Best backpacking guide... book, website, whatever!
February 7, 2014 5:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to start backpacking/rough camping this year, and I've had a hard time picking a guide. Can you recommend a book (preferred) or a website for this sort of thing? I've done some not-so-rough campground camping before, but it was alway drive-in camping. We'd love to start off with over nighters and work our way up from there. We don't know what type of pack/tent/gear to get at all. Bonus: guides for the tri-state (Philadelphia-New Jersey-Delaware) area camping/packing would be nice, too. Thanks!
posted by ancient star to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Backpacker magazine and Outside will have tips on gear and getting started as well as book recommendations.
I grew up in PA. and hike the AT a lot as a kid and have fond memories of it. I live in Wa. now and still camp and hike all the time.
get going!
posted by OHenryPacey at 5:26 PM on February 7, 2014

Gather up books by Bradford Angier - Amazon has a whole bunch of them and they're the best source of information you're looking for. Every aspect of backpacking or camping in the wilderness is covered, from what to take in your backpack (and what to skip) to finding/constructing shelter, edible wild plants and berries, building a fire with nothing but wet wood, first aid, gauging the likelihood of rain or sun without an electronic forecast, how to know what water is safe to drink and how to make all water safe to drink, wildlife and wildlife photography, and fixing delicious meals from a backpack.

He gave me the courage to hike the West Elk Wilderness with my daughter (20+ miles over very high mountains) in Colorado, to try things I'd never have tried, to accomplish enough that I'd never fear being stranded in the wilderness again - and I was a single woman. He won't let you down.

Have a blast.
posted by aryma at 6:20 PM on February 7, 2014

Colin Fletcher is good.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:15 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, Fletcher.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:32 PM on February 7, 2014

Also, if there is an REI near you, they offer free classes on this sort of thing. The folks who work there are usually major enthusiasts, and can also offer some good advice.
posted by dbmcd at 8:33 AM on February 8, 2014

I love the community boards over at And the folks at are also welcoming and helpful for beginners.
posted by grinagog at 10:44 AM on February 8, 2014 have an incredible amount of hiking and backpacking resources, many of which come from guidebooks.

This may have just been me, but they were automatically charging me annually and not telling me for several years when I hadn't logged on to the site. It's $50 per year. They refunded this year when I finally noticed. It's my fault for missing that transaction, but they should notify you before and after charging your card.

So, good resource, but keep an eye on the auto renewal.
posted by cnc at 10:47 AM on February 8, 2014

Best answer: You're in a really good place to start learning to backpack. There are a number of overnight stretches on the Appalachian Trail and Batona Trail [PDF] with easy car shuttles. The Batona's nice because it is flat as a pancake - great for getting started with longer days of walking.

Backpacker Magazine is an essential source. THeir Backpacker 101 would be a good place to start. Many hiking trails in this region have 3-sided lean-to shelters that you can sleep in (first come first serve), so you may not actually set up your tent every night, but you will want one - if for no other reason, because mosquitos. But it also affords a little privacy.

Food is something you'll encounter endless opinions on. Short version, if you're at the stage of doing 1- or 2-night trips you do not need to purchase any special dehydrated mountain food, which is expensive and frankly not great. My favorite hiking lunch was a stick of salami, a bar of cheese, crackers, an apple, and a knife. Lunches for 2 days for 2 people come out of that. For supper, plenty of things like dry soup mix, noodles/pasta, mashed potatoes, etc from the regular store work fine. I generally don't like to mess around with cold packs so I just bring things that don't need to be refrigerated. You can pre-prep fresh veggies and put them in Ziplocs - they will last fine for a night or 2.

And you'll also find tens of thousands of weight-reducing hacks for backpacking, like cutting of the handle of your toothbrush or parceling spices out into washed-out perfume vials. My opinion is I have no time for that. Again, if you're out for anything under 4 days, you don't need to get crazy. You don't want to overpack your pack because you have to haul every ounce, but you're not going to need gear for every eventuality, so you have the room.

General advice: You will probably want a tent, and since this is the second heaviest thing in your gear (after food and cookware), it is worth spending money on.

I have the highest possible praise for CampMor, and guess what, they're in NJ. But they also have a robust mail order business. REI can be good to, and both REI and EMS have occasional classes about gear and things as mentioned above.

Another fantastic way to get started is by going on trips arranged by the Appalachian Mountain Club, which has an active chapter in your area. It's cheap to join, and there are scores of trips annually, everything from dayhikes to 3-day overnights, cycle trips, and more.
posted by Miko at 11:21 AM on February 8, 2014

Best answer: Disclaimer. Ambien posting. City lights not agreeing with me after a while going to bed with the sun.

Not a book, but your post has been up for a day or so, I've just come off a long trail in the midst of a hot Australian summer with surprisingly cold nights, so I'll throw in some of what I've picked up over the years. It'll no doubt be duplicated in the sources mentioned above, but I have the general sense that the basics are stuff you learn from talking to others and experience, not books, so I'll dump it on you anyway.

