Why Group Backpacking Trips Are the Best Experience for First-Timers
I came off the trail a full believer that group backpacking trips are the coolest and least-intimidating way to experience the backcountry for the first time.
I didn't grow up hiking and camping. My dad didn't teach me how to build a fire or read a map, and my few years of Girl Scouts were filled earning exclusively indoor badges. But when I was introduced to the outdoors via the proverbial post-college road trip with a boyfriend, I was hooked.
I've spent the better part of the eight years since inviting myself on the adventures of every friend or partner who can teach me how to hike, mountain bike, or ski. When they're not around, I haul it out of the city and head into the woods on my own, trying not to get lost before the sun goes down. (Related: How to Plan Your Own Outdoor Adventure Road Trip)
My go-to sports quickly became hiking and camping because of their accessibility and relative low prerequisite skills. Then, inevitably, I longed to go backpacking. Spending multiple days completely isolated from the comforts of home, having no other entertainment option than learning about your adventure partners and appreciating pristine views—backpacking would provide the environmental elation of an afternoon outside, but on steroids.
The problem: None of my friends backpacked. And while day hikes and car camping are something I could figure out on my own, backpacking requires notably higher outdoorswomen skills and the know-how about what you need to pack to survive. Oh, and there might be bears.
It's worth saying: Anyone who has been backpacking will affirm it's not that big of a deal—you literally stuff a backpack, get a map, ensure you've taken safety precautions, and head out. But when you don't know what should go in that pack, what safety precautions you need to make, and what you'd do in the event of an emergency, a basic backpacking trip can seem super intimidating, especially to city dwellers.
So I shelved that challenge for a few years. At the start of 2018, I made a low-key New Year's resolution to go backpacking for the first time before the year was out. I was set to leave New York and move out West and figured I'd find some adventure babes or start dating a wild man who could show me the ways of the woods. (Related: These Health Benefits of Camping Will Turn You Into an Outdoor Person)
But in the spring, an intriguing idea popped up on my radar: The Fjallraven Classic, a multi-day trek the Swedish clothing brand puts on every year in different places around the world, attended by hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. Their USA event was to be 27 miles over three days in the Colorado Rockies in June.
Instagram posts from previous years painted a picture of what seemed to be a massive group backpacking trip-meets-summer festival. The trip distance was more than triple what I was used to hiking in a day, and it would max out at more 12,000 feet in elevation. But there would be beer at the end and a group of organizers telling me exactly what to bring and exactly where to camp—not to mention tons of participants to ask pedantic questions. In short, this might be the perfect situation to learn to overnight.
Luckily, my one and only friend who'd be into three days of sleeping on the ground and hiking 30 miles agreed to come along. And, honestly, the trip was everything I hoped it would be. I learned an immense amount in a short time and was surprised to hear massive group trips aren't really the norm. The Fjallraven Classic is one of the only backpacking trips of this scale, while a few other rad companies like Wild Women Expeditions and Trail Mavens also offer hold-your-hand, teach-you-everything beginner trips in groups of about 10 or so (bonus: exclusively for women!). And there are Facebook groups like Women Who Hike organizing their own, often beginner-friendly adventures, but the vast majority of people go backpacking for the first time with friends or family, if they're lucky enough to have close people who can teach them. (Related: Companies Are Finally Making Hiking Gear Specifically for Women)
But while it's not the norm to learn how to tackle multi-day trips with dozens or hundreds of new friends, IMO, it should be. I came off the trail a full believer that group backpacking trips are the coolest and least-intimidating way to experience the backcountry for the first time. Here's why:
8 Reasons to Go On a Group Backpacking Trip
1. All the logistics of planning and prepping are taken care of.
When you go with a group, things like what route you'll hike, where you'll pitch your tent each night, and exactly what you should bring are all taken off your plate. Obviously the more you spend time in the backcountry, the more important it becomes to know how to plan and decide these things on your own, but for your first or first few times out, having someone say, "Yes, you will need an insulated jacket at night," and "X campsite is within reason to make it to by day two," is immensely helpful in making you feel prepared and not overwhelmed. (Related: Cute Camping Gear to Make Your Outdoor Adventures Pretty AF)
2. You can go on your own but don't have to be by yourself.
I've tabled a lot of past adventure ideas simply because none of my friends were interested in spending a weekend in the woods and I didn't feel comfortable tackling the trip on my own. But a lot of people in group excursions are flying solo.
On the Classic, there was a group of guys who had all come on their own because their spouses or friends weren't interested in the trek, but once there, they decided to head out each day together and spend the hours of hiking time in the company of new friends. Trail Mavens' trips max out at 10 women, a lot of whom come on their own and, I'm pretty sure, leave with nine new badass lady friends. (Related: Hiking Through Greece with Total Strangers Taught Me How to Be Comfortable with Myself)
3. You learn the right way to do things.
A core part of trips put on by Trail Mavens and similar programs is to teach you how to read a topo map and build a campfire—things you may never learn if you go backpacking with a group of friends who already know how to do everything and don't narrate as they go. One sponsor of the Fjallraven Classic was Leave No Trace, a non-profit that promotes the golden rule of being outside: leave no impact on the environment you enter into. That meant there were boots on the ground reminding you to pack everything out, camp far enough away from streams, and stay on the trail—ideas I and everyone on that trip will take into every hike thereafter.
