5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before My First Backpacking Trip
A short three years ago, if you had told me that I would one day walk over 2,000 miles in a single go, I would have said your Magic 8 ball was malfunctioning. Not only was I not a backpacker, but I was barely even a hiker. Backpacking was something I overheard cool, outdoorsy people talk about, but something I never thought I had the guts or the leg strength to try.
Then one day, during a deep dive on Pinterest, I saw it: the John Muir Trail. The photos were incredible. I did a little more research, and my interest piqued even further—220 miles from Yosemite National Park to Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental US? Well… how hard could it really be? Eyes still clouded with pictures of snowy mountaintops and alpine lakes, I applied for a permit, and the following June, I boarded a plane to California.
Shockingly, it did not go as planned. It turns out that knowing Wikipedia’s definition of backpacking is not enough to make your trip a success. My confidence was shattered almost immediately as the rookie mistakes piled up.
I did, in fact, go on to finish the JMT and hike many other trails, including a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail this year. But in the interest of saving others from making the same mistakes I did (and therefore freeing you up to make your own), I’ve put together this list of the five things I wish I had known on my first backpacking trip.
1. Do Your Research Ahead of Time
This one goes without saying… right? Before the JMT, I certainly thought so. Not wanting to be unprepared, I began diligently gathering information on my upcoming trip. I typed “backpacking” into the Google search bar, looked up pictures of the Sierra Nevada mountains, ordered a Jetboil on Amazon, and even bought a map. Never had I felt more prepared for anything in my life. I was ready to bravely go where plenty had gone before. And then I started hiking.
The first issue I ran into was that the Jetboil I had bought two weeks earlier did not have a self-igniter. And I didn’t have a lighter. Well, no hot food for me. But that’s alright. I was in the wilderness. Who needed comfort?
Apparently not me, because I also hadn’t brought a sleeping pad. So as I lay on the hard dirt in my 50-degree sleeping bag, wearing all my clothing and shivering in the sub-30-degree weather, I began to think that maybe I hadn’t done quite enough Googling.
And the theme continued. My face and neck blistered from sunburn as I added sunscreen to my growing list of items to bring next time. I shivered through the nights in my less-than-appropriately-rated sleeping bag. By the time I summited Mount Whitney, I was sure I had finished the trail only through sheer luck and sheer stubbornness. The weather had been perfect, and the Sierra had experienced an incredibly low snow year.
Stubbornness is something we can take with us every time. But luck? That’s out of our control. So take it from someone who has forgotten to do all of these things: before you hit the trail for the first time (or any time), check your gear, check the weather, check the trail conditions, definitely still Google pretty photos, and most importantly, complete at least two internet searches. One is clearly not enough.
2. Hike Your Own Hike, Bro
Backpackers are amazing people. They will almost always share anything they have, especially knowledge. But occasionally, you run into someone that reminds you to take advice with a grain of salt. I had one such encounter on my very first night on the trail.
There was only one spot left in the backpacker’s campground, so I pitched my tent next to a man who was also hiking solo. He immediately dove into an intensive line of questioning. What tent did I have? What rating was my sleeping bag? How many calories per day was I consuming?
I did my best to answer politely and concisely, but the questions continued into the evening. Then he began repeatedly telling me he was “worried about me.” Too off-put by this man’s condescending demeanor and the amount of mansplaining I had received over the last few hours to listen any longer, I called it a night.
When I rolled out of my tent the next morning, I found my new buddy already awake and prepped with more questions. I hadn’t slept much, and my patience was wearing thin. While I may have been a little under-prepared, I wasn’t stupid, as this man seemed to imply. I ate quickly and began to leave.
But then, the mansplainer finally broke the last straw- he walked over, picked up my backpack and held it out so I could put it on. Oh, hell no. “Put that down,” I snapped, far too angry for six a.m. “This is a one-man operation, buddy. I can handle my own pack.” And I was off, with a new determination to prove the mansplainer wrong.
Most of what I have learned has been from the advice of other hikers. Always, always listen to what people have to offer you. But use your judgment- and never let someone make you feel inadequate.
READ NEXT – 15 All-Too Common Beginner Backpacking Mistakes
3. Bears Won’t Eat You… Probably
One of the most common questions I receive as a backpacker is, “Aren’t you scared?!” And after a few years and thousands of miles, my answer is no. But if I had been asked that same question on my first backpacking trip, my response would have been very different.
