Beginner’s guide to backpacking

Backpacking is one of the most rewarding ways to experience the outdoors. It allows access to wild and remote areas that would otherwise be inaccessible by day hiking. It provides an ideal venue through which one can push their physical and mental comfort zones, all while exploring rugged sections of wilderness few ever lay eyes on. However, planning a big backpacking adventure can be rather daunting. There are logistics to coordinate and food to pack, gear to buy and maps to study. At times the process of planning and executing a trip can feel overwhelming. But by breaking up the planning into pieces, one can easily prepare for an outing in the backcountry.

Backpacking locations in Southwest Montana:

Bozeman is surrounded by great options for exploring the woods: for an easier option, check out Cottonwood Lake in the Crazy Mountains. With a roughly five-mile approach to the lake, and only 2,000 feet of elevation gain, this is a good option for a beginner backpacker. The trail is in good condition and is easy to follow, leaving lots of time to be spent around the lake for fishing or exploring. While doable in a day, trailhead to trailhead, making it an overnight trip allows you to enjoy the scenery and move at a slower pace. Plus, it allows you to practice all your backpacking skills without the strain of an extremely heavy pack.

The Beaten Path, located in the Beartooth Mountains, is a great backpacking route for someone looking for a more challenging adventure. It spans the Beartooths in roughly 27 miles, with close to 4,000 feet in elevation gain, from East Rosebud to Cooke City. One problem with this trail is that it is a through hike, as opposed to a loop that brings hikers back to the trailhead. Therefore, a shuttle is necessary, or two groups, heading in opposite directions, that can meet and swap keys halfway through. There are ample spots to camp along the trail and numerous side adventures up to the Beartooth Plateau, where you can explore some of the highest parts of Montana.


There are several essential pieces of gear required for every backpacking trip. First and foremost, you will want gear for sleeping, e.g. a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad. When it comes to tents, particular brands are not especially important, as most modern tents are light, compactable and easy to assemble. Most can pack down to a minuscule size, and generally only weigh two to four pounds. Pick a tent that fits your needs and price range. On a similar note, modern sleeping bags have also become exceptionally light and compactable. For most non-winter backpacking adventures, a sleeping bag rated for temperatures of 20-30 degrees will do the trick.

Gear for cooking and drinking is also essential. A water purifier of some form is a must-have in the backcountry. It’s never a good idea to drink water out of a stream or lake without purifying it first. No matter how clean a water source may look, there could still be dangerous bacteria like giardia lurking beneath the surface. To obtain the safest possible drinking water, consider filtering the water with a standard water purifier and then treating it with a UV filter like the SteriPEN. Some sort of backcountry stove will also be needed to cook food. For example, Jetboil stoves are small and light, and can quickly boil water needed to prepare food in the backcountry. With these pieces of equipment, making meals and procuring drinking water will be simple.  

Many of the aforementioned pieces of equipment can be found and rented through the Outdoor Recreation Program at MSU.

Food for backcountry endeavors:

There are a few options for backpacking food. To begin, there is the freeze dried food option. If you like the simplicity of adding hot water to a bag and then eating re-hydrated food from that bag, go with this option. It is beneficial for increasing the methane to oxygen ratio inside of tents, and for going lightweight on extended trips. However, such methods of food consumption are rarely cheap and require a mediocre palate to enjoy.

On the other side of the spectrum, bring what you normally eat into the backcountry. Better for short trips, this allows you to enjoy the food you are eating rather than gagging down freeze dried beef stroganoff. It is heavier, but cheaper and more delicious. I highly recommend skimping on other gear and bringing more delicious food substances than freeze dried beef stroganoff. For most of the day, you should consume large amounts of energy bars, fruit, trail mix, and other normal snacking options. Bonus points for bringing peanut M&Ms. A sage piece of advice for the freeze dried method: hot sauce is your best friend, and will allow you to leap to greater heights of fighting your way through the lasagna with meat sauce.


At the end of the day, the most important part of backpacking is to leave no trace. You should always pack out what you pack in, and dispose of waste responsibly. This includes things like ashes from fires, which should be dispersed in the surrounding areas to minimize the residual impact. Leaving no trace also dictates showing respect. Respect fellow hikers and backpackers out on the trail. Respect the land and the animals that live there. And ultimately, respect your personal limits.  After all, going out into the backcountry is optional, but coming back is mandatory.

How to poop in the woods:

Backpacking can be hard with giving up the luxuries of wifi, coffee shops and most importantly, the porcelain throne. Instead of a glorious pedestal to contemplate the world from within your powder room, your bare bum becomes exposed to the elements, alas with nothing to sit on. While a potentially awkward occurrence at first, with practice and great understanding, pooping in the woods can be just as, or more rewarding than the litter box you use daily. To get to such an enlightened defecation, follow this advice:

First, make sure you are relieving yourself in a proper area. Nothing says bad karma like pooping where you shouldn’t. For backpacking, this means being at least 200 feet away from any trail or, more importantly, body of water. Additionally, find a place where you can situate yourself comfortably with a good view. We’re trying to reach enlightened pooping after all, and a good, serene view is necessary.

Second, have the supplies necessary for splendid stool. This includes having a trowel or digging stick, things to wipe with and potentially a WAG bag, a bag full of compostable material for carrying out poop. If you are in a non-alpine environment, use the trowel to dig a hole at least six inches deep and a bit wider than that. If you are in an alpine environment or fragile ecosystem, skip the trowel and use the WAG bag. Yes, this means packing out your crap.

Finally comes the delightful defecation and the wiping to follow. Make sure you are comfortable and then get into a squat. Do not pull your pants all the way down, go too far down and you’ll get yourself into a game of aiming, which is not an easy game. As seen across Asia, a full, deep squat is better for this activity, both for sitting and scientifically for your digestive tract. Enjoy the view, relax and aim for the hole. When it comes to wiping, make sure you pack out your toilet paper if you choose to use it. Burying it equals bad karma. Burning it is also not cool, as forest fires are not cool. If the idea of packing it out seems gross to you, you’re probably not reading this article anymore. If you are still reading, use a pinecone, a (smooth) rock or your hand. People in Nepal use their hand to wipe, and it works. Just make sure you thoroughly clean said hand, only eat with the other hand and don’t get too grossed out.  Enjoy pooping.