In this time of COVID-19, many are turning to outdoor activities as vacations have been canceled and cities are serving as a hot bed for the virus. One of the more popular activities that can get you out and about is camping. But if you didn’t grow up in a family that went camping all the time, your first trip can bring a mixture of of excitement and nervousness. Prior to my first trip, I had a list of questions that included what to pack, how to prepare, and how to set up camp for the first time. However, I wasn’t able to find answers to all of my questions online, and much of what I know now was learned by doing. This beginners guide to backcountry camping shares all of the essentials for getting out into nature and experiencing the beauty of our national parks.
Research & Plan
It’s important to do your research and plan ahead before heading into the backcountry. Here are a few things to consider before embarking on your trip:
To have a successful trip, you don’t need every item that I mention below, however, I do suggest you have the 10 essentials which include: navigation, hydration, nutrition, fire, illumination, first aid supplies, repair kit, insulation, sun protection, emergency shelter. If you’re interested in learning more about the 10 essentials, REI has a great article that you can check out here.
Where you are allowed to camp
Every park has different rules regarding where you are allowed to camp, with some having designated areas and others simply stating you need to be so many miles off the trails. Before heading out, I suggest heading out visiting the park’s website as well as confirming with a ranger once you’re in the park.
Leave No Trace principles
It’s a true gift to be able to experience the great outdoors and take in all of the natural beauty around us. However, it’s important to understand that nature isn’t ours to have, as we’re only a small part of the bigger picture. If you’re unfamiliar with the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace, I encourage you to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics website to learn how to be a protector of the outdoors.
Tell someone your plans
Before heading out on your trip, I suggest creating a rough itinerary of where you’ll be and share it with someone back at home. This will give your loved ones peace of mind if you lose service and they don’t hear from you for a few days.
Depending on the time of year and where you plan on going, your gear list can change. However, I’ve listed some staples to consider as you prepare your pack.
Choosing a backpack is a personal decision as they differ based on size, fit and usage. Some people prefer minimal ultralight packs, while others prefer a bigger pack that offers more storage and padding.
My go-to pack for day hikes is the Osprey Tempest Women’s 20L. It’s large enough to allow me to carry the essentials, but also small enough to keep me from over packing. I have used it on overnight trips in the past, but I wouldn’t recommend as the pack was stuffed to the brim and my partner still had to carry my bulkier gear (sleeping bag, pad, etc.) For overnight trips, I have since upgraded to the Osprey Kyte 46L Women’s pack and I could not recommend it enough.
Similarly to backpacks, choosing your shelter is dependent upon personal preference. Three things to consider, however, are weight, durability and price. The tent my partner and I opted for was the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 Classic Tent. We chose this tent because it was lightweight, packed down small, and the tent walls were completely mesh which allows for stargazing at night when the weather is good. Also to note, we decided to go with the 3-person tent to allow for more sleeping room and allow us to bring our packs inside without it being cramped.
Your comfortability while sleeping in the backcountry is dependent on two main things: your sleeping bag and sleeping pad. The three main areas to consider when choosing a sleeping bag is style, filling and temperature rating. As I tend to sleep a bit colder, I went with the REI Magma 15 Women’s Sleeping Bag. It’s also important to note that when sleeping bags are being rated, they use a sleeping pad underneath. So in order to maximize your warmth, make sure to invest in a quality pad.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a good sleeping pad. Not only will it provide extra comfort in the night, but it acts as a barrier between you and the cold ground. My partner and I both opted for the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm Sleeping Pad. With an R-value of 6.9 and weighing only 15 oz. it’s the perfect allrounder pad.
While using a pillow is somewhat optional as certain people choose to use their down jackets instead, this was an item I was wanted to invest in. I use the Exped Air Pillow and undoubtedly it is one of my best camp purchases! It is not only extremely lightweight weight at just 2.5 oz., but can be set up and packed down in a matter of seconds.
I have two different stoves that I use depending on what type of camping I’m doing. If I’m at a campground, I use my Camp Chef Everest 2X High-Pressure Stove. It heats up incredibly fast and makes cooking a breeze. If I’m in the backcountry, I bring my MSR PocketRocket 2 Stove. The PocketRocket is incredibly lightweight and small enough to pack into my MSR PocketRocket Deluxe Stove Kit.