What you need - as little as possible. You've mentioned that you plan to start out with day hikes and shorter overnighters. That's a great opportunity to pack what you think you might need for either a short hike (or a longer one just to test it out) and then realise that it's all too heavy and bulky, and learn what you need to start throwing. Pack what you think you need, then throw half of it away, as the old adage goes. And make sure everything in your pack (including your pack) has at least two uses.

One of the key ways to do that is to look at the weight of your major and essential items. Pack, shelter, sleeping gear, cooking equipment, footwear, clothing, food.

50 litre packs can run you from 6-800 grams (Golite for instance) through to four kg (lots of other brands with bells and whistles and straps and zips etc). Lightweight and slightly smaller packs are only going to be suitable for lighter and less bulky equipment, but that's what your aiming for, so it's something worth bearing in mind as a serious option. Anything that knocks 3kgs off your base weight in one go is a boon. Use your pack as a pillow or footrest at night.

Shelter. Consider going down the ultralight route of a tarp or a (Sea to Summit silinylon) poncho tarp, a lightweight groundsheet, and if the weather's gong to be really bad a supplementary bivy bag. Total weight is likely to come it at under a kilo versus 2 kgs or so for most small light two person tents. The downside is that you want to be know how to set up and lock down your poncho tarp really fast in crappy weather. And that means having a few skills such as knowing how to hang the tarp, make pegs, and learning some sliding and locking knots to batten it down. Then practising. If bugs are a problem carry a minimalist noseeum bug net. They're getting down to ridiculously small weights and volumes these days. Some folk just use a head net to cover the bit that sticks out of their sleeping bag. Poncho tarps are my choice because of the multiple use angle (wet weather clothing, shelter, pack cover, wrapping for things that need to stay dry when it's raining but too hot to wear them, emergency signalling sheet). Mines survived a cyclone (over a ditch) and any number of major south coast storms.

Bag. High quality down (800+ loft). Very expensive, but light and compactable. A two/three season bag can come in at 5-700 grams compared to as much as 2kg or more for equivalent warmth from a decent quality synthetic bag. I use an old Marmot bag down to 0 degrees C, but I've been casting my eye over Western Mountaineering bags recently. Unless you're looking at extreme ranges of nighttime temps (and might need to both zip it right up and open it out to a quilt, don't go for the full zip - a quarter or a third length zip will let you in and out, and let you pull the thing down to your waist if it gets too hot. Carry a silk bag sheet, and the bag will last longer (frequent washing will ultimately kill the down). The only situation when you really want a synthetic bag is in perpetually wet or damp conditions when you expect to wash it frequently and/or throw it out after a long walk. They're cheap. Second uses of the bag are as padding within your pack, and a pillow on hot nights when you're only using your sleeping bag sheet.

Ground sheet and mat. Rectangular piece of Tyvek and cheap foam pad cut to your body size and length . Unless it's really cold, they'll do for keeping you dry and insulated, and you learn to sleep comfortably without an inflatable mat. You'll knock about 600g off the lightest Thermarest. Again the tyvek sheet serves for emergency signally and the mat for pack padding. Bubble wrap is an urban myth.

Cooking equipment. For shorter walks your lightest (and close to smallest) choice is a home-made pressurised coke can stove and a small bottle of alcohol. But there's little to no heat control, and increasingly you'll find other hikers getting pissy at you with regard to fire risk (or at least that's the deal here). So ultralight gas stoves and very small gas cannisters (Kovea and Jetboil respectively) are a better option, have variable temp control, and with serious caution about how much gas you're using (500ml brought to the boil once a day) you'll get a week out of the smallest (100g) jetboil cannisters. That limits you to rehydrating food that just needs to be dumped into boiling water, covered and left to stand (instant potato, flavored couscous, noodles, freeze dried meat and veg), but it works. I find a covered aluminium or titanium cup is not quite big enough, so I use a cut down military dilly tin with the handles ripped off. Use the dilly tin as a pot, bowl, cup and washing receptacle. Serve second dishes of food on the cut down lid. It sees further use as a small animal proof overnight food storage container. I don't have to rumage around in my tucker bag hanging from a tree in the morning dark to find my muesli and powdered milk mix because I've packed it in the tin the night before. Use lexan or other high tech plastic cutlery (spork with a spreading knife on the handle if you can get one). Carry a tiny lightweight office box cutter for slicing the odd luxury stick of salami or piece of cheese, for opening tough packets and for emergency home surgery (most often just carving callouses off your feet). Use a kitchen wipe as both your pot grabber and dish cloth (and keep it clean, it's also an emergency supplementary wound dressing. But put antiseptic and something clean under it. You don't need major infections in the middle of nowhere. If you're going for all the lightest possible options there, you're knocking several kilos off an MSR multifuel stove, aluminium fuel bottle, fuel, multiple pots and pans, metal cutlery, a plate set, a cup, and some kind of serious "I'm a woodsman" knife. If you need to knock something over, apart, or shape a piece of wood, that's what your hands and rocks are for.

