11 Common Beginner Mistakes in Backpacking and Hiking

We all start somewhere. We all begin as a beginner, a novice. New gear also demands we catch up. An experienced backpacker in the early ‘90s might not know all the tricks of the trade in this new decade. I like to think I worked out my beginner kinks during my thru-hike but I am still learning new hiking hacks (check out Appalachian Trial’s article on backpacking hacks). Whenever I hike now, I notice many people committing the same beginner mistakes I did and as many others tend to do.

The Appalachian Trail community promotes hike your own hike, as do I. If you choose to do the things below with knowledge that there is an easier way, then I applaud you for hiking your own hike. If you do these actions out of lack of knowledge, then this is here to help. Not all beginners make these mistakes. These seem the most common and the most easily fixable.

1. Not Eating & Drinking Enough

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You know the type. The hiker rolls into the shelter near dusk, exhausted. Too tired to cook or even retrieve water for the night, he or she erects their tent and go to bed. Eating after a long day of hiking is important as well as snacking throughout the day. Monitor food and water intake always. Without proper nutrients, your amazing camping trip will simply be an exhausting endeavor.

2. Bringing Too Much

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This is the most notorious mistake of a beginner backpacker. No matter if it’s too much food, clothes, or gear, try to evaluate the contents of your pack before setting out for the backcountry. On my recent thru-hike of the GR 20, I noticed multiple hikers carrying two pairs of shoes to hike in, a minimalist shoe and a boot. Consider one shoe suitable for all terrains. Evaluating your gear beforehand will lighten your load and make packing easier. Start with handling every single item you want to carry and acknowledge the weight. Give yourself a shakedown.

3. Not Considering the Weather

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This is me before Mt. Madison in the Whites in New Hampshire. Don’t let this be you. You don’t want this to be you, I promise.

While thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I witnessed a couple on a day hike soaking up the persistent downpour of rain. If you plan to do a smaller hiker (not a thru-hike), then plan around the weather. Always check the forecast. Some mountains may require early morning summits for notorious rains in the afternoon. Having a rough time hiking in the rain or lightening can be avoided with just a bit of research ahead of time.

4. Bringing Cans of Food

My first camping trip was in Big Bend National Park in Texas. I carried cans of food I had sitting in my pantry. Being a broke college student, I didn’t see a problem with it. Now being an experienced backpacker, I hate to admit that I did that. Cans of food are heavy. Compare a can of food with a packet of ramen. I think I rest my case. If you happen to be on a trail in which provides not much selection in a resupply but cans, I recommend transferring the contents of the cans into plastic bags (double bag) and pack them in a safe place.

5. Not Properly Using Trekking Poles

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Descending Longs Peak, Colorado

When I finally learned to use my trekking poles properly, I experienced an increase in speed and efficiency. USE THE STRAPS. While hiking in France, I noticed a woman ascending a steep and snowy mountain by just holding her poles below the hand grips. I was nervous for her. By using the straps, you have more stability. There are different ways to use your poles depending on the hike (downhill, ascent, flat). Check out this resource to understanding your poles and how to use them.

6. Wearing Cotton

Wearing cotton is perfectly fine if you plan to do a day hike. However, for a multiday trek or long distance hike, cotton is not the best choice. The fabric tends to absorb odors (I know, I know we will all stink at some point) and retain moisture. Polyester dries faster, which comes in handy during a cold downpour. Wool socks versus cotton socks is highly recommended. Leave the blue jeans at home.

7. Forgetting Something Important

Photo Credit: Sharon Mollerus via Flickr

Photo Credit: Sharon Mollerus via Flickr

After my first resupply on my AT thru-hike out of Hiawassee, Georgia, I realized I forgot something important. I forgot toilet paper for the week. Sure, I remembered two boxes of snack cakes but not toilet paper. Now, I know some people hike without toilet paper and go for the leaf approach. But, I’m not that hiker. Always check to see if you have your necessities. You best believe I will never EVER forget toilet paper ever again.

8. Not Knowing Your Pack

My first pack was from REI. The pack hurt me, literally. I would come out of a three day camping trip with huge bruises on my hips. I didn’t know the pack was not my size. For my thru-hike, I purchased a smaller sized pack (which size had to be ordered online instead of purchased in a store) and haven’t looked back. Knowing your pack inside and out will make you more efficient in packing up and hiking. Know how your pack should adjust to your body with any weight in it. Know how to pack your pack for short and long distances. Your pack is an extension of your body; know it well and your body will be happy.

