4 Steps to Prepare for Your First Ever Solo Backpacking Trip

June 30, 2016

4 Steps to Prepare for Your First Ever Solo Backpacking Trip / Unbrave Girl

Four years ago, I read Wild, the memoir by Cheryl Strayed about her time solo backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,600-mile long trek that stretches across the West Coast of North America. I thought to myself, “Hey, I should do that!”

And then I promptly hyperventilated because WHAT THE HECK WAS I THINKING?? I can hardly get myself off my couch on a regular basis. How in the heck was I going to get myself to hike all the way from Mexico to Canada??


Flash forward four years later, and here I am planning my first ever solo backpacking trip for this weekend.

Granted, I will not be backpacking 2,600 miles. Heck, I won’t even be hiking the 23-mile backcountry trail in Northern Michigan that I had originally planned on doing this weekend.

Instead, I opted for something a little bit easier on my first go-around — a 12-mile loop in a state park with a rustic campground at the halfway point.

And, while, I’m more than a little bit nervous, I think I’m ready.

Here’s how I’ve been preparing for my big trip.

4 Steps to Prepare for Your First Ever Solo Backpacking Trip

Step 1: Buy all the ALL THE THINGS. Because this whole going minimalist thing requires a whole lot of stuff.

When I originally started solo camping, I probably spent all of five dollars on camping gear. And by “camping gear” I mean one of those marshmallow skewer thingies BECAUSE S’MORES.

4 Steps to Prepare for Your First Ever Solo Backpacking Trip / Unbrave Girl

Best $5 ever spent!

I borrowed a tent and sleeping bag from my brother and a campstove from my coworker. I used the air mattress I already had from my pre-furniture days in my new apartment. And I grabbed a whole bunch of stuff from my kitchen to use — because who needs a special camping frying pan with a special fold-able handle when a regular frying pan will do?

Since then I have bought more camping gear, including, my own campstove and, admittedly, a special camping frying pan with a special fold-able handle because WHAT? IT MAKES ME FEEL LIKE A PROPER CAMPING PERSON, OKAY!

4 Steps to Prepare for Your First Ever Solo Backpacking Trip / Unbrave Girl

Heating up day-old pizza in my fancy camping pan like a proper camping person.

But, for the most part, I haven’t spent a whole lot of money on camping stuff.

Until now.

I could probably have bought myself an entire fleet of miniature magical ponies with the amount of money I’ve spent in the past month on backpacking gear.

First, of course, there was the backpack. Which I accidentally bought two of because I shouldn’t be trusted to make financial transactions on the Internet before noon.

4 Steps to Prepare for Your First Ever Solo Backpacking Trip / Unbrave Girl

Ummm, oops.

Then, there was the lightweight backpacking tent and the lightweight backpacking sleeping bag and the lightweight backpacking stove. And despite their light weight, they all hit my wallet pretty heavy, if you know what I mean.

And then there is the list of things that I never thought I’d own. I now have a compass I don’t know how to use and a water filter so I can drink murky pond-water to my heart’s content and hopefully not get sick.

And, well, there’s this:

4 Steps to Prepare for Your First Ever Solo Backpacking Trip / Unbrave Girl

Don’t ask.

Because, apparently, even going to the bathroom while backpacking requires its own special backpacking gear.

Step 2: Do lots of research. And by research I mean “Youtube.”

Hey, did you know that there are videos of people packing their backpacks?!

And did you know that if you start watching these videos you will basically be physically unable to stop watching these videos because there is something completely mesmerizing about watching another human pack their own bag?

And then it’s two o’clock in the morning and you can’t even remember your own name but you do know exactly where to put your sleeping bag and how to hang your hiking poles off your backpack.

Mind you, you still have no idea how to backpack. But you do know how to bag pack. So that’s something, right?

Step 3: Get physically ready.

I walk a lot — both for work and because I’m one of those weird people who likes to walk to places. So I didn’t think that backpacking would be that hard for me.

Until I went on a four-mile hike with my half-filled backpack the other weekend, and discovered that there’s a really big difference between walking somewhere and walking somewhere with a bag the size of a small European country on your back.

4 Steps to Prepare for Your First Ever Solo Backpacking Trip / Unbrave Girl

Testing out my backpack. And my sitting on log skills.

Also a lot harder than you’d think it would be: putting on a sports bra in a teeny tiny backpacking tent. Especially when it’s eighty degrees out and you’re sweating out of pores you never even knew you had.

Step 4: Get mentally ready.

Training for a backpacking trip doesn’t just take physical training, it takes mental training.

And I’ve found the best way to train your brain to be ready to go camping in the woods by yourself is to first go camping in the woods with a whole bunch of Class A douche-balls. Which is exactly what I did two weekends ago.

While I was testing out my backpack, I car-camped at a busy state park near my home, where my camping neighbors consisted of a bunch of college dudes who loudly told drinking stories while loudly playing drinking games all night. And then the next day they blared their car radio until the car battery went dead. It’s possible I made their car radio go dead simply by wishing it so with every fiber of my very being.

4 Steps to Prepare for Your First Ever Solo Backpacking Trip / Unbrave Girl

What’s that, camping neighbor? Your car battery is dead. So sorry to hear that.

Also, some fourteen-year-old called me “Mom.” And I had to dodge a game of football every time I needed to go to the bathroom.

After a full weekend of that, I had never felt more ready to trek off into the woods by myself. When given the choice between listening to drinking stories for another night and drinking murky pond-water, I’d gladly take pond-water all the way. Sure, my intestines might never forgive me. But what’s a little intestinal discomfort compared to the discomfort of some random fourteen year-old calling you, “Mom”?


