1) Take a course: The Sierra Club holds them every spring around the Bay Area, for instance. (Alas, this year’s Loma Prieta Section course is already under way).
2) Rent gear the first couple times: A quality backpacking kit can set you back anywhere from $400 to $2,000. Quality gear tends to last years, so you can be stuck with something for a very long time.
3) Corollary to renting: Shop on E-Bay or Craigslist for second-hand gear. Lots of people lose interest after the third or fourth time out, and many are willing to part with their stuff at significant discounts just to get it out of the house (where it’s a constant reminder that they need to get out more).
4) Be very picky about your pack: Even if you’re renting, try several out with at least a 30-pound load to get one that feels natural on your back. Walk around the store for an hour, climb some steps if they have them. A poor-fitting pack can make your life miserable.
6) You don’t really need a stove. Prepared food can suffice the first few times (this is less applicable to those who can’t get moving without coffee).
5) Make sure you know why you’re doing it. Backpacking adds a considerable layer of complexity and difficulty to a hike. It’s difficult to sleep on the ground, particularly if you’ve never done it before. Trying to snooze with all the noises in the woods can be nerve-wracking — and sleep-depriving — the first few times. You have to decide if you’re a hiker or a camper — if the main point is racking up the miles, go with the lightest, most basic kit you can stand; if your main idea is a getting a good night’s sleep and waking up with the birds in the outdoors, take on more weight but walk fewer miles.
6) Start heavy and get light: This is the only way to appreciate the ultra-lighting movement. Steve Sergeant hikes with a kit that weighs 12 pounds fully loaded and fits in an average sized daypack, but it requires all his knowledge gained in three decades in the outdoors to know how to use it, and he goes out all year, in all weather, to stay in practice. This kit is not for everybody (myself included — I just don’t have the self-discipline).
These are just a few things that spring to mind. There are tons of books, discussion boards and blogs (especially in the UK) devoted to backpacking. All of them are useful, though they are heavily biased in favor of backpacking.
There’s no shame in day hiking — when time is at a premium you have to ask yourself if you really want to devote whole days or weeks to hiking and camping, and to pony up the cash in gear and gas to do it, and to be away from loved ones, sleeping on dirt, cooking on tiny one-burner stoves, and so forth. It’s hard, but that’s often reason enough to try something new and stick with it till it gets easy.
(And never forget it involves going places where there are no toilets.)
A few choice links from the archives:
- Learning to be light part 1: the class. Summarizing Steve Sergeant’s lightweight backpacking course.
- Learning to be light Part 2: the outing. An overnighter at Henry W. Coe State Park with Steve’s class.
- Finding gear on the Web.
- Where I buy gear.