9. Not Following Leave No Trace

We have all seen trashed campsites or even human waste littering the trail. I know not all those who litter the trail are beginners but ‘leave no trace’ is a big rule for camping that must be implanted in the beginner before the first step. Always bring something to throw away your trash in such as a plastic bag. Always bury your human waste AWAY from the trail and campsites. View these LNT policies recommended by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

10. Not Considering Time and Pace

As a beginner, your pace might not be the quickest. Therefore, you must evaluate an attainable time table of when you will reach your destination. Evaluate your day’s hike by difficulty and weather. Then, approximate how many hours this will take. If you are unsure of how many miles per hour you can do, just evaluate for one mile per hour at first. You do not want to summit a mountain late in the day to find that your slower pace leaves you still miles away from your desired campsite when the sunsets.

11. Not Hiking Your Own Hike

Hiking your own hike (HYOH) can be related to the thru-hike or any hike. If you are hiking a thru-hike, hike when you want and how you want. Do not allow others to negatively influence your hike. Now, hike your own hike can be taken into account for any hike. During my recent hike of the GR 20, I noticed huge groups of people hiking together. You might not think HYOH applies with group camping trips but it does. Being a petite female, my chosen route in a scrambled rock ascent might not be the same as my six foot tall boyfriend. I notice many beginner hikers trying to attempt the same scramble route as someone with either more experience or different body strengths. ALWAYS evaluate a route for your body’s dimensions and strengths. Groups seem to follow the leader but the leader’s steps might not be the best route for you. Check out your surroundings, determine your own route (when applicable), and hike your own hike for your body type.

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Comments 44

  • Blair : Mar 8th

    I have a question about trekking poles. I have never used them, but have definitely noticed their growing popularity over the last 15 years. I saw on another blog, not to use your straps, because that could be detrimental in a fall. Totally makes sense to me how getting tangled up in poles while falling could lead to injury. What are your thoughts or experience on this?

    Reply
    • Al H. : Mar 9th

      Funny…I cut off my straps when I got to Harper’s Ferry…that was several thousand miles ago…just too annoying to reposition around your hands over and over…just not that important. The entanglement risk you mentioned does seem real.

      Reply
      • CaptinOzone : Sep 28th

        But what about the possibility of seeing a pole go skittering down a steep hill or cliff after an otherwise minor fall?

        Reply
    • editaur : Sep 28th

      I deliberately took the straps off my main poles, and on other poles where I couldn’t easily remove the strap, I avoid using them. I’ve seen someone sprain a wrist when they fell with a pole that stayed upright. Sounds like the biggest mistake being made by the person the author cites was that she wasn’t using the handgrips. That’s just weird.

      Reply
    • TEEJAYZ : Sep 28th

      Use the straps. Hand goes in from the bottom.
      On flat ground it’s the strap and not your hands that will be taking the pressure. Long and steep downhills? Take your hand out of the strap and either grab the pole normally or put your hand over the top of it and use them like ski poles.
      Don’t use them to slow you down but to guide you. You never want to put all your weight on a downhill pole.

      Reply
  • youguysarereallynuts : Mar 9th

    I know the not drinking is one of the mistakes I’ve made, but I have more.. Not using sunscreen, that can really ruin a hike, same with no hat. Also overestimating your abilities, and not knowing when to pack it in. I think a lot of beginners feel it’s important to finish the hike at any cost, but really, it’s a lot safer to know when to quit early.

    Reply
  • Deskrider : Mar 10th

    While I agree with everything on the list, the beginning hiker should also be aware of the importance of good, to great, supportive footwear. Having been in Scouting for a good many years, the numbers of young people who show up to a hike in tennis shoes is extraordinary. Lightweight boots that are comfortable, supply adequate ankle support, and drying capability is the most basic and important item to invest in.

    Reply
    • kheer : Jun 9th

      Do you have any advice on what brand of hiking boots to purchase? I’m a first-time hiker and am indecisive on what route to take! I’m looking for something that can be versatile in all conditions.

      Reply
      • Francine Brown : Sep 28th

        I highly suggest going to an outdoors shop where they will take the time to fit your foot. I went to Backwoods after 6 months of looking for hiking boots and spent over an hour with the gentleman working the shoes. Well worth it! I walked away with a pair of Saloman’s, wore them every day for two-three weeks, then went on a 12 day Philmont trek with absolutely no problems. Take the time to find a store willing to fit you and invest in good wool socks. Your feet will thank you.

        Reply
    • Leo Yermo Adan : Apr 16th

      Boots? NO WAY. Read Ray Jardin. Boots are worthless. Amazing how the fastest hikers NEVER seem to use them.

      Reply
  • nocmanus : Jun 25th

    As an Outdoor Instructor, I think number 8 is usually what I see the most. Also, people never consider footwear. They think they don’t need waterproof boots, or they don’t break them in before attempting a hike. Backpack, Footwear hugely important. Good article.

