Whenever I talk about backpacking or thru-hiking, I tend to get a lot of skeptical questions from curious friends and family. But as a 5-foot-tall woman, I frequently hear well-meaning people ask: Aren’t you scared out there?
Personally, I find walking in big cities to be much scarier than walking in the woods. Don’t let online horror stories fool you; countless women successfully hike and camp alone every year. With a little bit of prep and motivation, you, too, can join their ranks.
If you’re wondering how to venture into the world of backpacking, I’ve compiled a list of tips to follow before, during, and after your trip. As ultralight nerds, we’ve also thrown in a few resources to help you find the right gear.
From handling feminine hygiene to tent safety, here are our backpacking tips for women ready to hit the trail. Beginner backpackers of all stripes are welcome here, as much of this info will apply to anyone planning their first backcountry trip.
The quality of any backpacking adventure will depend significantly on your preparations (or lack thereof). As you plan, consider what you hope to get from your trip. Backpacking opens up a world of possibilities, so don’t feel you must cover everything on your first go.
Kick off your gear journey with a quick Google search. Countless articles and blog posts delve into the best backpacking gear (and we have quite a few ourselves). If you’re still in doubt after reading online, you can consult professionals in person at an outdoor store.
No matter what gear you pick, carefully consider where and what time of year you’ll be hiking. Use that information to invest in an appropriately warm sleep system, a reliable tent, and a backpack that can handle everything.
While backpacking alone can be cathartic, you may not want to fly solo for your first trip. For safety and logistical reasons, it helps to learn the ropes from someone who already knows their way around the wilderness.
Reach out to friends and family members to see who may want to join your hike. Alternatively, you can get to know other hikers in your area by joining local social media pages, meetups, and hiking clubs.
Although this has been debated among the outdoor community, gear marketed “for men” can perform just as well for women. Don’t feel limited by gender descriptors — everyone is built differently, and you could even save some money by avoiding the dreaded pink tax.
Instead of shopping only in the women’s section, focus on finding the proper measurements and season ratings for your needs. If you’d benefit from the extra width of a men’s sleeping bag or hiking boots, go ahead and click that ‘Add to Cart’ button. (And, yes, men can use “women’s gear,” too.)
Before you find yourself struggling with your new duds on the trail, make sure to get in some practice at home. I’ve had few outdoor experiences worse than trying to cook dinner on an unfamiliar camp stove while unbearably hangry.
Take your tent, sleeping pad, stove, and any other new purchases for a test run before you hit the trail. At the very least, watch a few YouTube videos about your specific gear to understand how everything should work.
Now, we’re not saying you should tote a heavy-duty stun gun (or an actual gun) into the wilderness. But a few essential safety items can provide immense peace of mind without weighing down your pack.
Consider bringing extra carabiners to “lock” your tent zippers at night and an emergency whistle to alert passersby of an emergency. Also, throw in a compact pepper spray device — it’ll serve as an effective deterrent against any unwanted visitors, animal or otherwise.
While a 20-ounce sleeping pad sounds lightweight on paper, it’s a whole different story once it’s strapped to your back. To protect your joints, aim to get your base weight — your pack weight without water, food, or fuel — as low as possible.
Of course, backpackers should hold onto the essentials, but do your best to scrimp on weight wherever possible. While you may not want to embrace a fully-ultralight kit (yet), lightening your load will vastly improve your physical and mental state.
I have some good news: Unlike many sports, you don’t need to spend hours in the gym preparing for backpacking. Adding daily walks, stretching routines, and bodyweight exercises will go a long way toward getting you trail-ready.
Consider walking with your pack to see how your gear feels over a prolonged period of time. Your neighbors can stare all they’d like, but test walks provide a valuable opportunity to check for chafing, hot spots, and uncomfortable gear.
If you can’t find someone to accompany you on trail, ask an experienced backpacker to nitpick your gear selection before heading out. A trained eye can spot both literal and figurative holes in your packing.
If nobody in your circle knows the first thing about backpacking, search Facebook or Reddit for relevant pages or visit the local gear shop to ask for advice. Most outdoor enthusiasts will be happy (sometimes too happy) to help.
In the era of Instagram, travel blogs, and YouTube, few outdoor spaces remain uncharted — and we wouldn’t recommend these seldomly-visited spots for first-time backpackers, anyway. My point is there are tons of online resources that you can utilize to plan your trip.
Look up trail maps and recent condition reports, which will give you some idea of what you’ll be walking into, and always have a bailout plan in place. Knowing alternate routes and campsites may help you salvage a trip that’s gone sideways.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for — let’s talk hygiene.
