How to Start Backpacking

AKA An Anxious Person’s Guide to Ease into Sleeping in the Backcountry 🙃

Putting everything you need to survive for a few days in the woods can feel pretty daunting, especially if you’ve never done it. It can feel like an all or nothing endeavor.

The inspiration for putting all these words down on this page is for all my anxiety-suffering pals out there. Jumping into something like backpacking can be absolutely debilitating to think about (so many things to plan, think about and could potentially ‘go wrong’), even if hiking and camping are things you enjoy. For me, taking out as many unknowns as possible helps my anxious brain regulate. So, taking things step by step and introducing new things in smaller chunks is so helpful.

So, how do you prepare? How do you start your backpacking journey? While some just go for it, there’s a few things you can do to ease yourself into it and hopefully help in easing the transition from ‘regular’ camping or hiking.

  1. Gather Your Gear

First (and this probably goes without saying), you need to collect your gear. While hiking has a low cost barrier to entry, you obviously need some gear to venture into the backcountry and stay the night. Here’s a general list of what I take backpacking. There’s tons of different types of gear, but the most important thing to keep in mind is getting a backpack that will comfortable carry the weight of your gear. When I first started, I would just collect whatever gear I could that was inexpensive or on sale. I didn’t have a huge budget and I slowly collected all the gear I needed. My gear was much heavier than it is now, but I had a backpack that could comfortable carry the higher weight. Don’t feel like you have to strive for the super ultralight right from the beginning. Even now, my gear is lighter, but I’m not an super ultra-lighter. Also, make sure you know how to pack a backpack so that weight is distributed evenly. (Basically, you want the heaviest stuff near the middle of your back.)

Backpacking Checklist

  • Backpack
  • Backpack cover or liner (in case it rains)
  • Trekking poles
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping bag liner (colder months)
  • Sleeping pad
  • Inflatable pillow
  • Tent
    • Footprint
    • Tent body
    • Poles
    • Tent stakes
  • Stove + pot
  • Lighter
  • Fuel canister 
  • Lightweight Mug (for coffee)
  • Long handled spork (or any spoon/spork for eating)
  • Waterproof roll top food bag
    • With food obviously!
  • Water bottles or water bladder (I usually carry 2 1L bottles)
  • Water filter + dirty water bottle/bag (I use Katadyn BeFree + 2L Hydrapack bag)
  • First Aid Kit
  • Toilet Kit
    • Kula Cloth
    • Trowel
    • TP
    • Hand sanitizer or soap
  • Toiletry Kit
    • UL toothbrush
    • Toothpaste tabs
    • Sunscreen
    • Chapstick
    • Body Glide
  • Paracord + carabiner for bear hangs (or bear canister)
  • Pocket knife or multi tool
  • Headlamp
  • Battery bank + charging cord
  • Headphones
  • One change of clothes for sleeping (not necessary for short trips, but it is nice to have “clean” clothes to sleep in!)
  • Extra socks
  • Raincoat
  • Hat (usually both a brimmed one and a beanie in the cold)
  • Gloves (cold weather only)
  • Lightweight fleece (almost always unless it’s dead of summer. Mornings can be chilly)
  • Puffy coat (I’ll bring if temps will dip to 40-ish degrees or below)
  • Bandana or small camp towel (like PackTowel)
  • Camp shoes like crocs or lightweight sandals (not necessary but nice to give your feet a break)
  • Map (either paper or saved on phone somewhere)

2. Practice at Home

Now that you have your gear, make sure you know how to use it. In your living room or yard, make sure you know how to set up your tent. Put your entire sleep system (sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow, etc.) inside. Pack your backpack up, then unpack and ‘set up camp’, then re-pack everything again.

Make sure you know how to use your stove and water filter. Practice filtering water (even if it’s just from your tap!). Go outside and set up your stove. (Not a great idea to ever use a stove inside.) Light it and boil some water.

If you aren’t relatively comfortable with your gear at home, you don’t set yourself up well to use it in the backcountry.

3. Take a ‘Faux’ Backpacking Trip

Once you’re familiar with your gear at home, it’s time to take it outside. Find a walk-in camp site (or drive-up site, but I like the walk in because it feels a little more like backpacking). Savage Gulf State Park has a few great walk-in sites (or sites within a couple tenths of a mile from the parking lot) that are perfect for this type of trip. Being close to your car lets you easily bail if you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed. Bonus points if you’ve camped at the spot before. Removing as many ‘new’ things as possible always helps me feel a bit less anxious or stressed.

Then, the next day, pack up your stuff and do some day hiking, but with your pack. Because, wouldn’t you know, hiking with 25+lbs on your back feels different than a 5lb daypack. (This is where trekking poles come in extra handy. I never backpack without them!) With more weight, comes more stress on your joints and bones and also my body just moves a little differently when I have a pack on. (Aka I fall a lot more because the weight pulls me down…)

4. Backpack a trail you’ve already hiked

Now’s the time to put it all together and camp in the backcountry. I always suggest doing a trail that you’ve already hiked so you know what to expect: in terrain, difficulty, water sources, etc. Again, removing as much ‘new’ as possible makes it feel a little less daunting.

Also, one thing that helps me feel more at ease is knowing where the water sources are, which you’ll have a better idea of if you’ve already hiked the hike. You can also always call park rangers or park headquarters to ask about trail conditions and water sources. Sometimes, water sources are seasonal, too!

To start off, I’d suggest a 10-12 mile overnight hike, whether that’s an out and back or a loop. Here are some of hikes in Tennessee that would also make great overnight trips. But, really any hike that you’re familiar with is a great choice.

  • Virgin Falls
    • Multiple sites along the trail depending on how you want to split up the hike (Reservation needed)
  • Stone Door + Big Creek Rim + Laurel Trails (or Big Creek Gulf for more of a challenge) in Savage Gulf
  • Montgomery Bell Loop Trail
    • Camping only in backcountry shelters (no tents) so this would be a little bit of a different feel (Call to reserve; info here)
  • Walls of Jericho
    • Site near Hurricane Creek/Clark Cemetary (Free; First come, first serve)
  • North and South Old Mac Trails at Frozen Head State Park (Or any combo of trails leading to Tub Spring)

5. Backpack a new trail and/or take a multi-day trip

You did your first trip! How did you feel? Ready to tackle something new?Maybe you’ve decided backpacking isn’t for you (totally ok!!), but if you’ve been bitten by the backing bug, now’s your chance to take another step into the unknown. Backpack a bit more challenging trail, or a new trail or try a longer trip (2 or 3 nights). The possibilities are endless.

I’m not saying this is the only way to get into backpacking or you definitely should do all of these steps. Some may find moving this slowly is ridiculous, while others may have to take it even slower. My best advice is to listen to your body, but also, to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Do something that scares you a little. Even when I feel my anxiety is becoming crippling, once I actually get out on the trail, some of it usually subsides.

Going with a trusted friend or on a group trip — TN State Parks usually host some backpacking trips throughout the year. There’s also many hiking groups that do overnight trips — can also be a great starting point. (And if you don’t have any gear, some programs will rent you gear.)

I can’t really explain fully why I love strapping on backpack with all I need to survive for a few days and trudging through the woods and I think that’s why I love it so much. It both frees my mind and scared me a little bit. And I think all the best things do.

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