So you’ve watched Wild, A Walk in the Woods, and The Way, and you’re ready to go on your first overnight backpacking trip. Congratulations! It’s gorgeous out there. You’ve done your research on gear, clothes, food, and how to get a good night’s sleep. Now there’s only one question left—where do you want to go?
Choosing the right trail for your first overnight can be daunting. My first trip was under-planned, overpacked, and I collapsed in a nap at the end with feet covered in blisters. The good news is, you can have a badass backcountry experience without nearly destroying your body like I did.
Here’s how to pick a super-cool, super-doable first backpacking trip.
Think about the three most important factors: distance, elevation, terrain.
Before choosing your trip, there are three main things that can help you determine if the hike is a good fit for beginners: distance (how many miles the trip is); accumulated elevation gain (how much uphill climbing you’ll be facing); and terrain (is it a smooth, well-established path, or is the trail unmarked and difficult to follow?).
Someone who doesn’t hike regularly will have the best experience if they keep distance and elevation modest. “As a general rule, try to keep each day you're hiking under 7 miles with 300 to 400 feet of elevation gain and loss,” says Mikaela Ray, Sedona program director for Wildland Trekking Company. To put that in perspective, 300 to 400 feet of elevation is like climbing about 25 to 35 flights of stairs (although not necessarily all at once). And those estimates are for well-marked, well-maintained trails, exactly the kind beginners should be looking for—leave route-finding and overgrown trails for when you’ve gained more experience.
Katie Broadhurst, adventure specialist at Wild Women Expeditions, thinks folks who work out regularly can be more ambitious with their elevation, taking on about 650 to 1,000 feet. It would be more strenuous, but active people will likely be able to manage it.
Then, figure out about how long your route will take.
Understanding the distance, elevation, and terrain of your hike is essential when you’re trying to figure out how long it will take you. Plan to hike for six hours or less, Broadhurst says. “That's a long day for most people,” she adds, which is why you should also buffer an extra two hours in case something slows you down.
Once you’ve got a solid estimate for how long you think your hike will take, make sure to leave a detailed itinerary of your trip with someone at home and/or a park ranger.
Although there are incredible hikes all over the world, you’ll likely be happier if you stick with something familiar. An east coast tree-loving humidity-adapted hiker has way more to adjust to if they set out on a desert hike, for example, which puts more stress on the body. “Pick somewhere close to the environment that you live in,” says Ray, and your body will thank you for it.
Consider what backcountry necessities and amenities are most important.
There are some wilderness resources that are non-negotiable, like water. You need to either have access to potable water (not common in the backcountry), carry enough water for your trip (which gets heavy), or carry a filtration device (REI has some good advice on how to shop for one) and know you’ll be camped near accessible water.
Being relatively close to help in the event that your trip goes sour is useful, too. “How far away are you from ranger stations? Are you bringing a Garmin or emergency device with you? How close are you to a clinic? Those things are important to know as you head into the backcountry,” says Ray. So maybe don’t drive 20 miles down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere for your first trip.
There are other things that are good to know about ahead of time: a lean-to (a three-sided shelter some backcountry campsites have) may be helpful if weather conditions change and you need extra shelter; bear locker or bear hangs make it easier to safely store your food; established campsites can help prevent you from impacting fragile ecosystems. You can generally find all of this info and more online.
Then there are preferences, like having a fire ring, picnic table, or bathroom. “The first daunting thing for most backcountry trips for people is ‘where do you go to the bathroom?’” Ray says.
Even though you may not be able to find a hike that ticks every single one of your boxes, “for a first-time backpacker in the backcountry, you should look for the most amenities possible,” Ray explains. And then once you have some experience under your belt, as Broadhurst says, “Eventually you just have to kind of go for it.” Be safe, be smart, but be willing to push yourself a little.
Here are a few great beginner backpacking trips with these expert recommendations in mind.
Shi Shi Beach, Washington
At only 8 miles round trip and 200 feet of elevation gain, Shi Shi Beach won't leave your glutes burning for days after your hike. It will, however, give you some of the most sought-after views on the Washington coast. You’ll need to get the required permits, but there are backcountry toilets and fire rings to look forward to. You’ll need to rent or buy a bear can and bring your own water or filtration system.
Clatsop Loop Hike, Oregon
Want to skip a tent? This 3-mile loop with a 700 foot elevation gain wanders through lush Oregon forest and ends at three cabins with bunk-style beds. There are toilets and a fire ring, too, though you’ll need to pack in your own firewood.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
With 20 different campsite options spaced out between 2-5 miles, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior is great for novices. You’ll need to choose your campsite in advance, and the backcountry sites don’t have potable water or bathrooms, but there are plentiful water sources for purification. Bear lockers are provided to store your food.
Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona
Get the best of desert hiking at Aravaipa Canyon in Arizona, which wanders through the cool waters of Aravaipa Creek (yes, your feet will get wet) . You’ll find flat, sandy spots for a tent just a couple of miles in and on throughout the canyon. Permits are required, and there aren’t any toilets, designated campsites, or fires allowed, but you’ll never be wanting for water to filter.
But remember: You don’t have to do it by yourself
Totally overwhelmed? There’s zero shame in taking a guided backpacking trip, like the ones Broadhurst and Ray work for, or reaching out to a more experienced friend to help you get out on an overnight for the first time. Also look for local hiking MeetUps or Facebook groups who take on new backpackers or can recommend good trails for beginners.
Good luck, and happy trails.