Footwear. Except in soaking or freezing weather, sneakers. Truly waterproof boots don't exist, weight on your feet really really matters, and sneakers dry faster. And if your local camping store(s) don't or won't provide weights for what they sell, take your own pair of scales in. Hiking shoes vary enormously in weight. Don't carry hut booties or sandals (Tevas are heavy), just rest your feet for a while after walking then slip the shoes back on without socks if you need to go the toilet or something. Or if it's safe, just don't wear them around camp.

An important warning about shoes. If you've got strong ankles (you walk or jog regularly), sneakers are usually going to be fine for a total pack weight up to about 15 kilos. If your ankles are weak, wear boots. But the more weight on your feet, the more energy used, the more weight in your pack. Vicious circle. However, the big rider is that it's rarely wise to simple buy the lightest pair of sneakers you can. Get something that doesn't pinch, doesn't compress callouses into soft bits of your feet, doesn't rub, fits in the afternoon, feels comfortable with your pack on, and has appropriate structure and grip for the terrain and speed you'll be walking. Shoes that don't suit your feet wreck a trip.

(F..k you Merrell. Though I do have a couple of quite nice sticks I've just carried for 600kms as compensation.)

Food. The only thing I regularly carry that isn't dry is peanut butter. That's a matter of carbs, protein and fat that I can get in any small town shop and most roadside service stations. Muesli and dried milk for breakfast; wholewheat crackers (if available otherwise whatever I can get to spread peanut butter on) and peanut butter for lunch; Ded potato, instant couscous, noodles/pasta and freeze dried meat/vege for dinner. Trail mix in between if I'm on a short section and willing to carry the weight. Salami or cheese as a luxury. Anything by the way of fresh meat or fruit and veg that I can pick up along the way. But at the end of the day, you have time and capacity for fancy food in towns or when you get home and a monotonous diet isn't going to kill you over the space of a few months.

Water is part of the food equation. There are places and times when you'll have decent supplies of water for cooking dehydrated food and drinking, there are circumstances when you won't. Check your maps carefully, get onto forums for the trails you plan to walk, know which is which in advance and modify the food and fuel you carry to suit. But always carry a water treatment product other than your stove. At a pinch you can use the betadine from your medical kit, but it's not the best option and dosage can be a bit dicey. Research its effectiveness a little on the internet.

Finally it's a calculated risk, but I don't usually carry food for the last day as I enter a town. I'm likely to hit it as the shops open in the morning, and unless you're emaciated to start with, you've got the reserves to walk that last 20-40km before breakfast. Then overeat in towns. That knocks off lunch and dinner for your first day out. Again a couple kilos off each section.

Other stuff:
Navigation - Learn to do it with a map and compass. Even if you carry a GPS, learn to do it old style. Batteries fail, routes change, maps offer you a big picture sense of what's around you. That can be really important if you need to exit quickly.
Medical- very dependent on your needs and skill. Minimum for me is antiseptic, blister and wound dressings, snake bite (doubling as general purpose) bandages, scissors, tweezers, needle and thread, basic medications.
Electronic- Watch. How fast you're moving can be a crucial navigational tool. Lightweight camera (not out there to take award winning photos, just grab a few memories). Decent head torch (quantum leap up in quality and down in price and weight in the last few years). Phone (it almost inevitably won't work anyway but when it does it's nice to walk up a hill and call friends - "I'm on a hill! Everything is burnt to a cinder!"). But there a sense in which you don't need any of it. Remember stuff, go to bed with the sun or enjoy the stars. Settle into it just being you and nature and let the boundaries between you and the real world break down a little. Staying in touch with home messes with that a bit.

And I guess that's about it. Worth doing an internet search on ultralight or lightweight backbacking.
posted by Ahab at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You're going to see lots of advice about lightweight packing. My advice is to start out with gear that is cheap and tough, and plan to buy nicer equipment if you stick with it. The advantages of lightweight will become apparent soon enough, but it is expensive, delicate, and easy to misuse. Make your early mistakes with the cheap stuff, then replace things one by one.

One exception: the basic JetBoil is so much less stressful than other stoves, just start with one of those and design your breakfasts and dinners around it. Ignore the accessories, but the basic stove / pot combo with a small fuel canister is the right thing for almost everybody.

Ask people in your area to send you their packing list. Different people care about different comforts, I've learned new tricks from pretty much everybody I've backpacked with.
posted by nixt at 1:45 PM on February 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: This has been very fruitful! Since we are under 30 the Appalachian Mountain Club is very reasonable and looks like a good idea. Thanks for all the excellent gear advice, too. You've made starting this much easier. We'll start with day hiking (probably with AMC) and see from there!

Thanks again!
posted by ancient star at 11:25 AM on February 9, 2014

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