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Imagine hiking in the wondersome outdoors, caught in a simple routine of exploring, eating and sleeping. Everything you need is on your back. Everywhere you go is by foot.
The idea of backpacking is exhilarating, but the idea of getting into it can be intimidating. How do you pick a trail? What gear should you buy? How will you manage menstruation on the trail?
This article is loaded with tips and tricks I have learned over hiking thousands of miles over all kinds of trails in all kinds of weather. My goal is to guide you out of your head and onto the trail.
Remember, every seasoned backpacker was once a beginner. The only way to learn is to try and the only way to experience the wonder of nature firsthand is to go out into it.
Tips for Women Backpacking
How to Pick a Trail
For your first backpacking trip, you should pick a trail in an area you are already familiar with — somewhere you’ve already done day hikes. A popular, well-maintained trail is desirable because more people will be around in case you need something — even if it’s just friendly evening conversation!
Plan your trip during peak season (June-September in northern states, spring and autumn in the southern states) which will bring better weather and an increased number of people on the trail.
As for distance, you should opt for a shorter trail than you’re capable of in a day hike. Your backpacking bag will be heavier than a day pack, thus you will be slower and tire out faster than you typically do.
If you need trail suggestions, try talking to staff at a visitors center or visiting the official website of a state or national park. You can also get ideas from free apps like AllTrails.
AllTrails provides user-uploaded maps of all kinds of trails. You can search trails by location, difficulty, trail length, elevation, activity, attractions, even by user-generated. In addition to stars, users can leave post pictures and trip reports, which are a good way to research how pretty and popular a trail is and whether it may be too difficult for you.
Get Physically and Mentally Prepared!
Hiking is a lot more fun if you’re focused on your surroundings and not your breath! Leading up to your backing trip, hike day-trip trails that are longer and harder than your planned backpacking trip. Furthermore, practice hiking with a bag that weighs at least 20 pounds.
Before you go on a trail, become an expert on its conditions, such as:
- How long is the trail?
- How many water sources will be available?
- Could streams be dry during the time of year you plan on hiking?
- What is the weather going to be like? (Bring a rain jacket even if it’s a 90 percent chance of sunshine!)
- Do you need a permit to camp on the trail or park at the trailhead?
- Are there designated camping sites or lean-tos along the trail?
- Can you expect to have cell service all along the trail?
Become Familiar with Your Backpacking Gear
Regardless of whether you bought your own outdoor gear or are renting it, it’s an excellent idea to practice using it before you’re off in the great outdoors. Set up your tent, light your backcountry stove, stuff your sleeping bag back in its holder, practice packing a backpack and walking around with a heavy backpack.
If you’re hesitant about purchasing new or new-to-you equipment for backpacking, you can rent equipment for your first time from places such as REI.
How Much to Bring?
For food, bring more than you typically eat in a day plus an extra day’s worth of food. You’ll be burning more calories than you normally do, and being hangry never improves anything.
For clothes, pack a hiking outfit composed of layers and a sleeping outfit. You’re going to be sweaty and stinky. Might as well embrace it and have less bulk in your bag!
For entertainment, bring something to amuse yourself at camp, like a book, a journey, downloaded podcast or some playing cards.
Safety Tips for First-Time Women Backpackers
Share Your Itinerary with a Friend
Whether hiking solo or in a pair, it is essential to tell someone you trust exactly when and where you are going and give them a time when you will text/call them. If you don’t contact your friend by that time, the person should be prepared to send help your way.
It is also a good idea for this person to know what you are wearing, in case they need to describe you.
Speaking of cell service, it is important to know ahead of time whether you will have it or not. It is very typical to lose cell service in the woods and canyons even if your phone works fine at the trailhead.
When you pass by other hikers on the trail, be sure to make eye contact. This way, you will be more likely to ID each other, should the case arise.
Hiking Alone vs. with a Friend
Did you know that it is statistically safer for women to hike alone in the backcountry than through a metropolitan area?
I am a huge fan of hiking alone — you can spend as much time as you’d like stopping for pictures and admiring the wondrous landscape around you. The greatest downside to hiking by yourself is, if something goes wrong, no one is there to help you immediately.
Before heading off to any trail on your own, factor in the danger/difficulty level of the trail you plan to pursue, such as:
- Will you be on the edge of steep cliffs?
- Are you climbing up numerous loose rocks?
- Will there be snow on the highest peaks of the trail?
- Will you be several miles away from a town or any roads?
If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, it’s a good idea to go with a buddy.
