First time EVER camping/backpacking

8:16 p.m. on May 8, 2017 (EDT)
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Hello sorry for the long post,

So within two weeks, I plan on embarking on a trip out West to visit friends.  Along the way, I plan on stopping at the Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches National Park, Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite.  I have never before been camping/backpacking and plan on staying one/two nights at each of the above Parks.  I am simply asking for advice as I try to finish planning this trip. 

What gear to bring? What food? What is not necessary that a beginner may think is? What do I do when I get to the Parks? How do I know if I am at a location where disperse camping is allowed? Which day hikes would you recommend? What apps are good for this stuff? etc.

I am also nervous about backpacking/camping where there are bears (Rocky Mountains, Yosemite)... what is recommended I do to avoid or survive?

I have been planning this trip for over two months now so I have a general idea of what I am doing but I do not have experience.  I have used, and to help plan the trip.  

I also have a 40L backpack and some kitchen/cooking stuff.  I am looking for tent (2-3 people for future adventures), sleeping pad, and anything else I might need.

Any advice is good advice!


8:31 p.m. on May 8, 2017 (EDT)
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About the only thing you need is a good book. Being that it's your first trip and all, I recommend Abbey's 'Desert Solitaire'.

You'll get an idea about where to go from there.

11:04 p.m. on May 8, 2017 (EDT)
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Bear Country: Don't cook where you sleep, don't eat or keep food in your tent. Use a bear bag or bear proof canister to store food.  Your "kitchen" should be 200 ft or more from the tent. Carry bear spray and familiarize yourself with its use.  If you're going to be in a national park, stop in at the ranger station and they can give you the most updated information about wildlife activity.

11:23 p.m. on May 8, 2017 (EDT)
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11:23 p.m. on May 8, 2017 (EDT)
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3:51 a.m. on May 9, 2017 (EDT)
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First, if you are really looking for free dispersed camping, go to the national forests -- these parks are all heavily visited and controlled, for better and worse. Without some kind of control, some areas would be overrun. The NPS really is trying to keep them from being loved to death, even if not everyone agrees with how they go about it.

All the national parks have web pages where you can find tons of info and simple maps that you can use to plan day hikes and backpacking trips.

You will have to get permits for any backcountry camping in at least Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Zion, and probably the other two as well. The visitor centers have a backcountry desk where you can ask and apply, or you can apply ahed via the web sites. I think they all still reserve slots for walk-ins, and if it's just you you should be able to get something, but these are extremely popular parks so you might not be able to get on some of the classic routes (i.e. Bright Angel and Kaibab trails in GC, Little Yosemite/Half Dome in Yosemite, West Rim or Narrows in Zion). 

If you are as inexperienced as you say, and especially if you are going alone, you should keep your plans modest. For one thing, the Grand Canyon at least can already be pretty hot in May, and there's a ton of snow in the Sierra this year. Assuming you are driving, you could just stay in the frontcountry campgrounds and do some day hikes. If you haven't already, you might try a 1-2 night trip somewhere near where you live to try out your equipment.

Post your basic gear list for last-minute advice from us here on Trailspace. I sure hope you already have some kind of stove -- campfires are pretty much banned in all these places (except using purchased wood in frontcountry campgrounds). You might also look for trip reports here on TS and elsewhere for ideas and info -- I know I've posted a few.

Look into getting a national parks annual pass, could save you some money given the number you are planning to visit, especially if you stop by a few more along the way.

You're on the right track by planning ahead and asking questions ahead of time. A lot of us old f**rts remember when you could just show up in a NP and get away with stealth camping or whatever, but things have changed. You are going to some incredibly beautiful places, and with some smarts you can avoid some of the worst crowds and have a really good time.

8:57 a.m. on May 9, 2017 (EDT)
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I also use aLOKSAKs for storing dry food items~oatmeal, coffee, etc~they work great.  They don't allow odors to escape like a tradional ziplock baggy.  There's a large variety of sizes to choose from.  

I've experimented with these in Texas, no bears, but there are other creatures that like to get at your food like raccoons, possums.  I've put food items in there and left them out in the backyard, overnight, and they were untouched.  Not very scientific but if a raccoon won't mess with it, I would say it's pretty effective at blocking odors.

