Heading out on your first overnight hike or backpacking trip can be a daunting and exciting experience. It’s a big leap from doing a few day hikes to carrying everything on your back and camping out in the bush for the night. But it doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds.
My first overnight hike was a huge undertaking. I decided to do the multiday Larapinta Trail in Australia, which is really not your ideal first backpacking adventure. But I survived and learnt some valuable lessons along the way. I’ve put together this list of my top 10 tips for your first overnight hike which will (hopefully) help you prepare and make it as smooth sailing and fun as it can be.
Even if you’ve got a few overnighters under your belt, this post might still offer some extra advice to make your next trip even better.
Try something close to home
Going for your first overnight hike can be a little daunting and overwhelming. One of the best ways to keep things simple and more comforting is to try an overnight hike in familiar territory. You can search for your nearest overnight trail or try a long hike that is at least in a national park that you’re familiar with. It could be somewhere that you’ve done day hikes before or a place that you’ve been camping previously.
If you keep your first overnight hike close to home, it also means that you don’t have to do as much research or planning beforehand. However, it doesn’t mean that you should be too complacent either because planning is still very important.
Spend some time planning
Planning for any overnight hike or long-distance trek is extremely important. Planning helps reduce risks and also makes things run a lot more smoothly when you’re out on the trail. How much you plan is really up to you, but there are some basic things that you should research before heading out.
Weather is a huge factor that can impact your hike. You should find out what kind of weather you’re going to expect and plan accordingly. Looking up the weather forecast is an obvious thing to do but you should also read about more general weather conditions in the area that you’re going. Some mountainous and coastal areas have more dramatic changes and sometimes the forecast is not always accurate.
Think about the season that you’re going to be hiking in and find out what kinds of general weather conditions can be expected. Are sudden storms common? If it’s summer, what is the bush fire risk?
Logistics is another part that you’ll want to plan ahead of time. How will you get to the trailhead? Will you leave your car there and return to it at the end, or perhaps you need to organise a carpool system with other hikers? Logistics can sometimes need a bit of time to arrange, but if you are keeping the hike close to home then this can minimise the need for extensive planning.
Park regulations are also important considerations before you head out on a hike. Find out what kind of rules there are in the area, if any, and follow them accordingly.
Are there camping fees? Do you need a hiking permit? You can usually find this sort of information on official park websites depending on where you’re going.
For your first overnight hike, you don’t want to get too bogged down with walking a long way or tackling a difficult trail. It’s best to try and keep it realistic and think about what kind of hike you’ll be capable of doing. Consider your fitness, the gear that you have and your previous experience before settling on a distance and trail.
If it is your first overnight hike, then it’s likely that you’ve never carried such a heavy pack before, and this certainly impacts the distance you might be able to realistically cover in a day. Consider your pack weight and the terrain you’ll be covering and come up with a fairly flexible daily mileage.
Try to keep your itinerary flexible too. If you’re going longer than one night and you have the freedom to camp wherever you like, then you should allow yourself some flexibility in your schedule. It’s often only once you’ve started the hike that you’ll learn how much distance you can cover in a day.
Keep your pack as light as possible
For any hike that you do, but perhaps especially for your first one, you should try to keep your pack as light as possible. If you’ve never carried a heavy backpack before, you’ll soon realise the importance of cutting down your weight with every 100 grams making a huge difference.
Investing in lightweight gear, especially with larger equipment like your tent and sleeping bag, will automatically make things much easier for yourself. However, lightweight gear is often the most expensive and you may not necessarily be ready to commit to purchasing specialist gear just yet. So, there are other ways that you can cut down on pack weight too.
Food can be surprisingly heavy so you should plan what food you’re planning on taking beforehand to ensure it’s relatively light. More on this below.
Cut out non-essential items like extra clothing and bulky and heavy toiletries. Be realistic about what you’re actually going to use.
Make simple and cheaper switches to lighter items. Swap your regular towel for a small, quick-drying towel or download an e-book on your phone to read at night rather than carrying a physical book. Every little bit makes a difference!
But pack enough food and water!
Although you should be concerned about your pack weight, food and water is something you shouldn’t skimp on. You’ll want to make sure that you have enough energy-dense food to get you through the hike, plus you’ll need to carry enough water to get you through to the next water source.