I had never seen a bear, but in my head, they were 20 feet tall, man-eating, and ferocious, seeking out tents at night to prey on unsuspecting hikers. Dramatic? Probably. But I had no idea how scared to be, so I chose very, holding my breath at the slightest midnight noise, sure I would be eaten any second.
Today, I am still extremely cautious. But I no longer lay awake for entire nights at a time listening for Big Foot. My change in terror level comes mostly from experience. But another part of my new-found confidence comes from conquering a larger (and more common) phobia- fear of the unknown. We are all afraid of things we don’t understand, whether it’s a bear or something non-woodland-creature-related. And to a certain extent, we should be. A healthy amount of fear is necessary to stay safe on the trail.
But if I could say anything to my younger self, laying in her tent at two a.m. listening to the footsteps of a chipmunk while writing her last will and testament, it would be this: 1. While possible, the chances of getting eaten by a bear on a backcountry trip are very slim. And 2. We are all afraid sometimes, but we should never let that fear keep us from living.
4. Embrace the Suck
While I’m sure most of you share my passion for long walks through the woods, I think we can all agree that backpacking sometimes crosses the line into “Type 2 fun”- fun that isn’t really fun until it’s over. This sport can push you to your limits, both physically and mentally. But if you can learn to embrace some of the pain and frustration, it can be the most rewarding experience there is. However, take it from me- that isn’t always an easy lesson to learn.
Starting the JMT, I was in no way prepared to climb huge mountain passes every day. And it showed. Every night in camp, I flopped down spread-eagle on the ground, and every morning I shuffled, creaked, and groaned until finally, on groan number 87, I mustered the energy to sling my pack on. Sometimes I would get so frustrated on a climb that I would plop onto the ground like a defiant child, crossing my arms and telling myself, “I’m (blank)-ing over this.”
But as these moments continued to happen, so did something else: after a few minutes of frustrated arm crossing, I got up and kept hiking. Every day went like this. I would stop, tell myself I couldn’t do it, and then I would keep moving. And at the end of each day, I grew more and more proud of myself. I was still creaking and groaning, but I was still hiking.
As I stood at the summit of Mount Whitney, I started to cry. But this time, it wasn’t because I was tired, frustrated, or out of the good trail mix. This time, I cried because I knew I had overcome everything the trail threw at me and accomplished my goal. Was it the most amazing thing a human had ever done? Not by a mile. But it was my challenge, my mountain to climb, and I had quite literally climbed it.
I still sometimes lay on the ground. I still cry more often than I care to admit. But when I run into obstacles today, I think to myself, “Heck yes. This is what it’s all about. I’m going to push through it.” In backpacking, you can’t reach the reward without first overcoming the challenges. And standing on top of a mountain, looking out at some of the most amazing views in the world, and knowing how hard you worked to get there- in my opinion, there is no greater reward.
5. Quit Hunting for Service and Learn to Live in the Moment
Backpacking is one of the few activities that can truly take you away from the routine of your daily life. It allows you to focus completely on the present—to live in the moment. You just have to let it.
On trail for the first time, the isolation scared me. I was hiking alone and wanted to feel a sense of normalcy. So I called home, sent texts, and even checked social media every chance I got. But as the trip went on, these chances became fewer and farther between.
At first, it stressed me out as nothing else had. What was I supposed to do if I wasn’t connected? Eventually, the cell service went from minimal to non-existent, and I had no choice but to find out. But something crazy happened: I began to notice more of my surroundings. Suddenly, I found myself stopping longer to take in a view. I picked my lunch spots based on the scenery and not on the likelihood that I could get a bar or two. I would even stop more frequently to talk to strangers.
When I finally got cell service again, I was surprised to feel my heart sink with disappointment. I no longer wanted it. I had learned to embrace the peace and solitude of nature and live in the moment. And this is a lesson I never forgot.
Was it worth it?
Since my first trip, nearly everything about my approach to backpacking has changed. I have gone from a nervous, unprepared, fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants hiker to completing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. And while I still fly by the seat of my pants occasionally, I sometimes don’t recognize the person who got off that bus in Yosemite Valley.
Sure, I’ve ditched a few pieces of gear (and added a few others). I’ve learned about preparation and safety. But none of these things compare to what I’ve learned about myself. Backpacking has simultaneously humbled me beyond belief and built my confidence to a level I’ve never experienced. It’s both incredibly challenging and my largest source of peace. And it all started with one backpacking trip.
So if you’re considering tackling a long hike for the first time but are scared or unsure how to get started, don’t let that hesitation keep you from getting out there. By trying something new, you just might discover something you could fall in love with. But fair warning: you’ll never be the same.
Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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