9:38 a.m. on May 9, 2017 (EDT)
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There was a first time for all of us, and, I, for one,was pretty clueless on my first outdoors experience.  i would recommend day hikes only, carrying emergency gear in case you are delayed and at least minimal first aid items.  Well broken in, comfortable, non-blistering versatile shoes/boots re absolutely critical.

The parks on your itinerary are hugely popular, for good reason, but one consequence is that finding camping spots will be really tough.  Reserve in advance, if you possibly can.  Definitely check the websites well in advance and pay attention to the local regulations.  The rules often seem chafing and restrictive to seasoned folks (and to some extent they are) but they are designed for the inexperienced, who are present in significant numbers.  Park staff are your friends fundamentally, and they are interested in providing you a good time without harm to you or the park.  I am a NPS retiree, after a 41 year career, so I am definitely biased, but I think you will find this is true.

You are hitting all the popular spots.  Don't make the mistake of thinking that they are all that the western US has to offer.  They are just entrees in a vast menu of gourmet delights.  Have you ever heard of Gila Cliff Dwellings Nat'l Mon, or Canyon de Chelly Nat'l Mon?  They are two of my favorites, among many that lots of people have never heard of...

It will be cold in Rocky Mtn, especially early in the summer, in contrast to Grand Canyon in July, which will be hot, and graced with afternoon thunderstorms.  If someone tells you to pack raingear on a clear, pleasant morning, believe them!  I didn't, in my newbie phase, but that's another story (from Bandalier Nat'l Mon (wherever that is....)

Be sure to check the official websites well in advance and carry plenty of water - it's drier than you think....

9:49 a.m. on May 9, 2017 (EDT)
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True about RMNP, always cold and afternoon thunderstorms are exceptional.  The west fork of the Gila River, west of the cliff dwellings has great fishing for Gila Trout if you are willing to hike in some distance.  

10:10 a.m. on May 9, 2017 (EDT)
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I seriously doubt your 40L pack will be big enough. Backpacking out of a pack that small is possible but requires ultralight gear and paring down to bare essentials, which usually comes with experience. Especially with the need for a bear canister in some of these areas.

In addition, you will be running into a lot of snow in Yosemite, the high country is closed so you will be limited for the most part to the backpacking areas accessible from Yosemite Valley, which is a potential problem because everyone else backpacking there will be facing the same restrictions, forcing a high demand on backcountry permits.

11:27 a.m. on May 9, 2017 (EDT)
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Simple is best.

Think of backpacking as a home on your back.  

Your kitchen.  Food and drink, a way to prepare it and clean up.

Your bedroom.  A sleeping bag, sleeping pad and a shelter.

Your bathroom.  Keeping clean and attending to bodily functions.

Lay all of your gear out on the floor for a few days, look at it and adjust as needed.

Short hikes with your eyes and ears and mind open to your surroundings can be more rewarding than long death-marches to some distant spot that you feel you must reach.

I am envious of your plans, good luck.

8:00 p.m. on May 9, 2017 (EDT)
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Thanks to everyone on for the advice! Greatly appreciate it!! Very excited for this trip!!

3:03 a.m. on May 10, 2017 (EDT)
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IMO you should limit your adventure to car camping and day hiking, especially if none of your traveling companions have any backpacking experience.

Unless you are in excellent shape do not consider backpacking down into Grand Canyon.  The climb back out will slay you.  In fact a day hike round trip to the bottom is beyond the physical capabilities of all except those in top condition.  Ignoring this advice is a fool's errand!

If you don't already have a permit for Yosemite chances are the only permits available will require camping in snow.  Since you are a newbie that is asking for trouble.  Likewise probably the only way you will be able to camp in the Yosemite Valley is if you luck upon a cancelled reservation.

Zion and Arches are good venues for newbies.  I have hiked very extensively in Zion, and believe several day hikes originating from a car camp (hard to secure a car camp sites without a reservation) are a better way to experience the park, versus schlepping a pack around to backcountry camp sites easily accessible by day hike.

