Beginner Backpacking Mistakes to Avoid

No matter how experienced a hiker you are learning from those who have more miles under their boots (or trail runners) than you will have a huge impact on your ability to successfully complete, and enjoy a thru-hike. After all, every thru-hiker makes plenty of stupid mistakes at the beginning of their hikes. Lucky for you, you can learn from their errors so are not doomed to repeat them.

The hosts of Backpacker Radio are no different. They have made just as many, if not more, mistakes than every other thru-hiker. Zach, Chaunce, and Sauce sat down a few weeks ago and went over some of the most egregious mistakes they made as beginners and the most common beginner backpacking mistakes they see at the start of every hiking season. Below is an abridged version of the list of the nine biggest backpacking mistakes they compiled.

Nine Beginner Backpacking Mistakes to Avoid

Mistake #1: Not Doing Shake Down Hikes

Shakedown hikes (or practice hikes) are a necessity. Learn from Zach and Chaunce’s mistakes and just do one. Otherwise, you will find yourself in pain, underprepared, and having untested gear. Backpacking is an endurance sport. You need to train for the compounded impact/exhaustion that hiking multiple big days in a row will bring. Learning how to use your body and gear in various conditions (mental, physical, and environmental) is essential. You do not want to get a month into your Appalachian Trail hike and find out that not only do you hate hiking in the rain but your raincoat also doesn’t really keep the rain out. Shakedown hikes can help you avoid all of this by giving you the experience to sort out any issues and refine your gear choices before heading out on trial.

Mistake #2: Not Putting Your Phone On Airplane Mode When You Do Practice Hikes

There WILL be times on trail where you can not be connected to your loved ones and the world wide web at large – especially if you have AT&T and are hiking the Appalachian Trail. You need to get used to being completely disconnected outside of your satellite device. Practicing this radio silence when you are tired, frustrated, and in a mental low will help you get used to the remoteness you will experience on trail. If you are somebody who needs sound/music/podcast like this to fall asleep, download them ahead of time for those moments when you just need something to listen to. That way, you are not even tempted to venture online.

Mistake #3: Not Knowing How To Properly Filter Your Water

Image via

Water is one of the most important things to ensure your survival on trail so you need to learn how to reliably treat it. Nobody wants to be the person trying to find bars of service to load up a Youtube video on how to use a Sawyer Squeeze. Take the time to learn the ins and outs of your treatment system. Reading up on common fault points (like finicky O-rings) and how to backflush can save you some major headaches on trail.

Mistake #4: Buying Gear Beyond your Skill Set/Experience

It is much better to air on the side of heavier/less sophisticated gear that you are comfortable with than the newest piece of UL cottage industry gear. So many people end up sending back their expensive pieces of gear in favor of something simpler in the first few weeks of the trail. You need to know how to comfortably set up your gear in all weather and in all conditions. Saving a few pounds is not worth the added stress that could come using gear that you are not experienced with. If you are deadset on the newest piece of high-tech gear make sure you practice with it and take it on your shakedown hikes.

A setup not suited for beginners. image via

Mistake #5: Being Too Firm On Your Hike And Not Allowing For Flexibility

Every thru-hike is different. They all come with varying weather conditions and considerations that you will need to workaround. On the Appalachian Trail, you can pretty much hike a standard workday. However, on the Colorado Trail you will find yourself caught in daily afternoon thunderstorms (that are often accompanied by hail) if you hike with that same 9-5 mentality. Research the conditions that your trail experiences at all different times of day/year.

In addition, do not set yourself up for misery. If your start date is going to have unusually nasty weather you need to be open to pushing back a few days until conditions clear. The first day of your hike is supposed to be an exciting day full of anticipation and excitement. Forcing yourself to hike in bad conditions is not only dangerous but also might force you off the trail out of misery.

Mistake #6: Not Researching Gear That Is Right For YOU.

Do not just buy gear because your favorite YouTuber or influencer uses it. You need to do your own research and find out what will work best for you. If you are a cold sleeper then you might need to push aside the dominant opinion that you do not need anything below a 30-degree sleeping bag on the AT. Instead, you might need a 5 degree to be comfortable getting a night’s sleep on trail. Everybody’s bodies are different – especially when it comes to shoes or other specialized gear. The same goes for other items of your kit like food and hygiene equipment. Before getting on trail you should figure out what works best for YOU.

Mistake #7: Ignoring Mental Preprepration

You have to mentally prepare for your thru-hike. So many people prepare their bodies but completely forget to prepare their minds for the struggles of a thru-hike. Thru-hiking is not as glamorous as Instagram and Youtube can make it seem. You will have bad days, get injured, and struggle with being disconnected from your normal life. You are much more likely to make it to the end of your hike if you are hiking with determination, clear reasons for being on trail, and with tools to handle the curveballs life on trail will throw at you.

Struggling with how to tangibly mentally prep? Well, worry no more. Zach, the Trek intrepid leader, wrote a guide for psychologically and emotionally preparing for a successful AT thru-hike.

Mistake #8: Not Practicing Communicating With Your Satellite Device

Your satellite communication device is your lifeline while hiking. After all, it gives you both a safety net and a way to stay connected with loved ones. As reliable as satellite devices have become in recent years they can still be finicky in different conditions. Mountains, thick clouds, rain, dense tree cover, and angles can all have a large impact on how it responds. Practicing with your devices in these varying conditions will enable you to stay calm and know that your messages have been sent in case an emergency situation arises. If nothing else, it will make sure that your “safe at camp” message goes through so you don’t roll into town with dozens of texts from your poor mother wondering if you are alive or not.

Mistake #9: Trying to Keep Up With People Above Your Fitness Level

Trail families are not forever. While you might feel compelled to stay with your newfound friends, sticking with people who do not hike at the same pace as you can ruin your experience. There is no point in trying to keep up with the speed demon you met last week if it makes you miserable and pushes you past your physical limit – no matter how good their jokes are. Even if you manage to keep up for a few days you will gradually wear down your body and risk injury. You will find more hikers who are more your speed as you continue on the trail.

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Comments 8

  • GroundHog : Aug 13th

    Very realistic & fresh look at a subject that’s been extensively over discussed to no good end. A modern look, relevant for today’s hikers.
    If you only read one “beginner’s Mistakes” article this is the one to read.

  • Lindsey : Aug 13th

    Great article! This is great advice even for the 1 – 2 week short term treks too.
    Thank you for the honestly and simplicity of this breakdown.

  • Amber : Aug 23rd

    These are spot on, and I agree that even for shorter thru-hikes, #7 is a big one. In fact, reading Appalachian Trials saved my Ouachita Trail hike – I probably would’ve quit!


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