A Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking in Washington

Whether you’re watching the sunrise on a dewy ridge in the North Cascades, taking a multi-day trip through the rainforest in the Olympics, overlooking one of the 700+ lakes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, or watching the colors dance on Mount Rainier at sunset, backpacking in Washington will leave you with phenomenal memories. The views are earned but the reward is always worth the sweat.

Below I’ll explain how to get out on the trail while having fun and staying safe!

volcano and wildflowers
coffee in the mountains

Be Prepared

One of the common misconceptions of backpacking is thinking you need to cover a ton of miles to make it “worth it”. I’m here to tell you that miles do not matter. 

Picking somewhere close to home and a trail that is six miles or less is perfectly fine. Backpacking is not a competitive sport — we all just want to eat our fancy trail ramen on a calm side of the mountain after a safe journey in.

camping in fog

Study the weather, then check again and again. Maybe one more time…

The Pacific Northwest is notorious for rapid weather changes, and in the mountains that only intensifies. So study the weather until the moment you leave. It’s okay to cancel a trip due to inclement weather. The trail will still be there on a better day! 

Study your route and trail plans. Identify water sources for filtering so you know how much water to bring, or if you need to carry enough for an entire trip.

Leave No Trace

There are 7 principles for Leave No Trace. These principles are ever-changing and will likely keep updating as time goes on. 

  1. Plan ahead and prepare 
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces (established campsites, not on meadows)
  3. Dispose of waste properly (pack it in, pack it out)
  4. Leave what you find (don’t pick flowers, take a photo instead)
  5. Minimize campfire impacts (needs to be cool to the touch before you leave)
  6. Respect wildlife (don’t feed the wildlife and hang your food 15 ft from the ground or use a bear box)
  7. Be considerate of others 
hiking in the snow

Safety

Do your own research! Do not depend on anyone but yourself, no matter how experienced your partner or guide is. You never know what can happen out there so make sure you’re self-reliant and capable of getting help if needed.

There are many apps and websites that have trip reports from hikers who recently went on the trail. This is an incredibly useful tool that can warn you of any trail obstacles, wildlife in the area, icy/snow conditions, etc. In Washington, a reliable source for trip reports is the Washington Trails Association website. 

backpacking in washington

Always leave your itinerary with someone you trust! If you have not returned by your expected time back, they can notify authorities and get help quickly. You’ll also want to write this information on a piece of paper and leave it under the driver seat of your vehicle.

What you should include:

  1. Name of backpacker(s)
  2. Any medical issues
  3. Trailhead name of entry/exit
  4. Planned trails and route
  5. Any backup plans
  6. Time expected back

If you want to let your loved ones know that you are safe while backpacking, there are great satellite communicators now on the market that allow you to be reachable in no-service areas.

Gear

Having the proper gear can make or break a trip, believe me. My first backpacking trip I carried almost 45lbs on my back, used a tarp as a rainfly and wore hand-me-down boots that were too small resulting in gnarly blisters. I learned the hard way, but you don’t have to!

backpacking by wildflowers

The 10 Essentials

Probably the most important items in your pack. Some would say, the non-negotiables. These are the 10 essential items you should always bring when backpacking.

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Water (and water filter or chemical treatment)
  4. Food (high-energy/high-calorie)
  5. Firestarter
  6. Rain gear
  7. First aid kit
  8. Knife (or Swiss Army knife)
  9. Flashlights/headlamps (extra batteries too)
  10. Sunscreen/sunglasses
backpacker on trail

Boots

You want to invest in quality boots with good support that are a half size bigger than what you normally wear. You need larger boots because your feet naturally swell when hiking and slide forward when going downhill.

If you have too small of boots or are in your normal street size, you’re in for an uncomfortable journey.

Backpack

Your pack size is probably not going to be the same as your shirt size.

Backpack size is determined by torso length and hip width. You can get these measurements done at any outdoor retailer or find tutorials on the internet to walk you through it at home! 

Once you know your measurements, aim for a pack around 50 – 65 liters. This is the optimal size for overnight and multi-night trips.

subalpine lake in washington

Base Layers

Invest in quality base layers such as wool or poly blends. Cotton is a notorious sweat-trapper, does not regulate body temperature and absorbs any moisture. So it’s an extremely good rule of thumb to always avoid cotton, especially here in the Pacific Northwest.

The same base layer rules apply when buying socks. No cotton, only wool or poly blends to wick the moisture away and keep your feet warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Always bring extra socks; they will get damp as you sweat and any wetness can lead to blisters.

backpacking tent setup

Tent/Shelter

All tents are not created equal! Investing in a quality backpacking tent is a game-changer for most people.