    Reply
    • Leo Yermo Adan : Apr 16th

      WATER PROOF BOOTS? You are kidding right?

      Reply
  • Kendra Smith : Sep 27th

    For a very long time I’ve wanted to hike the AT. It’s been a dream never acted upon. Now I just end up seeing movies reading books and hearing stories from hikers that have hiked the AT. I’ve gotten a backpack, bought a map, studied books made list….. Guess it’s not going to happen. It was just what it is,…… A Dream. To all those who have walked. I commend you… Well done ! Well done

    Reply
    • Shelagh : Jan 31st

      Kendra, don’t give up on your dream. Take a weekend and hike a small section of the AT. You’ll be so happy you did!

      Reply
    • PJ Rowland : Feb 28th

      Don’t give up on your dream. You don’t have to thru hike you can always do it in sections and take as long as you need. I’ve heard of people doing it in 10 years but they still did it. Not to the extreme of the AT but I dreamed of hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim for years and had decided it would never happen. About 3 years ago the bug hit me again and I started training to be ready to do it in case I got up my nerve. I mentioned it to some friends and 2 were interested in doing it also. Let me add that we were all 50+ and had never hiked a day in our life when we decided to make a 24 mile rim to rim hike. In June 2015 at the age of 52 my dream came true. It is scary making the decision and taking that first step but the reward at the end is worth it.

      Reply
      • A Jewell : Dec 17th

        PJ, I am 51 and never hiked before, but I’m planning to go the whole AT in 2019 with a couple friends. You just gave me some inspiration that I can do it! Thanks! I’m starting my training now. Blessed to be living near mountains so I can have altitude and trails to train on.

        Reply
        • Matt : Apr 25th

          I heard the oldest guy to thru hike the AT was in his 80’s so you guys in your 50’s got this.

          Reply
    • Eretria : Mar 31st

      Just because you can’t hike the whole thing in one go doesn’t mean you couldn’t do some sectional hikes. The reality is not everyone can take six months out of their life at one time. Make some smaller goals and see if that helps before you give up.

      Reply
    • c : Aug 4th

      me too

      Reply
    • Mary : Aug 24th

      Kendra,
      The trail is also a dream of mine. Don’t give up on it. I’m gathering equipment and want to hit the trail or parts of it in the spring of 2017. Lets try together. Contact me. [email protected]. I am almost 60 and not giving up!!

      Reply
    • DeAnna Murphy : Dec 27th

      Kendra,

      Don’t give up!!!! Section hiking is where it’s at! You control the section, miles and time that you want and can do. Same mountains and same beautiful journey. I section hiked some of the AT this Fall and had the time of my life and I can’t wait to get back. Go For It! I did it alone and so can you.

      Reply
      • Dave : Mar 10th

        Don’t give up on the dream. A friend and I have started section hiking twice a year. Will we finish the whole trail? Probably not but we’re out there. Since we’ve started doing this I hear so many people say I’ve always wanted to that. We are!! You can too!!!

        Reply
  • editaur : Sep 28th

    On #8, you make it sound as though buying the pack at REI was your mistake. That wasn’t my experience – buying my first pack online was. My second, bought with a knowledgeable REI saleperson, fits great. The moral of the story is not where you buy the pack, but whether you or the salesperson knows how the pack should fit.

    Reply
    • Lori : Feb 28th

      Going back to REI five times to be fitted was a mistake — they did it WRONG, and all my packs were the wrong size, and my hips HUUUUUUUUURRRRRRTTTTTTTT every trip.

      Getting the correct measurement took googling and finding pages like McHale packs and ULA packs – both only available by mail – and viewing a video and reading how to have a friend help me measure my own back, and find out that all the stores were measuring me one to two inches longer in the spine than I really was. Since I was on the break point between a small and medium for most brands that made a REALLY BIG DIFFERENCE. And now I have a ULA brand pack that works so very much better than all the Ospreys in the world…. Sometimes the frame of the pack is part of the problem. Because not everyone can sit that funny shape on their hips and be comfortable.

      The real key to a good pack fit is to understand how to measure it yourself and not settle for things that make your back hurt. You can have the right size and it’s just the wrong $%#^& pack.

      Reply
  • Hikingmom : Sep 28th

    My first big hike we went with a guy who almost a foot taller than me and runs marathons for fun. He also was trying to get to certain points at certain times of day. I was completely miserable keepig that pace. The next time is was just my husband and me and we ambled more and took in more of the scenery. A much better trip!