If you’re going on your first-ever backcountry hiking trip, going with someone who has experience trekking out into and spending the night in the wild is always a good idea. Besides increasing your personal safety, sharing your backcountry experience with someone is extremely bonding. Deep conversation amongst gorgeous scenery is always a win!
Have a Map of the Trail (and a Backup!)
The more you hike, the more you’ll realize some trails are just marked better than others. Today, most trails are mapped online and can be downloaded or printed for offline navigation.
AllTrails is also an awesome source for GPS-based maps, although you do need a paid Pro AllTrails Membership to use downloaded trail maps out of cell signal. AllTrails offline maps will show you a trail’s elevation, its distance, which way you are facing, and where you are on the trail or — and this function is extraordinarily useful — if you’ve wandered off the trail.
Which brings me to an essential item to carry in your backpack — a portable phone charger! If your phone is your map (and your camera) you’re going to need it to work! If you decide to have an app track your hiking activity (which AllTrails can also do!), chances are it’s going to suck a lot of battery.
Furthermore, cell phones are not designed to work well in cold or hot conditions. Thus, increasing elevation and the cold temperatures that come with it can drastically decrease your phone’s battery life. Likewise, your phone can overheat in temperatures in the 90s F (30s C) and consume a lot of power.
In case your phone dies, it’s always a good idea to have a backup map of the trail. You can print a map available online, or, in the case of a state or national park, ask for a map at a visitors center. Bring along a compass too.
Avoid Bear Scares
It is unlikely you will see a bear close up, let alone have an unnerving experience with one. The following advice is like wearing a seatbelt in a car — purely safety measures most of the time, but when you need it, you REALLY need it!
If you are hiking anywhere in bear country, ensure there is a can of bear spray in an easy-to-grab location, such as the side pocket of your backpack. Be sure you make loud noises every few minutes so bears know you are coming and can stay away from you. Do no high-pitched noises such as screaming or whistling.
While camping, you must bear-proof your food (and other hygienic items with smell), as bears are attracted to smell. Many backcountry campsites have bear-proof lockers designed for food storage that you can use. If not, bring a bear canister, which you can simply leave on the ground overnight. And ALWAYS store your food at least 200 feet (60 meters) away from your campsite.
In addition to bears, make sure you know ahead of time if there are other animals of concern living near your planned trail, and brush up on what to do if you face a bear encounter.
Know How to Summon Help
The ability to send someone a message indicating you are “OK” or that you will be “coming back a day later” can take a world of stress away from those at home. The downside to SEND devices is they are expensive and require subscriptions on top of a device purchase, and the batteries need to be recharged.
A cheaper alternative to SEND devices are personal locator beacons (PLB), such as the ACR ResQiInk, which allow you to send out SOS signals, but nothing else. There are no subscriptions necessary for most PLB devices, and the batteries last for years.
Of course, if you are backpacking on a popular trail and something goes wrong close to the campsite, hollering for help or blowing a whistle three consecutive times — the universal signal for help — will most likely reel in a friendly hand. Hikers tend to be an amicable bunch, after all.
SheBuysTravel Tip: See below for some must-have safety items to ALWAYS pack in your backpack.
How to Pack Your Backpack
- Pack a layer of cushion on the bottom of your bag. This will be your sleeping bag, sleeping pad and tent.
- Put the heaviest items in the middle. That way you’re not straining your shoulders or your hips too much.
- Put the items you want easy access to on the top and in the side pockets and hip pockets. Store snacks, hand sanitizers, poop kits, chapstick, rain gear and bear spray towards the top.
Managing Menstruation on the Trails
Don’t let your period end your outdoor adventure before it begins! As long as you come prepared, menstruating while hiking is nothing to be scared of.
Menstruation Products to Pack
There are the mainstream menstruation regulation options like tampons, pads and panty liners. Although these items are less messy and, in some ways, more convenient than reusable options, they do take up a lot of space. And, remember, you have to carry them both in and out. Leave no trace!
To reduce usage of panty liners, try switching to period panties, such as Thinx Period Underwear. When you’re not on your period, wearing moisture resistant underwear can also help keep you cleaner when you’re out on the trail (and during everyday activities).
Women have a huge range of experiences when it comes to menstruation. If you know you are prone to pain, be sure to bring along ibuprofen (which is good to have on hand regardless) and a hot water bottle to help with cramps.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Even if you don’t end up having your period on the trail, pads are an awesome item to bring along because they are designed to soak up a lot of blood and can be utilized for other emergencies.