Backpacking tents are designed to be more lightweight. They typically have cross-styled and/or more structured pole designs that withstand mountain winds, a rainfly that extends to the ground to give a ‘garage’, and they pack down small for easy carry. 

You can go a step further to protect your tent by using a footprint. Footprints protect the “underbelly” of the tent body from abrasions from rocks/roots.  

Sleeping Bag and Pad

Most sleeping bags are categorized as synthetic or down and come in a “mummy” shape to align with your body to trap heat more efficiently and save weight.

Synthetic bags are great for Washington as they do not hold moisture, so if it gets damp you will not lose the insulation value. However, synthetic bags are known to be a little more heavy than down bags and do not have as low of temperature ratings.

Down bags are usually more lightweight and compress down much smaller than synthetic bags. However, if your down bag becomes damp or wet, it will hold onto that moisture for longer and become clumpy which results in losing insulation/warmth.

hiking beneath volcano in washington

Sleeping pads provide insulation between you and the ground. Before you ask, no, a yoga mat is not a sleeping pad. Foam pads are a great lightweight choice that can strap to the outside of your pack easily. Through-hikers and mountaineers alike swear by them. If you are a side sleeper or want more comfort in the backcountry, inflatable pads are the way to go!

backpacking stove and pot

Cooking Gear

Lightweight stoves and pots are essential for heating up water and making food. The most commonly used by backpackers today are stoves that use isobutane-propane fuel. Just twist the fuel onto the stove itself, get the spark going and away you go! Some of these stoves also come with integrated pots that offer nice wind protection. 

Isobutane-propane fuel stoves do not perform as well in the cold as it’s hard for the fuel to get distributed upwards towards the pot. If you are camping in the cold, a liquid fuel stove may be your best bet. These stoves require priming and are a bit more dangerous so I recommend doing your research! 

taking a break from backpacking

Don’t Overpack

Your backpack should never weigh over 20% of your body weight. This is the most common problem when new backpackers get started, and probably the hardest advice to take at first. Wear the same thing every day, do not bring extra clothes. Crazy right?

Bring one set of day clothes and one set of night clothes. The only ‘extras’ you need are socks and underwear. Of course if you’re going for a longer trip this may be different, but even for five days I only bring one extra shirt! 

Don’t bring extra or heavy food. Avoid canned foods and glass bottles, as they are big, bulky and take up a lot of trash space. However if you want to bring a beer, bring a can — this way you can easily smash it down.

Freeze-dried/dehydrated meals, ramen, bars, nuts/seeds, oatmeal packs, jerky and instant coffees are staples among most backpackers as they are lightweight and heavy in calories. If you want fresh food, only bring enough for the first day and try to avoid anything with peels. You need to pack out any leftover food — leave no trace! 

hiking trail above lake

Additional Tips

Trekking poles aren’t just for people with knee and joint problems, they are incredibly beneficial for every backpacker. They help stabilize your body in uneven terrain and save your legs from getting tired more quickly by using your arms to distribute weight.

Bring a pair of camp shoes. Whether it be sandals, crocs, down booties, slippers etc. your feet will thank you!

Start packing ahead of time! For longer trips start a week in advance, for one or two-nighters 48 hours in advance is plenty.

Test your gear! There is nothing worse than hiking all the way into your site only to find out one of your tent poles is broken. Set up your tent, use your stove, break in your boots, inflate your sleeping pad, use your water filter and test your backpacking food before leaving home.

Check out our hiking necessities story for more tips on hiking and backpacking.

fluffy mountain wildflowers

Have fun!

Backpacking is an incredibly rewarding experience, from the jaw-dropping views to realizing what your body is capable of. It reminds us of the value in the simple things in life that are often forgotten in our tech-rich world. 

So don’t forget to stop and smell the wildflowers, eat the huckleberries, take a million photos,  wake up early for sunrise and gaze at all those rugged ridgelines.

I’ll see you on the trails!

Brooke Nicholson

Brooke Nicholson

Hi there, I'm Brooke! I am a lover of all things outside ranging from backpacking in remote areas of Washington, day hiking in Mount Rainier, Cross Country skiing at White Pass to SUV camping on forest roads near Greenwater. I have had the opportunity to work behind the scenes in one of the most loved outdoor retailers helping people get outside, and love showing people the potential they never knew they had. I love belly laughing conversations, vegan food and local beers after a long day on the trail - or lake. I would love to summit all the volcanos in WA in the next 5 years and also visit all the local coffee roasters as I'm a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur. Follow along on Instagram: @brooke.olivia_

2 Comments

  1. Avatar Lisa Carns on October 14, 2020 at 6:49 pm

    Great article! I’m a new subscriber!!

  2. Avatar Cassidy Blair on October 15, 2020 at 10:01 am

    Great information!!! Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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