    Reply
  • TEEJAYZ : Sep 28th

    I’ll take exception about “cotton unless it’s a day trip.” Cotton is actually better in very hot weather because it provides cooling. But if you’re on a day trip and it rains or snows it can absolutely kill you. It’s not the length of the trip but the weather that determines what you wear.
    But no mention of the 10 Essentials? Particularly a headlamp and a fire starter?
    Packing too much (aka “Packing your fears”) is probably the easiest winner in terms of beginner mistakes though.

    Reply
    • Joy B : Jul 20th

      Cotton just holds in so much moisture when I sweat and it’s hot out – so that’s a no for me. The damp cotton shirt in the heat with the pack strapped on softened my skin and rubbed blisters into my shoulders and hips (the kind of blisters you get on your feet from new shoes). I’ll stick with my wool blend Smartwool brand shirts for hiking in all weather. Cotton is a disaster for me (perhaps I sweat more than others?). Icebreaker is a great wool blend brand too. I’ll never ever take cotton shirts or underwear with me for hiking again.

      Reply
  • Dex : Sep 29th

    I think the advice given is good and sound. However, the advice on dealing with canned goods, not so much. I would not recommend repackaging the contents of canned goods. Once exposed to oxygen the contents will begin the process of spoiling. Depending on the temperature and the contents, it may take a few days or a few hours. If you are forced to carry canned goods, I would just suck it up, leave them sealed until needed, and take a rock and hammer the can flat once you have emptied it (makes it easier to pack out).

    Reply
    • Kat : Sep 29th

      Excellent point – bacterial food poisoning on a solo thru hike would be devastating

      Reply
  • reagan : Sep 29th

    i would add, taking some with your allowing someone to go with you who has other reasons for the hike than a hike. if a person plans on a flow hike through the woods for a couple of hours or if they think it will be party time at the tent every night…..or if they think its a good bonding activity (but they have no real interest in hiking itself) leave them behind. also…people who must use umbrellas or who cant stand bugs….leave them at home. i run into this at music festivals as well. if a person cant use a porta potty, be wet, be in crowds, or be around drunk people – they dont need to be there.

    Reply
    • Draggin'Tail : Feb 28th

      Although I think I understand and agree with your basic post (it is hard to read, typos?), I take affront to your comment about umbrellas. Whether desert sun or incessant 35 degree rain, my trekking umbrella is one of my pieces of go to gear. Hands free mount I might add

      Reply
      • Leo Yermo Adan : Apr 16th

        Totally 100% AGREE

        Reply
  • Jason Dunn : Sep 29th

    While cotton may absorb some odors, nothing stinks like a synthetic undershirt after a day of use. Wool, on the other hand, can be worn for days.

    Reply
    • Joy B : Jul 20th

      Ah yes! I thought it was just me. I love/hate the poly blends. Love them for keeping me cool and dry but hate them because I can’t wear them on day 2 without massive stench. I prefer and will always stick to thin woven wool blend shirts and underwear (and socks). I can pack less wool blend shirts than the poly blend. I suppose one shouldn’t worry too much about stench on the trail but it sure is nice to arrive at your destination and meet new people not smelling like sweaty socks.

      Reply
  • Ciara : Nov 24th

    I am a complete beginner on hiking for a week or two long trip. I was wondering if you knew of any books, guides, or the like that would be useful to plan my expected section hike of the Appalachian trail.

    Reply
  • Lauren : Jan 12th

    Great article! I’ve suffered from a “packed too heavy” problem on more than one trip, but I’ve never been on a thru hike, and plan to pack light! I hope to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2017, and appreciate these tips. Loved it! Keep writing!! Check me out, if you’d like: twotentsdown.blogspot.com or Instagram.com/twotentsdown

    Happy hiking!! 🙂

    Reply
  • Terry Gandy : Feb 27th

    Great article and good information. Thanks. One nice thing about trekking pole straps is they allow you to temporarily hang the poles off your wrists as you do a hand-to-hand climb.

    Reply
  • Steffy : Feb 28th

    Any thoughts on snake gators? I’m finishing the AT in the SNP this spring/summer and worried about any snake encounters.

    Reply
  • Lonais : Apr 15th

    Madison, never use pole straps! Statistically it is one of the most common case of injury while hiking, even if you don’t fall. People break their wrist that way and that’s the reason why most modern hiking poles come without straps. Overall a good and useful article. Take care! Lo

    Reply
  • Joseain : Jun 17th

    This a great article and gives a good information. For #5 I would say that many of the people really don’t know how to use pole for hiking. So I thank you for making us aware about how to use them. I would also suggest to have trekking pole holder for keeping the pole safe. Also you can carry the pole with an ease.

    Reply
  • Hunt Man : Mar 24th

    very Informative, Check here Basics of Hiking http://www.outacts.com/15-hiking-guide-tips-tricks-beginners/

    Reply
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