A great way to go from being a hiker to a fledgling backpacker is to spend a 3 day weekend out exploring an established trail. With all of the areas available and apps to find a route it is easy even for the beginner.
Let us start by taking a look at what most would agree to be a basic beginner backpacking set up. Starting off you will need a good pack that will carry all of your needs comfortably and is adequately sized for the contents.
When deciding what pack to use, start with laying out all of the equipment that you plan to take along and then select the properly sized pack for the job. I see many new backpackers with lots of “wants” hanging precariously off of their ill sized backpack, most of which is still in the original wrapper.
In my opinion and experience leading many trips a 30 liter backpack would be the minimum size that the average backpacker can get away with without sacrificing too much comfort, A pack with a volume of 40-45 liters seems to fit the bill best for the group hikes that I am involved with. Look for one that has adequate suspension, including load lifters, and enough pockets to hold what you plan to bring.
Pictured below is a Six Moons Designs Flight 30 Ultra that I took recently on a 4 day trip along Michigan’s 42 mile pictured Rocks National Lakeshore trip.
Pack along lakeshore
For beginners I like to think of systems in the pack rather than individual items. I first learned of this type of thinking reading The Complete Walker by the late and great Collin Fletcher. Next let’s look at the sleep system. This will include something to sleep in/under (tent, hammock, or tarp). Something to sleep on (air or foam mattress). Something to insulate you ( sleeping bag or backpacking quilt. With having a couple of these options you will be able to stay out in a variety of weather conditions. For example in weather where good weather and minimal bugs are expected you will enjoy the freedom of a tarp, quilt, and a quality mattress. If bugs are expected then switch out the tarp for a tent with netting.
On my recent trip I chose the Six Moons Designs Haven Bundle and chose it because of the expected black flies and rain so that I had a comfortable Haven from both. It is great to have enough room to sit up and sort your gear while it is raining or when your hiking partner yells like a banshee in the middle of the night because of night terrors or he hears a porcupine wandering through camp.
Haven Bundles set up in camp
For our kitchen system we think of a stove, cookpot, fuel canister, eating utensil, scrubbing cloth, food sack with a hanging system, and unusually a cup.
Sometimes in inclimate weather it pays to have a cookpot and stove system that is an all in one unit while in fair weather it is easy to get by with a small titanium cookpot (750ml or so) and a lightweight stove. The eating utensil can be made of a variety of materials including titanium, steel, plastic or even bamboo, those a type and size that fits you and can easily reach the farthest corners of your food container or pouch.
Based on where you plan to hike and what kinds of critters are present you may need to keep your food in either a bear canister, storage locker, or hanging in a suspended bag on a provided cable system. Make sure to check in with the local guidelines and adhere to them.
On a recent hike to the Smoky Mountains National Park we camped on a ridge campsite and hung our food from the provided cable system. A week later at the same site a man was bitten by a bear as he slept in a hammock because he had kept food in his pockets.
Kitchen set up
The closet of your pack is all the extra clothing and hygiene items. This is dependent on weather but these are the things I will always have on an overnight. While hiking:lightweight boots or trail runners with wool socks, synthetic or merino wool baselayer, synthetic shorts or pants, and sometimes wearing an insulative layer. In my pack and inside a waterproof bag will be a second set of base layers, including socks, a fleece or puffy vest,a rain/wind layer, and dry clothes to sleep in. It is very important for a good night's sleep and to ward off the cold that you have a warm and dry set of at least base layers to change into. For hygiene the minimum I would recommend is toothbrush and toothpaste, and a microfiber towel to wash with. Beyond this you will need a kit to take care of your bathroom needs, this will involve at least a trowel and toilet paper or possible biodegradable wipes or a bidet. Based on my experience, the thought of having to go to the bathroom in the woods is the single most prevalent reason that people do not stay overnight in the woods. As silly as it may sound this is something that should be practiced before you go on a multi night trip.
The office includes all the things that you may need to access along the way and should be stored either in the hip belt pockets or an easily accessible pocket on the side of the pack. This should include water bottles and disinfection system, a self aid/repair kit, charging bank and phone, map and compass, headlamp, sunblock and or insect repellent, snacks for on the trail, and a small knife.
With the unending availability of equipment out there it is easy to get overwhelmed and think that you need every last gadget available. I hope that this list will get you started with what you need and from there you can add the wants and comfort items as you wish. My last recommendation is that you get everything out of the package and try it out before you go. Make sure all the items work and you know how to set them up. When you are confident setting up your tent in the daylight try it in the dark, when you have that mastered try it with a blindfold on. Many campers have stumbled into camp after dark with no juice left in their headlamp and had to set up a tent in the pitch dark. Better to know before you go than to be the person experiencing that on the trail. Try out your compass and know how to orient a map, before your cell phone dies on the third day and you have to refer to it.