Eco-Friendly Menstruation Products
Then there are the reusable period management options, such as a menstrual cup and leak-proof underwear. Both of these items require more work than disposable counterparts, but they are more eco-friendly.
SheBuysTravel Tip: If you decide to switch from a disposable to a reusable menstruation management system, try a practice run at home before heading off on the trail.
When disposing of blood from menstrual cups (or poop, for that matter), you must dig a six-inch hole 200 feet (about 75 steps) away from the trail, campsites and a water source using a trowel or small shovel.
Using toilet paper, clean yourself and the cup and put the paper in the bottom of the hole. Use scentless soap or hand sanitizer to clean your hands before re-inserting the cup. You can also use bandana pee-rags or Kula Cloths to help clean yourself.
SheBuysTravel Tip: See the “Backpack Checklist” section below for a full list of must-pack menstruation products.
Choose the Right Backpack
Bringing a backpack on a backpacking trip is pretty obvious, but choosing the right one is not!
For a multi-day drip, or for the option to bring more belongings, you’ll want a medium-sized backpacking bag (capacity of 50-70 liters). If you want a smaller bag for an overnight trip, a pack with a capacity between 30-50 liters can suffice.
You’ll most likely want a bag with easy top and side access, so you can remove items in the top and middle of your bag without taking out everything! Pockets are an awesome spot to store snacks, phones, chapstick and other quick-access items.
Sometimes, the same models of backpacks come in different sizes (S, M) to accommodate different bodies; it is important to know your measurements so you can buy the correct size for you.
- REI Co-op Traverse 60 Pack – Women’s. This bag isn’t the lightest, weighing 4.2 pounds, or the most affordable, but it has all the fixings and then some. The bag contains not just one, but two water bottle pockets, several other pockets, thick hip padding, adjustable straps, a compartment for sleeping bags, a rain cover, a detachable day pack and more!
- Gregory Deva 60 Pack. This also isn’t the lightest, weighing 4.7 pounds, but it is consistently reviewed as one of the most comfortable packs out there for women. The hip belt and shoulder support are made from a breathable fabric designed to wick away moisture and also transfer weight to the lower back and hips. This backpack also features a detachable day pack, a rain cover, a pocket for sunglasses and full front u-shaped zipper access to the main compartment of the bag.
- For a better bang for your buck (and a lighter bag at 3.6 pounds) that still has excellent comfort and suspension, try the Osprey Renn 65. This backpack has a more basic design with not as many convenient fixtures and pockets, but has a detachable rain cover, a separate sleeping bag compartment and can hold a lot of weight.
My first backpacking trip experience was saturated in awe-striking beauty — and a backpack full of soaked belongings. Don’t let rain dampen your first experience: be prepared to be impermeable!
- Backpack rain cover. Ideally, you have a backpack that comes with a rain cover. If not, invest in one like the Osprey Ultralight Pack Rain cover.
- Resealable waterproof containers. Ensuring the contents in your bag aren’t susceptible to water is a must! Anything that can get wet and shouldn’t (food, bandages) should be stored in Ziploc or other soft, reusable, waterproof containers. Reusing resealable packages for food, such as tortilla wraps, works just fine.
- Ponchos. The lightweight PTEROMY Hooded Rain Poncho fits over you and your bag for extra protection from the rain. Personally, I have found a free “single use” plastic poncho given out during a tour works wonders for a rainy day on the trail.
- Rain jacket and pants. Not only will these items help with unexpected rain, (if it rains hard and long enough, you are going to get wet!) but they serve as an excellent windbreaker. There are plenty of name name-brand raincoats out there, like The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Waterproof Hooded Jacket, thatcan conveniently fold into itself for compact storage. Gore-Tex is known for good quality as well. However, after speaking with a highly experienced hiker and based on my own experience, cheaper rain suits readily available at a supermarket often keep water out better than hyped-up expensive jackets. They won’t work as well for wicking away your sweat, however.
- Waterproofing spray. There’s no need to carry this with you, but you should have it at home to re-waterproof your belongings by applying DWR spray, such as Grangers Performance Repel Plus.
- Water bottle. Nalgene bottles are a staple in the outdoors community. They can hold boiling water, have a measurement system on the side (good for measuring water for cooking), and have a wide mouth, making them easy to clean. You will be more conscious of how much water you’re consuming when drinking from a water bottle.
- Reservoir. The Gregory 3D Hydro Reservoir is great for storing a lot of water. This reservoir comes with a hook for hanging to dry and is designed to sit in the backpack as opposed to collapsing. The downside to reservoirs is they are hard to clean and they freeze faster than water bottles. It is also more difficult to gauge how much water you’re consuming, because the reservoir stays in your bag.
