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Getting Started - A Dumb Question

ok, I apologize in advance for the brain dump and dumb questions, but this has been the thing holding me back. How do you actually plan the trip? I’m interesting in doing some backpacking.  I’ve got the backpack(s), tent, the bags, the stove and basically everything else I need but what I am stuck on is how do I actually pull the trigger. Here’s a list of random things that hold me back. 

Am I able to backpack on any old trail? I want to do something that’s a couple (2 minimum) nights, either out and back or loop. How do I find it? Once I find it do I just show up, lock my car and start walking? Can I even leave my car there that long? I get all the rules about pack it in pack it out but where am I allowed to setup my tent?  An I just throw it on a patch of grass next to the trail? Where can I find this info? 

Maybe its weird...or dumb...but it’s my last step. Any help is appreciated. 

A lot of what you ask is answered by; Where are you going? What state/province do you live in?

Ask the local Rangers/conservation department or similar...and much can be found online for a given area through those mentioned. Like in NY one might punch in High Peaks area camping regulations or Catskills Regulations or NYS Department of Conservation camping regs.

I've never had a problem with leaving a car somewhere but some places it is definitely not recommended and others places its as safe as a bank vault.

Some areas do not allow overnight camping, some could care less or have designated sites.  Some places camping has went on for so long that not finding a campsite would be difficult.

Some places require a camping permit.

Don't camp to close to water.

Some insist, by law, you need a bear canister.

Theres more but that'll get you started and others will chip in I'm sure.

Do just what your doing. Ask. These folks here on Trailspace are a great bunch at helping.

Plus 1 For old Guides comments 

A good place to start is your local state parks where you have to register for their backcountry hikes and also generally have on duty rangers who can advise and will come looking for you if you don't return by the appointed time. Plus as a beginner it is reassuring that since these are high use areas someone will more than likely come along should you experience trouble. Most of these parks will have required camping spots with fire rings benches and sometimes even tables. At perscibed miles that are manageable. These hikes will have fees but are relatively safe as you begin. 

The national wilderness areas that I'm familiar with are a much better option as you progress because of no fees and for the most part you can throw your tent down and camp any where but depending on the popularity of the region yo may be completely on your own and no one may come along at all. 

My xtra advice is start out with an experienced friend or local group. Keep your fires small and manageable (remember your not at a pep rally or a cook out) and never in windy conditions if they are allowed. And as to your vehicle you pay for insurance let them worry about it if something happens- that's how I dealt with that worry.

I hope that your beginning experiences are enjoyable and fun but if they do turn out bad and you can still laugh and enjoyed it. You're found your niche and happy trails

Where are you located, and how far are you willing to travel to the trailhead?

You have to start with some sense of where you might like to go, then start with google. For example, I live in the Atlanta area, so I might google "backpack Georgia" and see what pops up. There also are many trail guide books and getting a few that cover your local area to have on the shelf is a good idea.

As OG said, regulations and protocol depend entirely on where you are going. If I want to do a weekend on the AT I just go, park wherever the trail and road meet and camp wherever I want. I've taken yearly trips to Yosemite for extended periods and those require permits, but choice of campsite is almost completely unregulated. If you go to the Smokies you must stay only in designated campsites. Etc.

Follow LNT principles anywhere you go. John mentioned fires, I would suggest you try to not make a fire for many reasons, from LNT to practical.

Find a big chunk of public land and get a map of it. Then call the agency that manages it and have them answer your questions. Easy. 

Make your first trip out really easy. It would be best to have a more experienced person along. Build your skills with each trip.  You are not dumb, you are adventerous. 

You are not dumb, you are adventerous.


I would suggest a couple of things:

1.  Once you have all your equipment, take it out in the backyard, or to a car campground and pretend you are backpacking.  Use everything. Try everything.  Make sure you know how everything works, so that you don't have to figure it out when your miles away from home and a long hike to get back.

2.  Your first trip probably shouldn't be into the most remote wilderness you can find. Pick a spot that gets lots of traffic and plenty of other backpackers.  Out on the trail, we're always happy to a help a newbie who is a bit confused...and if you HAVE forgotten the matches for your stove, you can probably borrow some. 

3.  Don't be a hero.  Wait for a perfect weekend, not one where the weather report has a 40% chance of rain.  You want the first trip to be as simple and painless as possible.  

