Top 10 tips for planning an American backpacking trip from the UK

  1. Test any new skills in the UK first – a backpacking trip in the USA might involve a few extra skills than you are used to using in the UK. Having a few trips to specifically check your skill set is a great way to test kit and fitness. For us we hadn’t wild camped before and so getting a few nights out where we carried all our kit and thought about what worked and what we carried but didn’t use built confidence and helped us rationalize our kit.
  2. Buy and test your kit in the UK…except – making sure things like your tent, sleeping set up, stove, clothing, socks and footwear are up to the job and worn in saves time, money and effort once you are in country and ready for adventure. Pick a preferred water treatment system and test it. We used Water-to-go bottles for general drinking on the trail and chlorine dioxide for treating larger volumes.
  3. Buy your food in the USA – backpacking is big news in the USA and certainly in the pacific north west we found that most outdoor stores had much better ranges of dehydrated meals than in the UK. There were also lots of dry goods sections in supermarkets where you could load up on unpackaged trail mix.
    Two course tea
  4. Buy your map in the USA – the Green Trails Map we had for the Timberline trail was brilliant and would be my first choice if it covers the area you are interested in. The maps from National Geographic also seemed good and would probably be closest in style to Ordnance Survey while the Green Trails Map was perhaps more like Harvey’s maps in the UK. Generally trails were clearer and better signposted than you would find in the UK but the maps were incredibly useful for identifying backcountry campsites and potential water sources on the trail
  5. Be informed about potential ‘wildlife’ spotting but don’t let it put you off – google backcountry camping and you’re never more than a couple of clicks away from a bear encounter. Talk of mace, constantly ringing bells and singing to yourself sound terrifying and crazy in equal measures. The risk varies depending on where you travel. The best advice we had came from talking to national park or forestry rangers in country.
  6. Think about food storage – one thing we never consider in the UK is food storage; it just stays in the tent with us. However, in the USA it is a BIG DEAL. Largely due to the presence of ‘critters’ who can decimate your food stores although pose little risk to you. In some areas the lure of human food could potentially attract larger animals. Storing your food properly benefits both you (your food will still be there when you wake up in the morning) and the animals. If animals begin to associate humans with food this disrupts their natural behaviour and if animals are reported to have been scavenging then they may be killed by rangers. In areas where bears and coyotes are endemic then bear canisters are recommended otherwise hanging your food is the default – lots of good videos on Youtube on how to hang a ‘bear bag’. Olympic National Park mandated the use of bear canisters although the rangers reassured us that they were really ‘critter’ canisters for the most part. They were available to rent at the visitor centres for free.
    Bear canister rented from the ranger station in Olympic NP
  7. Make sure you’ve got the right permits – the ranger station or visitor centre should be your first stop when (or before) arriving at your backcountry trail head. Some are situated where you start the trail while others are centralised and you may need to visit before heading out to the more remote trail heads. Some trails are so popular you need to apply for permits through a lottery; examples include the Enchantments and many of the medium distance trails in California. Others required paid permits that can be bought from ranger stations while others including the timberline trail have self issue permits which are free.
  8. Aim for enjoyable adventure – for us the timberline trail was the perfect length and challenge; after all this was supposed to be a holiday. It definitely worked for us to select something that we felt was comfortably within our limits. That meant that the excitement could come with the terrain and the wild camping rather than adding in challenging mileage or altitude.
  9. Take or buy some tupperware – given you’ll be packing out your rubbish it makes sense to take as little packaging in with you as possible. A few tupperwares make excellent storage for trail mix and food. They add an extra layer of protection of your food against critters and they can be used as a more secure rubbish bag once empty.
  10. Take or buy a shovel – you will need a poo when you’re in the wild and unless you want to carry it out with you in your tupperware you will need to bury it. Carrying a small but solid shovel to dig a decent depth hole to do your business in is essential. Try not to dig near campsites. Not disposing of poo properly is inexcusable. Also, ladies, pack out any sanitary items – should go without saying.

Our kit list for a 4 day 40 mile trek

  • 2 man tent – shout out to the ever faithful Jarran 2 from Alpkit
  • Sleeping bag and sleeping mat
  • Dry bags for sleepware and clothes
  • Dry bag for food storage when hanging food
  • toothbrush and toothpaste
  • 1 x dry set of sleep/camp clothes
  • 1 x walking set of clothes
  • walking poles – really help my joints and great for extra balance when crossing streams
  • suncream and sunhat
  • waterproof top and bottoms
  • Warm layer
  • Warm hat
  • River crossing shoes – these from Decathlon were fantastic – cheap, light, grippy and packed small
  • stove and fuel
  • cooking pans
  • headtorch
  • A few crosswords ripped out from a bigger book for evening entertainment
  • Guyline rope or similar with a screwgate carabiner for hanging the food bag
  • Compass
  • Emergency bivi bag – essentially a talisman, I’ve carried one for years and never needed it but wouldn’t head out for a big day without one. Something like this comes recommended.
  • Water-to-Go bottle, water bladder and chlorine dioxide water treatment
Tom demonstrating the ever lovable Jarran-2 – the two porch system was perfect for two big backpacks


  • Packets of curry and rice for the first night – heavy but cheaper and tastier than dehydrated meals
  • Dehydrated meals for nights 2 and 3, we really liked the meals from backpackers pantry and didn’t regret going for two courses
  • Oatcakes and babybels for ‘lunch’
  • Instant noodles – one day we treated ourselves to a hot lunch and it was a real morale booster before a long climb to the trail highpoint
  • Trail mix and Cliff bars for elevenses and afternoon tea

Just writing this post makes me smile. I was really apprehensive about the unknowns of this trek but it turned out good preparation was key to a great experience which was memorable for all the right reasons.

All smiles at the end

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Roz Saggers says:

    Great post Zoe.
    The need for bear-proof containers makes me think perhaps wild camping in the US isn’t for me!!
    Roz x


    1. Zoe says:

      The rangers were very reassuring, referring to them as ‘critter cannisters’! 🙂


  2. melindejana says:

    It’s great to explore new country with backpacking


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