Time to Hit the Trail: Backpacking 101

By Jacqueline Knox – September 1, 2021
Courtesy of Jacqueline Knox

For me, it is a comforting feeling. There is nothing around you but nature, while the smell of adventure wafts from every direction. On my very first backpacking trip, I was introduced to something that would become one of my greatest passions and escapes. I felt adventurous and free, as if I could go anywhere and survive with only the belongings strapped to my back. 

To be fully honest, I was very intimidated at first. I was 16 years old at the time, and even though I ran track, I didn’t think I was strong enough to do it. But surrounded by other teenagers, I knew I at least had to try. Our guides helped us through everything: what to pack, what food to bring, how to cook over a WhisperLite stove, where your pack should sit on your hips, the works. 

By the time I came out of that trip, I had walked over 60 miles carrying a roughly 50-pound pack through the Alaskan wilderness. I felt tough. I felt accomplished. I also felt very dirty. 

That trip showed me how strong I am, mentally and physically. It was a way of telling myself that I could wake up and do it again tomorrow, even though the day had completely exhausted me. But I didn’t do it alone. I know that without someone else there telling me how to take each next step, I would have been lost and probably would have never found the love I now have for backpacking. 

I don’t want anyone else not to try backpacking because of that fear of not being prepared or not having the right tools. So, in this beginner’s guide, I’m going to walk through all of the steps for preparing for a trip into the wilderness — a trip that could change your life, the same way seven days in Alaska changed mine. 

The Destination 

First, you need to choose your destination. It is going to be easier on you when it comes to figuring out gear, clothing and food if you first know where you are going and how long it will take. For your first backpacking trip, I would recommend doing a shorter trip with easier terrain, unless you are going with an experienced backpacker or guide. 

Near Austin, I would recommend a two-night trip on Goodwater Loop Trail around the San Gabriel River and Lake Georgetown. If you are willing to drive further away, Lost Maples State Natural Area also provides perfect trails and campsites for beginner backpackers. 

The Gear 

Not knowing much about gear is probably what scares a beginner the most. It sure did scare me. Before you start purchasing gear, I would advise you to borrow or even rent the essentials, especially if it is your first trip. The basics — backpack, sleeping bag, tent and ground pad — are easily available for rent in Austin. 

Backpacking apparel needs to be super light, as you’ll want your pack to be as easy to carry as possible. You are going to need top and bottom base layers, hiking pants or shorts (dependent on the climate of your chosen destination), hiking shirts, rainwear, thick hiking socks, comfortable camp shoes and warmer layers for nighttime. 

In addition, I would recommend having a good pair of hiking boots or trail runners. If you are going to splurge on anything, splurge on this. Trust me, your feet will thank you later. Also, make sure you break in your boots before going on your trip to avoid or reduce blisters. 

You are also going to need other supplies like a backpacking stove, fuel, a headlamp, water bottles and a way to filter water, a first-aid kit and sunscreen. For a more complete list of backpacking gear, check out REI’s backpacking checklist

The Food

Once you have your destination and gear, it’s time to plan your food. Freeze-dried meals are an easy option because of how lightweight and calorie-packed they are. But you can also find ways to pack light without having to stick to freeze-dried food. 

This is what one day of food on my last backpacking trip (actually Goodwater Loop at Lake Georgetown) looked like:

  • For breakfast, I had oatmeal that I cooked over a WhisperLite stove. 
  • Lunch was summer sausage and cheese wrapped in a tortilla (tortillas are an excellent alternative to bread because they pack down smaller). 
  • If I got hungry on the trail, I would pull out a granola bar or some trail mix (make sure you pack these where they are easy to grab). 
  • For dinner, I made pasta with some canned shredded chicken. 

The Final Prep

Now with all of the logistics planned, you need to mentally and physically prepare for your trip. Make sure that you have looked at the trail ahead of time and planned out your campsites. At some trails, you may need to reserve them ahead of time, so make sure you double-check and get everything squared away. 

You are also going to want to walk around your neighborhood (or even backyard) with your loaded pack on to get a feeling for what it will be like. You don’t have to completely pack it, but make sure you load it with about 25 to 35 pounds of stuff to simulate the real thing. This will really help reinforce the packing light idea, too! 

Now, take all of these tips and create your very own ideal backpacking trip. I promise you that you are strong enough to do this, especially if you tell yourself that you are.

BONUS: Five Places to Backpack In and Around Austin 

  • Garner State Park 
  • Lost Maples State Natural Area 
  • Goodwater Loop at Georgetown Lake 
  • Enchanted Rock 
  • Pedernales Falls State Park 

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