5 Common Beginner Backpacking Mistakes

If you’re getting ready to go backpacking or thru-hiking for the first time, you’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them. And that’s OK: mistakes are part of life. The real problems arise when we ignore our past mistakes and deny ourselves the chance to learn from them.

So in the spirit of not doing that, here’s a small sampling of the thousand little things I wish I had done differently when I was first finding my trail legs.

1. Spending Too Much Time Online Before the Hike

Using this photo since it fits the theme so well, but actually the author who posted it absolutely NAILED their pre-trail prep and is currently killing it on the AT. Get it Dema! Photo: Dema T.

I do recognize the irony in this statement. But seriously, if it’s three a.m. and you’re still doom-scrolling the comments of a particularly saucy Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Class of 2037 thread, maybe it’s time to take a step back.

The internet, particularly this one charming and highly reputable site called The Trek, wink wink, is a treasure trove of valuable information for backpackers.

You can and should take advantage of online resources as you prepare for your hike. A little research goes a long way, and you’ll be better off if you hit the trail armed with knowledge.

But backpackers can also be dogmatic. Online forums are overflowing with armchair hikers who are only too eager to tell you how dumb your gear is and how stupid your resupply strategy is and how much better it would be if you did everything their way.

When you’re new to the community, it’s sometimes tricky to distinguish solid advice from obscure and questionable opinions.

Backpacking is something most of us master through trial and error. No amount of background reading will truly prepare you for the trail as much as actually getting out there and experiencing it for yourself. So save yourself some angst and don’t get caught up in lengthy online debates.

2. Going to One Extreme or the Other With Pack Weight

Some hikers cut weight from their packs at any cost, foregoing even the most basic luxuries to keep their base weights under 10 pounds.

Others, meanwhile, advocate carrying plenty of everything, feeling that having enough is a matter of both comfort and safety. A base weight of 30 pounds or more does not scare these hikers.

Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes. For instance, I invest in lightweight gear and forego certain luxuries, like camp shoes, to reduce pack weight. But you’ll never catch me hiking without my stove or a spare set of clothes to wear at camp.

My base weight when I began the AT was around 19 pounds. I’ve honed my packing list since then, and my current base weight is probably somewhere around 12 or 13 pounds in summer.

If you’re just starting out, I recommend that you take a moderate approach to pack weight. With modern gear, it’s reasonable to aim for a starting base weight of 15 to 20 pounds. You may find that you enjoy life’s luxuries and feel comfortable adding more, or you may learn that you can do with less and join the ultralight crowd.

Either way is fine, but you’re better off learning that as you go rather than jumping into your first long hike at one extreme or the other.

READ NEXT – 5 Stupid Light Gear Choices That Take Ultralight Too Far

3. Not Having a Mobility Routine

Photo: Lisa Slutsken

Each and every morning on the Appalachian Trail, I arose exactly one hour before dawn, which gave me enough time to meditate for 15 minutes and then embark upon a 45-minute vinyasa flow. I would finish my practice at sunrise, and at the exact moment the sun peeked over the horizon, I would greet the day with a resounding ommmmm before getting my morning started with a wheatgrass smoothie and —

Yeah, OK, none of that is true. I did wake up obscenely early each morning, but mostly to give myself enough time to repeatedly fall back asleep while getting dressed inside my sleeping bag and then stagger around camp eating muffin crumbs out of a ziplock bag with a spork.

It would have been smart if I had been stretching every day, even if it was just a few minutes of touching my toes. Thru-hiking is an all-day workout. Taking steps to preserve mobility can make the difference between a successful hike and one that’s cut short by injury.

By the end of the AT, I had gotten on Team Yoga and learned that an evening stretching routine worked well for me. I’m not a morning person, so I’m more likely to get my flexibility work in at night. Other hikers I knew would stretch during their morning break.

How and when you stretch is less important than that you do it at all, so find a routine you’ll actually stick to. Your body will thank you.

READ NEXT – 8 of the Best Stretches for Thru-Hikers

4. Half-Assing Your Leave No Trace Efforts

Scenario: you need a cathole at least six inches deep by four inches wide to comply with Leave No Trace guidelines, but the ground is as tough as concrete and your asshole is about to explode.

I get it. Complying with Leave No Trace principles is a lot easier on paper than it is in real life. If it’s been a really long day, if it’s cold and rainy, if the soil is rocky and you ate far too much Wendy’s at your last resupply stop, it can be very tempting to cut corners when no one’s looking.

