(CNN) — Each summer, Emily Davenport spends days at a time hauling heavy loads through the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
She sleeps on the ground. She returns to civilization pocked with bug bites and scrapes. An expert backpacker, Davenport is living the dream.
“You get to go to these places that you might not otherwise have seen, these remote spots,” she said. “Backpacking is so unique in that you can just get away.”
In recent years, new backpacking routes have opened up some of the most scenic places on Earth to hikers.
White Mountain National Forest in eastern New Hampshire and western Maine offers ample opportunity for outdoor adventure.
A bit of backpacking history
While people have long traveled the world on foot, late 18th-century Romantic artists and poets helped celebrate walking as recreation for Europeans, writes Rebecca Solnit in her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.”
A century later, urbanization in the United States spurred a boom in outdoorsy recreation, as Americans sought to escape cities for time in the woods.
Earlier walkers simply traveled overland or followed traditional routes, but rising interest in the activity inspired purpose-built trails across the globe. Completed in 1930, Vermont’s Long Trail was the first long-distance footpath built in the United States; the 1938 National Blue Trail in Hungary was Europe’s first long-distance trail.
Those early backpackers sought connection with nature, adventure and beautiful places. Today, a growing body of evidence shows that spending extended time in the wilderness — as on a backpacking trip — has a powerful impact on well-being. Exposure to nature boosts creativity, generosity and happiness. Hiking is also fantastic exercise.
And you don’t need a lifetime of outdoors knowledge to hit the trail. While Davenport hiked and camped growing up, she didn’t try overnight backpacking until college. Then, she joined a student group for a 7-night trip through the Grand Canyon.
“That was a little intimidating, but it was an incredible experience and I learned a lot,” she said. To hone your own overnight adventures, here’s what you need to know.
Shelters — like this one along the Sugarland Mountain Trail near the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee — are a good option if you don’t want to carry a tent.
How to get started
Start small and take a dry run
Maybe you’re dreaming of a full week on the trail, but Davenport suggests that new backpackers start with something a little easier.
“You don’t have to be in great shape to try it out,” she said. “Hike a couple of miles in on a flat trail to pitch your tent.”
Before leaving, though, Davenport suggests hikers load all their gear into a backpack for a long walk around the neighborhood. See how it feels, and adjust as needed. If you’re sporting a new pair of hiking boots, don’t forget to break them in before a big trip to prevent painful blisters.
Choose your gear wisely
When the back-to-nature 1960s ushered in a full-blown backpacking craze, hikers headed out in droves, many sporting stiff leather boots, wool clothing and external-frame backpacks.
Gear has come a long way since then, and if you choose carefully, your load doesn’t need to be all that heavy. A well-fitted backpack and comfortable boots are top priorities on your gear list, Davenport said. Otherwise, you might be in for an uncomfortable trip.
Instead of ordering a backpack online, Davenport suggested going to a store.
“There’s employees there who can help fit you,” she said. “[Backpacks] are also going to fit differently when they have weight in them, so a lot of stores, like REI, will put in bags of sand. You can walk around the store a little bit, and they adjust it right to you.”
Same goes for boots, which can be modified with insoles and lacing techniques. Davenport said it’s best to find a store with a forgiving return policy. “If you do take them out on a hike and they’re feeling awful, you can return them.”
Before heading out on the trail with groups, Davenport has everyone empty their packs for inspection. Usually, there’s extra gear that can be left behind, such as extra shirts and spare shoes.
“You really only need certain basic layers,” Davenport said. “You try to slim down on all of those extra things you don’t need.” Basics include moisture-wicking base layers, some light-weight insulation and waterproof rain gear.
Even if you’re not going deep into the wilderness, it’s worth considering a battery-powered satellite device, such as a SPOT beacon. Many backpacking destinations don’t have cell service, which makes getting lost or twisting an ankle a serious matter.
While you may never use it, a satellite device can provide peace of mind and potentially life-saving access to emergency services.
Renting gear for your first forays into backpacking is a good way to see if you enjoy it.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis News/Getty Images
Borrow or rent if you can
All that gear can be pricy, so if you’re getting a feel for backpacking you may want to borrow or rent your gear instead. (That can be a good way to test-drive specific brands, as well.)
Have fun (and don’t try for a speed record)
As Davenport prepares groups for trips into the White Mountains, she frequently hears from hikers concerned about their pace. “Usually they’re worried that they’re going to be incredibly slow,” she said.
If going fast is what you want, though, there are other, easier vacation options. But whether you’re a super-fit athlete or struggle to heft your pack after lunch, backpacking is a chance to slow down from the pace of modern life.
“It’s just nice to disconnect from everything and be remote,” Davenport said.
Once you’re on the trail, a walking pace lets you tune in to the natural world around you. Instead of hurrying along, just take in the scenery, listen for elusive wildlife and try to spot trail-side plants you’d never see from a car window.
“Just take it step by step,” she said. “Try to have a good time.”
The 211-mile John Muir Trail stretches from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney in California.
Where to go backpacking
You don’t have to go far from home to get started. Some state and regional parks have walk-in campsites ideal for learning the ropes and testing out gear.
When you’re ready to go farther afield, these world-class backpacking trips offer the challenge — and spectacular scenery — of a lifetime:
— Or spot reindeer herds as you follow the 270-mile (434-kilometer) Kungsleden into Swedish Lapland.