A couple years ago, my wife and I hiked 85 miles or so in the Shenandoah National Park. We saw lots of black bears, and one morning a barred owl watched us as we ate breakfast and packed up to hit the trail. Oh, and I saw my first rattlesnake in the wild. And a beautiful skunk! Luckily, the snake didn't get us, and the skunk didn't spray.
But I'm not terribly experienced at backpacking, so I've been reading a lot of books on the subject. This is one of my favorites: Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backpackin' Book. Allen and Mike have way more experience: they have both taught at the National Outdoor Leadership School (Mike's also been a program supervisor there.). Sharing their wisdom (and goofy illustrations by Mike) in a little over 150 pages, they tell it like it is:
Different conditions (summer or winter, desert or mountain...) require different equipment and techniques. So readers learn what works in the heat and cold, what helps in the rain, and what precautions to take in extreme weather or trail conditions. The equipment chapter is very helpful. The authors discuss merits of tents versus tarps for shelter (Tents collect exhaled water vapor, which condenses so they're wet and heavier in the morning. Tarps are cheap and lightweight, but biting insects might be trouble.) They also discuss advantages of down and synthetic insulation in sleeping bags -- down is lighter, but more expensive, and if it gets wet "it no longer insulates and takes forever to dry."
Other topics include how to use a compass and topographical maps, minimizing your impact on the environment when you hike, tips for using stoves and cooking, how much food to take with you, pros and cons of filters versus iodine tablets to purify your water, and where to look for yummy mushrooms. (Not really, but they do say that "typically the western side of a mountain range gets the most precipitation." And I know that mushrooms follow the rains. Guess where I'm hunting for the tasty fungi!)
Allen and Mike include a list of "Other Recommended Resources." The National Outdoor Leadership School books they mention look good, and I agree that Ray Jardine's Beyond Backpacking is great -- he shows you how to enjoy hiking even more by keeping your pack weight to a minimum. Excellent advice! But if you're just getting started, I'd go with (full title, now) Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backpackin' Book: Traveling & Camping Skills for a Wilderness Environment!