There are numerous different types of dinnerware and cook sets available on the market. Depending on what your preferences and what you plan on cooking, there’s an option out there for you. I decided to keep it simple and go with a lightweight spork, TOAKS Titanium Single Wall 450ml Cup, MSR Alpine Nesting Bowls, and MSR Quick Skillet.
Water Bottles/ Purification
Before heading out into the backcountry, always make sure you have plenty of water and the ability to gather more using a water filtration/purification system. When it comes to water storage, you can decide to use either a water bottle or hydration bladder. Personally, I prefer to use water bottles, but I know plenty of people who prefer hydration bladders as they find it easier to stay hydrated. In terms of water bottles, I either use my Hydro Flask or Nalgene depending on the weather and length of my hike. For short hikes in hot weather, I’ll usually use my Hydro Flask as it will keep my water cold all day. However, for longer hikes or overnights, I’ll pack my Nalgene as it’s lighter in weight.
No matter the length of your hike, it’s a best practice to always have a way of replenishing your water using either a filtration or purification system. There are numerous ways to filter/purify your water making it easy to ensure you’ll never run out. My preferred method is using the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System as I find it lightweight, easy to use and is great at refilling my water bottle quickly. However, other great options include the Katadyn Micropur Purification Tablets and Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System 3L. The popular LifeStraw is a good option if you’re simple needing a backup for emergency purposes only, but I wouldn’t suggest it as your go-to, as drinking the water through the straw can be difficult (and you couldn’t easily filter water for cooking purposes).
One of the 10 essentials every hiker should have is a headlamp, no matter if you’re going on a short day hike or an overnight trip. I use the Petzl Actik Core Headlamp and absolutely love it. Other great options include the Petzl Actik Headlamp and Black Diamond Storm.
What you hike in is completely up to personal preference, but it’s important to be throughly prepared for the weather conditions. For warm season hikes, I usually gravitate towards my Icebreaker Cool-Lite Merino Short Sleeve and pair it with some shorts or leggings. When the weather gets cooler, I’ll add on one of my Patagonia pullovers as a mid-layer to keep me warm.
While socks can be the last thing on your mind when preparing for your first hike, do not overlook their importance! Having good, quality socks can help ensure your feet stay dry and blister free. A few trusted brands include Darn Tough, Smartwool and Icebreaker.
Your outer-layer can be the key to ensuring the success of your trip. When in the backcountry, there are three types of jackets to consider bringing: a rain jacket, wind jacket and down jacket. My favorite down jacket is the Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hooded Down Jacket. It’s an investment piece for sure, but with it being so lightweight and filled with 850 goose down, it’s worth every penny.
There is nothing better than ending a long hike and getting to slip into some comfortable camp shoes. When I initially told my partner that I was investing in camp shoes, he laughed saying his trusty flip flops would work just as well. But after our first camping experience, he was envious of my comfortable Teva Originals and the versatility they offered. What I love about my Tevas is how they can easily transition from camp shoes to water shoes and can also be dressed up a bit if you come across a cute town you want to explore… they do it all!
Where do I park my car if I’m backcountry camping?
If you plan on backcountry camping, most of the time you can park your car at the tail head. However, different parks have different rules as to what you need to do prior to hitting the trail. I’d recommend stopping at the visitor’s center before heading out to inquire about their backcountry camping policies.
Am I allowed to move my car after registering a spot at a campground?
Yes! If you’ve registered and paid for a spot at a campground, it’s officially yours. Feel free to leave and come back as many times as you please.
Do I need a permit to (fish, camp, use my boat)?
Most of the time, the answer is yes. However, I’d recommend looking at the park’s official website and/or inquiring in-person at the visitor’s center.
Where’s a good place to buy camping gear?
While there are many places that sell camping equipment, my favorite is REI. The staff is extremely knowledgeable and can help you find whatever you may be looking for. If you’re an online shopper like myself, their website and YouTube channel serve as great resources as well. Additionally, Backcountry is another great place to find all of your camping essentials.