Beginner backpacking tips from my first time backpacking

I survived my first time backpacking at South Colony Lakes a few weeks ago, so now I’m a backpacking expert, right? Ha. Far from it, but I did learn several things I would do differently next time, so I’m here to share these beginner backpacking tips for those of you who may just be starting out, and anyone else that’s curious about my first backpacking adventure!

Disclaimer: even though it was my first time backpacking, I’m not new to camping and I was also able to borrow a lot of my husband’s backpacking gear, so this was a hodge podge of me using his tried and true stuff and researching and learning a few things on my own (and from my backpacking gal pal, Heather). So I’m not a total noob to roughing it. Also, some of the backpacking tips below may contain affiliate links that I can make a commission on if you purchase – they aren’t priced any differently and I’d be super thrilled and thankful for your support if you purchased via my recommendation!

Okay, onto the fun stuff!

Choose the right backpack & fit it properly

Nothing takes the fun out of gorgeous hiking quite like the weight of the world on your shoulders! And while a good backpack can’t fix your life, it’ll at least distribute that weight a little more comfortably for the long haul. As a beginner backpacker, I read lots of women’s backpack reviews online and narrowed down to a few models that sounded right for my needs, and then headed to REI to try them on. Trying backpacks on with weight in them with the assistance of a store Associate is extremely important. She taught me how to measure and fit the pack, and tighten everything up so it carried the weight most comfortably for my body. I tried three different packs on, took laps around the store with each, and was easily able to tell which felt best for me. And even if you can’t make it to an REI, they put together a great online resource for fitting your backpack so you can DIY.

I’m happy to report that my backpack fit GREAT! I was so nervous I’d discover some really annoying feature or uncomfortable pressure point once I had some miles hiking with it, but all in all, I think it did an amazing job with the semi-ridiculous weight of my pack (more on that next!). The weight was mostly felt on my hips rather than my shoulders, and I didn’t realize how much my hips were carrying till I noticed they were mildly bruised in the front after returning from the trip. My friend Heather had a similar pack she’d used for a couple years, and she was noticing some shoulder fatigue. She said she hadn’t refit it since she got it, so after a few trips, lots of weight, adjusting and re-adjusting, things had probably shifted and she was due for a refit. I’m taking that note as a reminder once I have a few more trips under my belt!

First time backpackers pack too much

Yep, I did! Even after working and strategizing to keep it as light as possible, my backpack still weighed in around 40 lbs. I admit that on normal vacations, I will pack as many outfit options as possible and twice as much underwear as I need, because, OPTIONS and COMFORT! But other than still packing twice as much underwear as I needed, I actually only packed single pieces of clothing for each layer I might need in the varying backcountry Colorado autumn temps! I had a base layer top/bottom which would double as PJ’s, a flannel, hiking leggings, my favorite fleece ever, and a packable down jacket. And two pairs of wool socks – that is a must in case one gets wet. Warmth and flexible layering was a priority to me since the nights would be very chilly but the days would be sunny, mild, and we’d be hiking/working up a sweat. I used every layer and wasn’t sad about it!

I considered throughout the weekend and after what I actually overpacked, and I found a few easily forgiveable things that can definitely be lightened up for future backpacking trips:

Backpacking food: I packed Mountain House meals for breakfast and dinner, but these were double serving sizes. Since Heather is not a meat eater, I couldn’t share, so I technically had twice as much camping food as I needed. However I’m not ashamed to say I ate the entire Lasagna meal the night after we attempted to summit Humboldt Peak! In my defense, the whole bag was less than 600 calories and Lord knows I earned it that day! I also came home with a few extra snack bars, jerky sticks, trail mix, and a few Fireball mini bottles, so there ya go. I don’t have a huge appetite at altitude, but I’d rather have too much food than not enough!

Water: I packed in 3 liters of water in my hydration bladder and had a 32 oz Nalgene filled. While what I packed in wasn’t enough water for the weekend, we camped by a beautiful stream and had this awesome Ketadyn water filtration pump that made it so easy to fill our Nalgene’s and the Jet Boil. In the future, as long as I have confidence I’ll be camping near a water source and have water filtration system for backpacking like the Ketadyn, I would only pack in enough water for the initial hike to camp. That would’ve shaved off a good 8 lbs from my starting weight!

