Backpacking 101: 5 Basic Principles

A quick introduction to backpacking basic principles

By: Katie Jean

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If you’re just starting out in backpacking it can be a bit overwhelming. I know, I’ve been there before and I’ve answered a lot of beginner’s questions about pretty much anything relating to backpacking. There’s so much to consider and so much to be unsure of. Even with all the unknown and the feeling you might be in over your head, backpacking can be extremely rewarding. I say it “can” be because the level of reward you receive is very much related to your choices and preparation. Backpacking can also be very miserable given the right set of circumstances, poor decisions and lack of preparation. Just like anything really there are some basic principles that lead to success. For the sake of simplicity this post will focus more the traditional style of backpacking without going into too much detail and the basic foundational principles every backpacker should build from, IMHO, whether you consider yourself a traditionalist, a lightweight-ist, an ultralight, super ultralight, or thru-hiker. I’ve been backpacking for 17 years now, my first trip being when I was 11 years old, and the first trip I planned on my own when I was 18. I’ve also worked for REI outfitting folks of all levels and familiarity with backpacking and have come to appreciate the knowledge and experience I’ve acquired over the years. So let’s just dive right in shall we?

Principle #1 - Know Your Purpose

Why do you backpack?

Everyone who ventures into the wilds of the backcountry should know the answer to this question. For some it’s simply “to get away”, for others “to see beautiful places you otherwise couldn’t”, or “to challenge myself”, “to see how fast and how light and how far I can go”, “to enjoy myself and relax in beautiful hard to reach places”, “I just want to push myself and test my limits or see how little I can subsist on”. For me, I would have to say I backpack because I enjoy getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and “adopt[ing] the pace of nature”(1) in order to see beauty in hard to reach places. Whatever it is for you, figure it out. It will be a big driver behind many of your decisions when gearing up and planning your trips.

Principle #2 - Know Yourself

What does “enjoy” mean for you?

Maybe the word “enjoy” found its way into your purpose statement, and maybe it didn’t but I think I’m safe in assuming that you want to enjoy your time on the trail as well as in camp no matter who you are or what your purpose for being in the backcountry is (unless you enjoy being miserable). For example, I do not enjoy backpacking with a heavy pack. It’s just uncomfortable no matter what and I end up hating life and the trail and everyone around me and all the wildlife and all the trees…I think you get my point. Heavy pack = Type 0 fun for Katie. No Bueno. On the other hand I also enjoy being warm over cold and dry over wet and bug free (esp. Spider-free) when sleeping. What I’m trying to illustrate is that there are certain things each individual requires to be able to enjoy their experience in the backcountry, and it will be a little different for everyone. It means that you will have to juggle various paradoxes and make some sacrifices and compromises here and there as well as knowing where to draw the line in order to achieve that optimal recipe of gear, preparation and planning. But you have to figure out what those things are for YOU. I will do my best to share what that looks like for me but if you were to copy exactly what makes me happy in the backcountry it might not make you happy too. So unfortunately this ideal is also almost always changing, a moving target if you will. I’m still figuring it out for myself and when new gear comes out I debate whether or not it will help that optimization or not and it takes some trial and error. For example, based on my purpose for backpacking and the things I require for enjoyment on the trail I have gotten my pack weight down to what is considered lightweight (base weight at/under 15 lbs). I’m not sure I would enjoy my experience quite as much if I were to go ultralight or super ultralight. I’ve done super duper ultralight before (another post for another day) and while it was enlightening it most certainly was not enjoyable. Though, I now know I CAN do it, I just choose not to.

The 5 Best Exercises to Train for Backpacking Season | Photo: Nick Lake

Principle #3 - Be Prepared


Backpacking is physically demanding. It’s hard on the body, especially the knees. Carrying a lighter load will alleviate some of the stress put on your body but you are still walking for several hours a day for several days in a row, going up and down varying terrain in all sorts of conditions. Your experience will be much more pleasant if you choose a route appropriate for your level of conditioning and experience. And also if you train/condition. I’ve jumped into backpacking trips out of shape and they were definitely not as enjoyable as they could have been had I trained for them ahead of time. Trekking poles can also help your knees out a lot too. I love my trekking poles; I have bad knees for a 20 something and my trekking poles have literally saved me. I’ve used old ski poles, and various brands of hiking poles in the past but right now I’m using the Black Diamond Distance Z pole and I love them! Not only are they wonderful for propelling me uphill but also softening the impact on my knees going downhill and they offer great balance and stability crossing streams and logs too. I highly recommend picking up a pair.

