How to Prepare for an Overnight Backpacking Trip
Overnight backpacking trips are both exciting and hard work. When you’re spending the night out, the mental freedom, the knowledge that a fun trip will last even longer, might cause you to overlook necessary preparations. Let’s take a look at some basics of how to prep for your first overnight backpacking trip.
Do a one-day trek with two-day gear
Mental and physical preparation are key to enjoying the trip. If your normal hike lasts a day, prepare for the overnight, two-day hiking trip by adding some challenges to your one-day trip.
Often you will read that the maximum hiking backpack weight is 20% of your body weight. However, factors like conditioning and weight-to-height ratio (Body Mass Index) vary enough per person that this is not always strictly true. Anthony Thomas studied multiple long-term hikers to see what the real factors were when it came to successfully completing a trail. The hikers were of all ages and sizes, both men and women.
First, Thomas discovered that a backpack’s maximum weight capacity is a crucial factor. Double-check your backpack to see that the liter-capacity, or maximum weight capacity, is what you need for a two-day trek. If you overload your bag, not only will it strain the bag’s material, the bag itself will not be able to balance the weight.
Second, he discovered that the backpack weight of those who successfully completed the trail were generally lighter than the packs of those who did not. Their average backpack weight was about 28 lbs.--the average percentage of body weight was 18%. Experienced backpackers realized that the heavier their packs, the less miles they would cover in a day. You can use either the 28 lb. or the 18% mark when packing your bag.
Take one of your normal day hikes with the amount of gear you will bring on your overnight trip. In fact, the rest of the tips have one thing in common: managing the added weight.
Pick a well-established trail
For your first overnight backpacking trip, pick a well-established trail. At least for now, your goal is both the fun of an extended backpacking trip, and overnight backpacking experience. A good place to start is a park with a clearly marked trail and campsite. This makes it easier for you to research the trail, what’s needed for different seasons or parts of the trail, and read reviews of other hikers on the trail itself. Run through maps, pay attention to any places that have zero to little signal, and note areas that can boost your supplies if need be.
Prepare the right kind of gear and clothing
Even in the summer, the temperature you face at night can be very different from what you experience in the morning to afternoon. Pack in layers. Start with a base layer that is light and cool enough for the late morning and early afternoon heat. Long pants and a moisture-wicking top will both protect you from scratches and keep you comfortable. If you must bring a jacket, wear a light anorak or windbreaker.
For sleeping, prioritize keeping the inside of your sleeping bag clean and dry. Even one night with dirt or damp in your sleeping bag can be miserable. Wear long tights and pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and long socks. If you easily get cold, you can spread your windbreaker over the sleeping bag, inside layer down. The added weight constricts the space and helps your body warm it up.
For an overnight trip, a pair of high-cut hiking boots will protect your feet and ankles from undue strain. Since you don’t expect to be very near civilization or an easy-reach hospital for an entire two days, ensuring you can keep your balance and keep your ankles from twisting is an advantage.
Your tent will be part of what you carry, so choose one of light materials that can be easily folded. There are many great options for backpacking tents, with hammock tents being some of the best. If it’s big enough for two and you have a traveling companion, the tent is likely to be heavier. You might want to share part of your pack with your companion so whoever is holding the tent won’t be overloaded.
Finally, make sure you have tested or trialed any unfamiliar or new gear before your head out. You don't want to risk ending up in a scenario where you have assumed you know how something works only to end up in the middle of the woods with darkness fast approaching only to realise the gear doesn't work like you imaging and you're miles from home!
Pack double the food
It may seem like common sense, but additional food is additional weight, not to mention the burner (if you don’t already carry that on your day hikes). And just because you’re in the back country doesn’t mean you can’t eat well! There are a number of delicious recipes available to choose from.
Trail food. You can bring double your usual trail mix, or change it up for the next day if you think you might get bored. To avoid overeating or undereating what you bring, you can pack your snacks in 2 to 4 ziplock bags. It also makes them easier to distribute throughout your pack if you need to.
Meals. Two lunches, one dinner, and one breakfast should be enough. It is still two more meals than you normally carry, so pack them in order of when you are planning to eat. They should be within reach, near the top of your backpack.
Water. Double what you carry. If you normally have 2 to 3 liters, bring 4 to 5. Multiple bottles will help you distribute the weight, and they will get lighter over time.
Prepare for overnight hygiene
As you will be spending the night outside, usually without anywhere to shower, plan well for it. You might want to add to your wet wipes, because they can take the place of a shower or bath. Toilets are also in short supply, so research the park’s rules and bring what you need to either dig or carry any waste. A toothbrush and toothpaste can also keep you feeling fresh at night, as long as you stay away from water sources.
Bring soap even if you have a hand sanitizer. The dirt that gets on your hands can easily be dealt with by a bit of soap and a little water. A small towel will also do wonders--you can wet it and use it to wipe yourself down, or take a small shower and dry yourself off. Walk through your day in your head and figure out what you will need, especially in the evening before bed.
Enjoy the trip!
It’s your first overnight backpacking trip--prepare to enjoy it! You might decide never to settle for a day-hike again, or realize that day-hikes are the perfect length for you, but either way, be ready to enjoy and appreciate the experience.