Think about easy but filling meals and dense snacks that will keep your energy levels high. Dehydrated food is the best option for meals like dinner, with most options coming in at around 90 grams. Snacks are often the most difficult food to keep light, with most energy-dense options like trail mix being quite heavy. However, they will likely be what keeps you going during the day so ensure you have enough energy in your pack.
Water is one of the heaviest things but unfortunately necessary to carry with you. You’ll need to plan your water sources and make sure that you know where and how often you can refill. You’ll also want to make sure that you have the capacity to carry the amount of water that you’ll need. A combination of water bladders and refillable bottles are ideal.
Meal planning is important here. It’s best to lay all your food out and think about your meals and snacks so that you can estimate how much you’ll need to carry. As I said, you shouldn’t skimp on food and water, so start with planning your food first and then you’ll know how much room and weight it will take up in your pack before you start to think about other things.
Read next: How to Plan Your Food for Hiking
Safety is one of the biggest concerns when you’re heading out on a trail for an overnight hike. Even if you’re familiar with the trail or region, you should always take safety precautions because you never know when something might happen. There are a range of things you can do to ensure your hike is as safe as you can make it:
- Tell someone where you’re going – An obvious but important one. Whether it be your parents or housemate, tell someone where you’re going and how long you plan to be away.
- Carry a PLB – For remote adventures, it’s always best to carry a personal location beacon with you. These emergency beacons can signal to rescue services if something very severe happens. They can be an expensive investment so you can also rent one if you don’t think it’s something that you’ll need regularly.
- Carry a first aid kit – You should really carry a first aid kit with you no matter what hike you’re doing. Basic items you should include are band-aids/plasters, painkillers and other medication, bandages, antiseptic cream, tape, electrolytes and an emergency blanket.
- Download an offline GPS app on your phone – From Maps.Me to AllTrails, there is a range of GPS apps that can work offline and have trails marked clearly on them. You should also carry a backup navigation system like a paper map too, in case your phone fails you (it can happen).
- Go with someone – Taking a hiking partner is a good option if it’s your first overnight hike and are a bit anxious about going alone. Many safety guidelines will tell you to never hike alone, although I do regularly, and I would never dissuade you from doing it. But it’s certainly safer to hike with someone else and if you’re concerned about safety then it can be a good idea.
Get familiar with your gear
Whether it’s new gear or some you’ve borrowed from a friend, you should make sure that you’re familiar with the gear that you’re planning on taking with you. I know what it’s like to go on your first overnight hike and being a little anxious to put up the tent or use the gas cooker for the first time.
The best idea is to do a trial run at home before you go. There’s nothing wrong with setting up your tent in the backyard or making yourself a cup of tea with the gas cooker at home. The more familiar you are with your gear the less likely it is that you’ll have any mishaps on the trail or embarrassing moments (you don’t want to be that person who doesn’t know how to put their new tent up!).
Make sure your boots are well broken in
Footwear can be a decisive topic for many experienced hikers. I’m not going to go into the debate about the best kind of footwear here, but whether you opt for hiking boots or trail runners or any other sort of footwear, make sure that they’re well broken in and comfortable.
Blisters can ruin any good hike and poor quality footwear can fall apart on rough terrain, so it’s a good idea to be confident in the footwear that you have as they’re arguably one of the most important things you’ll take with you.
Familiarise yourself with the leave no trace principles
No hiker should be heading outdoors without understanding what the leave no trace principles are all about. It’s about making sure that you’re enjoying nature as well as helping to conserve it at the same time. The initiative started in the 1990s as a not-for-profit that drew up guidelines for backcountry hikers to ensure people were informed about looking after the natural environment. It’s since become a more globally recognised standard for outdoor behaviour. The seven principles are:
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Dispose of waste properly.
- Leave what you find.
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife.
- Be considerate of other visitors.
You can read more about the leave no trace initiative here.
You should also always follow park rules and regulations where you plan on hiking as they may have additional guidelines for hikers to follow, such as campfire restrictions.
Perhaps the most important tip on this list is to have fun! No doubt you might question your decision to carry 18kg on your back to spend a night in the middle of the bush or you might not enjoy some of those steep hills either, but overnight hiking is one of the best ways to enjoy the outdoors.
Take your time, gaze up at the stars at night, switch off from technology and social media, listen to the sounds of the bush, watch a sunrise, spend time with your own thoughts and appreciate the beauty of nature.
Looking for your first overnight hike?
Some suggestions in Australia: