- Pull up Google Maps and find the closest patch of green area. Ideally a public area managed by city/state/national resources, or the equivalent in your country. Research that area to find trails. Often simply googling the area + “trails” will provide results. Then buy/print maps for that area. http://caltopo.com/ and http://www.hillmap.com/ are 2 great online resources for free maps. They help with planning and on-trail route finding. You can also look for National Geographic maps (for the USA) or use Google Maps/Earth tracing functionality.
- If convenient – drive to these trails and check things out in person. You don’t even have to hike the first few times. Just get comfortable with locating a trail / trailhead. Park and look around the start area. There are normally signs or registration boxes. Walk a few minutes down the trail and see what it’s like. This will all give you information for when you are ready to take your first real day hike. It’s never a bad idea to find the local ranger or land manager. Stop in for a chat and see what local advice they have. Every area is unique and you must obey local regulations (food storage, permits, closures, etc.).
- These first day hikes should start out easy. Pick something that’s only a few miles/kilometers long and see how difficult it is for you. Everyone hikes at different speeds and prefers different terrain. Hiking to a mountain top is the classic adventure, but down into valleys or towards waterfalls can be rewarding too. Remember that elevation gain is equally important to distance. 1000 ft of elevation gain will typically add 1 hour to a hike. The average hiking speed is 2 miles per hour, depending on conditions / terrain / fitness. Start looking for potential overnight camping spots as you do these hikes.
- Out-and-back is the popular type of hike. This is where you start at the trailhead, where you park your vehicle, and hike to a certain location – then turn around and hike the same path back. This is ideal for beginners because you know what to expect on the 2nd half of the hike. It also allows you to turn around at any point to shorten the trip. Loop (start and end at the same place but never re-hiking the same section) and Thru/Section (start and end at different places) are other popular types of hikes.
- Build up the miles / elevation of these day hikes. Explore more tails and learn the skills of hiking. Many day hiking skills transfer to overnight backpacking. Understanding how much water to carry, what footwear to use, time management, what gear is required in different conditions, weather forecasting, navigation, and others are critical to successful backpacking and day trips alike. This will build your confidence and prepare you for the upcoming overnight adventures.
- Do all of these things in a variety of conditions and seasons. Get comfortable hiking in the rain, you won’t be able to avoid it forever. Hike in warm and cold temperatures to find what you prefer. The trail may be icy or muddy certain times of the year and it’s best to find this out on a short day hike compared to a longer overnight + full pack.
- Camping next to your vehicle is relatively safe and easy. You can bring ‘large’ things from home including a cooler, comforter, chairs, and beer! This limits the initial investment because things you already own can be re-used for camping. This will begin to teach you skills important for backcountry travel. Things like fire building, cooking with limited resources, water management, sleeping on the ground, setting up a tent/tarp, etc. If any of these things fail (tent falls over, sleeping bag gets wet, dinner is burned, animals eat your food, etc.) – your car is right there and you can simply drive home.
- Combine this with day hikes for more of a ‘full weekend’ experience. It will be very similar to backpacking, just with added comfort/protection.
- Once you’ve become familiar with an area, try an overnight trip. Ideally on a trail you’ve already day hiked. If you keep it short (1 mile for example) – you can get away with heavy or extra equipment. This again limits the initial investment required to start backpacking. If things go badly – you are close enough to the vehicle / trailhead to simply go home. Setting yourself up for success is key. Always have backup plans for backup plans. It’s often harder than expected the first few trips.
- Start practicing skills like water purification and fire making. Understand how to read a map (or trip reports) for finding a campsite and water. This is the time to use the skills you’ve been reading about, getting proficient where you feel comfortable relying on them
Long overnights will get you comfortable with spending real time outdoors.
- Ideally you will pick another trail you’ve already day hiked. Step it up in miles / elevation and get farther from the trailhead.
- This is still only 1 night, so there is safety built in. If you get cold or wet, you don’t have to spend a second night outdoors. If you are hungry – the end of the trip is not too far away.
- Start to take notes on what equipment you used or didn’t use. What can be dropped? What should be added? What should be upgraded? What items are your favorite? All this will help you optimize your kit, making trips more successful and enjoyable.
- Take this extra time on the trail and camp to continue practicing skills. Become an expert at cooking on your stove. Hang a bear bag with little effort. Pack your bag quickly.
- After trip work is also important to note here. When you get home you should be taking care of your equipment. Unpack your bag/car and make sure things are dry. Putting away wet gear can easily ruin it. Come up with a routine that extends the life of your gear, if you plan to backpack a long time this is critical. It’s also nice to have clean and prepared gear when you begin to pack for your next adventure. This makes it more likely you’ll go on that next impromptu trip.