Have you ever backpacked by yourself? What did you do to prepare?

Disclosure: Some of the above links are affiliate links, which means I can earn a small commission for purchases made at no extra cost to you. Which means I may finally be able to buy that fleet of miniature magical ponies I’ve been wanting! Yay!


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On June 30, 2016 at 8:54 am zoe said:

    This is timely for me – I just made some bookings to go on a solo walking trip in the UK in a few weeks and my preparation so far has consisted of me trying to reassure myself that just because it feels like effort to use the stairs to my third-floor office doesn’t mean I can’t hike… right…?

    (Though you are way more hard-core than me, I’m doing things the lazy/not-giving-up-hot-showers way and walking from village to village and staying in hostels/airbnb every night.)
    zoe recently posted..Postcard from Monte Galero

    • On June 30, 2016 at 8:30 pm Sally said:

      Hahahahaha. I feel you. I walk a lot at work, but it’s across a pretty flat campus. And my favorite walking spot in Kalamazoo is a former train bed (so super flat). When I was at my parent’s house, I went walking in a park near their house and WHOA BOY I could feel those hills. I’m a bit worried about this weekend as I keep on reading differing reports of what the trail is like. I’m just glad I put off the 22-mile backcountry trail because I ran into someone last week who did it and she said it had tons of killer hills. Not ready for that yet!
      Good luck on your trip. It sounds awesome!

  2. On June 30, 2016 at 9:09 am Marion said:

    I’ve done two backpacking trips- neither solo – and the two things I learned are that the pack gets heavier and heavier and that it’s a lot harder on your feet
    having the extra weight to carry. But being a lot more remote is a thrill. I can’t do it any more so I will enjoy through your eyes. Have a great time.

    • On June 30, 2016 at 8:26 pm Sally said:

      I’m mostly worried about my knees. I don’t have the best knees to begin with (thank you, arthritis and a short but destructive running career). Plus add the pack and hills. I got some walking poles at the recommendation of lots of people — hopefully those will help!

  3. On June 30, 2016 at 11:11 am Tracy said:

    This is hysterical.

    This is also why I don’t backpack. I kinda hate to bring this up, but for the amount of money you paid for your gear, you could PROBABLY rent a really nice room somewhere. Or at least a not great room within walking distance of a brewery.

    And finally, one real question: why do you need to pee in a bag? Isn’t that the point of being out in the wilderness? All the world is pee-on-able? Or have I been hiking terribly, terribly wrong my whole life???!!?

    • On June 30, 2016 at 8:22 pm Sally said:

      Well, I guess the idea is that if I buy this stuff now, and I can use it for a number of years and go on lots more trips than I could if I just splurged on a really nice room somewhere… of course, if I die this weekend then this plan isn’t such a good plan anymore. 🙂
      As for peeing, I will TOTALLY be peeing in the woods. The bags are for collecting other human yuckiness (toilet paper, tampons, etc.) that I can’t leave in the woods. I guess I could just put them in a regular ziploc bag, but I really don’t like the idea of having a see-through bag of grossness.

  4. On June 30, 2016 at 2:01 pm Lori said:

    This is awesome. I’ve spent this summer learning to car camp solo, but all my gear was purchased as backpack-ready. All I need left is a pack, which I’ll be buying soon, and starting to test on day hikes. I can’t wait to hear how it goes!

    • On June 30, 2016 at 8:19 pm Sally said:

      It’s such a good idea to buy the backpack stuff right off the bat! All the stuff I bought already was big car camping stuff because it was cheap and I’m poor… but if I had started collecting backpacking stuff a while ago, I would be a lot less poorer now! 🙂

  5. On July 1, 2016 at 12:46 am Leslie in Oregon said:

    Living in the Pacific Northwest, I have always backpacked into and out of mountainous areas. Unfortunately, that means hiking mostly uphill one way (into or up mountains) and mostly downhill the other way (out of or down mountains). I learned very fast to savor the respite of all-too-rare level trail and to prefer uphill stretches to downhill stretches (for my knees). I also learned to ascertain the total altitude gain/loss between my starting and ending points and, very importantly, whether those total figures took into account whatever up’s/down’s/back up’s (or the reverse) would be involved in getting from the starting to the ending point. (Often, a hiker must hike up to, and down from, a given altitude more than once on a trail.) It’s really best to know something about what to expect on these points, before you commit to doing the hike. Having said all that, it occurs to me that they may not be such a consideration in the Midwest (even the Upper Midwest).
    On my first backpacking trip (with a friend who also was a backpacking virgin), we did virtually nothing to prepare except pack a large jar of peanut butter and some water (and drive 330 miles to the trailhead). Fortunately, before we hit the trail we ran into a savvy friend who made sure that we had a tarp with which to rig a shelter in case it snowed in the mountains into which we were hiking (which it did, in July, and that tarp saved our bacon).
    Having now backpacked off-and-on for decades, I must say that many of my life’s peak experiences (no pun intended) have occurred while doing it. Have fun, Leslie

    • On July 10, 2016 at 12:35 pm Sally said:

      Yeah, luckily, no mountains in Michigan! Lots of mountain bikers though — that was probably the most dangerous part of my backpacking trip!

  6. On July 4, 2016 at 2:04 pm Paula said:

    I’ve never been backpacking at all. Though I always wanted to try it! And it is so easy to get caught up in packing videos! I’ve never watched for backpacks bUT I’ve watched a ton for suitcases. 🙂
    Paula recently posted..What I’m Into – June 2016


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