- The most popular option for chemical treatment is putting Potable Aqua Iodine and Taste-Neutralizer Tablets into found water, wait 30 minutes and enjoy bacteria- and virus-free water. It might not taste the best, but it’s potable water!
- Filtration systems, such as Katadyn BeFree 1 Liter Filtration Bottle, are collapsible bottles — which save room in your bag. They also are the easiest way to drink filtered water because the filter is attached to the cap.
With food, the objective is to aim for items that are dense: lots of calories/protein in a small weight.
- Granola/energy bars, such as KIND bars, Lara Bars, RX Bars and Cliff Bars.
- Quaker Instant Oatmeal.
- Snacks, such as nut mixes with dried fruit, beef jerky, Mission Whole Wheat Wraps with single packaged peanut or other nut butter (you can also use PB Powdered Peanut Butter and mix with water to save on weight,) or single packaged tuna or chicken.
- Dehydrated meals designed for backpacking. You can get everything from lasagna, to pad Thai, to stew, to oatmeal in dehydrated form. Tried and true brands include Backpacker’s Pantry, Good-to-Go and AlpineAire Foods. For the most part, all these meals require is adding a few cups of boiling water.
- Make your own dehydrated meals. It’s quite simple: pick a base, like instant potatoes, ramen, Minute Rice or couscous. Add some seasoning: powdered ranch, hot sauce, peanut butter, etc. Top it off with dried veggies, nuts or single-packaged tuna and chicken. DYO meals also work well for cold soaking cook methods (discussed below).
There is nothing like having a hot meal after a long day on the trail! Not only can you use a stove to create hot water for your meals, but hot water can also be used to fill water bottles to provide extra warmth in the tent.
The Soto Amicus Stove Cookset Combo is fairly priced as far as backpacking canister stoves go, and will get the job done! Out of all the fuel options, canister fuels are the most convenient to use for most people.
Cold Soaking Meals
For folks who don’t want the hassle of boiling water (wind can be annoying when it comes to tiny stoves!) and don’t mind eating food at mild temperatures, cold soaking is the way to go.
Essentially, instead of putting boiling water into your quick-cook food, you plan to let your food soak while you’re on the trail or soak overnight. Items like instant potatoes take a few minutes to rejuvenate while ramen will take about 20 minutes to become turgid.
Using the cold soaking method, “minute” rice can take a few hours to become palatable.
Bowls and cutlery
- Although many people opt for compact utensils such as humangear GoBites Uno Spork, your regular spoon and fork will work just fine.
- You can buy bowls specifically designed for lightweight backpacking, such as the Sea to Summit Delta Bowl. Many people (myself included) would opt to eat directly out of the dehydrated food packaging or cold soaking container and save on backpack space.
Must-Have Safety Items to Pack
- Sabre Frontiersman 9.2 oz. Bear Spray. Keep this stored near the top of your pack or in an exterior pocket for quick access.
- Sunscreen, like Neutrogena Ultra Dry-Touch. Put in a small container.
- Noople Emergency Whistle. 3 consecutive whistle blows is the universal signal for help.
- Fire starter, such as matches, or Bayite 4 Inch Flint Firestarter.
- Pocket Knife, such as Morakniv Eldris Fixed Steel Blade.
- Flashlight, such as Nitecore Thumb 85 Lumens USB Rechargeable (for versatile use, clippable to hats as a makeshift headlamp) or ThruNite LED Flashlight Archer (for a lightweight, stick form)
- First aid kit. You can buy the YIDERBO 273 Piece Kit make your own kit with Band-Aids, small scissors, duct tape, gauze and alcohol pad stored in a waterproof container.
- ACR ResQLink PLB
- Anker Portable Charger
- Waterproof, Shakeproof Military Lensatic Sighting Compass plus Carrying Bag
- BearVault BV450 Jaunt Bear Canister for safely storing your food. This one is uncrushable and can double as a seat.
Opt for scentless hygiene products, as they are less prone to attract animals.
- Campsuds camping soap (put into smaller container for ultralight backpacking).
- Microfiber towel, such as PackTowl.
- Scentless hand sanitizer, like Purrell.
- Toothpaste, such as Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Paste. You can also bring your own travel-size toothpaste.
- Toothbrush. Bring the one you already own. You can cut it in half to make it more compact in your bag.
- Comb. Bring a small one.
- Scentless lip balm, such as Burt’s Bees.
