Backpacking for n00bs

So, you’re thinking of going backpacking? That’s awesome! Here are a few tips to start you off.

So, you’re thinking of going backpacking! That’s awesome! But you haven’t ever gone backpacking? And you thinking maybe you’re a huge wuss and will be reduced to a blubbering, crazed mass on a mountain somewhere? Don’t fret–I have gone into the great beyond1 and I have come back with sage wisdom. Bill Bryson and Peter Jenkins and Cheryl Strayed ain’t got nothin’ on me.2

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1. Go for a dry run with your packed pack.

I can’t stress this enough: it made me feel way more confident about the whole endeavor to pack everything into my new pack and go for a 5-mile loop of trails. Plus, it let my husband and me figure out a few things, like whether we liked the filtration water bottle that we bought (we did, so we felt confident buying a second). You might look a little silly hiking a non-backpacking trail with a fully loaded pack, so you may want to be prepared to explain you’re going on a dry run and not planning on camping in, say, Byrd Park. The price of looking a little silly for a few hours is infinitely worthwhile when compared to the price of not testing out your hiking shoes. And speaking of shoes…

2. Buy hiking socks and shoes.

Then go buy one more pair of socks than you think you’ll need, so that way when you have to ford a river because it rained you can experience the ecstasy that is the putting on of dry socks. Make sure you test out those hiking shoes on your test run, too. You don’t want to wind up breaking them in on the trail, acquiring those New Shoes Blisters by noon with a bajillion miles to go before you sleep. And speaking of footwear and rain, buy an extra 99-cent poncho for your pack.3

3. Bring some creature comforts.

I highly recommend teabags (or a flask), a book (or a Kindle, as it can be lighter and you can bring TONS OF BOOKS), and a deck of playing cards. Having a small headlamp to use for reading at night proved quite useful as well.

4. Make sure you have a proper first-aid kit situation.

It turned out that our first aid kit contained a bottle of Tylenol PM of dubious age…but in it there were a total of four pills for the three of us. Also included were some old bandages and ointment, and that was about it. We also discovered that my brother was consistently about half an hour ahead of us on the trail, and he was the one carrying the first-aid kit. Luckily this didn’t turn out to be a disaster. It very well could have, if we had an emergency that was both pressing, and required something more than a pill or a sad little bandage. In the future, we’ll a) check the contents of the bag from the previous camping trips before assuming it is properly equipped and b) make sure more than one person has one.

5. Don’t get discouraged.

There are going to be times when you get to a mountain that never seems to end. Every time you look ahead, you see a curve in the trail, and you hope that around the next bend there will be blissful, heavenly flat terrain, and as you find yourself turning that next corner, you will see not a flat future, but another jagged climb ahead of you. These are known as “PUDS” or, Pointless Ups and Downs. You wind your way up, you wind your way down; up hurts because it’s an uphill climb, but down hurts too. Surprise! Gravity is actually not your best friend, since you will be using different muscles to brace yourself going down with a heavy pack on your back, and going down will kind of turn evil.4 Down will be the new Up. And still, you will go up. You will go down. It will seems endless and pointless.

This is kind of a metaphor for, like, life man, but it’s pretty true. Sometimes life is just a big series of PUDS. Just stand there, maybe throw a rock in disgust,5 and then pick one leg up and keep going. You don’t really have a choice, so don’t let it get you down. It turned out that having some time to put one foot in front of the other for a while was, in a way, refreshing. Hiking lets you have a good mix of time to spend thinking about things and hashing them out, and also just walking, exerting a lot of your power to simply propelling yourself forward, rather than obsessing about that Rubik’s Cube life problem you can’t quite seem to fix. You think, you meditate, you put one foot down in front of the other, you keep going until dinner time, and then you collapse. When it comes to problem solving, sometimes simply taking a walk for a few days can help.

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So now you’ve got some good tips under your belt. To plan your trip’s course, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has a great find-a-hike tool. The great thing about Richmond is that you aren’t that far from this wonderful trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia, and the difference in scenery is still stunning in comparison to the immediate Richmond area. If you’re looking for day-hikes, there are other options besides the AT near Richmond, too. AllTrails offers some great suggestions, such as the James River Park, or Pocahontas State Park, if you’re willing to go a little further out to Chesterfield.

Finally, a sage piece of wisdom: wear bug-spray. Seriously.

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  1. Read: I hiked the Appalachian Trail for three measly days. 
  2. Just kidding. I am a mere mortal. 
  3. Yes, you can buy $50 ponchos that fit over you and your pack, but we opted for the $2 option of buying a person-poncho and a pack-poncho, and when it rained, it worked just fine, even if my poncho didn’t actually need arm holes. My brother tried a slicker-set of raincoat/rainpants, and they had a hole in them within an hour. 
  4. This is also a good time to mention again that your shoes should fit snugly, because otherwise going down you will be sliding in those shoes and your toes will hurt. 
  5. Or, if you’re like me, several. 

Photo by: Chiot’s Run

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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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