- Avoid chafing: Wear anti-chafe materials and quick-dry hiking underwear, often made from merino wool blends.
- Stay fresh: If you hate feeling sticky after a long day of hiking, bring wet wipes for a quick “camp shower.”
- Wipe or wash: When it’s time to go #1, wipe with toilet paper or an antimicrobial, reusable Kula Cloth. You can also rinse with a small bidet bottle.
- Prep for your period: Menstrual cups are ideal for backpacking, as you can bury the contents in a cat hole. Disposable hygiene products, like tampons and pads, will not biodegrade and must be packed out.
If you’ve ever heard of Aron Ralston or the film “127 Hours,” chances are this lesson has already been drilled into your head. However, it bears repeating: Always share your backcountry plans with someone else.
Before heading out, let a friend or family member know your estimated return date and the area you want to explore. If an emergency does arise, this information will save rescuers precious time and increase your chances of survival.
The tricky part is done — your pack is full, and you’re ready to set out. Just keep a few more things in mind while you’re out in the thick of the backcountry. Oh, and don’t forget to take plenty of pictures and notes to look back at later.
While tackling remote peaks or 40-mile trails isn’t out of the question for beginners, just getting into the backcountry is an achievement in itself. Don’t feel you must push yourself past your limits to be considered a “real backpacker.”
Assess your physical fitness levels, how much you can carry, and how many days or miles you can cover. Be honest while setting goals, then take the time to celebrate what you accomplish. Fewer than 3% of Americans backpack annually — now, you’re one of them!
With those first-trip jitters flowing, you may want to share all the details of your exciting trip with the first hiker you meet. However, you’ll have to do your best to keep at least some of that info to yourself.
Don’t share the exact location of your campsite, and if you’re hiking solo, don’t let any strangers know. Most hikers are there for the same reasons as you — to enjoy the great outdoors — but you should absolutely trust your gut if you meet someone who feels “off.”
It can be tempting to camp near civilization, but well-traveled roads and trailheads don’t make for good sleeping spots. Loud passersby can disrupt otherwise peaceful evenings, and higher traffic means more chances to encounter someone unpleasant.
Take the extra time to find more remote, quiet campsites that will save you some sleepless nights. Otherwise, you might find yourself camping uncomfortably close to noise that’ll keep you tossing and turning all night.
Once you’ve made it home and unpacked, hopefully with some wonderful new memories, it’s time for an equally vital part of backpacking: reflecting on what went wrong and what went right. Your first trip provides a wealth of knowledge that will help you plan the next one.
Did you plan to hike an unsustainable amount of miles? Or maybe forgot your tent poles at home? Trust me, everyone makes mistakes on their first backpacking trip. Even experienced thru-hikers can run into snafus from time to time.
Recognizing what worked and what didn’t will set the stage for even better trips in the future. If you’re not sure what caused a specific issue, ask other experienced backpackers for advice so you can avoid the same problems down the road.
As you review the details of your backpacking trip, take another look at the gear you brought along. If you found yourself with blisters from too-tight hiking socks or with a sun umbrella that went unused, adjust your future packing lists accordingly.
You can always exchange or resell items that don’t work for you. Anything you bring backpacking should improve the quality of your trip, and there’s no need to stick with something you don’t like.
Even if you had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad trip, don’t let it end your backpacking career before it has a chance to get going. Plenty of things can go wrong at any time, whether you’re on the trail or on your couch at home, so a bad day shouldn’t stop you from trying again.
If you’re still unsure, give yourself a little time to let your experience soak in; you might eventually recall even your worst backpacking moments fondly. I’ve spent my fair share of unpleasant nights in the backcountry, but with hindsight, those trips now rank as some of my favorites.
Backpacking as a woman can seem challenging, but with these tips in mind, you’ll be out there in no time. Whether you want to take a short trip or jump into a thru-hike, the backpacking community welcomes you, and there’s always an ultralight nerd or two ready to help.
Knowing how to handle feminine hygiene and find the right gear should help to alleviate some uncertainty and anxiety as you plan your first backpacking trip. But most importantly, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.
No matter how prepared you are, trying something for the first time is always scary. You may run into some hiccups, but gender should never be an obstacle that prevents you from backpacking. Keep track of how you feel before, during, and after your trip, and watch your confidence grow.
Now, head to the trail, scuff up those brand-new boots, and check back to let us know how it all went.
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Last Updated on August 28, 2023