But our trails are more crowded than ever, and minor transgressions have a way of adding up. The cathole thing … well, look, we’ve all been there. Don’t beat yourself up.

Instead, focus on being diligent with the aspects of Leave No Trace you can control. Sometimes your cathole will not be adequate to the task at hand. It’s hard to control that. But there’s no reason you can’t pack out your toilet paper every time you take a shit or secure your food overnight so animals don’t get into it. Maybe you can’t avoid losing an occasional candy bar wrapper on the trail. But you can even the scales by picking up other people’s accidental litter when you see it.

Like many things in life, developing Leave No Trace habits requires a bigger up-front investment of effort until these routines become second nature and you just do them automatically without even thinking about it. Lay the groundwork early and you (and the trail) will reap the benefits for the rest of your backpacking career.

READ NEXT – How To Dig an LNT-Compliant Cathole

5. Letting Others Define Your Hike

“Hike Your Own Hike” has been repeated so often that it now reads like a tired cliché. But there’s a reason we’ve collectively beaten this saying to death. It’s incredible how much of thru-hiking is a mental game. When you’re alone, uncertain, and attempting something audacious for the first time, it’s so easy to seek validation from others.

I’m very guilty of this. On and off the trail, I spend far too much time quibbling about other peoples’ expectations, and it is exhausting.

Am I not hiking fast enough? Or perhaps I’m hiking too fast and failing to appreciate the beauty of nature? Is my gear too heavy/too light/too old/too expensive? Am I eating too many Pop Tarts? Who has the energy to worry about all this? Just don’t.

Here’s another cliché for you: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with learning from other hikers — experienced or inexperienced, you can learn something from everyone — or with compromising a bit to maintain healthy relationships with friends on the trail.

Just be mindful that you’re not sacrificing the hike you wanted to have, just to fit in with other hikers. Similarly, don’t let the perceived judgment of others take up real estate in your head when you should be focused on enjoying the trail.

You’re the captain of your own ship out here, and that’s a joyous thing. Embrace it.

In Conclusion!

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my backpacking career, and this list doesn’t even begin to cover them all. Have I told you guys about the time I decided to hike through a hurricane? Sigh.

I and my fellow authors have written many articles detailing other missteps, regrets, epic fails, and all-around no-nos from ours early (and in some cases, not that early) days as backpackers, which I’ll link below if you’re interested.

Why is this type of article so popular? Do we as a society just love negativity? I’d argue that the topic is compelling because on some level, we all recognize that mistakes are among our most powerful teachers.

Moral of the story: you will make mistakes. Embrace them, learn from them, and come out better on the other side.

Experienced hikers, what are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made and learned from on the trail? Newbies, what are you most worried about? Let us know in the comments below.

READ NEXT –

Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 5

  • jhony : May 11th

    “Or perhaps I’m hiking too fast and failing to appreciate the beauty of nature”? Always cracks me UP about hiking to fast. Anish said it well. What is she not going to see going 4 miles per hour, compared to the 2 or 1.5 mph ??? NOTHING

    Reply
  • Lucy “Shaker” Porter : May 12th

    I haven’t backpacked since I was a teenager (45 years ago). In my head & heart I love it. I have day hiked many times and have committed to hike the PCT in 2025. I have my first 3 night shakedown hike this Memorial Day (2024) weekend (close to home on the AT). I’m scared my body won’t love it as much as my mind and heart do. I’ve got a 22lb base weight setup and trying very hard not to pack my fears.

    Reply
  • Jay Paton : May 14th

    I just finished my first section hike of the AT. Ever in western Massachusetts. It was hard. I never found a shelter that was nearby. I feel three times. Tented by the side of Main street in Tryington. I will do more. Did I mention it was hard. I will slim my back pack weight. Met some amazing trail hikers. Thank you.

    Reply
    • A : May 21st

      Sounds about right. You’re doing it!

      Reply
  • Steve : May 14th

    I’m still learning hiking dos and donts at 75. One thing I’m still doing is carrying too much food that I never go through during my hikes. Planning for 5 days but only doing 3 days. I’m not taking about the dinners or breakfast details but always the side hike lunch gorp type stuff and that extra apple or orange or banana I never get around to eating during the hike. Eyes are still bigger than the stomach. I guess in the back of my mind there’s still a fear of getting lost which is ridiculous as I always stick to the route planned. Firmer boy scout, ‘Be Prepared’

    Reply

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