Backpacking in the Eastern Sierra 101: What You Need to Know to Plan Your Trip

Jul 14, 2021

There’s nothing like strapping on a backpack and trekking into the breathtaking Eastern Sierras—hiking through majestic mountain scenery, dipping into pristine alpine lakes and sleeping in a tent under a star-filled sky. Here are some helpful tips from Scott McGuire from The Mountain Lab to get your backpacking adventure started.

Top Tips for Beginning Backpackers

Have a plan  

One of the most important things you can do before your trip is know who you’re going with and have a conversation about what each of you expect for the trip. Talk about how many miles you’ll log daily. Identify any trip objectives such as fishing, camping at certain spots or taking side hikes to bag a peak along the way. 

Inform someone of your plan

Make sure someone back at home knows who you’re with, where you’re going, and your expected check-in time or times. By letting people know of your plans and check-in times, you have someone who is able to notify authorities if something happens to you in the back country.

Apply for any necessary permits

Make sure you apply for the proper permits through the local ranger district.

Get the right backpack for your body type

Make sure your backpack fits properly to avoid pain and injury on your trip. The way a backpack fits men and women is different. Different heights and sizes also need to be accounted for. Many sporting goods stores can help you find a good fit.

What to Pack

Backpacking is the art of taking everything you need to sleep, live and travel in the backcountry. It goes without saying that you want to take as little as possible since you will be carrying it with you day after day. Here’s a list of the most important items you’ll need:

Cold-weather sleeping bags and layers

Take a sleeping bag rated at least 10-15 degrees colder than what you expect the weather to be. Make sure you have appropriate layers for your trip. There can be wide temperature variations on the trail according to time of day and altitude, so be prepared. Make sure you have a sun hat and plenty of sunscreen. The sun can be pretty intense at altitude.

The right tent

The size of your tent will depend on many factors: Is everyone sleeping in their own tent or will you share? Do you want something large enough to play cards in during inclement weather? What is the priority in your pack? Would you rather have a smaller tent and better meal choices? Or a larger tent and simpler meal choices?

Also, take time before you leave to thoroughly know how to set up your tent. Make sure your poles and your tent stakes are where you think they will be. Better yet, set it up with a headlamp in the dark of the night to simulate arriving to camp late. Remember, the more you prepare, the more confident you’ll be in the back country.

LED Headlamp

They’re small, lightweight, bright and can run for hours on batteries. They can make that early morning start or that late-night setup of your tent easier.


You’d be surprised how amazing and extra, clean pair of socks will feel like. After all, nobody expects or plans to fall into the stream.

Use a bear canister

Not only is it mandatory here in bear country, but it will ensure that you get to eat your food instead of the bears. When you’re packing your food, try to reduce as much food packaging as you can. Make sure you have a way to separate your trash from your regular food, because both will have to be stored in your bear canister.

Planning your meals

Think about the meals you want to eat. Some people, like Scott, prefer eating “real food” on the trail. He would rather have a smaller tent and better meal choices. This will be a somewhat personal choice, but keep in mind that there will be tradeoffs depending on your food choices.


Figure out how you’ll source your water. Luckily in the Eastern Sierra, even in lower-water years there’s access to plenty of water in the backcountry.  But you’ll want to make sure any water you drink is filtered with a pump, chemical tablets or a UV light stick. If you use a UV stick, make sure you have batteries for it and they are charged. If you opt for chemical tablets, make sure you don’t mind the taste. Test and dial in your pumping. It could take a while to fill up your water bottles. Figure these things out ahead of time.

First Aid Kit

Make sure your kit has items like moleskin, which will help with blisters. Include basic bandaging, in case something happens to someone. The biggest key for carrying a first aid kit is knowing how to use the tools and materials.

A map and compass

A lot of people are now using GPS to navigate, but its good to have a piece of physical paper and a compass in case of equipment failure. Be sure to know how to use both ahead of time.

A whistle for emergencies 

Cell phones often don’t work in the backcountry, so you can’t text your friend, “where are you?” Whistles easily cover distance. Have a system and make sure everyone knows it. Use one whistle to get the group’s attention; two whistles means come to me, and three whistles means there’s an emergency and everyone should go to the location of the whistle.

On the Trail

Be organized 

Staying organized will help make it easier to pack out what you pack in. Keep items you’ll likely use on the trail (water, sunscreen, sun hat, sun glasses) within easy reach. Try to keep your pack dialed and tight, which will help ensure you don’t accidentally leave something behind. You may not plan on leaving trash behind, but an unorganized pack can turn you into a litterbug without your even knowing it.

Stay Informed

Let everyone in your party know where you plan to go and make sure everyone knows how to navigate their way there. Try to stay together. Make sure you have check-in points and everyone has a map and knows where to meet up at designated check points. It’s better to have multiple check-in points throughout the day rather than one at the end of the day.

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