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Although it might seem that backpackers are free spirits who fly by the seat of their pants, most experienced hikers will tell you that good planning is what determines a good trip.
Here's what you need to know before tackling a long-distance hike, such as the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, or Continental Divide trails.
We recommend starting out with a good read. You can buy The Basic Essentials of Backpacking on Amazon for a pittance. You can also take classes on everything from backpacking to navigation and even wilderness medicine at the REI Outdoor School, which has locations in a number of major metropolises throughout the country.
As a novice backpacker, you may want to start out small. Plan on backpacking a short distance—five to seven miles per day—of the trail across a long weekend. To that end, you’ll need to chart out your route with a good map. You might also call local park rangers to check in about permit requirements, trail and weather conditions, what bugs or critters you might encounter, and more.
Even if you’re just camping out one night, you’ll need some serious gear. You can find gear lists all over the internet, such as this one from the American Hiking Society. Don’t skimp on your equipment. A first-aid kit, for instance, could save your life. Packing more food is better than packing too little. And a backpack and a pair of boots that fit well could be the difference between a miserable trip and a wonderful adventure. However, if cost is an issue, keep in mind that you don't have to buy everything. Some stores, such as Outdoors Geek, rent out expensive items such as tents and backpacks.
Practice Makes Perfect
Hiking with a 35-pound pack strapped to your back is no joke, so you can prepare for your trip by training. In the weeks leading up to your trip, hit the StairMaster at your gym, and take several smaller hikes with a full backpack. You should also practice using your gear. So go ahead, pitch that tent in your backyard, and while you’re at it, practice the art of hanging a bear bag.
Don’t get into a bad berry situation like Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild fame or for that matter, a 127 Hours state of affairs. Bring a buddy. But if you want to go it alone, then at least tell a good friend your plans. That way, if something does go awry, you’ll have an ally who will know your approximate whereabouts and can direct help your way.