15 All-Too Common Beginner Backpacking Mistakes
We all start somewhere. We all begin as beginners, as novices. And even for experienced hikers, new gear constantly demands we play 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. Whenever I hike now, I notice many people making the same beginner mistakes I (and many others) did when first starting out.
The Appalachian Trail community encourages you to hike your own hike, as do I. If you choose to do the things below with the knowledge that there is an easier way, then I applaud you for hiking your own hike. If you do them out of a lack of knowledge, however, then this resource is here to help. Note that this is far from a comprehensive list. Not all beginners make these missteps, and the mistakes listed are far from the only ones I’ve seen on the trail. The beginner backpacking mistakes I’ve chosen to highlight seem to be among the most common and the most easily fixable.
15 Beginner Backpacking Mistakes to Avoid
1. Not Eating & Drinking Enough
You know the type. The hiker rolls into the shelter near dusk, exhausted. Too tired to cook or even retrieve water for the night, they pitch their tent and go straight to bed. It’s very common to lose your appetite in the face of total exhaustion, especially near the beginning of your thru-hike. But for once, don’t trust the message your body is trying to send you. Even if you don’t feel hungry, you need to eat something to keep up your strength. Eating after a long day of hiking is important, as is snacking throughout the day.
On a related note, keep an eye on your hydration level. Collecting and filtering water from a stream (not to mention lugging it through the mountains all day) is certainly inconvenient, but it’s crucial that you drink enough water. Thru-hiking is a demanding activity, so try to drink roughly a liter for every two hours you spend hiking (more if you are hiking in hot/arid conditions).
Monitor your food and water intake always. Without proper nutrients, your amazing camping trip will simply be an exhausting endeavor.
This is one of the most notorious beginner backpacking mistakes of all. Whether it’s too much food, clothing, or gear, many newbies “pack their fears” in an attempt to control every possible variable. Try to evaluate the contents of your pack before setting out for the backcountry. You want to strike a balance between carrying enough gear to stay safe/comfortable and not carrying so much that you can hardly carry it all and your trip is miserable.
It helps to build a spreadsheet itemizing all of your gear and the weight of each item. You’ll be stunned by how much the little things add up.
Give yourself a shakedown or two to see where you can streamline your setup and eliminate weight. Take your gear out for a few practice trips and take note of any items you don’t use at all. If you haven’t touched it, do you really need to bring it?
Commonly overpacked items:
- Clothing: you only need one set of hiking clothes and one set of camp clothes, regardless of your trip length.
- Consumables: It will take time to determine how much food, water, fuel, and toilet paper you use daily—especially as your trail legs come in and your daily mileage grows. To begin, doing a few shakedown hikes before the big trip will give you a sense of how much to pack.
- First aid: To be clear, you definitely need to bring a first aid/emergency kit. I’m just saying it doesn’t need to be massive. Maybe leave the SAM splint, ice pack, and saline solution at home in favor of more conventional items like bandaids, ibuprofen, and triple-antibiotic ointment.
- Car camping items: Bulky two-burner stoves, elaborate kitchenware sets, Coleman lanterns, large knives/machetes, heavy coils of manila rope, folding trench shovels, etc. etc. All of these items have lighter, smaller backpacking equivalents.
- Books: I like a good paperback as much as the next guy, but in the context of a thru-hike, a lightweight e-reader (or, even better, an ebook on your phone) makes much more sense. You can have a whole library at your fingertips without adding any extra weight.
READ NEXT – The Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Gear List
3. Underpacking / Forgetting Something Important
As often as beginner backpackers overpack items they don’t need, they fail to pack things they actually do need. For instance, you don’t want to bring a pair of jeans (completely superfluous) but neglect to pack an insulating midlayer (essential). Even if you’ve meticulously researched and assembled all the gear you’ll need for a backpacking trip, it’s a lot to keep track of, and it’s very easy to forget to pack something important when the Big Day finally arrives.
This applies to resupplies as well. After my first resupply on my AT thru-hike out of Hiawassee, Georgia, I realized I had forgotten something important: my toilet paper ration 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.