6:53 a.m. on May 10, 2017 (EDT)
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I totally understand the urge to get away from the RVs and campfire smoke in the frontcountry campgrounds. If you want to do a 1 or 2 nighter in Zion, permits for Kolob Canyon or the East Rim can be relatively easy to get -- my family, friends and I did 1 nighters in/on both back in 2011. On the East Rim you can make a side trip out to Cable Mountain which has stunning views, then hike down via Echo Canyon into the main canyon with maybe a side trip into Hidden Canyon -- all good, and a great way to introduce yourself to Zion rather than just taking the road in. I suppose even that hike might be a bit much for a total newbie, but if the snow is gone you should be able to stay out of trouble. You might also want a day or two for day hikes -- Angel's Landing, waterfalls, Observation Point. (Did I mention that I totally love Zion Canyon? -- my first national park)

As Ed notes, in Yosemite, it can be pretty well impossible to get campsites in the valley, but some of the outlying campgrounds have room for drive-ins, you just have to show up about 9-ish as other people are checking out. We had no problem getting a campsite at Bridalveil Creek in July 2014.

9:44 a.m. on May 10, 2017 (EDT)
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For inexperienced people coming from the East, the West seems really vast and unsettled.  The population density seems really low. It is reassuring to visit the NPs with lots of people. 

Do not under estimate the weather and the effects of elevation. The dryness will be hard to get used to.  Bring warmer clothes than you think you will need. Carry more water than you think you will need. Go to some trouble to know where you are. There are lots of places with no trails and no signs.

Backpacking should probably wait. I agree that car camping and day hiking is your best bet.  There will be opportunities to car camp in some remote places if you seek them out.

You can try a simple overnight trip as long as it is not too far from your vehicle. You are going to make some mistakes, so don't get in over your head.  You are going to have the time of your life out there.  

In 1969 I drove to California in a 1957 Chevy with my best friend to spend the summer surfing.  I mentioned to him that I still think about that trip often. His response caught me by surprise. "I think about it every day." he said.

6:38 a.m. on May 11, 2017 (EDT)
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Zion is my favorite park, too.  Since you have but a few days I suggest these  activities (below).  Some of the park Trails are very popular, but pretty nevertheless.  

Angels Landing is a must, this coming from a person who has a short bucket list.  The trail eventually levels out at the fork to Angels Landing.  The trail to the top of Angels Landing is not suitable for those with a fear of heights, or those who can be considered clumsy.  Check out Angels Landing, then continue further up the West Rim Trail about 1/3 mile, then XC over the rocks to your right.  An epic overview of The Narrows awaits.  You may have to reconnoiter around to find it but it makes the perfect lunch stop.  It is worth the effort finding.   The colors and photo ops of these two points of interest are better in the late day.  The walk from there up to the rim is a sojourn that brings great peace to the soul.   The vistas are not too bad, either.

The East Rim Trail is a good overnighter, but a bit much for the first time saddle breaking a pack.  It is a great but very long shuttle day hike when taken from the East Entrance, terminating in the canyon bottom at the parking lot near the base of Cable Mountain.  The scenery gets better throughout the length of the hike.  You will find solitude on this trail.  Another fun adventure is wandering around the Checkerboard Mesa formations near the East Entrance.  Some pretty crazy stuff.  

Check with the park office to find out if there are trail closures; a late snow or big snow year will delay opening the rim top trails due to muddy conditions and the damage occurring when hikers travel the areas under such conditions.


8:51 a.m. on May 11, 2017 (EDT)
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ppine speak with straight tongue - good advice!

11:41 a.m. on May 11, 2017 (EDT)
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Something no one has mentioned - State Parks. Many states have a State Park System.

Several people have noted that the National Parks (especially Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, ....) are really hard to get a permit (Yosemite is almost always booked 6 months or more for the backcountry, and that's only because Yosemite does not issue pemits more than 6 months in advance. You can walk up to one of the permit stations at 6AM, stand around until noon, and maybe maybe maybe luck onto a cancellation to get a permit for the next day.

Do not even think about trying Grand Teton NP in mid-August this year - the total eclipse of the Sun is August 21 with the track passing almost directly over Grand Teton itself. The best viewing locations along the track have been booked for months. The track stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic, so even in the middle of the Great Plains is fully booked.

Ed mentioned snow in the Sierra - the snow is rapidly melting and will probably all be gone in another month.

