6 Cringeworthy Mistakes Rookie Thru-Hikers Often Make

Stomach grumbling, I lumbered down the gas station’s narrow snack aisles, hunting for something salty and crunchy and covered in cheese dust. The bell over the door tinkled behind me, and then—“Ibex!”—someone greeted me. As I turned to see who it was, my gigantic backpack bumped the shelf behind me, sweeping a display of protein bars to the floor.

Mortified, I crouched down to clean up the mess. The hiker who had greeted me chuckled. The old man at the register sighed and shook his head. “I am surrounded by idiots,” he seemed to be thinking.

We all make mistakes when we’re new to something. As a baby thru-hiker taking my first steps, it seemed logical to bring my giant, grubby backpack into the gas station rather than leave it outside where some not-very-discerning thief could steal it. Looking back, I still cringe when I think about this and a variety of other blunders I made during my first month on the Appalachian Trail.

Having made just about every mistake in the book, I figured I may as well point out some of my more glaring faux pas new thru-hikers (and everyone, really) should try to sidestep.

Will it be therapeutic, or merely uncomfortable, to bare my stupidest and most embarrassing transgressions in a public forum? Who knows! I can only hope that my catharsis will become your learning opportunity as I guide you through the wonderful world of awkward backpacking mistakes to avoid.

6 Cringeworthy Mistakes Rookie Thru-Hikers Often Make

1. Using Your Outside Voice After Hiker Midnight

It was 9 p.m., and the campsite, though crowded, was dark and silent. “Everyone goes to bed around here so early!” remarked my friend, who was visiting me on trail to provide moral support in the early days of my thru-hike.

We sat up for several hours eating cookies and talking through our rapidly proliferating life problems, doing our best to keep our voices down but occasionally bursting out in loud peals of loud, box-wine-induced laughter. I spent the next week getting stink-eyed by fellow thru-hikers I had kept awake with my shenanigans that night.

After dark = quiet hours. Photo via Thomas Allie.

Tents + Dark + Quiet = People are sleeping. Shut up, dear lord, shut UP already!

Karma has repaid me many times over for this crime, but I still have the urge to punch 2018 Ibex in the face when I think about it.

Thru-hiking is exhausting. When hikers get to camp, they usually want to sleep all night so they can get up at a reasonable hour feeling rested enough to tackle the new day.  Hiker midnight is 9 p.m. You can go to bed any time you want (my trail bedtime these days is 7 p.m.), but the unspoken consensus is that noise after nine is a very irritating no-no.

If you want to stay up later with your friends, choose a stealth site with no one else around rather than a shelter or a group camping area.

READ NEXT – 11 Common Beginner Backpacking Mistakes

2. Shining Your Bright-Ass Headlamp Into People’s Tents At Night

“Well HELLO down there! Lovely morning isn’t it? You look awfully cozy in that tent, not like me out here in the cold fog with my gloriously bright headlamp.” Photo by Isaac Davis on Unsplash.

*Hushed voice* “Hey, look, someone’s camping there. Do you see them? See that tent?”

“What? No, I don’t see it.”

“It’s right there. Right by the trail next to that huge agave plant. How can you not see it? I’m shining my headlamp right at it. Just look.”

Groggy Person Inside Said Tent: “Morning, guys.”

I’m sorry, Groggy Tent Person! I’m sorry! Why was I so hell-bent on proving your existence to my partner that I had to blind you with my high beam at 5 a.m.? I don’t know—it seemed important at the time.

Whether you’re in camp or on trail, blasting someone else’s tent with your headlamp isn’t very neighborly. Besides being bright as shit and waking people up, white light can significantly impair night vision, and the effect persists for a while after the light is gone.

When moving around camp at night, try sticking to your red light, which is much less disturbing. If the red setting doesn’t provide enough light to navigate safely, choose the lowest white you can and keep it angled down at your feet.

Night hiking is trickier. To preserve my peripheral night vision, I like to hike by red light when the trail is smooth. But often enough, white light is necessary for safety reasons. There’s no predicting when I’ll round a corner on a night hike and come face to face with someone’s trailside campsite. When this happens, the best I can do is to turn my headlamp away from their tent and pass by as quickly and quietly as possible.