Back to training/conditioning. You probably wouldn’t sign up for and then run a half or full marathon without training for it would you? ‘Cause that’d be crazy right?! You might get injured or not finish and if you somehow managed to finish, do you think it’d be fun, at all?? I’m guessing it’d be extremely painful considering it can be pretty painful even with weeks and weeks of training. So why would you do that to yourself with a backpacking trip?! 'But how do I condition for backpacking?’ you say, well I’m glad you asked. You practice. You train, and you repeat. Practice by loading up your pack for day hikes nearby your home, or walks in your neighborhood, go up and down the stairs at the local high school track & field/football stadium with a weighed down pack. Go on short one nighters close to home (great way to test gear out too). And cross-train. I use this book to get ideas, it’s called Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness by Mark Pierce and David Musnick (3). There are others like it but it’s the one published by The Mountaineers so I trust it. You can create your own conditioning workout plan from the exercises and stretches, and nutrition suggestions even, that are covered for your desired outdoor activity. I might post, as a basic guide, how I train for trips/the backpacking season in general in the future.

Know Thy Way (Knowledge is Power):

Learn how to navigate. Trust me when I say, no ones having fun if you get lost. And to be more specific, learn how to navigate with a map and compass and even maybe learn a little astronomy. For one thing a map and compass are much lighter than most GPS units, and they never run out of batteries! Also, use a real topographic map. The little drawn maps in guidebooks are not meant for navigation, they’re just references. 'But how do I learn how to navigate?’ you say. Well, read a book or better yet, take a class. There’s nothing better than hands-on learning IMO. REI offers free and paid classes in Navigation Basics for map and compass. Some clubs that do orienteering occasionally offer introductory classes open to the community and people who want to take up orienteering(4). Another thing which is helpful is just knowledge about your route and the environment or ecology of the area. You can learn a lot from guidebooks and trip reports published online, and importantly the Forest Service staff who are most familiar with the trail and area. It’s always a good idea to call them up when a trip is approaching and find out about any new developments or regulations. On one of my last trips I learned upon chatting with the ranger that a bear had been spotted a few times along the route I’d planned so I was advised to be aware of that and take necessary precautions to avoid a confrontation. Or I could’ve decided to change my plans with that information. But regardless, knowledge is power. Always check the website of the Forest Service or Park of the trail you’re planning to take and see if there are any updates posted there too. Sometimes you can see if there are any road closures on the way to the trailhead, wildfires in the area or trails washed out. Check the website first and then call to verify and get even fresher info. Also inquire about passes and permits too. Some places require you to have a specific pass and or pay a specific fee and or fill out paperwork or reserve campsites (even in the backcountry for more popular or sensitive places). It would not be a happy time to learn you’ve been slapped with a fine for not having the proper permits.

Consider taking a survival course. I took one in college and it was very empowering. I’m now more confident in my abilities to take care of myself should the worst happen and I need to use those skills in the backcountry. It has helped me realize that I don’t need to bring as much crap with me on my trips either. I used to bring WAYYYY too much food, you know, just in case, but I’ve learned that if I know my surroundings I can find food and water just fine if it were to come to that. So that also helps me to save some weight in my pack by carrying exactly what I need and nothing more.

Take a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder course. I’m a Wilderness First Responder, and again it’s just very empowering to have the confidence in yourself to take care of yourself and others in extenuating circumstances. I hope I never have to use these skills but just having that knowledge is comforting and helps me have greater peace of mind in the backcountry which helps me enjoy my trips that much more.

Sometimes things happen outside of our control and being armed with knowledge and training can help you to not panic and be able to calmly and safely handle a stressful or life threatening situation with success.

Besides knowledge is also having the right gear. Having with you what is appropriate for the time of year, the environment, your specific route and duration of trip and what enables you to have a safe and enjoyable adventure. This will always begin with the 10 Essentials.

