Hiking and backpacking can be fantastic outdoor activities for enthusiasts of all ages. There are more than 640 million acres (1 million square miles) of protected land in the United States, many of which are crisscrossed by hikeable trails ranging from easy to intensely difficult, from easily accessible from trailheads in urban park settings to way out in the the most remote backcountry.

Hiking is walking around in natural environments. It is an extremely popular outdoor activity—one-third of Americans go hiking every year. Backpacking is a combination of hiking and camping, where you hike into the wilderness and camp for at least one night.

Dangers of the Trail

Being safe and cautious is essential when backpacking; many times, you'll be deep in the wilderness, out of range of easy (or any) contact with civilization. You may encounter landscapes and environments that could be potentially dangerous: rocky trails, steep mountain faces, dangerously hot or cold weather, extreme precipitation, and perilous river crossings.

You may come across plants and animals that are dangerous. These range from plants like poison oak and poison ivy that can cause allergic reactions, to insects and reptiles with venomous bites and stings, to wild mammals and other large animals that may attack if hungry or provoked. 

Backpackers are also at risk for many illnesses, sadly many occurring because people do not exercise appropriate caution when remote from care. Problems include diarrhea, dehydration, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, altitude sickness, and physical injury. Illnesses that develop on the trail or in camp are exacerbated by distance from help and supplies. This can be mitigated with proper preparation.

The Right Gear

The right gear is absolutely essential for a safe and successful backpacking trip. When backpacking, you need to carry all your gear for your entire stay with you, usually in a big pack worn on your back. This includes your tent (or other form of shelter) and sleeping bag, as well as food and water. As for the rest of your gear, many backpackers swear by the "Ten Essentials." These are:

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
  4. Extra food and water
  5. Extra clothes
  6. Headlamp/flashlight
  7. First aid kit
  8. Fire starter
  9. Matches
  10. Knife (a multi-tool like a Leatherman or Swiss Army Knife is often used)

Other gear that many backpackers carry include iinsect repellent, repair kit, water treatment devices and supplies, plastic tarp and rope for emergency shelter, and signaling devices (such as a whistle or satellite phone). Although in many cases not all of these items will be needed, they are good to have in case of emergencies. 

Learn More

Avoiding Poison Oak and Ivy

Treating Sprains and Pains: Ice it Down

Autumn Hiking Advice

Preventing Blisters

Hiking on Rocky Trails

Dealing with Temperature Swings on the Trail

Choosing the Right Backpack