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Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking

Take your hike to the next level

Adventure is calling! How will you answer?
    This is the perfect time to take your hiking to the next level by upgrading your day hike to a backpacking trip.
    Simply put, backpacking is hiking while carrying everything you need for your journey in a pack. Trips can range in duration from a quick weekend excursion to months on the trails. One of the advantages of backpacking is that you gain the time to more thoroughly delight in your experience in the wilderness, compared to a day hike, where your time on the trail is ultimately limited by the amount of daylight you have.
    It’s also an opportunity to spend peaceful time alone with your thoughts, enveloped by Mother Nature. It can be a chance to reconnect with friends or family on the trail; or it can be a raw, rugged physical challenge and celebration of what your body can accomplish.
    As Patty Williams, former president and longtime member of Mountain Club of Maryland, puts it, backpacking means, “being away from everything. You can just sit at the overlook … stick your feet in the stream, go swimming. You can just be there.”
    For many, the sense of just being can be a life-changing experience.
    There’s so much to gain from multiple days on a trail, but if you’re new to backpacking, the thought may be intimidating. So here are a few tips to help you start planning your first trip.

How to Get Started
    When you’re just starting out, don’t feel like you have to go alone. Take time to develop a network of knowledgeable backpackers. If you don’t have close friends who backpack, reach out to local outdoor and hiking organizations. These groups frequently provide training or host beginner workshops or backpack trips where you can learn the ropes first-hand with experienced multiday hikers.
    Or find a friend who is interested in learning with you so you can support each other on the trail. Consider reaching out to outdoors supply stores, like Eastern Mountain Sports or REI, that frequently host no-obligation classes to learn more about backpacking, equipment and preparation.
    Traveling with others will also provide a safety net as you learn your physical limits on the trail. One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a beginner is being too ambitious and thinking you can do more than you can.
    “You can hike at a certain pace when you’re day hiking, but when you put a 25- to 30-pound pack on, it’s going to slow you down a bit,” Williams advises. “You need to adjust your expectations about how fast you can go or how far you can go in a day.”

Where to Go
    Once you feel comfortable enough to venture out, it’s time to select your trail. Maryland is home to diverse landscapes as well as historical hikes, and for beginners, multi-day hikes, you’ll likely select one of two trails: the Appalachian Trail or the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail.
    The Appalachian Trail stretches about 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, with Maryland’s portion about 40 miles of scenic vistas teaming with Civil War history. The entire trail, or Maryland’s miles, can be broken down into shorter trips. For trail guides and camping regulations on the Appalachian Trail, visit
    The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail is a riverside trail spanning 184 miles, mostly in Maryland, from Cumberland to Georgetown. This towpath along the Potomac River is popular with bikers and hikers alike and is great for beginners. And what better way to celebrate the centennial year of the National Parks Service than relishing a National Park in our own backyard? For more trail information, visit:

What to Know Before You Go
    After you select your destination, it’s time to start working out the logistics and researching your trail. For instance, if your backpacking trip is not a loop with the same starting and ending point, you’ll need to arrange transportation for at least one end of the trail.

The author warming up on the Baltimore-Annapolis Trail.

    You’ll also need to identify your campsites and water sources in advance of departure. Some trails have strict regulations on where you can set up camp or build fires. It’s also not wise to assume there are regular water stops, or to think you can drink water from a natural source. Calling a park visitor center or researching online will help you determine if shelters or campsites are provided and how and where to stock up on water.
    Be sure to share your itinerary with someone who’ll be staying home. Decide in advance when to check in. This precaution will help others know whether you’re on track and determine if there is cause for alarm. A delay in checking in may indicate a larger issue, like being injured on the trail or getting lost.
    Another important aspect of your trip is safety. Take time to identify potentially dangerous wildlife native to your trail. Yes, bears and snakes, but more common dangers like poison ivy, which can make for a very uncomfortable trip, or ticks, which can be difficult to see and can spread Lyme disease. Using bug spray, checking yourself for ticks frequently and wearing long-sleeve shirts, long pants tucked into your socks are helpful ways to combat tick and bug bites.
    Being prepared in terms of equipment is also critical to your safety. Many supply stores rent equipment for hikers, which gives you a chance to try out different gear and see what’s most comfortable or suitable for your trips. So, if you’re a beginner and not quite sure what your needs are or whether you want to invest in backpacking, renting equipment is a great option.

What to Pack
    No matter where you choose to hike, there are a few essentials.
    Food: Bring a variety of lightweight food you like to eat, and rely on complex carbohydrates and protein. There are lots of great dehydrated options where you just add water and enjoy. Patty Williams recommends for convenient recipes and tips on cooking for backpackers.
    Map and compass: These days it’s easy to rely on our phones or GPS gadgets for guidance, but these electronics don’t function far from their cellular towers. It’s potentially dangerous to rely on them in the wilderness, so remember to bring your old-school map and compass for navigation — and know how to use them.
    Comfortable shoes and extra clothing: Weather is unpredictable, and temperatures may change drastically from day to night, so pack extra clothing and wear layers on your hike. Invest in durable hiking shoes, and be sure to break them in prior to your trip. Blisters and sore feet will make for an uncomfortable excursion.
    Light: Whether a flashlight or headlamp, packing a light source will help you safely enjoy the wilderness once the sun sets. Replace the batteries before your trip and maybe even bring spares.
    First-aid kit: For your comfort and safety, be sure to pack a first aid kit and learn basic first aid skills prior to your trip. Knowing skills like CPR (many local fire departments offer free classes) or how to dress minor wounds can be invaluable on the trail.
    Fire starter and tools: Fire starters or waterproof matches are essential on your hike for comfort, cooking and safety. Additionally, pack basic tools, including a repair kit, to mend your equipment as needed.
    Unexpected events like minor injuries or exhaustion may delay your progress, so be sure to pack extra provisions to get you through a few additional days proportionate to the length of your trip. This includes extra food, but also any medications you take on a regular basis. If you have any health concerns — including diabetes, heart disease or previous injuries — consult your physician to discuss whether backpacking poses any health risks for you and how to safely address those concerns.
    Finally, remember to enjoy your hike responsibly, and adopt the Leave No Trace philosophy, which refers to guidelines for promoting conservation in the outdoors. For example, be sure to dispose of trash and waste appropriately, do not disturb or bring home any wildlife and be respectful of fellow hikers. When in doubt, it’s best to follow the classic hiking motto: Take only pictures, leave only footprints. (For more information on how to sustainably backpack, visit
    While the specifics of your trip will vary based on where you decide to go, you’re now well on your way to planning your backpacking trip. Enjoy yourself and stay safe. Happy trails!