Microspikes for snow hiking (didn’t use once): A couple weeks before our trip, nearly every peak in Colorado got dumped with an early September snowfall. Patches were still visible in some areas, so I ordered the Unigear Crampons in case we needed them on our Humboldt Peak attempt. Well we didn’t, and those were reasonably heavy metal chains and rubber in a hard case. Definitely won’t be packing this on future summer backpacking trips. However I am looking forward to trying them on some winter jogs around the neighborhood after it snows here in Missouri!

Heavy duty knife (also I didn’t use once): When I was packing, I told Ronnie I needed a knife as an obvious utility for various things (and last resort protection from a bear). He has several, but gave me a big old school fancy thing in a sturdy leather case. I just threw it in my pack not thinking twice about the weight. While I would absolutely pack a knife again just in case, I would pack a lighter one, like this small but multi-functional GrandWay knife that includes a fire starter. His knife was one of the single heaviest things in my pack. He later told me he chose it for me specifically for bear protection, which thankfully, I did not need.

Bear Safety Tips

Speaking of bears, hanging out for a couple days in their home is a little bit unnerving. As cute as they are from a distance, I have no interest in ever sharing camp or food with one. When car camping in the past, we’ve always kept a very clean camp and packed up all our food and coolers and locked it in the car when we went to sleep or left camp for hiking. But since all we had was our packs, we had to get clever with our food and trash storage.

creek by campsite in South Colony Lakes

We took my husband’s advice and brought 100 feet of paracord and enough stuff sacks to wrap up our food and trash, and hang it from a tree a little ways off from camp. To hang it, I tied the paracord around a softball sized rock, and threw it over the highest branch of a tree that I could successfully aim and clear. This wasn’t as high as I hoped, but after three awkward attempts where the rock kept falling out of the paracord, I finally got it over. I removed the rock and tied the cord to the stuff sack of food and trash.

Taking the other end of the paracord, I used the branch as a pulley and raised the stuff sack as high as it would go under the branch it hung from. I then secured my end of the cord around a very large, heavy rock. This actually took several attempts because I really needed a third hand to keep the cord taught and hold up the heavy rock and wind it around. I had Heather’s help for subsequent attempts, but the first night she hadn’t been feeling well and went to bed before me. I’m sure this whole thing would’ve looked ridiculous, but I laughed at myself through the attempts and was quite proud of myself for getting it done and keeping our food safely away from camp and hopefully out of reach from any hungry bears in the area.

Backpacking Sleep Hacks

Sleeping is pretty much my favorite thing, and I struggle to sleep well while camping and at altitude. Since primitive sleeping with minimal comforts was a concern of mine, researched the best backpacking pillow and chose to purchase this Thermarest compressible travel pillow. Overall, I give it a great review, but only if used properly. It takes some time for the memory foam in it to properly expand after it’s been compressed. I thought a couple hours would be fine, since it worked fine that way at home. But I suspect the thinner air at 11,000 feet where we camped may have slowed down the expansion process, b/c it was still flat when I went to bed, a good two hours after I had opened it up when we setup camp. I was so uncomfortable that first night, but when I returned from our hike the next afternoon, it was perfectly inflated and amazingly comfortable. My lesson for next time will be to keep it expanded/uncompressed, and just hang it on the outside of my backpack with a carabiner while hiking to camp.

beginning backpacking using Thermarest compressible travel pillow

Beginner Backpacking Success

Overall, my first time backpacking trip was a success and it is definitely something I’ll do again! I was thankful for the experience and gear borrowed from my husband, and it helped to have a calm and practical hiking partner as well. I did lots of research on my own beforehand, as I’m a planner and like to be in as much control as possible. I felt comfortable on my first backpacking trip and had an open mind to learn whatever lessons life and nature wanted to throw my way. Thankfully we didn’t have any major drama to deal with and all went beautifully and safely! If you want to read more about our experience in the area and hiking a fourteener during our stay, check out my previous post on backpacking South Colony Lakes, and my hiking partner Heather’s post on our summit attempt of Humboldt Peak.

And below is a summary of the products I linked throughout the post – I only link things I recommend, so if you’re needing to stock up for your next backpacking or hiking trip, check these out!