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Photo by Patrick Colleran
Oct 26 2016

The Big Risk

Six tips for taking someone backpacking for his or her first time

Exploring Montana, Featured

The idea raised its head during the winter and then took its leave to grow and marinate. Through the occasional exchange of pictures and potential dates, the idea took on a life of its own and stayed an uncertainty on the backburner until springtime.

The idea was to take my sister on her very first backpacking trip. Incidentally, this would also be her first time sleeping outside, her first time hiking in the Pacific Northwest, and her first time putting on shoes intended for dirt and rock and rain.

At some point, the idea turned into a plan.

Frankly, I was a nervous wreck leading up to the trip. Not because I thought my sister couldn’t do it. She’s strong and tough and infinitely capable. It was because she had never done this before, and I felt all the weight of introducing my family to my fiancée. I love being in the outdoors, and I wanted this experience to be a grand revelation for her. I wanted to convert her to trails and alpine lakes and the sweaty weight of a heavy pack.

Months of buildup finally culminated in a four-day, three-night trip in the Snoqualmie Pass area of Washington State. To be honest, it went off without a hitch. We saw a meteor shower and had lots of sunshine, clear alpine lakes, warm evening fires, and tired bones. We ate well and slept soundly. Best of all? We may just do it again next summer.

The key was (surprise, surprise) planning.

I came up with six tips to consider when taking your friend or loved-one on his or her first backpacking trip. Hopefully, these tips will allow for an experience that sparks the proverbial fire of backpack love.

  1. Pick an appropriate trip. A first-time backpacker will not appreciate long distances or huge ascents or descents. Consider the interests of your audience, whether he might enjoy the coast, desert, prairie, or mountains. Pick a lake as your destination so he might enjoy the reward of a swim at the end of a hot day of hiking. Or plan on camping somewhere with a great view to enjoy at sunset.
  2. Do what you can to make him or her comfortable. Offer a packing list with the clothes and other items he should take along, such as trekking poles and remedies for blisters or hot spots. Suggest meals and snacks he’s sure to enjoy, but also bring treats and surprises (I love to reach a destination and pull out an entire fresh pineapple).
  3. Discuss. Listen to any misgivings the first-time backpacker might have and discuss them. For instance, someone who has never slept outdoors may express some trepidation about sleeping under the stars, even if the night is clear and beautiful. So, a tent may be an understandably necessary comfort.
  4. Go in a group. Having several people helps to ease conversation, provides the comfort of shared experience, and adds variety to conversation. It can also bring comic relief when you might need it most.
  5. Let them learn. You can suggest what to take and not to take, but ultimately experience is the best teacher. I had to pack four pairs of pants my first trip to learn that I only needed one. 
  6. Enjoy yourself. It’s contagious.

- Courtney Wantink is the environment point person at the Patagonia store in Portland, Oregon. She's spent the last three months volunteering at MWA's main office in Helena.