Easy Backpacking Trips for Beginners
But before you try to take on all 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, you'll need to test out your gear, train your body, and try your patience. The best way to prep? Take shorter trips to acclimate your body and figure out what you really need (and don't need) for six months on the trail. After all, backpacking is a skill, and like most skills it takes practice to master.
These trails, from the coast of Maine to the meadows of Shenandoah, are perfect for beginners: short, sweet, and scenic.
High Sierra Camps Loop, Yosemite National Park, California
Tucked into the backcountry of Yosemite National Park are the six ersatz lodges known as the High Sierra Camps. Accessible only on foot (human or horse) the camps give newbies the opportunity to learn the ropes of backpacking without having to heft a heavy pack and prepare food at the end of a long day on the trail when you are too exhausted to move. The six camps are spread between seven and nine miles apart along a loop trail that runs around the Yosemite Valley and consists of group tents—some have showers—and canteens where family style meals are cooked by the staff. While most of the hikes around the loop trail are a day’s worth of walking away from Tioga Pass Road, there’s a lot of flexibility for hikers making their way along the loop trail. Depending on where you choose to camp, it can be an overnight trip or a week long—the complete loop from Tuolomne is 46 miles—all within the beauty of Yosemite.
Reservations to stay at the camps are distributed via a lottery, so plan ahead. If you don’t win the lottery, there are also nearby backpackers’ campgrounds and you can sign up to eat meals at the High Sierra Camps.
Appalachian Trail, Delaware River, New Jersey/Pennsylvania
The 2,190-mile long Appalachian Trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine is definitely for expert backpackers only, but even beginners can tackle stretches of the famed path. One of the easier options involves a 16-mile trek spread out over two days. New backpackers can jump on the Appalachian Trail at the evocatively named Rattlesnake Swamp Trail as it meanders North through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. Look for the trail marker that indicates when you are leaving the wonders of the Garden State for the natural beauty of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Watch for hawks circling New Jersey’s Kittatinny Ridge, check out the glacial Sunfish Pond, and hoof it up Mt. Minsi for incredible views of waterfalls, Lake Lenape, Mt. Tammany, and the entire Delaware Water Gap. Be sure to reserve a campsite at one of the many spots in each state so when you’ve reached your limit of hiking, you can kick off your boots, pitch your tent, and light up a fire. If you want to hang with the hiking pros, hit the trail in June when the people walking the Appalachian Trail will be making their way through the region.
Pratt Lake, Snoqualmie Pass, Washington
Build your backpacking skills while lake hopping in Washington State’s Snoqualmie Pass recreation area. Set out along the Pratt Lake Trail with your trusty Washington Trails map and choose your own adventure through picturesque fir forests. Follow one fork in the road to camp on the shores of the scenic Olallie Lake, or follow the trail to take a dip in the deep blue waters of Talapus Lake. Head up the mountain to visit Pratt Lake and pitch a tent on the banks of the mountain lake, surrounded by huckleberries and sour grass in the summer. Pitch a tent at campsites near the lake. If you are feeling particularly ambitious and want to test your camping skills in the backcountry, trek onwards to Melakwa Lake, which is a day’s hike away or even Kaleetan Lake, where visitors frequently find themselves alone with their thoughts, gray jays, and a thousand stars. This area is also popular with fisherman who can be seen stalking the trails with their favorite poles and have been known to share the lake’s bounty with fellow campers.
Hawksbill Gap, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
For a slightly longer backpacking trip that is still easy enough for beginners, head to Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. The trail from the Hawksbill Gap to Swift Run is a 23-mile journey through the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains. While a 23-mile hike sounds daunting, dividing the hike up into five- or seven-mile sections makes it manageable for newbies and still leavs plenty of breaks for sightseeing as well as the option to camp when the mood strikes or the campfire beckons. Climb to the top of Hawksbill Mountain, the tallest mountain in the Shenandoah, admire the streams and waterfalls that dot the land, and meet the hikers making their way along the Appalachian Trail. This hike is not a loop, though, so be sure to plan for someone to pick you up when you make it to the end of the trail at the South River Picnic Area in Elktown, Va., or you may find yourself hiking a little longer than expected.
If you plan to camp, be sure to sign up for a free backcountry camping permit in advance.
Crystal Lakes, Breckinridge, Colorado
A few miles south of Breckinridge lay the idyllic Crystal Lakes: beautiful blue gems nestled in the valleys of the Ten Mile mountain range. The lower lake can be reached with a four-wheel drive vehicle, which means it is a great way for anyone with limited mobility to share in the alpine beauty. Otherwise, the trail is an easy 2.5-mile jaunt from the Spruce Creek Trailhead, making it’s a great place to break in a pair of hiking shoes. Make it a half-day trip or set up a tent on the banks of the lower lake and then hoof it to the upper lake, which lies another two miles away. Time your visit right and the valley will be filled with a rainbow of wildflowers mixing with lingering snow somehow making the scenery even more beautiful. Keep your eyes peeled for Colorado natives like bighorn sheep, elk, mountain goats, and marmots.
Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land, Cutler, Maine
Head to the Far North to experience the best of Maine while learning the ropes of backpacking. The Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land, tucked into Maine’s Down East seaboard near the Canadian border, is 12,234 acres of blueberry barrens, peat boys, and pine forests overlooking the Bay of Fundy. The 2.8-mile Coastal Trail offers majestic views of the roiling ocean, rock-lined coves, and craggy cliffs as it jogs along the headlands, while the Fairy Head Loop Trail is a 9.1-mile loop that gives hikers the most diverse scenery including shorefront, beaver ponds, and marshes. Backpackers can combine the preserves trails (follow the Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land trail map) to make a memorable 10-mile maritime hike with plenty of places to pitch a tent near Fairy Head and admire the view of of the seabirds circling over Canada's Grand Manan Island.