Some basic backpacking tips for a short trip or thru-hike

One of the many questions that I get asked on Twitter is, “Do you have any tips for hiking the Appalachian Trail?”

To answer this question, I give you a disclaimer: Not all backpacking or hiking styles are the same. What works for some will not necessarily work for others or be preferred by others. Find your style but do avoid serious pitfalls.

Backpacking tips

1. Research

Do your research. This is not your all-to-backpacking guide. You need to know about basic survival skills, terrain, weather, etc.

If you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail, get The A.T. Guide Northbound or A.T. Guide Southbound by David Miller.  This guide is updated every year, which is very valuable when trails change direction, water points dry up, etc. The guide gives elevation profiles, landmarks, water points, camping sites, shelter sites, parking spots, town maps, lodging, food, shuttle services, etc. It is a must-have.

Search the internet for specifics. For example, if you are section hiking the AT, pick a section and find out as much as you can about that section. Are you a beginner? Don’t just assume that you are in shape or that people with you are in shape. Use the elevation guide to decide what the easiest hike will be and whether or not a Northbound or Southbound hike is best. I met with a friend in Tennessee, who was not a hiker but wanted to do a 14-mile day hike. I chose Southbound because the elevation was easier (note: I didn’t say easy).

2. What do I pack?

I am just going to hit some high points here. See this post for a more complete clothing and gear packing list.

  • Choose a 40-65 liter pack. The size of the pack depends on your needs and what season it is. I.e. If you are out in the summer, you won’t need as many layers.
  • For clothing, stay away from cotton. Use synthetics and wool.
  • Pack lightly. Cut weight. Get rid of the bloat. Ounces count. For example, bring a single-bladed knife instead of a Gerber.  Ditch the military-style boots. Get some light shoes or hiking boots. When you trek up and down mountains for miles and miles, your body will be less stressed with less weight.
  • Pack a shelter. The Appalachian Trail has shelters along the path; however, in seasons of high traffic, these are at times full. You can’t rely solely on shelters. Bring a hammock, tent tarp, or tent. I can’t find the pictures, but while hiking the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah Nation Park, I was bored and started to read a shelter log at Bearfence Hut. They were writing about how the shelter was protected by huge spiders. I immediately jumped up and started looking around to find these monsters everywhere. Nevertheless, my dog and I quickly gathered my stuff and left.
3. Your feet are the most important concern.

You can’t exactly hike without your feet. You have to take care of them. Start off on the right foot. You need good, light shoes. You can use hiking boots or trail shoes but get a good pair. These are not always cheap.  Next, learn to tie your shoes correctly.

Wear socks but not cotton. Forget cotton clothing exists. Choose synthetic blends. You can use wool blends in the winter. When at camp, get your wet socks and shoes off of your feet. Let them have as much air as you can. Consider having a pair of Crocs or some other extremely lightweight shoe for times you are at camp.

4. The physical and mental.

Backpacking always seems to come off with this picturesque view of beautiful mounts, flowing streams, and wildlife. It’s there but at some point, nature is going to suck. Reality will hit. Expect not only physical fatigue but mental fatigue. Your body will be beat. You will be cold, wet, tired, smell like garbage, and sore literally from head to toe. If traveling with a companion, you’re both liable to be short-fused at some point. Expect an argument or two or three or…just know it’s going to happen. It doesn’t last. Take a break if need be and rest at a shelter or get off the trail for the night (or two).

5. Food and water.

While I recommend carrying a hydration bladder for volume, don’t only carry the water bladder. Carry a BPA-free bottle. The bladder may get a hole. I’ve had that happen. Also, don’t only rely on filtering your water. I’ve had a filter break as well. Carry drops or tablets to purify your water.

Trail guides are important. They often let you know where water points are. If the water point in the A.T. Trail Guide says that it is often dry, expect there not to be water, especially during the summer. That brings us to resupply. The AT guide lists towns and resupply points. You have to choose whether you will want to have packages shipped or resupply along the route at stores. Remember, if you travel in the winter months, many of these points are closed along the trail. You will also need to take into account being snowed in a shelter. Also, you need more calories in the winter than in summer.

Pack lightly. This can’t be said enough. Don’t bring cans and don’t over-pack with food. Choose high-calorie foods. Read the labels and compare. Consider dehydrating your food.

Here are some food ideas:

  • Snacks: You’re going to need extra calories throughout the day in addition to three meals. Carry along bars of some type (granola, energy, fig). Consider chocolate, dried nuts, fruit, and trail mix.
  • Breakfast: I make a mix of maple oatmeal, granola, almonds, and Carnation milk powder (comes in vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate). Just add water in the morning for breakfast. Other ideas include grits, oatmeal, breakfast bars, or toaster pastries.
  • Lunch/Supper: Use chicken, salmon, and tuna pouches. You can bring tortillas for bread (carbs). There are packs of noodles, rice, and potatoes that cost in the area of a dollar and come in many flavors. Ramen noodles are also a good lightweight option and can be eaten dry. Consider quinoa as it is loaded with nutrients. Peanut butter is a favorite on the trails.

For those who drink, you have to ask if the extra weight is really worth it.

6. Shuttles, getting around.

Parking on the Appalachian Trail is found in AT guides and some websites such as While vehicles are typically safe in most areas, you park at your own risk. Check ahead for crime reports by contacting appropriate agencies or trail clubs. Never leave anything of value in plain view inside your car.

Some people hitch-hike. I do not recommend this for safety. There are plenty of shuttle services and public transportation located along the trail. Check the AT Guide or

Section hiking with a friend? Use two cars.

7. Closing notes

There is so much more that could be said. Do your research. Consult multiple websites and forums. Get out and do it. Learn your style, while using the tips from others.

Check the weather. If you’re going out for a weekend section hike, you have no excuse not to be prepared. I have encountered Boy Scout groups whose leaders failed to check the weather and the heavens opened and poured rain.

Be respectful of others.  Pack it in and pack it out. Don’t trash nature. Don’t harass wildlife.

*Updated 3 October 2016 to include links and pics for The A.T. Guide Southbound.

*Updated 26 December 2023. Removed dead links and pictures from migration to new server.

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