3. Playing Your Music Out Loud While Hiking

Some hikers bring instruments on trail. Live music is generally better received than Spotify, but you should still ask before serenading your campmates. Photo via Mark Privitera.

In general, I prefer not to listen to anything but the sounds of nature around me when I’m hiking. For one thing, I feel safer when I can hear what’s going on around me. Situational awareness is a beautiful thing.

Also, I love nature sounds. Listening to the wind in the trees and babbling brooks and whatnot makes me feel immersed in nature, whereas music and audiobooks and the like take my head out of it completely.

But sometimes, when my morale is really in the toilet, a little audio distraction is exactly what I need. Hooray for grey areas!

But listen, guys. The optimal way to listen to music while hiking is with one earbud in and the other ear free to listen to trail sounds (again, situational awareness). The sub-optimal way is to listen with both earbuds in. The cringey, inconsiderate way is to crank up the volume on your smartphone speakers and play it out loud for all to hear, whether they want to or not.

Your impeccably curated playlist may seem like your gift to the world, but it’s actually pretty gosh darn disturbing to anyone who wants a little peace and quiet while they hike. Which will be a significant percentage of the people you meet out there, peace and quiet being a primary reason many people go hiking to begin with.

If you can’t play your music (or book, or podcast) quietly, just don’t play it. Pick up a pair of cheap earbuds in the next town you pass through, and you’ll never face this dilemma again.

4. Not Yielding to the Uphill Hiker

When two parties are passing each other going opposite directions on a narrow trail, the hiker going uphill always has the right of way. This is because stopping and getting started again is a lot harder for a hiker going uphill against gravity: it takes more energy, and you lose the nice, steady rhythm of your breath and heartbeat when you take a break.

The trouble is that many people are unfamiliar with this bit of etiquette. Many people assume that the uphill hiker ought to yield since they must be tired and in need of a break anyway.

My advice is this: do your best to obey this rule of thumb, but don’t get too offended if others don’t do the same for you. The fact is that sometimes people forget or simply don’t know.

If you’re heading downhill and the uphill hiker steps aside for you, maybe say something like, “No, really, you go ahead—uphill has the right of way!” so that hopefully they’ll know for next time. But if they insist on letting you go, just go. Don’t make it a whole thing.

Likewise, if the uphill hiker pulls aside and they look absolutely gassed, they may actually be ready for a break. Rather than arguing about it, I’d just proceed.

If you’re hiking with others, tighten up before passing another party so that they don’t have to wait forever for your group to get by.

My partner has a strategy for when you really need to make miles and keep your pace consistent on the climb: just keep your head down and keep going. Eventually, the downhill hikers will get the picture.

5. Wearing Your Backpack Into the Store or Restaurant

I already shared an awkward anecdote about this transgression in the intro, but sadly, I have others. Like the time I insisted on bringing my rain-sodden backpack inside a semi-nice sit-down restaurant. Le sigh.

It is unlikely that anyone will steal your gear if you leave it by the front door. Why? For the same reasons no one wants you bringing it inside in the first place: it’s heavy, unwieldy, dirty, possibly wet, and it stinks. And who wants your trash anyway?

Thru-hikers drop their packs outside all the time. You’ll often see rows of backpacks lined up outside the front door of popular establishments, tempting you to go in and join the party.

Some businesses explicitly prohibit hikers from bringing their gear in, but even if they don’t, it’s courteous to leave it outside. Besides the smell and general grubbiness, the sheer bulk of your gear inside a cramped store can cause problems.


6. Not Laughing It Off

Photo via Annemarie Athey.

Making mistakes is inevitable: we’re all human and fallible. I know as well as anyone that missteps can be embarrassing and cringey and all that stuff. It doesn’t make you a bad person. And hikers are pretty laid back. They might rib you a little about it, but the chances they’ll hold a long-term grudge are slim.

