You Don’t Have To Become A Thru-Hiker To Become A Backpacker

If you’re reading this, you might not be a thru-hiker. In fact, you might not be a backpacker at all. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to be one. You probably enjoy reading about and following those who are in the process of starting – or have completed, one of the most epic journeys that the average person will ever undertake. You might even live a little vicariously through these backpackers on their grand adventure.

Reading about these adventures can be intimidating—2,000, 3,000-mile hikes, 25-mile days, pack weights so low they seem impossible. And the gear!  Equipment so varied, so specialized, (and expensive!) it’s easy to just say, why bother, I’ll just stay at home and read about it. Thru-hiking is at one end of the spectrum, weekend backpacking trips are at the other.  Professional athletes just don’t walk on to a pro team, there is a logical start up…. just like backpacking.

I have read many stories of thru-hikers who have said they had never hiked at all before deciding to do the AT or PCT.  They just up and decided to do it, went out and bought some gear, and with food and some planning (or not), just started walking. After all, it is just walking.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” -John Muir

I work with many folks brand new to backpacking—It’s so easy to say just get a pack and go. In reality, many of us have jobs, mortgages, kids in school. We’re not taking six months out of the year to hike. Backpacking doesn’t have to take six months. Take a day, a weekend, a week of vacation time. The important thing is getting out there.


The Learning Curve is Manageable

You will learn about tents, and shelters, and ground cloths, and stoves (and stoves and more stoves..), and fuels, and little teeny pots, and long handled spoons.  You’ll learn all the foods you can pack in baggies and cook with just a little boiling water. You’ll develop new a understanding of the insulating values of sleeping bags, and water bottles, quick drying fabrics, layering, and boots. You’ll become an expert on the pros and cons of waterproof footwear. You’ll learn about ten different ways to purify water, and how much water that you personally need to carry.

You will love it.  And it will change you… forever.

And you don’t need to hike 25 miles or 3000 miles to learn it.

The First Steps: Gathering Equipment and Skills

1. Getting Smart

Although anyone can google “how to go backpacking” for endless references, it can be tough to cut through the forest and find something that works for you.

I cannot recommend highly enough the book Mountaineering: Freedom Of The Hills.  This has been in my library since its third edition and I have recommended it to many thru-hikers.


Don’t let the title fool you.  Remember what I said about backpacking being a gateway drug to mountaineering?  This was the book for facts when there were no other books available.  Almost all of the skills we need are discussed here, in great detail and easy to comprehend.

Backpacking as we have come to know it is a relatively ‘new’ phenomenon, which only started to gain traction in the 70’s and 80’s.  There has always been camping and exploring, but the vast majority of  equipment available were off-shoots from equipment found in Army surplus stores.  The outdoor industry, as we’ve come to know it, has only taken off since the mid 80’s and early 90’s. Before that, it catered primarily to such industries as skiing and snow sports such as mountaineering.

Backpacking One Step At A Time is another valuable resource in my personal library that I found very interesting and helpful when I was getting started.  This a no nonsense, step-by-step, ‘how to’ guide that will take you to the edge of your first trip.



2. Getting Equipped

Man oh man, where to start on this one. Well, you need a pack, and it needs to fit and be the right size. Getting fitted at an outfitter or local gear store is immensely helpful. You’ll have to decide if you want to go stoveless, or if you want to be cooking on the trail, and then find a cooking system and water filtration that works for you. Do some research on sleep systems and shelters. This site is an amazing resource, as are other gear comparison and testing sites.

For your initial gear setup, I recommend REI.  They have a great variety, knowledgable staff, and their return policy is phenomenal. One year, no questions asked. Backpacking equipment is not cheap, and finding the right footwear can be problematic.  It’s a great peace of mind to know you can return the item if it doesn’t work for you.

The sneakers you already own will most likely work fine for your first trip…. seriously. Thousands of thru-hikers can’t be wrong.  Trail runners used to be the ‘dark side’, but no longer!  I myself swear by my Hoka One One’s, for the PCT/JMT.  The AT can be rocky, not like the smooth trails of the Sierra’s and Colorado, so your footwear choice is up to you and how strong your ankles are.

Read the gear list here at The Trek. Check out the bloggers page, and you’ll find dozens of their personal favorites.  Those preparing for a thru-hike have taken a great amount of time and effort to find the lightest and most durable equipment.