California (and some other states) have extensive park systems. If you arrive at these parks in mid-week, you can frequently get a drive-in campsite, then spend the next week or 2 exploring the day hike trails. Many of these parks also have backcountry campsites. There are a dozen parks like this in the Santa Cruz Mountains. OTOH, getting a campsite Friday through Sunday at this time of year is close to impossible in the California State Park system. Then again, I know a certain State Park in Nevada that you can usually find a drive-in campsite almost anytime and spend a week exploring backcountry trails. I am sure ppine knows which one I mean, but will keep it Secret.

As a final comment here - given that you are, by your own statement, a complete newby, I would suggest you try to link up with some experienced backpackers. Check out REI stores - they run beginner trips and can give good advice (usually... unfortunately some of the clerks are just clerks with no backcountry experience)

11:40 a.m. on June 13, 2017 (EDT)
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You will not catch me camping in brown bear territory without at least a .44 Magnum, LOL. 

The first thing is: Don't get lost. Seriously. Not even barely joking. Don't get lost. If you *do* get lost, don't get lost-er. Make sure someone knows where you are and when to come looking for you when you don't show up where you're supposed to be.

The second thing is: You are going to need is a bear canister. Everything that smells or can be eaten, all personal care products, it all goes in the bear can. EVERYTHING. You can keep a water bottle, bear spray, and if you are too uncomfortable with toilet activities in the middle of the night, keep a pee bottle with you, so you don't have to leave your shelter, or even your sleeping bag, in the dark and cold.

Remember the Rule of Threes:

You can survive three seconds under fire, three minutes without air, three hours without shelter in extreme conditions, three days without water, three weeks without food, and three months without hope. People get all freaked out about finding food, when they should be much more worried about not getting lost and having clean water to drink.

The most important survival items are a knife, a way to make fire, and a light. I always carry a Victorinox Rambler Swiss Army knife (one of the tiny models), a mini Bic lighter, and a single AA flashlight (Inova X1), in my makeup case in my handbag. I also carry a Fisher Bullet Space Pen and a Storm whistle, and a few other bits and bobs, but those are the big three.

So, you will want some sort of a shelter, which can be as simple as a tarp, if you know how to pitch one. You will need to learn to tie a few proper knots. Make sure you learn to tie a tautline hitch, and you will never need any of those fancy guyline tensioner devices. Learning to pitch a tarp tent is a lot easier than learning to pitch a commercial tent, and a hell of a lot cheaper. Not so much bug protection, though, so you may want a minimalist "bug hut" kind of tent. Along with a tarp or tent, you will need some cordage and tent stakes.

You will probably want a sleeping bag or quilt and sleeping pad (start with a closed cell foam pad, don't let them sell you a $150 self-inflating wonder). And you will probably want something to carry all of this, e.g., a backpack. The 60L/4000 cu in range is big enough to get you through a week, but isn't too big for a weekend.

A couple of Nalgene 1L bottles (one for water, one for pee), a tiny gas canister stove, and a pot for boiling water plus a spork make for the most minimalist kitchen. You might want a separate cup and bowl to eat/drink out of, maybe not. You'll need some way of cleaning that. If you plan on being out for awhile, you will need to think about water purification. For a day or two with your vehicle nearby? Bring a jug of clean water to refill your bottle(s).

Poop. You will need a trowel and some way to clean yer butt. And read up on how to dig a proper cathole, plus carry a waste bag for your TP (and possibly poop, if there's not suitable terrain for a cathole). If you are a ladytype, you need to think likewise about your ladybits. All feminine products must be packed out, they cannot be buried.

Hand sanitiser. I cannot stress this enough. A bottle of 70% isopropyl alcohol is great, and doesn't need to go in the bear can at night.

Decent shoes and clothes. Wool is best, hit your local thrift stores for secondhand wool, get new wool socks and sturdy shoes. You don't need hiking boots, per se, unless you are hitting rough terrain. 

Stay alive, stay safe, stay found, stay dry, stay warm, stay hydrated, stay happy. :D

11:50 a.m. on June 13, 2017 (EDT)
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I cannot stress enough the point about bringing warmer clothes than you think you need. Sitting around for a few hours in mild weather can bring about life-threatening hypothermia, and you can't remain active 24 hours a day.

11:05 p.m. on June 18, 2017 (EDT)
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I would like to go hiking with hikemor someday. We think alike.  That makes for some good hiking partners. 

February 27, 2020
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