Backpack to Navaho Pass | Photo: Cameron Evans

What is known in the outdoors world as The 10 Essentials is a list of ten things which you should carry with you always whether in front-country or the backcountry, even if going for just a day hike. And going back to my point about knowledge, you should know how to use everything on the list. It does no good if you don’t know how to use it. The classic list is just 10 items but the updated version is basically the same thing with 2 additions just arranged so it’s still a list of 10 things; so really it’s The 12 Essentials Disguised As The 10 Essentials. The idea behind the list is to keep you safe should you take a wrong turn and or for whatever reason need to spend an unplanned night or more in the wilderness whether you got lost or injured and need to find your way to a trailhead or worst case, so you can survive long enough to be rescued. I’ll be sharing the updated list:

  1. Navigation (map + compass)
  2. Sun protection (hat, sunscreen)
  3. Insulation (extra clothing)
  4. Illumination (headlamp, flashlight)
  5. First-aid supplies
  6. Fire (matches, lighter, striker)
  7. Repair kit & tools, including knife
  8. Nutrition (extra food)
  9. Hydration (extra water
  10. Emergency shelter> “The typical lost hiker also hasn’t packed any survival equipment. I’m not talking fancy stuff here, but most don’t even carry the Ten Essentials.” –Robert Koester (5)

Backpack to the Maroon Mountain Meadows | Photo: Mike Fennell

Principle #4 - Sound Judgement

So you’ve got the gear and you’ve got the skills to use that gear, you’re in great shape, but you still need to be able to execute critical decisions with sound judgement. When a storm rolls in, can you make the call to keep everyone and yourself safe? Do you hike through, or stay put and wait it out or bail to the nearest trailhead? Or you realize after an hour or two of hiking that you may have taken a wrong turn at some point but don’t remember seeing a branch in the trail. Do you stay put and wait for rescue? Do you backtrack to the point of error? Do you go off trail to take a short-cut back to the correct trail? This skill comes with time and experience. The best and safest way to acquire it is to start out backpacking with a friend who is more experienced (don’t blindly take their word for everything though), who you can learn from. Don’t have any friends who backpack or that you trust ;)? It’s not a bad idea then to sign up for a planned course with an Outdoor Guiding company like REI Outdoor School, NOLS, Outward Bound, etc. Every decision you make in the backcountry you are essentially trying to mitigate your risks as much as possible. Knowing when too much is too much, or recognizing when the penalty for failure is just too dangerous can literally be the difference between life and death in some situations.

Principle #5 - Leave No Trace

So now you’re hiking along a narrow trail in the mountains, the fir trees are getting shorter and the flora is thinning since you just ascended about 500 ft in the last ½ mile and you’re nearing the alpine treeline. The trail has leveled out for now and your legs are able to rest a bit. Overhead the sky is a perfect blue with some wispy white clouds dancing high above, it’s nearing lunch time, the sun is almost directly overhead but it’s not too hot, the temperature feels just right on your skin, especially with the light breeze flowing by. You notice a few brightly bloomed red Indian Paintbrush flowers and some blue Alpine Lupine alongside the trail; as you pass them by you take in a deep breath of that fresh mountain air and glimpse some craggy mountain peaks in the distance. You feel so lucky to be in this place at this moment, your pack almost feels weightless as you catch this high. You smile. CRUNCH! A little startled, you look down to realize you’ve just kicked and smashed a beer can that was dumped on the trail. NO BUENO.

Clearly whoever left that can behind didn’t care about your experience in the backcountry nor anyone else’s but their own. The concept behind Leave No Trace is pretty self-explanatory yet many hikers still have no idea it’s a thing or just don’t care. You’re basically trying to leave the wilderness as pristine as it naturally is so that others can enjoy it’s natural wonder and beauty after you. It’s showing courtesy to the beautiful wilderness as well as our fellow travelers. I won’t go into the details of LNT in this post, but just know that it’s a thing, and it’s a pretty important thing. There’s nothing I hate more in the backcountry (or front-country) than to happen upon someone’s trash or vandalism. Pack it in, pack it out. That includes your used T.P. (though some may disagree). Anyway, for further reading on LNT Ethics,

7 Leave No Trace Principles to Respect the Wild | Photo: Sarah Seads

To be frank, backpacking can be miserable at times even when you are fully prepared. It pushes and stretches you in ways only it can. Misadventures and mishaps will most definitely happen, I know I’ve experienced my fair share. But at the end of the day I’m grateful for every opportunity to step into the backcountry and see things few people have the privilege of seeing and the chance to feel alive by going right to the edge of my limits. Plus the air is fresher out there, and that’s pretty nice too.

Happy trails everybody!


(1) "Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

(2) Base weight is considered the weight of your backpack plus gear before food and water is added and excludes the weight of what you will be wearing on an average normal temperature hiking day

(3) Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness: Functional Exercise & Nutrition for Every Body



Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of REI, they are based on personal experiences and public or open source information where noted and are not reflective of the position of REI.

Cover photo: Julian Bialowas

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.