Backpacking for the First Time

This past week, I went on my first backpacking trip,  a three day trip to Elk Lakes Provincial park in BC. It’s a great backpacking trip for first timers with a 12km hike over the Alberta BC border to the Lower Elk Lake campsite.  Though a bit lengthy, the trail travels over many pleasant creeks. several flower filled meadows a moderately steep ridge, down into the valley containing the Elk Lakes. Lower Elk Lake itself, which the campsite directly sits on, is surrounded by gorgeous mountains on all sides.

From the campsite, there were several different trails for which to take great day hikes. The Petain Falls trail is one of the best, going around Upper Elk Lake, with plenty of great areas around the lake to swim and many more fabulous meadows surrounded by mountain views. It ends at the falls themselves, a final meadow that sits right beneath the large and impressive waterfall.

If you’re raring to go after reading the description, you’re in luck because the campsites are first come first serve. I have also put together some tips that I learned from my first time backpacking.

Where to get backpacking stuff:

Since I was a beginner backpacker, there were several things that I did not have myself, like a pack or sleeping pad. Fortunately for me, and other people looking to try out backpacking there are many sports rental places throughout Calgary that rent equipment. From packs of all sizes to boots you can rent almost all of the higher priced equipment that you’ll need. My personal favorite for rental equipment is the University of Calgary’s Outdoor Centre. I was able to rent both a 50 litre bag, perfect for a three day trip, and a sleeping pad which helped immensely with the overnight cold and comfort. To rent both of these for a week was less than a $100.

If you’re looking to buy MEC has one of the biggest selections of backpacking gear in Calgary.

What to pack:

While you don’t want to overpack on a backpacking trip as no one wants to lug extra weight around, you definitely don’t want to underpack either. Like many first time backpackers, I made the mistake of overpacking. Although we’ve already gone over the sleeping pad you’ll also need a sleeping bag, tent, basic toiletries including sunscreen and Off, first aid kit and a flashlight/headlamp. One of the most difficult parts of packing for any trip though is deciding on what clothes to bring. For backpacking this is even more difficult as you need to prepare for any weather while trying to pack as light as you can.

For a three day backpacking trip I found out that all you needed were two hiking outfits, clothes to sleep in, a fleece and a waterproof jacket. This should be enough to keep you warm and dry, with an extra outfit to change into at night in case you do get wet and to keep bears away.  4 or 5 pairs of hiking socks are also good in case your socks end up getting wet.

For food packing tips check out 6 Tips for Camping Food. 

How to pack:

Trying to pack all your items in the backpack can also be an ordeal, never mind trying to pack them in a ergonomically friendly manner.

Most of your gear like tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and stove should be packed at the bottom of the pack. They are heavy and take up a lot of space. If you have outer clips you can use on your backpack, your sleeping bag can also be clipped on here. Pack your clothes in the middle in a bag for protection from the rain. Finally, the food that you may need for three days is also easiest packed within a larger bag to keep all the food together. Snacks and other small things needing quick access can often be stored in side pouches. If you’re going with a group you may want to break up some of the things that you are carrying.

Packing your bag properly can it make it a lot easier to carry as placing heavier items close to the top moves the majority of weight to your shoulders as opposed to your hips. As I found out firsthand, this is an uncomfortable experience. You should also make sure that your bag feels balanced. Try and pack and test your bag before you go.


Overall this trip was a fantastic beginner backpacking experience, and the weather was perfect during this time of year. Though intimidating at first, going from hiking to backpacking was a great time, and not at all as difficult as I had initially assumed. The experience of being able to escape from the typical car camping and be able to spend the night at what is always the best part of the hike, was far worth the extra weight and effort making it through the hike-in.

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