4. There's a medical team on the trail to help with the altitude.
Altitude in Colorado is unavoidable, which means if you're coming from sea-level, you're pretty much guaranteed to feel out of breath faster than you're used to. But it's really above 8,000 feet where people start running into problems—namely, altitude sickness which leaves you with a headache, nausea, exhaustion, and, in extreme cases, can actually put your life in danger. Not everyone is affected, but you have no way of knowing which camp you fall into until you're achy and nauseous on the side of the trail. (Related: Could Altitude Training Rooms Be the Key to Your Next PR?)
For the entirety of the trek, we were above that threshold at 8,700 feet. Roughly two-thirds of the people I talked to on the route came straight from low-altitude cities—Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Seattle—and by the start of day two, the medical team had a van waiting to take anyone who was seriously sick back down before we left drivable roads.
This was the hardest day—we peaked at more than 12,000 feet and camped just 1,000 feet below that. And by the day's end, about 16 people turned back on the advice of the medical staff. At least half a dozen nearly crawled into camp and, after being checked out, had a miserable night in their tent as a direct result of the thinner air.
Luckily, other than logging a significantly slower pace than normal, I was relatively unaffected. But all this made me think: If I had been on a regular backpacking trip with a few friends and was seriously sidelined by the thinner air, would we have had enough of a knowledge-base to know when to put ego aside and turn around? Or even to have thought to bring ibuprofen to help relieve that pounding head?
5. You don't have to worry about being slow—or being held back by slowpokes.
On day two of the Classic, my bestie and I hiked the initial, flat three miles together. But once we started up the first set of switchbacks, my sensitivity to the altitude and her dedication to HIIT became palpable. Had it been just the two of us on a trip, she likely would've felt the need to go slow and stick with me—an agonizing attempt for the competitive among us—while I would've felt guilty and inferior for holding her back. (Related: What It's Like Being the Fat Girl On the Hiking Trail)
But with so many people around, she happily took off with new fit friends, and I went at my own pace, falling into step on the steepest switchbacks with other groups of gals who were at a similar stop-every-200-feet-to-rest pace. After finally clomping into camp a full 3.5 hours after her, I realized the only thing that would've made that 12-mile day even more painful would've been if she had stuck with me—instead of going ahead and having hot toddy's ready and waiting for my arrival.
6. You don't have to totally slum it.
Most of us equate backpacking with dirt, grime, sweat, and zero comforts. And your first time out, this is probably what you'd prep for. But, as I learned, seasoned adventurers know the real fun happens when you sprinkle in treats. And night one of the Fjallraven Classic is pretty much glamping—they plan the campsite close enough to roads that they're able to bring in a beer tent, yard games, a full crew to grill burgers and brats for the group, and even live music. A lot of group treks are as straightforward and barebones as you'd expect, but Trail Mavens, for example, promises their trip leaders will carry in a bottle of Pinot for that fireside girl talk. In other words, there are options out there for every kind of camper. (Related: Gorgeous Places to Go Glamping If Sleeping Bags Aren't Your Thing)
7. You're probably not the least fit person.
Real talk: I did not train properly for 27 miles of hiking, let alone with a 50-pound pack on. I hit a few six to eight-mile day hikes in the month leading up, but nothing in the helpful double digits and only a few at altitude.
It goes without saying, I did not expect to be at the front of the group, but I was also surprised that I wasn't at the very back. Statistically, there had to have been others who also didn't train, but more predominantly, some were hit hard by the altitude, some under-fueled, and others would rather stroll than speed hike.
I'm not throwing shade; that's just to say: If the daunting task of hiking an entire half marathon in one day, after basically doing one the day before and having another to tackle tomorrow, intimidates you, just remember the more people in your group, the more likely you'll have friends to slow roll with.
8. You'll feel ready and seriously inspired to get out again.
Almost one year later, it feels silly how intimidated I was to go backpacking for the first time. But perhaps that's because I now feel fully able to head out again. A large part of that was learning there's no one right way to do things. Outside of safety for yourself and the environment, there's no rule book on what backpacking does or doesn't involve, what gear you *have* to bring, what comforts you must go without, or how far you have to go. You make the experience what you want and whatever you need just to get out into nature for a day or seven.
That might sound obvious, but if no one has ever taught you how to be in the backcountry, the knowledge barrier to feeling confident and ready is real. I'm sure I would've learned the ins and outs after a few weekend trips with friends if I had a group that liked the sport. But getting schooled on backpacking in such a unique environment sped up my lessons, my confidence, and my love for being tucked into the mountains with just my boots and poles to take me further.