So you’ve decided you want to hike up and down some mountains and sleep in the wilderness, huh?
I don’t blame you. There’s nothing quite like the anticipation of the fresh air, vast mountain ranges, and lush forests. Not to mention that feeling of physical triumph when you summit a mountain peak, the mindfulness, or that connection to the natural world which grows with every minute spent in nature.
Hiking is a fantastic way to disconnect and feed your soul, as well as challenge yourself physically and mentally, but it’s important to plan properly and stay safe. Whether you’re planning a weekend backpacking trip or an epic thru-hike, these basic tips will equip you with the necessary knowledge to prepare effectively, ensure your safety, and derive maximum enjoyment from your backpacking experience.
The Journey Ahead: Planning Your Backpacking Route
It may be one of the least thrilling aspects of adventuring, but this is one of the first steps to avoid putting yourself in a dangerous situation.
Firstly, make sure you’re choosing a hike within your capabilities. Got your sights set on a massive adventure? Then do lots of smaller ones first. If you generally pull up a bit worse for wear after a day hike, you’re going to need to do some serious training. Consider the distance, and then consider that you’ll be carrying a lot more weight than you’d usually have in your day-pack.
If you’re sure that you can handle a multi-day hike, start with a couple of days and work your way up to week-long adventures.
Once you’ve chosen your route, get yourself a good map – 1:25,000 scale if possible – and a compass. If you don’t already know how to use them properly, you’d best learn before your adventure begins.
Research the terrain and make sure you’ll be able to cover as much distance each day as you think. Then find reliable information on track conditions and closures from parks authorities or government websites (or even online hiking forums).
A week or so out from your trip, check the weather with your local weather authority. Then check it again every day as your trip approaches. Hell, why not check it again at the trailhead and make sure you still feel safe setting off?
And I can’t stress this enough – plan for the unexpected. Because, let’s be real, surprises happen. I was in pretty good shape when I tripped over a rock and tore my meniscus on the Larapinta Trail. Anything can happen.
Remember, the goal is not just to endure the journey but to enjoy it.
Choosing (and packing) the right gear: Quality over quantity
Choosing the right gear is not about having the most expensive or the newest products on the market. It’s about the right fit and purpose.
It’s important to keep your backpack light but it’s even more important to ensure you have the gear you need to stay safe. Choose carefully when it comes to backpacking tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, food, water, and clothing.
Properly fitted hiking shoes or boots are a no-brainer, but you may not realise how important it is to have a properly fitted, high-quality backpack – one that will distribute the weight evenly on your body and still allow you the freedom to move without restriction. If you don’t choose this wisely, the best-case scenario is you’ll finish your backpacking adventure with an ongoing reminder of the importance of ergonomics. The worst case is you might injure yourself on the trail and end up getting helicoptered out.
Don’t forget to bring a headlamp, a first aid kit, and a multi-tool. I’ve already mentioned a map and compass, but I’ll say it again… Bring a map and compass and know how to use them.
When packing your clothes, choose lightweight and moisture-wicking fabrics. Avoid cotton as it takes a long time to dry and can lead to hypothermia if wet. Pack layers to adapt to changing weather conditions.
A good starting point for your packing is the ‘Ten Essentials’ list, originally conceived in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organisation for climbers and outdoor adventurers. Keep in mind, though, your packing list should be tailored to the conditions of the specific trail you plan to traverse.
As I spew my wisdom at you, I embarrassingly have in the back of my mind that on almost every adventure, I forget at least one semi-important item. On far too many occasions, I’ve set out with no rain jacket in my pack and ended up trudging along soaked to the bone. There have even been times when I’ve opened my pack and found that my compass has been misplaced somewhere during my packing process (that one was quite a bit more worrisome, but I obviously survived).
Please do as I say, not as I do.
Sustenance in the Scrub: Staying hydrated and well-fed on the trail
I nearly started the title of this section with “Guzzle and Graze” but, while it has a nice ring to it (and grazing food is a good approach for hikers), you shouldn’t be guzzling water. Take small sips, often. A water bladder in your pack with its hose conveniently secured to your backpack’s straps is the best way to make sure you do this. You’ll want to bring at least one extra water bottle, too.
With how to drink your water and what to carry it in covered, how much water you bring and hydration sources on the trail are two things worth putting serious time and effort into planning. Both of these will depend on the specific trail you plan to hike. You’ll need to know where every drop of water is coming from and for longer adventures, you may even need to arrange water caches. Don’t forget that, for the most part, you’re going to need to treat any water you collect.
Fueling your body correctly is paramount. Hiking tends to burn more calories than other forms of outdoor exercise so make sure you pack more high-calorie, lightweight food than you think you’ll need. Think trail mix, energy bars, and dehydrated meals. I also keep a bag of raspberry liquorice in my backpack as a little treat and a quick boost of hiking energy.
Stepping safely: Emergency preparedness for backpackers
It isn’t nice to think about getting lost, injuring yourself a long way from help, or having an unfortunate encounter with a dangerous creature.
That’s exactly why you need to think about those things.
Prepare yourself by being aware of the dangers you might face and, where possible, having a plan to deal with them. Bring a well-equipped first aid kit and familiarise yourself with basic first aid skills, such as treating blisters, cuts, and sprains, so you can treat yourself or your fellow backpackers in the event of minor injuries.
If any venomous creatures are likely to call your trail home, know how to treat their bites. Better yet, find out what to do if you encounter any kind of dangerous animal on the trail. I’m very well across what to do if I meet any of Australia’s deadliest snakes, but I wouldn’t have a clue what to do if I encounter a bear (note: I mean if I’m hiking in another country – I’m not referring to drop bears).
Carry a multi-tool – you’ll be surprised how often it will come to the rescue. A whistle, a space blanket, some paracord and some gaffa tape are some cheap and lightweight items that could also get you out of a bind.
Beyond the basics, you’ll need a PLB or EPIRB to be prepared for when things really take a turn for the worst.
I know from experience that when things go wrong on the trail, your mind can play silly tricks on you. Counter this by being prepared for the worst.
Leave no trace: Keep the wilderness wild
“Leave only footprints, take only photos.”
There are few things that grind my gears more than picking up after other hikers. I just cannot understand why somebody goes to the effort of visiting a beautiful wild place and then doesn’t leave it how they found it. In 2019, a study found that only 23% of Earth’s land surface could still be classified as wilderness.
It’s a privilege to be able to spend time in these places. The ‘leave no trace’ principle is a commitment every outdoor enthusiast should make.
Think about where you camp and where you go to the toilet. Use established fireplaces where possible. If you pack it in, pack it out (food scraps and toilet paper included). Show respect for vegetation and wildlife habitats. Keep a safe distance from wildlife, and (for the love of all that is holy) do not feed them.
Backpacking is a journey of humility, respect, and preparation.
It’s about embracing the wonders of nature, rising to the challenges it presents, and preserving its beauty for future generations. Along the way, you might stumble, encounter a few insects, or even weather a storm or two. But that’s all part of the adventure.
Hopefully, these tips have set you on a path to becoming a safe and responsible backpacker. With the right approach and the right mindset, you’ll enjoy not just the destination but every step of the journey.
Got any hiking tips for beginner backpackers? If you have any stories, updates or corrections, please let us know by commenting below.