- Scentless lotion for hands, face, and body. My go-to everyday lotion is Cetaphill (put into a smaller container) because of how well it absorbs into skin on the face and body.
- Scentless deodorant, such as Tom’s of Maine, or opt to go without it and accept your natural smell.
- Bug spray high in deet, such as Sawyer Premium MAXI Deet travel size. I met a woman who was thru-hiking the entire North Country Trail (4,800 miles or 7,700 km across eight states) over two summers. She told me deet worked better than any natural bug repellent, and recommended spraying some on a buff tied around your head.
- Travel containers, such as Selizo 10 Leakproof Silicone Squeeze Bottles and Containers, to compact hygiene products you already own.
- Saalt Soft Menstrual Cup
- Period panties, like Thinx Period Underwear
- Moisture-wicking underwear, like Icebreaker Siren Hipkini Briefs
- Trowel, Such as TheTentLab Deuce #2, for digging bathroom holes
- Pee rag, can be a bandana, or upgrade to a Kula Cloth and some toilet paper
- Toilet paper (if not using a pee rag)
- Scentless soap, such as Castile Liquid Soap (put into smaller container)
- Scentless hand sanitizer
- Ibuprofen (for cramps)
- HomeTop Classic Rubber Hot Water Bottle or fill Nalgene water bottle with hot water
Note: suggested supplies are a compromise between comfort and weight, meaning items are not ultralight, nor the most heavy-duty on the market, but are rated well.
- Three-season backpacking tent, such as the REI Co-op Passage 2 Tent with Footprint. This comes in at 5 pounds with several pockets and gear loops and is less than $200.
- Three-season sleeping bag, like the NEMO Forte 35 Womens, which is great for back and side sleepers alike and is reasonably priced. This bag comes in at just over a pound and is rated for temperatures as low as 30 degrees F, (2 degrees C). Unlike men’s sleeping bags, women-specific bags are shorter in length, narrower at the shoulders, and have more room at the hips, allowing for a more comfortable fit.
- Sleeping pad designed for women, such as the 2-pound REI Co-Op TrailBreak Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad, which has increased padding and insulation in the core area, where women tend to lose heat, and is shorter than unisex pads.
Women’s Backpacking Clothes
Two outfits — one for hiking, one for sleeping. Dress in layers!
Opt for synthetic fibers or wear wool. As the saying goes, “cotton kills” because when it gets wet, it doesn’t dry quickly nor help you stay warm.
- Quick dry hiking REI Savana Trails Pants with deep pockets. In addition to warmth, pants prevent branch scratches and bug bites.
- Quick dry hiking REI Sahara Bermuda Shorts, for when pants are too hot.
- Tank top, moisture-wicking athletic fabric — bring your go-to workout top!
- Sweatshirt as a mid-layer, such as Mountain Hardwear Half-Zip Pullover.
- Insulation layer, like REI Flash Insulated Hoodie, a highly compactable jacket with a windproof, water-resistant layer.
- A waterproof outer layer (See rain protection!)
- (For colder weather) Base layer of Under Armor Cold Gear: Long Sleeve Shirt, Leggings
- Sports bra. Bring your favorite!
- Hiking socks (one for every day of hiking), such as Merrell Zoned Cushioned Socks.
- Extra clothes for sleeping. It’s nice to change into clean clothes for the night!
- Buff to hold back hair
- Gloves in case it gets cold.
- If you’re like me and prone to cold fingers and toes, bring along some hot hands and toe warmers.
- Hat: a beanie that doesn’t take up a lot of space is ideal.
Take Care of Your Feet!
You’re hiking, so your feet are pretty important. Happy feet=happy hiking!
- Hiking shoes. I can attest Women’s Merrell Moab Gore Tex hiking boots are excellent, as I have hiked thousands of miles in various weather conditions and trail surface types in these shoes and am currently on my third pair. I love their grip and the relative roominess for my toes. They’re not entirely waterproof, but again, nothing truly is.
SheBuysTravel Tip: I would definitely recommend trying on hiking shoes in-person in an outdoors-centered store, such as REI. Everybody has different feet, so what works for me might not be so great for you.
- At-camp shoes. After a long day of hiking, your feet are going to want some breathing room. Many people opt for an extra pair of shoes, whether it’s Teva flip flops (a personal favorite), collapsable sneakers or comfy booties.
- Blister prevention. A common practice is to apply moleskin to the outsides of your toes when blisters happen. I prefer to use Duck Tape because the household fix-everything solution works just as well for blister prevention and grips better than moleskin in the rain.