probably use their hiking boots less than 10 days per year. If you’re going on a trip for a week, you want to make sure your boots will hold up, and that they won’t destroy your feet.

Similarly, a tent that isn’t waterproof isn’t going to be worth much in the mountains. It’s better to borrow good gear from your friends than to buy something that won’t work.

However, there are ways you can save money on outdoor gear. If you do some research, you can get the best gear at the best price.

You Walk Slow But Go Far

A backpacker walking on a misty hilltop.
Walking through steep mountains in the mist is slow going. Harry Guinness

If you usually speedwalk through a paved city or on a nice trail, you might be surprised at how slow you move while you backpack. On the toughest sections of the Camino Primitivo, which passed through a mountain range, we averaged a little less than 3 mph, including rest stops, water breaks, and lunch. You can move faster when it’s flat, but as soon as you reach the hills, those heavy backpacks slow you right down.

Even though you move more slowly, you can still cover a decent distance. A 15-mile day is pretty standard, while 20-mile days are a bit harder but still achievable. Over four or five days, those distances add up.

Stay Safe

Any time you go backpacking or on a multiday hike, make sure you take steps to stay safe. If you’re not expected back for three days and something happens on the first, you could spend two days exposed to the elements with a broken leg, screaming for help that’s not coming.

Also, make sure everyone in your group is up to the hike you have planned, and that everyone knows how to navigate.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »

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