Pro tip: inventory all your gear and keep a packing list on your phone. Review the list before starting your trip or leaving town after a zero to ensure you haven’t overlooked anything. Also, in hiking as in life, your resupply run to the grocery store will go a lot better if you make a shopping list ahead of time.
4. Not Considering the Weather
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 lightning can be avoided with just a bit of research ahead of time.
Even long-distance hikers can plan around the weather to some extent. In fact, backpackers should be even more aware of potential weather conditions. Don’t treat the weather forecast like the word of God: hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Weather can change on a dime in the mountains, so it’s important to be prepared for a wide range of conditions.
Weather considerations to bear in mind:
- Temperature: Do you have adequate clothing to stay warm if the temperature drops? Do you have enough water to stay hydrated on a hot day? If you will be traversing snow, can you plan your day to cross the snow early in the morning before it begins to soften and melt?
- Clouds: Do you have adequate sun protection?
- Thunder and lightning: Are you going above treeline or over an exposed ridge today? Better check the forecast and aim to be up and over as early in the day as possible.
- High winds: Are you camped in an area with many standing dead trees or branches? You should always check for widowmakers before making camp, but it’s especially important if there’s wind in the forecast.
- Precipitation: Do you have adequate rain gear? Do you have waterproof bags for your sleeping bag, camp clothes, electronics, etc.?
5. Excessively Heavy/Labor-Intensive Food Plans
My first camping trip was in Big Bend National Park in Texas, and 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 working with limited resupply options where canned food is your best or only bet, I recommend transferring the contents of the cans into plastic bags (double-bag) and packing them in a safe place.
While I would never discourage someone from bringing fresh produce into the backcountry (sure, it’s heavy, but what a luxury!), I would caution against planning elaborate, multi-step dinners that involve lots of prep work. Gourmet cooking takes a lot of time, energy, and fuel that you may or may not be able to spare, especially as a beginner backpacker. Save the fajitas for back home and just eat your bell peppers raw as a side dish to an easy, dehydrated, just-add-water dinner. Keep it simple until you are more comfortable in the backcountry, and then decide if elaborate camp recipes are something you want to experiment with.
READ NEXT – Our Favorite 3-Ingredient Backpacking Meals
6. Not Properly Using Trekking Poles (Or Not Using At All)
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 far more power and stability. There are different ways to use your poles depending on the hike (downhill, ascent, flat).
READ NEXT – The Advantages of Trekking Poles 101
A related mistake: not using poles at all. While some hikers do choose to hike pole-free and find it more comfortable that way, I encourage you to at least give trekking poles an honest try before you rule them out. They may seem a bit dorky and awkward to use at first, but once you get used to them, they’re (sometimes literal) lifesavers. Trekking poles can save your joints a lot of wear and tear, prevent you from falling, and double as handy stabby thingies if you get in a jam and need a weapon to defend yourself.
7. Wearing Cotton
Wearing cotton is perfectly fine if you plan to do a day hike. However, for a multiday trek or long-distance hike, leave the blue jeans at home. The fabric tends to absorb odors (I know, I know we will all stink at some point) and, more importantly, retain moisture. Being perpetually soggy in the backcountry isn’t just annoying: it puts you at risk of hypothermia. Even in the summer, the mountains can get cold, and wearing wet clothes is like outfitting yourself with your own personal AC system that you can never turn off. Hence the saying “cotton kills.”
Synthetic fibers dry faster, which comes in handy during a cold downpour. If you prefer natural fibers, wool is much better for temperature and moisture management than cotton. Wool socks, such as the ever-popular Darn Toughs, are preferred by many hikers.
8. Underestimating the Threat of Blisters
Rare is the beginner backpacker who doesn’t get at least a few blisters in their early days. Left unmanaged, blisters can grow extremely painful and disruptive, ruining your hike, and can even lead to more serious health complications if they become infected.
It’s crucial that you come prepared with supplies like Leukotape (useful for covering existing blisters or protecting hotspots to prevent them from forming in the first place), a needle and alcohol prep pads for safely puncturing any blisters that do develop, secondary liner socks to reduce friction and rub on your feet, and hiking shoes that you have thoroughly vetted for comfort and fit ahead of time.