And never forget to HYOH… Hike Your Own Hike. Use what gear works for you. The noise of so many competing brands of shoes, tents, bags, stoves, can be deafening.

3.  Getting Help

Find a mentor.  Find a good friend that you trust, that hikes, or climbs, or ideally, backpacks.

Next best thing, find a local hiking group.  Most Appalachian Trail Clubs along the East Coast have group outings, ranging from beginner day hikes to challenging overnight trips and winter outdoors skills clinics. Find the local resources in your area and reach out, you won’t be disappointed.

I recommend searching for a local Meetup group in your area.  These informal groups are usually free to join and are where someone posts “Hey I’m going backpacking this weekend at such and such place, anyone care to join me?”  I run such a group here in Virginia, shout out to Obsessive Compulsive Backpackers  (the name makes me laugh, we’re neither obsessive or compulsive).

Be wary of trips that emphasize high mileage days or very fast paces!!  Know beforehand where you are going. Have a map! Learn to use it!

The beauty of a group is being able to see and compare so many different tents, and stoves, and water purifiers etc when they’re actually set up and in use.

4. Take a course, make some friends

REI is also a fantastic resource for “how to” courses. They run courses on backpacking, map reading, orienteering, pack loading, and even bear spray use. Find one in your area here. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has many resources and FAQs as well, geared from everyone from casual day hikers to prospective thru-hikers. Local trail maintenance groups, wilderness partnerships, and outing clubs organize group trips and socials throughout the year.

And if you can’t find anyone to go with…well, just give me a call, we can learn together.


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Comments 5

  • nicole : Apr 13th

    “The important thing is getting out there.” I don’t think that could be emphasized enough. Very nice article.

    I do not anticipate making life changes that will allow me to take off 5 or 6 or 7 months to do a long trail thru hike. I won’t say I can’t do a thru hike. I will say I am not prepared to sell my house and walk away from my job at this point. It is a choice. I do have time to do a week (or two at times) on a trail pretty much whenever I want as long as I come back to work for at least a few weeks.

    I have learned so much through doing work with a local-ish trail maintenance group. It got me out of the state parks. (While I am a big user and and support of state parks I generally am not a fan of state park camping.) I started to learn about orientation skills, setting tents up in less-than-ideal locations, LNT, etc. through this work and it clicked for me. (For me the key piece was that I was learning new things. I just happen to really like the things I am learning via the trail.) Asking people questions about their bags, puffy jackets, etc. gave me a reason to initiate some conversation. While it doesn’t apply to all people, I’ve found that people on the trail, working or hiking, like to talk about their gear (or intentional lack of gear). I was amazed when a fellow volunteer told me I could try to revive my rain jacket with Nikwax. I appreciate the sawyer who taught me how to sharpen my loppers.

  • Annie Desbiens : Apr 14th

    I’m very outdoors-oriented and love hiking, but I’m obsessed with ticks… For even if we follow all the recommendations, the possibility of a bite exists, particularly this year (and maybe for many years to come). Like if I’m alone, which is often the case, who will check my back, head, etc. ?

    I love hiking in NH or Vermont, but I miss feeling carefree. So I’ll go to the Laurentians instead (in Québec) where that plague has not arrived yet. But It’s not as beautiful as in the Northeast States.


  • Monica Fleming : Apr 14th

    Thank you very much for this!! I was asking a friend about a good beginners book for backpacking and hiking and he didn’t know one!! I will definitely be picking up these two. I am a brand new backpacker/hiker (well haven’t done it since I was a kid of 14 over 30 years ago) so I am soaking up as much as I can on getting out there doing it. A thru hike is not something that is in the cards in the near future, but I have done an overnight so far and learned more about my gear and what I want to change and add. I am hoping to do some section hiking and more overnights soon. Thank you for this article, it has encouraged me even more to get out and do it!

  • Zach : Apr 14th

    All great points, Phil! We certainly are a tad thru-hiker heavy here on The Trek. Getting outside is the goal, whether it’s for 5-7 months, weeks, days, or hours. Superb writeup.

  • Cosmo Catalano : Apr 14th

    Nicely done, Dragin.

    One of the ways to get over the “gear paralysis” is to accept the fact that you will learn over time which gear works for you. This of course leads to a closet of used gear–which can be helpful when you become the mentor to a friend, or you donate it to a local scout troop, school or other organization. To expect to choose the perfect thing the first time (or six times) out, is just not going to happen. Just let go, take the plunge, try it out and make corrections as you go.



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