4.  Be willing to make mistakes, but make sure they aren't fatal.  You can live without food for days and days.  You can live without water for only about three days.  Make sure you stay hydrated, keep warm and ry, and keep found, not lost.  Do those three things and everything else will be fine, more or less!

We have a ton of advice for getting started on our website:

As an alternative first trip...many state parks or other sites have walk in campsites from a few hundred yards to a couple of miles along well sign posted and graded trails.  That is a good way to try your hand at the experience while still being able to get out if needed (i.e. equipment not suited to a change in weather) but just far enough from the car to not inspire an unwarranted evacuation.

You say you have all the gear needed. This says you must have visited a camping-oriented store. The store almost definitely has a bookshelf with a full shelf of guide books in your area. These books list places to go, plus rules and regulations for those destinations. The books often have maps, and the store usually has a rack full of maps (you will want a map of your destinations anyway). In addition, as indicated above, there are ranger stations located in or close to places you might want to go. They will have plenty of advice, plus the permits you will need.


Here are a few places that I have hiked and backpacked in:

California -

        dozens of parks along the coast from north to south.

        Sierra Nevada - a large number of National Parks

Oregon and Washington - similar in numbers of parks per square mile to Calif.

Nevada - many parks and National Forest areas (there are a couple of superb areas that I will no name, so they stay a bit secret to keep the hordes down.

Virginia, Carolina (both), Georgia .... the Appalachian Trail

Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming .....

New England - Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, upstate New York.........

Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, .....

In short - there is a plethora of places to start hiking. Pick something close to you to start with and build your skills gradually. And yes, do some practice tuns in your back yard. It will familiarize you with your gear and give you practice with preparing those backcountry meals.

As Old Guide said, we can help you much better if you say where you are located.

I agree will Bill S about Rangers. If I'm visiting a new area that has them, I try to find a Ranger and pick their brain about it as much as I can. I've learned a lot of neat things as well as things to avoid.

A few trips ago I found myself hiking up the mountain with the Bear Guy for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.(wildlife biologist in charge of bears- don't know the official title :)) I learned a lot and it was fascinating to hear his perspective on some recent publicly known incidents with bears and hikers.

I wish I could have spent more time with him but I had a long hike ahead and his 70 lb pack (which included his tranquilizer rifle and GPS collar kit) was really slowing him down and I had to move on to make camp before dark. 


I'm heading out on a new trail next week. I found it by doing an internet search for local trails longer than 25 miles. From there, I just kept opening webpages, blogs, even Pintrest photos. I narrowed it down to two trails, one was out-and-back, the other a loop. Next I looked at topo maps and even Google maps (going all the way down to street level to look at Trailheads). I spent a lot of time reading up on water sources.  

In the end, I picked the trail that seemed most interesting based on description. I printed a topo map, and I will head out next Thursday for a 2-night trip. 

The only concern I ever really have is will the local yahoos mess with my truck. In 10 years, that's never happened. 


I just ran into our local bear biologist at the Christmas Parade on Sat. He had a young Kerylian bear dog with him used to chase habituated bears.  They trap the problem bears at Lake Tahoe and airlift them to the mountains behind my house.  Some of the Tahoe bears feed on garbage and get to 400-500 pounds. Some do not even hibernate. Compliance with bear proof garbage cans is still an issue.

When it comes to choosing a place to go, I like National Forests and BLM locations without any fancy names or trailheads.  Solitude is really important but sometimes not that easy to find, especially if you read magazines and follow guide books.  Better to read maps. 

Look for something nearby over something epic...a local haunt allows for more trips and a faster learning curve...and an epic trip can happen anywhere.

You should probably tell some folks you're going.

+1 to Rangers/Hikers/Locals for the stories and lore alone...but also because they tend to have a very fine understanding of getting in and out of the area...trouble spots...and the like.

+1 to Goose's comment about knowing your water sources...if you see me looking at a map I am almost certainly determining how far away the next water source is.

Nearly everywhere it is frowned upon or against regulations to pitch camp within 50-100 feet (preferably out of sight) of a trail or water source unless its a designated camping site.

I've never had my car messed with by humans (other than the nice person who locked my door and my keys inside)...but animals can do a surprising amount of damage...and my friend with the coexist sticker has had some unsavory things done to her car...but most of it washed off.

November 26, 2020
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