Learning the ropes for backpacking

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of January 16-22, 1997
St. Lucia's best diving spots
Tennessee's not-so-Lost Sea
Base-camp paddling in Canada
Learning the ropes for backpacking
Beating the crowds at Denali

Learning the ropes for backpacking
Question: I want to start backpacking but don't know where to begin. I've done plenty of camping and travel "backpacking" but don't know how to go about starting hiking/backpacking. I've read heaps of info on the necessary and best equipment, but nothing on how to begin. Should I just hit the trail and hope everything I've read will translate into practical real-life knowledge, or am I better hooking up with some outfit of experienced hikers? This question may make me sound like a city wimp, but I don't want to end up lost in the mountains as cold, exhausted bear fodder. Please help me escape from this jungle!

Margaret Dyer
New York, NY

Adventure Adviser: Cramming your brain with gear information is good groundwork for a backpacking trip, I guess, but knowing the advantages of an internal frame versus an external frame pack isn't going to help you much when you're out on the trail at dusk, looking for a place to pitch your tent--and wondering if you remember how to do it. Plus, if you're like me, all those technical details about Vibram-sole hiking boots and butane stoves usually go in one ear and out the other. The bottom line is that you need hands-on experience. Period. Whether that means tagging along with a trail-savvy backpacker friend or signing up for a guided trip, the important thing is that you get out into the woods with someone who knows the ropes well enough to show you the ropes.

If you decide to take the latter route, take heart: You're not a city wimp, and you don't need to dedicate a three-week slot of time or spend a pile of money to fly to the Rockies to get the basics down. A two- or three-day trip close to home will suffice for your first time; then you can figure out if it's something you want to pursue, and take it from there.

New Hampshire-based Appalachian Mountain Club runs a whole slew of overnight camping trips, including a three-day introductory course aptly named Beginner Backpacking and Camping. You'll spend the first night at the AMC's main lodge at Pinkham Notch, where you'll go over the basics in trip planning, equipment needs, map-reading skills, and low-impact camping techniques. Days two and three will have you putting your new skills to use out on the trail. Trips generally run from late May through mid-September and cost about $130 per person, and you'll need to provide all your own food for the hiking portion of the trip.

If you're looking for something more challenging, consider AMC's three-day backpack through Evans Notch, one of the White Mountains' more remote mountain passes. Trip cost is $185 per person, including guides, camping fees, dinners and breakfasts; no prior experience is necessary. For something a little closer to home, AMC also runs the Beginner Backpacking trip out of their Delaware Water Gap outdoor center in late April. Call AMC for details and trip registration at 603-466-2727.

Another good bet is Sierra Club Outings. While most of their trips tend to take place out West, they do offer a handful of camping trips in the East, such as six-day treks through Baxter State Park in Maine (about $700 per person), the Presidential Range in New Hampshire's White Mountains (about $625 per person); and upstate New York's Adirondack Park ($485 per person). For departure dates and a catalog of more than 300 other trips, call 415-923-5588.

Search the archives | Ask the Adventure Adviser

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!