Also, look on the bright side: your present-day mortification will lead to hours of future entertainment! Just look at me! So you made a mistake. Laugh it off and try to learn from it if you can. Let your mistakes enhance, rather than detract from, the glorious experience of thru-hiking.

Featured image: Photo by Mukuko Studio on Unsplash.

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Comments 10

  • Greg : Mar 22nd

    Not yielding to uphill hikers is one where I give people a pass if they don’t follow the rules. I’m perfectly happy to yield to downhill hikers or mountain bikers too… usually. It’s a good excuse for a short break and I don’t feel rushed while they watch me huff and puff on the way up. Happy Trails!

  • JustBob : Mar 22nd

    Outstanding write up (as always).
    There are so many more to add to this list, but for the most part you hit the main points really well.

    Thank you for the laughs !

  • Wisdom Like Silence : Mar 23rd

    We get it… You’re not parked anywhere. You’re not going to “thru-drive” home in a day or 2.

    People hiking in circles don’t get to take their packs inside or make extra noise at night either. The distinction is irrelevant.

    When you’re climbing that hill, shining your light, partying up late, or hiking to a store, nobody cares how far you’re hiking that week. You don’t need to keep saying “thru-hiking”.

    There’s a reason nobody calls them “thru-hiking boots”. Because it’s still just hiking. Or backpacking.

  • Kaden Morgan : Mar 24th

    I always grab a shopping cart and toss my pack in while resupplying unless the store has signs up to not bring it in. All grocery store and Walmarts never had an issue with it last year on my successful AT thruhike.

  • Kurt Bachmann : Mar 24th

    Where did this “yield to uphill hikers” business come from? I imagine it comes from the same rule when driving, but I never considered either rule to make much sense. The fact is that downhill hikers and drivers often cannot stop very quickly, whereas the uphill hikers and drivers can stop quickly.

    Yes, downhill hikers and drivers are often going too fast, but I’m more interested in avoiding collisions.

    • Bob : Mar 25th

      It’s a thing. It’s always been a thing. You not knowing about it until just now and having your own view doesn’t change the fact that uphill has right of way in most sensible people’s minds.

  • Wazo : Mar 24th

    Playing music in shelters, live or virtual, is one of the most annoying things a hiker can do. For a few years, it was Wagon Wheel over and over. Yes, buy some headphones and leave the harmonica at home. You’ll. Have a lot more friends.

  • Adam : Mar 24th

    For years I also thought that the uphill hiker had the right of way no matter what. Recently someone pointed out on a podcast, it might have even been BPR , that the bigger party should have the right of way because it’s better LNT for less hikers to have to step off trail. Less people crushing plants or causing structural damage to the trail. If one person is hiking uphill and 20 are going down does it really make sense for 20 people to get off trail for that one person? In the end, it’s probably not one definitive rule to whom has the right of way. It’s generally more subjective and people should use their common sense and manners to do their best decision making.

  • Lori Olinger : Mar 25th

    I don’t agree with leaving a couple thousand dollars of hiking equipment in your pack outside. Just isn’t happening. Too many sticky fingers.

  • BB '19 : Mar 26th

    This is a common thing some thru-hikers do (thinking somehow thru-hiking is different than hiking/backpacking)… including thinking that their knowledge gained on their thru-hike, often their only hike beyond day-hikes, somehow automatically makes them an expert in all things hiking/backpacking and the general outdoors and makes them superior to the lowly common non-thru-hiker, regardless if that lowly common non-thru-hiker has years of experience.

    Yes, all six of these are not thru-hike specific…and #1 & #2 are easily avoided by staying away from shelters. #5, since my packs never stank, if they weren’t wet and there was a reason to bring it in (such as loading my resupply in), I had no problem bringing my pack into certain places (coffee shops and the like).

    I have thru-hiked the AT, after decades of hiking/canoeing/climbing/expedition/cycling experience, it was just 150ish days of hiking in a row (with a few zeros thrown in), there was no mystical transformation or special knowledge that I gained from my thru-hike…aside from the trail specific bata gained.


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