9. Not Knowing Your Gear
My first pack was from REI, and it 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 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 weight in it, as well as how to pack for short and long distances. Your pack is an extension of your body; know it well, and your body will be happy.
In addition to knowing how to adjust (and pack) your backpack properly, you should be comfortable setting up your tent and know whether your “20-degree” sleeping bag actually keeps you warm on a freezing night. Don’t let your first backpacking trip be the first time you actually use your gear. If possible, take a few practice trips (or spend a few nights in the backyard) to learn the ins and outs of your setup. It’s probably best to avoid very complicated gear choices (frameless packs, trekking pole tents, etc.) as a beginner.
10. 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, and be prepared to pack out ALL of your garbage, including used toilet paper. Bury your human waste in a six-inch deep hole AWAY from the trail and campsites. Don’t sleep with your food and smellable items—either hang them or store them in a bear-resistant container so they don’t attract wildlife.
The Seven Principles are:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Others
11. Not Considering Time and Pace
Many beginners assume they’ll be able to travel both faster and farther each day than is really realistic.
As a beginner, your pace might not be the quickest. Therefore, you must evaluate an attainable timetable 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 assume a conservative 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 sun sets.
Similarly, start out with relatively short days. Most AT thru-hikers start out with around eight to 10 miles per day until their bodies adjust to the rigors of the trail.
12. Not Streamlining Your Water Setup
Water is an area where many beginner hikers have room for improvement. I see a lot of hikers using finicky hydration bladders, bulky pump-style water filters, Nalgene bottles, and/or elaborate gravity-fed filtration setups. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the above, a more streamlined system will be lighter, cheaper, and easier to use.
Experienced hikers often carry just a Sawyer Squeeze, a couple of one-liter Smartwater bottles, and perhaps an optional collection bag such as the Cnoc Vecto. This no-frills setup doesn’t cost you much in space, weight, or actual money, and filtering water this way is fast, simple, and clean.
13. Failing to Read the Room (or Shelter)
It’s all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T, people. Many beginners envision long nights by the campfire, swapping stories and maybe even playing a little music. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but consider your neighbors before building a huge fire and staying up all night. A shelter full of AT thru-hikers eager to get to bed early so they can hit the trail first thing in the morning may not be the best setting for your shindig. If you’re camping with a large group and you want to stay up late at night, try to camp away from other people so as not to disturb them.
Common backpacking etiquette faux pas to avoid:
- Using your outside voice after others have gone to bed
- Walking around camp after dark with your headlamp on high beam (use red or low light instead)
- Playing your music out loud on the trail (wear earbuds if you want to listen to music while hiking)
- Not yielding to uphill hikers (they’re working a lot harder than you are on the downhill; step aside and let them pass)
- On a resupply run, wearing your backpack into the store/restaurant (leave it outside instead—no one wants that)
14. Not Budgeting
Gear, supplies, transportation to and from the trailhead, etc. all cost money. And if you’re a long-distance hiker, the amount you’ll spend on those basics will likely pale in comparison to the amount you spend on hot food, lodging, laundry, shuttles, and other amenities of the Town Vortex. In fairness, many hikers successfully enjoy the backcountry on a shoestring budget. However, it requires a lot of discipline and the good fortune to not face injuries, family emergencies, or other unforseen circumstances that could throw a wrench in your finances.
Money is a common reason thru-hikers cite for not finishing their trails—and it certainly keeps many a weekend warrior from exploring the mountains as much as they would like, too. Whatever your financial situation, it’s important to set an honest, realistic budget that takes your backpacking habit into account.
15. 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 or to determine your pace, itinerary, or other personal choices. This principle can apply to any hike.
During my hike of the GR 20, for instance, I noticed huge groups of people hiking together. You might not think HYOH applies to 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 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.
When you’re new to the backcountry, it can be tempting to fall in with a group and follow their lead. This isn’t a bad thing, but don’t lose sight of your own needs, wants, and values just because the group is doing something different. Even experienced hikers are in no position to make personal decisions on your behalf. Only you can determine how far or fast you should hike, which towns and side trails to explore, or what gear you should carry.
This article was originally published on 09/24/2014. It was updated on 08/04/2022.
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